SoCon Basketball 2021-22 on the horizon

The Citadel’s Duggar Baucom (pictured left) and Chattanooga’s Lamont Paris (pictured right)

Not even COVID-19 slowed the SoCon from its exponential rise in college hoops

The 101st season of college basketball in the Southern will commence on Nov. 9 officially when the Bruins visit Wofford….Okay, it’s not UCLA or Belmont. Bad joke, but rather Bob Jones, as they will tip it up in a 5 p.m. game vs. Wofford.

Below is a rundown of how media day went at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center in Asheville last week.

It’s so good to have basketball back

Last week, I had the pleasure of talking to eight of the league’s 10 head coaches about the upcoming Southern Conference basketball season, and at one point, this event was actually discontinued by the league office before it was resurrected by commissioner Jim Schaus the season prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

I was able to interview eight of the 10 head coaches, and I thoroughly enjoyed my time with each coach. It was an honor for me to get to meet guys like new UNCG head coach Mike Jones, while I was able to talk via phone conversation and zoom call with two of the other new head coaches in the league this season, in both

Though last year’s event was virtual, the event went on via zoom call, although with much less on the excitement end of things. But despite the league being snubbed of a second bid in the 2018-19, despite its status as the 13th ranked conference in all of college basketball, the stigma of “one-and-done” still applied.

But think about this. Despite the fact that the sports world virtually ceased to exist after the onset of the virus, losing one of the best up-and-coming coaches in college basketball, in Steve Forbes, who lead the 2019-20 Bucs to a 30-win season for the first time in school history, and for the second-straight in in a two-year window, with that unprecedented Wofford Terriers doing the exact same thing a year earlier by winning 30, the league hasn’t skipped a beat.

While most power conferences and some mid-majors went through the motions during the 2020-21 season, the SoCon navigated long shutdowns, cancellations and sparse crowds, and by the time the UNC Greensboro Spartans dusted off their second league regular-season and tournament crown in a four-year span, as the Spartans ended the season with a 64-54 loss in the opening round of the tournament to the the Florida State Seminoles.

Despite the setback in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament as a No. 13 seed, the league’s NCAA Evaluation Tool (NET) and now defunct Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) had the SoCon ranked 10th and ninth in the nation, respectively, which fittingly was the highest ranking since that metric season had been tracked in the centennial season of SoCon Basketball.

With the NIT field cut nearly in half due to COVID-19, Furman, which was the 2020-21 preseason favorite in the SoCon, was one of the first-four left out of the NIT field.

Fran Frischilla

Growing up, I remember Fran Frischilla as the esteemed basketball coach up there at a small school in the northeast in downtown New York that regularly took his Green and White Jaspers to the MAAC regular-season and postseason tournament titles as the head coach of the Manhattan Jaspers.

He would move to Queens from 1996-98 to succeed NCAA Basketball Hall-of-Famer and legendary coach Lou Carneseca at St. John’s for a couple of seasons before eventually making the cross-country move to New Mexico where he coached the Lobos in one of college basketball’s most historic arenas, “The Pit”–the place where another native New Yorker, Jim Valvano, carried the NC State Wolfpack to one of the school’s proudest moments in 1983, cutting down the nets after forging one of the biggest upsets in title game history, as the Wolfpack downed 54-52, over Vy-slamma-Jamma and the No. 1 ranked Houston Cougars.

While I was only three at the time, that wasn’t something I recall, but the stories told about that game I always find fascinating. I remember “The Pit” for a native of Pelzer, S.C., rather than a native of native of the Big Apple.

That’s Pelzer’s own Phil Hopkins nearly recaptured that upset magic that “The Pit” had become nationally known for, as his Western Carolina Catamounts, led by the dynamic backcourt of Anquell McCollum and a freshman guard named Joel Fleming, nearly knocked off Gene Keady’s top-seeded Purdue Boilermakers, losing a heartbreaker, 73-71, in overtime. Had the Catamounts pulled that off, no one would really know who UMBC is or why they became relevant by beating top-seeded Virginia as a No. 16 back in 2018.

I suppose I took a rabbit trail to get to the cross-roads. Frischilla and I have one thing in common…In his speech, he spoke of being a college basketball “junkie” and that I suppose is probably I could say of me. I even won a ball he signed, as the Birthday closest to Mar. 3 (the start date of the 2022 SoCon Tournament in Asheville)–there were only three at our table, so my chances were heightened–especially since the commish was one of them…haha…So, I have a awesome basketball signed by a great analyst I didn’t even get a chance to speak to. But I appreciate his speech and what he does for the sport.

He mentioned how basketball is strange in that it can forge lifelong friendships between two people that really don’t even realize it at the time. That’s how he and Pete Yanity–the emcee of the 2022 media proceedings forged a friendship while Yanity was a student and Frischilla an aspiring young assistant coach under Denny Nee at Ohio University.

Little did either know at that time, the two would keep touch through the years and no matter life led one to a job as one of the best sports reporters for any news network in the Palmetto State, while the other would go on to become an accomplished head coach and then college basketball analyst.

It is true.

The future is bright….

It got me thinking about how many of the coaches, player’s and other fine folks that have come in contact of over the years in this great league I might still talk to 20 or 30 years down the road. In short, it got me thinking about the immediate future.

I hope all of them. I enjoy this level and SoCon basketball is part of the reason that I wouldn’t want to ever touch covering a Power Five on a day-to-day basis. There’s a wholesomeness to it. It’s the mid-time before making it big-time.

Let’s be honest here. Coaches like Forbes (former ETSU head coach now entering second season at Wake Forest), Wes Miller (former UNCG head coach now at Cincinnati), Niko Medved (Former Furman head coach now at the helm of the preseason Top 25 Colorado State Rams) don’t just happen.

To be honest, it’s a lot like getting Deshaun Watson (Clemson) and then getting Trevor Lawrence (Clemson) if I might use a football analogy that probably anyone can understand that comes from the great State of South Carolina.

Even losing a Miller, Forbes, and a Medved, the league seemingly only seems to be getting better. Just as a great QB remains at Clemson, in D.J. Uiagalelei (though he’s struggled this season–still talented), the SoCon has no shortage of great coaches on some athletic director’s short list at some power five school.

SoCon fans fret that the institution they support might be the next one to lose a great one. Even at places like VMI and The Citadel, where success up until the arrival of Duggar Baucom (now The Citadel) at both, while a young Dan Earl enters his seventh season at VMI taking what he learned as a player and an assistant under Ed DeChellis at both Penn State and Navy.

DeChellis, of course is a great example of a program with so much success like an East Tennessee State, which had been so successful, under the likes of Les Robinson and Alan LeForce, was the product of pretty good patience by the ETSU athletic administration–or maybe apathy– during the mid-late 1990s until DeChellis built ETSU from a program of near walk-ons like point guard Kyle Keeton in his first season, to player’s like absolute ETSU-like ballers, in Zakee Wadood and Tim Smith by the time he left.

He combined the heart of a player like Keeton and the athleticism and talent of Wadood and Smith, and made ETSU into a SoCon power again.

However, that’s when DeChellis bolted for Penn State and ETSU dropped football and made its new home among a bunch of Trans-America Athletic Conference (TAAC) programs still stuck in the new TAAC now called the Atlantic Sun. DeChellis left following the 2002-03 season, and then the Bucs were done in SoCon hoops following the 2004-05 season.

Earl, in similar fashion, has endured some dark times at VMI before VMI got good…like really good. Shooting the ball from the perimeter has been a real calling card for Earl over the past couple of seasons, and it has paid off in a big way for Earl’s Keydets.

VMI comes off a 13-12 season, and for the second year in a row, knocked off the third-seeded Furman Paladins in the opening round of the conference tournament

Order of Finish, all-conference and the coaches I had the pleasure to talk to.

Mocs top coaches and league poll

Some Audio from UTC Head coach and consensus preseason favorite Chattanooga

The Mocs, who return four starters and eight of their top 10 scorers from a team that claimed 18 wins last season, starting the campaign with a school-record nine-straight wins.

David Jean-Baptiste, who helps bridge a large gap in Mocs basketball, as the Mocs return all four of five starters from a 18-win club a year ago.

Jean-Baptiste is an all-conference guard, who shocked everyone when he announced his transfer late in non-conference play last season only to re-think that decision and decide to return to the Mocs roster in time for the post-Christmas grind, and the Mocs SoCon opener against Furman.

Jean-Baptiste garnered All-SoCon honors for a second-straight season, and finished as the team’s second-leading scorer, averaging 16.1 PPG and 3.3 RPG last season, while leading the club in made three-pointers, knocking down a total of 59 triples last season. 

Other starters returning to the fold will be one another preseason all-conference selection, in Malachi Smith (16.8 PPG, 8.8 RPG), who is one of the top player’s in the Southern Conference, along with a solid supporting cast that also includes 6-5 guard Jamaal Walker (5.1 PPG, 1.5 RPG), as well as graduate senior and ultimate

“glue guy” A.J. Caldwell (6.4 PPG, 4.7 RPG). Junior power forward Josh Ayeni (55 PPG, 2.3 RPG), who transferred in from South Alabama prior to last season, all return for the Mocs for the upcoming season. 

K.C. Hankton (8.7 PPG, 5.5 RPG), as well as Darius Banks (11.2 PPG, 4.0 RPG), who when healthy last season, were a solid duo that could score from both the perimeter and in the paint due to their length and athleticism.

But the talk around the Scenic City for most of the off-season has centered around a pair of key transfer big men, in both 6-10 post Avery Diggs and 6-9 Silvio Da Sousa, as the duo transferred in from Central Florida and Kansas, respectively. Da Sousa was a five-star recruit when he was recruited by Bill Self to be a Jayhawk.

Da Sousa’s off-the-court, as well as a very notable one against Kansas State a couple of years ago are two major reasons for the new start in the Scenic City. One major positive of things turning around for the Mocs’ newest front court addition is that he finished up his degree this past summer prior to transferring in to play his final season with the Mocs.

Chattanooga’s collection of talent was a major reason the coaches and media had them tabbed to win the league.

Chattanooga’s main title competition

Furman head coach Bob Richey after his Paladins lost 81-78 at Auburn in Dec. of 2019

The team both the coaches and media think will be the top challenger to a potential 12th league crown for the Mocs will be one that hasn’t claimed one in the past 42 years, in Bob Richey’s Furman Paladins (16-9, 10-5/3rd in SoCon).

Behind Chattanooga, the Paladins are the next most-experienced team returning for the 2021-22 season. Three starters return off a Furman team that finished 16-9 overall and its 10-5 mark in Southern Conference play was good enough to see the Paladins finish third in the season third overall in the league standings.

The hopes of cutting down the nets in Asheville will mostly be hinge on all three players, senior guard Mike Bothwell (15.6 PPG, 4.6 RPG), graduate senior point guard Alex Hunter (11.1 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 3.6 APG), and senior forward Jalen Slawson (8.7 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 1.2 BPG, 56.9 FG%).

Overcoming what was lost, in all-conference forwards Clay Mounce, who graduated and opted to turn pro in Europe, and Gurley ‘s loss was a bit unexpected, as he entered the transfer portal and is decided to continue his career at Alabama.

That’s when Furman and Richey sought out the portal in a surprising twist, bringing in three-time NCAA Division II all-Great Lakes Valley Conference selection Conley Garrison in the backcourt to help off-set the loss of Gurley. Garrison will start right away, according to Richey, and has one of the best pure and quickest releases of any shooter in the SoCon. He averaged 17.3 PPG, 4.0 APG and 5.7 RPG during his final season at Drury University.

After signing one of his best classes since taking over as head coach some five years ago, Richey is high on three-star prospect J.P. Pegues out of Nashville, TN.

According to the Paladin head coach, who garner his 90th career victory to start his sixth season against his alma mater (North Greenville) when the Paladins open the season on Nov. 9 at home against the Crusaders, he iterated that the guard out of Hillsboro High School in Belmont and Lipscomb’s backyard has been among the top seven players according to the charted analytics during the off-season and is locked in to see some quality minutes in the backcourt.

Others that figure to be key contributors in maybe the deepest backcourt in the SoCon are sharp-shooting Jaylon Pugh (3.9 PPG, 0.7 RPG), as well as sophomore Joe Anderson (1.5 PPG, 0.6 RPG), who could be Furman’s most all-around improved player’s from a year ago.

A player that can play wing guard or small forward, should the Paladins play small-ball is 6-4 Marcus Foster (2.7 PPG, 2.4 RPG). The redshirt freshman guard had his minutes severely limited early in 2020-21, due to injury, and that limited his minutes last year. He’ll be one of Furman’s best defensive performers, as athleticism and length. His improved jump shot has Richey hopeful he can also be a factor offensively this coming winter as well.

With the loss of Gurley and Mounce, the Paladin coaching staff has its biggest challenges with depth in the front court behind both Slawson and sophomore Garrett Hien (4.2 RPG, 2.4 RPG, 65.7 FG%). Slawson moves away from the basket to play the No. 4 position to take advantage of his driving ability, ball-handling skills, and newly developed perimeter shot, essentially giving the Paladins a solid replacement for Gurley.

Depth will be provided by the biggest player the Paladins have had under the Richey regime, in 6-10, 250-lb James Repass, who comes to Furman out of Providence Prep School in Jacksonville. Repass will be joined off the bench by impressive 6-10 perimeter threat Jonny Lawrence (2.7 PPG, 1.4 RPG), who enters his second season as a Paladin player.

If there’s one thing that sticks out more than anything about this Furman team, however, has to be its attractive non-conference slate, which features games at Louisville (Nov. 12/ACC Network+), Belmont (Nov. 15), Mississippi State (Dec.17/SEC Network) and No. 19 North Carolina (Dec. 14/ESPN2).

The Paladins have beaten the likes of Loyola-Chicago (2) and Villanova, while putting major scares into the likes of Alabama (2), Auburn, Tennessee and Michigan in recent seasons under Richey and former head coach Niko Medved. If you’re wondering where that team might need to be on upset alert this season, circle the calendar and keep a keen eye on Furman’s Nov. 12 contest at Louisville.

Check out the audio in my interview with the Paladin head coach when I caught up with him at media day last week

Audio from Furman head coach Bob Richey at SoCon Media Day last week

The media and coaches differed the most on who will finish in the third spot in the Southern Conference heading into the season, as the coaches had East Tennessee State (13-12, 8-7/5th in SoCon) positioned in the No. 3 spot in the preseason voting, while the media went with Wofford (15-9, 12-5 SoCon/2nd in SoCon).

The Bucs are one of three teams in the league who have to replace a head coach, as the Jason Shay era, which came to a much more abrupt end than most would have thought following Forbes’ departure for Wake Forest, and it had little due to what he did as a head coach for the Bucs on the floor, and more about extra-curricular political pressure involving his stance on kneeling during the national anthem, which could have had major recruiting ramifications immediately had Director of Athletics Scott Carter not acted quickly to hire former Rick Barnes assistant Desmond Oliver from the University of Tennessee.

While not being able to lure all his player’s that entered the portal back to Johnson City after the fallout of such a mess, he did enough to keep the Bucs among the favorites to challenge Volunteer State rival Chattanooga for the league and tournament titles this winter.

While the Bucs lose SoCon Freshman Freshman of the Year Damari Monsanto to Wake Forest, as he joins Wake Forest and the coaching staff that recruited him to ETSU in the first place.

However, the new Bucs boss was able to lure both LeDarrius Brewer (16.2 PPG, 4.5 RPG) and Ty Brewer (8.5 PPG, 4.0 RPG) back from the transfer portal, and also has an all-conference guard returning, in David Sloan (11.1 PPG, 4.3 APG) heading into the 2021-22 season.

While being picked third in the media poll, the Bucs were also selected to finish fifth in the media.

While I was not able to catch up with coach Oliver due to time constraints at media day, I did speak with him during the spring in a most-enlightening interview.

Instead of a link to my article, I instead provided the full audio from our zoom interview conducted back in the spring. Special thanks to coach Oliver for giving me so much time for the interview, as well as ETSU SID Kevin Brown, who does an outstanding job in his role as media relations director for the Bucs basketball program.

Audio from this past May from new ETSU head coach Desmond Oliver

Wofford heads into its third season under Jay McAuley, who has to endure the losses of his two top scorers from a year ago, in Storm Murphy and Tray Hollowell, who both chose to spend their respective graduate transfer seasons at Virginia Tech and Morehead State, respectively.

It’s nothing new for McAuley, who had to replace Storm Murphy and Cameron Jackson in his first season as the head coach of the Wofford Terriers. All the Terriers managed to do is, led by Murphy, manage to return to the title game only to lose to a 30-win ETSU team.

Instead of Murphy logging a large chunk of the minutes at the point guard position this season, it will be more of a “point guard by committee” approach for the Terriers.

Ryan Larson (5.9 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 3.2 APG) will be one of the more experienced point guards in the SoCon in the league when it steps into his role to replace Murphy. McAuley will have the excellent fortune of having Isaiah Bigelow (5.4 PPG, 3.0 RPG in 2019-20) back and fully healthy this season after he suffered a knee injury just prior to the start of the 2020-21 season. Bigelow was slated to be one of the Terriers’ top performers then, and Wofford still almost won the regular-season crown.

McAuley’s focus has been getting his team more physically ready for the rigors of the evolving type of player in the league, particularly in the post, as he noted in our interview last week in the audio below in how important it was for player’s to change their bodies to adapt.

The obvious reason is how many injuries the Terriers dealt with last season from the season’s outset, and the other is other school’s like Chattanooga bringing in post player’s who are designed more to anchor in the low-post than to be as malleable as some low-post player’s more familiar with a league like the SoCon.

One of those player’s that his changed his overall physique in noticeable fashion is South Florida transfer B.J. Mack (6.8 PPG, 3.3 RPG). Remember him? He’s the guy that beat ETSU in Jerry Richardson Indoor Stadium last season with back-to-back jumpers in the final minute of the 67-62 victory against, at the time, league-leading Bucs.

He returns in the paint, as does Sam Godwin (6.2 PPG, 3.7 RPG) and Messiah Jones (10.3 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 64.7 FG%), who is perhaps the most underrated post in the league, but certainly none work any harder or possess any more power in the paint than can be said of Jones.

Along with Furman’s Garrison, another shooter that will make an immediate impact with his ability to shoot the three.

Turner is a 6-7 guard that has good enough handles to allow the Terriers to create matchup problems at both wing guard spots, with he and Bigelow on the floor at the same time, and even 6-5 Morgan Safford (9.3 PPG, 4.4 RPG), and could even see time at point.

We didn’t get to see enough of Keaton Turner (2.3 PPG, 0.9 RPG) at the point guard position last season, and he’ll also give the Terriers a little more of a ‘slasher’ to the basket than Murphy did a year ago.

When Murphy went to the basket in the lane, he was more than likely looking to pass. That’s not true of Keaton Turner, who’s most times looking to create off the bounce.

Check out more of what coach McAuley had to say in the audio below.

Wofford head coach Jay McAuley

Picked fourth by both the media and the league’s head coaches is Mercer (18-11, 8-9 SoCon/7th in SoCon).

The Bears must also replace Leon Ayers III, who has decided to enter the transfer portal following the season.  Maciej Bender is also another player that must be accounted for, as he has decided to turn pro towards the end of the 2020-21 regular-season.

The good news for the Bears is that leading scorer Neftali Alvarez (13.3 PPG) and Felipe Haase (11.9 PPG) will be the two players returning that head coach Greg Gary can start to build things around immediately, and the two will be preseason all-conference players. 

After making the run to the SoCon title game as the No. 7 seed a year ago, the Bears the Bears will be hungry for even more. Mercer was a 69-61 loser in the Southern Conference championship game last season to top-seed UNC Greensboro. 

The run to the title game came on the heels on what was somewhat of a disappointing conference campaign after such a bright start to the campaign in non-conference play, winning seven of its eight non-league games, including a win over eventual ACC Tournament champion Georgia Tech. 

Gary will also have to replace some talented players, with the graduation of Ross Cummings, who will finish his career second in school history in three-pointers made (246 made three-pointers). He finished just 11 shy of setting what would have been a new school mark.

While both Haase and Alvarez ended up on the preseason All-SoCon team, Gary went out and added even more pieces in the recruiting process, hitting up the transfer portal for the services of 6-6 guard Jalen Johnson (5.0 PPG, 2.4 RPG at Wake Forest in 2020-21), who was at Tennessee two years ago before spending a layover in Johnson City and then joining former ETSU head coach Steve Forbes at Wake Forest last season. He’ll be a grad transfer with one year of eligibility remaining.

Gary was very candid about how Alvarez and how much of a game-changer he can be with a league blessed with so many great head coaches when I spoke with him in Asheville last week. You can hear more about that in the audio clip below of our interview.

Mercer head coach Greg Gary

The coach I perhaps looked forward to meeting as much as any during the week was the new man in charge of defending SoCon regular-season and tournament champion, UNC Greensboro, picked sixth by both the media and coaches polls, and even somewhat surprisingly received three first-place votes on the media side, despite losing some major pieces from a year ago.

That being said, the new man in charge, Mike Jones, is someone I was already familiar with going back to his days as an assistant coach in the late 1990s under then Paladin head coach Larry Davis. He has some big shoes to fill, replacing the ultra-successful Wes Miller, who moves on to Cincinnati after establishing a firm foundation built on two NCAA Tournament berths in 11 years, learning much as a young head coach along the way.

I also had the pleasure of meeting one of his two sons (Nate Jones), who played college basketball at Bucknell, when I helped out at the Conference Carolinas this past spring, as one of my best friends and colleagues Brian Hand (Associate Commissioner for Media Relations at Conference Carolinas), who I interned with many moons ago at the SoCon office, needed some help staffing the tournament held Tyger River Park in Duncan, S.C the third weekend in April.

It offered me to come full circle–as Erskine’s softball team, which entered the tournament as the No.1 overall seed–was my first official job in sports as a sports information director in 2006-07.

It also offered me a chance to catch up with my good friend Brian Hand, who has been my friend since childhood, going back to our days playing U-10 soccer for St. Giles.

That’s where the “Frischilla effect” came in full motion for me when he spoke about how basketball can connect a world unknown to you in unique ways. Brian told me about Nate and how he was was the son of the new hoops coach at UNCG, Mike Jones.

For the final two days of the tournament, Nate and I worked odd jobs around the tournament, or wherever Brian needed us. I really enjoyed getting to know Nate, about his family and learned that he was even born in Greenville. I say all that to say that it was an honor and privilege for me to meet his father, whom I had never met, but felt like I already knew.

I know UNCG got this hire right? Well, I know first he’s a good father judging by his son Nate. Secondly and more basketball-related, I know what he did at Radford.

In fact, when Jones took over at Radford, he took over at a time when things couldn’t have been much worse, as the Highlanders were coming off what was a 1-24 record and were on NCAA probation following the exit of Kevin Greenberg, who was the son of former Virginia Tech head coach Seth Greenberg.

Jones’ transformation of the Radford basketball program was almost immediate. Record was familiar Jones due to UNCG playing the Highlanders in back-to-back seasons in 2018-19 and 2019-20, winning both of those games, but both came in hard-fought fashion. 

In a season when UNCG would win a school-record 29 games, the Spartans and Highlanders would meet at the Greensboro Coliseum with the Spartans getting a 65-58 win.

The Spartans and Highlanders were two of the top mid-major program’s in the country at that particular time, as the Highlanders would top both Texas and Notre Dame in what was an outstanding non-conference season for the Highlanders.

Rebuilding UNCG will be difficult, but remember, Jones built Radford much the way Wes Miller built UNCG–from scratch–and the back roads of commonwealth Virginia isn’t exactly Tobacco Road, and Jones won an astounding 175 games at Radford.

Including senior Isaiah Miller, the Spartans will need to replace five of their top seven scorers heading into next season, with the only pieces that really played meaningful minutes returning to the fold for the 2021-22 season being point guard Keyshaun Langley (10.0 PPG, 1.8 RPG, 101 assists, 34 steals), Kaleb Hunter (8.6 PPG, 3.8 ), Mohammed Abdul-Salaam (6.6 PPG, 6.9 RPG) as well as Khyre Thompson (3.7 PPG, 3.2 RPG).

The rest either joined Wes Miller at Cincinnati, or having transferred elsewhere. A total of seven letter winners are not returning to the fold, including one of the nation’s best player’s, in Miller, and best rim-protector’s, in Hayden Koval.

Langley was suspended for the fall semester according to a release by UNCG, and although not officially off the team, the timetable for his return could be Dec. 17.

https://uncgspartans.com/news/2021/8/22/mens-basketball-basketball-announcement.aspx

The No. 7-10 teams in both polls are made up by Samford (6-13, 2-9 SoCon/10th ), VMI (13-12, 7-7 SoCon/6th), The Citadel (13-12, 5-11 SoCon/8th) and Western Carolina (11-16, 4-13 SoCon/9th) in some order. In the media poll, the Bulldogs

MI was another one of those teams that exceeded expectations last season, and it’s one of the main reasons Keydets head coach Dan Earl was named Southern Conference Coach of the Year last season. 

VMI must replace some outstanding performers from this past season, such as Greg Parham (18.4 PPG), who garnered first-team all-conference honors this past season, and has decided to use his grad season as a transfer to South Alabama.

Parham finished the season starting all 25 games for the Keydets, and ranked second on the team in made three-pointers, connecting on 43.5% from three-point range this past season, as he made good on 64-of-147 from three-point land.

The other key loss for the Keydets entering the 2021-22 season is Myles Lewis (10.3 PPG, 7.5 RPG), who like Parham, will be pursuing his graduate season as a transfer elsewhere, as he will be continuing his hoops career at McNeese State in Lake Charles, LA. Lewis was a key cog for Dan Earl’s Keydets, having started 18 of 22 games this past season for the Keydets, and was the team’s fourth-leading scorer. 

While those two aforementioned players are significant departures, like The Citadel, the Keydets return plenty of talent and scoring punch for the 2021-22 season, with four of the top six scorers returning. All-SoCon big man Jake Stephens (14.9 PPG, 7.8 RPG) leads the returnees for Earl’s Keydets in 2021-22.  Stephens is also a member of the preseason All-SoCon team.

Stephens will be a preseason All-SoCon pick, and comes off a 2020-21 season, which saw him record 20 double-figure scoring performances in 25 games for the Keydets. He posted a career-high 33 points in a January win over The Citadel.  

Stephens was once again among the league’s most lethal inside-outside threats, as he finished the 2020-21 season by connecting on 31.5% (34-of-108) from three-point range last season. In terms of total field goal percentage, Stephens completed the campaign connecting on 46.7% (122-of-261) this past season. Stephens also ranked third in the league in total blocks last season, as he swatted away 41 shots and averaged 1.6 blocks-per-game last season.

The Keydets also return two of the top three-point marksmen in the Southern Conference for the 2021-22 season, with both sharp-shooting guards Kamdyn Curfman (12.7 PPG, 2.1 RPG) and Sean Conway (10.1 PPG, 6.2 RPG) returning for the 2021-22 campaign. 

Both Curfman and Conway combined to connect on 127 of the team’s 270 triples last season, with Curfman ranking fourth in the SoCon in three-pointers made, knocking down 70 triples last season, averaging 2.7 made threes per game.

Meanwhile, Conway finished the 2020-21 season ranking fourth in the SoCon in three-point field goal percentage, connecting on 40.4% (57-of-141) of his shots from downtown last season.

The x-factor returning in the backcourt for the Keydets entering the 2021-22 season could be rising sophomore guard Trey Bonham (8.6 PPG, 2.8 RPG), who was a SoCon All-Freshman team selection for the 2020-21 season. Bonham saw action in 24 games for the Keydets last season, logging seven starts in those contests. His 26 steals on the season ranked second on the team behind only Greg Parham in total steals in 2020-21.

Look for Bonham to challenge to be the starting point guard for the Keydets for the upcoming season. 

My interview with VMI head coach Dan Earl

The Bulldogs of The Citadel were picked to finish ninth in the by the coaches and eighth by the league’s media.

One of my favorite interviews is always Duggar Baucom, simply because he never disappoints.

He heads into the season with the league’s best player. And why not after the season Hayden Brown had. He posted the league’s top scoring game (37 points vs. UTC/Jan. 9, 2021) and rebounding game (21 rebounds vs. Columbia HeInternational/Dec. 7, 2021).

Brown punches well above his weight, or in basketball terms, plays way bigger than his size in the paint. His sheer work ethic to get himself back to 100% last season and in doing so, it has helped the whole team get better.

It’s probably hard to imagine The Citadel might find itself with such optimism following a 2019-20 season, which saw the Bulldogs close out go winless against SoCon competition (0-19 including tourney loss) and for a large portion of the final month of that season, the Bulldogs had only seven players available to dress due to injury.

A year removed from one of the worst in the recent history of Bulldog basketball, that low point for head coach Duggar Baucom and fans of “Embrace The Pace” brand of basketball seems like only a distant memory. However, for a program that is one of the few to have never made it to an NCAA Tournament, the optimism is seemingly at an all-time high for Bulldog basketball.

Brown finished his redshirt junior campaign, and has opted to exercise his free season which allow for an optional extra year for seniors, which the native of Duncan, S.C., has decided to take advantage of his extra season as a result of the pandemic, announcing his return next season.

He finished the 2020-21 campaign by averaging 18.8 PPG, which ranked second in the league in scoring for the season, while his 10.5 RPG helped him lead the league by one more rebound than the next closest player in that same category.

Brown also ranked second in the league in field goal percentage last season, connecting on 50.8% (159-of-313) from the field.

For the season, Brown posted 22 double-figure scoring performances in 25 games, finishing the season with five performances of 15 or more rebounds. His 13 double-doubles last season were tied for 11th in the nation last season., while his 10.5 RPG also ranked 11th nationally. 

Brown completed the campaign with 451 points last season, and will head into his senior campaign in 2021-22 with 1,692-career points, and likely, the active career leading scorer entering his final season.

The grad senior already ranks second in program history in career points, needing just 363 points in 2021-22 to surpass Cameron Wells–the program’s only career 2000-point scorer with 2,054-career points from 2007-11–and will have a chance to do that despite what has, at times, been an injury-plagued career.

While Brown has announced his return next season, the Bulldogs will have to find a replacement for grad transfer Kaiden Rice, who has opted to utilize his extra final year of eligibility by becoming a Georgetown Hoyas. 

Rice was the Bulldogs’ second-leading scorer this past season and finished the campaign ranking fifth in overall scoring average (17.6 PPG). Rice also finished the campaign leading the SoCon in three-pointers made (92) last season. He averaged 3.7 made three-pointers per game, and his 92 triples helped him lead the next closest player in made threes by nine triples last season. 

The other loss during to the transfer portal in August was Fletcher Abee, which takes a major perimeter threat away for the Bulldogs.

The next closest player in the “made threes” statistical category was Western Carolina’s Matt Halvorsen, who knocked down 83 triples last season. Rice connected at a 34.8% (92-of-264) from three-point range last season. 

As a team, The Citadel finished the season with 246 made three-pointers, which was second-most made threes in the SoCon last season, with VMI’s 270 made treys made finishing as the top mark for made three-pointers in the 2020-21 campaign.

Returning alongside Brown in the paint for the Bulldogs next season will be Stephen Clark (5.9 PPG, 4.6 RPG) who finished the 2020-21 season second in the SoCon in blocks (1.8 BPG/46 blocks). Clark is one of the quicker jumper’s in the Southern Conference, and gives The Citadel excellent athleticism and a great rim protector in the paint heading into the upcoming season. 

On the offensive end of the floor, the 6-8 center finished the 2020-21 campaign by posting three double-figure scoring performances, which saw him produce two of those in his final three games of his sophomore season. Clark reserved his best performance for a opening round tournament win over Western Carolina, as he posted 18 points and six rebounds in the 100-86 win, connecting on 6-of-8 shots from the field in the process. 

Joining Clark in the paint in the 2021-22 season will be talented rising junior Brady Spence (4.5 PPG, 2.6 RPG), who has battled injuries in each of his first couple of seasons for The Citadel. His only double-figure performance of the season game in a January home loss to Mercer, as he posted 10 points in that particular contest. 

In the backcourt, the Bulldogs will have experienced point guard Tyler Moffe (9.7 PPG, 4.2 RPG) returning as the starter, while Rudy Fitzgibbons III (4.9 PPG, 1.3 RPG) will provide excellent depth at the position. Also returning in the backcourt for the 2021-22 season to provide another proficient shooting threat in the backcourt for Baucom’s Bulldogs this upcoming season will be Brent Davis (4.5 PPG, 2.6 RPG).

My interview with The Citadel head coach Duggar Baucom

Perhaps there was no more unique story in Southern Conference basketball, or possibly even all of college basketball as the one that played out at Samford last season.

Bucky McMillan, who came from ultra successful basketball powerhouse Mountain Brook High School to coach Division I basketball had its own mystique.

The style of play and the attractiveness of some of the scores put up during both the exhibition and regular seasons alone were enough to make a lot of kids around the country want to play basketball at Samford.

Especially when you consider the fact that that Bulldogs of the hardwood, or “Bucky Ball” had a lot of similarities to their gridiron counterparts in the “Hatch Attack” as it has come to be known under the head football coach Chris Hatcher.

Both have the propensity for putting up points and putting them up in a hurry. The 174 points scored by the Bulldogs in an exhibition win over Division III Greenville (Ill.) drew the attention of the national media.

Later in the non-conference season, a 96-84 win on the road at perennial mid-major power Belmont in Nashville raised even more eyebrows for the program, and it was one of best non-conference wins the SoCon had all season.

After that though, things went south for the Bulldogs, and between injuries, suspensions, and COVID-19 hitting in some way the entire 29-member staff of players and coaches took its toll on “Bucky Ball” and it was never really to regain that early-season momentum.

With McMillan’s recruiting class coming in, even more attention has been drawn to a program that hasn’t been used to seeing so much attention on its program since its time in the Atlantic Sun, which was the last time the Bulldogs made the NCAA Tournament.

t’s not uncommon for the Bulldogs to land big-time recruits, as four-star Stephen Fitzgerald landed in Homewood three years ago. He never panned out, but his recruitment certainly raised more than a few eyebrows. 

Now, McMillan and staff have landed another four-star recruit, in 6-5 guard Wesley Cardet Jr. from Orlando, FL, starring for West Oaks High School, which is also the same school that produced current the same school that produced AJ Staton-McCray, who of course, ended the 2020-21 season as a SoCon All-Freshman selection. 

Cardet, Jr. is a combo guard with outstanding athleticism. He comes in ranked No. 60 in the nation and No. 13 at his position according to rivals.com. During his prep career at West Oaks High School, Cardet Jr. ended up averaging 18.4 PPG and 9.4 RPG, and will be an instant impact player in the Southern Conference.

Joining Cardet, Jr. in the backcourt as newcomers for the 2021-22 season are a pair of talented transfer, in University of Florida transfer Ques Glover and Loyola Chicago transfer Cooper Kaifes.

Glover is a 6-0, 185-lb sophomore guard, who comes to Samford following a couple of seasons at Florida where he averaged 3.6 PPG, which included a career-best 10 points vs. No. 6 Tennessee in his two seasons in Gainesville. 

The 6-0 guard is from Knoxville, Tenn, where he was a standout at powerhouse Bearden High School. Like Cardet, Jr., Glover will be an immediate impact performer with his quickness off the dribble and overall athleticism. He was the Knoxville Sentinel’s Player of the Year in 2018 following a senior prep season, which saw him average 21 PPG and led Bearden to a Class AAA state title. He was named Tennessee’s Class AAA Mr. Basketball as a senior, and garnered all-state honors as both a junior and senior. 

Kaifes is a 6-4 redshirt sophomore guard comes to Samford from Loyola Chicago, and was named to the Missouri Valley Conference All-Freshman Team following the 2018-19 season, as he averaged 5.7 PPG and and connected on a blistering 46.5% shooting from three-point range as a freshman, while connecting on a total of 53 triples.

Two other newcomers that will add immediate impact for Samford as soon as next season will be 6-6 forward Jermaine Marshall, who returns after spending a season at Akron, as well as guards Jaden Campbell and Angel Smith.

Marshall had been a part of the Bulldog basketball program before transferring out abruptly. He previously played at NJCAA power Florida Southwestern State College, where he averaged 10.2 PPG and 8.8 RPG, posting double figures in 16 games. 

Campbell and Smith, like Cardet, Jr., give the Bulldogs two more athletic combo guards.

Campbell is a 6-5 guard from Brampton, Ontario, and like Marshall, transfers in from Florida Southwestern State College, where he averaged 13.7 PPG, 4.0 RPG and 2.0 APG after having played a couple of seasons as a JUCO and will have a couple of years of eligibility remaining.

He connected on 52% if his shots from the floor, including connecting on 38.5% from three-point range. 

Smith comes to Samford after spending a season at the University of Southern Mississippi, where he played in four games in the 2019-20 season before a shoulder injury brought an abrupt end to his freshman season for the Golden Eagles. He managed a career-high 10-point scoring performance against Tulane before having to call it a season. 

He arrived at Southern Miss as one of the top prospects out of the state of Florida, as he ranked as highly as No. 25 in the state, according to MaxPreps. As a senior prep at Northeast High School, Smith averaged 18.0 PPG and and 10.2 RPG, while dishing out an impressive 5.1 APG.

This impressive cast of recruits joins a solid corps of returning players, which includes SoCon All-Freshman Team selection A.J. Staton-McCray (10.0 PPG, 4.5 RPG) and talented backcourt mates Jaron Rillie (5.2 PPG, 2.4 RPG) and Marcellus Vail (2.7 PPG, 1.7 RPG). Forward Logan Dye (9.7 PPG, 4.4 RPG) highlights the returnees in the paint for the Bulldogs in 2021-22. 

The guard-oriented Bulldogs could be headed for a middle-of-the-pack or higher finish in the SoCon if all the impressive additions pan out in the impressive recruiting haul for McMillan. One thing is for sure, the Bulldogs will not be short on athleticism entering the 2021-22 season. 

The other Bulldogs in the league were picked to finish eighth by the coaches and ninth by the media.

1st Interview Bucky McMillan (Samford)/2nd Interview Mike Jones (UNCG)

It’s 194 mikes from the heart of college basketball’s most famous stretch of road—Tobacco Road in Winston-Salem, N.C.—to Cullowhee,  N.C, which is not probably not the angle John Feinstein will seek out to write his next best-selling college basketball novel, however, it’s exactly where I need to be when it comes to figuring out Western Carolina’s mileage back to punching its ticket getting back to college basketball’s biggest dance party in March. 

On April 3, 2021 this new basketball endeavor in Catamount country started with the hiring of its 18th head coach in school history—former Wake Forest standout guard Justin Gray.  

That 194 miles between destinations now has more than one connection to the Prosser family. One directly, and the other indirectly. Mark Prosser compiled a 37-53 record, which included a 19-win campaign in year two prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, which would have yielded a postseason appearance in one of college basketball’s non-NCAA sponsored tournaments also played in March.

Mark’s father, the late Skip Prosser, coached the newest head coaching hire to the Western Carolina head coach, as  Gray starred for the Demon Deacons at point guard from 2003-06.

No team was seemingly hit harder by departures than Western Carolina. Unfortunately I did not get to meet the former Wake Forest legend Justin Gray in person, however, like coach Oliver at ETSU, I was able to catch up with the new leader of the Catamount basketball program in the spring in the audio below.

Gray has gone out and procured some solid talent and made some good enroads in recruiting in just a little over a month on the job. The most impressive committment, at least on paper, to this point for Gray and the Catamounts is 6-5 wing Marvin Price. 

Price comes to Western Carolina from Salt Lake Community College in Salt Lake City City, Utah. During the 2020-21 season for the Bruins, Price ended up averaging 12.6 PPG amd 5.5 RPG. According to ESPN.com, the Baltimore, MD product Price is a three-star addition to the Catamount roster. Price will have three years or eligibility remaining with Western Carolina.

Joining Price via the transfer route for the Catamounts coming into the 2021-22 season will be fifth-year senior guard Cam Bacote (Indiana State), point guard Jamir Moultrie (North Carolina Central), point guard Vonterius Woolbright (Lawson State CC), power forward Bryce Brown (South Georgia State College), power forward Johan Crafoord, wing Marlow Gilmore, Jr. (Dodge City CC), wing Madison Monroe (Independence CC), wing Marcus Banks (Fork Union Military Academy), and wing Nick Robinson (Saint Joseph’s). 

The late addition of 6-10 Joe Petrakis out of Kansas State only adds to an intriguing collection of talent, that utilized prep school, JUCOs, mid-majors and a power six program to comprise a pretty impressive collection of talent all things considered.

The Catamounts have added perhaps their most talented performer to the fold recently, with the addition of 6-6 forward Marlow Gilmore, who heads to Cullowhee from Dodge City, Kansas, where he played for Dodge City Community College. In 23 games with the Conquistadores, the ultra-athletic Gilmore averaged 9.6 PPG and 5.5 RPG, finishing the season with 11 double-figure performers. 

Two of the veteran performers that the new Catamount poss will lean heavily on this season will be lone returning starter Tyler Harris (6.3 PPG, 4.6 RPG), who has made major overall improvements to his game and could be an all-conference-type performer.

Junior guard Travion McCray (9.9 PPG, 3.5 RPG) is a player that has worked tirelessly to improve his perimeter shot, and is one of the best athletes on the roster. He has the ability to give coach Gray a slashing-type, creator in the backcourt, as well as his quickness on the defensive end, which are two strengths of his game.

With so much turnover, as you might expect, the Catamounts were picked to finish last in the league. But the talent level isn’t bottom of the league talent. It’s how they play together that will determine the Catamounts fate in 2021-22.

Link to SoCon CBS Sports TV deal below…

https://soconsports.com/news/2021/11/3/cbs-sports-network-mens-basketball-schedule-announced.aspx

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