SoCon Hoops 2021-22: Mid-February update

Furman guard Alex Hunter is recognized before for scoring 1,000 points in his career prior to Furman’s non-conference battle with Appalachian State

The season is coming at us fast and furious as we head down the stretch, and with Chattanooga’s 64-58 win in Greenville this past weekend, it would appear a fierce battle is ensuing for No.2-10 heading towards Asheville.

Of particular interest is the middle of the league, which sees four teams knotted in the loss column with UNCG, Samford, Wofford and Mercer all having dropped seven games this season.

Sunday saw Mercer get a monumental 73-64 win at UNCG, which could prove pivotal in tiebreaker scenarios in the battle between No. 3-6 in the league standings. Here’s a look at some of this week’s storylines.

Bob Richey’s New Challenge

When Bob Richey began his press conference following Saturday’s 64-58 loss to Chattanooga, he started by making a point that the narrative spun by most scribes of late had detailed the Paladins struggles shooting the basketball, which is in fact, accurate.

Richey took full responsibility for the team’s struggles in preparedness during this stretch of late, which is something always refreshing to see. It’s always easy to blame someone else when things don’t go according to plan in anything in life and so hard to take responsibility for to bear the full weight when they do.

As Richey as well other coaches have often said, things aren’t usually as bad as they seem in the moment, and when things go well, not as good as you make them in the moment.

That’s probably true in this sense. From the outside looking in, it’s probably that anyone that excels in anything at a high level in anything that the self scrutiny is much more magnified to that person, than it is from the outside in. Shooting is only part of basketball, but its lack of shots falling that seemingly reveals where the problems in basketball truly reside, which is exactly what the fifth-year Furman head coach meant when he said ” shots not falling was not the narrative.”

It’s been a serum to reveal how detailed Furman must be defensively and on the glass in games when shots don’t fall. In essence, a team like Chattanooga is good because it excels, not in the shots falling category, but the other two.

Ultimately for Richey, it may be a turning point to look back as that refining moment at the end of the season, however, that’s something you can’t exactly know in the moment, but can only be looked back to at the finish. It will be defining moment at that point.

I’ve always said a good shooting basketball team, which I think the numbers over the season as a whole prove Furman’s is just that–a good shooting basketball team–will shoot the ball well in 75% of its games each season. In the other 25% of its games, it will need to rely on the other areas and play at higher level than normal to be able to win games. The key to it is figuring out how to consistently get that defense and rebounding night-in and night-out.

It seems as simple as intentional effort. Truth to that. The 358 or whatever figure that make up NCAA Division I college basketball ordinarily give physical effort, but a lapse in mental effort in basketball is often costly and unintended for a majority of the ones that don’t exceed at a high level.

If you look at preseason favorite Chattanooga, it is the prime example of just that. The Mocs have found ways to overcome bad shooting at times this season, and certainly a 37.0% effort in the opening half against the Paladins was a prime example of that.

The Mocs were not so far behind that a comeback even on the road wasn’t possible, trailing by just seven, despite scoring a season-low 20 points in a half this season in the, as the Mocs moved a step closer to a regular-season Southern Conference title and No. 1 overall seed in Asheville.

Furman’s Jalen Slawson blocks UTC’s Josh Ayeni for one of his three shot denials in Saturday’s setback for the Paladins

While Furman has been playing strong defensively in Southern Conference play, as of late through its first 14 league games as a whole, it has been inconsistent at times, and those inconsistent times have proved costly.

Furman has most alarmingly, though, struggled more on the glass, especially in defensive rebounding percentage (7th/72.7%) and rebounding defense (8th/23.9 RPG) in conference games.

Mocs trendy defending against the ‘Dins

Furman has been a really good perimeter shooting basketball team under head coach Bob Richey, but one team that the Paladins have had to find other ways to win a basketball game, it’s typically come against the gritty, tough Mocs.

In fact, Paris had lost seven of the eight games he had faced off against Furman entering Saturday’s showdown at Timmons Arena, with the lone win coming earlier this season–a 71-69 win at Chattanooga in what was a thriller.

Another close game played out Saturday in Greenville, with the Mocs coming away with a 64-58 win to sweep the regular-season series against the Paladins for the first time since the 2014-15 campaign.

The tenth-seeded Paladins would end up upsetting the No. 2 seed Mocs in the conference tournament, 69-67, charting one of those wins that signaled the Furman basketball program was starting to turn the corner into building a winning culture.

Despite the fact the Mocs held Furman to a season low four made three-point field goals, it’s not the first time the Paladins haven’t shot the ball well in a game against a Mocs team coached by Lamont Paris.

In a 58-53 win over the Mocs two years ago, which marks the last time Chattanooga paid a visit to Timmons Arena for a game after COVID-19 canceled last season’s scheduled matchup, the Paladins made even less, connecting on just 3-of-13 from long range. In two matchups with the Mocs during the 2019-20 season, the Paladins were just a combined 7-of-32 from long range. Both games yielded wins, however, for Furman.

The 2020 meeting at Timmons Arena between the Mocs and Paladins had plenty of the same similarities between the two disciplined defensive teams. Even the game attendance of 2,432 was similar to the 2,502 on-hand Saturday.

So that team did different things to reach the desired result, winning game that was almost anti-Furman over the past seven seasons, which is winning a grinder. In that day, Furman shot just 40.4% from the field and found a way to win and it was not at all based on how effective the Paladins were shooting the ball or even overall offensive efficiency.

While Furman connected on a very modest of its shots in that five-point win, the Paladins held a 24-18 lead, which is almost exactly the same as Saturday’s halftime score, as the Paladins were on top 27-20 when the two teams went to the locker room.

In fact, in each of the previous five meetings with the Mocs, the Paladins have hit no more than nine threes in any of those clashes with the Mocs, including making just a combined seven triples in two meetings back during the 2019-20. The Paladins were 7-of-32 in two meetings against the Paris-coached Mocs teams, yet despite those paltry

In Saturday’s setback to Chattanooga, who came into the contest as the SoCon’s second leading rebounding team in the Southern Conference in rebounding margin, one of those issues that has been prevalent as of late was once again evident for all to see. The Paladins were out-rebounded by 13 on the boards in (38-25), including 11 offensive rebounds and a 13-5 advantage in second-chance points.

The shots will eventually fall for the Paladins, but the defense as well as rebounding must be consistent. As Richey alluded to in his postgame press conference, it wasn’t good defense if you don’t close out the possession by boxing out and keeping your opponent off the boards.

That said, there’s time to fix things over the next four games, but those games suddenly look a little tougher than they once did, with both Wofford, who visits the Bon Secours Wellness Arena, as well as Furman’s visit to Samford looking a little tougher than maybe they might have two weeks ago. Both Wofford and Samford are playing some good basketball at the moment.

The one thing Richey and the Paladins have in their favor right now—time to refine.

Chattanooga guard and Player of the Year favorite Malachi Smith

Slawson and Smith:

In my opinion, this past weekend I witnessed the two best players in the Southern Conference, with Chattanooga’s Malachi Smith and Furman’s Jalen Slawson once again putting on a show.

Both were outstanding when facing off against each other last week, with both playing at such a high level right now.

In the first meeting between the Mocs and Paladins, it was Smith that paced the Mocs by posting 21 points, nine rebounds and an assist. He connected on 7-of-14 shots from the field and was 2-for-4 from three-point land. Fittingly, it was Smith’s two free throws late that helped give the Mocs their final two points of the game, as Chattanooga closed out a 71-69 win.

In Saturday’s 64-58 win by the Mocs, Smith countered by scoring 20 points, ripping down nine boards and dished out seven assists, helping the Mocs take a major step towards the regular-season Southern Conference title, as he knocked down 9-of-14 shots from the field, including going 1-for-3 from three-point range.

However, the most important production came from Smith in the opening half, as his 10 points in a half, which saw the Mocs post a season low in points (20), making a majority of his shots contested in the opening half while Furman was playing its best defense of the game. It allowed the Mocs to get to the locker room with a manageable seven-point deficit.

The 20-point effort by Smith was his 16th performance this season in which he has posted 20 or more points.

Unless something unforeseen happens, I can’t imagine how Mali-World isn’t the Player of the Year. As good of a player as Smith is, he seems to be a better person. Though I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting him, I visited his twitter account earlier this season and I was impressed by how grounded the young man is. It’s no wonder he’s the type basketball player he is, as his priorities certainly seem to be in the right place. Hard not to root for a guy like that.

Furman senior forward Jalen Slawson

Meanwhile, Furman’s Jalen Slawson wasn’t on anyone’s all-conference team or for that matter, anyone in the media’s radar coming into the season. However, I must say I noticed flashes of what he could be in a 75-69 win at Western Carolina. There were other performances as well, such as his effort in a big road win at College of Charleston.

What Slawson lacked last year in the form of consistency, he has this season. What’s more amazing is that the former Pinewood Prep in Summerville, S.C., ever ended up as a Paladin. He wasn’t offered by any Division I school until Furman’s staff saw a literal diamond in the rough.

His patience and develop as a complete person have been truly a neat thing to see over the past four years. In Furman’s loss to the Mocs, Slawson was once again sensational. He set the tone with a big-time dunk off a feed from Bothwell, as well as posting all three of his blocks in the opening half to help set the tone for the Paladins on that end of the floor as well.

He also led the Paladins on the glass, with eight boards, while dishing out a team-leading four assists. He rounded out his day with a steal. Fourteen of Slawson’s 24 points came prior to the half.

Slawson ranks in the league’s top 10 in eight different categories, and if you wanted to add a ninth, he currently is 12th in the league in assist/turnover ratio. He has an amazing 104 assists this season as a post. The next closest big man is Jake Stephens of VMI, who has 87.

Through 27 games this season, Slawson has charted 23 double-figure performances, the school’s first-ever triple double in an 85-80 loss at Winthrop, posting 15 points, 10 rebounds and dished out 12 assists. He had a career-high 33 points and 13 boards in an overtime win over College of Charleston.

Currently, Slawson ranks eighth in the SoCon in scoring average (15.3 PPG), fourth in rebounding average (7.6 RPG), fifth in field goal percentage (50.5%), sixth in assists-per-game (3.9 APG), 10th in free throw percentage (76.6%), first in steals (2.0 SPG), third in blocks (1.8 BPG), and second in defensive rebounds (6.2 RPG).

That said, I also must acknowledge Jake Stephens, who is currently third in the SoCon in scoring (19.1 PPG), while leading the conference in rebounding (9.4 RPG), as well as field goal percentage (55.5%).

But the separating point for me is the way Slawson can affect the a game as a disruptive force with his length get into passing lanes, and his ability to steal the ball and take it coast-to-coast with his ball-handling ability are two things that I haven’t seen any big man in the league do better this season.

All three deserve their fair share of applause this season, as all three have put up numbers. But with my eyes, I can tell you that from what I have seen, both Smith and Slawson have made some plays that simply are jaw-dropping. To me, no one affects a game with emphatic blocks chasing in transition or dunks on folks in transition quite like Slawson.

His passion and emotion are contagious.

Smith reminds me a little of former College of Charleston standout Andrew Goudelock although isn’t quite the volume perimeter threat that Goudelock was. But his power off the dribble and fade-a-away jumper are as good as anyone I have seen in a long time in the SoCon. He’s almost impossible to guard.

Madness in the Middle:

With Furman’s loss to UTC Saturday, it makes second place even not out of the realm of possibilities for someone, with VMI sitting just a game back in league play with four to play, at 8-6, however, missed a big opportunity to tie the standings with the Paladins by knocking off arch-rival The Citadel this past weekend in Lexington.

The Keydets and Paladins have already finished up their season series against each other, but there is still four games left for both. In the event of a tie between the two in the standings, the Paladins would likely hold the tiebreaker by virtue of their win season sweep of Mercer.

But the Keydets and Paladins will likely find themselves in a fight for second and third, while behind the Keydets, its sheer chaos in the standings. With Mercer’s 73-64 win at UNCG yesterday four teams are now tied with seven losses in the standings, with Samford just a half-game behind Wofford, UNCG and Mercer in the league standings having played one less game.

Samford point guard Ques Glover (photo courtesy of Samford Athletics)

But there might not be a hotter team in the SoCon right now than the Bulldogs, who have won two-straight and five of the past six games. This past weekend, Samford went on the road and got a huge win at East Tennessee State, snapping a 12-game skid in the series.

The win on the road saw the Bulldogs improve their overall record to 16-9 overall and 6-7 in Southern Conference play with five league games remaining. Samford has four of its final five games in the friendly confines of the Pete Hanna Center where Samford has won nine of 11 games this season.

The Bulldogs followed up a thrilling 65-60 home win over Wofford to get an absolutely huge road win in Johnson City. with Ques Glover returning to his nearby stomping grounds of Knoxville, pouring in 23 points back in his home state for the first of two trips to the Volunteer State to close out the season, with a trip to take on Chattanooga in the regular-season finale.

Glover finished the outing with 23 points on 10-of-14 and went 2-for-5 from three-point range, with two assists and a steal. Also helping key the streak-snapping 12-game series skid against the Bucs, as Jermaine Marshall notched his ninth double-double of the season, with 15 points and 10 rebounds. With his ninth double-double of the season, Marshall is now tied for the league lead in double-doubles this season.

The Bulldogs finish out the season with home games against VMI (Feb. 17), UNC Greensboro (Feb. 19), The Citadel (Feb. 21), and Furman (Feb. 23) before heading out to take on Chattanooga (Feb. 26) to close out the season.

ETSU guard Jordan King (photo courtesy of ETSU athletics)

Will East Tennessee State have to play on opening day in Asheville?

One of the things that we aren’t used to seeing is for East Tennessee State to be playing in the opening round in the Southern Conference Tournament, but that’s exactly what might happen, as the Bucs fell below .500 (13-14) overall and with their fifth loss in in its last six games, four games below .500 in SoCon action (5-9) after the 77-73 home loss to Samford this past Saturday.

Desmond Oliver Bucs, who entered last week riding a five-game losing streak by a combined 15 points, got a potential momentum-building 75-71 win over Furman at Freedom Hall, which could have offered a potentially been the turn-key game for the Bucs heading down the stretch of the season, however, the loss to Samford makes things difficult.

Then came this past weekend’s hiccup at home against Samford, and the task ahead to garner a top six finish in the Southern Conference standings just became all that much more difficult. If you’re wondering the last time the Bucs had to open the SoCon Tournament by playing on the opening day of the tournament it was the 2004-05 ETSU squad which had to do so, as the Murry Bartow-led Bucs, who opened the tournament with a win over Furman (W, 87-84) before being eliminated against eventual SoCon Tournament champion Chattanooga (L, 70-77) at McKenzie Arena.

The Bucs have their work cut out for them, but the struggles have had nothing to do with how Jordan King has been playing as of late, as he ranks sixth overall in the league in scoring in conference games, averaging 16.1 PPG. He’s been shooting the well from the perimeter, as he currently ranks fourth in the league in overall three-pointers made (83), and the Bucs enter Wednesday night’s contest at Mercer ranking sixth overall in the SoCon in three-pointers made (250) so far this season.

Against Samford on Saturday evening, King once again led the Bucs in scoring by totaling 19 points following a solid 12-point effort to open last week in the win over Furman, with all off his points netted from beyond the arc.

Each of the past seven games for the Bucs have been decided by seven points or less, as ETSU has gone 1-6 in those games and allowed the opponent to shoot at a 50% clip or better in each of those games, with the lone game in which the Bucs were able to overcome that and get a win coming against second-place Furman.

The biggest seemingly for the Bucs has been on the defensive end since conference play started in the new year. The Bucs currently rank sixth in scoring defense (75.7 PPG), as well as ninth in field goal percentage defense (45.9%) since league play commenced.

The Bucs need to win their final four SoCon games just to secure a .500 record in Southern Conference play. In last season’s 13-12 COVID-19 shortened season, the Bucs finished a game above .500 in SoCon play, posting an 8-7 mark to just squeeze in the top six in the SoCon, finishing with the No. 5 seed.

The Bucs last finished below .500 in Southern Conference play in their first season after returning to the league as a member, as the Bucs went to Asheville for the tournament following an 8-10 mark in league play. That would end up being good enough for ETSU to garner a No. 5 overall seed for the Southern Conference Tournament.

Would an 8-10 mark be enough to ensure the Bucs avoided having to open the tournament on Friday night? It’s going to be especially close down the stretch, and it would likely come down to tiebreakers. ETSU probably needs to hope Furman locks up the No. 2 and wins the rest of its games in league play, as the Paladins would lock up season series sweeps of Samford and The Citadel, which could be crucial in tiebreaker scenarios.

The Paladins probably need to remain ETSU’s signature win because the Paladins have swept Mercer, and another win Saturday over Wofford would give the Paladins the series sweep of Wofford. It’s going to be close, and it may well come down to a “winner-take-No.6-seed” type game between ETSU and UNCG in the regular-season finale at the Greensboro Coliseum.

Bear of a challenge

Mercer got a key season sweep of UNCG with 73-64 win Sunday (Photo courtesy of Mercer athletics)

As teams start to battle for positioning for the upcoming Southern Conference Tournament down the stretch this season, Wofford, UNCG and Mercer remain tied with 7-7 records in the league standings, trailing VMI by just a game for third in the league standings.

One of the interesting scenarios that is setting itself up down the stretch is how meaningful this head-to-head series are becoming. For instance, Mercer’s 73-64 win at UNCG this past Sunday was simply huge for the Bears, who are tied with both Wofford and the Spartans in the league’s overall standings. That win comes especially important when it comes to season-ending tiebreaker scenarios, which could be crucial in the No.3-6 battle to avoid having to play on the dreaded extra game in the tournament.

The nine-point win would give the Mercer the tiebreaker for fourth as it stands at the moment, as the Bears have now swept UNCG and have a thrilling come-from-behind win over Wofford earlier this month.

Along with the ETSU-UNCG game, which is slated for Feb. 28, another game to have circled on the SoCon fans calendar is the Feb. 26, as that is the date when Mercer will travel to face Wofford in another potential “winner-take-all” type game for type game.

Mercer overcame as much as a nine-point deficit down the stretch to garner a 67-62 win over Wofford on the final day of January. If Mercer can find a way to navigate its way through its final four games, which includes a Wednesday night contest vs. ETSU at Hawkins Arena, a tricky trip to Cullowhee to face Western Carolina on Feb. 19 before closing out the home slate on Feb. 23 against The Citadel, and then a trip to Spartanburg to face Wofford to close out the season, they could probably lock up no worse than a No. 4 seed and potentially the No. 3 by going 3-1 down the stretch.

If the Bears should do that, and get Neftali Alvarez back at the point guard position in some capacity, it could be bad news to face the Bears as the No. 6 or No. 5 seed in the tournament heading towards Asheville, but I realize that is looking way ahead.

If Mercer could lock up no worse than a No. 5 seed and can get Alvarez back, they might be might dark horse pick to get back to the title game if the season ended tomorrow. That being said, let’s take a peek at the crucial mid-week schedule ahead.

SoCon Schedule for Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2022

ETSU (13-14, 5-9) at Mercer (14-13, 7-7 SoCon), 7 p.m. EST

Furman (17-10, 9-5 SoCon) at Western Carolina (9-18, 3-11 SoCon), 7 p.m. EST

Wofford (15-11, 7-7 SoCon) at The Citadel (11-13, 5-8 SoCon), 7 p.m. EST

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