SoCon Hoops 2022-23: Weekend Preview Capsules (Part 1)

The weekend schedule in Southern Conference will feature a complete slate, as league play heats up in the middle of January, with three of the five games having afternoon tip-off times.

The two most intriguing matchups of the day have Samford hosting Chattanooga in a 6 p.m. contest in Homewood, AL, with that game being nationally televised by ESPNU. The other game sees Furman host UNC Greensboro at Timmons Arena in what will be a 4 p.m. contest in Greenville.

Below is a look at at part one of the league’s Saturday slate, with the first three games and predictions below. Part two I will put up on Saturday morning, which will detail Saturday evening’s two main clashes, as Chattanooga travels to Samford (6 p.m.) and Wofford hosts VMI (7 p.m.)

Date and Time: Jan. 14, 2022/1 p.m. EST

Game: Western Carolina (10-8, 3-2 SoCon) at The Citadel (6-11, 1-4 SoCon)

Venue and location: McAlister Field House (4,500)/Charleston, S.C.

Coaches: Western Carolina-Justin Gray (21-29, 2nd yr)/The Citadel Ed Conroy (55-87, 5th yr at The Citadel)

Series: 85th meeting/WCU leads the all-time series 45-39

Brief Preview: It’s maybe the most important game of the afternoon for both teams and how they respond to adversity. For Western Carolina, it will look to respond to a bit of adversity the way it did the first time it did in Southern Conference play this season, which came following a 25-point home loss to UNC Greensboro. The Catamounts responded by taking the home floor against Furman and coming up with a 79-67 win over league preseason favorite Furman at the Ramsey Center. Following what was a 95-76 Thursday night loss at Chattanooga, the Catamounts will have to bounce back this time on the road in hostile territory at The Citadel.

For Ed Conroy’s Bulldogs, it’s been tough sledding since opening up Southern Conference play in successful fashion with a 76-68 win over Chattanooga inside the friendly confines of McAlister Field House, the Bulldogs have since lost four-straight games by an average of 19.2 PPG.

In the series between The Citadel and Western Carolina last season, the two teams split the two games in a pair of games that were decided by a combined six points. The Catamounts claimed a 94-90 overtime win over the Bulldogs in Cullowhee, while the second meeting between the two took place in Charleston, and The Citadel overcame a big deficit to come from behind and get a 68-66 win at McAlister Field House.

One of the matchups to keep an eye on in Saturday afternoon’s clash when the two meet is the one between the big men, with Western Carolina’s Tyzhaun Claude (14.8 PPG, 8.1 RPG) going up against The Citadel’s talented center Stephen Clark (15.9 PPG, 6.6 RPG). Both are off to strong starts this season for their respective teams. Claude, who transferred to Western Carolina from Morehead State prior to the season, has gotten his Catamount career off to a strong start, having scored in double figures in 17 out of 18 games in his WCU career, and is coming off a 19-point, five-rebound effort in the loss on the road to the Mocs.

Clark, a senior big man and most-experienced Bulldog player on the roster, is also off to a strong start this season, and his 27-point effort against East Tennessee State last time out represented a career-high. He was able to connect on 11-of-19 shots from the field and also blocked five shots on the other end in what was a 96-74 to visiting East Tennessee State.

The Catamounts are a team that needs the three-pointer to be falling to be successful. Western Carolina has used double-digit three-pointers made as a barometer of success this season. Of Western Carolina’s 10 wins this season, the Catamounts have hit 10 or more three-pointers in nine of those wins, with the lone exception having been the 75-47 win over Mercer, in which Western Carolina connected on only nine. The last time out against Chattanooga, the Catamounts connected on only eight triples in what was a 19-point road loss. In all eight of WCU’s losses, the Catamounts have failed to reach 10 threes in each of them.

The Catamounts have talented guards, led by Iowa State transfer Tre Jackson (13.8 PPG, 4.1 RPG) and Winthrop graduate transfer Russell Jones Jr. (10.6 PPG, 2.9 RPG). Those two players are two of WCU’s primary three-point marksmen, as the two have combined to connect on 97 of the team’s 176 three-point field goals. A third key player in that WCU backcourt is 6-6 wing Vonterius Woolbright (12.9 PPG, 7.2 RPG), who like Clark, is coming off a career-high performance in the Catamounts’ road loss to Chattanooga, scoring a team-high 24 points in the road setback. WCU’s Jackson leads the SoCon in three-pointers made this season, having knocked down 61 triples through 18 games to this point in 2022-23.

The Citadel has one of the top shooting backcourts in the SoCon, led by Austin Ash (15.3 PPG, 4.9 RPG), who rivals last year’s SoCon Freshman of the Year Jason Roche, who is now at Richmond, in terms of quick release on his three-point shot. So far this season, his 59 triples rank him second behind only WCU’s Jackson in three-pointers made in 2022-23, however, only Jackson ranks also among the league’s most efficient perimeter shooters, connecting on 44.2% of his long-range efforts this season to rank second in the conference.

Prediction: Western Carolina 81, The Citadel 74

Date and Time: Jan. 14, 2022/4 p.m. EST

Game: Mercer (7-11, 0-5 SoCon) at East Tennessee State (7-11, 3-2 SoCon)

Venue and location: Freedom Hall (6,500)/Johnson City, Tenn.

Coaches: East Tennessee State-Des Oliver (22-28/2nd yr)/Mercer-Greg Gary (58-54/4th yr)

Series: 38th meeting/ETSU leads 26-11

Brief Preview: The former Atlantic Sun rivalry will take center stage Saturday when East Tennessee State hosts Mercer in a key Southern Conference tilt at Freedom Hall. The Bucs were back to full strength Wednesday night, as ETSU had both forwards Brock Jancek (6.8 PPG, 3.1 RPG) and Josh Taylor (9.0 PPG, 5.8 RPG) back in the lineup, and that helped immensely as the Bucs picked up a big 96-74 road win at The Citadel Wednesday night. It was a nice response by a Bucs team that had lost back-to-back games on its home floor by double digits to a pair of unlikely foes, in Western Carolina and Furman, who have struggled to win in Johnson City, as many have in recent seasons.

The Bucs were paced by Jordan King’s memorable 42-point effort in the win, as he recorded the third-highest single-game scoring effort in program history and became the 10th player in program history to accomplish that feat. King finished his outstanding performance by connecting on 14-of-19 shots from the field, which included an 8-for-12 shooting performance from three-point land. King got it done on both ends of the floor as well, recording seven steals!

King had been struggling shooting the basketball coming into the 22-point road win at The Citadel and was coming off of one of the low performances of his ETSU career, failing to connect on a three-pointer from the field in a 70-56 home loss to Furman last Saturday. It marked the first time in 35 games as a Buccaneer that King had failed to connect on at least three-pointer in a game. King went 0-for-9 from the field in the loss to the Paladins only to turn around and have the game of his life against The Citadel.

While ETSU has relied heavily on King with injuries to some key front court players, head coach Desmond Oliver wouldn’t mind seeing more guys get into the scoring act in the backcourt. One solid contributor off the bench for ETSU this season in the backcourt has been DeAnthony Tipler (12.3 PPG, 2.8 RPG), while Justice Smith (7.9 PPG, 4.2 RPG) has shown flashes, but hasn’t been a consistent scorer in the backcourt for ETSU. Tipler has shot the ball well from the perimeter this season for ETSU, having connected on 38.9% (37-of-95) from long range this season.

Unlike last year, the meat and potatoes of this ETSU team is its front court, and both Jancek and Taylor have helped supplement Virginia Tech transfer Jalen Haynes (12.4 PPG, 5.6 RPG) this season.

Haynes has been one of the league’s top newcomers and big men this season, and he has given the Bucs some muscle underneath. Jaden Seymour (8.0 PPG, 7.6 RPG) is maybe the best athlete on the team, while 6-9 freshman Braden Illic (1.6 PPG, 1.9 RPG) can step out and shoot the three. Seymour’s 13 points were a career-high for ETSU, which got lost in the mix after the day Jordan King had.

The Bucs had once made Freedom Hall a feared road venue for Southern Conference opposition, however, this season that has not been the case at all, as ETSU is just 3-6 on its home hardwood since the start of the season, and just 19-16 on the home hardwood over the past three seasons. The Bucs were nearly unbeatable at home in five seasons under former legendary head coach Steve Forbes, as ETSU posted what was a 67-12 home mark from the start of the 2015-16 season through the 2019-20 campaign. The Bucs will be looking to avoid what would be a seventh-straight home loss when they take the floor against the Mercer Bears Saturday. The six-straight losses at home is the longest home drought since the 1996-97 season.

The Bucs will be looking for their 90th SoCon win since the start of the 2015-16 season, which ranks behind only UNCG (93) and Furman (92). The Bucs’ 165 total wins in that span is also third among that same trio, with UNCG having won 167 games during that span, while Furman has claimed 166 victories.

The Bears are off to their worst start to Southern Conference play (0-5) since joining the Southern Conference prior to the 2014-15 season. It’s in fact the Bears’ worst start to a conference season since their days in the Atlantic Sun since 1997-98. Mercer has struggled offensively, and head coach Greg Gary is struggling to find the right formula to success for the Bears. Mercer enters the contest having yet to reach 70 points in a Southern Conference game this season, and since the start of league play, Gary’s Bears rank last in the league in scoring offense (56.6 PPG), last in team field goal percentage (39.6%), and last in three-point field goal percentage (22.7%).

Adding to that recipe for disaster for the Bears is the fact that they haven’t defended that well either, as Mercer enters the showdown with the Bears ranking eighth in the league in scoring defense (73.6 PPG), eighth in field goal percentage defense (47.3%) and last in the league in three-point field goal percentage defense (44.9%). All that has snowballed to lead to the Bears getting outscored by 17.0 PPG in league games this season.

Mercer’s leading scorer Jalyn McCreary (14.6 PPG, 5.6 RPG) suffered the same fate when facing off against Furman as Jordan King, failing to score from the field, missing all six shots he took.

One of the matchups I think could give ETSU trouble in this contest is Kamar Robertson (12.5 PPG, 2.8 RPG), as his quickness will challenge a quick ETSU backcourt in in its own right, however, I don’t think Robertson has enough help in the backcourt for it to matter.

While I think Robertson has a big day in Johnson City, I’m also not ready to say he leads the Bears to their first Southern Conference victory of the season in Freedom Hall, as the Bucs will snap their homecourt losing streak and will be looking pretty good at 4-2 in league play after six games all things considered.

Prediction: ETSU 77, Mercer 66

Clash of the Titans

Date and Time: Jan. 14, 2022/4 p.m. EST

Game: UNC Greensboro (10-8, 4-1 SoCon) at Furman (13-5, 4-1 SoCon)

Venue and Location: Timmons Arena (2,500)

Coaches: UNCG-Mike Jones (27-23, 2nd yr)/Furman-Bob Richey 124-51/6th yr)

Series: 43rd meeting/UNCG leads 22-20

Brief Preview: One of the two huge matchups in Southern Conference hardwood action that takes place between top four teams in the league will be the one between Furman and UNC Greensboro, as the two teams are tied for second place in the league standings, having won four out of their five league games.

The Paladins have been nearly unbeatable inside the friendly confines of Timmons Arena since the start of the 2015-16 season, and a sellout crowd is expected to be on hand when the two square off in Southern Conference action Saturday evening at Timmons Arena.

Since the start of the 2015-16 season, the Paladins are 92-15 on their home floor, which includes an outstanding 51-7 record against Southern Conference competition. UNCG has been one of those teams that has had some success, and in fact, along with Wofford, is the lone SoCon team to post multiple wins on Furman’s home floor during that same span. The Paladins are 20-2 against league foes over the past three-plus seasons at Timmons Arena.

The Paladins and Spartans split the 2021-22 season series, with the Paladins taking a 58-54 win over UNCG at the Greensboro Coliseum, while UNCG returned the favor a month later, handing the Paladins a 58-56 setback in Furman’s home away from home–Bon Secours Wellness Arena–and it marked UNCG’s second win inside that particular facility. In fact, the Spartans are 2-1 against Furman all-time in that building, claiming wins in 2019-20 and last season in Furman’s downtown home.

The Paladins have claimed their last two at Timmons Arena against the Spartans, winning both the 2018-19 contest (W, 67-57) and the 2020-21 contest (W, 68-48), while the Spartans won back-to-back games at Timmons Arena in the 2016-17 campaign (L, 52-73) and in 2017-18 (L, 67-80).

All told, since the start of the 2015-16 campaign, the Paladins and Spartans have squared off on the hardwood a total of 16 times, with UNCG holding a 9-7 lead in the series during that span. The Spartans’ nine wins are tied with Wofford and ETSU for the most by a SoCon team against Furman since the start of the 2015-16 season, with ETSU (9-8) and Wofford (9-7) joining the Spartans as the only other two SoCon teams to own winning records against Furman over the past eight years. UNCG joins Wofford as the only two teams in the SoCon to win twice at Timmons Arena in the past eight years.

With that said, perhaps no team has defended Furman as well as the Spartans over the better part of the past decade, with Furman routinely ranking among the league’s best offensive teams, especially in the six seasons that Bob Richey has been the head coach. That’s been part of the MO for the Spartans dating back to the Wes Miller era, and it’s why the Blue and Gold have been able to maintain a winning tradition in the SoCon. No team has won more games in the SoCon or overall than the Spartans over the past eight years, with Furman’s 166 wins overall and 92 league victories during the same span ranking just one game behind UNCG in both categories.

Furman is still hunting its first SoCon title since a rebuild that started by making it all the way to the SoCon title game in 2015 as the No. 10 seed, becoming the first 10 seed in league history to accomplish that particular feat. And while the Paladins have seen the program reach some unprecedented heights in the time since under first Niko Medved and now Bob Richey, the Paladins are still after the only thing that has alluded them during that span, which is a SoCon Tournament title and a trip back to the NCAA Tournament.

Since losing that 2015 title, Furman’s main company at the top of the league–UNCG (2), East Tennessee State (2), Chattanooga (2), and Wofford (1) have all claimed SoCon Tournament crowns and trips to the NCAA Tournament. With that said, Furman came into the 2022-23 season as the prohibitive favorite to win the league, and on Saturday, they’ll get their first major test of the conference season. In fact, over the next five games, we’ll find out a lot more about the makeup of Bob Richey’s club and whether or not they can put themselves in a good position to achieve that feat in March, as the Paladins will face UNCG Saturday, travel to Chattanooga Wednesday (Jan. 18) and Wofford (Jan. 22), before taking on league-leading Samford (Jan. 25) at Timmons Arena and close out the month right where they start this key five-game stretch, which is on the road at UNCG (Jan. 29).

Four of the five opponents have won one or two SoCon Tournament titles since Furman began its rebuild, and the one that hasn’t, just happens to be the only unbeaten in league play to this point and projected to be Furman’s biggest challenger in the conference title race, in Samford.

With that said, UNCG has the makings of a team that could play the spoiler role in March for the Paladins’ dreams of cutting down the nets in Asheville, simply because of how they play defense. One of the common threads between UNCG and Furman coming into Saturday’s contest is that they both have played Stephen F. Austin this season, with the Spartans having dropped a 75-58 contest to Stephen A. Austin, while Furman held off a tough Lumberjacks team, with a 72-70 win over SFA on a day in which Mike Bothwell scored a career-high 36 points.

The other ingredient that makes the Spartans a team that has maybe an even better shot to win the title than any of Furman’s other main challengers atop the league is mainly because of the maturity and know-how left over from a team that won the 2020-21 Southern Conference regular-season and tournament titles, and that maturity forms the nucleus of this UNCG team.

Keyshaun Langley (13.5 PPG, 2.2 RPG), Kobe Langley (5.2 PPG, 2.9 RPG), Mohammed Abdulsalam (6.7 PPG, 6.3 RPG), and Bas Leyte (7.4 PPG, .4 RPG) were all part of that 2020-21 team that claimed the Southern Conference Tournament title. Along with that mature nucleus, head coach Mike Jones brought back Dante Treacy (7.4 PPG, 2.2 RPG) and has brought in some talent from the transfer portal.

After losing Donte Buckingham and Kaleb Hunter to graduation, head coach Mike Jones went out and added even more talented players from solid programs, in wing Keondre Kennedy (13.4 PPG, 5.2 RPG) and forward VCU transfer Mikeal Jones-Brown (10.9 PPG, 5.2 RPG), along with having one of the league’s better freshman players, in guard Donovan Atwell (3.9 PPG, 0.7 RPG).

UNCG’s defensive numbers are once again atop the league, which isn’t shocking. The Spartans have allowed only one of its five league opponents this season score 70 points, which was Samford, and they were able to claim a 70-68 win over the Spartans last weekend at the Greensboro Coliseum, handing the Spartans their only league setback this season. Under Furman head coach Bob Richey, the Paladins are just 9-28 under their current head coach when getting held to less than 70 points in a game.

UNCG leads the league in scoring defense (64.1) and have been even better against league competition, surrendering just 59.8 PPG through five league games. The Spartans also lead the league in field goal percentage defense (39.5%) and three-point field goal percentage defense (30.7%).

Furman counters with the league’s top offense, averaging a league-best 82.1 PPG, while boasting the league’s top team field goal percentage (49.8%). The Paladins shot 71.4% from the field the last time out against Mercer in the opening half of play.

Leading that highly efficient offense recently has been Marcus Foster (11.5 PPG, 5.1 RPG), who has three of his four 20-point scoring games in league action this season, is coming off a career-high 25 points in the Paladins’ 84-66 win at Mercer last time out.

Thru five SoCon games this season, Foster is averaging 15.8 PPG and 6.4 RPG, while also shooting 55.6% from three-point land and has a league-best 20 made threes through the first five league contests.

In Furman’s 13 wins this season, Foster is averaging 14.1 PPG and 5.8 RPG. In last season’s 58-54 road win at UNCG, Foster had 13 points, which included a 4-of-6 shooting effort from three. In Furman’s 58-56 home loss to the Spartans last season, Foster was one of two Paladins in double figures, however, went just 3-for-11 from the field and was 0-for-2 from long range.

Furman also has its reliable duo of Mike Bothwell (19.4 PPG, 3.4 RPG) and Jalen Slawson (14.4 PPG, 6.8 RPG), who recently crossed over the 100-win plateau of their respective careers in last week’s win at ETSU, are a major part of why the Paladins are so efficient offensively.

Bothwell led the Paladins in scoring in both games against UNCG last season, scoring 20 and 18, respectively, in those particular games.

Expect this one to be another close one, but Furman does the rare thing and gets to 70 at home, as its bench steps up big, led by Ben VanderWal (4.7 PPG, 1.5 RPG) and Alex Williams (3.8 PPG, 1.9 RPG) to get another huge SoCon home win.

Prediction: Furman 75, UNCG 69

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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