CHARLESTON, S.C. – Charleston Southern begins its 18-game Big South Conference slate on Thursday against Winthrop. Tipoff at the Buc Dome is set for 7:30 p.m., and the game will be broadcast on the Big South Network.
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CSU (4-7) took a much deserved break from basketball for the Christmas holiday before returning to practice on December 26. The respite came after a challenging three-game road swing that took the Bucs to VMI, Georgia and Virginia Tech in a week's time. Now, CSU returns to game action with two contests in 48 hours against the Big South's preseason favorites. Winthrop (8-3) and Liberty (5-8) were picked 1-2 in the league's preseason poll.
The Eagles received all 30 first-place votes in the poll and backed up that billing with a strong 8-3 non-conference record. Winthrop highlighted that stretch with an overtime win at Illinois last month behind 38 points from guard Keon Johnson. Johnson was last season's runner-up for Big South Player of the Year, and teams with forward Xavier Cooks to form, arguably, the conference's top 1-2 punch. Johnson leads the Big South in minutes played and is second in scoring, while Cooks ranks fourth in scoring, rebounding, field goal percentage and blocked shots.
The meeting marks the second straight year the two clubs have started Big South play against each other. Winthrop topped CSU, 83-82, in a thriller last December at the Buc Dome, with a pair of Johnson free throws with two seconds left providing the difference. Patrick Wallace nailed seven three-pointers en route to a career-high 25 points for CSU in that matchup.
Thursday's game features two of the Big South's most prolific duos in Winthrop's Xavier Cooks and Keon Johnson and CSU's Christian Keeling and Armel Potter. Cooks and Johnson were 1st Team All-Big South picks last year, and are currently second and fourth, respectively, in the league in scoring. Potter earned a spot on the Big South All-Freshman Team last year, and now stands top-10 league-wide in field goal percentage (6th), assists (7th) and scoring (10th). Keeling has been perhaps the league's top freshman to date, ranking fifth in scoring, field goal percentage and rebounding.
The matchup also pits a veteran Winthrop team against a younger CSU squad. All eight of the Eagles' top rotation players (in terms of minutes played) have multiple years of Division I experience, and four are seniors. Conversely, CSU has only four players – Raemond Robinson, Patrick Wallace, Zach Durkee and Javis Howard – with multiple years of Division I experience. Christian Keeling is the Bucs' top scorer as a freshman, with the sophomore Armel Potter and junior college transfer Cortez Mitchell right behind him.
Double-double for Keeling vs. Virginia Tech
Christian Keeling posted career highs of 24 points and ten rebounds in the Bucs' final non-conference game. The performance came a day after he was named Big South Freshman of the Week for the second time this year. Keeling's outing kept CSU in the game against a Virginia Tech team on the outskirts of the Top-25. CSU led for 8:39 in the first half and was behind by just 12 early in the second half.
Defense and rebounding improve vs. Hokies
CSU believes four games against power conference opponents will pay dividends in league play. All but one of CSU's Division I opponents sport a winning record, led by a ranked Florida State squad. The Bucs played well for large stretches against Virginia Tech. CSU was out-rebounding VT by seven late in the game before being edged by three. The Bucs also limited the explosive Hokies to 42 percent shooting, including a 6-for-23 clip from downtown.