We’re roughly two months into the college basketball season. We have seen more than one third of the games in the season.
Yet, at this time of year, every team can have hope. Every team can believe they’ve got a chance. Why? Because the season basically starts over now. Conference play comes and every team is back to 0-0.
Yes, it sure seems like we know plenty about teams like ETSU, UNCG, Furman and, on the opposite end, The Citadel, but the reality is, every team could change their course over the coming months. There will be another reset once March gets here. This is a great time for each Southern Conference team to start over.
For teams like Samford, that suffered through one of the most miserable out of conference seasons that their fans could have imagined, this is very welcome. For teams like Wofford, who have surprising wins over North Carolina and Georgia Tech, they now have to prove themselves all over again.
Each set of games, we’ll preview and review on here. This is the first set of games that we’ll be looking at on here. I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I enjoy writing them. They will be basically short, but hopefully give a quick preview and prediction on each game. All times are Eastern.
Game of the Day
ETSU at Mercer
Time: 2:00 PM (Sunday)
Why it matters: These are the two highest rated teams in Pomeroy’s rankings in the Southern Conference. While Mercer may be slightly overrated (very slightly), this is clearly two of the top teams in the conference. The conference race will hinge on games like this. While we probably will not be reflecting on this game in late February, the reality is that these two teams will likely be among the five teams fighting for positioning at that point. Games like these will absolutely matter.
Key Players: The key match-up could easily be Mercer’s Ria’n Holland against whoever winds up guarding him. Holland has shot a nearly otherworldly 59.6% from three point range. ETSU’s opponents are only connecting on 33.1% of their three point shots on the year. If ETSU can slow down Holland and his epic three point shooting, they may be able to slow down this Mercer offense that has turned into probably the best offense in the conference. For ETSU, the offense runs through Jalan McCloud. McCloud makes 55.4% of his two point shots. McCloud is also one of the Bucs better defenders. This is an interesting contest to see if McCloud can produce against the Bears.
Prediction: Personally, I think the Bucs are probably the slightly better team. With a normally tough road trip to Samford and Chattanooga ahead, this is a key moment for the Bucs. With a loss, they could be staring a tough starting record in conference play right in the face. Mercer has a game at Furman in their next contest, so it doesn’t get any easier for them either. All that being said, Mercer is unbeaten at home this year, and always a tough out there. The senior returning starters are here for games like this for the Bears. Holland makes a key shot, and the Bears come up with a gutty win. Bears 72, Bucs 69.
Furman at VMI
Time: 1:00 PM
Why it matters: Think the Paladins are going to win the SoCon? They really can’t afford to lose games like these. The Keydets, on the other hand, are hoping to contend for one of the bye spots and getting a win here would be huge as they get started in conference play.
Key Players: Here’s an interesting stat thrown into this section. Furman has been knocking down 33.2% of their threes, which is below the D1 average of 35%. VMI’s defense has been holding opponents to 32.4% from three for the year. So Furman needs their big men here. That means Matt Rafferty. The 6-8 junior is knocking down over 70% of his two point shots and has a huge size advantage on most of the Keydets. However, sophomore 6-10 Tyler Creammer could present some challenges for Rafferty. Creammer is averaging 9.5 points and 6.5 rebounds per game. If Creammer can hold his own with Rafferty, then the Keydets may have a shot.
Prediction: VMI is playing hard for Dan Earl. This team has looked better (in spurts) than I expected them to. Bubba Parham has been solid and Creammer is good as well. Furman could easily be overlooking the Keydets and think they can waltz into Lexington and get the win. It won’t be that easy. But Furman, the preseason favorite, has been passed in many people’s eyes by other teams, despite the fact that the Paladins have done nothing really wrong. That will put a chip on their shoulder for this one. Paladins win fairly easily. Paladins 79, Keydets 65.
Western Carolina at The Citadel
Time: 1:00 PM (Sunday)
Why it matters: This is two teams that will likely be towards the bottom of the conference. If either one wants to rise up to the sixth spot (a spot that The Citadel was thought to be a real contender for in the preseason and a spot that the Catamounts appear to be primed to make a run at now), they need to get off to a good start in conference play and win a game like this.
Key Players: The Bulldogs Tariq Simmons has been averaging 13.2 points per game. Simmons has been very good, and he needs to continue to be, because Preston Parks is no where to be found. Zane Najdawi is 6-7 and can be tough to handle on the inside. For Western Carolina, newcomers Mike Amius and Matt Halvorsen have been huge additions to the team. Amius provides a presence inside and Halvorsen has been a nice addition on the perimeter. Amius and Najdawi could be the deciding factor of this game.
Prediction: It’s not like Western Carolina is some juggernaut offensively, but The Citadel is really bad defensively. I think this may be the game where Devin Peterson gets going a little bit, and I fully expect Amius to have a big game. This may be the closest game of the day on Saturday, and I honestly have no good feeling on what’s going to happen. But I lean towards Western Carolina making just enough plays. Catamounts 85, Bulldogs 84.
Wofford at UNCG
Time: 5:00 PM (Sunday)
Why it matters: This is so close to being the Game of the Day. These teams have combined for three wins over ACC schools in recent weeks, with Wofford’s stunning win over North Carolina capping it all off. Much like in the description above in the ETSU-Mercer game, this game could easily have ramifications that echo throughout conference play. UNCG is hoping to come up with another important home win. The Terriers are hoping to validate themselves as a legit contender in the conference.
Key Players: Come on. We all want to watch Fletcher Magee and Francis Alonso get into a shootout. I mean seriously. What fan without a rooting interest isn’t interested in watching those two go toe to toe shooting it out? In fact, I’d be fine if they just put those two on the floor for the first half of the game and let them just shoot threes. No joke. Alas, the key match-up may well wind up being Wofford’s Cam Jackson against UNCG’s Jordy Kuiper and James Dickey. Those inside match-ups could be the difference in the game.
Prediction: Wofford’s style has historically given the Spartans trouble, wherever they play them. It’s only when UNCG is clearly the superior team that they seem to be able to beat the Terriers, and then the games are often closer than they should be. Still, I think I would be remiss to pick against this UNCG team playing at home in a big game. This team has responded at home for the last season and a half every time there has been a big moment. I think Kuiper and Dickey provide the difference for the Spartans in a really entertaining game. Spartans 75, Terriers 73.
Chattanooga at Samford
Time: 8:00 PM (Sunday)
Why it matters: If you were looking at things in late October and haven’t checked in since, you probably think that Samford is one of the favorites to win the SoCon and that Chattanooga should be checking in near the bottom of the league. As it turns out, Samford is near the bottom and Chattanooga is more middle of the pack. If the Bulldogs want to turn their season around, the time is now. This is one shot to really start making people forget about the horrid out of conference portion of their schedule.
Key Players: For Samford, it’s about the players who won’t be suiting up. They will be without Wyatt Walker (apparently out due to knee surgery) and could be without Christen Cunningham (no idea the timetable on his return). Demetrius Dyson, with 15.5 points per game and 5.2 rebounds per game, is the best player currently playing for the Bulldogs, but the second year improvement from Josh Sharkey has not really come. Sharkey needs to play better. For Chattanooga, the best player is Makinde London. He might just be the most talented player in the conference. He just needs to live up to that hype. This is a moment for him to shine.
Prediction: Chattanooga and Samford both have interesting starts to conference play. After this one, the Mocs host Western Carolina, ETSU and Furman and then goes to The Citadel. There is a chance for a decent start in conference play for the Mocs, especially with a win here. Samford doesn’t play Furman, but the other locations and teams are the same. In other words, the Bulldogs have a chance to put the out of conference portion of the schedule behind them with a win here. With the Mocs being as young and thin as they are, anything is possible. But without Walker and Cunningham, the Bulldogs confidence seems shot. The Mocs get the big road win. Mocs 68, Bulldogs 61.