After a Thursday that featured no match-ups between two of the presumed Top 5 teams, Saturday features just one such match-up.
However, two top five teams hit the road against the other teams. Plus, the only two teams from the bottom five that have not started 0-2 in conference play are squaring off with each other.
So, in other words, we’ve got some games that ought to be interesting ahead of us for sure. This may not be the best Saturday of the season, but it should be plenty enough to keep you warm and inside on this cold Saturday in January.
Game of the Day
Mercer at Furman
Time: 4:30 PM
Why it matters: Furman has dominated two lesser SoCon foes, and we’ve all been anxiously waiting to see what this team can do against better competition. The Paladins get that opportunity on Saturday afternoon, and this is when we really start to decide where they fit in the conference race. We think we know. We’ll know better after this one. Mercer has just played one SoCon game, and that was a blowout home loss to ETSU. The Bears can make up a lot of ground by winning this game on the road and getting back on the right side of the ledger. That being said, a Mercer loss puts them way behind the other SoCon leaders, as the Bears would suddenly be 0-2 in conference play.
Key Players: On this week’s podcast, we mentioned that the match-up to watch will be Stephon Jelks against Daniel Fowler. These are the two guys that make their respective teams go. Jelks and Fowler are both seniors that have seen it all for their programs. The injury to Jelks against ETSU (even though he came back in the game) really seemed to change the game permanently. The player that wins that match-up could easily be the difference in the game.
Prediction: One team is playing with tons of confidence. One has a week to sit and question where they stand. Will that inspire Mercer to come out and play better? Are they the program that has gone 10-19 in their last 29 SoCon games? Or are they the program that is really one of the better ones in the conference? This is really a moment that you would expect Bob Hoffman’s program to come out and play one of their best games. That being said, I’m not sure that they have it in them. Furman has been so good at home for the last two and a half seasons. The Paladins do not seem likely to lose a game like this, but this will be a close game to the wire. Paladins 78, Bears 73.
UNCG at VMI
Time: 1:00 PM
Why it matters: UNCG won an emotional game last Saturday. They take the floor again looking to back up that performance. The Spartans have been a much worse road team this year than home team. The Spartans are always capable of losing on the road and need to be careful against a VMI team that is not as bad as it looked in their last two blowout losses. The Keydets need to get back on track. Even a quality performance here would be a big deal to VMI. Anything positive would be good for them.
Key Players: If you’ve been waiting to see James Dickey and Jordy Kuiper dominate a game, this might be the game for you. The Spartans big men present challenges for lots of teams, but it is hard to see the Keydets being able to stop those two big men. Bubba Parham is the Keydets best player as a freshman. Parham will need to have a big game to keep the Keydets within striking distance.
Prediction: The Keydets have been a disaster in their last two games. But the Spartans have not been great on the road. They have to handle their business in this one and not get ahead of themselves. They are capable of being upset here. That being said, it would be a total shocker. Spartans dominate in the paint and get the job done. Spartans 81, Keydets 67.
ETSU at Chattanooga
Time: 5:000 PM
Why it matters: This is one of the bigger natural rivalries in the SoCon. That being said, the Bucs are 2-0 with two dominant wins on the road while the Mocs are 0-2 after two double digit losses to teams not expected to finish in the Top 5. The Bucs could be 3-0 with three road wins to start conference play, a very impressive feat. For the Mocs, playing their best game of SoCon play so far would be a nice thing to shoot for. An upset win would get them back to 1-2 in conference play and get them back on the right track.
Key Players: For ETSU, this is a game for Peter Jurkin. The Mocs depth inside has taken hits with injuries and the 7-0 Jurkin has been gaining confidence it seems with each passing game. Jurkin could have a major breakout game in this one, much like Mike Amius did on Thursday night for Western Carolina. Nat Dixon has turned into the Mocs most valuable player on both ends of the floor. He will need to play great defense and be solid on the offensive end to give the Mocs a chance.
Prediction: Rivalry games. Who knows? But with the confidence ETSU is playing with right now and the lack of confidence coming from Chattanooga, this has the makings of not being pretty. Jurkin will record a double double at least. The Mocs will battle and keep it relatively close. But ETSU will be too much down the stretch. Bucs 78, Mocs 67
The Citadel at Wofford
Time: 7:00 PM
Why it matters: This is the one game that doesn’t fit into any of the categories listed at the top. The Terriers were dominant against VMI and are 1-1 in SoCon play. Everything is lining up for the Terriers to contend for the SoCon title. The Citadel is 0-2 in SoCon play and got blown out by Furman on Thursday night. A win here would get the Bulldogs into a tie with Wofford in the standings.
Key Players: Storm Murphy may be the most important player on the floor for the Terriers. The Citadel pressure defense can really wreak havoc on an offense, which means point guard play is crucial. Murphy is leading the Terriers with 3.8 assists per game and just 1.4 turnovers per game. As a freshman, he has been tremendous. His performance in this one will be the key for the Terriers coming away with the win. The Citadel needs someone to get hot shooting to stay close, and Matt Frierson could be that guy. He is shooting 39% from three point range on the year. If he can get red hot, the Bulldogs may be able to keep things close in this one and steal a win.
Prediction: The Terriers are the much better team and are playing much better basketball and are at home. It’s hard to find reasons to pick the Bulldogs in this one. Still, The Citadel is capable with their play to hang around in any game at any team. Wofford should be a little careful here, but don’t expect Fletcher Magee and Cameron Jackson to let them lose this one. Terriers 93, Bulldogs 75.
Western Carolina at Samford
Time: 8:00 PM
Why it matters: The Catamounts and Bulldogs have really made a statement early in the season. They are a combined 3-1 in SoCon play. With these teams both expected to contend for the sixth spot in the SoCon, they are the only two teams with any wins of the five teams fighting for that spot. If Western Carolina wins, suddenly they would be 3-0 with three road wins in conference play. If Samford wins, both teams would be 2-1 in SoCon play. The Bulldogs need to get this one at home, as this will be their third home game in a row. This is a critical game for Samford to get back on track after the loss on Thursday night.
Key Players: Wyatt Walker. No seriously. Please come back Wyatt Walker! That’s what Samford fans are screaming. In the mean time, they need Demetrius Dyson to have a big game. He’s shooting nearly 42% from three and is averaging 14.1 points per game. For Western Carolina, Mike Amius has been so good. He’s been every bit as good as advertised coming into the season. He leads the Catamounts with 11.4 points per game. The big man is really solid.
Prediction: I really believe that right now that Catamounts are the better team. Samford is simply not as good as Western Carolina without Wyatt Walker or Christen Cunningam. But they are at home and if they somehow manage to steal this one and get those guys back, that would be a big boost down the stretch. That being said, I am really enjoying watching Western Carolina play right now. I can’t go against them. Catamounts 72, Bulldogs 68.