CLIFF ELLIS HAS his Coastal Carolina Chanticleers in the NCAA tournament for a second consecutive season. His club turned back Winthrop, 81-70, Sunday at The HTC Center on the Coastal Carolina campus to claim the Big South Conference tournament title and the NCAA bid that goes with it.
After making a national TV appearance for an interview, joining students and fans on the court in celebration, and then accepting the tournament championship trophy, Ellis wanted more.
He wants more for the Big South Conference.
That would include a seed higher than No. 16 in the NCAA tournament for his team. It also would mean a couple of Big South bids to the NIT and another three to either the CBI or CIT postseason tournaments.
“Yeah, I’m out beating on a drum, but I have the right to do that,” said Ellis, the former Clemson coach in his 40th season as a head coach at the Division I level. “I have the right to do that.”
It has been a banner year for the Big South, one in which it emerged as one of the better mid-major conferences. Late in the regular season, seven teams were tied for first place. When High Point and Charleston Southern emerged as co-champions, Coastal Carolina, Winthrop and Radford all finished one game behind in the standings.
“Not only did we have parity in the league, but it was parity at the high level,” said Kyle Kallander, the Big South Commissioner, who has led a push in recent years for the league to place a greater emphasis on men’s basketball.
Kallander believes the Big South can gain more prominence nationally through men’s basketball than through football. There is sound reasoning in that thinking if you believe Coastal Carolina’s back-to-back appearances in the NCAA tournament will garner more attention nationally than the school’s football program received from recent back-to-back semifinal appearances in the FCS playoffs.
“This is a sport with the visibility that can make an impact,” Kallander said.
The Big South enhanced its image this season by not only continuing to schedule difficult non-conference games but to win a number of those games against bigger-name opponents. All of those Big South wins were played on the opponent’s home court.
The wins included Charleston Southern over Mississippi, Coastal Carolina over Auburn, Radford over Virginia Tech, Winthrop over Clemson, and Gardner-Webb over Clemson and Purdue.
Yet for all its success, not much is likely to change come NCAA tournament and NIT time. The Big South’s automatic bid to the tournament champion has been placed in the NCAA tournament play-in game or received a No. 16 seed all but seven of 23 seasons, including each of the past seven.
“What I’m saying is this team and our league doesn’t deserve a 16 seed,” Ellis said. “I’m saying that right up front, it doesn’t deserve it.”
Ellis bases his thinking on having returned four starters from the team that threw a scare into No. 1-seed Virginia in last season’s NCAA tournament. The teams were tied with nine minutes remaining before Virginia ran away for an 11-point victory.
“I’ll bet you, if you asked Tony Bennett if Coastal Carolina should get a 16 seed, I guarantee you he would tell you not,” Ellis said of the Virginia coach. “He has told me personally that we caused them as much problems as anybody.”
In addition to Coastal Carolina’s appearance in the NCAA tournament, Charleston Southern is guaranteed a spot in the NIT by virtue of winning a regular-season tie-breaker over High Point. Kallander said the league is pushing for an NIT bid for High Point.
“Our conference needs that,” Ellis said. “Should we get two NIT bids? Yes. Will we get two NIT bids? I know what’s going to happen because I’ve been on the other side of the fence. Your power conferences are just going to get a lot of the bids.”
How the league is judged might come down to how many teams receive bids to the CBI and CIT tournaments. That, and whether the Big South can begin to notch wins in the NCAA tournament.
The league has three wins in the NCAA tournament all-time, two of which were notched by UNC Asheville in play-in games. Then there was Winthrop’s No. 11-seed victory over sixth-seeded Notre Dame in 2007.
For the longest time, Winthrop carried the Big South banner. Now it appears Coastal Carolina is poised to do the same. And Ellis will continue to beat the drum for the league as well.