Furman and VMI highlight four league games on tap Thursday

The Game: VMI (5-8, 0-0 SoCon) at Furman (9-4, 0-0 SoCon)

The Date, Venue and Time: Dec. 29, 2022/Timmons Arena (2,500)/7 p.m. EST

The Coaches: VMI-Andrew Wilson (5-8/1st year)/Furman-Bob Richey (120-50/6th yr)

The Series: 105th meeting/Furman leads 67-37

Last Season: Furman and VMI split the season series 1-1

VMI 76, Furman 67

Jan. 1, 2022—The first game of 2022 saw VMI take an early lead in the Southern Conference race, as the Keydets improved to 2-0 in league play, overcoming a 38-31 halftime deficit to the Paladins. It was inauspicious start on the road to the 2022 calendar year for Furman basketball, which was under the direction of associate head coach Jeremy Growe, who was served in head coach Bob Richey’s stead, as Richey was at his wife’s side for the birth of their third child. At the end of the first day of the new calendar year, VMI had picked up its third-straight win over Furman and remained perfect at both Cameron Hall (5-0) and in SoCon play (2-0), as the Keydets posted a 76-67 win over Furman in what was the only SoCon game not canceled by COVID-19 protocols on the opening day of the year. Jake Stephens posted a game-high 23 points and grabbed eight rebounds, while sophomore guard Trey Bonham chipped in 16 points and added four assists, highlighting four Keydet players in double figures in the contest. Stephens posted his game-high 23 on a 10-of-16 shooting effort from the field, which included a 2-for-5 effort from long range. Stephens also dished out four helpers and blocked three shots. Joining Stephens and Bonham in double figures for the Keydets were both Sean Conway and Kamdyn Curfman, as each added 11. Conway had a solid all-around game, as he posted a double-double, finishing with 12 boards, while also dishing out five assists. Furman was led by another stat-stuffing afternoon from Jalen Slawson, who continued his outstanding senior season by leading three Paladins in double figures, with 20 points, seven rebounds, f ive assists, two blocks and a steal. The native of Summerville, S.C., connected on 8-of-19 shots from the field and was 2-for-7 from three-point range. He also knocked down both foul shot opportunities in the contest. Mike Bothwell scored 11 of his 14 points in the second half, as he finished the afternoon by connecting on 5-of-9 shots from the field, including going 3-for-6 from three-point range and was also 1-of-2 at the charity stripe. Bothwell added a season and team-high eight rebounds and dished out a pair of assists.

Furman 79, VMI 64

Jan. 26, 2022—Furman claimed its sixth win in its past seven outings, avenging an earlier season setback to VMI, as the Paladins were able to put an end to a three-game losing skid to the Keydets, with a 79-64 victory inside the friendly confines of Timmons Arena. The Paladins’ win also saw them improve to 10-1 at Timmons Arena this season, and 83-13 overall and 48-6 against SoCon competition in the friendly confines of the on-campus facility since the start of the 2015-16 season. With wins of 38, 25 and 15 points in its last three Southern Conference games against Western Carolina, at Wofford and VMI, Furman is boasting an average margin of victory of 26 points-per-game in its last three outings.  The mid-week SoCon clash between the Paladins and Keydets marked a clash between the two national leaders in three-pointers made, with Furman’s 257 made triples leading the nation, while VMI’s 254 trifectas ranking second nationally. The Paladins finished the night going 14-of-41 (34.1%) from three-point land, while holding the Keydets to just 8-of-23 (34.8%) from three-point land in the contest. It marked just the fourth time this season the Keydets have been held to less than double-digit three-pointers made in a game this season, including their second-lowest number of threes made in a game.  The Paladins now have 271 three-pointers made this season, while VMI has 262 triples made. Furman is on pace to break its school record of 338 three-pointers made in a season, which was established in Bob Richey’s first season as the head coach of the 2017-18 campaign. In the past three games, Furman has connected on 53 three-pointers, connecting on 45.2% from long-range in the past three games. The Paladins are 2-2 in games in which they fail to connect on at least 10 triples in a game this season, while the Keydets also dropped to 2-2 in games in which they failed to reach at least 10 three-pointers in a game. The Paladins were led in the contest by four players in double figures, adding 19 assists to an already gaudy total, which led the nation entering the matchup. For the second time in conference play, the Paladins were led in scoring by Conley Garrison, who posted a game-high 22 points on 8-of-11 shooting from the field, which included a 5-of-8 effort from three-point land. Earlier this season, Garrison scored 23 second-half points in a 78-69 win over East Tennessee State. Garrison came into the contest against VMI ranking third in the SoCon in three-point field goal percentage (47%). In addition to his scoring performance, Garrison was a huge part of Furman’s 47-32 advantage on the backboards, including 18 offensive boards, as Garrison finished the night with six of his eight boards coming on the offensive glass. Garrison’s effort accounted for one-third of Furman’s offensive rebounds and was a big part of helping the Paladins hold a sizable 22-7 edge in second-chance points. The Drury transfer also added four assists and a block. Jalen Slawson continued his outstanding play as of late, adding 21 points, four steals, three blocks, two assists, and nine rebounds. The senior from Summerville, S.C., connected on 8-of-14 shots from the field, which included another impressive performance shooting from long-range, as he went 4-for-8 from three-point land. In the past two games, Slawson has gone 8-for-14 from three-point land. He has now scored in double figures in 19 of Furman’s 22 games so far this season.  Senior classmates Mike Bothwell and Alex Hunter rounded out the Paladins in double figures, adding 14 and 10 points, respectively. Bothwell finished his night going 6-of-16 from the field, including 1-of-7 from three-point land, while adding eight boards, four assists, a steal and a block. Hunter, a senior from Raleigh, N.C., finished the night with his 10 points coming on a 3-for-10 shooting effort from long-range and 2-of-8 from three-point range. His performance from three-point range gives him 281 triples for his career, and with eight more triples this season, the former Leesville-Road High School standout will be Furman’s all-time three-point king, surpassing former Paladin great Jordan Lyons’ 288-career triples, which he set from 2016-20. In addition to his scoring production, Hunter finished the night by handing out five assists, three rebounds, a steal and a block.  VMI finished the night with three players in double figures, with senior Jake Stephens leading the way with 20 points, while Kamdyn Curfman added 16 and Trey Bonham added 11. Stephens, a senior from Bunker Hill, WVa, connected on 8-of-15 shots from the field, including 1-for-4 from three-point range. Fifteen of his 20 points in the contest came in the opening half of play. Additionally, Stephens added a team-best eight rebounds, blocked a shot, and added an assist, while committing four turnovers.  Furman finished the night connecting on 41.8% (28-of-67) from the field, which included a 34.1% (14-of-41) from three-point land. Meanwhile, the Paladins held VMI to 41.1% (23-of-56) from the field and 34.8% (8-of-23) from three-point land. The Paladins ended the night holding advantages in total rebounds (47-32), second-chance points (22-7), total assists (19-14), fast-break points (7-5), bench points (5-0), and total steals (8-5). The Keydets held an advantage in points from turnovers (9-8). Both teams were even at points in the paint (28-28). VMI concluded the night connecting on 71.4% (10-for-14) from the charity stripe, while the Paladins were 69.2% (9-of-13) from the stripe.  All told, the contest featured four ties and five lead changes, with the Paladins holding the upper hand for 32:50 total in the game, while the Keydets found themselves with the advantage for a 5:11 span in the game.

Game Preview: —Perhaps no coach got more out of his basketball team than did Andrew Wilson during the course of non-conference play. The Keydets may have finished the non-league slate with just a 5-8 record, however, the team picked to finish last in the Southern Conference by both the media and head coaches in the non-conference did all it could to overcome any obstacle in their way during non-conference play, thanks in large part to new head coach Andrew Wilson.

The Keydets face a Furman team picked to win the 2022-23 Southern Conference crown in the 2022-23 Southern Conference opener, and it will be a vastly different VMI team than we are accustomed to seeing in recent seasons. That’s because when former head coach Dan Earl left for Chattanooga, he took arguably the Keydets’ two most dynamic players with him to the Scenic City, in graduate senior Jake Stephens and lightning-quick point guard Honor Huff.

Both were difference makers for the Keydets in both games against the Paladins last season. In the first meeting last season, which saw the Keydets win by nine in Lexington on the first day of 2022, the two players combined to score 32 points, and the other guard, Trey Bonham, who is now at the University of Florida, added 16 points, meaning Stephens (23 pts), Huff (9 pts) and Bonham (16 pts), meaning the trio combined for 48 of VMI’s 76 points in last season’s win in Lexington.

In the second game, which saw Furman claim a 15-point, 79-64, win in Greenville in a game that was much closer than the score would indicate, Stephens (20 pts), Bonham (11 pts) and Huff (9 pts) combined to score 40 of the Keydets’ 64 total points in the loss.

In addition to missing that trio, the Keydets also saw top shooter Kamdyn Curfman enter his name into the transfer portal when Earl bolted for Chattanooga, and he has since surfaced as the Marshall Thundering Herd’s third-leading scorer, averaging 11.6 PPG and is shooting 40.2% from three-point range for the Thundering Herd and has hit a team-best 44 triples this season.

With VMI not having a graduate school at the time, Stephens decided to use his COVID-19 year of eligibility at Dan Earl’s next stop, which just happened to be Chattanooga. All he’s done this season is lead the SoCon in scoring (21.5 PPG) and rebounding (10.3 RPG).

Honor Huff has to sit out this season at Chattanooga, per SoCon intra-conference transfer rules. Since Stephens was a graduate transfer when he arrived in the Scenic City, he was immediately eligible. Bonham has continued his success at the power five level, as he currently ranks third on the Gators’ roster in scoring average, posting 10.2 PPG. The trio that started a majority of the season for the Keydets and are eligible to play somewhere else are combining to average roughly 42 PPG, and you add to that the 10.0 PPG missing from Huff from a year ago, new head coach Andrew Wilson has had to figure out a way to replace roughly 52 PPG of the 79 PPG that the Keydets averaged per game last season.

Adding even more difficulty to that coming into the season for Wilson in his new post was navigating some key injuries in the preseason. But despite having one of the youngest teams in the country, the Keydets have managed to do better than in expected in the minds of many out there, all things considered.

Wilson has managed to keep the Keydets in every game and has also managed to help his Keydets spring a surprise or two along the way. The lone returning starter that Wilson returned from a year ago Sean Conway (15.8 PPG, 6.1 RPG), who has looked every bit the part of an all-conference player to this point in the 2022-23 season. Conway is one of four Keydets averaging in double figures coming Thursday night’s showdown at Timmons Arena.

Conway is part of a four-guard attack for the Keydets. He has led VMI five times in the first 13 games in scoring, posting double figure scoring efforts in 10 of those contests, and is easily off to his best start in a red and gold uniform in what is now his fourth season in the program.

Conway was at his best in maybe VMI’s most impressive non-conference win, posting what was a 28-point effort in VMI’s impressive 80-72 win over perennial Patriot League power Navy.

His 28-point effort also represented what is a career-high for scoring for him, and he finished that contest by connecting on an impressive 10-of-14 shots from the field, which included what was an outstanding 6-of-7 effort from three-point land. Conway’s 38 three-pointers leads the Keydets this season. He needs just seven more threes this season to eclipse his 44 made trifectas a year ago.

He is again part of a VMI team that shoots the ball from the perimeter and one that comes to Greenville, which must be respected for the damage they can do from long range. The Keydets finished second to only Furman in long-range shooting last season, making 400 three–point field goals on the season through 32 games, ranking second in the NCAA. It marked the second-highest single-season league total in league history behind only Furman, which finished the season by connecting on a nation-leading 401 triples.

This season, Conway’s 38 triples have been at the forefront of a VMI team that ranks second in the Southern Conference in made three-pointers this season, with 146 made trifects (11.8 threes per game). It’s an area of the game that the Keydets need to see go well tonight to stay in the game against the league’s preseason pick to claim the SoCon title. VMI’s 39.6% shooting clip from beyond the arch this season also ranks second in the SoCon. His 15.8 PPG scoring average currently ranks Conway fourth among the league’s leaders in scoring average.

In contrast, defending the three for Bob Richey’s Paladins has not been a strong-suit this season. In fact, Furman enters Thursday night’s showdown ranking ninth overall in defending the three, as teams are shooting 37.5% from long range against the Paladins this season.

Conway is joined in the four-guard backcourt by Asher Woods (15.1 PPG, 4.5 RPG), Tony Felder, Jr. (11.8 PPG, 2.5 RPG) and Rickey Bradley Jr. (6.8 PPG, 5.5 RPG) are part of what has been a young, but talented nucleus for the Keydets this season. It was Rickey Bradley Jr., who had his best game of the season and career last time out against Fordham, as he posted 23 points, which included a career-best 15 three-pointers, in what was an 80-77 overtime setback against the once-beaten Rams.

Bradley Jr. wasn’t the only rookie that went off in New York, as Asher Woods contributed 21 points and a career-high nine rebounds. Tony Felder Jr. completes the trio of guards this season that have scored 20 or more points in a game, having posted 23 points in VMI’s loss to former Southern Conference member Davidson–a game in which VMI pushed the Wildcats to the limit before losing 75-71 back in mid-November.

Rounding out the freshman quartet for the Keydets entering Thursday night’s league opener is Tyler Houser (10.0 PPG, 4.2 RPG), who is doing a pretty good job considering the huge shoes he had to fill at center coming into the season.

The 6-9 Houser has started eight games in the middle for the Keydets, and enjoyed a season-high 18 points in a loss to SIU-Edwardsville, while having recorded a pair of games in which he posted four made three-pointers, with the last coming in the win over Navy.

Off the bench, the Keydets will look to freshman guard Taeshaud Jackson (4.7 PPG, 5.5 RPG) and junior guard Devin Butler (8.2 PPG, 3.0 RPG). The Keydets aren’t particularly deep, with only seven players logging heavy minutes for VMI this season. Wilson has leaned on five freshmen among those seven contributors, including four of those in the starting lineup.

Offensively, the Keydets come in ranking fifth overall in the league in scoring offense (76.8 PPG) and sixth in team field goal percentage (45.1%). Defensively, VMI ranks dead last in the SoCon in scoring defense (74.6 PPG) and seventh in field goal percentage defense (44.7%).

For the first time since Bob Richey took over the reins of the Furman basketball program some six years ago, the Paladins will begin league play as the odds-on favorite to win both the regular-season title and cut down the nets on March 6 in Asheville.

That journey starts tonight at Timmons Arena, which is a place the Paladins have played particularly well over the years. Over the past eight years, Furman is 90-15 on their home floor, including an impressive 49-7 mark against Southern Conference competition. The Paladins are off to a 6-1 start on the home hardwood this season, with the lone loss coming in an 85-82 setback to Big South member High Point. The Paladins have won eight-straight Southern Conference league openers, with the last loss coming back on Jan. 14, 2014, when the Will Wade-led Mocs came to Timmons Arena and handed the Paladins a 72-63 setback.

Furman has two of the premier basketball players in all of mid-major hoops, which the Keydets must find a way to deal with in the league opener. Both senior guard Mike Bothwell (20.2 PPG, 3.8 RPG) and Jalen Slawson (15.0 PPG, 6.9 RPG) have once again started the season strong, highlighted by Bothwell’s memorable and career-high 36-point effort in Furman’s second-to-last non-conference game 12 days ago in the Greenville Winter Invitational in the Paladins’ thrilling 72-70 win over Stephen F. Austin . Bothwell followed that up by dishing out a career-best eight assists the next time out against Anderson, as the Paladins closed out non-conference play with their second game of 100 or more points this season in a 106-79 win over Anderson University.

Bothwell’s 36-point effort came on a 12-of-14 shooting effort, scoring 21 of Furman’s 28 second-half points in the win over Stephen F. Austin. His final two were the most important, as he connected on about an eight-foot baseline jumper with 0.6 seconds left to deliver the Paladins the thrilling win after nearly surrendering a 22-point halftime advantage in what was a wild game between two good mid-major programs at the Bon Secours Wellness Arena.

Bothwell, who scored his 1,000th point last season, currently has 1,641 points in his Paladin career, ranking 13th on the school’s all-time scoring ledger and continuing to make a steady climb up the charts. Slawson has 1,143 career points to rank 40th in program history, while his 163 steals have him ninth in school history, while his 147 career blocks rank him third in program history.

Slawson was the SoCon’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2021-22 and is off to another strong start on that end of the floor, as the senior from Summerville, S.C., enters Thursday night’s contest against VMI ranking first in the league in steals (26 steals/2.0 SPG), while also ranking third in the league in blocks (19 blocks/1.5 BPG).

Slawson also enters Thursday night’s league opener ranking fifth in rebounding (6.9 RPG), eighth in field goal percentage (59.8%), and tied with Chattanooga’s Jake Stephens for ninth overall in assists-per-game (3.4 APG).

While Bothwell and Slawson are important to head coach Bob Richey’s winning elixir, if Furman is going to win a championship, it will take more than just those two to do it, as talented as that tandem may be, they can’t do it alone.

One player that has continued to step up and show out is point guard J.P. Pegues (8.9 PPG, 4.1 APG, 3.5 RPG), who is playing the point for the first time in his Paladin career, having played mostly off the ball last season.

Pegues is Furman’s top perimeter threat, having knocked down a team-best 27 triples through the first 13 games this season, and that includes shooting at a 39.1% clip, which is second on the team for Paladins that have shot 10 or more from downtown this season.

Pegues’ primary responsibility it to establish tempo, as the Paladins are playing faster than they ever have before under head coach Bob Richey. That can at times lead to untimely turnovers, which was something that seemed almost a foreign concept the previous five seasons with Alex Hunter running the point, as he possessed the uncanny ability to take tremendous care of the basketball, and probably ended his career with one of the best assist-turnover ratios in league history.

While that was a nice luxury that Richey enjoyed his previous five seasons as the head coach, that kind of ability is a one in a lifetime for a coach kind of point guard, and while that has been one major missed attribute from the days of Hunter running the point, the Paladins have more than made up for it with Pegues’ unique ability to assert leadership with his ability to dictate the tempo with which Richey wants the Paladins to advance the ball up the floor.

That, and Pegues is also a tremendous outside shooter, with the ability to get points in bunches, as witnessed by his 20-point effort earlier this season in a loss to Old Dominion in the Charleston Classic. Pegues is continuing to assert himself as a high-level distributor of the basketball as well, averaging 6.8 APG over the past four contests.

Rounding out the projected starting five for the Paladins’ SoCon opener are both forwards Garrett Hien (9.7 PPG, 5.2 RPG) and Ben VanderWal (4.5 PPG, 3.0 RPG), who has been a recent addition to the starting five for the Paladins. VanderWal has the “it” factor, bringing high levels of energy on both ends of the floor.

Hien has continued to improve as both a perimeter shooter, having connected on 50.0% (11-of-22) of his threes this season, and also has shown the ability to affect games with his pinpoint passing ability, as he showed in Furman’s recent loss at North Carolina State a couple of weeks ago.

Furman is as deep as any team in mid-major basketball when it comes to its bench, with Richey sticking with a solid nine-man rotation for a majority of non-conference play. Leading the Paladins off the bench as of late have been wing Marcus Foster (9.8 PPG, 4.5 RPG), forward Tyrese Hughey (7.2 ppg, 3.1 RPG), and backup point guard Joe Anderson (2.5 PPG, 0.7 RPG). The ninth man in the rotation at the moment is between both point guard Carter Whitt (3.9 PPG, 2.1 RPG) and forward Alex Williams (4.3 PPG, 0.8 RPG).

Foster, for the most part, has seemingly played some of his best basketball being the sixth man off the bench for the ‘Dins this season. Foster posted his second-highest point total of the season last time out, finishing with 17 points in Furman’s lopsided win over Anderson. Foster even more than Slawson or Bothwell perhaps holds Furman’s key to success more than any other player on the roster, and finding a way for him to be more consistent as a third scorer has been a tricky road to navigate for Richey and staff, however, with his play in each of the past three games, the Paladins may have found a way to do just that–by bringing him off the bench as a sixth man.

Anderson has struggled shooting the basketball, but he’s been invaluable as a role player for the Paladins, especially on the defensive end, where Furman has struggled at times this season.

Finally, both Williams and Whitt have struggled to find their role within the rotation, with each showing flashes of their immense talent.

Especially Whitt, who, at times operates on a different plane all together with what he can do with the basketball, as evidenced by the jolt he gave the Paladins in an opening half run in their loss to the Wolfpack. Williams on the other hand, scored 15 points in just nine minutes vs. South Carolina State.

That’s what makes Furman perhaps so dangerous is the fact that they have so many different players that can hurt opponents because of their skill level. While Furman has struggled at times defensively through the course of non-conference play, it’s quite apparent they have the ability to stress anyone defensively with their array of talented players on the offensive end.

Through the first 13 games this season, the Paladins lead the league in scoring offense (82.6 PPG) and rank second in team field goal percentage (50.0%). The Paladins are also fifth in the league in three-point field goal percentage (34.4%) and rank fourth in three-pointers made (123/9.5 PG).

Defensively, Furman ranks eight in the league in points allowed (72.9 PPG), last in field goal percentage defense (47.0%) and ninth in three-point field goal percentage defense (37.5%).

Both VMI and Furman rebound the basketball fairly well on both ends of the floor, with the Keydets holding a slight edge in that area, ranking fourth in the SoCon in rebounding margin (+4.8), while Furman is just behind the Keydets in that category, ranking fifth in the league in rebounding margin (+4.0).

Prediction: —While I might have been way wrong about the Samford-Mercer game last night–yes, I missed that one royally–however, I don’t think I will be wrong about this one, although I expect VMI to be a worthy opponent and for the Paladins to end up earning a hard-fought victory in the end.

Furman 80, VMI 70

A quick look around the SoCon at the other games tonight

Furman and VMI, of course, aren’t the only two teams to get their start in league play this evening, as three other matchups will fill out the league’s first heavy helping of league games.

In case you missed it last night, Samford rolled to a 78-69 win over Mercer at the Pete Hanna Center in Birmingham. The sharp-shooting Bulldogs showed us why they were the No. 2 pick by the league’s coaches, as Bucky McMillan’s Bulldogs knocked down a season-high 13 triples and blistered the nets at a 57% clip (13-of-23) from beyond the arch to snap a seven-game losing streak and get off to a strong 1-0 start in league play.

Leading the way for Samford in the win were a pair of preseason all-league selections, in Jermaine Marshall and Logan Dye, as the duo posted 25 and 23 points, respectively, to lead Samford to its opening league win of the season. Playing in place of talented point guard Ques Glover, Jaron Rillie showed out by distributing 10 assists in the league-opening win for Samford.

Samford returns to league play Saturday with a trip to face the league’s other Bulldogs–The Citadel–with tip-off set for high noon on New Year’s Eve in Charleston. Mercer will look to rebound from the tough road loss by hosting Chattanooga in a 2 p.m. contest at Hawkins Arena on Saturday.

Now here’s a quick look at the rest of tonight’s action around the SoCon.

UNC Greensboro (6-7, 0-0 SoCon) at Western Carolina (7-6, 0-0 SoCon), 2 p.m.

–The one peculiar early start time for games today involves a pair of teams from the Old North State, as UNCG travels to face Western Carolina in a 2 p.m. contest at the Ramsey Center. The early tip-off between the Catamounts and Spartans offers an intriguing matchup, as the Catamounts enter riding their second three-game winning streak of non-conference play and will be facing a UNCG team that has owned this series between the two of late, having won 12 of the past 14 matchups between the two. The Catamounts and Spartans will be meeting for the 62nd time in series history, with Western Carolina holding a slight 32-29 series edge. Western Carolina is 20-28 all-time in SoCon openers.

Two Players to Watch: For Western Carolina, keep an eye on big man Tyzhaun Claude (15.4 PPG, 8.5 RPG), who is off to as good a start as any newcomer in the SoCon this year. He is coming off back-to-back 21-point games against Tennessee Tech and Toccoa Falls to close out the non-conference slate.

UNCG’s player that newcomer that should be on your radar is 6-6 wing guard Keondre Kennedy, who came to the Spartans program after leading UMBC in scoring last season. The athletic, cerebral newcomer has seen that carry over with UNCG and new head coach Mike Jones. He leads the Spartans, averaging 13.5 PPG and much like De’Monte Buckingham did last season by leading the team in scoring and rebounding after transferring in for one season from UC Bakersfield, Kennedy is doing the same, as his 7.3 rebounds-per-game lead the team.

Historical moment: Feb. 26, 1998 UNC Greensboro 60, Western Carolina 59

–In what was UNCG’s first Southern Conference Tournament game, it would come against Western Carolina and would produce one of the more thrilling finishes in the modern era of the tournament. After Dondrell Whitmore was fouled with just 3.5 seconds remaining, he went to the line for two free throws and the Catamounts clinging to a 59-57 lead. However, he missed both and UNCG point guard–the diminutive, speedy Derrick Nix–took the inbounds pass and proceeded to dribble to the top of the key in about three of the 3.5 seconds remaining, releasing his prayer just before the buzzer sounded, and his prayer would be answered as the shot banked in for a thrilling 60-59 win over the Catamounts in an opening round game at the Greensboro Coliseum.

Who Wins: UNCG 68, Western Carolina 64

Chattanooga (8-5, 0-0) at The Citadel (5-7, 0-0 SoCon), 7 p.m.

–Chattanooga and The Citadel will offer another intriguing clash, as Dan Earl takes his Mocs-picked to finish second by the league’s media-to take on Ed Conroy’s Citadel Bulldogs, who were picked to finish ninth by both the coaches and media. Conroy, of course, will be coaching his first game back in the SoCon since March 6, 2010, when the Bulldogs lost in the SoCon quarterfinals to Appalachian State. In his second stint as the Bulldogs head coach, Conroy will be looking to do what he has done much of the time he’s been the head coach at his alma mater, which is prove the doubters wrong about Citadel hoops. When the two meet Thursday night, it will mark the 91st clash between the two league rivals, with Chattanooga holding the commanding 71-19 series edge. The two couldn’t have more contrasting basketball histories, with the Bulldogs having never made the NCAA Tournament, while the Mocs have been to a league standard 12 NCAA Tournaments. The Mocs won all three meetings last season, including a 71-66 win at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center in the quarterfinals of the SoCon Tournament.

Two Players to Watch: If we said to watch any other player for Chattanooga other than Jake Stephens it would be almost blasphemous. After all, not only does the seven-foot senior lead the league in scoring (21.5 PPG) and rebounding (10.3 RPG), he’s also claimed the league’s Player of the Week honor five out of the seven weeks it has been awarded this season.

The Bulldogs have been an interesting collection of guys assembled by Conroy into a team that has winning expectations, despite what their hardwood tradition says. Part of that DNA comes from players like Austin Ash, who came to The Citadel from a program with NCAA Tournament expectations each season. Ash settled in Charleston after transferring in from the University of Iowa, where he was a role player for Fran McCaffery–a former coach in the SoCon himself at UNCG–and that’s part of the story as to how Ash found his way to Charleston to play out his final season of eligibility. Ash’s leadership and shooting ability have had an immediate impact for Conroy’s Bulldogs, leading the team in scoring average (16.2 PPG), as well as three-point field goals made (44).

Historical Moment: Feb. 6, 2010–The Citadel 68, Chattanooga 60

The last time Ed Conroy faced the Mocs in Charleston, he led the Bulldogs to one of their meager 19 wins in the history of the series between the two. Sharp-shooting guard Zach Urbanus couldn’t be contained, as he scored 24 points and nailed seven triples, as he led the Bulldogs to a 68-60 win over the SoCon’s gold standard basketball program. Cameron Wells added a double-double of 11 points and 10 boards, as The Citadel never trailed in the second half en route to getting the win.

Who Wins: Chattanooga 74, The Citadel 68

East Tennessee State (4-9, 0-0 SoCon) at Wofford (8-5, 0-0 SoCon), 7 p.m.

–The final game of the quick hitters around the league is one that always seems to produce down to the wire finishes, particularly in Spartanburg. The Bucs have lost five-straight games by a combined 14 points entering Thursday night’s league opener. The Terriers, who have been without head coach Jay McAuley, as he has been away from the team for four games due to a forced leave of absence, and Wofford has gone 3-1 under interim head coach Dwight Perry. Included in those three victories was a 67-62 upset win at Texas A&M to round out conference play, which was one of two the SoCon got overpower six opposition during the non-conference slate. Thursday night’s clash will mark the 57th all-time meeting between the two, with ETSU holding the commanding 40-16 series edge. Wofford won both of last season’s meetings between the two programs.

Two Players to Watch: Wofford’s player to watch is a guy that has simply flown under the radar for one reason or another all season, but it’s becoming clear that freshman guard Jackson Paveletzke (15.8 PPG, 2.5 RPG) has been the league’s most impressive freshman so far. Paveletzke is one of two players not named Jake Stephens to claim the SoCon’s Player of the Week award, and he is the reigning league player of the week by leading the Terriers with 22 points in Wofford’s big win over the Aggies. Paveletzke’s 15.8 PPG is tied for the team lead in scoring along with forward B.J. Mack.

ETSU Jalen Haynes (13.3 PPG, 5.5 RPG) has been a breath of fresh air for a Bucs team that struggled down the stretch due to lack of an inside presence, as a result of both in-season departures and injuries a year ago. The 6-9 Virginia Tech transfer has shown big game this season, and he has shown how well-coached a player he was during his time with the Hokies, playing for former Wofford legendary head coach Mike Young. Haynes’ 13.3 PPG leads ETSU this season, and his 60.7% field goal percentage ranks second overall in the SoCon this season. He reminds me a lot of former ETSU standout Dillion Sneed.

Historical Moment: Mar. 6, 2003 ETSU 80, Wofford 75

One of the more memorable meetings between ETSU and Wofford came in the 2003 Mountain Dew Southern Conference Tournament at the North Charleston Colieseum, which saw the Bucs hold off Wofford, 80-75, in a thrilling Southern Conference Tournament quarterfinal contest. Tim Smith paced the Bucs with 23 points, while Jerald Fields added 19 to help the Bucs take the first step of what would be a three-part championship journey in Charleston, as the Bucs cut down the nets at the end following a 97-90 championship win over the Ashley Champion-led Chattanooga Mocs. The game between the Bucs and Terriers was a great one, as the opening half of the game featured nine lead changes alone, before the two teams settled for a 33-33 halftime score. The Bucs seized control of the game with a 17-5 run just after the first media timeout of the opening half, taking a 55-44 lead. Wofford would storm back to get within two (66-64) with just over five to play, however, the Bucs would do enough, hitting their free throws late to hold on for the five-point win and avoid the potential quarterfinal upset.

Who Wins: Wofford 75, ETSU 70

Published by soconjohn

I am a lover of all things SoCon, and I have had a passion to write about, follow and tell the world about this great conference for pretty much my entire life. While I do love the SoCon, and live in the SoCon city, which is home to the Furman Paladins, have a passion for sports in general, with college football and college hoops topping the list.

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