We’ve successfully made it through 10 games on the Southern Conference basketball hardwood, and at the top of the league, it has become a three-team race to the finish line over the final eight games.
As I write this, it’s the first day of the most decisive month of the college basketball season, meaning March Madness is creeping ever closer, as the days count down towards the Harrah’s Cherokee Center and the 2023 Southern Conference Tournament in Asheville, which will commence March 3. Ten teams will battle it out over the shortest month of the year to avoid having to take the floor on the tournament’s opening session.
With that said, here’s the SoCon power rankings as they currently stand entering the final month of the regular season. Well, at least as my best educated SoCon guess goes. But I am sure anyone can come with an educated guess and a viable argument in opposition. After all, we’re a long way from 2018-19 or 2019-20 when saying any other team than Wofford or East Tennessee State to follow were ever in the top spot either of those two campaigns would have been borderline blasphemous and could have even gotten you ex-communicated from any Methodist church that had an affiliation with Wofford.
- Furman (17-6, 8-2 SoCon)--Exactly a month ago, head coach Bob Richey’s Paladins ended 2022 with disappointment, as Furman’s 79-67 loss to Western Carolina in Cullowhee raised more than a few eyebrows. The Paladins, however, would rebound, winning eight of their nine games in the month of January, with the only other loss being a hard-fought 88-80 overtime set back in the exact middle of the month against UNC Greensboro at Timmons Arena. The Paladins responded following that loss to the Spartans to win their final four games of the opening month of 2023, forging a three-way tie atop the league standings, with wins over Samford (W, 91-84) and UNC Greensboro (W, 69-57), as the Paladins closed the month on a four-game winning streak, and have now won five-straight on the road. The Paladins open the month of February on Wednesday night against Jake Stephens-less Chattanooga. Keying Furman’s ultimate successes of late has been JP Pegues, who if he continues to play like he has over the past five games for the ‘Dins, Furman is certainly going be tough to beat down the stretch, as well as in Asheville. Over the past five games, Pegues is averaging 16.4 PPG, while ripping down 23 rebounds and dishing out 21 assists. The sophomore point guard scored a career-high 26 points in Furman’s 96-82 win at Wofford last week.
- UNC Greensboro (14-9, 8-2 SoCon)–Life had been good for head coach Mike Jones and his UNC Greensboro Spartans until running into the Paladin buzzsaw on Sunday afternoon inside the friendly confines of the Greensboro Coliseum. The 12-point loss to the Paladins snapped what had been a five-game winning streak by the Spartans, which was the longest of the Mike Jones short coaching tenure in the Gate City to this point. While it was a struggle once again offensively for the Spartans against Furman, it’s been the calling card for the better part of the past eight seasons, which has yielded three SoCon regular-season crowns and two SoCon Tournament crowns, along with standards for overall victories (172) and Southern Conference wins (97) since the start of the 2015-16 season. The biggest issue for the Spartans this season in losses has been the scoring struggles of their guards. Saturday, UNCG’s five primary backcourt players combined to score just 24 points, which was most notable in all-conference guard Keyshaun Langley (13.4 PPG, 3.0 RPG), who scored just four points after pouring in a game-high 24 in the 88-80 overtime win over Furman in Greenville. UNCG’s backcourt scored a combined 48 points on that occasion, connecting on an impressive 13-of-25 shots from the field. In Sunday’s home loss to the Paladins, Keondre Kennedy, Keyshaun Langley, Kobe Langley, Dante Treacy, Joryam Saizounou, and Donovan Atwell combined to shoot just 10 of-36 from the field in the 12-point setback. The season doesn’t get any easier for Mike Jones’ club, who head to Mercer (Feb. 2) and The Citadel (Feb. 4) for their next two games.
- Samford (14-9, 8-2 SoCon)–Samford was the talk of the Southern Conference just last week at this time, embarking on a trip to the Upstate of South Carolina, as Bucky McMillan’s club looked to solidify themselves as the clear-cut favorite to win the 2022-23 Southern Conference regular-season and tournament titles. However, things aren’t always what they might seem on paper, and for the Bulldogs, who are as close to full strength as they have been all season with the return of star guard Ques Glover (15.0 PPG, 2.5 RPG) last week. However, the Bulldogs hit a snag, dropping back-to-back Southern Conference games at Furman in overtime (L, 84-91) and on the road Saturday afternoon at the Jerry Richardson Indoor Stadium, dropping what was an 85-77 decision. While the Bulldogs are uber-talented, in comparison to the other two teams which they are tied with for first place in the league standings, they have been through a lot less hardwood battles over the past four or five years than say Mohammed Abdulsalam, the Langley twins, or either Jalen Slawson or Mike Bothwell. With that said, I would give the slight edge to both UNCG and Furman based on experience, but it’s evident the Bulldogs have more than enough talent to not only win the regular-season title, but also cut down the nets on Monday night March 6 in Asheville. Until Glover plays his way back into shape and up to game speed, the go-to-guy will continue to be Logan Dye (13.9 PPG, 5.5 RPG), who is having a career year for Samford. He is supplemented by two all-conference caliber performers, in Georgia Tech point guard transfer Bubba Parham (9.5 PPG, 3.4 RPG), as well as athletic wing Jermaine Marshall (11.6 PPG, 6.9 RPG). The Bulldogs will close out their three-game road trip with a game in Cullowhee against Western Carolina on Wednesday night before returning to the Pete Hanna Center Saturday to host East Tennessee State.
- Wofford (13-10, 5-5 SoCon)–If one had to describe interim head coach Dwight Perry’s Wofford team this season it would be dangerous. Perry has been tasked with taking over for the successful, young head coach Jay McAuley and helping the Terrier basketball program maintain its winning standard, despite the adversity and mid-season transition. It’s happened before in the SoCon, as instances have cropped up where coaches have–for different reasons–not been able to continue the remainder of the season. I remember about two or three years after Georgia Southern joined the Southern Conference in 1993, Frank Kerns was forced to step away after NCAA sanctions were levied against the Eagles’ basketball program, and a former Alabama assistant–Gregg Polinsky–was asked to lead the program with the interim tag attached. Polinsky is currently a member of Rick Barnes’ staff at the University of Tennessee as of March of 2022. More recently, Wes Miller took over the UNCG basketball program as an interim coach when Mike Dement stepped down abruptly in Dec. of 2011, while Bobby Cremins took a leave of absence in January of 2012, eventually retiring after the season. Mark Byington, who is currently the head coach of James Madison and was also the head coach at Georgia Southern later on, took on the interim tag at CofC for the remainder of the season, however, wasn’t hired at the end of the season. Scott Padgett’s situation at Samford when he embraced the interim tag to later take over as the head coach after the Bennie Seltzer project wasn’t working in Homewood in 2014. But while all those are great examples for Perry to look to, he’s had one all along just across the hall, in head football coach Shawn Watson, who assumed the interim duties after Josh Conklin was asked to step down in the middle of October. Watson later did enough to be hired full-time. For Perry, who has cut his teeth as a high-level assistant at both Furman and Wofford before being named interim head coach of the Terriers, has helped his team settle into a nice little rhythm heading into the final month of the season, winning two-straight at Chattanooga (W, 85-80) and at home vs. Samford (W, 85-77) in what was arguably the Terriers’ most-complete effort of the season, and Wofford could be a team you don’t won’t to face in Asheville. Especially considering the Terriers have one of the top inside-outside duos in the league, in guard Jackson Paveletzke (14.7 PPG, 2.7 RPG) and forward B.J. Mack (15.7 PPG, 5.0 RPG). The Terriers head to Johnson City to face East Tennessee State Wednesday night before traveling to Bon Secours Wellness Arena to face arch-rival Furman in Greenville at 6 p.m. Saturday night. The Terriers’ clash with the Paladins will be part of CBS Sports Network’s Saturday lineup.
- Western Carolina (12-11, 5-5 SoCon)–Western Carolina is the type of basketball team that could befuddle even mathematical savants like the late Albert Einstein or Isaac Newton. Figure out the theory of relativity or Bible code hidden within the Biblical text in multiple translations would have seemed easy-peezy in comparison to figuring out how the Catamounts were swept by The Citadel yet posted a double-digit win over Furman in Cullowhee to close out the 2022 calendar year. But for the most part, a glance at the Catamounts’ supremely talented lineup would probably have even Einstein and Newton erroring on the side of the team more of the high-end caliber that defeated Furman and competed in Homewood than the one that stubbed its toe twice already to perennial league cellar dweller The Citadel. That’s because like Wofford, head coach Justin Gray has a tremendous inside-outside basketball team when all the pistons are firing. Iowa State transfer guard Tre Jackson (14.0 PPG, 4.0 RPG) and Winthrop transfer Russell Jones (9.5 PPG, 2.7 RPG), while Morehead State transfer post presence Tyzhaun Claude (15.3 PPG, 8.5 RPG), who had an eye-popping 17 points and 17 rebounds in a Catamount loss in Charleston earlier this month. This is a Catamount team that literally lives and dies by the three-point shot, however, though the Catamounts average nine made triples per game, the Purple and Gold have only managed a combined total of eight in their last two in games against The Citadel and VMI. The nine made three-pointers per game currently have the Catamounts ranked fourth overall in the SoCon in made three-pointers per game, however, Western Carolina is shooting the basketball at just a 33.8% clip from three-point land this season, which ranks seventh in the SoCon. Western Carolina will host Samford Wednesday night in a 7 p.m. contest against the Samford Bulldogs at the Liston B. Ramsey Center, and the Catamounts will host Chattanooga Saturday in a 2 p.m. contest at the RAC. The Catamounts will be looking to put an end to a four-game losing skid to Samford when the two tip-it-up Wednesday night in Cullowhee.
- Mercer (11-12 overall, 4-6 SoCon)–Greg Gary’s Mercer Bears appear to have awakened from their early conference slumber and have started to both establish and enforce their brand of basketball against league opposition of late, having won four of their last five games, including back-to-back decisions against East Tennessee State (W, 71-67 OT) and on the road at The Citadel (W, 74-65) last time out, which followed an inauspicious 0-5 start to league play. The Bears’ most-recent success–a pair of back-to-back wins–can be attributed largely to the play of Jaylyn McCreary (15.3 PPG, 5.7 RPG). The South Florida transfer has put together back-to-back 26-point efforts in the wins over the Bucs and Bulldogs. Those consecutive standout performances were good enough to help McCreary bag SoCon Player of the Week honors. While scoring really hasn’t been an issue for McCreary individually this season, it has been for Mercer as a team, especially since kicking off league play. Through the first 10 Southern Conference games, the Bears have found that points have come at a premium, as reaching 70 points in regulation has become a chore. The Bears have failed to reach 70 points in regulation in nine out of 10 league games and are averaging a league-worst 60.1 PPG since the start of league play. But Gary’s Bears have figured out how to win rock fight type basketball games, and winning doesn’t have to look pretty. The Bears are set to face off against the only team (UNCG) to have defeated Mercer in its last five games, as UNC Greensboro pays a visit to Hawkins Arena Thursday night in a game slated for a 7 p.m. tip-off time. The Spartans were able to hand the Bears 59-48 setback at the Greensboro Coliseum just 11 days ago. The UNCG game kicks off a three-game homestand for the Bears, which will also feature games against VMI this Saturday in a 2 p.m. contest before closing out the three-straight in the friendly confines next Wednesday night, as the Bears close the homestand next Wednesday night when Samford comes to town for a 7 p.m. league tilt.
- Chattanooga (12-11, 4-6 SoCon) —There should be an asterisk applied to reigning Southern Conference champion beside Chattanooga’s current placement in the SoCon’s power rankings, and it should denote probably a No. 3 or 4 ranking “with Jake Stephens” and a No. 6 or 7 ranking “without Jake Stephens”. Simply put, the season took a severe negative turn when it was learned the league’s clear-cut favorite to win the league’s SoCon Player of the Year award suffered a significant hand injury at some point in UTC’s 77-69 home loss to Furman in what was a rematch of last season’s championship thriller in Asheville. After all, Stephens was the only player in Division I college basketball not named Zach Edey (Purdue) to average 20 points, 10 rebounds, three assists and two blocks per game. For Furman fans reading this, subtracting Stephens would be comparable to if Furman had suddenly lost Matt Rafferty to a significant injury for an extended amount of time during the 2018-19 campaign. Even with Stephens, however, life had been pretty difficult to start league play for first-year head coach Dan Earl’s Mocs. With Stephens, the Mocs were 3-4 in league games, with three losses coming to the three teams tied for first in the SoCon standings. Without Stephens, the Mocs have lost two of their last of three, however, the good news for Mocs fans is that UTC will head to Furman for Wednesday night’s clash having seemingly started to at least figure some things out without their all-everything big man against league arch-rival East Tennessee State in a Southern Conference road tilt this past Saturday. Following an afternoon, which saw the Mocs shoot a blistering 52.2% (12-of-23) from three-point range, helping off-set a modest 41.8% (23-of-55) overall shooting clip in Saturday’s 73-64 win over the Bucs, the Mocs will look to carry that momentum into a huge league tilt against the Paladins at Timmons Arena Wednesday night. More consistency will be required by guard Jamal Johnson (13.5 PPG, 4.1 RPG) and forward Demetrius Davis (8.3 PPG, 3.3 RPG) if UTC hopes to close the season strong, as Stephens is expected to miss an indefinite amount of time due to the significance of his injury. The Mocs are efficient offensively and shoot the three ball as well as any team in college basketball, ranking tied for first nationally in three-pointers made per game (11.5) along with Cornell heading into the midweek clash against the Paladins. That area we become an even bigger focal point without the reliable Stephens to throw to in the paint. The makeup of this Mocs teams is eerily similar to the 2019-20 Mocs, which were uber efficient offensively, with three-point shooting acumen as good as any in the SoCon, however, outside Stefan Kenic, who himself favored a more perimeter-oriented game, lacked a true post presence. That is essentially where the Mocs currently find themselves on the first day of February heading to Furman for a midweek clash with the Paladins. The final month of the season will tell us a lot about all 10 teams in the SoCon, however, perhaps no team more than the defending champions. Following Wednesday night’s battle in Greenville, the Mocs will head to Cullowhee to face Western Carolina for a 2 p.m. clash with the Catamounts at the Ramsey Center.
- East Tennessee State (8-15, 4-6 SoCon)–It’s now or never for Desmond Oliver’s East Tennessee State Buccaneers. A loss Wednesday night at home to Wofford wouldn’t necessarily be the final nail in the coffin for hopes of a top six finish in the regular-season, however, there are trends that, should the Bucs come out on the wrong side of the scoreboard for a ninth-consecutive time at Freedom Hall, that would be very concerning heading towards March Madness in Asheville. The most alarming of those trends is in the previous sentence, which is having dropped eight-straight on the home hardwood. What is so shocking is that the Bucs had essentially fortified Freedom Hall as mid-major basketball’s most difficult road venues for visiting teams under Steve Forbes. ETSU will take the floor against Wofford Wed night looking for its first home win since Nov. 30 against Mars Hill! The Bucs have a 3-9 record in Freedom Hall this season, having gone 1-9 against NCAA Division I competition. ETSU’s lone win over a Division I foe inside the suddenly unfriendly and quite frankly foreign confines of Freedom Hall came against Arkansas Little Rock (W, 84-76). In fact, this season “Freedom Hall” might as well have been re-named after some satellite Siberian gulag or prison camp that thrived during the Cold War when the former Soviet Union exerted its “sphere of influence.” With all that said, head coach Des Oliver has had his hands full in his two seasons in Johnson City, and his own mettle has been tested at times, with everything from unforeseen injuries, player departures and having to take some disciplinary action against others, as he tries to piece together a basketball culture that has been ravaged after the departure of Forbes and debacle that ensued after Jason Shay was unceremoniously shown the door after just one season as the head coach. That would be difficult for Bill Self or Tom Izzo to overcome. With that said, the Bucs have strengths and also glaring weaknesses. A strength is its post play, and if Jalen Haynes (13.6 PPG, 6.0 RPG) could have had a healthy Brock Jancek (5.3 PPG, 2.8 RPG) and Josh Taylor (8.4 PPG, 5.4 RPG) alongside in the paint for the entire season, the Bucs’ fortunes likely would have been a lot different. What’s hard to figure for Bucs fans is why ETSU continues to have such a poor shot selection when it comes to long range attempts. The 453 attempts aren’t a bad volume of shots, and in fact, is the second lowest in terms of attempts among the 10 league members. Only Mercer’s 385 attempted threes are less. A big reason as to why ETSU has struggled shooting from long range is due in large part to Jordan King (13.8 PPG, 3.9 RPG) struggling to connect from long-range this season after such a dynamic shooting performance in his first season as a Buc. After making 95 and shooting them at a 42% clip a year ago, the Bucs’ leading scorer has knocked down just 28.7% (45-of-157) from long-range this season. The good news is ETSU has a chance to garner a season sweep against Wofford to open college basketball’s most critical month before heading for league-leading Samford Saturday.
- The Citadel (9-14, 4-6 SoCon)–Ed Conroy’s first season has had its share of “ups” and “downs” in his return to the Lowcountry, and Monday night’s peculiarly placed game against WAC doormat Chicago State. That will be a game The Citadel fans will hope no one noticed, as the Bulldogs dropped a 76-75 home setback to the Cougars, with the ultimate buzzer-beating dagger Monday night being delivered by former Bulldog Brent Davis, who hit a runner in the lane as time expired to help the Cougars notch just their second road win of the season, with the other one also coming along the South Carolina coastline, as CSU also posted a 74-70 win at Sun Belt member Coastal Carolina exactly a week earlier. The former win over the Chanticleers snapped a 21-game road losing skid for the Cougars, so at least the Bulldogs won’t have to endure being the team CSU originally snapped the long road losing skid against. For the most part, the Bulldogs have been a tough out at McAlister Field House, and when the threes are dropping like they have at times this season, the Bulldogs have been tough to beat in any building. However, even having veterans like guards Austin Ash (15.2 PPG, 5.1 RPG) and Elijah Morgan (7.7 PPG, 3.1 RPG), who come from big-time winning programs at the highest level, the challenge of winning consistently in the SoCon for the Palmetto State’s military school has proven too much to overcome. Still, the Bulldogs remain in the thick of the race for a top six seed and an opening round bye in the tournament come March. The Bulldogs will host VMI Thursday night at McAlister Field House, and a season sweep of their arch-rival would make Monday night’s embarrassment but a distant memory.
- VMI (5-18, 0-10 SoCon)–Nine of the 10 SoCon members are realistically in the hunt for a top six seed, however, the Keydets need to essentially run the table in February to avoid the opening day of the SoCon Tournament and end up with a Top six finish. That simply won’t happen this season, however, avoiding a winless season in the league will be the motivation going forward into the final month of the regular season. For first-year head coach Andrew Wilson, the job is probably every bit as tough as he was told or anticipated when he arrived to take over a program and a job that was already tough without having to replace nearly all of his point production along with four starters, however, that certainly napalmed the situation. VMI also has one of the youngest basketball teams in the nation, and the experience garnered this season will have a priceless pay off three years down the road. The challenge for Wilson is less about coaching now and more team psychologist, as he will look to keep his team focused before having to launch his toughest recruiting pitch to keep the core of that talented freshman signing class around in Lexington for at least one more season.
My All-SoCon teams if the season ended today Feb. 1, 2023
- Jake Stephens (Chattanooga)
- Mike Bothwell (Furman)
- Logan Dye (Samford)
- Jalen Slawson (Furman)
- B.J. Mack (Wofford)
6. Stephen Clark (The Citadel)
7. Jermaine Marshall (Samford)
8. Tyzhaun Claude (Western Carolina)
9. Jaylyn McCreary (Mercer)
10. Jackson Paveletzke (Wofford)
11. Vonterius Woolbright (Western Carolina)
12. Ques Glover (Samford)
13. Keyshaun Langley (UNCG)
14. Keondre Kennedy (UNCG)
15. Jalen Haynes (ETSU)
Player of the Year to this point: Jake Stephens (Chattanooga)
Defensive Player of the Year to this point: Jalen Slawson (Furman)
Freshman of the Year to this point: Jackson Paveltzke (Wofford)
Coach of the Year to this Point: Bob Richey (Furman)
Best impact transfer so far: Tyzhaun Claude (Western Carolina)