Under the current format of the Advance Auto Parts Big South Men's Basketball Championship, used for the past few seasons, there wind up being three races at once in the Conference standings, and this year is no different.
At the top, it's obviously been a two-horse race all season, although one of those thoroughbreds is clearly up a length now. Coastal Carolina and Liberty have been the top of the heap throughout league play, with the Chanticleers sporting the edge and the Flames managing to keep pace right behind. Well, last night CCU held off a late LU charge to complete the season sweep of the challenger, thereby giving the Chants a two-game lead in the standings plus a tiebreaker edge over the Flames, with just six Conference games remaining in the regular season. With the Coastal win streak now at 19 games, it's a legitimate time to ask if the run has an end, and where it will fall.
Surely it could go down as soon as Saturday, with VMI running and gunning at CCU. Fail to keep up with the pace or fail to hit your shots when you have the chance, and you're in trouble against the Keydets. That said, VMI has continued its habits of scoring 90 and giving up 100--defense is largely a non-factor in those high velocity contests. But one should note the Chants haven't lost at home this season to anyone. Down the schedule, we see at PC, at Winthrop (now THAT could be interesting, given the grudge match between those rivals), vs. GWU, vs. NC Central, vs. Asheville, at CSU, and then the tournament. If Coastal CAN keep this momentum running, they could be as strong as 28-2 riding a 26 game streak when March arrives and CCU hosts championship play. Surely any team can win any night, and all this could be moot in short order, but the speculation is intriguing. If, and I mean IF, Coastal runs the table, one would have to favor them to win three home games for the Conference Championship--and then what happens in terms of NCAA seeding? The record and the win streak would be wildly impressive, the RPI given a generally weaker out-of-conference schedule would not.
In any case, that's putting a number of carts before their respective horses, no doubt about it.
After all, let's look at Liberty--they've beaten all Big South comers save one...LU has lost only two Conference games, both to Coastal Carolina. You have to like THEIR chances to advance in the tourney, possibly to a final against CCU. Can the same team win the head-to-head match-up three times in one season? It has happened, but it's a tall order. The Flames' faithful know they have a beautiful chance to play spoiler in much the same way that Coastal's much-hated rival Winthrop did one year ago, knocking off the regular season champs on their own floor.
So the captivating race and rivalry at the top is one drama playing itself out in front of us...and with FOUR teams hosting first round games, the next race then comes into play. If you can't be numero uno, you really, really want to be in the top four. As of this writing, with Coastal at 12-0 and Liberty at 10-2, those teams pretty well have one and two locked down--because the next squads are at least three games behind second place!
The middle group could be considered as large as five teams fighting for two positions: Asheville and Charleston Southern have the lead of the moment, each with 7-5 records, followed by Winthrop, lurking on the perimeter at 6-6, and you can't yet count out VMI and HPU, holders of 5-7 marks, just two games off of the pace for hosting a game. There will still be plenty of shake-ups going on within that quintet for the remaining weeks of the season.
Okay, so two teams currently in the top tier, FIVE teams in the middle tier, leaving three currently in the bottom tier, yes? Now if you consider that those first two groups we discussed include seven teams, that takes up every slot but one in the tourney field, still set at eight. Of the three teams remaining, PC has the unfortunate distinction of being ineligible for postseason play due to NCAA division transition rules. The Blue Hose have been forced to be content with the role of spoiler from day one--they can't play for seeds, tournaments, or championships. So that leaves us with two teams scrapping for one spot: Gardner-Webb and Radford. It seems so hard in this light to think that Radford was the Big South Champion the season before last, falling to UNC in the NCAA's, but the Highlanders have not enjoyed much high ground this season. In fact, both RU and GWU have staggered out to 2-10 Conference records. The "winner" in this contest will have the distinction of (almost certainly) making a trip to Conway to meet Coastal Carolina...some reward...but still, "that's why they play the games," right? It's not as if the team left out gets a better draft pick--you might as well be pushing for greatness. Win the right games at the right times and big things happen--the beauty of the college hoops Cinderella stories.
Make sense? So as you're watching the MBB standings in the Big South, remember the three races at stake: the top one, top four, and top eight positions. If you keep those in mind, you'll start seeing more intrigue, more on the line than before--trust me.
And finally, a huge SHOUT-out of support for our fans and friends facing the worst of the winter storms. Most of our region here is under merely cold rain, but beyond the borders of the Big South there are plenty of folks struggling with astonishing amounts of ice and snow--we send you our wishes for your safety and comfort through these difficult days!
Enjoy the upcoming games, everybody---------SHOUT, out.