By Alex Crow
Last year, I had the privilege of covering the SoCon tournament for the first time, talking about what a great team East Tennessee State had en route to what would have likely resulted in an at-large berth to the Big Dance, had they not knocked off the Wofford Terriers in the finals of the conference tournament 72-58 to wrap up their 8th conference tournament title. Unfortunately for the Buccaneers, just days after punching their ticket to the NCAA tournament, the tournament was canceled due to (what is hopefully) a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, thus wasting one of the best tournament teams out of the Southern Conference in many years.
But enough with last year’s history lesson, this year’s SoCon tournament is back with a few usual suspects clocking in as the favorites, along with some very viable dark horses if you’re feeling adventurous. I’ll be breaking down those contenders, potential spoiler teams, as well as players that will impact the SoCon Conference tournament in a big way, as it is looking highly likely that there will only be one team from the conference attending March Madness this year based on most bracketologists predictions.
With their OT win on the road at East Tennessee State, the Spartans clinch the regular-season southern conference title with a 13-5 record in conference play (18-8 overall). UNC-G was on the cusp last season, one of many contenders amidst a great conference, and this season were able to put together their first regular-season title since 2018 and did it with defense. UNC-G leads the conference in points allowed per 100 possessions (KenPom), is 2nd in the conference in points allowed per game and first in opponent field goal percentage (41.2%). They also lead the conference in rebounds per game and turnover margin, while holding opponent three-point field goal percentage to just 32.6%.
Any team that wants to beat Wes Miller’s top-seeded Spartans is going to have to maneuver past that juggernaut of a defense while keeping UNC-G off the glass. They’re also going to have to find a way to stop Isaiah Miller, who was great for the Spartans last year and has come back even better in 2020-21, averaging 19 points to go along with 4 assists, 2.5 steals and nearly 7 rebounds a game. UNC-Greensboro will go as far as Miller will take them, which is a similar refrain you would have heard last year had you read my preview. It is imperative for the Miller to play his best basketball and stay out of foul trouble if the Spartans want to get back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2018. The Spartans are currently in Joe Lunardi’s latest tournament field as the SoCon’s automatic qualifier as a 14-seed.
When researching for this article last year, I could not believe how low the Terriers were in the standings, victims of many close losses in conference play, and thinking “What if Wofford is able to put it together and get hot? Surely they can’t keep losing all of these close games.” Unfortunately, I was not bold enough to put Wofford in as a legitimate contender or even a dark horse, but that’s not a mistake that I’m going to repeat this year. The Terriers own the second seed in the conference tournament, finishing the regular season just a half-game behind the aforementioned Spartans, but come in to the SoCon tournament winners of three-straight, including a win over Furman, whom they swept in conference play. Unlike last year, the Terriers have been one of the luckiest teams in the country according to KenPom, essentially meaning they have won a disproportional number of close games. Much like last year, Wofford doesn’t often run away from teams, but they have been great down the stretch in games, which has allowed them to eke out many tightly contested wins. Statistically, nothing really jumps out for Wofford as a team, as they rank in the 4-8 range in the SoCon in nearly every statistical category. They lead the conference in limiting opponent’s rebounding, but besides that the Terriers play solid, team basketball and capitalize on other teams’ weaknesses, rather than their own strengths.
To beat Wofford, teams will likely have to speed up the pace of play, as Wofford plays at one of the slowest paces in the nation, clocking in with about 66 possessions a game. Teams will also need to figure out how to stop Storm Murphy, a senior guard averaging nearly 18 points a game while shooting 41% from 3, who also leads the Terriers with 4.4 assists per game. Murphy, paired with fellow senior guard Tray Holloway, will attempt to lead a relatively young Terriers squad, who play three freshmen and two sophomores over 15 minutes per game, back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2018-19, when the Terriers ran the table in the SoCon before winning the conference tournament.
Last season, much like East Tennessee State, the Paladins were on the bubble for most of the season before being upset in the SoCon Tournament quarterfinals by eventual runner-up Wofford. This year’s Furman squad has flown a bit under the radar, and, like last years Wofford team, has been among the unluckiest teams in the country (303rd out of 357 teams). The advanced metrics love Furman, as they are the highest-rated SoCon team in the NET and KenPom rankings, largely due to their offensive capabilities. The Paladins rank 62nd in points per 100 possessions with 109.9, easily outpacing the rest of the conference in that category, while only allowing a respectable 100.7 points per 100. They have the largest margin of victory out of SoCon teams, nearly doubling the margin of runner up Wofford, while leading the conference in field goal percentage. Furman ranks in the top four of nearly every offensive category, scoring nearly 80 points per game (3rd), ranking second in assists per game, and ranking second in both turnover margin and assist-to-turnover ratio. This is due in large part to Furman leading the conference with over eight steals per game. While Furman is not a great 3-point shooting team (34%), they are one of the best in the conference at defending beyond the arc, allowing opponents to shoot only 32%, ranking only behind The Citadel. Furman is really one of the only upper-echelon teams in the SoCon that is more offensively focused, and will push the pace more than the other frontrunners for the conference tournament championship.
Furman’s offense is led by a group of veterans, as Furman’s entire starting lineup is comprised of juniors and seniors who spread the offense around pretty equally. Four Paladins average double-figure scoring, with juniors Mike Bothwell and Noah Gurley leading the way with 15.8 and 14.8 points per game, respectively. Also contributing heavily to the Paladins’ success this year are seniors Clay Mounce and Alex Hunter. Mounce averages nearly 14 points per game as well as a team-leading six rebounds, while Hunter averages almost f0ur assists per game to lead Furman while also chipping in 11 points per game. Despite being a team that finished just third in conference play, the Paladins are the analytics’ favorite in this tournament. What is perhaps more surprising given their success over the last few years, they Paladins are looking for their first SoCon Tournament Championship and NCAA Tournament appearance since 1980! This could be the year that Furman is back in the Dance.
Dark Horse: East Tennessee State
We have already lamented the fact that ETSU was robbed of one of the best seasons in program history with the cancelation of the NCAA tournament last year, and the Bucs saw some regression from that crazy high in this season. This year saw ETSU fall to fifth place, a game over .500 in the SoCon, losers of three straight to end the regular season. Maybe it’s me feeling sorry for the Bucs lost season, or betting on their slow, grind it out style combined with great defense to help the Bucs make some noise in the tournament. Regardless, this is a quality team who, much like Furman, has been on the short end of the stick in many close games (ranked 314/357 in Luck, per KenPom). It is important to remember that ETSU routed Wofford at home in mid-February, so it is a team that, when they are able to get it going on offense, their defense can be really tough on their opponents (#1 scoring defense, 2nd in FG% defense).
The Buccaneers are led by junior Ledarrius Brewer, scoring nearly 17 points per game, and freshmen Damari Monsanto, averaging 12 points and seven rebounds per game. If ETSU is able to get these guys some help and cut down on their 14 turnovers per game, this is a very Virginia-esque team in terms of pace and style of play that can not afford to be overlooked with more highly rated teams looming later in the tournament. If they were to win, the Bucs would hear their name called on Selection Sunday for the first time since 2017.
Friday, March 5
#8 The Citadel vs #9 Western Carolina 5:30pm ET, ESPN+
#7 Mercer vs #10 Samford, 8pm ET, ESPN+
Saturday, March 6
#1 UNC-Greensboro vs Winner of The Citadel/Western Carolina, Noon ET, ESPN+
#4 Chattanooga vs #5 ETSU, 2:30pm ET, ESPN+
#2 Wofford vs Winner of Mercer/Samford, 5:30pm ET, ESPN+
#3 Furman vs #6 VMI, 8pm ET, ESPN+
The Southern Conference Tournament will be taking place Friday, March 5- Monday, March 8 at Harrah’s Cherokee Center in Asheville, North Carolina. After the 2 opening rounds illustrated above, the Conference Semifinals will be played on Sunday, March 7, with games at 5pm ET and 7:30pm ET, available on ESPNU. The SoCon Tournament Final will be played Monday, March 8 at 7pm ET, with that game being played on ESPN. As for all conference tournaments, the winner, regardless of prior record, will advance to the NCAA Tournament automatically. Currently, there are no SoCon teams projected as an at-large bid by ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, meaning that it is unlikely any team besides the tournament champion will be participating in March Madness.
Edited by Tyler Kading