2020-21 32×32: SoCon Preview

Building a strong mid-major conference is so often driven by hiring strong coaches, and that is what the SoCon has done in the last several years. In each of the past two seasons, the conference has had an at-large-caliber team, and after that year the coach (Mike Young and Steve Forbes) has earned an ACC job as a result. The conference has at least two more future high-major coaches in its ranks in UNC-Greensboro’s Wes Miller and Furman’s Bob Richey. The SoCon has been incredibly competitive in recent years and should be once again in 2020-21. Let’s dive in:

  1. UNC-Greensboro – Despite some buzz about the Wake Forest job, Wes Miller is back for another year in Greensboro as he continues to make the Spartans into one of the best mid-major programs in America. 104 wins in four years is, in the words of Larry David, pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty good. 20+ more wins should be added to the tally in 2020-21 thanks to a talented roster that features conference POY Isaiah Miller. Beyond being a dynamic offensive attacker, Miller is one of the most impactful players in the country thanks to his near-singlehanded impact on turnover margin. Few teams take the ball away like UNCG does (4th nationally in opposing turnover rate) and few teams take care of the ball as well as the Spartans do (43rd nationally). That type of possession edge is incredibly challenging to overcome, and Miller’s ballhawking ways are the biggest key in that. The other anchor of last season’s dominant defense was shot-blocking big man James Dickey, who’ll be replaced by another good rim protector in Central Arkansas transfer Hayden Koval. Koval is a unicorn in college basketball, a 7-footer who frequently takes and makes threes while also blocking shots at an even higher rate than Dickey did. One other name to track: gifted sophomore scoring guard Keyshaun Langley, who helps cover up Miller’s weaknesses as a shooter and scored in double figures 10 times during his freshman campaign.

  2. Furman – The Paladins lose leading scorer (and 1,500 point club member) Jordan Lyons from a season ago, but have one of the sharpest coaches in mid-major basketball in Bob Richey and plenty of returning talent to work with. Like UNCG, Furman dominates the turnover margin. However, they also run awesome stuff on the offensive end to consistently get good looks. As our friends at 3 Man Weave point out, the Paladins ranked 7th nationally in shot quality last season. While losing a high-level shooter in Lyons may hurt that flow somewhat, a trio of excellent (and versatile) frontcourt players helps get this group great shots. Clay Mounce and Noah Gurley each are certainly capable of stretching the floor, but each is also smart about getting efficient looks at the rim – Mounce in particular is an analytics darling: about 90% of his shots were either “at the rim” or 3’s, per T-Rank. Jalen Slawson also made major strides last season and could continue his development this year. My major concern is the lack of a true shot creator like Lyons. Mike Bothwell might be that guy: he made great strides this past season and has a polished all-around scoring arsenal. But Lyons was a guy you could draw up a shot for off a pindown or give him the rock and let him create some space for himself off the bounce, and that’s not always easy to replace.

  3. Mercer – Winning 11 league games in year one was a big win for the first season of the Greg Gary era in Macon, particularly when you consider how good the SoCon has been in recent years. With a pair of key transfers and a healthy Ross Cummings joining the fray, a jump in year two seems more than possible. Getting Cummings back is paramount: he played in just six games last season, but in the season before Gary arrived he averaged over 17 points per game and made 101 threes at a 40% clip. The Purdue offenses Gary helped lead loved to feature a wing shooter who could fire away from anywhere (think Dakota Mathias and Ryan Cline) and Cummings could be that guy. Between Cummings, Kamar Robertson, and Jeffrey Gary, Greg Gary will have tons of guys who can light it up from downtown.  The Bears also get help at point guard and down low with the additions of Neftali Alvarez (Fairfield) and Felipe Haase (South Carolina). Alvarez isn’t a great shooter and had some turnover issues in the MAAC, but he’s without a doubt talented and has tons of ability with the ball in his hands. Being more sure-handed will be critical though, particularly given the Bears struggled last season in that department. Haase, for my money, is one of the more underrated mid-major transfers and could be a double-double guy. Haase was a key rotation player for two years for Frank Martin and can really space the floor. If Cummings is healthy and Alvarez plays clean ball, this team has tons of potential. If not, the Bears join the crowded middle tier of this deep league.

  4. ETSU – Jason Shay takes over at ETSU after the Bucs flirted with some bigger names following Steve Forbes’ departure for Wake Forest. While it was worth a shot to see how much cache your job has following an epic 30-win season like ETSU had, Shay is certainly deserving of the opportunity and was a integral part of operations in Johnson City under Forbes. He’s left with a very different-looking roster though after graduations, opt-outs, and transfers – essentially just one rotation player from a season ago returns in Vonnie Patterson, who averaged 3 points per game. However, this group still has tons of talent. At least four (and maybe a fifth, depending on a waiver for David Sloan) transfers join the fray, and all of them project to be impact guys. Ty Brewer (Southeastern Louisiana) is the biggest addition, a guy who Forbes landed prior to departing who likely would have landed at a high-major had it not been for the presence of his brother Ledarrius (SEMO) on the roster. Ty Brewer has a chance to be a star – he’s incredibly athletic, can space the floor, and defend several positions. Ledarrius Brewer and Maryland transfer Serrel Smith will have key roles as shot-makers for this team – Ledarrius Brewer slumped as a sophomore in Cape Girardeau but has high upside as a shooter, and Smith was well-regarded as a playmaker out of high school before struggling to crack the rotation at Maryland. Point guard play remains a concern though. Sloan was an incredible passer at the JUCO level and would be a huge add if eligible, otherwise the pressure is on highly-rated freshman Marcus Niblack to make plays early.

  5. Western Carolina – Mark Prosser has the Western Carolina program on a clear upward trajectory, winning 19 games in year two and leading in the second half against three high-major opponents. While WCU loses a pair of double-figure scorers in terrific big man Carlos Dotson and high-level shooter Onno Steger, they return conference POY candidate Mason Faulkner who is about as good a piece to build around as possible. Faulkner’s ability to create shots for himself and others in ball screens opens so much up for the rest of this attack, no matter how many bodies opposing teams send at him. Replacing Dotson will be a challenge up front: Xavier Cork was highly efficient in limited minutes and needs to take steps forward. A waiver for Presbyterian transfer Cory Hightower would be huge –he’s a versatile defender, can attack the rim, and can space the floor. There may not be enough firepower around Faulkner without a waiver for Hightower, though growth from young players in the backcourt like sophomore Travion McCray and freshman SinCere McMahon could help in that regard.

  6. Wofford – In the program’s first year following Mike Young’s departure, Wofford experienced quite the ups and downs. After winning eight out of 10 early in league play, the Terriers dropped seven straight to go into the conference tournament before winning three straight in the SoCon Tournament to reach the championship game. All in all, I think most would sign for a 19-win season considering the heavy losses this roster sustained, but Jay McAuley faces another challenge in keeping program momentum going after further departures. Leading scorer Nathan Hoover, top big man Chevez Goodwin, and steady shooter Trevor Stumpe all graduate, fraying at the Terriers’ highly-spaced, 4-out, 1-in offensive identity. Replacing Goodwin in the middle is a concern: he was highly efficient around the basket, blocked lots of shots, and almost single-handedly helped this group control the glass. There’s plenty of excitement about Messiah Jones, who is undersized but brings a similar energy/toughness to Goodwin and shot 70% from the field last season. This group really needs another guard to step up and help replace Hoover – like freshman Morgan Safford, and Ryan Larson could bounce back if he can get his shot right. Neither provides the type of dynamic shooting and quick release that Hoover had, but both could help fill the void next to Storm Murphy.

  7. Samford – I have plenty of confidence that former elite high school coach Bucky McMillan will get players at Samford. Will he win basketball games? That’s the million dollar question, but I believe he can. A solid comparison for McMillan might be EKU’s AW Hamilton, who was a high-level prep coach at a national program, spent only one year as a D1 assistant at NC State, and how has things trending positively as the head coach at EKU. Like Hamilton, McMillan wants to press and play fast, and it’s clear based on his recruiting early on that he’ll pursue lots of shooters and athletes. McMillan clearly put an emphasis on adding shooting: Richardson Maitre (FAU), Preston Parks (UT-Martin) and Triston Chambers (Alabama-Huntsville) can all torch the nets from deep, and they’ll share a backcourt with a dynamic ballhandler in Myron Gordon. There’s also a ton of excitement about freshman guard AJ Staton, a game-ready wing with high-major bounce. All those guards will surround a big man in Jalen Dupree who plays with tons of energy up front. Can McMillan find the type of quality depth needed to win with his system after inheriting a roster that was a mess? That remains to be seen. But’s it’s already clear that the talent is on the way, and I expect the Bulldogs to surprise a few people in 2020-21.

  8. Chattanooga – Just when we thought Lamont Paris might have a year without significant departures, talented senior big man elected to turn pro overseas rather than return for one more season in Chattanooga. Vila was the team’s leading returning scorer and was terrific around the rim, creating an excellent frontcourt duo with the since-graduated Matt Ryan. The Ryan/Vila pairing was a major reason the Mocs surprised last season and won 20 games for the first time in the Paris era. But all hope is not lost: David Jean-Baptiste is one of the league’s better point guards, a tough-minded guard who hits shots and makes plays. A breakout year from one of Trey Doomes or Malachi Smith (Wright State) would also help: both have had their struggles shooting the ball in their careers but are proficient slashers with game experience under their belts. But strong play from several relatively unproven frontcourt options will be critical: well-traveled grad transfer Josh Ayeni is a worthwhile dice role with athleticism, and Mark Tikhonenko could help Stefan Kenic at the 4 as a floor-spacing big man. Overall though, not sure there’s enough juice up and down this roster to avoid the bottom four.

  9. VMI – The Keydets have lost 20 or more games in each of the last five seasons, and I’m not sure there’s a clear turnaround in sight. A talented young nucleus in the backcourt was broken up by the departure of talented scoring guard Travis Evee for Rice – I am bullish on Evee’s future and sorry to see him go. Evee led the team in scoring as a freshman and is a dynamic shooter, a perfect fit for Dan Earl’s longball-heavy offense. Without him, the other talented freshman from last class in Kamdyn Curfman needs to step up. Curfman can light it up from deep, but needs to improve his all-around game if he’s going to carry this offense. Expect Curfman, Greg Parham, Sean Conway, and many other guards bouncing through the rotation to fire away with regularity from deep – the spacing they play with allows for lots of good looks from out there. The problem is the defense: this group is undersized and devoid of playmakers on that end of the floor. There also isn’t quite enough inside pop, a major reason the Keydets got killed in free throw margin last season.

  10. The Citadel – Duggar Baucom hasn’t turned things around at The Citadel yet, with last season being his worst season of his career. The Bulldogs dealt with a slew of injuries and lost their final 19 games of the season to finish winless in the SoCon. Can things turn around at all in 2020-21? Getting guys like Hayden Brown back healthy is a good place to start – Brown was a guy that the offense ran through at times last season before going down after six games with a season-ending injury, including a 26-point outburst at Georgia. But the Baucom teams that have had the most success have been ones with dynamic point guard play. Sophomore Riley Fitzgibbons needs to make a jump for them to have that this season. Otherwise, things could be ugly again.

All-Conference First Team:

  • Isaiah Miller (UNCG)
  • Mason Faulkner (Western Carolina)
  • Clay Mounce (Furman)
  • Ty Brewer (ETSU)
  • Noah Gurley (Furman)

Player of the Year: Isaiah Miller (UNCG) – Miller needed to take a jump last season when stepping into a lead scoring role, and while it hurt his efficiency some he did just that. Miller has his weaknesses as a shooter, and he probably shouldn’t shoot as much as he does with the amount of talent around him. But few guys are better going to the rim, and almost no one is better on the defensive end. The senior could  finish with 2,000 career points with a strong finish and he has been a major reason for the revitalization of this UNCG program under Wes Miller.

Breakout Player: Xavier Cork (Western Carolina) – Mark Prosser relied heavily upon big man Carlos Dotson the last two seasons, but seemed to find a capable backup for him last year in the talented young center Cork. While he doesn’t have much of an outside game, Cork is excellent around the rim, shooting over 70% on 2-point tries last season. He also flashed significant promise as a shot-blocker. I don’t foresee Cork being the type of guy you feed consistently like they did with Dotson, but he should have a big sophomore year in a much bigger role.

Newcomer of the Year: Ty Brewer (ETSU) – I mentioned Brewer at length in my ETSU portion of the preview, but I think he’s the best newcomer in this conference. His attacking style will fit well with how Jason Shay wants to play, and there should be plenty of shots available for him right away. Expect a huge year from him.

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