November 1, 2022 

Big South preseason notes: High Point looks like the favorite, but don’t count out Campbell

We could be seeing the Panthers and Camels battling in Charlotte for an NCAA Tournament bid in March

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – High Point seems to be the team to beat in the Big South this season. In the conference’s preseason coaches poll, the Panthers were voted to finish first. High Point actually tied with Gardner-Webb for the top spot but received one more first-place vote than the Runnin’ Bulldogs.

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There’s plenty of reasons to project High Point as the best teams in this conference, though. They’ve been pretty solid since Florida Gulf Coast graduate Chelsea Banbury took over in 2019. The Panthers are 44-14 in league play since Banbury has been on the sidelines at the private school in North Carolina’s Triad region.

“Those expectations – we’ve had them ourselves for the past two years. We’ve been attacking practice like you’re supposed to be the best,” Banbury told The Next at Big South Media Day. “When we first got the job, we thought we had players on the team to win some championships… You get a taste of it, and you want to do it again.”

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The challenge for Banbury now is taking that regular season success and translating it into the postseason. Banbury guided the Panthers to their first Division I NCAA Tournament berth in the 2020-21 season and they’re eager to get back to March Madness.

“That’s our goal for this year. Now we have to prove it,” Banbury said. “I think that starts with our nonconference schedule. When you’re playing teams like that, you are preparing for the postseason.”

Between Nov. 23 and Dec. 21, High Point will face Stony Brook, Georgetown, Wake Forest and Virginia Tech before opening up conference play with defending champs Longwood on Dec.29.

High Point brings back all but two players from last year’s roster and they should be boosted by the return of Skyler Curran. She was the Big South Player of the Year in the 2020-21 season, powering the Panthers to that historic tournament berth, but suffered a knee injury in last year’s season-opener that kept her out for the rest of the season.

In that 2020-21 campaign, Curran was sixth in the nation in 3-pointers made with 84. She was also third in the conference in offensive win shares (3.3) and points per play (0.99). In short, she was one of the league’s top players and her returning to form will help the Panthers in a big way. Without Curran last season, High Point was still 25th in the nation in 3-point rate.

“I’m expecting Sky to have a big year,” Banbury said. “She knows what I want. And she knows I want to play and it’s nice to have someone out there that can execute that.”

Campbell hopes to go out with a bang

Aside from High Point and Gardner-Webb, the other team to garner a first-place vote in the preseason Big South poll was Campbell. Led by Ronny Fisher – who is entering his seventh season at the helm in Buies Creek, North Carolina – the Camels lost their top three scorers from a team that won the league’s regular season title last season.

But they do bring back preseason All-Big South selection Shyanne Tuelle and added freshman Gemma Nunez, who earned a silver medal this past summer with Spain’s U-18 national team. Tuelle has been impressed with Nunez and thinks she can make an impact right away.

“She’s an incredible person on and off the floor. She’s very fast, very physical and will definitely find the open person,” Tuelle told The Next. “She’s a pass-first point guard, which we love.”

The Camels have been pretty solid under Fisher’s watch, winning 21 games or more in four of his six seasons. The one thing they haven’t done is win the conference tournament.

This will be Campbell’s last chance to win the Big South. Next season, they’ll be playing in the CAA. Fisher was on the committee Campbell put together to decide if jumping to the CAA was the right move amidst a flurry of conference realignment moves happening across college athletics.

“I put a lot of thought into it in the summer. After we made the decision, I haven’t really put anymore thought into it. We’re really focused on this final season. We don’t talk about it as a team,” Fisher said.

The CAA has a reputation for being a strong mid-major conference for women’s basketball. It’s a league that – in the 2023-24 season – will stretch as far north as Boston and as far south as Charleston, South Carolina. Fisher anticipates it will improve Campbell’s ability to recruit players from northern metro areas, like Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia.

“I think it will open a recruiting corridor up. Kids from D.C. and that area like coming down, but right now, we’re not playing many games in that area. So now, we have the opportunity for them to play a lot of games (in front of crowds close to home), Fisher said. So, I think we’ll have the opportunity to get involved with some players that we haven’t in the past.”

And while Campbell will have longer trips in the CAA to places like Northeastern and Hofstra, they’ll also have short bus rides to North Carolina A&T, Elon and UNC-Wilmington.

Last season, Campbell was 14th in the nation in opponent points allowed per game at 55.1. If they want to win the Big South in their swan song with the conference, defense like that will go a long way in accomplishing that goal.

Here’s what else you should know about the Big South this season…

  • Gardner-Webb junior Alasia Smith was tabbed as the conference’s Preseason Player of the Year. She averaged 14.5 points and 9.2 rebounds per game last season and was also 12th in the nation in steals per game with 2.8. She was also just one of six players in the nation last season who (in a minimum of 30 minutes per game in at least 20 games played) made more than 60% of her 2-point field goals while averaging 14 points per game, according to Her Hoop Stats. The 5’10 guard from Johnson City, Tennessee, is the first Garnder-Webb player to earn Preseason Player of the Year honors.

  • Clarisse Garcia is entering her second season as the head coach at Charleston Southern and has reshaped the roster in her vision. “We hit the ground sprinting after the (Big South) tournament last year. From March to May, we were restocking. We have found a really great combination of players – shooters, experience, post players, some length, some athleticism. We have a solid 11 right now that we’re really excited about,” Garcia told The Next. “We were looking for motors and competitors. I think that was the thing we were lacking a little bit last year, just that competitive streak and competitive fire.” Garcia brought in six true freshmen – including two from overseas – and a pair of transfers in Zaire Hicks (UT Martin) and Kennedi Jackson (Oklahoma State).

  • Aside from Longwood, the other team in the Big South with a new head coach is USC Upstate. After 2022 Big South Coach of the Year Becky Burke was whisked away to Buffalo, the Spartans hired Jason Williams from Division II Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina. There, Williams had been the coach for nine seasons, amassing a record of 171-91 and going to three NCAA Division II Tournaments. Like Garcia at Charleston Southern, he had to reload his roster, too as just one player from the Burke-era returned. Williams brought in eight transfers and four freshmen. “Just great character kids that wanted to come here and work hard and believe in the system and style and that we’re trying to be. We’re going to do things a little bit differently,” Williams told The Next. “Recruiting transfer kids out of the portal has been a little bit different on my behalf. You don’t get the time to get to know who they are as people… If we can stay connected as a team, then we’ll be really good.”

Written by Mitchell Northam

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