2021-22 College Basketball Preview: Around the state’s mid-major hoops programs

A look at North Carolina's 14 Division I programs outside of the ACC

Appalachian State guard Justin Forrest. (Carlos Osorio / AP Photo)

After a 2021-22 season disrupted by COVID-19, college basketball in North Carolina is ready to return to normal when the new campaign tips off next week.

Or at least something resembling normal.

Fans will be back in the stands, coaches will be back in suits if they choose and schedules will begin on time with, hopefully, few if any pauses or cancellations.

And yet, there will be plenty of change among the state’s 18 teams playing in nine different conferences. There are three new coaches, and NC A&T leaves the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, a league it helped found more than 50 yards ago, for a new start in the Big South.

While North Carolina’s four ACC schools will get most of the attention, 14 other programs from the mountains to the coast will begin play with exactly the same goal in mind — playing their way into the NCAA Tournament come March.

American Athletic Conference

East Carolina Pirates

2020-21 record: 9-16 (8-11, 11th AAC)
Coach: Joe Dooley; 8th year, 87-104 record
Top returning scorers: J.J. Miles 9.8; Brandon Suggs 9.6
247Sports class ranking: 107

The Pirates started 7-1 and looked ready to make a significant jump forward in the third season of coach Joe Dooley’s second tenure in Greenville. But then COVID hit, the team couldn’t practice for several weeks and things went south from there. ECU lost 10 of its final 11 games, with the only win coming against eventual Final Four participant Houston. Matters got worse after the season when leading scorer and rebounder Jayden Gardner transferred to Virginia. The other four starters return, however, led by point guard Tremont Robinson-White, while Dooley brought in three transfers to add depth and talent.

Number to know: 18.3 — points per game contributed by Jayden Gardner in 2020-21.

Atlantic 10 Conference

Davidson Wildcats

2020-21 record: 13-9 (7-4, 3rd A10)
Coach: Bob McKillop; 33rd year, 607-373 record
Top returning scorers: Hyunjung Lee 13.5; Luka Brajkovic 10.9
247Sports class ranking: N/A

The Wildcats lost their top scorer in Kellan Grady, who scored 2002 points in 113 games before transferring to Kentucky, but return five of their top seven scorers in a bid to get back to the top of the A-10. Sophomore Hyungung Lee shot better than 50% overall, 40% on 3-pointers and 90% on free throws last season, something not even Stephen Curry accomplished. Luka Brajkovic, a 6-foot-10 junior, heads a veteran frontcourt that should be the strength of the team, while Michigan State transfer Foster Loyer, a former top-100 prospect, arrives to fill the void left by Grady.

Number to know: 9 — Trips to the NCAA Tournament under McKillop.

Big South Conference

Campbell Fighting Camels

2020-21 record: 17-10 (11-6, 3rd Big South)
Coach: Kevin McGeehan; 9th year, 123-133 record
Top returning scorers: Cedric Henderson Jr. 15.0; Jordan Whitfield 14.6
247Sports class ranking: N/A

Armed with a roster that returns 99% of its scoring and minutes from a team that advanced to the conference tournament final, Campbell has been picked as the Big South’s preseason favorite. Wing Cedric Henderson, whose father played five seasons in the NBA, leads a group of five seniors that has averaged 18 wins a year in Buies Creek. The Camels can fill it up from long range, leading the Big South in 3-point percentage at 30.8% last season. But they ranked just 10th in rebounding, an area that must improve for them to fulfill their preseason prediction.

Number to know: .496 — Campbell’s overall shooting percentage in 2020-21, best in the Big South.

Gardner-Webb Runnin’ Bulldogs

2020-21 record: 11-15 (10-10, T-5th Big South)
Coach: Tim Craft; 9th year, 138-121 record
Top returning scorers: Lance Terry 11.4; D’maurian Williams 10.8
247Sports class ranking: N/A

Like many teams around the country, the Bulldogs have benefitted from the NCAA granting players an extra year of eligibility because of COVID-19. They have nine returning lettermen, including three starters. One of those not back is leading scorer Jaheam Cornwell, who transferred to Penn State. Sophomore Jordan Sears, who coach Tim Craft says is “wired to score,” fills the void at point guard. Gardner-Webb will continue to be dangerous from long range, where it led the Big South with 8.9 3-pointers per game last year. At 41.7%, it also had the best field goal defense in the league.

Number to know: .500 — The Bulldogs’ winning percentage in Big South play in each of the past nine seasons.

High Point Panthers

2020-21 record: 9-15 (6-11, 8th Big South)
Coach: Tubby Smith; 4th year, 34-53 record
Top returning scorers: John-Michael Wright 20.7; Jaden House 5.2
247Sports class ranking: N/A

The Panthers didn’t accomplish much as a team in 2020-21, winning only nine games for the second straight season, But they did boast one of the top players in the Big South in John-Michael Wright. The sophomore guard led the league in scoring and was in the top 12 of 11 statistical categories. Despite the loss of second-leading scorer Ahmil Flowers to an offseason injury, coach Tubby Smith is hoping to give his star some help with the addition of St. John’s transfer David Caraher and freshman sharpshooter Brock Williams, who averaged 28 points as a senior at Burlington Christian.

Number to know: 12/31 — The date on which Tubby Smith will be honored at Rupp Arena before High Point’s game against Kentucky, the team he led to the 1998 national championship.

North Carolina A&T Aggies

2020-21 record: 11-10 (7-1, 1st MEAC Southern)
Coach: Will Jones; 3rd year, 25-15 record
Top returning scorers: Kameron Langley 10.6; Blake Harris 8.6
247Sports class ranking: 135

No one was more adversely affected by COVID-19 last season than the Aggies, who were poised to win the MEAC title and its automatic NCAA berth in their final season as a conference member. But before coach Will Jones’ top-seeded team could play Norfolk State in the league tournament semifinals, it was forced to withdraw because of a positive COVID test. This year’s team is picked to finish second in the Big South North thanks to the return of several key players, along with four Division I transfers and 6-foot-8 freshman Duncan Powell, the highest-rated recruit in program history.

Number to know: 757 — The number of career assists by graduate guard Kameron Langley, the most ever in school and MEAC history.

UNC Asheville Bulldogs

2020-21 record: 10-10 (9-5, 4th Big South)
Coach: Mike Morrell; 4th year, 29-53 record
Top returning scorers: Tajion Jones 15.9; LJ Thorpe 11.6
247Sports class ranking: N/A

Now in his fourth season, coach Mike Morrell has his Bulldogs poised to make a run at their first conference championship since 2016. All five starters return from last year’s team, which negotiated its way through the COVID-disrupted 2020-21 season with a winning conference record while ranking second only to Winthrop in scoring at 73.4 points per game. It’s a group led by high-scoring wing Tajion Jones, a preseason All-Big South selection. But thanks to the addition of more depth and size, including 6-foot-11 Tennessee transfer Drew Pember, the Bulldogs are better suited than ever to employ their preferred up-tempo, high-pressure style.

Numbers to know: 21 — The number of consecutive wins by Winthrop before the Bulldogs upset the eventual Big South champs last Jan. 29.

Colonial Athletic Conference

Elon Phoenix

2020-21 record: 10-9 (4-7, 8th CAA)
Coach: Mark Schrage; 3rd year, 23-30 record
Top returning scorers: Hunter McIntosh 15.7; Darius Burford 8.9
247Sports class ranking: 137

The Phoenix have an overall losing record in two seasons under coach Mark Schrage but are 5-2 in the CAA Tournament during that span — including last year’s run from the play-in game to the final. This year’s team has the potential to build on that momentum, which also included four straight wins to end the regular season thanks to the return of 2020 CAA Rookie of the Year Hunter McIntosh. Elon will also get a boost from a healthy Jerald Gillens-Butler, a 6-foot-6 Butler transfer who averaged 15.6 points in three games last season before rupturing his Achilles tendon.

Number to know: 7 — Consecutive wins between Feb. 14 and March 9, Elon’s longest winning streak since joining the CAA in 2014.

UNC Wilmington Seahawks

2020-21 record: 7-10 (1-6, 10th CAA)
Coach: Takayo Siddle; 2nd year, 7-10 record
Top returning scorers: Jaylen Sims 17.8; Mike Okauru 14.2
247Sports class ranking: N/A

Former Kevin Keatts assistant Takayo Siddle saw his first season back with the Seahawks derailed by injuries and COVID stoppages. The team played only once in February because of the pandemic. When UNCW did get onto the court, it spent most of the season without 2019-20 CAA All-Rookie team guard Shykeim Phillips because of a leg injury. Leading scorer Jaylen Sims also missed time late because of a knee problem. On the plus side, reliable wing Mike Okauro returns for his senior year, while Jaylen Fornes, who left UNCW for Nichols two years ago, has transferred back for his final season.

Number to know: 13 — The number of games UNCW had either postponed or canceled last season because of COVID-19.

Conference USA

Charlotte 49ers

2020-21 record: 9-16 (5-11, 5th C-USA)
Coach: Ron Sanchez; 4th year, 33-50 record
Top returning scorers: Jahmir Young 18.0; Brice Williams 9.7
247Sports class ranking: N/A

The 49ers have retooled by adding five Division I transfers after ending a disappointing 2020-21 season with nine consecutive losses. The experienced newcomers include 6-foot-7 forward Robert Braswell, who contributed to Syracuse’s unexpected Sweet 16 run, Ohio State wing Musa Jallow and Clemson guard Clyde Trapp, both graduate students. Returning sophomore guard Jahmir Young has established himself as one of the top players in C-USA and is a preseason all-league pick. But for the 49ers to make a significant turnaround, they’ll have to improve on an adjusted defensive efficiency that ranked just 206th nationally last season.

Number to know: 52.9% — The 2-point shooting percentage allowed by the 49ers last season.

Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference

North Carolina Central Eagles

2020-21 record: 5-9 (3-5, 3rd MEAC Northern)
Coach: LeVelle Moton; 12th year, 205-135 record
Top returning scorers: Nicholas Fennell 7.8; Alex Caldwell 3.7
247Sports class ranking: N/A

The Eagles played only twice each in November and December, and once last January — a disjointed schedule that contributed greatly to only their second losing season since 2011. With just three scholarship players from that team, coach LeVelle Moton will be working with an almost entirely new roster in hopes of returning NCCU to its usual winning ways. Among the newcomers, which include transfers from Georgia Southern, New Hampshire, Providence and College of Charleston, is guard Randy Miller, who returns to the Eagles — with whom he averaged 13.5 points from 2018‑19 before transferring to Indiana State last season.

Number to know: 13 — The number of times NCCU was able to practice in between COVID pauses last season.

Southern Conference

UNC Greensboro Spartans

22020-21 record: 21-9 (13-5, 1st SoCon)
Coach: Mike Jones; 1st year
Top returning scorers: Keyshaun Langley 10.0; Kaleb Hunter 8.6
247Sports class ranking: N/A

The most successful decade in program history ended last spring when coach Wes Miller left for Cincinnati, taking four players with him. In his place, the Spartans turned to Mike Jones, a veteran coach coming off an equally successful 10-year run at Radford, where he led his teams to five 20-win seasons and three postseason berths. Jones will have to overcome an early obstacle with his top returning player, Keyshaun Langley, suspended until the end of the fall semester in mid-December. Among those taking up the slack is Robert Morris transfer Dante Treacy, last year’s Northeast Conference Tournament MVP.

Number to remember: 81 — The number of Southern Conference wins UNCG has earned in 109 games since 2015-16, a winning percentage of .740.

Western Carolina Catamounts

2020-21 record: 11-16 (4-13, 9th SoCon)
Coach: Justin Gray; 1st year
Top returning scorers: Travion McCray 9.2; Tyler Harris 6.3
247Sports class ranking: N/A

When WCU lost Mark Prosser to Winthrop, the Catamounts returned the favor by hiring Winthrop assistant Justin Gray to replace him. The former Wake Forest shooting guard, who is getting his first crack at running his own program, wasted little time constructing a roster well-suited to his high-intensity, fast-paced, positionless style of play. Eight scholarship players, including standout junior college guard Vonterius Woolbright, are between 6-foot-3 and 6-foot-7 and can play multiple roles. Even the biggest man on the roster, 6-foot-10 Kansas State transfer Joe Petrakis, is a stretch four who can run the floor and shoot from the perimeter.

Number to know: 37 — The age of new Catamounts coach Justin Gray.

Sun Belt Conference

Appalachian State Mountaineers

2020-21 record: 17-12 (7-8, 4th Sun Belt East)
Coach: Dustin Kearns; 3rd year, 35-27 record
Top returning scorers: Justin Forrest 13.2; Adrian Delph 13.0
247Sports class ranking: N/A

The Mountaineers got hot at just the right time by winning four games in four days at the Sun Belt Tournament to earn the conference title and their third NCAA Tournament bid. Despite losing a one-point heartbreaker to Norfolk State in the First Four, they enter 2021-22 with high hopes thanks to the return of their top 10 players. In addition to super senior guard Justin Forrest and wing Adrian Delph, graduate point guard Michael Almonacy (12.7) and undersized forward Donovan Gregory (10.7) also averaged in double-figure scoring. Almonacy, the league tournament MVP, led the team with 85 assists.

Number to know: 21 — Number of years between NCAA Tournament appearances for App State.