BUIES CREEK — The Big South is a one-bid college basketball conference, with only the winner of the league’s postseason tournament earning its way into the NCAA tournament.
That would seem to render the regular season virtually meaningless.
But that’s not the case.
Because the conference tournament is played on the home court of the regular season champion, there’s a huge advantage to the team that finishes atop the standings — which is why UNC Asheville’s 64-57 victory at Campbell on Thursday was so meaningful.
“Every game is massive,” Bulldogs coach Nick McDevitt said. “In some leagues, where you’re a seven-eight bid league, picking up one or two massive wins can be a resume builder. For us, they’re all resume builders because that resume is hosting the conference tournament. We’re in a battle with a bunch of teams and every game is important.”
That’s not an exaggeration.
Three teams began play Thursday tied for first place with two others only one game behind. If things broke right, there could have been a five-way logjam by the end of the night.
Instead, the results provided a bit of separation, with UNCA and Radford both claiming victories to keep pace at 8-3 in the Big South while Winthrop took a step back to 7-4 by losing to Liberty. Campbell and Gardner-Webb are now two games behind the leaders at 6-5.
But as Camels coach Kevin McGeehan pointed out, there’s still too much basketball left to be played during the month of February for any one of those teams to be counted out.
“There’s a lot of talent in the league. There’s very good coaches, good talent and it’s balanced,” McGeehan said. “Any team can win on any night in this league and that’s probably going to happen for the next seven games and into the tournament. You just have to put your head down and work and be ready to take on the next one, because the next one could be you getting somebody. You just have to keep plugging.”
That attitude was evident in the sense of urgency with which both teams played at Gore Arena on Thursday.
Despite an off shooting night by star Chris Clemons, Campbell (12-11 overall) found itself ahead by two early in the second half and appeared ready to battle until the end. But UNCA clamped down defensively and, with sophomore MaCio Teague scoring 10 straight points, put together a 16-0 run that broke the game open.
Clemons, the nation’s fifth-leading scorer, still finished with 23 points to move into a tie for second on his school’s all-time list. But Teague went above and beyond that, hitting seven 3-pointers on his way to a career-high 36 points to lead the Bulldogs (15-9) to their third conference road win this season.
Though all conference wins are precious, as McDevitt pointed out, wins on the road are even more valuable. That’s especially true this season with home teams holding serve at a 64 percent clip, the league’s highest percentage of home success since 2007-08.
“It’s definitely big to win on the road,” Teague said. “Coach always talks about how we’ve got to protect our home floor. He talks about how winning at home is hard, but winning on the road is even harder.”
Which makes winning the regular season and hosting the conference tournament all the more important.
“That’s what the Big South is,” McGeehan said. “That’s what the Big South has been. There’s even less top and bottom this year, I think. It seems like everybody’s pretty good.”