Date and Time: Jan. 14, 2022/6 p.m. EST (ESPNU)
Game: Chattanooga (11-7, 3-2 SoCon) at Samford (11-7, 5-0 SoCon)
Venue and location: Pete Hanna Center (5,000)/Birmingham, AL
Coaches: Chattanooga-Dan Earl (84-146, 8th yr)/Samford–Bucky McMillan (38-31, 3rd yr)
Series: 108th meeting/Chattanooga leads 66-41
Brief Preview: Defending Southern Conference champion Chattanooga heads to Homewood, AL., to take on a Samford basketball team that is hopeful of removing Chattanooga’s crown and placing upon their collective heads by the end of the season, and the two will square off in a huge Southern Conference basketball game Saturday evening before a nationally-televised contest on ESPNU.
Bucky McMillan’s Bulldogs, who won six-straight to open the season before losing seven-straight, have since won five-straight since opening league play. Still following? The seven-game losing streak for the Bulldogs happened to coincide with injuries to both point guard Ques Glover and sharpshooter Cooper Kaifes, and then the current five-game winning streak has followed in line with this new lineup having gained a certain chemistry and the evolution of Jaron Rillie (6.1 PPG, 2.6 RPG) and Bubba Parham (9.3 PPG, 2.8 RPG) understanding their respective roles running this basketball team while Glover is on the mend.
Glover is expected to return sometime this month, which also has Samford basketball fans excited about the prospects of a magical run down the stretch this season, much the same as the Bulldogs had down the stretch into the Southern Conference Tournament last year, which saw the Bulldogs win nine out its its last 11 games to close out the 2021-22 campaign entering the tournament in Asheville.
The Bulldogs have continued that momentum garnered on the SoCon hardwood down the stretch last season and parlayed that into a strong start in league play this season. In fact, Samford’s last home defeat to a Southern Conference team was 364 days ago, as the Bulldogs dropped an 88-85 contest on the Pete Hanna Center home hardwood to East Tennessee State on Jan. 15, 2022. Since that lost, all the Bulldogs have done is win its last nine games against SoCon foes on the home hardwood, and one of those homecourt wins last season came against the eventual champion Mocs, 80-72, handing the Mocs one of their five SoCon regular-season losses last season.
Supplementing the strong start to league play for the Bulldogs this season has been solid play on both ends of the court. Offensively, the Bulldogs rank second in scoring offense (78.6 PPG) and lead the league in field goal percentage offense (50.4%), as well as three-point field goal percentage (43.4%) and three-pointers made per game (12.4).
The Bulldogs are also getting the job defensively, ranking fourth in the league in field goal percentage defense (43.0%) since the start of conference play. The two pillars offensively with Glover out have been Logan Dye (13.3 PPG, 5.5 RPG) and Jermaine Marshall (11.3 PPG, 6.4 RPG), and that duo has stepped up their play even more since the start of Southern Conference play, with Dye playing like a contender for Southern Conference Player of the Year, ranking second to only Chattanooga’s Jake Stephens (22.1 PPG, 10.5 RPG, 3.7 APG), averaging 19.6 PPG through five league contests.
The bench is contributing for McMillan’s Bulldogs, too, and that was a knock-on Samford last year, which was they had as good of a starting five as anyone in the league, but their depth wasn’t what some of the other top conference teams had. They problem has addressed this season, and Samford is getting better than adequate production in that department, with A.J. Staton-McCray (6.9 PPG, 3.2 RPG) giving the Bulldogs minutes off the bench.
In an interesting twist, Samford’s Parham, who was recruited by Chattanooga’s Dan Earl to play at VMI when Earl was the head coach of the Keydets, now faces his former head coach as a Samford Bulldog.
For Earl’s Mocs, it’s about the here and now. Anything accomplished last year seems like a distant memory, as the Mocs chase another SoCon crown this season. It’s almost a completely different team, but it has a similar look to Southern Conference fans, with former VMI head coach Dan Earl on the sidelines, and former VMI standout center Jake Stephens being the centerpiece of pretty much everything the Mocs do on the offensive end of the floor.
He’s the main cog of the wheel in the Mocs’ motion offense, and he was a big reason the Mocs shot it at such a high percentage last time out, as the Mocs made 60.8% of his shots from the field last time out against Western Carolina. Stephens himself has put together back-to-back games of 35 points and 10 rebounds, as he posted 35 points, 10 rebounds and dished out five assists in the Mocs’ 95-76 over Western Carolina. It was the first time a Mocs player has posted back-to-back 30/10 games since that great 1993-94 Chattanooga team and sharp-shooting guard Chad Copeland turned the trick for the eventual Southern Conference champions. Perhaps Stephens doing that this season is a good omen for UTC this season.
Like Samford, Chattanooga is excellent offensively, ranking second in the league in scoring offense (79.7 PPG), as well as three-point field goal percentage (38.8%) and three-pointers made (216/12.0 PG).
Like Marshall and Dye for the Bulldogs, Stephens has what has proven to be an outstanding supporting cast this season, with transfer guards Dalvin White (8.9 PPG, 2.5 RPG) and Jamal Johnson (13.6 PPG, 4.1 RPG), as well as wing Demetrius Davis (8.9 PPG, 3.2 RPG) contributing most of that offensive production. A.J. Caldwell (4.7 PPG, 3.9 RPG) continues to be the league’s ultimate glue guy. The Mocs are 7-1 when getting to the 80-point mark this season.
This should be an outstanding basketball game, but I think the Bulldogs hold serve in the Pete Hanna Center.
Prediction: Samford 81, Chattanooga 78
VMI (5-13, 0-5 SoCon) at Wofford (10-8, 2-3 SoCon), 7 p.m. (ESPN+)
Series: 30th meeting/Wofford leads 21-8
Brief Preview: These two teams look vastly different than the two teams that met last March, with both even having a new head coach for different reasons. Andrew Wilson has succeeded Dan Earl, who is now the head coach at Chattanooga, and he’s looking to build this VMI team built around defense and shooting the basketball.
Though the Keydets have lost their first five games to start league play, they shoot the three as good as anyone in the league when they have their shooting touch. The Keydets come in ranking second in the league in three-point field goal percentage (38.9%) and also rank second in the conference in three-pointers made (191/10.6 PG). The leader of VMI’s guard-oriented team is one of the few holdovers from a year ago, in Sean Conway (14.3 PPG, 5.9 RPG), who is the mature veteran among one of the youngest teams in Division I college basketball this season.
The Keydets have some exceptional quickness at three of their four guard spots, with Tony Felder (10.1 PPG, 2.1 RPG), Asher Woods (14.6 PPG, 4.5 RPG), and Rickey Bradley Jr. (7.9 PPG, 5.3 RPG) all possessing excellent quickness off the bounce. Woods actually leads the Keydets in scoring this season, , ranking second in minutes played (34.2 MPG) in the SoCon this season.
The Keydets also have a young, but talented big man, in Tyler Houser (11.0 PPG, 4.0 RPG), who is improving with each game. Houser has a higher ceiling in terms of being a more polished talent and where he can rise to developmentally than Jake Stephens when he arrived at VMI.
Stephens’ talents were ultimately a credit to Dan Earl and his staff for seeing something in Stephens those others overlooked in the recruiting process. Houser is the same type of player in that respect, although his post moves seem to be even better than that of Stephens when he arrived in Lexington, and that’s not to mention he’s also a proficient perimeter shooter, connecting on an impressive 39.7% (30-of-68) from three-point land this season.
Wilson, who is a defensive tactician is still in the process of getting the Keydets where he wants them to be from a defensive standpoint, however, as VMI ranks ninth in the SoCon in scoring defense (75.7 PPG) as well as field goal percentage defense (35.7%).
Wofford has played up and down under interim head coach Dwight Perry, and you see flashes of what they can do, as evidenced by the Terriers’ final non-conference win over Texas A&M. Perry was widely regarded as one of the top assistant coaches at the mid-major level even before Jay McAuley resigned as the head coach.
Whatever the full story is with McAuley and the full details of what happened have yet to be revealed, the Terriers have shown they are talented at times, while at others seem disconnected and without good floor leadership. I find myself wondering if some of that arguing between teammates going on in the game isn’t a byproduct of having an in-season coaching change. Whatever the reason, it seems as if other teams hit a scoring run in a game, like Samford did the other night, the Terriers seemingly let things snowball for whatever the reason.
Since entering SoCon play, this team has struggled shooting the basketball from the perimeter. Through five SoCon games, the Terriers have connected on just 24.3% (28-of-115) from three-point land. That has been a hallmark of Terrier teams dating back over a decade to when the Terriers won their first of five SoCon titles in a 10-year span.
The best shooter for Wofford has been freshman Jackson Paveletzke (14.6 PPG, 2.6 RPG), who is a big reason for the Terriers’ win at Texas A&M earlier this season. Paveletzke, in fact, might be the league’s top freshman. In fact, it wouldn’t be a stretch at all to say the winner of the SoCon Freshman of the Year will likely be on one side or the other this evening at the Jerry Richardson Indoor Stadium.
Amarri Tice (3.6 PPG, 4.8 RPG) is perhaps Wofford’s most gifted athlete, and has been fun to watch, with some highlight-reel dunks since the start of league play. Tice has replaced Kyler Filewich (6.8 PPG, 4.7 RPG) in the starting lineup.
Teams continue to focus their attention on B.J. Mack (15.4 PPG, 5.1 RPG) in the low post, as he has been the focal point of the Terrier offense with shots not falling from the perimeter with regularity this season. That has made it even tougher on the talented Wofford big man.
VMI is gritty and they’ll hang around for a while in the second half but look for the Terrier to pull away in the final 10 minutes and get a double-digit win.
Prediction: Wofford 72, VMI 58