Winthrop's Keon Johnson is second in the Big South with 21.8 points per game. (Photo courtesy Winthrop Athletics)

MARK MADNESS | Mark Adams previews the Big South Tournament

It's tournament time!

With all eyes on the conference tournaments starting this week, here's a look at top contenders for the Big South's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

Favorites

WINTHROP

  • Key question: Who can keep the Eagles high-flying duo of Keon Johnson and Xavier Cooks from soaring into the NCAA Tournament?
  • Record: 23-6, 15-3 Big South (No. 1 seed).
  • Conference tournament opener: Thursday vs. Tuesday's Charleston Southern-Longwood winner.
  • Wins vs. Power 5 & Big East: Winthrop 84, Illinois 80.
  • Key stats: Keon Johnson scores 21.8 points per game. He can go for 40 any given night and carry the load on his own
  • X-factors: Xavier Cooks (15.9 ppg) and Anders Broman (1.9 3-pointers per game).
  • NCAA leaders: Keon Johnson 21.8 ppg (No. 10).
  • Big South ranks: No. 1 points per game (79.4), field-goal percentage defense (.407), 3-point percentage defense (.315), blocks per game; No. 2 scoring margin (9.3) and 3-pointers made (271).

UNC ASHEVILLE

  • Key question: Can UNCA execute well enough offensively to win the Big South crown?
  • Record: 23-8, 15-3 Big South (No. 2 seed).
  • Conference tournament opener: Thursday vs. Tuesday's Campbell-Presbyterian winner.
  • Wins vs. Power 5 & Big East: None.
  • Key stats: Ahmad Thomas (18 points per game) and MaCio Teague (15.5 ppg) are a solid one-two punch for the Bulldogs
  • X-factor: David Robertson (1.9 3-pointers per game).
  • NCAA leaders: Ahmad Thomas 3.03 steals per game (T4); UNCA 5.1 turnover margin (No. 2), 9.5 steals per game (No. 6) and 16.74 turnovers forced (No. 11).
  • Big South ranks: No. 1 3-point percentage (.399), assists per game (15.7), scoring margin (9.6), steals per game (9.5), turnover margin (5.1); No. 2 points per game (77.1) and ppg allowed (67.5).

Top contender

LIBERTY

  • Key question: Balance and fundamentals define the Flames. Who can outwit this solid and cerebral team?
  • Record: 19-12, 14-4 Big South (No. 3 seed).
  • Conference tournament opener: Thursday vs. No. 6-seeded Radford (13-17, 8-10).
  • Wins vs. Power 5 & Big East: None.
  • Key stats: Ryan Kemrite and Caleb Homesley are both double-figure scorers and the Flames have five players averaging a steal per game. Liberty can score and score off of opponents mistakes.
  • X-factor: John Dawson (8.7 points, 2.5 assists and 1.1 steals per game).
  • NCAA leaders: Liberty 3.5 turnover margin (No. 14).
  • Big South ranks: No. 1 scoring margin (9.6) and turnover margin (5.10); No. 2 points per game (77.1), ppg allowed (67.5) and 3-point percentage (.399).

Top darkhorses

GARDNER-WEBB

  • Key question: The Runnin' Bulldogs are hard to guard. Who can stop this highly efficient offense?
  • Record: 18-13, 11-7 Big South (No. 4 seed).
  • League tournament opener: Thursday vs. No. 5 High Point (15-15, 9-9).
  • Wins vs. Power 5 & Big East: Gardner-Webb 70, Nebraska 62.
  • Key stats: The top three scorers (LaQuincy Rideau, Tyrell Nelson and David Efianayi) combine for 40 points per game
  • X-factor: Jamaal Robateau (1.7 3-pointers and 1.2 steals per game).
  • NCAA leaders: LaQuincy Rideau 3.03 steals per game (T4); Gardner-Webb 8.8 steals per game (No. 10).
  • Big South ranks: No. 1 field-goal percentage (.484); No. 2 assists (14.7) and steals (8.8), rebound margin (3.8) and 3-point percentage (.388).

HIGH POINT

  • Key question: Can the Panthers keep it close and close out a championship run?
  • Record: 15-15, 9-9 Big South (No. 5 seed).
  • League tournament opener: Thursday vs. No. 4 Gardner-Webb (18-13, 11-7).
  • Wins vs. Power 5 & Big East: None.
  • Key stats: High Point is 4-8 in games decided by 6 points or less points; Miles Bowman Jr. leads the Panthers with 13.9 points and 8 rebounds per game.
  • X-factors: Double-figure scorers Andre Fox (13 ppg) and Anthony Lindauer (10.6 ppg).
  • NCAA leaders: Miles Bowman Jr. .899 free-throw percentage (T14).
  • Big South ranks: No. 1 free-throw percentage (.743), No. 2 3-point percentage (.388).

Other national leaders

  • Individual: Chris Clemmons, Campbell — 23.1 points per game (No. 6).

Tournament schedule

TUESDAY

  • No. 7 Campbell (14-16, 7-11) vs. No. 10 Presbyterian (5-24, 1-17).
  • No. 8 Charleston Southern (11-18, 7-11) vs. No. 9 Longwood (6-23, 3-15).

THURSDAY

  • Quarterfinals

FRIDAY

  • Semifinals

SUNDAY

  • Championship

Projected automatic bid

WINTHROP


Mark Adams is ASN's lead basketball analyst. Follow him on Twitter at @EnthusiAdams.

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