Breaking down a busy off-season in the SoCon

Dan Earl is the 22nd head coach of Chattanooga’s storied basketball program

A brief SoCon postseason recap

It seems like its been a while since the season ended, yet the news has been non-stop.

Three SoCon teams played in the postseason, with all three losing their opening game, highlighted by Chattanooga’s heartbreaking 54-53 loss to Illinois.

The Mocs had two excellent chances to win before seeing two potential game-winners miss their mark, which could have delivered the Mocs their first tournament win since that remarkable run back in 1997. However, it just wasn’t to be.

VMI and UNCG’s losses were much less-publicized, as the two programs took part in the College Basketball Invitational played in Daytona Beach, FL.

The Keydets had an up-and-down year by their standards, ad after a 2-0 start in Southern Conference play, with wins over VMI and Wofford, it must have seemed at the time that a 16-16 overall finish wasn’t in the cards, and perhaps the Keydets might be a team that would break through and win 20 games.

However, a late season ankle injury in arguably the biggest road win of the season to VMI’s Jake Stephens was seemingly the Keydets’ undoing.

That said, Stephens’ toughness showed through in the Southern Conference Tournament, as he played on one leg basically, as he battled his way to a game-high 23 points in 68-66 loss to Wofford.

Despite Stephens’ 17th 20-point effort of the season, and a game-high 26 points from Keydet guard Trey Bonham, the Keydets couldn’t overcome a solid UNC Wilmington team, dropping a 93-78 contest.

The Seahawks represented the CAA well, as UNC Wilmington went on to win the 16-team tournament, downing Northern Colorado in the championship game.

While VMI (16-16, 9-9 SoCon/5th) was taking part in its first postseason of any sort since 2014, which was during its pre-SoCon days and pre-Dan Earl days as head coach, UNC Greensboro (17-15, 9-9 SoCon/6th) was certainly no stranger to postseason play.

Under the direction of first-year head coach Mike Jones, the Spartans were challengers atop the league, despite having to try and shed the phrase “rebuilding season” for much of the campaign.

In fact, it marked the sixth season over the past seven that the Spartans have taken part in some postseason tournament, whether it be NIT, NCAA Tournament, or CBI.

But like VMI, the stay in the postseason didn’t last all that long for first-year head coach Mike Jones and his Spartans, as UNCG lost its first game in the CBI, dropping a 71-68 contest to Boston University.

In his final game as a Spartan, De’Monte Buckingham, who had led the Spartans in scoring all season, led the Spartans with 21 points. Bas Leyte chipped in with 17 points in the losing effort.

Both Furman (22-12, 12-6 SoCon/2nd) and Wofford (19-13, 10-8 SoCon/4th) did not take part in postseason play for different reasons, with Furman not being chosen to take part in the National Invitational Tournament, following its buzzer-beating loss to Chattanooga in overtime in the Southern Conference championship game, while Wofford, which was chosen to play in the newly formed College Basketball Classic (formerly known as the CIT), opted out of the tournament after some uncertainties and cancellations which was enough for the Terrier athletic administration to see the writing on the wall and pull the plug on the season.

Below are some news and notes involving coaching changes, the early transfer portal report, and an extremely early look ahead to next season.

Coaches on the move and staying put

While the SoCon title game gave us a bit of drama, it didn’t stop with Chattanooga’s David Jean-Baptiste’s buzzer-beating effort to beat Furman, it didn’t end there.

In fact, it continued into one of the more highly-publicized coaching searches in the nation, as both UTC’s Lamont Paris and Furman’s Bob Richey were among the finalists for the job opening at the University of South Carolina.

After Sean Miller turned down the post to take the job at Xavier, and Matt McMahon (Murray State)–another highly sought after mid-major coach–turned down the offer to go to take the job at LSU, South Carolina Director of Athletics Ray Tanner ended up extending the offer to Paris, despite pleas from the South Carolina faithful to give current Wake Forest assistant and former ETSU and Charleston Southern assistant B.J. McKie an opportunity.

Paris, who finished out his UTC career with an 87-72 record in five seasons, will take over as the 33rd head coach of the South Carolina basketball program.

During his time at Chattanooga, Paris had to rebuild a program that struggled in his first two seasons. In his final three seasons as the head coach, Paris won 65 of his 87 games as the head coach, which included winning 27 games and claiming SoCon regular-season and tournament titles in his final season at the helm of the Mocs.

With Richey staying, Furman figures to be one of the favorites again

While Paris is on the move, Richey is staying put at Furman, and will head into his sixth season at the helm of the Furman basketball program. He has compiled a 111-46 record during his time as the Paladins head coach, and was within one buzzer-beating shot by David Jean-Baptiste of helping lead Furman to its first NCAA Tournament in 42 years.

Richey and staff have been outspoken about maintaining culture and not selling out to the current narrative of portal identity like some programs around the SoCon and mid-major basketball seemingly have done.

It’s my opinion that Noah Gurley’s transfer to the University of Alabama changed that. Not that Furman would be a program that tries to bring in transfers from the portal by the boatload, but rather that Furman would be willing to take some chances on guys that might be able to fit their system.

Conley Garrison was one of those players that fit in nicely last season, and the Paladins were no doubt a tougher team and a more together unit as a result of the former Drury University transfer’s presence.

Despite the gut-wrenching loss in what was a classic SoCon title game in Asheville, Richey returns as head coach of the program that at least on paper, should be the odds-on favorites to claim the SoCon regular-season and tournament titles if the 2022-23 season started tomorrow.

Furman lost guard Colin Kenney, forward Ben Beeker, and guard Jaylon Pugh to the portal. That freed up two scholarships. The Paladins signed a pair of players last November, with the additions of 6-7 forwards Ben VanderWal and Davis Molnar.

VanderWal was ranked as eighth and No. 21 best recruit in the state of Illinois by two different publications, while Molnar comes to the Paladins’ basketball program from Fayetteville, N.C. where he was a 3A All-American as a junior. Former Furman assistant coach Tyler Lewis, who now writes and covers prep hoops for Phenom Hoops Report, had this to say of Molnar.

“He is able to impact the game in a variety of ways.  He has an exceptional basketball IQ and sees plays before they happen.  He has great court vision in which he is able to make the game easier for his teammates.  At his size, he is able to push the ball in transition off the defensive rebound. The most important attribute about Davis that stands out is his toughness.  He plays with a lot of energy and passion.  He will be a great attribute to the program in his four years with the Paladins.”

Furman will lose both Garrison and Alex Hunter from its starting backcourt to graduation, but have the potential to return a pair of all-conference performers, in both guard Mike Bothwell and forward and SoCon Defensive Player of the Year Jalen Slawson to the fold next season should both decide to exercise their option to utilize their COVID-19 season.

Marcus Foster is a key returning starter, as he really started to come on towards the latter half of the season.

Additionally, one of the things Furman was able to do more in Richey’s fifth season than previous ones was get younger players more minutes. Joe Anderson , Tyrese Hughey, Garrett Hien, Alex Williams and J.P. Pegues.

It’s anyone’s guess where Furman might look to when it comes to the portal, but odds are there are some players that would certainly fit the mold both academically and athletically at Furman.

https://twitter.com/JustinByerly/status/1513558946480594948?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw%7Ctwcamp%5Etweetembed%7Ctwterm%5E1513558946480594948%7Ctwgr%5E%7Ctwcon%5Es1_c10&ref_url=https%3A%2F%2Fs9e.github.io%2Fiframe%2Ftwitter.min.html1513558946480594948

It’s been widely reported that Jacobi Wood (Belmont) is among Wood’s top six programs to transfer to, and there’s some good reason the 6-3 guard might consider Greenville. Wood is a player that was heavily recruited by both Furman and Wofford during the recruiting process, and like Furman, the Terriers are also a part of his final six programs to decide between.

While Wood remains a target the Paladins have officially contacted according to the above tweet, it certainly isn’t the lone player the Paladins have been in contact with since the season ended.

Dan Earl set to take the reins at Chattanooga

With Lamont Paris now long gone to South Carolina, Dan Earl takes over a program now suddenly in transition. The good news is that Earl, who becomes the second-straight Mocs coach with Big Ten ties, will face a similar situation to that of Paris when he took over the mess left by Matt McCall when he bolted to become the head coach of the UMass Minutemen some six years ago.

McCall was recently replaced by recently ousted South Carolina coach Frank Martin, which made it a case of musical coaches of sorts between Chattanooga, South Carolina and UMass.

Fortunately for Chattanooga fans, Paris didn’t leave seemingly overnight like his predecessor did, and he also left the Scenic City on much better terms than did Matt McCall.

Still, with the transfer portal being the hottest passageway from one place to another since the construction of the New Jersey Turnpike, there are plenty of unknowns for the 27-win Southern Conference champions going forward.

Earl will be charged with replacing some significant personnel from that team that completed the sweep of regular-season and tournament titles in the SoCon.

However, the “Earl Effect” was in full force just a day after he took the job in the Scenic City, with four Keydets immediately jumping in the transfer portal: Jake Stephens, Trey Bonham, Kamdyn Curfman and Honor Huff all jumping in the transfer portal. We know at least one of those players–Stephens.

Former VMI guard Bubba Parham

Another name to keep an eye on in the portal is former Keydet standout performer Bubba Parham, who last played in the SoCon back in the 2018-19 season, leading the league in scoring, averaging 21.4 PPG in his final season playing in the league back during the 2018-19 campaign.

With the potential addition of Parham, he could off-set the potential scoring loss off of a player like Smith.

As many of those former players that Earl coached in Lexington that he is able to persuade to come to the Scenic City could be crucial for the new look Mocs. That’s because the UTC team that most recently dropped that heartbreaking 54-53 decision to Illinois in the NCAA Tournament will look vastly different in the 2022-23 season.

Those losses include the likes of David Jean-Baptiste, Silvio De Sousa, Josh Ayeni, Avery Diggs, Jaden Frazier (transfer portal), and Darius Banks all having exercised their eligibility for the Mocs, the future remains uncertain.

As far Malachi Smith–the 2021-22 SoCon Player of the Year–he announced back on April 5 that he would first not be returning to UTC to focus on the NBA Draft, however, just a little less than a week later, Smith retracted his original statement to say that he would not retain an agent with the option to return to college basketball.

Should there be a future destination on the college basketball hardwood, it would likely be at a power five program since he has accomplished about all he has been able to accomplish in a Mocs uniform during his three seasons in the Scenic City.

As for Earl, his ability to coach can’t be questioned, and his overall record can’t be looked at as a determining factor on how things will go in the Scenic City. After all, he was the 2020-21 SoCon Coach of the Year after leading the Keydets to a 13-12 mark and the program’s first appearance in the semifinal round of the league tournament since the 2003 season.

Earl posted a record of 73-139 during his seven seasons at the helm in Lexington.

His overall record is more of a testament of just how hard the job is traditionally in Lexington.

It’s happened before

In fact, going back as far as former VMI head coach Joe Cantafio, who coached the Keydets from 1982-94 and is probably most noted for nearly landing David Robinson during his time as the head coach in Lexington, eventually ended up as the head coach of Furman for three years from 1994-97 before retiring.

Most recently, Duggar Baucom left the shadows of the Shenandoah Valley for the low country of South Carolina following a 10-year (2005-15) stint as head coach of the Keydets to become the head coach of bitter military and SoCon rival, The Citadel.

Baucom would spend seven years in the low country before eventually not having his contract renewed following the 2021-22 campaign.

Earl’s mentor is from across enemy lines

But there’s something unique about Earl coming to the Scenic City. His mentor–Ed DeChellis–is widely considered the top coach in the Patriot League where he currently leads the Naval Academy. DeChellis was Earl’s mentor as a young coach after Earl had returned to his alma mater in the early-mid 2000s.

Earl was a sharp-shooting guard in Happy Valley from 1996-99 during arguably one of the best periods in the history of the program.

When Earl got into coaching following a at his alma mater following brief professional career in Germany, Portugal and Poland, he was given a coaching opportunity by Ed DeChellis.

DeChellis was no stranger to the SoCon when he arrived to Happy Valley to become the Nittany Lions head coach in 2004.

He been honing his skills at UTC’s arch-rival ETSU to back-to-back SoCon titles and subsequent NCAA Tournament appearances in 2003 and ’04, respectively.

Earl is rightfully considered one of the top coaches in all of mid-major basketball taking into the account the constraints that are natural challenges to a program such as VMI.

Earl’s announcement as the 22nd men’s basketball coach of the Chattanooga basketball program is slated to take place either Thursday or Friday, as no official announcement has been made at the time of this article.

He comes from a VMI program that probably regarded recruiting the transfer portal like ordering a tutorial on a foreign language from Rosetta Stone.

A new system isn’t a bad thing and an in-league comparison

Chattanooga fans can expect to see plenty of differences then they have been used to in the past.

While there will likely be some notable transfers to continue to ply their trade in Scenic City, Mocs fans can expect some significant changes in style of play, but shouldn’t expect any drop-off in player talent.

In fact, Mocs fans might have cringed when facing teams that shot the ball well, especially VMI, who took a late-season, 83-77, win at McKenzie Arena, and that win came despite VMI’s all-league center Jake Stephens going down with a pretty severe ankle sprain, which kept him out the remainder of the game.

Despite that, the Keydets claimed arguably their best win of the season. Earl led the Keydets to back-to-back break even or above seasons for the first time in two decades.

One of Earl’s early signature wins as the head coach of VMI came in the Scenic City back in 2017. The following paragraph is taking from Ken Pomeroy’s site, highlighting just how big a win the Keydets’ 80-68 win over Chattanooga back on Jan. 25, 2017.

1. January 25: #334 VMI 80, #68 Chattanooga 64 (1.2%) Who likes a 16-point win for the upset of the month? *Raises hand* VMI started the second half on an 18-4 run, giving them a cushion that would stand up for the second half thanks to QJ Peterson’s 40-point effort. This was one of those games where if it was all you knew about these two teams, you’d have to swear the VMI was the better team. The Keydets are currently 5-15 (2-7) and the Mocs are 15-6 (6-3) so it’s safe to say that this result be damned, Chattanooga will be a significant favorite when the teams meet up in Lexington on February 15.

The upset remained as the biggest upset in the college basketball regular-season according to the metrics until Texas Southern 69-54 on Dec. 6, 2021. It marked the first win of the season for the eventually SWAC tournament champions.

The Mocs can expect to see a team highly-skilled that runs a Princeton version of the motion offense, which is centered around five players that are perimeter threats, and constant cutting to create spacing. In terms of a similar offense in the league, Mocs fans should look no further than the team they played in the championship game–the Furman Paladins.

In terms of team makeup, the similarities are glaring in two players from this past season, in Furman’s big man Jalen Slawson and VMI’s Jake Stephens. Both were the fulcrum of the offense, thanks in large part to their overall skill level and passing skills.

With Stephens having recently announced his intentions on being in the Scenic City for his final season as a Moc, Chattanooga fans will be in for a treat to see how Earl uses him in VMI’s motion offense up close and personal, rather than sweating out trying to stop such a typical system twice a year.

Furman or VMI rarely beat themselves, and the two teams have been among the nation’s top three-point shooting teams each of the past couple of seasons, with the Paladins completing the campaign ranking first nationally in three-pointers made (401), while the Keydets were right behind in second (400).

The two also led the country in three-pointers attempted, with Furman leading the nation with 1,054 long-range attempts, while the Keydets were right behind in second with 1,050 treys launched. The two clubs also ranked second and third, respectively, in three-point field goal percentage with the Keydets ranking 12th nationally in three-point percentage (38.1%), while Furman ranked 13th (38.0%).

In Earl’s offense, as well as Furman’s, sharing the basketball is a must. Furman ranked sixth nationally, dishing out 17.4 assists-per-game, while VMI wasn’t all that far behind once again, posting 16.0 helpers-per-contest to rank 22nd nationally.

The one area in which Earl’s Keydets have been performing at a high level as well is on the defensive end of the floor. That’s something Mocs fans were accustomed to over the past couple of campaigns, so that won’t be such a drastic change.

Mostly it’s a change of offensive philosophy. Paris’ offenses were always efficient, and had good shot selection with a focus on physical play in the paint. A little like the SoCon’s own version of a Big Ten program. By comparison, Earl’s offensive philosophy will seem cleaner, with a premium placed on having five shooters on the floor at all times. When it works in perfect concert, Earl’s motion offense can be a thing of beauty.

I would expect a slight uptick in scoring in future seasons, while Chattanooga’s numbers might take a little bit of a dip on the glass, but that’s just a guess. If they should dip, it wouldn’t be too drastic.

My personal opinion tells me this is an outstanding hire. The question is will Mocs fans be as patient as VMI was in Earl’s first couple of seasons, or better yet, as patient as they were with Paris. Time will tell, but I like this hire a lot.

Same great player, but new zip code

VMI center Jake Stephens/photo courtesy VMI athletics

Though Earl isn’t all too familiar with the transfer portal, he is in fact familiar with the first player he has been able to procure from it–Jake Stephens.

Stephens, who once called the 540 of Lexington, VA, his home zip code, is now proudly repping the “C” in the 423 as a member of the Chattanooga Mocs.

During his time in the VMI red and gold clad uniforms, he developed into one of the most dominant big men in mid-major basketball, and was in the running for league player of the year honors, as he comes off a 2021-22 season, which saw him finish his final season in Lexington as the primary challenger to former Moc Malachi Smith for SoCon Player of the Year honors after finishing the season averaging 19.6 PPG, 9.0 RPG, and dished out an impressive 98 assists.

He was a 49.0% (74-of-151) shooter from three-point range last season, which not only led the Keydets, but also led the Southern Conference in three-point field goal percentage.

He’ll have an immediate impact for the Mocs, and will soften the blow left by the Mocs big men De Sousa, Ayeni and Diggs. He will already be more of a significant scoring threat in the post for the Mocs.

The first-team All-SoCon selection is the first player that I have been able to find in my research that has been a first-team all-league player to transfer from one school to another within the league.

The Citadel hires a familiar face

Following the dismissal of Duggar Baucom after his contract was not renewed following the 2021-22 campaign, The Citadel’s athletic administration sought out a familiar face to usher in the future. That name carries clout in the low country, and that name is “Conroy” and Ed Conroy to be specific.

The last time Conroy made his home as the head coach in Charleston, he was busy doing something few have–building a consistent winner that had to accounted for.

If you thought KenPom highlighting that win by VMI over Chattanooga was something back in 2017 in terms of magnitude of upset, I am curious as to where the Bulldogs’ win

The Bulldogs have lost its two top scorers to the transfer portal, as 2021 SoCon Player of the Year Hayden Brown, and 2022 SoCon Freshman of the Year Jason Roche.

It was announced recently that Brown has named South Carolina–Paris’ new destination–as one of his top choices to continue his career. He took an official visit last week.

Conroy led the Bulldogs to one of their greatest finishes in program history, leading The Citadel to a 20-13 overall mark and a 15-5 league ledger, which was good enough to see the Bulldogs to qualify for the CollegeInsider.com (CIT) Tournament.

Baucom won 77 games in seven seasons as the Bulldogs’ head coach. The Bulldogs have never made the NCAA Tournament.

Wofford’s sudden portal problems

Wofford center B.J. Mack

When Chevez Goodwin arrived in Greenville to suit up for the Southern California Trojans three years removed from Wofford’s remarkable 30-win season and run through the SoCon, most of the media around the league reminisced about that team and just how good the Terriers might have been even in the post-Fletcher Magee era.

With both Storm Murphy and Keve Aluma both plying their trade for Mike Young at Virginia Tech, where the duo helped the Hokies cut down the nets in Brooklyn at the ACC Tournament, there was little if any evidence that the Terriers might be in for even more departures to the portal following the season.

After all, McAuley’s Terriers posted a solid fourth-place finish in the league standings posted what was a solid 19-13 campaign, which accounts for the win threshold in two out of the three seasons in which McAuley has been in charge of the Terrier basketball program following Young’s departure for Blacksburg.

After plans to take part in the the CollegeInsider.com Tournament under a new moniker–The Basketball Classic–after the plans kept falling through or changing concerning potential opposition.

A week after the NCAA Tournament had left Greenville, things settled down for Wofford basketball, or at least it seemed that way.

Then came a trio of portal departures that left plenty of question marks for the Terriers going forward in the recruiting process, transitioning to going after some immediate portal prospects.

Wofford saw some significant statistical departures in terms of scoring production, with the most notable of those being, of course, all-league performer Max Klesmit, who was Wofford’s second leading scorer for the season, averaging 14.9 PPG to go along with being one of the league’s leading defenders.

Sam Godwin, which battled COVID and other issues seemingly throughout his career with the Terriers, and saw his minutes-per-game take a dip this season, also entered the transfer portal decreasing the overall depth the Terriers

A day after Klesmit and Godwin entered the portal, both made it official, the Terriers were delivered one final shock, as Morgan Safford, which was yet another member of that dynamic sophomore class, announced he, too, would be continuing his college basketball career elsewhere.

Godwin recently announced he will return to his home state of Oklahoma and be a walk-on with Porter Moser’s Oklahoma Sooners. Larson has announced his final season will be spent playing for Pat Kelsey as a member of the College of Charleston’s basketball program.

Most recently, freshman wing Luke Turner is the latest Terrier to announce his intentions to enter the portal earlier this week.

There is some good news for Wofford heading into next season, which is the fact that the Terriers, at least for now, are set to potentially return two of the best big men in the SoCon for the 2021-22 season, in both Messiah Jones and B.J.Mack.

Mack is going to explore his professional options, but will not retain an agent, giving the Terriers’ 2021-22 leading score the option to return for the 2022-23 campaign.

Jones missed a majority of the season following a torn achilles tendon, which he suffered against Georgia Southern in an early-season battle. Mack ended the campaign by being Wofford’s leading scorer, averaging 16.5 PPG.

The Terriers have been able to add one player via the transfer portal, in Jackson Sivillis from Murray State–a player originally recruited by McAuley and staff out of high school. The 6-6 wing will be an immediate impact player for the Terriers, especially with Turner announcing he will be entering the portal as of yesterday.

Stay tuned for more updates as they become available, including a look at the new VMI head coach, Andrew Wilson, coming in the very near future.

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