A tour across NC’s mid-major programs

The 2019-20 college basketball season ended with what can best be described as a resounding thud. While some conference tournaments were completed before the realities of the coronavirus pandemic stopped play, March Madness isn’t really a thing without the season-ending NCAA Tournament.

And it’s not a sure thing this year either. Teams are already seeing players and coaches test positive for COVID-19, and the logistics of schedule-making and travel have been turned upside-down while schools scramble to play the upcoming season and crown a champion.

Across North Carolina, 18 teams in nine different conferences are getting ready to embark on a season unlike any other. The state’s four ACC schools — Duke, NC State, UNC and Wake Forest — will receive much of the ink. But from the mountains to the coast, teams are readying for the start play this week, including a scheduled 10 games involving 12 North Carolina teams to welcome the season on Wednesday.

Here’s a rundown of what to expect from N.C.’s mid-major programs. Can UNC Greensboro’s Wes Miller and NC Central’s LeVelle Moton lead their teams back to the NCAA Tournament? Will first-year coach Takayo Siddle restore UNC Wilmington to its rightful place atop the Colonial Athletic Conference? And when will legendary Davidson coach Bob McKillop earn his 600th career win with the Wildcats?

Let the games begin.

Charlotte 49ers

2019-20 Record: 16-13 (10-8, T-4th C-USA)
Coach: Ron Sanchez, 3rd year, 24-34 record
Top Returning Scorers: Jordan Shepherd, 14.0 points; Jahmir Young, 12.5 points
247Sports Class Ranking: 73rd

The 49ers were a surprise contender in Conference USA last season, finishing tied for fourth despite being picked near the bottom of the league. Third-year coach Ron Sanchez brings back his top two scorers in Jordan Shepherd and Jahmir Young, and the 49ers’ freshman class was ranked the best in Conference USA by 247Sports. But it will be the backcourt of Young, last year’s conference Freshman of the Year, and Shepherd that will lead the 49ers. Senior Milos Supica should see more playing time and Jhery Matos — a graduate transfer from Dayton — should provide veteran defensive help.

Number to know: 13 — Home wins for Charlotte last season.

East Carolina Pirates

2019-20 Record: 11-20 (5-13, 11th AAC)
Coach: Joe Dooley, 7th year, 79-63 record
Top Returning Scorers: Jayden Gardner, 19.7 points, Tristen Newton, 11.0 points
247Sports Class Ranking: 113th

The 2020-21 season will be Year 3 of coach Joe Dooley’s second tour of duty in Greenville, and the coach’s young roster has plenty of room for improvement. The Pirates return all their starters from last year’s team, including junior forward Jayden Gardner — a second-team All-AAC performer last season who led the conference in scoring. It still looks like an uphill climb for East Carolina this season, but Dooley will hopefully be able to guide the Pirates to more than the one-game improvement the school had in the coach’s second year.

Number to know: 28.1% — 3-point shooting percentage for the Pirates last season, ranking 347th in Division I.

Davidson Wildcats

2019-20 Record: 16-14 (10-8, 7th A-10)
Coach: Bob McKillop, 32nd year, 594-364 record
Top Returning Scorers: Kellan Grady, 17.2 points; Luka Brajkovic, 10.3 points
247Sports Class Ranking: 64th

The 2019-20 season was a disappointment for the Wildcats, who were expected to compete for an Atlantic 10 title and an NCAA Tournament bid but instead struggled with injuries and had their fewest wins since they finished 16-15 in 2009-10. Davidson gets back top scorer Kellan Grady but lost Jon Axel Gudmundsson to graduation.Six-foot-10 Luka Brajkovic should take on an even bigger role this season.

Number to know: 6 — Wins McKillop needs to reach 600 for his career. Heading into the 2020-21 season, 37 Division I coaches have reached that mark.

Appalachian State Mountaineers

2019-20 Record: 18-15 (11-9, 6th Sun Belt)
Coach: Dustin Kerns, 2nd year, 18-15 record
Top Returning Scorers: Justin Forrest, 17.3 points; Adrian Delph, 8.8 points
247Sports Class Ranking: N/A

First-year coach Dustin Kerns helped the Mountaineers improve by seven wins last season for its first winning season since 2010-11 and its best since joining the Sun Belt in 2014. App State returns top scorer Justin Forrest but lost both O’Showen Williams and Isaac Johnson, the team’s other double-digit scorers, to graduation. Michael Almonacy, a graduate transfer from Division II Southern New Hampshire, adds more firepower from 3-point range.

Number to know: 22.5 — Free-throw attempts per game last season for the Mountaineers, 31st-most in the nation. App State, however, made just two‑thirds of its attempts, ranking 305th in free‑throw percentage.

Elon Phoenix

2019-20 Record: 13-21 (7-11, T-7th CAA)
Coach: Mike Schrage, 2nd year, 13-21 record
Top Returning Scorers: Hunter McIntosh, 11.7 points; Hunter Woods, 10.1 points
247Sports Class Ranking: 69th

Mike Schrage’s first year with the Phoenix was a tale of two seasons. Elon lost 16 of its first 21 games under its new coach, including a 1-7 start in conference play, before winning eight of its last 13. That included winning two CAA Tournament games before losing in the semifinals to Northeastern. The Phoenix have to replace top scorer Marcus Sheffield but return CAA Rookie of the Year Hunter McIntosh and will have the services of Jerald Gillens-Butler, who sat out last year after transferring from Butler.

Number to know: 10.2 — 3-pointers made per game last season for Elon, seventh-best in the country.

UNC Wilmington Seahawks

2019-20 Record: 10-22 (5-13, 9th CAA)
Coach: Takayo Siddle, 1st year
Top Returning Scorers: Jaylen Sims, 11.8 points; Ty Gasdsen, 10.6 points
247Sports Class Ranking: N/A

C.B. McGrath was fired in January, and the Seahawks decided to look to the past for their next coach. Takayo Siddle was an assistant under Kevin Keatts when UNCW was at its height, and AD Jimmy Bass is hopeful his new coach can get the Seahawks back on top of the CAA. That also means a return to the relentless style UNCW played under Keatts. The Seahawks lost Marten Linssen, a graduate transfer who went to St. Louis, but return four starters and could get immediate contributions from freshmen Ja’Juan Carr and Jamahri Harvey.

Number to know: 31 — Total wins over the last three seasons, just two more than Keatts had in his final season at UNCW.

Campbell Fighting Camels

2019-20 Record: 15-16 (6-12, T-10th Big South)
Coach: Kevin McGeehan, 8th year, 106-123 record
Top Returning Scorers: Cedric Henderson Jr., 12.4 points; Jordan Whitfield, 10.7 points
247Sports Class Ranking: N/A

For four seasons, Campbell relied on Chris Clemons to provide offense, and he did as one of the most prolific scorers in NCAA history. In their first year without him, the Camels dipped in scoring and finished below .500 for the first time since 2015-16. With Clemons turned pro, Campbell was led by the son of a former NBA player in Cedric Henderson Jr., and the returning sophomore should again be the Camels’ biggest threat. Spanish forward Jesus Carralero could also emerge as a versatile and key player.

Number to know: 68.7 — Points per game for the Camels last season after averaging more than 70 the previous four years.

Gardner-Webb Runnin’ Bulldogs

2019-20 Record: 16-16 (11-7, 3rd Big South)
Coach: Tim Craft, 8th year, 127-106 record
Top Returning Scorers: Jaheam Cornwall, 13.1 points; Kareem Reid, 6.1 points
247Sports Class Ranking: 148th

The Bulldogs have to replace some players from last year’s team, but second-team All-Big South guard Jaheam Cornwall is back and will be complemented by a frontcourt that includes Kareem Reid and Ludovic Dufeal. Gardner-Webb also added junior college transfer Jacob Falko, who was fifth nationally in scoring at Cecil College with 23.7 points per game. In all, coach Tim Craft has a deep rotation that should allow him to give minutes to the players who are contributing the most each game.

Number to know: .444 — 3-point shooting percentage for Cornwall last season, sixth-best in Division I.

High Point Panthers

2019-20 Record: 9-23 (6-12, T-10th Big South)
Coach: Tubby Smith, 3rd year, 25-38 record
Top Returning Scorers: John-Michael Wright, 14.2 points; Eric Coleman Jr., 8.7 points
247Sports Class Ranking: N/A

When High Point hired alumnus Tubby Smith before the 2018-19 season, no one expected the Panthers to have just 25 wins over the first two years of his tenure. But that’s where things stand heading into Year 3 of Smith’s return to High Point. There is reason for optimism. Last year’s Panthers were young, and John-Michael Wright emerged as a star in his freshman season and should again be one of the Big South’s best players. If Smith can get more from the rest of his roster, High Point should be improved.

Number to know: 9 — Wins for High point last season, the fewest in Smith’s 29 seasons coaching at seven different schools.

UNC Asheville Bulldogs

2019-20 Record: 15-16 (8-10, T-5th Big South)
Coach: Mike Morrell, 3rd year, 19-43 record
Top Returning Scorers: DeVon Baker, 16.5 points; LJ Thorpe, 13.9 points
247Sports Class Ranking: 120th

Don’t let coach Mike Morrell’s record at UNCA deceive you — the Bulldogs are on the upswing. UNC Asheville returns all its starters from last year’s team that more than tripled its win total from the year before. The Bulldogs guards — led by Big South second-team junior DeVon Baker — are among the conference’s best, and UNCA’s depth should allow Morrell to cut down the workload of his top players. While Winthrop is still the class of the Big South, the Bulldogs could give them a challenge at the top of the conference.

Number to know: 8.2 — Steals per game last season for UNCA, the 25th-most in Division I. Conversely, the Bulldogs only allowed 4.8 steals per game, 12th fewest.

North Carolina A&T Aggies

2019-20 Record: 17-15 (12-4, T-2nd MEAC)
Coach: Will Jones, 2nd year, 14-5 record
Top Returning Scorers: Kameron Langley, 9.4 points; Fred Cleveland Jr., 9.0 points
247Sports Class Ranking: N/A

Will Jones took over as interim coach after the suspension of Jay Joyner and led the Aggies to a 14-5 record, was named MEAC Coach of the Year and earned himself the full-time job. Now N.C. A&T — in its final season in the MEAC before a move to Big South — will have to replace its top two scorers. Fortunately, the Aggies return point guard Kameron Langley, the MEAC’s career assist leader and a favorite for conference Player of the Year. If the frontcourt can step up and produce, N.C. A&T should compete for a MEAC title.

Number to know: 247 — Assists last season for Kameron Langley, tops in the country.

NC Central Eagles

2019-20 Record: 18-13 (13-3, 1st MEAC)
Coach: LeVelle Moton, 11th year, 207-148 record
Top Returning Scorers: C.J. Keyser, 11.6 points; Jordan Perkins, 6.8 points
247Sports Class Ranking: N/A

The biggest task for coach LeVelle Moton is replacing MEAC Player of the Year Jibri Blount. Guard C.J. Keyser, who battled injuries last season and started just nine games but finished at the team’s No. 2 scorer, could be the Eagles’ next star player. Point guard Jordan Perkins will again run the show, one of five seniors available to Moton in the NCCU backcourt. Junior Justin Whatley is healthy and will be the top option to fill Blount’s role in the paint, but NC Central will go as far as its guards take it.

Number to know: 4 — Consecutive years the Eagles have won either the MEAC regular season or conference tournament title.

UNC Greensboro Spartans

2019-20 Record: 23-9 (13-5, 3rd SoCon)
Coach: Wes Miller, 10th year, 164-126 record
Top Returning Scorers: Isaiah Miller, 17.8 points; Kaleb Hunter, 10.3 points
247Sports Class Ranking: 111th

UNCG figures to be in the mix for the Southern Conference title, and senior point guard Isaiah Miller will lead the way. Last year’s conference Player of the Year led the Spartans in scoring, assists and steals and is also the two-time SoCon Defensive Player of the Year. But it’s not a one-man show at UNCG. Coach Wes Miller has a variety of weapons at his disposal, and the Spartans are always a handful defensively. The addition of shot-blocker Hayden Koval, a grad transfer from Central Arkansas, will make UNCG even tougher to score against.

Number to know: 89 — Steals last season for Miller, the third-most in the country.

Western Carolina Catamounts

2019-20 Record: 19-12 (10-8, T-5th SoCon)
Coach: Mark Prosser, 3rd year, 26-37 record
Top Returning Scorers: Mason Faulkner, 17.7 points; Matt Halvorsen, 9.5 points
247Sports Class Ranking: N/A

Mark Prosser’s Catamounts more than doubled their win total from his first season in Cullowhee, and WCU brings back guard Mason Faulkner for a final season after he considered turning pro. That’s good news for the Catamounts, who lost double-double machine Carlos Dotson to graduation. WCU was the SoCon’s top scoring team last season, and with Faulkner returning to run the attack there’s no reason to believe the Catamounts won’t again be hard to handle at both ends of the floor.

Number to know: 9.7 — 3-point shots made per game for WCU last season, the 15th-most in the country.