NCAA Gardner-Webb Virginia Basketball (copy)

No. 16 seed Gardner-Webb of the Big South Conference led No. 1 seed Virginia at halftime in the first round of their NCAA Tournament game in Columbia last month. Virginia won the game and went on to win the national championship. Sean Rayford/AP

A decision made several years ago to make basketball the featured sport in the Big South Conference is looking like a smart move after the league just wrapped up the most successful season in its history.

Five years ago, Big South leadership opted for a plan that focused on transforming the reputation of the mid-major conference, using men’s basketball as its biggest and most visible platform. 

“Certainly the success we had this past year tells us we are making good decisions and things are working out well,” Big South commissioner Kyle Kallander said. “The main objective is to put our conference in the best light while also maximizing the experience of our student-athletes.”

At the end of the 2018-19 basketball season, the Big South was ranked 19th overall, according to KenPom.com, the highest ranking ever achieved by the conference and higher than the Colonial Athletic Association, the Atlantic Sun and the Ohio Valley.

Big South teams recorded wins over Georgia Tech, Notre Dame, Texas and Wake Forest in men’s basketball, as well as a women’s win over Virginia. Eight of the 11 men’s teams had winning records and a league-record six men’s programs participated in the postseason, winning seven games.

Gardner-Webb, the fourth-seeded team in the Big South tournament, won the league tournament title and led eventual national champion Virginia at halftime of their first-round NCAA tournament game.

Two of the nation’s top seven individual scorers this season played in the Big South. Campbell guard Chris Clemons, who capped his career as the third all-time leading scorer in NCAA history, led the nation in scoring this season. Hampton guard Jermaine Morrow was seventh nationally in scoring.

According to Kallander, the tactics used were aggressive and ground-breaking. The biggest move was to implement the mandatory cost of attendance scholarships for men’s and women’s basketball at an annual cost of between $70,000 and $150,000, a significant commitment for the league’s smaller Division I budgets.

The conference also imposed minimum standards for operational budgets, staffing, scheduling and facilities. The league set goals for attendance, viewership, revenue-generation, retention and NCAA basketball success.

“The commitment level from our institutions in regards to staffing, budgets and scheduling has been really positive,” Kallander said. “We continue to look at things we can do in those areas. We are in year five of the five-year plan so the next step is to look forward at more that we can do to keep this league growing.”

One area of concern for the Big South and other small mid-major conferences is player transfers. The Big South has seen some of its best players leave to play at larger programs in recent years. Charleston Southern guard Christian Keeling, who will graduate in May with one year of eligibility remaining, is among them.

Keeling, with more than 1,600 career points, would be one of the top returning players in the Big South. His most likely destination appears to be the ACC with North Carolina, Clemson, Georgia Tech and North Carolina State among his final choices.

“It is our opinion that we would like to see more accountability for the schools receiving transfers,” Kallander said. “There is a proposal out there now that if you bring in a graduate transfer, you commit to him counting against your scholarships for two years. This would assure that the athlete actually gets his graduate degree and is not simply showing up for one year as a hired gun. We feel there should be more integrity into the graduate transfer system.

“We also know these players want to play at the highest level. They have ambitions and we wish them the best. We would love to keep those players in our league and that’s what we have to work on. We have to continue to improve the experience so maybe players will not want to leave.”

We're improving out commenting experience.

We’ve temporarily removed comments from articles while we work on a new and better commenting experience. In the meantime, subscribers are encouraged to join the conversation at our Post and Courier Subscribers group on Facebook.