SoCon Hoops 2021-22: Two games highlight Monday night’s slate

Wofford and UNCG highlight Monday’s action/photo courtesy of Khandejeh Nikouyeh, Greensboro News & Record

Western Carolina (7-8, 1-1 SoCon) at East Tennessee State (9-7, 1-2 SoCon), 7 p.m.

—East Tennessee State and Western Carolina both have short turnarounds following games this past Saturday. The game is a makeup game from last week after the Western Carolina program had been struck by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Catamounts and Bucs will be meeting for the 87th time on Monday night, with the Bucs having won 30 of the past 31 games between the two, including having claimed 13-straight wins in the series. 

The Bucs will be looking to rebound from a 68-57 setback to Wofford over the weekend, while Western Carolina was blown out, 85-60, last time it took the floor for a road game at Samford. The Catamounts struggled shooting the basketball in the road loss last time out, connecting on just 33.9% of its shots for the game. In ETSU’s loss to the Terriers last time out, the Bucs were out-rebounded 36-27, with 11 of those for the Terriers being offensive rebounds, which led directly to 21 second-chance points for the Terriers. It highlighted just how much the Bucs continue to miss a guy like Silas Adheke, who left the program just prior to conference play. 

The good news for Bucs fans is that rarely do they lose back-to-back home games, as ETSU has been nearly unbeatable at Freedom Hall since the start of the 2015-16 campaign, having posted an 82-18 record at Freedom Hall during that span. The matchup will see two of the league’s new head coaches face off against each other, with ETSU’s Desmond Oliver in his first season at the helm of the Bucs program, while Justin Gray is in his first season as the head coach of the Catamounts’ basketball program.

The last time the Bucs and Catamounts met on the college basketball hardwood was back on Jan. 21, 2021, with the Bucs downing the Catamounts 59-48 in Cullowhee. In that contest, the Bucs had trouble shooting the basketball in the opening half in Cullowhee last season, connecting on just 38.5% of its shots in the opening half of play, however, defensively, the Bucs were on point, limiting Western Carolina to just 33.3% shooting from the field, allowing ETSU to go to the break trailing by just a single point, 28-27.

In the second half of that contest, the Catamounts pushed their lead to as many as five points early in the second half, taking a 36-31, lead before ETSU took control of the contest by scoring 10 of the game’s next 12 points to take the lead, 41-38. Although the Catamounts would eventually tie the game, 45-45, moments later, the Bucs would control the game with their defense for the remainder of the contest to come away with the 11-point road win.

One of the player’s that shined in that last meeting between the Bucs and Catamounts was LeDarrius Brewer (12.6 PPG, 5.6 RPG) and he comes into Monday night’s contest continuing to be an all-conference caliber player, as well as one of the Bucs top scorers. He’ll be a tough matchup, as will the Bucs’ other two double-figure scoring guards, in David Sloan (12.9 PPG, 4.1 APG, 3.0 RPG) and Jordan King (11.6 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 2.4 APG), who are both not shy about shooting basketball from beyond the arc. In fact, as a team this season, the Bucs rank eighth overall in the SoCon in three-point field goal percentage, connecting on 34.0% of their shots from three-point range so far this season, with the Bucs having knocked down 142-of-418 from long-range through 16 games this season.

Western Carolina counters the Bucs with what is nearly a completely different roster from the one that faced off against the Bucs last season, with one of the few holdovers being junior wing Tyler Harris (6.7 PPG, 4.3 RPG). The Catamounts have relied for scoring on grad transfer guard Nicholas Robinson (15.3 PPG, 7.2 RPG).  Robinson leads a WCU team that comes in averaging 76.8 PPG as a team, ranking fifth overall in the SoCon in scoring offense. 

The Catamounts also shoot a lot of threes, ranking fifth overall in the league in three-point field goal percentage, connecting on 35.6% (174-of-489) from downtown this season. One of the matchups that will be interesting to watch will be how ETSU goes about guarding WCU’s 6-10 center and transfer from Kansas State, in Joe Petrakis (7.7 PPG, 3.1 RPG),  given ETSU’s depth issues in the paint due to the loss of Adheke.

Final Score Prediction: ETSU 79, Western Carolina 70

Wofford (9-6, 1-2 SoCon) at UNC Greensboro (9-5, 1-1 SoCon), 6 p.m. EST

The other makeup game in league play on Monday night is the one between Wofford and UNC Greensboro, which was originally scheduled for last week until positive COVID-19 tests within the UNCG program forced a pause. The Terriers and Spartans will be meeting for the 50th time on the college hoops hardwood, with Wofford holding the 30-19 all-time series edge. 

The two teams split the two meetings last season, with UNCG winning an 85-74 contest at Wofford, while the Terriers turned around three days later to capture a 48-45 win in the Greensboro Coliseum. In that win in Greensboro last season, the Terriers used an outstanding defensive effort that limited the Spartans to just 34.5% shooting from the field for the game, and were able to overcome what was a tough night shooting the basketball themselves, as the Terriers were only able to connect on 29.6% from the field. Storm Murphy led the Terriers with 18 points, while then freshman guard Max Klesmit (15.7 PPG, 2.5 RPG) chipped in with 10. 

Both the Terriers and Spartans are coming off impressive road wins from this past Saturday, as Wofford picked up a 68-57 road win at East Tennessee State, while UNCG got its first Southern Conference win on the road, with a 72-56 win at VMI, as the Spartans did a masterful job on the defensive end in limiting the Keydets shooting proficiency from beyond the arc. 

Since Wofford’s all-conference post player went down with an apparent season-ending injury during non-conference play, Terriers head coach Jay McAuley has had to find others to step up in his absence in the paint, and he’s gotten a big season from B.J. Mack so far, and the Terriers’ are also starting to get strong play out of Sam Godwin (7.5 PPG, 4.3 RPG) as of late. Godwin was big in the win at UNCG last season, as he posted 10 points and nine rebounds, which just missed his first-career double-double for the Terriers. 

Along with Klesmit in the backcourt, the Terriers look to veterans Ryan Larson  (9.3 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 63 assists) and Isaiah Bigelow  (9.1 PPG, 5.9 RPG). Bigelow is starting to step up and become more of a consistent scorer for the Terriers. Wofford has struggled defensively this season, ranking last of 10 teams in the SoCon in field goal percentage defense (45.9%), and that’s probably good news for first-year UNCG head coach Mike Jones, who has seen team struggle to shoot the basketball the entire season, as the Spartans rank eighth out of 10 teams in team field goal percentage (39.1%) so far in the 2021-22 season. 

The Spartans have relied mostly on Cal State Bakersfield transfer De’Monte Buckingham (13.4 PPG, 7.9 RPG). Buckingham’s 7.9 RPG are the best among any guard in the SoCon, and helps bolster UNCG’s league-leading +10.7 rebounding margin so far this season. Kaleb Hunter (8.2 PPG, 4.0 RPG) was especially key for the Spartans last time out, as the veteran wing came off the bench to score 14 points last time out against VMI. 

The Spartans can also rely upon the brother tandem of Kobe Langley (7.2 PPG, 2.5 RPG) and Keyshaun Langley (3.8 PPG, 0.8 RPG), who both have plenty of quickness to go around. They will both be tough assignments for the Terrier guards to have to deal with this evening. The Spartans defend as well as any team the Terriers will face in league play, holding foes to just 63.1 PPG and are limiting foes to just 39.1% per game. Both of those totals rank second-best in the SoCon.

Final Score Prediction: Wofford 71, UNCG 68

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