By Kevin Sweeney
In recent years, the SoCon has continued to assert itself as one of the more competitive one-bid leagues in college basketball. While the depth of the league may be a little down this year, the coaching remains outstanding. Wes Miller (UNCG), Steve Forbes (ETSU), and Mike Young (Wofford) have seen their names come up in discussions for bigger jobs in recent years, with Miller and Forbes especially likely to move up the ranks in the near future. For now, those top coaches should make this league fun to watch once again.
A team that should be showing up on everyone’s preseason Cinderella lists, the Spartans have gotten better every year under Wes Miller and should be exceedingly dangerous again this season. UNCG returns 4 of its top 5 scorers, including pure scoring guard Francis Alonso and criminally underrated big man James Dickey, while also adding a pair of big bodies in Eric Hamilton (Wichita State) and Mohamed Abdulsalam who should give this team the ability to match up better with high-major clubs. Hamilton is an x-factor here, with high-level athleticism and even some shooting ability built into his 6-9 frame. If he can stretch the floor, it could make for an especially intriguing twin-tower look next to Dickey.
#2. East Tennessee State
My annual “Steve Forbes is an absurdly good coach” shout from the skies has arrived. Forbes took a team that lost a ton in 2016-17 and took it back to the top of the SoCon, and I have no doubt that he’ll do it again this season. A JUCO-heavy group of newcomers joins holdovers Bo Hodges & Mladen Armus, with a trio of former top-35 JUCO prospects joining the fray along with highly-touted freshman Carlos Curtis and App State transfer shooter Patrick Good. On paper, this team is deep, athletic, and supremely talented.
Virtually everyone is back for the Terriers, which stunned North Carolina in the non-conference last season but stumbled a bit in SoCon play to a still-respectable 11-7 mark. We all know the shooting and scoring exploits of Fletcher Magee, the hyper-efficient scoring guard who shot 44% from 3 on 10! attempts per game last season. It’s more than just Magee in the backcourt, with Nathan Hoover, Trevor Stumpe, and Storm Murphy all good shooters. I just don’t see how a defense that struggled last season gets much better this season, as the same size and athleticism flaws will be apparent on that end of the floor. That may cap this team’s ceiling a bit, but I certainly wouldn’t want to deal with the Terriers in March.
This year is when Bob Richey really gets tested, as the 2nd-year head coach of the Paladins loses the entire backcourt he inherited from Niko Medved. Losing 3 guys who could score and initiate the offense likely means that the offense will run through big man Matt Rafferty a lot more– an excellent passer with a unique skillset at the mid-major level. Furman should be good again on defense, but needs at least one of its guards to take a big step forward in the scoring department to help out Rafferty.
Graduating 5 seniors that accounted for over 2/3 of the Bears’ offense last season is always a challenge to replace, but I’m not selling all my Mercer stock yet. A solid backcourt seems to be in place in Ross Cummings (8.7 ppg) and breakout candidate Marcus Cohen (4.2 ppg), and the Bears bring in a solid 6-man freshman class that will be massive for the future of the program. That freshman group needs to provide some rebounding and overall depth for Mercer this season, but if they can do that, a top-5 finish seems reasonable.
The Bulldogs thoroughly collapsed last season after being picked by many as a dark horse in the SoCon, losing 22 games and finishing 7th in the conference. That drop-off was mostly due to being a complete trainwreck on defense, allowing opponents to shoot 49% from the field for the season after conceding just 43% of shots in 2016-17. With an impressive group of newcomers, there’s reason for optimism this season, with holdover Josh Sharkey running the show, a quartet of highly-touted guards in Brandon Austin (Alabama), Myron Gordon (JUCO), Steven Fitzgerald (4-star freshman), and Deandre Thomas (freshman) surrounding him, and USF transfer Ruben Guerrero anchoring the frontcourt. This team has the makings of a dark horse once again, but I have to see the defense improve before I can move them into my top 5.
I’m still a believer in Lamont Paris despite a brutal year one and some momentum-crushing offseason departures. Paris retools with perhaps the SoCon’s best recruiting class headlined by multipositional wing/forward Kevin Easley, PG Maurice Commander, and a pair of high-level transfers in former ASU big Ramon Vila and Fairfield import Jerry Johnson Jr. There may be some bumps in the road this season, but if Paris can keep this core together, the future is bright.
Duggar Baucom’s breakneck-paced offenses haven’t brought the same success at Citadel as they did at VMI as he enters year four of his tenure. It’s hard for me to see this being the breakthrough year– this system isn’t one that is likely to change how this team played at either end last season. They’ll score a ton of points at a fairly inefficient clip, concede a ton of points, and probably lose 18-22 games again.
#9. Western Carolina
I’m a fan of the Mark Prosser hire for the Catamounts, taking over for long-time head man Larry Hunter. Prosser brought in a few solid newcomers late in the cycle, including bruising JUCO big man Carlos Dotson who should play key minutes right away. Pairing Dotson with Marc Gosselin should form a pretty good frontcourt for WCU, but this team’s best chance of moving up the standings is getting better guard play than they got last season and that doesn’t appear likely.
Running it back from a bad team is always tough to evaluate, and that’s what the Keydets do this season. Bubba Parham should be one of the conference’s top scorers after averaging over 14 per contest last season, but I’m just not sold on the rest of the roster. Success this year would be staying below the 20-loss plateau for the first time in the Dan Earl era.
All-Conference First Team:
- Fletcher Magee– Wofford (22.1 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 1.7 apg, .484/.439/.907)
- Francis Alonso– UNCG (15.6 ppg, 2.4 rpg, 2.9 apg, .412/.401/.869)
- Zane Najdawi– Citadel (15.5 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 1.0 apg, .513/.407/.711)
- Matt Rafferty– Furman (11.2 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 2.8 apg, .598/.333/.719)
- James Dickey– UNCG (8.9 ppg, 8.4 rpg, 1.3 apg, .536/.000/.583)
Player of the Year: Fletcher Magee (Wofford)
The defending POY Magee is the clear choice again here. He’s one of the elite pure shooters in recent CBB history, making big shot after big shot after being just completely smothered by opposing defenses. He’s on pace to eclipse 2,500 career points, which would be quite an achievement.
Breakout Player: Marcus Cohen (Mercer)
Cohen broke into the rotation as a true freshman last year on one of the most veteran teams in the country, and should be penciled in as the Bears’ starting point guard. He just has to prove that he can shoot the ball after only making one 3 last season. If he can’t at least threaten the defense from outside, it will hurt the flow of the offense.
Newcomer of the Year: Isaiah Tisdale (ETSU)
Tisdale comes to Steve Forbes’ group from one of the best JUCO programs in the country in Vicennes University, where he averaged over 17 points per game en route to earning All-American honors last season. Ranked #15th nationally among JUCO products per JUCORecruiting.com, Tisdale should slot in at point guard from day one and contend for all-conference honors.