It was not until a few years ago that I had become a fan of the Big South conference. When I first moved to South Carolina nearly eight years ago, it was all about Winthrop. While relatively far away in Rock Hill, the school would get some local coverage in Myrtle Beach especially around March. My interest in the conference picked up more over the years when they had unique teams like VMI when they adopted their breakneck pace or UNC-Asheville and the tallest player in the game, Kenny George.
My attention for all the schools in the conference rose even more when I decided to become a Coastal Carolina season ticket holder. I started to learn about each team before they would make their trip to Conway to get a familiarity each of them.
It was not until last year during TMM8 that I became more of a big fan of the conference as a whole than mainly a CCU fan. I know that I am in a very miniscule minority as most the fans in the Big South mainly root for just their team and could care less what the others do. It is more common to find fans that hate the fact that their respective team is in the Big South and are usually hoping to somehow move to another conference.
I know the Big South will probably never be one of the better mid-major conferences, but there is hope that they can perform well in the non-conference slate. This would in turn hopefully prevent the Big South champion from having to play in the Quad-PIG for the NCAA Tournament.
Dayton almost looks like a guarantee at this point though for the champion with the way things have gone so far this season. It looked promising after the first few days when the conference notched a few wins over some non-conference foes, but it has been downhill ever since. A lot of schools had a large amount of turnover in the off-season and the common theme amongst fans is that they all think they still have a chance in the conference since the whole league is horrible; but they will be better in a few years.
While Gardner-Webb and Radford have had surprisingly decent seasons so far, the rest of the league has floundered with eight of the 12 teams having either zero or one win over DI competition. There have been close calls for big RLUs with Asheville coming close against NC State and Charleston Southern fighting Arizona, but there have been a lot of blowouts as well. Big South teams are littered among the bottom of any computer ranking you look at, but I am not ready to give up on them just yet.
That is why when I saw the schedule for this Saturday's games I noticed Presbyterian would be hosting Jacksonville State in a return game from last year's Bracketbusters. The Gamecocks were in the midst of their best start in Division I history with a 7-2 start. The Blue Hose on the other hand only had wins against North Greenville and Toccoa Falls. The closest Presbyterian was against DI opposition were two 14-point losses to Georgia Tech and Florida A&M.
I knew it was not the sexiest matchup of the day, but it did give me a chance to go to Presbyterian where at least they would have a home-court advantage. Or at least that's what I thought, I knew the game would not be heavily attended with the students gone, but there were only around 150 people there at the tip off. About 20-or-so of those people were Jacksonville State fans that had traveled, so it had the feel of a neutral site game.
Part of Presbyterian's early struggles can be attributed to the amount of newcomers. Josh Johnson, Pierre Miller, and Al'lonzo Coleman had all graduated not leaving much experience outside of Eric Washington and Khalid Mutakabbir. What was the same as always for the Blue Hose was the deliberate style of play they have always employed and the demonstrative actions of head coach Greg Nibert on the sidelines. PC was throwing a variety of zone looks at the Gamecocks that they could not shoot over the top or find anything in the paint. The Blue Hose was finding some success feeding William Truss and Anthony Hargrave in the post where JSU did not have the widebodies to match up well as Presbyterian led 18-11.
Presbyterian has a knack for making games very ugly and this was the path we were going down. It was not until the final minutes of the half that Jacksonville State was able to hit a few jumpers and a Brian Williams three at the buzzer had the Gamecocks down three going into the half.
Throughout the first stanza, you could really tell that we were at a school well below the Red Line. Any time a player hit the floor after a foul, they usually had to clean up the moisture they had left on the court themselves. Another example was during the media timeouts where an assistant SID usually passes out the stats it was instead a 10-12 year old girl. Lastly our "riveting" halftime entertainment was two kids racing RC cars around the track twice. I think the batteries were low on one car since it kept dying and sputtering and the other kid won easily by lapping his opponent.
The Blue Hose had been dictating the pace and momentum of the game thus far, but Jacksonville State had a much easier time scoring in the second half. The threes started falling that would not go in earlier as Brian Williams caught fire from behind the arc nailing three superhoops in a row for JSU to give them a 44-37 lead.
Presbyterian was fading as a seven-point lead is harder for a team like the Blue Hose to overcome considering how they normally play. They tightened up the defense though and forced some Jacksonville State turnovers and retook the lead after the husky Truss hit a three that no one thought was going in, but he sank it anyways.
The two teams swapped the lead or a tie going into the final minute when it was knotted up at 50. The Gamecocks looked to get a good shot, but airballed a three and could not get another shot up, causing a shot clock violation. Coach Nibert's reaction was hysterical as he jumped with a fist pump and got about a five-inch vertical.
Presbyterian was excited to get a chance to win with 35 seconds to go and coming out of a timeout, but the Blue Hose gagged it away when Washington turned it over on the inbounds. This gave the Gamecocks the final shot as they milked the clock, but Williams could not top off his hot second half and missed a runner,forcing the game to go to overtime.
Overtime was all about Jacksonville State being able to knock down their shots. Their first four possessions yielded 11 points and the Blue Hose had no match for the three-point barrage. Mutakabbir hit a three with a minute to go to cut it to four, but the Gamecocks ended any speculation by hitting their free throws and winning 66-59.
Another game, another non-conference loss for the Big South. Presbyterian fought hard and was in it until the end, but that has been the case with a lot of Big South teams this year. It was good to hear Winthrop got a nice road win earlier in the day at Ohio, but it has been a frustrating year for the league so far. Conference play is right around the corner and there is new hope even for teams like Presbyterian who are finally eligible for the postseason for the first time.