For the second consecutive year, the Charleston Southern men’s basketball team is the favorite to win the Big South Conference championship this season.
Prior to last season, the Buccaneers had never been the preseason pick, proof positive of how far coach Barclay Radebaugh has taken the program.
Radebaugh begins his ninth season at the helm, and expectations have never been higher. CSU was the best team in the Big South through the regular season last year before losing to Liberty in the final of the Big South tournament. With a deep and talented team returning, the Bucs are a decisive favorite to win the South Division.
However, Radebaugh’s veteran team is not living on past glory. To a man, this team’s focus is to finish the job they failed to complete last March.
“We embrace the expectations, but we stay humble and focused,” said junior guard Saah Nimley, a first-team all-conference selection after averaging 15.9 points per game last season. “We know we’re a good basketball team, but we want to be great. We have not achieved all that we hope to achieve. There is work to be done, and that’s the mindset we bring to every practice. To fulfill our own expectations, we have to never let up.”
Radebaugh has not had this type of talent mixed with experience during his tenure at CSU. The Bucs have produced back-to-back 19-win seasons and have six players who have been around for all 38 wins. He welcomes the high expectations and says his team is mature enough to handle it.
“We’re not going to hide the fact that we were picked to win our league and that we have good players. We’re not running from that,” said Radebaugh, who needs 15 wins this season to become CSU’s all-time winningest coach. “I appreciate that people have high expectations for us. I want that for our program. I have been here when the expectations were very low, if any at all. To see where we are now and to see the transformation of our program, it’s very pleasing.
Nimley and fellow junior guard Arlon Harper have become one of the best backcourts in mid-major college basketball. Harper averaged 15.3 points per game last season and both he and Nimley were first-team preseason all-conference picks. Both will likely surpass the 1,000 career point total this season.
The Bucs are built around the outstanding guard play. CSU ranked second nationally with 9.28 made 3-pointers per game. Senior Matt Kennedy, a West Ashley High product, is expected to step in as a major scoring threat on the perimeter as well.
“No player has had a better preseason than Matt Kennedy,” said Radebaugh. “He’s a guy that has waited his turn and he’s ready to make the most of it.”
Junior Will Saunders, a 6-7 sharp-shooting swingman, transferred in from the College of Central Florida where he shot 41 percent from 3-point range last season. Senior Sheldon Strickland is a backup at point guard and a former Big South all-freshman selection, while 6-5 sophomore Malcolm Bernard shot 42 percent from beyond the arc last season. Newcomer Tre’ Smith is a 6-3 guard who was named the Class AAAA Player of the Year last year out of Hillcrest High School.
“We feel very comfortable with our backcourt depth,” said Radebaugh. “We want to play fast. Our goal is to play at such a pace that we need fresh bodies every four or five minutes. We’re preparing guys to play. We’d like to play 10 guys a game.”
As good as CSU was at scoring points last season, they also were one of the most improved defensive teams in the league. The Bucs were second in the league in field goal percentage defense and fifth overall in scoring defense. They also were the top rebounding team in the league.
“Our improvement defensively was the reason we had the success that we had,” said Radebaugh. “It has become just as important to our guys to play well on the defensive end as it has been to score a lot of points.”
CSU should be strong on the inside with the return of 6-7 post Allie Fullah, who ranked third in the Big South in blocked shots.
“I have to play defense, rebound and block shots, but at the same time, I want to give this team an added dimension as a scorer in the post when the opportunity presents itself,” says Fullah.
Juniors Paul Gombwer and Cedrick Bowen combined to score 13 points and haul in 11 rebounds per game last season. Both are expected to have increased roles on the offensive end as well.
Radebaugh feels 6-6, 220-pound freshman Bakari Copeland, who averaged 23.5 points as a senior in high school, will provide immediate depth at the forward position.
Whether CSU can live up to the high expectations this season will play out over the season. But Harper feels his team is ready for the role of hunted.
“No one remembers the preseason poll in March, they only remember that last game,” he said. “We are a veteran team and we know what it takes to be successful. We focus each day on the little things that it takes to win.
“I think we play well with the target on our backs but for us, it doesn’t matter. Target or no target, we want to be a team that brings it every time we step on the floor, regardless of who we are playing. If we do that, we can achieve all of our goals as a team.”
Charleston Southern coach Barclay Radebaugh is looking for leadership and scoring from junior guard Saah Nimley, a first-team all-conference selection after averaging 15.9 points per game last season. (Photo provided by Al Samuels)×