By Kevin Sweeney
It was an absolute shame that the SoCon wasn’t a two-bid league last season. With a legit top-25 team in Wofford, a pair of other bubble teams in UNCG and Furman that had legitimate cases on Selection Sunday, and a very solid potential 13-seed in ETSU, this league was just terrific to watch. Unfortunately, Wofford was just too good for the rest of the league’s own good and stole some NCAA Tournament money from the rest of the league in the process. Regardless, one can only hope for a similar season in 2019-20– the key to any good mid-major league is good coaching, and the SoCon has that in droves.
#1. East Tennessee State– In most years, being a top-80 team nationally in a league like the SoCon is enough to make you a true title contender and in many cases, to be seen as one of the most dangerous mid-majors nationally. Last year, it got ETSU 4th place in its own conference. This year, the Bucs won’t get overshadowed: with their top six scorers back from a season, the addition of a pair of impact transfers, and one of the better mid-major coaches in the country in Steve Forbes, this team should be seen as a legit Cinderella type as we enter the 2019-20 season. Forbes has guards for days– shot-makers in Tray Boyd and Patrick Good, playmakers like Daivien Williamson and Isaiah Tisdale, and a do-it-all guy in Bo Hodges who those in Johnson City have raved about as a breakout star this offseason. This team is deep, talented, and crushes you on the boards. That’s a very good recipe for success at any level.
#2. UNC-Greensboro-– It’s officially Isaiah Miller time at UNCG, as the dynamic lead guard will fully take the reigns this season after playing second fiddle to Francis Alonso for three years under Wes Miller. Isaiah Miller is one of the most electrifying players in mid-major basketball– video of him posting a 50-inch vertical over the summer made waves, but he’s also an elite defender and a high-level finisher at the rim. He’ll presumably step into a more traditional point guard role this season, and a lot will be expected from sophomore Kaleb Hunter and Old Dominion transfer Michael Huiett as secondary pieces in the backcourt. Pair that trio with a pair of steady bigs who know their role in James Dickey and Kyrin Galloway, and Wes Miller has a core that can contend once again for a SoCon title.
#3. Wofford— So much was made about Wofford’s shooting a season ago as the reason for their remarkable 30-5 season, but in my mind, the emergence of a pair of frontcourt stars in Cameron Jackson and Keve Aluma was the true reason for the incredible jump. The Terriers were terrific on defense and on the boards a season ago, and that had tons to do not just with Jackson but with Aluma, an athletic multipositional player who dominated on the glass and provided rim protection when on the floor. Expect Jay McAuley to run very similar action to mentor Mike Young, and with Storm Murphy and Nathan Hoover back, he probably has the shooters to have a very dangerous offense. I’m more skeptical that the Terriers can replicate anything close to what they did on defense with the graduation of Jackson and the transfer of Aluma to Virginia Tech.
#4. Furman– Just five players in college basketball history have put together a season averaging over 17 points, 9 rebounds, and 4 assists per game. One of those was Matt Rafferty, the mid-major version of Ethan Happ who led Furman to its best season in program history a season ago. Replacing a big man who impacted the game in literally every area like Rafferty did will be a monumental challenge for Bob Richey. More offense will run through the guards– namely dynamic shooter Jordan Lyons and steady game manager Alex Hunter. For this team to win 20+ games, uber-talented forward Noah Gurley has to have the breakout year most expect. Gurley flashed incredible promise as a freshman, and guys with his skill level at 6-8 don’t often wind up in the SoCon.
#5. Samford– Scott Padgett has an elite-level point guard at his disposal in Josh Sharkey, and that’s about as good a place to start as there is. Sharkey put it all together in 2018-19 after two solid seasons to open his college career, improving his scoring ability and serving as the engine of an offense that was all kinds of fun to watch a season ago. He’s surrounded by tons of backcourt talent, but I’m worried that much of this team’s defensive improvement from a horrific 2017-18 was due to the inside presence of Ruben Guerrero. Guerrero posted a block rate over 8% last season and was a steady inside presence for Padgett’s bunch. They’ll need someone to step up in his absence: perhaps Murray State transfer Jalen Dupree can be that guy after showing flashes but never quite putting it together for the Racers.
#6. Mercer– I certainly wasn’t the biggest fan of not letting legendary coach Bob Hoffman depart Mercer on his own terms, but Mercer did make a killer hire in Purdue assistant Greg Gary to take over the program. Gary was responsible for Purdue’s offensive renaissance over the past few seasons, helping the team transition from a team that played everything through the post to a guard-dominant scheme in one year while still posting some of the most efficient numbers in the nation. He doesn’t inherit an empty chest– Ross Cummings and Ethan Stair are very nice pieces for a transition year, and West Virginia transfer Maciej Bender should be solid in the SoCon. Gary has made some nice recruiting headway both on the transfer and prep markets early on and will do very well at Mercer long-term.
#7. Western Carolina– WCU pretty much runs it back in year two for Mark Prosser, returning over 87% of their possession minutes from a season ago per T-Rank. While it was a trying year one for Prosser, he did find two surefire building blocks in double-double machine Carlos Dotson and impressive young scoring guard Kameron Gibson. What did the Catamounts in was turnover margin: no team turned it over at a higher rate a season ago than WCU, but the Catamounts were one of the worst teams in the nation at forcing turnovers. That’s created a possession disparity that is nearly impossible to overcome, and that has to be priority #1 for Prosser to fix this season. The addition of a steady-handed ballhandler in Northern Kentucky transfer Mason Faulkner should help in that area, but it will take a team effort and possibly some stylistic changes to fix a margin that dire.
#8. Chattanooga– It’s hard not to feel bad for Lamont Paris, who inherited a program in flux following the Matt McCall era two seasons ago and has been caught in a brutal transfer cycle. Young players get force-fed minutes because of a lack of options, they put up big numbers, and then they transfer up in the offseason. Then, because of a lack of options, more young guys get big minutes and the cycle continues. Losing a legit star in Kevin Easley was an absolute crusher– the big combo forward who could score in a variety of ways was a rare talent for a league like the SoCon. Paris was smart to recenter his strategy this offseason and go after some transfers of his own and had some success, grabbing a high-level shooting forward in Matt Ryan (Vanderbilt) and an athletic shooting guard (Trey Doomes), both of whom will be eligible immediately. Still, it’s hard to win with this much roster turnover– Paris desperately needs a year with some continuity.
#9. VMI– You can’t really blame Bubba Parham for wanting to transfer up from VMI– he was likely stuck on a team that had no prospects of winning much no matter how many scoring records he could set for the Keydets. Still, losing the dynamic shot-maker leaves Dan Earl without his only real difference-maker as we enter the 2019-20 season. Fixing a defense that was among the nation’s most porous will be necessary for any kind of upward mobility in the standings.
#10. The Citadel– Duggar Baucom keeps doing his thing at The Citadel: playing ridiculously fast and not winning many games. It’s hard to buy that the Bulldogs will be better in 2019-20 without Lew Stallworth and Zane Najdawi, though Baucom seems to be able find production from pretty much anyone. It wouldn’t surprise me if Central Connecticut State grad transfer Tyson Batiste has a massive statistical season as the point guard in Baucom’s run-and-gun offense, but I’d be very surprised if it led to many wins.
All-Conference First Team:
- Josh Sharkey (Samford)
- Isaiah Miller (UNC-Greensboro)
- Jordan Lyons (Furman)
- Nathan Hoover (Wofford)
- Jeromy Rodriguez (ETSU)
Player of the Year: Isaiah Miller (UNCG)
Miller is the definition of a nuclear athlete. Whether or not that 50-inch vertical is a touch inflated, he’s definitely one of the most explosive vertical leapers in college basketball. He’s also a ballhawk who gets his teams lots of great looks in transition and is terrific at the rim. He has a chance to have a terrific year, especially if he can continue to improve his outside shot.
Breakout Player: Noah Gurley (Furman)
An athletic, skilled combo forward with the body of a future NBA player, Gurley has star potential. The biggest thing for him is consistency– last season, he had just one stretch in which he scored in double figures in three straight games. With Matt Rafferty gone, Gurley will be looked to be a more consistent offensive force. If he can become that, the Paladins have as good a chance as anyone to win this conference.
Newcomer of the Year: Matt Ryan (Chattanooga)
Ryan could have without a doubt wound up at another high-major program after electing to grad transfer from Vanderbilt this offseason– literally every team in America can use an immediately eligible high-level shooter like Ryan. Playing at UTC should give Ryan the opportunity to demonstrate his all-around game to professional scouts, and he should see a featured role in the offense from day one. Expect a big year.