By Alex Crow
March Madness is coming into full swing, and with that more and more conference tournaments are beginning to shape who will be in the Big Dance and who will be left out. This afternoon marks the beginning of what is probably one of the more underrated conference tournaments in the SoCon. The conference got a lot of buzz in January after East Tennessee State became the first of only two teams all season to knock off LSU in Baton Rouge, a feat only replicated by then tenth-ranked Kentucky just a few weeks ago and, besides a questionable loss at home to Mercer in late January, the Bucs have put together a resume some bracketologists believe could be good enough for an at-large bid coming into the conference tournament. Besides ETSU, there are two other teams fighting for their tournament lives in Furman (25-6, 15-3) and UNC-Greensboro (23-8, 13-5). Because it would be highly unlikely for these two teams to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, it is going to be do or die in the SoCon Tournament, which should make for a great weekend of college basketball. For those who are not familiar with the Southern Conference, here is a crash course in preparing for the tournament.
Player To Watch: Isaiah Miller, UNCG
Miller has been the driving force behind UNCG’s third-place finish in the SoCon. He is second in scoring in the conference with 17.8 points per game while also being tied for the conference lead with 2.7 steals per game. With only one other Spartan barely averaging double figures in the scoring column, much of the offensive load rests on the shoulders of Miller, who is exceptional at getting to the basket. He is going to have to play big on defense as well, as fast break points are very necessary for a UNCG team that struggles to score, shooting only shooting 43.3% from the field, 63.5% from the free throw line, and an abysmal 32.4% from three. Teams are going to have to keep Miller out of the paint in order to slow down the Spartans.
Team To Watch: Furman Paladins
When I began this article early in the week, I was going to save this spot for the Wofford Terriers who had started strong in conference, but had lost their way by losing five straight. I tried to look on the bright side, seeing that they had lost all of the games by razor-thin margins, I thought they may be able to put something together in the tournament if they could right the ship. However, after two more losses last week, I just can’t buy the Terriers making too much noise in the tournament, coming in on a seven-game losing streak.
Because of this, the team you should be watching is the Paladins, as they have the best chance to knock off regular-season champion ETSU. Furman handed the Bucs their only loss in conference, outside of the baffling loss to Mercer in January, and look to have the best shot do repeat that feat in the SoCon tournament. The biggest statistic in Furman’s favor is that they are one of the best teams in the country at not turning the ball over, facing a team that thrives on forcing turnovers and converting them to points in the fast break. Offensively, all eyes are going to be on Jordan Lyons, the difference in the Paladins win over ETSU, who knocked down four three-pointers in that contest. With no team shooting the three exceptionally well in the conference, look for Lyons to try and get hot to tilt the game in his favor.
Tournament Champion Prediction: East Tennessee State Buccaneers
Yes, even after all the talk about ways that Furman could knock off the Bucs, I still believe ETSU is the better team and would beat the Paladins more times than not in the championship, should they face each other. Despite being very good in transition, the Bucs lost the game to Furman in which they forced 18 turnovers and won the game in which they only forced 10. This gives me more confidence in their half-court offense, showing that they can score against a set, Paladins defense, while also showing that they can also turn over one of the most efficient teams in the nation from a turnover standpoint. For the Buccaneers, look out for Trae Boyd III and Isaiah Tisdale, who combine to average 3.1 steals per game to lead the Bucs on defense, while on offense, you can expect a balanced attack with Bo Hodges and Boyd providing a combined 26.8 points per game to lead ETSU and both of them a threat to take over a game at any minute. Because the Bucs are so balanced, they will be a tough out for any team in the SoCon Tournament and are looking like the frontrunner to punch their ticket to what should be a solid seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Edited by Emma Moloney | firstname.lastname@example.org