SoCon Basketball 2021-22: Chattanooga re-takes lead atop league standings

Furman and Chattanooga battle Saturday in a crucial potential league title determining tilt

When we look back at the 2021-22 Southern Conference regular-season, it may prove that the No. 1 seed upon arrival will point to the Week of Feb. 7-14 as being the one that ultimately decides the top overall seed when the teams head to Sky City next month.

With either Chattanooga (19-5, 9-2 SoCon) or Furman (17-8, 9-3 SoCon) likely to claim the regular-season crown, and with the two slated to meet for a second time in the regular-season on Feb. 12 at Timmons Arena, Monday night’s games for both the Mocs and Paladins could go a long way in being a deciding factor in the championship chase as well.

Furman will be on the road at a place that they don’t often win, when Chattanooga will be facing the same team that it had to battle for much of the afternoon to come away with a win for much of the day in the Roundhouse on Saturday afternoon.

The Paladins will be on the road at East Tennessee State trying to put behind them a 58-56 home loss to UNC Greensboro at the Bon Secours Wellness Arena Saturday afternoon, snapping what had been a five-game winning streak, spending less than 48 hours atop the SoCon standings. But that’s basketball.

Furman was woeful offensively, as it was held to season-lows in points (56), shooting percentage (30.2%), three-pointers made (6) and three-point field goal percentage (21.4%).

Nothing about this season has seemed quite normal for what I still think is a talented Bucs basketball team under first-year head coach Desmond Oliver. However, when the Paladins arrive at Freedom Hall Monday night for their ESPNU clash, they will meet a Bucs team riding a five-game losing streak following a 62-60 loss at Wofford Saturday.

The five-game skid marks the longest losing streak the Bucs have endured since joining the Southern Conference in the 2014-15 season. Furman hasn’t had too much success over the years at Freedom Hall, and prior to that, the Memorial Center.

In 30 games all-time in Johnson City, the Paladins have charted 12 wins, with a 12-18 record all-time on the road against the Bucs. Furman hasn’t claimed a win at Freedom Hall since the 2017-18 season, which came on a late four-point play by Devin Sibley, which is Furman’s only win inside that venue since the Bucs re-joined the SoCon.

Neither Furman nor ETSU have been able to sweep the regular-season series since the 1993-94 season, as the Bucs claimed wins of 105-76 at the Memorial Center, while downing the Paladins, 82-79, at the Memorial Auditorium in downtown Greenville.

The one positive that came out of Furman’s setback to UNCG last time out was Alex Hunter’s two triples against the Spartans giving him 289 three-point field goals in his career. He surpassed former Paladin Jordan Lyons (2017-20) in the process of Saturday’s setback to UNCG.

In now the fifth season under the direction of head coach Bob Richey, the Paladins have knocked down 1,508 triples in 4,188 attempts, which averages out to a 36.0% shooting clip from three under Richey. The 338 triples made in the 2017-18 season is a school record.

Furman starts its week with the aforementioned Tennessee two-step, facing the two gold standards of SoCon basketball, which oddly enough, has a gold-related theme in each when facing the Paladins this season. Furman lost its 71-69 game at Chattanooga, on “Gold Rush” day, which saw the Mocs don new uniforms, featuring the talons/claws of a Mockingbird.

ETSU is promoting its annual “Gold Out” which it did in successful fashion last season with a 71-62 win over the Paladins. Furman faces Chattanooga back in Timmons Arena this upcoming Saturday, where they are 84-13 overall and 49-6 against SoCon foes since the start of the 2015-16 season. The Paladins are 10-1 against all competition this season, and 5-0 against league foes inside the friendly confines this season.

Whatever the promotion, gold has been the elixir against Furman hoops in recent times, as it has proven to be as more like fool’s gold for Furman when seeing the color on the road in search of a win.

That’s a testament more to the tradition and talented basketball programs at both UTC and ETSU, however, and not a color themed promotion. Gold rush at Chattanooga? A pirate’s treasure chest full of gold at ETSU? There are similarities worthy of mention though.

Tip-off for Monday night’s game in Johnson City is slated for 7 p.m. and is nationally-televised on ESPNU, while Saturday’s game vs. Chattanooga is also a nationally-televised game, as CBS Sports Network will broadcast the 3 p.m. contest between the two top teams in the league’s overall standings.

“Three-ville” under Bob Richey:

2017-18 338-of-950

2018-19 321-of-889

2019-20 302-of-858

2020-21 242-of-708 (only 25 games)

2021-22 305-of-783 (leads nation)

While the Paladins have anything but an easy task in Johnson City against the Bucs, the Mocs will be in Macon to take on Mercer (13-11, 6-5) in another of the league’s toughest road venues. The Mocs had to gut out a nine-point win in what was a gritty effort by the Bears Saturday in Chattanooga.

The Mocs are 15-27 all-time against the Bears in Macon. The Mocs have lost their last three games at Hawkins Arena, having not won in the venue since the 2017 season.

The Mocs are a little thin right now, with the injury bug having bitten both Silvio De Sousa, who didn’t play vs. Mercer due to an apparent abdominal injury. The Mocs also had wing K.C. Hankton go down with about eight minutes remaining in the win over the Bears last time out with an apparent elbow injury.

There’s a good chance that either ETSU or Mercer will pull the upset over the top two teams in the league, or perhaps both get wins Monday night. It won’t be easy navigating the course to Saturday’s monumental meeting at Timmons Arena in Greenville, which will likely go a long way in deciding the regular-season league champion and the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament.

UTC has one extra game on Wednesday night from a game that had to be re-scheduled due to COVID-19, facing Western Carolina at home in a 7 p.m. contest before heading to Furman on Saturday.

A quick review of Southern Conference history tells us that the past four champions and subsequent NCAA Tournament berth.

But while Chattanooga and Furman should be exciting to see who ends up ultimately wins the 2021-22 league regular-season title, its just as exciting to figure out how the next four in the league standings will finish out.

VMI (14-10, 7-5 SoCon) is starting to play some solid basketball once again, and have leap-frogged Mercer in the league standings for third-place overall in the league standings.

Since a 79-64 loss at Furman a couple of weeks ago, the Keydets have managed to win three-straight and are suddenly one of the hottest teams in the SoCon. The Keydets continue to be led by what I would call one of the three players in the running for the league title, in center Jake Stephens (18.7 PPG, 9.7).

He’s been outstanding all season, and without him being the fulcrum of head coach Dan Earl’s offense, and its why VMI ranks so highly among the SoCon and national leaders, thanks in large part for his ability to be a dependable and accurate passer of the basketball.

The Keydets currently rank third nationally in three-pointers made per game, having connected on a total of 296 triples this season. Much of that offensive production from beyond the arc has come from Kamdyn Curfman (16.8 PPG, 2.9 RPG), who became the 42nd player in Keydet basketball history to surpass the 1,000-point plateau in his career. Curfman should easilly finish as the school’s all-time three-point field goals leader by the time he graduates next season.

VMI played a strange league game on a Friday night, as the Keydets went on to down Western Carolina, 76-69, in Lexington for a third-straight win. VMI had to do so in come-from-behind fashion at Cameron Hall, trailing 69-65 with 3:23 remaining, but closed out the contest with a 11-0 run to claim the win.

Mercer is right behind the Keydets in the league standings and will look to draw even with the Mocs in the season series Monday night at Hawkins Arena. Despite being without their best player, in point guard for the entirety of SoCon play, the Bears have found a way to win games and put themselves in position for a strong finish to the regular-season heading to Asheville for the tournament.

Like Furman and Chattanooga, the Bears might be ready to embark on their two most important games of the season, with games at home vs. UTC before taking on VMI in a critical game at Cameron Hall in Lexington on Saturday in a contest that could go a long way in deciding the No. 3 seed heading the Asheville. The Bears had to hold off a furious rally to get 97-91 win over the Keydets earlier this season at Hawkins Arena.

Sitting just a half-game behind the Bears in the loss column with a game in-hand is Wofford (14-10, 6-6), which was able to hold off East Tennessee State, 62-60, in Spartanburg Saturday to garner a key season sweep of the battle-tested and tradition-rich Bucs. It, of course, marked the first time the Terriers were able to sweep the regular-season series against ETSU since that magical 2018-19 season for the Terriers.

It was a good response from the Terriers, who lost a tough game on the road on Monday night, dropping a key 67-62 contest to the Bears to fall below .500 in the league.

In the win over the Bucs Saturday, the Terriers were led by three veteran players in double figures, with Max Klesmit leading the way with 15 points, while BJ Mack and Isaiah Bigelow rounded out the double-figure scorers with 14 points apiece.

Wofford has a tricky road test mid-week when it faces Samford at the Pete Hanna Center, with tip-off set for 7 p.m. before returning home to face Western Carolina Saturday at Jerry Richardson Indoor Stadium.

Currently hanging on to the No. 6 position in the league standings is defending Southern Conference regular-season and tournament champion UNC Greensboro (13-10, 5-6 SoCon) is a half-game behind the Wofford in the wins column.

The Spartans snapped a two-game skid with arguably their best win of the season on Saturday, claiming a.road win over SoCon leading Furman, 58-56, at the Bon Secours Wellness Arena, holding the Paladins to season lows for points (56), field goal percentage (30.2%) and total threes made in a game (6).

UNCG guard and leading scorer De’Monte Buckingham reached the 1,500-point total for his standout career, scoring most of those points at Cal State Bakersfield prior to transferring to UNCG.

The Spartans will be on the road at Western Carolina Monday night with a 7 p.m. tipoff time slated with the Catamounts at the Ramsey Center on Monday night. the Spartans return home to take on The Citadel Thursday evening, with tip-off with the Bulldogs slated for 7 p.m.

Samford (14-9, 4-7 SoCon) and The Citadel (10-12, 4-7 SoCon), who just faced off against each other this past Saturday, are tied for seventh-place In the league standings and sit just a game behind UNCG in the league standings.

In the clash between the two this past Saturday, The Citadel was able to pick up a hard-fought 107-93 win in the Battle of the Bulldogs in Charleston.

The milestone day in the Southern Conference continued in Charleston, as The Citadel freshman guard Jason Roche set the school mark for three-pointers made in a season, surpassing former Bulldog Fletcher Abee’s mark of 80 triples, which was established during the 2019-20 campaign by Fletcher Abee.

Roche finished with a career-high 29 points, eclipsing his previous career-best of 27 established in a win at Pittsburgh to open the season, He went 9-of-15 from downtown and was the Bulldogs’ second-leading scorer in the contest.

Roche wasn’t the leading scorer for The Citadel due to the fact that senior forward Hayden Brown simply made his return to The Citadel lineup following a brief injury a more than memorable one, as he he posted 35 points on a 13-of-18 shooting performance from the field, and completed his double-double performance by ripping down 11 rebounds, finishing just two points shy of his career-best 37 points, which he established last season in a win over Chattanooga.

The performance marked the preseason Player of the Year’s 22nd of his Citadel career. As a part of his 13-of-18 shooting effort from the field, Brown also connected on 3-of-6 from three-point range in the win.

The Citadel returns to action Thursday night when it will face UNC Greensboro at the Greensboro Coliseum in a tip time set for 7 p.m.

Samford started its week in strong fashion, earning a third-straight win with potentially its win of the season, as the Bulldogs knocked off league-leading Chattanooga, 80-72, at the Pete Hanna Center.

It was a strong to the week for Samford point guard Ques Glover, who posted 20 points and five assists in the win over the Mocs. Glover followed that up with career-best day at The Citadel in a losing effort, as he went for 30 points and dished out five helpers in the road loss.

The Citadel’s Brown and Samford’s Glover currently rank second and fourth in the SoCon in scoring, respectively, with Brown now averaging 19.0 PPG, while Glover averages 18.5 PPG.

Samford returns to the hardwood Wednesday night when it faces Wofford Wednesday night in Birmingham, with a tip-off time set for 8 p.m. EST.

East Tennessee State (12-13, 4-8 SoCon), which is seeing Jordan King come on and really shoot the basketball well of late, currently sits ninth in the league standings. The Bucs’ 62-60 loss at Wofford last time out now gives ETSU its longest losing streak since the third year of the Murry Bartow era, which was also the Bucs’ first season as an Atlantic Sun member following their departure from the Southern Conference.

King started the week in strong fashion, dropping in 32 in an 87-84 loss at Western Carolina. He turned around and followed that up with an 18-point effort in a 62-60 loss at Wofford.

The five losses by the Bucs have come by a combined 15 points, and while King’s scoring production has ultimately gone up, the Bucs are a minus six on the glass in the last five games, winning rebounding battles in losses at VMI (34-31) and The Citadel (42-37), but losing the battle of the glass to UNGG (26-29), Wofford (27-32) and Western Carolina (32-38). It all adds up to a minus six margin, as opponents are out-rebounding the Bucs 167-161 during that particular stretch.

ETSU has managed to take pretty good care of the basketball as of late, with no double-digit turnover games during the last stretch of five games, however, only UNCG (10 turnovers) and The Citadel (12 turnovers) have been forced into double-digit miscues during that stretch.

The Bucs shooting night during the stretch of five setbacks was 50% against UNCG, while its lowest performance from the field came in a loss to The Citadel (39.4), with the Bucs shooting above 40% in four of those five setbacks, with higher shooting percentages overall at the conclusion of three of those contests (Wofford, VMI, and Western Carolina). The main outlier is UNCG, which scored 80 points for the only time in conference play and shot a season-best 58% at Freedom Hall in the 80-76 win.

Like Samford, Western Carolina’s (9-15, 3-8 SoCon) week got off to a strong start, with an 87-84 win over a Volunteer State foe East Tennessee State, as the Catamounts currently sit last overall in the league standings.

The win over the Bucs marked a five-season losing streak to ETSU, snapping a 14-game skid in the series. It marked WCU’s first win over the Bucs in Cullowhee since a 76-71 victory over the Bucs since Jan. 26, 1998. A game that was likely also broadcasted by Western Carolina esteemed play-by-play broadcaster Gary Ayers.

Leading the way this week for the Catamounts has been Nicholas Robinson, as he started the week with a 37-point performance in a win over the Bucs. He connected on 13-of-23 shots from the field, including 5-of-12 from three-point land and also finished with 11 rebounds and dished out six assists.

Robinson would record a third triple-double in a three-year span the next time out in a 76-69 loss at VMI on the road. He joins elite company, as along with former guard Mason Faulkner, became the second Catamount to ever accomplish the feat.

In the loss to the Keydets, which saw the Keydets overcome a 69-65 deficit with 3:23 remaining to finish the game on an 11-0 run to win the game, Robinson completed his triple-double by posting 19 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists in the win.

Robinson’s triple-double marked the second of the season for a SoCon player, with Furman’s Jalen Slawson having recorded one earlier this season in an 85-80 loss for the Paladins at Winthrop.

An important week looms just over the horizon for Justin Gray’s club, as the Catamounts return to court Monday night when they host UNC Greensboro at the Ramsey Center in a game slated for 7 p.m. The Catamounts snapped a 10-game losing streak to the Spartans last February, with a thrilling 81-80 win over the Spartans at the Greensboro Coliseum.

With so many superlative performances over the past week, I decided to list them in what has been a remarkable week in terms of players putting up ridiculous stat totals.

Check this out for superlatives…

David-Jean Baptiste (Career-high 31 pts in a loss to Samford)

Josh Ayeni (Career-high 18 pts in a win over Mercer)

Jason Roche (Career-high 29 pts vs. Samford on a career-best nine threes)

Nicholas Robinson (Career-high 37 points in WCU’s win over ETSU)

Nicholas Robinson (Recorded a triple-double of 19 pts, 13 rebs, and 11 assists in a road loss to VMI)

Jordan King (Recorded a career-high 32-point effort in ETSU’s 87-84 road loss to WCU)

Ques Glover (posted 20 pts and five assists in Samford’s Monday night upset of UTC)

Ques Glover (Posted a career-high 30 points in a loss at The Citadel)

Hayden Brown (Recorded 35 points and 11 rebs in The Citadel’s 107-93 win Saturday vs. Samford

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