Big South basketball may be three-horse race for 2019-20

Photo courtesy of RU Athletics
The 2019-20 Radford University men’s basketball team is the preseason favorite to win the Big South regular season crown.

By Marty Gordon

The Big South men’s basketball race could come down to three teams with Radford University leading the way.  Radford slid into the top spot of the preseason poll but look for Gardner-Webb and Winthrop to have some say in deciding the league champion. GW was picked second and Winthrop third in the preseason poll..

Radford probably set the bar high after back-to-back 20-win seasons and appearances in the NCAA tournament.

Coach Mike Jones has turned the program around after going 6-26 in his first year (2011-12) at the helm. Entering into the season, he has an overall mark of 138-127 at Radford.

The big wins have been there, including the ones last year over Notre Dame and Texas. This year, the schedule includes games at Bradley, Mississippi State and Northwestern.

“I am excited about competing with all these different teams,” Jones said.

Bradley was 20-15 last season and won the Missouri Valley Tournament to earn the NCAA berth.

“We wanted to really challenge our team to step up this year and prepare for the league in a way that we hope will build character, chemistry and toughness to compete for a Big South championship,” Jones said. “To achieve such a feat, we felt like we had to up the ante in our non-conference schedule. Our players will be tested night in and night out and be forced to raise their level from a year ago. The league is all that really matters, and this non-conference schedule, we believe, will prepare them for that.”

The month of December begins with a pair of huge home contests. The first will feature James Madison on Wednesday, Dec. 4, and the second welcomes UNCG on Saturday, Dec. 7. Radford will look for revenge against both teams as each defended its home court with wins against the Highlanders in 2018-19. UNCG was one win away from a 30-win season and a berth in the NCAA Tournament last season. The Spartans did make it to the second round of the National Invitational Tournament (NIT) before falling to Lipscomb in Greensboro.

Mississippi State finished 23-11 last year and fell to Liberty in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Liberty is another out-of-conference opponent for Radford this season.

A mix of returners and a group of fresh faces could spur another good season for the Highlanders. Several transfers are in the mix including Devine Eke, a 6-8 forward transferring from Rider. Eke has made his presence known on the defensive side of the ball with 35 career blocks, including 25 last season.

Radford also gets the help of 6-9 Lewis Djonkam, a redshirt junior center who transferred from VCU a year ago and had to sit out the 2018-19 season because of NCAA transfer rules.

In the wings are Chyree Walker, a 6-5 transfer from Delaware, who appeared in 30 games while making 14 starts as a freshman for the Blue Hens; and Dravon Mangum, a 6-9 transfer from UNC-Charlotte.

One of the returning players for Radford is the preseason player of the year in guard Carlik Jones, who was first-team All-Big South last season.  “It is a luxury to have him back,” th RU head coach said.

Jones averaged 15.7 points, 5.2 rebounds and 5.8 assists a year ago. His biggest game was two years ago with the “shot heard around the world” on a buzzer beating three-pointer to beat Liberty for the Big South tournament championship and a trip to the NCAA. He also scored 12 points with 11 rebounds in the school’s first-ever NCAA tournament win,  over LIU-Brooklyn.

The biggest obstacle for the Highlanders will be replacing 6-5 all-world forward Ed Polite, who last season was named to the All-Big South First Team and earned Defensive Player of the Year honors after averaging a career-high 13.4 points per game and 14.8 points during conference play.

“You don’t replace a player like him. We will miss him the most in his toughness and rebounding ability. We will replace him by committee,” Jones said.

Polite led the Big South with 9.5 rebounds per game and ranked in the top 10 in the Big South for both steals per game (1.5) and blocks per game (1.2). The Lanham, Md. native became the top rebounder in program history and second all-time in Big South history with 1,119 in his illustrious career.

He recently signed a professional contract with Italian-based club, Pallacanestro Biella.

The team returns second-team preseason All-Big South guard Travis Fields Jr., who played an important role in Radford’s 22 wins a season ago, including a career-high 33-point performance at Hampton. The starting point guard averaged 29.8 minutes, 10.8 points, 3.0 assists, 2.2 rebounds and 1.5 steals per game last season.

Area basketball fans will see at least two familiar faces on the team this year as Radford High School’s Quinton Morton-Robertson (5-8, guard) and Miles Jones (6-5 forward) join the roster.

“Q,” as Morton-Robertson is known, was last year’s VHSL Class 2 Boys Basketball Player of the Year. He led Radford High School to an 82-7 record over the last three seasons and was a part of three district championships, four regional championships and three state titles.

“Q is going to be a crowd favorite because he is a local star and because of the size of his heart. He had a storied career in Radford and in the New River Valley, and that story gets to continue among the home folks,” heasd coach Jones said. “He is a great person, who also happens to be a very talented basketball player. His work ethic will allow him to continue to improve his game and his body and should help him find his niche on our squad quickly. He comes in with other talented, established guards, but I know he will compete every day,.”

Miles Jones, who is the RU coach’s son, should provide some experience down the stretch.

Gardner-Webb is lead by All-Big South Preseason first-teamer Jose Perez. The 6-5 guard averaged 15.1 points last season and led the team in rebounding at 5.7 and assists at 30. He tallied 19 in the team’s NCAA loss to eventual champion, Virginia.

Winthrop, picked second in the preseason poll, will be led by 6-8 senior forward Josh Ferguson who averaged 11 points a game last season.

Other Big South notes: USC Upstate could be an interesting opponent for Radford this season with former RU assistant Dave Dickerson entering his second season after finishing 6-26.

Hampton, picked fourth in the preseason poll, boasts the tallest player in the conference with 7-1 Pierre Sow, a sophomore from Teaneck, N.J.

Gardner-Webb will play at Virginia Tech on November 9, and USC Upstate travels to Blacksburg on November 13.

Charleston Southern has an out-of-conference game with Michigan State while USC Upstate will play Louisville.  UNC-Asheville, which typically plays its share of ACC teams, faces Wake Forest this year in its lone contest but does have an early game at Tennessee.