Game Previews: Can Samford and Western Carolina Make Another Statement?

Furman and ETSU are unbeaten in SoCon play and while the two hook up next Thursday, each have a game on Saturday to get through first before they can play in a match-up of unbeaten.

While ETSU has a relatively easy test at home against VMI, Furman must face their rival Wofford in a road game. So it is still too much to ask to know if it will be a match-up of two conference unbeaten or not.

Of course, that’s not it for Saturday. Samford and Western Carolina, the unquestioned two most pleasant surprises in conference play, both play really intriguing games on Saturday that could further solidify themselves as conference contenders.

All in all, it should be a tremendously interesting Saturday of SoCon basketball.

Game of the Day
Furman at Wofford
Time: 7:00 PM
Viewing: ESPN3

Why it matters: The Paladins and the Terriers are rivals in the upstate and this game really does matter. These are two of the perceived top four teams in the conference. If Wofford loses, suddenly they would have two conference losses and that would put them behind the eight ball in their quest for the regular season title. A Furman win would keep them unbeaten heading into their showdown with ETSU. A Wofford win would move both into a tie with one conference loss (along with either UNCG or Western Carolina and possibly Samford). This game could also be the first of three meetings this year. It is not ridiculous to think these two could meet in the semifinals or finals in Asheville.

Key Players: Cam Jackson with Wofford and Matt Rafferty for Furman should produce a very interesting big man match-up. These two will fight and scrap in the lane. Both are really playing well and are becoming key cogs in their team success. Fletcher Magee and Devin Sibley get a lot of headlines for these two teams, but it could easily be the two big men that are more important, especially in this match-up between these teams.

Prediction: Maybe the Paladins can get a road win here and make us all forget about the Bucs win on Thursday night at home against UNCG. Maybe the Paladins can establish themselves as the conference frontrunner in this game. Then again, the Terriers may come up with the win and prove where they fit into the conference race. The Terriers have Magee and he seems ready to explode in a huge game. Remember that second half at UNCG? Magee does, and he has been waiting for another game against a top level SoCon team to prove that was a fluke. Look for the Terriers to come up with a hard fought home win behind Jackson and Magee. Terriers 78, Paladins 75.

Chattanooga at The Citadel
Time: 1:00 PM (Wednesday)
Viewing: ESPN3

Why it matters: If either one of these teams wants to make a run at the six seed, now is the time to do it. Both are 0-4 in SoCon play. Of course, with four winless SoCon teams, a win here puts the winner right into contention for seventh easily, which would put them back (at least modestly) into the race for sixth. Neither team is playing with a bunch of confidence right now. So a win here could change the confidence level for one team and make a major change in the future for both teams.

Key Players: Rodney Chatman will matter for the Mocs. The point guard always matters against the Bulldogs and their pressure defense, and Chatman may matter even more than usual. The Mocs will have to handle the pressure against The Citadel, and that is not something they have been doing well in conference play. The Mocs have also been allowing big games from other teams big men in recent weeks, as injuries have depleted their inside play substantially. That means that Zane Najdawi could be in for a big game for the Bulldogs. He’s been averaging 9.7 points and 3.1 rebounds. The 6-7 big man scored 21 against Samford. He could be due for another big outing.

Prediction: Who do you believe in more? The Bulldogs have been remarkably consistent recently. They have allowed 107, 109 and 107 in their last three games, scoring 91 and 92 in their last two (67 in the first of those 3). The Mocs do not seem to be a team capable of putting up offensive numbers like that. They have also lost all four of their conference games by double figures. Normally, I’d go with the home team here, but I can’t help but remember a few weeks ago when Chattanooga was expected to finish 6th in the conference and The Citadel was either 9th or 10th. I think the Mocs get it done in a very closely contested game. Mocs 92, Bulldogs 91.

Samford at Mercer
Time: 4:00 PM (Wednesday)
Viewing: ESPN3

Why it matters: The Bulldogs are rolling at 3-1 in conference play and with a road win here would be 4-1. That would all be without Wyatt Walker. That would mean that if they get Walker back, they would be well positioned to possibly make a run at the regular season conference title. Is that a pipe dream? Perhaps. But it is certainly not as easily discounted as it would have been this time a week ago. The Bears are 0-3 in conference play. If they can get a win here, they will get back into the race for sixth, which is suddenly starting to look like they are further and further away from. This game really matters.

Key Players: I’ll say it again. Ria’n Holland needs to get back to being the guy we saw earlier this year. He’s knocked down just one three pointer on 16 attempts in conference play. This after knocking down 59.4% out of conference from long range. He’s scored an average of 11 points per game in conference play. He’s made just over 30% of his shots from the floor in conference play. This after shooting over 57% out of conference. This is a ridiculous cold slump, but it is why the Bears are struggling. On the other hand, the Bulldogs best scorer, Demetrius Denzel-Dyson, has averaged 14.3 points per game in conference play, despite scoring just a total of 10 points in his first two conference games. That’s what back-to-back 21 and 26 point games will do for you. If Denzel-Dyson continues that hot play, the Bulldogs are a much more difficult team to stop.

Prediction: I’m back on board with Samford. I had fallen off the bandwagon in out of conference play, but with each win, they win me more and more back over. With Walker’s return coming soon, hopefully, I am starting to buy in. That being said, Mercer is the desperate team and they are at home. The Bears just don’t lose home games all that often and so that makes Mercer the pick here. But I would not be surprised if Samford won. Bears 74, Bulldogs 69.

VMI at ETSU
Time: 4:00 PM (Thursday)
Viewing: ESPN3

Why it matters: The Keydets are desperate for their first win after almost coming up with one against UNCG last Saturday. VMI has not been as good away from home, but a win here would obviously do wonders for their confidence. For ETSU, it is all about focusing on the game at hand. They played UNCG in a huge game on Thursday and get Furman in a huge game next Thursday. Can they focus on this game against winless VMI in between?

Key Players: VMI simply lacks big bodies, which means that Peter Jurkin is likely due for another top notch performance against the Keydets. He has scored 15, 15 and 11 in his last three games. He does not give a ton of minutes (averaging around 20 per game this year), but he will put in quality minutes while he is in the game. Truthfully, the freshman point guard match up of Bo Hodges vs. Bubba Parham should also be entertaining. Parham needs to have a huge performance for the Keydets to have a chance late in this one.

Prediction: This one has ugly written all over it. In their only conference road game, VMI lost by 39 at Wofford. ETSU has not won a conference game by less than double digits. The Bucs will probably sleepwalk early in this one coming off the big win on Thursday and looking forward to next Thursday’s big one, but the Bucs can sleepwalk for a half and then turn it on for ten minutes in the second half and come away with an easy win. Bucs 85, Keydets 65.

UNCG at Western Carolina
Time: 7:30 PM (Thursday)
Viewing: ESPN3

Why it matters: Can UNCG keep one loss from turning into two? The Spartans tend to struggle on the road, and Cullowhee is always tricky. Throw in that Western Carolina is already 3-1 in SoCon play, and suddenly this becomes a big game. If Western Carolina can come up with the win here, they would be 4-1 in SoCon play, and it would be a high quality win that would suddenly raise expectations through the roof for this Western Carolina team.

Key Players: It will be a very interesting match-up of big men as Western Carolina’s Mike Amius and Marc Gosselin go up against UNCG’s Jordy Kuiper and James Dickey. This is interesting, because these are four of my favorite big men to watch in this league. The match-up between these four could absolutely determine this showdown in Cullowhee.

Prediction: Does the first team to 50 win? Both teams play great defense. Both teams can struggle offensively at times. If Francis Alonso is not hot shooting for UNCG or if the Catamounts control him, then the Spartans will likely struggle scoring. That being said, Alonso is unlikely to struggle for a second consecutive game. These teams will not score well, but the Spartans are going to be hungry to get back on the winning track and will play their best game since beating Wofford. Spartans 62, Catamounts 57.

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