SoCon Hoops 2021-22: Looking back at the ‘March Magic’ in Asheville

Furman sophomore guard Marcus Foster

The Mocs won a SoCon Tournament that will go down as one of the best ever

“Grow old and stay old” were the words that rang true from ESPN college basketball analyst Fran Frischilla’s speech at the SoCon’s preseason media outing at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center in Asheville. The two teams that have been able to make that claim in recent in the SoCon in recent seasons—Chattanooga and Furman—would make Frischilla’s words seem prophetic.

Players on both sides were by now familiar faces—guys like UTC’s Malachi Smith, David Jean-Baptiste and A.J. Caldwell, while Furman’s Alex Hunter, Jalen Slawson and Mike Bothwell also held true to the above adage. 

Then there were the newer, old faces we didn’t know as well, but brought big-game experience and maturity on each side, like UTC’s Silvio De Sousa and Furman’s Conley Garrison. The title game had everything, but so did the entire tournament.

Over the course of nine games during four days of basketball, seven of them were decided by a combined 21 points, meaning an average 3.5 PPG. That’s getting your money’s worth. The only blowouts in the tournament came in the opening round, with Mercer’s 28-point win over No. 10 Western Carolina (W, 81-53), while No. 2 Furman bounced Mercer in the quarterfinals with a 14-point (W, 80-66) victory. The final double-digit win of the weekend would be reserved for the semifinals, which saw the No. 1 Mocs trounce No. 4 Wofford by a 23-point (W, 79-56) margin.

For the past four or five seasons, the microscope of college basketball has sharpened its focus on the Southern Conference, and while the top of the league isn’t as strong as it was say in the 2018-19 season, when could have made a legitimate argument to include at least three teams, the league’s a whole reputation and power nationally has risen to historic levels. 

Last weekend, I witnessed perhaps one the greatest tournaments the league If the SoCon’s championship game is  any indication of the future, then should we expect to see the league given serious consideration for a second bid to the NCAA Tournament. 

The SoCon has hosted and witnessed in recent memory. The quality if basketball rose to a crescendo in the title game, as No. 1 Chattanooga (27-7) faced off against No. 2 Furman (22-12) in what was an epic title game that will go down as one of the greatest in the 102-year history of college basketball’s oldest tournament. 

Fittingly, it would be college basketball’s oldest team, Chattanooga, which would connect on the most crucial shot of the tournament just in time, as David Jean-Baptiste’s triple from about 36-feet over the outstretched arms of Furman’s Marcus Foster would swish through the hoop with the buzzer sounding, as Chattanooga gave us Mocs Madness in Asheville, with a 64-63 win.

Jean-Baptiste and the Mocs are the kind of joy you expect in March. It is the one moment in life in which beauty is captured in one complete bipolar moment. Only March can produce the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat in such a poetic and beautiful fashion.

Jean-Baptiste was the only player from head coach Lamont Paris’ first team in the Scenic City, which remained loyal to the cause. 

It then comes with some irony that during the 2020-21 season, which produced a program-record 9-0 start, that Jean-Baptiste decided to enter the transfer portal just prior to tip-off in an easy win over North Georgia. However, after a couple of weeks to examine his decision more closely.

Following Mocs wins over UNC Asheville (W, 69-66), Tennessee State (W, 66-63), and UAB (69-66) before heading into their SoCon opener against Furman with a 9-0 record, Baptiste decided to return to the Mocs and he Chattanooga come up with 18 wins in what was a COVID-compromised 2020-21 season. In the return against Furman on that particular contest, Jean-Baptiste led the Mocs with 18 points inside an empty McKenzie Arena, as the Paladins picked up what was a 77-73 win. 

Chattanooga entered the SoCon Tournament last March as the No. 4 seed, but were without two key performers due to contact tracing due to COVID-19, which saw them have to play without Malachi Smith and Darius Banks. The Mocs, who had swept No. 5 East Tennessee State during the regular-season, would end up falling in their first game in the tournament, dropping a 63-53 decision to the Bucs. 

Now a year-and-two-months from his return, Jean-Baptiste and the Mocs have just managed to pull off one of the most thrilling wins in Southern Conference championship game history and now await Sunday’s NCAA selection show to find out where the Mocs will be headed for the postseason.

Alex Hunter’s story was the one that ended with the agony on the other end of Jean-Baptiste’s thrilling game-winner. It might have been the final game for Hunter, who decided to return for a fifth season for the Paladins in 2021-22, as the Paladins await their postseason fate on Sunday to see whether or not they will be part of the NIT this March.

For Hunter, he established himself as perhaps the greatest point guard in Furman basketball history, and the numbers would also back up that claim. He became the only Paladin in program history to record top 300 career made three-pointers, becoming the school’s record-holder in a Feb. 5 loss to UNCG. He became just the fifth player in program history to eclipse 400 assists in his Furman career. His 109-career wins as a player are the most by any player to ever suit up in a game for Furman. 

If it was Hunter’s final game for the Paladins, he has left quite the shoes to fill and has set the bar high for all future Paladins on the floor, but more off the floor in terms of what he’s about as a person and leader. 

“I don’t know what’s coming here in the future, but this might be my last game in this uniform. We worked so hard, give glory to God like coach said, but this program has come so far even before I was here, and I definitely wanted to be a part of that team that made history. I know the program is in good hands,” point guard Alex Hunter said.

Coach always says, ‘You want to leave a program better than you found it,’ and I feel confident in myself that I can say I did that. I bleed purple for life, and I really mean that. I have no regrets coming back for my fifth year at all. This was a magical journey, and that said, I’m a Paladin for life,” Hunter added.

A recent trend for the Mocs and Paladins:

When these two have met on the court over the past three seasons, it’s traditionally been a close matchup that goes down to the wire. So when Jean-Baptiste knocked down his long-range effort to help the Mocs defeat the Paladins for a third-straight time this season, 64-63, in overtime, the loss was part of a recurring theme of close matchups between the three. 

In fact, Chattanooga’s three wins over Furman this season came by a combined nine points. If you go back to the start of the 2019-20 season, the Mocs and Paladins have split the series 3-3, with those six contests having been decided by a combined 25 points, which converts to an average of 4.16 PPG. 

In nearly all six, Furman senior guard Mike Bothwell has had a big scoring night. In fact, it was the Jan. 8, 2020, clash at McKenzie Arena in which Bothwell broke through to have one of his first major scoring outings as a Paladin. Bothwell would go for a then career-high 27 points on 12-of-16 shooting performance, which also included a 3-for-6 performance from three-point land. Bothwell posted 12 points in Chattanooga’s visit to Furman a month later during that particular season, as the Paladins gutted out the 58-53 win at Timmons Arena. 

In the lone meeting between the two during the 2020-21 season, it would be Bothwell that would come through for the Paladins once again, posting a game-high 22 points on 9-of-15 shooting from the field. 

The three meetings this season have seen Bothwell finish of three respective performances with 15, 11 and 24 points in the three contests this season. Bothwell’s lowest scoring total came in that 11-point effort last month, as the Mocs came to Greenville and all but clinched the SoCon crown with a 64-58 win to claim the regular-season title. Bothwell has scored a total of 111 points against the Mocs in the past six matchups vs. Chattanooga, Bothwell is averaging an impressive 18.5 PPG.

All told, the past six matchups between the Mocs and Paladins have seen Bothwell connect on an impressive 57.3% (43-of-75) from the field, which includes a 40% (8-of-20) shooting effort from three-point range.  

At season’s end following the 2020-21 campaign, it certainly would have been easy for the league to lose some of its overall momentum due to the COVID-19 pandemic. After all, a 30-win East Tennessee State team, which was led by current ACC Coach of the Year Steve Forbes, was robbed of showing what could do for an encore in the NCAA Tournament following up on Wofford’s win over Seton Hall and near upset of Kentucky in the 2019 Tournament. 

 The SoCon’s recent narrative 

If the SoCon’s championship game is any indication of the future, then should we expect to see the league given serious consideration for a second bid to the NCAA Tournament. 

As David Jean-Baptiste 36-footer swished through the hoop as the buzzer sounded at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center, there was an immediate bipolar effect to the result. The Mocs understandable exhilaration and thrill of the win, but also the pain of the gut-wrenching effect of such a defeat for Furman,

which hadn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 1980. It’s almost ridiculous to fathom that Furman might not even be selected to the NIT when the Paladins were literally a shot away from ending a 42-year drought to the Big Dance. 

This the dark corner of college basketball most casual fans aren’t aware of, however, for those of us that cover this league year-in and year-out as scribes, and we’ve been shine a light in that corner for the past four seasons. That was the season things really took off, starting with Furman’s big early wins over Villanova and Loyola Chicago to garner national attention before eventually starting the season 12-0 and finding its way into the AP Top 25 for the first time in school history. 

Furman would spend three weeks in the polls and then Wofford would capture lighting in a bottle in league play by going wire-to-wire unbeaten in the SoCon regular-season and tournament and would enter the NCAA Tournament as a ranked team. UNCG, the SoCon’s defending champion, won 29 games, while East Tennessee State claimed 24 wins. Only one to the NCAA Tournament, however, with Wofford gaining automatic entry. The Paladins and Spartans got the usual consolation for a mid-major as good as those two were, with invites to the NIT. 

If you remove the 2020-21 COVID compromised season, the SoCon has been performing at a high level. In fact, the league has had three 20-game winners in five out of the last six seasons, dating back to the 2016-17, with an opportunity for more with Wofford (Eracism Tournament), which has 19 wins, needing only a win in its opening round tournament game, which it will host Thursday night against an opponent to be announced at a later date. 

Perhaps that narrative is one that sticks with me and other media that is still processing what was one of the most thrilling tournament’s of March Madness as a whole.

The question was posed to Furman head coach Bob Richey during the postgame press conference that broached the subject of the painful defeat for the Paladins, and did that magnify the league’s profile at all for a potential second bid to the NCAA Tournament at all.

“That’s part of a larger conversation. I see it,” Furman head coach Bob Richey said. 

“I don’t think people understand quite how good this league is. At some point, hopefully the Southern Conference will get two teams in. I think it’s worthy, and you saw that tonight. We’ll just see what the next days are like ahead. It’s hard to explain all that that just happened, but I’m telling you, its going to push this thing forward. It doesn’t make a lot of sense now, but we will look back on this moment, and it will turn into a positive,” Richey added.

Despite the fact that the tournament delivered in a major way last week, it probably still is not enough to move the needle in terms of the metrics, but it sure has people from a national audience perspective tuned in to see. If Chattanooga makes noise in the tournament, it will only highlight the fact even more. If Furman were to make the NIT and did well, that would be an added bonus.

Maintaining the high level, which saw the SoCon finish as the No. 9 conference in the final NET rankings at the conclusion of the 2020-21 season, and one that currently ranks as the No. 12 league according to the NET nationally.

Only time will tell on the national picture. As a media member I can say I remain patient and hopeful.

SoCon Tournament 2022 Awards and Salutes:

Best Team: Obviously it was the Chattanooga Mocs (27-7), which used a complete team effort to claim its first NCAA Tournament berth since 2016, and won an unprecedented 12th SoCon Tournament in its 45th season in the league. The Mocs and Paladins separated themselves in early in league play as the two best teams, and though Chattanooga proved the best team all season by winning three games against the ‘Dins, the separation in overall strength was close, as the Mocs won the three contests against the Paladins by a combined nine points.

Best Player: Malachi Smith (Chattanooga)—It was close, and I really felt like the best player on the floor in the championship game was Mike Bothwell hands down, but Smith is the best player on the best team.

Surprise Team: The Samford Bulldogs (22-11) The Bulldogs, led by dynamic guard Ques Glover and wing Jermaine Marshall made noise in Asheville, playing with a chip on their shoulder for much of the weekend. After nearly blowing a 22-point halftime lead vs defending champion UNC Greensboro before holding on for a 66-64 win, the Bulldogs put a huge scare into the Furman Paladins before seeing Furman overcome a 15-point first-half deficit, as the Paladins held off the Bulldogs for a 71-68 win.

Best Game: Did you watch the championship game? (Chattanooga 64, Furman 63)

Biggest Shot: David Jean-Baptiste vs. Furman.Though he had struggled much of the game, having gone just 2-for-9 from three-point range, Jean-Baptiste came through with the game-winner for the Mocs when they absolutely had to have it.

Transfer Portal Clash? The opening game of the 2022 Southern Conference featured another classic between No. 9 The Citadel (13-18) and No. 8 East Tennessee State (15-17), with both of the two teams featuring two of the best the SoCon has to offer for the transfer portal, with Bulldog big man and SoCon preseason SoCon Player of the Year Hayden Brown posting 27 points and 17 rebounds.LeDarrius Brewer, who also entered the transfer portal along his brother Ty Brewer, combined to give the Bucs 28 points and 14 boards in the 84-76 overtime loss. It marked ETSU’s earliest exit from the conference tournament. Both Brewers scored 14 points apiece, while Ty Brewer made it a double-double by adding 10 rebounds. 

Best Impact Player: Silvio De Sousa (Chattanooga). His 17 points and 14 rebounds were huge in helping the Mocs cut down the nets and lead to UTC living up to preseason expectations. 

Best Dunk: Jalen Slawson vs. Mercer. The senior from Summerville, S.C. caught a perfectly thrown pass from Alex Hunter for the big-time slam and was fouled in the process by Felipe Haase. 

Best Quote: Nicholas Robinson (Western Carolina): Graduate guard Nicholas Robinson on leadership—

“I’ve been raised to be a leader. Just from my mentors throughout my life, they just taught me how to carry myself through adversity. This year we had a lot of adversity and that’s how you judge the true character of a man. Not when things are going well, but when things aren’t going well. For me, it was trying to be an uplifting voice every day. Trying to show the guys the right things to do. And eventually if you keep doing the right things, you’ll get the results that you want. We didn’t always get the results that we wanted this year but just be sure to know that in the future the results will come. I’m 100 percent confident in my guys next year it’ll be a different story. The year after that, it’ll be a different story.”

Best Moment Coaching Moment: Bucky McMillan’s press conference after the win over Furman, encouraging his young wing, Jermaine Marshall, and emphasizing the atmosphere and the trend upwards heading into next year.

Player’s that left their mark on the league that we’ll miss: For me, it’s Jake Stephens (VMI) and Felipe Haase (Mercer)

Best Hair: Jordan King (ETSU)

Who Wins in 2023: The Transfer Portal lol…But it really is too early to tell

Other Notes: 

—ETSU’s opening round exit was the first time it has lost in the opening round of the tournament since the dropping a 57-47 contest to Georgia Southern in Greensboro.

—Chattanooga became the fifth-straight No. 1 seed to win the SoCon Tournament.

—UNCG was the first defending champion to lose their first game of the conference tournament since Wofford was defeated, 88-83, in the quarterfinals back in 2016.

—The one-point decision in the championship game marked the first time since 2001 that the title game was decided by just a single point. It comes with a little bit of irony that Chattanooga was beaten on that occasion, 67-66, by a David Schuck jumper with 0.4 seconds remaining, as UNCG won the SoCon Tournament at the Bon Secours Wellness Arena in Greenville, S.C.

Top Scorers in the tournament: Malachi Smith, Chattanooga (56 pts)/Mike Bothwel, Furmanl (55 pts)

2022 SoCon All-Tournament Teams:

First Team:

Ques Glover, Samford

Mike Bothwell, Furman

Jalen Slawson, Furman

David Jean-Baptiste, Chattanooga

Malachi Smith, Chattanooga

Second Team:

Silvio De Sousa, Chattanooga

Conley Garrison, Furman

B.J. Mack, Wofford

Conley Garrison, Furman

Jake Stephens, VMI

Most Outstanding Player:

Malachi Smith, Chattanooga

Pinnacle Award (Highest GPA on winning team)

Grant Ledford, Chattanooga

Tournament scoreboard:

First Round (Friday, Mar. 4, 2022)

No. 9 The Citadel 84, East Tennessee State 76 (OT)

No. 7 Mercer 81, No. 10 Western Carolina 53

Quarterfinals (Saturday Mar. 5, 2022)

No. 1 Chattanooga 71, No. 9 The Citadel 66

No. 4 Wofford 68, No. 5 VMI 66

No. 2 Furman 80, No. 7 Mercer 66

No. 3 Samford 66, No. 6 UNCG 64

Semifinals (Sunday, Mar. 6, 2022)

No. 1 Chattanooga 79, No. 4 Wofford 56

No. 2 Furman 71, No. 3 Samford 68

SoCon Championship (Monday, Mar. 7, 2022)

No. 1 Chattanooga 64, No.2 Furman 63 (OT)

Saluting Duggar Baucom:

–Finally, I wanted to extend best wishes to The Citadel head coach Duggar Baucom at The Citadel, as he will not be returning to coach the Bulldogs next season. Baucom has coached as an assistant or head coach at Western Carolina, Davidson, VMI and The Citadel, serving the league with honor and class. I appreciate him and I hope we can catch up again in the very near future.

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