Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) -
OUTLOOK: Much like several other conferences across the country, the makeup of the Southern Conference for the upcoming basketball season is vastly different than it was when the 2013-14 season came to a halt. The formerly 11-team league dropped four of its members in the offseason, which includes Davidson (finished 15-1 in conference play last season), Elon, Georgia Southern and Appalachian State. Those four programs moved on to other outlets, but the SoCon was able to bring up three programs to replace the teams in which it lost in the offseason. The Southern Conference brought back East Tennessee State University (which departed from the SoCon in 2005), and added Mercer and VMI. The addition of Mercer means the Southern Conference has two programs this season that were present in the NCAA Tournament last season, and everyone remembers the historic second-round defeat of Duke the Bears captured after winning the Atlantic Sun Conference's automatic bid. Although top program Davidson is gone, the competition is expected to be extremely high in the league this season.
After a fairly surprising run to the NCAA Tournament last season, Wofford enters the 2014 campaign as the favorite to take the conference yet again and head back to the national tournament. The Terriers bring back a whole host of players from a season ago, including star senior guard Karl Cochran. They'll be the ones with the target on their backs. Teams like Chattanooga, ETSU and Mercer will be the most likely to challenge for the top spot. East Tennessee State had won seven titles as a member of the SoCon before departing the league, and Mercer is the most recent Atlantic Sun champion and semi- Cinderella of the NCAA Tournament. Chattanooga appears ready to go this season with coach Will Wade - a former VCU assistant that brought over big-name transfer Justin Tuoyo - entering his second season with the team. The Mocs finished the season in second place at 12-4 in the SoCon.
UNC-Greensboro suffered a setback in the offseason with a handful of impact players from the 2013 campaign transferring out. But the Spartans retain last season's SoCon freshman player of the year in guard Tevon Saddler, so the hope of at least challenging for the top spot isn't entirely gone. VMI comes over from the Big South conference one year after leading the entire nation in scoring offense (88.3 points per game), so the Keydets won't be intimidated by a new landscape. Western Carolina finished 2013 with 10 wins in conference play, but the Catamounts will have to find a way to get back to double-digit league wins after losing three starters and one of the conference's best sixth man. Still, their coach Larry Hunter received a much-deserved three-year extension in the offseason, which means the team is at least trending in the right direction.
After a three-win campaign, Furman becomes a potential sleeper squad this season with some returning key players. Junior guard Stephen Croone has turned into one of the more reliable players in the conference, and shout fight his way onto an all-conference team come season's end. Samford and The Citadel will find it difficult to make strides toward the top of the Southern Conference this season. Samford lost five of its six top scorers from last year to transfer, including first-team All-Southern Conference forward Tim Williams. The Citadel awarded plenty of minutes to young players last season, and it showed (2-14 in conference play), but perhaps the decision to get those athletes experience will pay off. There will certainly be some polarizing results in the league this season, but with the addition of several competitive teams, the Southern Conference will be one to watch.
CONFERENCE CHAMPION: Wofford
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. Wofford, 2. Chattanooga, 3. ETSU, 4. Mercer, 5. VMI, 6. UNC-Greensboro, 7. Furman, 8. Western Carolina, 9. The Citadel, 10. Samford
TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:
WOFFORD: The Terriers, who finished last season at 20-13, 11-5 in SoCon play, will be looking to get back to the NCAA Tournament once again after picking up the league's automatic bid. There's no reason to think they'll do otherwise after bringing back almost every single piece from a year ago. Karl Cochran, who was a First-Team All-Southern Conference member and the SoCon Tournament MVP, is back for his senior season. Cochran averaged 15.7 ppg , 5.0 rpg and 3.0 apg to lead his Terriers in 2013. He's joined by Third-Team All-SoCon player Lee Skinner (11.1 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 2.0 apg), who provides Wofford with a presence down low. The 6-foot-6 Skinner isn't the biggest player in the world, but he led the team in rebounding during the 2013 campaign. Last season's freshman guard duo of Spencer Collins (12.5 ppg, 3.1 rpg) and Eric Garcia (7.3 ppg, 2.5 apg) will be even better this year after getting an entire season to learn the ropes. With the leadership of Cochran and Skinner, and the explosiveness of the young guards plus a solid class of four incoming freshman, the Terriers appear poised to repeat as the conference champions in 2014.
CHATTANOOGA: Those VCU assistant coaches are really adept at earning jobs all across the country. Under Shaka Smart's tutelage, Will Wade was able to land the coaching job at Chattanooga (18-15, 12-4) a year ago. Now in his second season, Wade figures to take a 12-win conference program and make it even better than it was last year. But to move forward, Wade will first have to find a replacement for the Southern Conference's Defensive Player of the Year in Z. Mason (18.1 ppg, 9.7 rpg, 92 blocked shots), who graduated in the offseason. Mason's role with the team last year could possibly fall to the VCU transfer Justin Tuoyo, a 6-foot-10 redshirt sophomore forward. Junior college transfer Duke Ethridge (6-foot-6) is projected to pick up some of the slack in underneath scoring, and the Mocs are hopeful junior college transfer point guard Jacolby Mobley will be as solid as advertised. Guard trio Casey Jones (12.2 ppg, 6.2 rpg), Ronrico White (10.8 ppg) and Martynas Bareika (9.4 ppg) are all coming back for the Mocs this season in what should be a run toward the top of the conference.
ETSU: East Tennessee State (19-16, 10-8 Atlantic Sun) returns to the Southern Conference after a nine-year hiatus. The Buccaneers performed well in the Atlantic Sun, and upon returning to the SoCon should fare pretty well. The Bucs won seven SoCon titles in 25 years as members of the conference, so the program knows the landscape fairly well at this point. ETSU returns four of its top six starters from last season's above-average A-Sun campaign, including senior guard Rashawn Rembert (16.8 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 61 assists, 43 steals), who is already projected to be a potential First-Team All-Southern Conference player come year's end. The Buccaneers are fairly stacked at the guard positions, returning some key contributors from last season alongside Rembert. Jalen Riley (13.4 ppg, 64 assists), Lester Wilson (10.1 ppg, 3.5 rpg) and A.J. Merriweather (9.5 ppg, 6.3 rpg) are all returning. The biggest question mark for ETSU this season will be centered around which players will take over underneath the basket. The Bucs are missing some critical forwards, like Hunter Harris, who started in all but one game for the team last year. Perhaps ETSU will be pleasantly surprised and get the most out of 6-foot-10 freshman Karl Overstreet and 7-foot junior Peter Jurkin.
MERCER: It was a season to remember for the Bears (27-9, 14-4 Atlantic Sun) in 2013 after making past 2012 Cinderella Florida Gulf Coast in the A-Sun tournament title game and then defeating second-seeded Duke in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Many people across the country caught Mercer fever, the same way they did when FGCU ran past Georgetown a year prior. But moving over to the Southern Conference in the offseason isn't the only thing that is on the mind of coach Bob Hoffman. The Bears lost all five of their starters from last season to graduation, which equals five of their top six scorers. In all, seven rotation players were seniors that were lost to graduation in the offseason, so Hoffman has a bit of work to do to get things back on track. Fortunately, the coach typically employs a deep bench in his coaching philosophy. Junior guard Ike Nwamu (8.3 ppg) is the team's leading returning scorer, while Darious Moten (4.8 ppg) and T.J. Hallice (2.8 ppg) all saw more than nine minutes per outing, and will expect their roles to increase. It may not be nearly as good of a season as the last one, but the Bears won't be too far off the pace in their first SoCon campaign.
VMI: The Keydets (22-13, 11-5 Big South) were one of the top teams in the Big South Conference last season, and led the entire nation in scoring average (88.3 ppg). But at the same time, they were one of the wort defensively (82.6 ppg allowed), so it all evens out. Still, this is another new program that will be partaking in its first season as a Southern Conference member with hopes of actually being competitive, and that should be the case. The problem for coach Duggar Baucom's team is having to replace two very, very talented scorers in big man D.J. Covington (20.1 ppg, 9.3 rpg, 106 blocked shots) and adept scorer Rodney Glasgow (18.9 ppg, 205 assists). The SoCon scheduling will most certainly be tougher than anything the Big South could offer, so the Keydets and Baucom should dip those expectations down just a bit. But led by an outstanding sophomore, QJ Peterson, and a young talented pool of players, VMI should still compete. Peterson finished second on the team with 19.0 ppg as a freshman, so without Covington and Glasgow, the scorer's role will be his entirely.
UNC-GREENSBORO: Talk about bad timing for the Spartans (14-18, 7-9). Last year's leading scorer, Kyle Cain (15.4 ppg, 8.9 rpg) somewhat inexplicably decided to turn pro after his junior season, so UNCG will be without last year's go-to player. Here's the bad timing part: Three players with eligibility left after last season decided to transfer away from UNCG, which seriously depleted the team's roster. But at least it wasn't four. Star sophomore guard Tevon Saddler returns after reportedly considering transferring after last season. The then-freshman was second on the team in scoring (12.5 ppg) and averaged 3.8 rpg. He won the SoCon's Freshman of the Year award following that campaign, but will now have to step up and be the man all by himself. Forward Kayel Locke (11.6 ppg, 4.4 rpg) will at least provide another outlet for the Spartans in terms of scoring and rebounding, but just about everything that occurred for UNCG in the offseason points at a mediocre campaign in the Southern Conference.
FURMAN: It was certainly a down year for Furman (9-21, 3-13) and first-year coach Niko Medved, but the young Paladins may be pulling it together this time around. Junior guard Stephen Croone was the only Furman player to average a scoring total in the double digits last season (19.1 ppg), and the all-around guard made strides in other areas as a sophomore (4.4 rpg, 112 assists, 50 steals). This year Croone is expected to compete for a possible SoCon Player of the Year award, assuming he can cut back on the ghastly number of turnovers he committed in 2013 (108). The young Paladins also return second-leading scorer Kendrec Ferrara (9.8 ppg, 4.9 rpg), third-leading scorer Larry Wideman (9.0 ppg) and add a host of freshman talent. Maybe this year isn't the one for the Paladins to challenge for the Southern Conference title, but there's only one senior and four juniors on the roster (Aaron O'Neill), so the future looks bright for Medved's team.
WESTERN CAROLINA: Coach Larry Hunter received a three-year contract extension before the season started, and after the season the Catamounts (19-15, 10-6) had last year, it appears he deserves it. But there's a problem moving forward - Western Carolina took a serious hit after the 2013 campaign thanks to player turnover. The team's leading scorer, Trey Sumler (17.4 ppg, 4.3 apg, 4.0 rpg), is no longer around. It's tough replacing an all-league guard, but it's even tougher replacing a team's top two scorers. Brandon Boggs (12.5 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 26 blocked shots) is also gone, so the scoring duties will likely fall on James Sinclair, who averaged 11.8 ppg last season with 4.7 rpg. Returning role players for the Catamounts include Justin Browning, Rhett Harrelson and Mike Brown, but the Cats may also be relying a bit on a freshman recruiting class that includes four players. After losing so much talent, Hunter will have to prove how masterful of a coach he really is to try and touch 10 conference wins again.
THE CITADEL: It was an absolutely dismal season in the Southern Conference for The Citadel (7-26, 2-14) last year, but the Bulldogs are ready to move past it. Although he has a 31-94 overall record in four seasons at the helm, coach Chuck Driesell was invited back for his fifth and final year of his contract. Leading scorer and swing man Matt Van Scyoc (14.3 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 23 blocked shots) transferring hurts the Bulldogs considerably, but the return of now- senior guard Ashton Moore (14.1 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 3.6 apg) means the Citadel has a go-to scorer when it needs a few points. Brian White (11.2 ppg, 5.5 rpg) returns after a stellar freshman season for the Bulldogs, along with a whole host of other role players from a year ago. Driesell should be crossing his fingers that playing a handful of young players a season ago in order to get them minutes will pay off, because otherwise his job will be on the line. A program can only finish in the basement so many times before the athletic department decides it is time for a change.
SAMFORD: Samford (13-20, 6-10) didn't finish at the bottom of the league standings last year, but it may be hard to avoid the basement this season after losing so much from the team's roster. Over the past two seasons, then- Bulldogs coach Bennie Seltzer lost 14 players to transfer. The latest wave of exports included five of the team's top six scorers, including First-Team All- Southern Conference forward Tim Williams (17.6 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 45 blocked shots), who was the team's leading scorer last season. That number also includes second-leading scorer Isaiah Williams (11.9 ppg, 103 assists). New coach Scott Padgett was an assistant with Samford, so you can be sure the system itself at Samford won't change too much after his elevation to head coach. Tyler Hood (7.9 ppg) is the team's leading returning scorer, and Brandon Roberts (4.0 ppg) will have to seek an increased role with the program. The Bulldogs have eight freshman and sophomores, so the team appears ready to build for the future.