LWOS continues its conference previews with the 2020-21 SoCon Basketball Preview. The Southern Conference has been one of the strongest mid-major leagues the last few seasons. Wofford won a first-round game in 2019 and would have been an at-large selection if it did not win the conference tournament. UNC Greensboro was the first team left out that season as well. East Tennessee State was ready to do damage in the NCAA Tournament last season before its cancellation. There is no reason to believe the league will not have another dangerous team this season. However, all eyes shift to UNCG and Furman as the two most likely candidates to make noise.
The Citadel has been the worst program in this league over the last decade. That was exasperated by going 0-18 in conference play last season. That kind of performance was due to the increased quality of the league and the youth on the roster. The hope is that the experience gained will lead to some improvements. Fletcher Abee showed promise last season, making the all-freshman team after averaging 12.2 points and a little over a steal per game. Still, The Citadel has a long way to go to climb even a few spots in the standings.
Samford seemed to self-destruct as league play went on last season. After starting 2-0, the Bulldogs dropped 11 straight on their way to a 4-14 finish, only defeating the teams below them in the standings. A lot fell on the shoulders of Josh Sharkey, and now the team’s best playmaker has graduated. Bucky McMillan takes over as coach, coming straight from the high school ranks. With a new coach and a lot of new faces, don’t expect much from the Bulldogs this season.
VMI may not have had the best record a season ago, but the team did show some improvement. Travis Evee broke out and shared freshman of the year honors after averaging 12.6 points and 2.4 assists per game. However, he decided to use that to transfer to Rice. Still, the Keydets have some decent talent that remains. Greg Parham is the senior leader on this team while the younger guys continue to develop. VMI should be a little more dangerous this season, though still lagging behind the upper tiers of the conference.
Chattanooga finished in a respectable fourth last season. However, a lot of the talent that helped with that is gone. The frontcourt took the biggest hits, with Ryan and Johnson gone. The surprise was Ramon Vila, who was ready to step up but decided to go pro unexpectedly. Transfers Ayeni and Tikhonenko will have to pick up that slack right away now. The Mocs will be a guard-dependent team, as a result, led by Jean-Baptiste. Chattanooga will fight, but those losses are a lot to overcome.
Wofford took an expected step back last season after having the best season in school history in 2018-19. However, that opened the door for some of the promising younger talent to gain valuable experience. Guard play has always been a strong area for Terrier teams, and that continues with Murphy and Larson. Size will be an issue though, especially with Goodwin’s transfer. Wofford will have to lean on new faces behind Messiah Jones to boost the frontcourt. The Terriers continue to be in transition as they look to move back into the top tier of the SoCon.
Western Carolina was one of the most improved teams in the nation last season. The Catamounts won 12 more games than in 2018-19, and that was in large part due to the Faulkner/Dotson duo. Dotson has graduated, but Faulkner remains. He will have his name in the player of the year discussion as he looks to improve upon averaging 17.7 points, six rebounds, and 5.9 assists per game last season. Dotson’s departure does leave the frontcourt inexperienced, but there is some promising talent there. On paper, Western Carolina does not appear to have a roster than can break into the top tier, but keep an eye on them as a sleeper.
East Tennessee State ran through the SoCon last season and would have had a case for an at-large bid had they needed it. Unfortunately, Buccaneer fans will never know how far they could have gone in March. Now, the program has to regroup. Coach Steve Forbes is gone to Wake Forest, with assistant Jason Shay taking over. Gone also are many of the key players, including Bo Hodges transferring to Butler, Williamson following Forbes, and Patrick Good opting out of the season due to the pandemic. Still, ETSU has a recent history of reloading, and there is plenty of incoming talent to do so. Expect the Bucs to stay competitive.
Mercer improved up to a tie for a fourth place a season ago. That charge was led by the outstanding seasons of Dimitrijevic and Stair, both second-team honorees. While the Bears will need to replace their production, there is plenty left behind for them to do so. The team will also receive a boost by having a healthy Ross Cummings, who missed last season with an injury after being an all-conference performer in 2018-19. Mercer has just the right amount of experience and youth to push themselves into the title conversation.
Furman feels like they have been sitting right on the outside as their conference foes get national attention. However, the Paladins have been just as consistently good as anyone else over the last few years in the SoCon. The backcourt will have to figure out how to replace Lyons, who has been the team leader for the last few years. However, you will be hard-pressed to find better frontcourts with Gurley and Mounce down in the paint. Both could make a case for player of the year consideration by season’s end. Furman has a group that is ready to take its turn at the top and break the Paladins’ 40-year NCAA Tournament drought. The automatic bid is their best bet, but an at-large opportunity isn’t out of the question.
UNC Greensboro gets the nod in the Southern Conference in large part due to having Isaiah Miller. He is one of the best guards in the country and took home the league’s player and defensive player of the year award a season ago. His ability to make plays on both ends of the court allows the Spartans to do what they want and opens the door for others to make plays. The frontcourt of this team will have to replace Dickey, who was a grinder in the paint. However, the waiver approval for seven-footer Koval should help with that. UNCG and Furman will duke it out for the title this season, and both have tournament-worthy rosters. Toss a coin and take your pick, but the Spartans’ backcourt experience and depth make them the slight favorite.
To put it bluntly, Miller is a terror to the rest of the league. He can beat you in so many ways. He averaged 17.8 points, five rebounds, and 3.1 assists on his way to this award last season. Miller is a pro-ready guard who tested the NBA waters in the off-season but decided to make one more run with UNCG. Leading a team that could add to the league’s rich history can make him a repeat winner here.
Miller’s defensive stats were left out above on purpose. He averaged close to three steals per game for the second season in a row, which in turn led to him repeating here last season. Miller already leads the Southern Conference in career defensive rating and steal percentage, etching himself as one of the best defenders in league history. He should win this honor for the third time.
Pringle will be in the mix to start in the paint for the Terriers right away, fighting it out with fellow newcomers Sam Godwin and B.J. Mack. As a junior at Whale Branch High School in Seabrook, SC, he averaged 10 points and 10 rebounds. Wofford will need that kind of production from him as they revamp their frontcourt rotation. Pringle should get plenty of opportunities this season to show off his abilities.
It is not a secret that Wes Miller is one of the hottest coaching commodities out there. However, he remains committed to building up the Greensboro program into a conference and a national contender on a yearly basis. Miller appears to be on track to do that with this year’s team, and anything short of a conference title would be a letdown. However, he is more than up for the task, and he should have the Spartans making many opponents sweat this season.