By: Sammy Clough, Sports Editor
After almost eight weeks of battle, the Southern Conference men’s basketball season has finally reached its pinnacle. The 10 SoCon teams will all make the journey to Asheville, N.C. starting March 8 to determine a champion and an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
One of the most competitive conferences in the nation, the SoCon is the only conference to sport four 22-win teams. The top four teams are separated by just five games, setting the scene for a tournament of arguably the best competition the conference has ever seen.
With just two games left in the season, there is little left but seeding to be decided for the 10 teams competing for the SoCon title. After eight weeks of play, here is what we have learned about each team, ordered by current standings, going into the tournament:
VMI: 2-14 Conference, 8-20 Overall
The VMI Keydets have had little success since rejoining the SoCon in 2014. In the five seasons since returning from an 11-year stint in the Big South, the Keydets have finished in the bottom half of the conference with a losing record each year. This year has proven to be no different, as VMI finds itself with an abysmal 2-14 SoCon record going into the last week of the season. The Keydets’ two SoCon wins on the season were both against Western Carolina, who join them amongst the bottom of the conference. However, the one bright spot for the Keydets is sophomore sensation Bubba Parham. Parham is the reigning SoCon Freshman of the Year, and currently leads the conference in scoring with 20.6 points per game. As the projected tenth seed, VMI will face the seventh seed in the night game on the tournaments opening day.
WCU: 4-13 Conference, 7-23 Overall
Western Carolina joins VMI at the bottom of the conference with just four SoCon wins on the season. However, the Catamounts’ record does not tell the entire story. WCU has taken two road games to overtime, including a double overtime loss to Furman and most recently an overtime loss at UNCG. The Catamounts distribute their scoring well, with four players averaging over 11 points per game. Junior big man Carlos Dotson is second in the conference in rebounding with 9.4 boards per game and second in the conference in field goal percentage, shooting 60.8 from the field.
The Citadel: 4-12 Conference, 12-15 Overall
The Citadel Bulldogs round out the bottom tier of the conference joining WCU with four SoCon wins. The four Bulldog wins have come against the bottom half of the conference, defeating VMI, sweeping Mercer and defeating Samford in an overtime win Saturday. Despite the subpar record, The Citadel leads the conference in scoring offense with 85.5 points per game. While the Bulldogs can put up points with anybody in the conference, their downfall is their defense. They are currently last in the conference in scoring defense, giving up 85.3 points per game and effectively annulling their high-powered offense.
Mercer: 6-10 Conference, 11-17 Overall
Mercer finds itself among the middle of the conference with six wins this season. The Bears’ wins are somewhat deceiving, however, as they all come against the bottom half of the conference. This Mercer team is in the middle of the conference in about everything. They held their own against the conference’s top teams, but have not necessarily had any dominating victories. The Bears are in the median in almost every statistical category, and do not have a single player that can take over a game. However, the Bears could find themselves advancing in the tournament, as they will most likely face another middle-of-the-pack SoCon team come tournament time.
Samford: 6-10 Conference, 16-13 Overall
The Samford Bulldogs are one of the SoCon’s most confusing teams this season. Behind junior point guard Josh Sharkey, the Bulldogs won six conference games, including a comeback victory at Timmons Arena to defeat the Furman Paladins. Sharkey leads the league in assists with 7.5 per game and is second in the SoCon in steals with 2.7 per game. Sharkey recently set the Bulldog single-season steals record with 71 on the year, and with 6 assists Saturday, Sharkey became the all-time career assists leader in Samford history.
Chattanooga: 7-9 Conference, 12-17 Overall
Chattanooga is among the top of the SoCon’s middle teams this season. Excluding wins over VMI and WCU, all of the Moc’s conference wins were close. Their five other SoCon wins have all been at a margin of victory under five points. Similar to Mercer, UTC is statistically in the middle of the conference, and does not have a single player that jumps out of the stat sheet.
Furman: 11-5 Conference, 22-6 Overall
The Paladins currently round out the top four teams in the conference. With highly publicized wins over 2018 Final Four teams Loyola-Chicago and Villanova to go along with a 12-0 record to start the season, the Paladins are having a historic season. Furman climbed all the way in the AP polls to 23 in the nation, and with two regular season games left to play, Furman already matched its school-record for regular season wins set last season at 22. However, the Paladins’ conference record just took a hit after suffering an eight point loss at home against rival Wofford. Furman leads the conference in scoring defense, holding opponents to 65.5 points per game. The Paladins and SoCon Player of the Year candidate Matt Rafferty hope to ride their historic season to their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1980.
ETSU: 12-4 Conference, 22-7 Overall
ETSU has an up and down conference season despite sporting the third best record in the league. The Buccaneers started conference season by blowing out Furman at home, only to suffer a 30-point loss when traveling to Greenville to rematch the Paladins. ETSU gave Wofford its closest scare of the conference season, but came up short in an overtime loss in early February. To end the season, the Bucs travel to Greensboro to face UNCG before finishing at home against WCU. With only four losses, ETSU will finish between second and fourth in the conference depending on how the top teams close their season.
UNCG: 12-3 Conference, 23-4 Overall
The reigning SoCon tournament champions UNCG find themselves among the top teams yet again with a chance to receive back-to-back bids to the NCAA Tournament. Coach Wes Miller’s squad has once again dominated most of the SoCon, only losing to Furman and twice against Wofford. Lead Preseason All-SoCon player Francis Alonso, the Spartans have secured one of the top four spots in the conference, and look to repeat as conference champions.
Wofford: 16-0 Conference, 24-4 Overall
The Wofford Terriers join second-ranked Gonzaga as the only teams in the nation to remain undefeated in conference play. The Terriers have a lethal offense, led by reigning SoCon Player of the Year Fletcher Magee. Magee, averaging 20.2 points per game, is joined by fellow sharpshooters Storm Murphy and Nathan Hoover. Senior Cameron Jackson provides the Terriers with strength and rebounding inside to go along with a SoCon leading 41.5 team three-point percentage. Wofford has dominated the conference all season, and with game against Chattanooga and Samford remaining, have clinched the SoCon’s number one seed and a first-round tournament bye.