Game Reviews: Altering Expectations

While the ETSU-UNCG game made all the headlines, the more important games in this mid-week session of SoCon basketball may well wind up being Samford-The Citadel and Western Carolina-Mercer.

With Samford and Western Carolina coming up with the wins, suddenly it appears that those two teams may belong in the top six of the league and that Mercer does not belong in that group. As the Bulldogs and Catamounts are now each 3-1 in SoCon play, they find themselves well ahead of Chattanooga, The Citadel, VMI and Mercer (combined 0-14 in SoCon play).

Expectations have been altered. Is there time to turn around the season for one of the four winless teams? Sure there is. Could they get a bye? Absolutely. It’s just that suddenly we are viewing Samford and Western Carolina completely different than we did just three weeks ago. Can they win the SoCon regular season title? That seems unlikely. Is one capable of pulling off a couple of upsets in Asheville and winning the tournament. Absolutely. Nothing shows how much the expectations for these two teams have changed over the last fee weeks more than that.

ETSU 68, UNCG 58

What Happened? The Spartans lead about halfway through the second half 42-41. The Bucs then went on a 13-1 run and took a commanding lead that they would not relinquish the rest of the way. The Bucs were epitomized during that stretch as five different guys scored the 13 points. That’s impressive. This Bucs team does not have one superstar- they have a whole lot of really good parts that come together and play superbly together. They deserve a ton of credit for their unselfish play and Steve Forbes deserves a lot of high praise for how he has gotten this team to come together in that way.

Stat of the Game: The Spartans made just 33% of their shots from the floor, and Francis Alonso was held to 4 of 11 shooting from the floor and ten points. The Spartans have proven they can win with defense, but they are not yet to the Bucs level defensively. If the Bucs play defense like that, they are going to be very difficult to beat.

Player of the Game: Again, team concept for the Bucs, but I guess I’ll go with Desonta Bradford. He wound up with 12 points, 9 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 blocks and a steal. Bradford filled up the entire stat sheet. He is probably the closest thing to a “star” the Bucs have, though I think Jurkin, Hodges and McCloud all have more ability to be true stars. Bradford is very consistent, though.

What does it mean to UNCG? You are expected to lose conference road games to top teams, so this does not kill the Spartans. Still, this loss will leave a bit of a mark on the Spartans. They need to rebound when they go to Cullowhee to take on the 3-1 Catamounts. If UNCG can find a way to come up with a win against Western Carolina, then everything is OK. If the Spartans respond by letting one loss turn into two, things could go downhill for this club quickly.

What does it mean to ETSU? The Bucs have won 11 of 12, with the lone loss a blown 20 point lead against #10 Xavier to lose by 2. In other words, they are red hot and playing great basketball. Can they maintain this level for the remainder of the season? If they do, the Bucs may well escape conference play with no more than 1 or 2 losses. They go to Furman a week from tonight and that game may well dictate exactly where ETSU really will stand in the SoCon race. The Bucs are the clear favorite at this point, I’d say.

Western Carolina 58, Mercer 56

What Happened? Stephon Jelks did everything in his power to keep the Bears in the game, but it was not enough. Mike Amius scored 21 and both teams were very strong defensively. These two teams each looked like elite defenses on this night as the Catamounts went up by two scores with about a minute left and then knocked in enough free throws to hold on for the two point win over the Bears.

Stat of the Game: The Catamounts had a 36% offensive rebounding percentage. The Bears had only a 23% offensive rebounding percentage. That made a huge difference in this one as the extra possessions were very important for the Catamounts in this one score game.

Player of the Game: Marc Gosselin wound up with 11 points and 11 rebounds, including knocking down a huge three right around the one minute mark. Gosselin knocked down the big shot and had a double-double. He can be a very valuable contributor for this Catamounts team.

What does it mean to Mercer? The Bears are suddenly 0-3 in conference play and 10-21 in their last 31 conference games. One of the favorites to win the league just three weeks ago appears to be out of the race for first already, and might be in some trouble as they try to hunt down a bye. They play Samford and Chattanooga at home in their next two games so that should be an opportunity to get some wins. But they pretty much have to have both of them.

What does it mean to Western Carolina? The Catamounts are now 3-1 in conference play, and it may be time to take them seriously in the race for not only a bye, but maybe something more. They host UNCG and VMI in their next two games. Win both of those and suddenly this team becomes a real threat to maybe even finish higher in the standings than any of us want to admit. That being said, the Catamounts have won two of their three conference games by two points. Being able to win close games is a good quality to have and the Catamounts are on a roll right now.

Furman 73, Chattanooga 55

What Happened? The Mocs trailed 49-46 with just 9:46 left in the contest last night. After that, the Mocs committed six turnovers and scored just nine points. The Paladins took control of the game and pulled away, spoiling the Mocs best conference effort of the season, but propelling themselves to a relatively easy 18 point win.

Stat of the Game: Furman collected 34 rebounds, Chattanooga got just 21. Furman dominated the glass. Both teams shot OK (though the Mocs really struggled from three) but Furman controlling the glass helped give the Paladins the edge in the end.

Player of the Game: Matt Rafferty had 17 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 steals. He made 8 of 11 from the floor. The Mocs continue to struggle mightily with other teams big men. Rafferty made the Mocs pay in the paint and dominated the Mocs.

What does it mean to Furman? The Paladins are now 4-0 in SoCon play and survived the best performance of conference play from the Mocs. They face a bunch of good teams over their next six. They play Wofford, ETSU, Samford, UNCG, Western Carolina and Mercer in their next six. While the Paladins have been playing well so far, they have not played a huge road game yet in conference play. That will change on Saturday when they go to Wofford.

What does it mean to Chattanooga? The Mocs are 0-4 in SoCon play, but showed some signs of life in this one. It was a late rally by Furman that put the game away. The Mocs go to The Citadel, Mercer and Wofford in their next three. There is a decent chance at getting a win in Charleston on Saturday. The Mocs desperately need something to go their way.

Samford 107, The Citadel 91

What Happened? It was another big first half run against The Citadel, as Samford went on a 26-5 run to go from up 24-19 to up 50-24. That essentially ended the game before halftime in Samford’s favor. This seems to be happening a lot to The Citadel. A player that will not be mentioned later but deserves mention is Justin Coleman- he finished with 13 points and 13 assists. Triston Chambers also had 24 points. He’s averaging 14.3 in conference play after averaging just 4.0 points per game out of conference.

Stat of the Game: Hard to come up with one stat. Samford made 18 of 32 from three point range and 21 of 31 from two point range. They also made 11 of 14 from the free throw line. When you shoot that well from everywhere on the floor, you are going to win a lot of basketball games. Samford made them from everywhere in this one.

Player of the Game: Demetrius Denzel-Dyson wound up with 26 points, 8 rebounds and 4 assists. He made 10 of 14 from the floor and 5 of 8 from three point range. He really filled up the box score for the Bulldogs in this one. He has really stepped up his game recently.

What does it mean to Samford? Samford is now 3-1 in SoCon play. They play Mercer, Furman and Wofford in their next three games. The win by Samford has put them in a great position to contend for not only a bye spot but also possibly more. They are in the third spot in the conference race, and that makes this team very interesting, the closer we get to Wyatt Walker returning. This is a Samford team that is starting to find their rhythm and figure out how to win. This has been an impressive start to conference play.

What does it mean to The Citadel? The Bulldogs now find themselves 0-4 in conference play. They host Chattanooga (also 0-4) on Saturday. That is a game that The Citadel has to have if they want to get back into the bye race. Regardless The Citadel is in trouble. They are not a particularly good team right now. This loss really puts them behind the eight ball in their quest to get up to the sixth spot in the tournament.


Game Previews: Now Things Get Fun

Now things are about to get real. UNCG and ETSU, who have played some epic games in the last several years, hook up again. Mercer faces a critical game in Cullowhee. We find out if Samford can play on the road.

That’s three, count them three, really compelling contests spread across two nights of SoCon action. This is the best set of SoCon games that we’ve had yet this season.

At the same time, Harvard visits Wofford in a semi-important out of conference game. The Terriers need a win to continue to bolster the SoCon’s resume. I will not have a full preview below of the Terriers-Crimson game, but I think Wofford gets the job done at home.

On this critical Wednesday/Thursday set of games, we should sit back and thoroughly enjoy these games.

Game of the Day
Time: 7:000 PM (Thursday)
Viewing: ESPN3

Why it matters: The last game of the regular season a year ago was going to decide the SoCon regular season title. UNCG got the job done. The two met a week later in the SoCon Championship Game with a spot in the NCAA Tournament on the line. ETSU got the job done. These two have a growing rivalry. They are each undefeated in SoCon play so far, and UNCG has been one of the biggest thorns in ETSU’s side in recent years. This game should be really entertaining and give an early edge to one team in their quest to win the regular season title this year.

Key Players: Peter Jurkin won SoCon Player of the Week for his performance against Samford and Chattanooga, two teams that lack inside presence. In some ways, his performance might be more important against UNCG, though I doubt that his stats will end up anywhere near the same. James Dickey and Jordy Kuiper are two critical players for the Spartans and really are difference makers. Francis Alonso also gets a lot of positive publicity for the Spartans and is one of the best players. I’m actually very intrigued to see how Jalan McCloud matches up with Demetrius Troy and Isaiah Miller. The Spartans seem to be missing a point guard that makes the team go and McCloud could have a big game for the Bucs here. He will need it. Desonata Bradford and Marvin Smith are probably the two most under talked about stars in this whole league. Their match-up could be very interesting.

Prediction: The Bucs are at home, and while the Spartans have won in Johnson City in recent years, it is a difficult proposition to beat ETSU there. Can the Spartans spoil the conference home opener for the Bucs? It is very possible. This is a budding rivalry and the two teams genuinely seem to dislike each other. That’s perfect, because these two teams should be right at the top of the Southern Conference again. These two teams could certainly meet three times this year, and have big things on the line each time. The Bucs win at home and McCloud has a big game. Bucs 74, Spartans 71.

Mercer at Western Carolina
Time: 7:00 PM (Wednesday)
Viewing: ESPN3

Why it matters: Western Carolina is 2-1 in SoCon play. Mercer is 0-2. While the Bears are supposed to finish ahead of the Catamounts in SoCon play (comfortably), a loss in Cullowhee could suddenly change things around drastically. We could suddenly find the Catamounts up two in the loss column and three in the win column if they can come up with the win. Suddenly, it might be time to talk about whether or not Mercer really is going to get into the top six in the conference race. It seems hard to believe based on what we thought as recently as two weeks ago, yet here we are. Huge game for both teams.

Key Players: The Bears need Ria’n Holland to get back to being Ria’n Holland. He was one of the top offensive players in the conference (and according to Pomeroy, in the country) through their out of conference games. Since conference play started, Holland has gone 1 of 9 from three, scored 11.5 points per game, made 36% of his shots from the floor, and made just 50% of his free throws. Holland has got to start scoring again with regularity. Desmond Ringer and Demetre Rivers will be trying to control Mike Amius in the paint. The Catamounts really are a just an OK three point shooting team, but Amius gives them an inside presence when he is playing well and he will need to have a big game.

Prediction: This is a really intriguing game and a near must win for Mercer. The Bears need to get wins when they can get them. A loss here would really damage the Bears in their quest to finish near the top of the SoCon. It would totally change our perspective of Western Carolina as well if they can get this win. They would suddenly have to be taken seriously as a threat to crack the Top Five of the SoCon. The Catamounts play well in Cullowhee and could easily win, but I’m taking the more desperate Bears by a nose. Bears 73, Catamounts 72.

Furman at Chattanooga
Time: 7:000 PM (Wednesday)
Viewing: ESPN3

Why it matters: Furman is 3-0 in SoCon play and Chattanooga is 0-3. The Mocs desperately need something positive to happen in conference play. The Paladins are looking to just keep on rolling through the early part of their conference schedule. After the Paladins come back win against Mercer on Saturday, they need to be ready to play again against the Mocs and get back to playing their best ball.

Key Players: Matt Rafferty for Furman. The Mocs are really struggling stopping players in the interior at this point. Rafferty is the type of player that can cause trouble for any team, and he will continue to cause trouble for the Mocs. Makinde London needs to be the key player for the Mocs. He picked up a T against Samford and fouled out against ETSU. If he can not keep himself in the game emotionally and physically, then the Mocs will have very little chance to win.

Prediction: Furman is significantly better than Chattanooga right now. I keep on thinking the Mocs are going to come out with a solid game at some point, but I’m not sure this is the spot. The Mocs are thin and beat up. The Paladins are rising high right now. Furman has been dominating the lesser foes in this league so far. Furman will handle the Mocs with relative ease. Paladins 74, Mocs 60.

Samford at The Citadel
Time: 6:00 PM (Thursday)
Viewing: ESPN3

Why it matters: It’s Bulldogs vs. Bulldogs. Samford is 2-1 in conference play but taking the road for the first time. As Samford is hanging on waiting for Wyatt Walker to come back from injury, they are trying to put themselves into position to contend when he gets back. The Citadel is 0-3 in conference play, but playing at home against Samford, they have every chance to get in the win column.

Key Players: Zane Najdawi for The Citadel is a big man and capable of putting up solid numbers. He is one of the better players for the Bulldogs. He is averaging just 8.9 points per game. He is capable of much bigger things than that though. Najdawi will need to have a big game because Samford is not particularly big. For Samford, Demetrius Denzel-Dyson is the player that The Citadel will have the most difficult time containing. He’s tough to contain and will need to score a lot of points for Samford to have the best opportunity to win it.

Prediction: Bulldogs win. I’m serious. They will. This is going to be an interesting game. This is a chance for The Citadel to get back into the SoCon race for the bye. For Samford, this is a chance to continue to put distance between themselves and the bottom of the league. I have had zero feel for this Samford team so far. I have no idea how good they are going to be or what is going to happen in this game. I guess I’m leaning towards Samford, but I don’t really know why. Samford Bulldogs 94, The Citadel Bulldogs 91.

Power Rankings- 1/7/2018

After three conference games for most of the teams, it is time for another set of power rankings.

After a week that presented surprisingly few early surprises, we are where now in new territory. It is easier than ever to tell where each team belongs. That being said, there are still very interesting things to try to figure out in the standings.

So, we asked, as usual, Jerry Love and John Hooper to help us rank the teams and here are the latest power rankings.

2) Furman
4) Wofford
5) Mercer
6) Samford
7) Western Carolina
8) Chattanooga
9) VMI
10) The Citadel

–There were three teams ranked first by the four of us last time we did the power rankings. This week, we were down to just two teams receiving a first place vote. One was ETSU. The other was UNCG. Maybe that gets settled when these two hook up in Johnson City this week.

–Three teams received the exact same ranking in every set of rankings. One was Furman, who was voted second in all of our rankings. One was Wofford, who was voted fourth in all of our rankings. The last one was Chattanooga, who was eighth in every ranking.

–The interesting thing to me is if Wofford can squeeze into the top three again. They’ve hardly done anything to deserve dropping out of the top three, but here they are, no longer in the top three. Terriers could easily still win this league.

Game Reviews: Intrigue in Lexington, Greenville

It was a very interesting day of SoCon basketball.

There are now three undefeated teams left in conference play, as ETSU, UNCG and Furman remain unscathed. There are four winless teams in Chattanooga, The Citadel, VMI and Mercer.

The Bears are the most surprising team in that group. Few people would think they would have been grouped with those other three, but there problem is how difficult their schedule has been. The Bears looked much better against Furman on Saturday and looks like they will find their footing yet.

The three remaining teams all sit at 2-1 in conference play. Samford, Western Carolina and Wofford have all found their way to that mark.

There were no major surprises on Saturday. VMI tried to pull off the shocker of the young season early and nearly did it, but just came up short.

We seem to have established the seven teams fighting for the six byes, but it is still early in conference play and there is plenty of time for things to change. But let’s look closer at Saturday’s games.

Furman 74, Mercer 71

What Happened? Mercer was up 9 with about nine minutes left in the game, 59-50. But Furman, behind a big finish by Daniel Fowler, went on a big run late and won the game. Mercer absolutely dominated the boards, and also shot 67% from two point range. But the Bears made just 3 of 17 from three and were unable to consistently make the long range shots needed to win the game. Ria’n Holland wound up going 0 of 6 from long range, and scoring just 11 points. Desmond Ringer finished with 22. Furman made their free throws down the stretch and kept Mercer from making a comeback.

Stat of the Game: Mercer committed 16 turnovers. Furman committed just 8. In a game decided by one possession, that makes all the difference in the world. That is eight possessions the Paladins gained on the Bears due to turnovers. Mercer’s three point shooting did not help matters any for the Bears, but it was really the turnovers (and the Paladins ability to not turn the ball over) that made all the difference.

Player of the Game: Daniel Fowler wound up with 21 points on 6 of 11 shooting from the floor. He also made 3 of 7 from three and 6 of 6 from the free throw stripe. Fowler also had four rebounds, four assists and two steals. Fowler was clearly the player that made Furman go in this one. He scored fourteen points in the final six minutes of this one.

What does it mean to Mercer? The Bears now are 0-2 in SoCon play, but have played ETSU and Furman. That means that they have played two really good teams and lost to both of them, but the schedule is going to let up. The Bears next four games are not against the presumed Top Five teams. That means that they have a shot to go on a bit of a run here. Between now and January 20, the Bears should be favored each time out. Now is the time to start winning games if they want to get back on the right track.

What does it mean to Furman? The Paladins are now 3-0 in conference play and got the win against top competition that they were looking for. They go to Wofford next Saturday in a huge rivalry game and another critical showdown for the Paladins. Before then, they go to Chattanooga. Furman, one of the tri-champs in the regular season a year ago, looks like they are right there again. The Paladins had almost nothing to show for their championship a year ago. UNCG got the one seed in Asheville. ETSU won the tournament. But Furman didn’t even get to the SoCon Championship Game. They are looking to get something this year. They are positioning themselves for that kind of run.

UNCG 63, VMI 61

What Happened? The UNCG lead ballooned to 14 early in the second half, but VMI came roaring back, and even took the lead late in the game. It was eerily similar to UNCG’s loss to Presbyterian earlier in the season. But the Spartans defense kept them in the game and Francis Alonso was fouled shooting a three with under three seconds left. He knocked down two of the three free throws before Austin Vereen missed a three pointer at the buzzer that would have won the game.

Stat of the Game: The Spartans had an offensive rebounding percentage of 36.1% while Keydets were at only 14.3%. That was pretty much the difference in a game this close. If the Keydets could have come up with about two more offensive and two more defensive rebounds, they probably win this game. So close for VMI, yet so far away. UNCG’s size eventually did make the difference

Player of the Game: I guess I’ll go with James Dickey, who scored 14 points and collected 9 rebounds, five of them offensive. He had two blocks, two steals and an assist as well. Dickey has taken a step forward this year, but I think he still has another step he could take by March. He needs to take it if UNCG is going to get to the NCAA Tournament.

What does it mean to UNCG? UNCG does not play it’s best basketball away from home. At home, the Spartans look like the best team in the SoCon. On the road, I think it is fair to question if they are better than fifth in the SoCon. This was not a good showing, and showed a shocking lack of being able to deliver the knockout blow. They had VMI down, and could not deliver the punch to end it. That’s the same thing that happened at Presbyterian. With a trip to ETSU coming Thursday and another at Western Carolina next Saturday, this Spartans team needs to figure out how to play a more complete road game.

What does it mean to VMI? Just as I was ready to completely write off VMI and say they were just not very good, they play this game. The Keydets looked much better than they had in the previous two games. VMI is 0-3 in conference play, but showed a pulse today. The Keydets still go to ETSU, visit Western Carolina and host Mercer. That’s a ridiculous start to conference play. More than likely VMI pulls an upset or two at some point, but VMI has a long way to go if they want to get into the sixth and final bye spot.

ETSU 85, Chattanooga 66

What Happened? The Bucs jumped out to a huge early lead and put this one away very early. The Mocs never really got back into the game. ETSU made 56% of their shots and outrebounded the Mocs 42-29. The Mocs only made 15 of 27 free throws, which put them behind the eight ball as they attempted to make a comeback. Nat Dixon got 20 points for the Mocs and Joshua Phillips collected 17 points. Jalan McCloud scored in single digits for the second straight game for the Bucs. Desonta Bradford scored 13 points.

Stat of the Game: Makinde London fouled out in 17 minutes for the Mocs. The most talented Mocs player and the player most likely to be able to control Peter Jurkin was only able to play 17 minutes and fouled out. That was a huge difference in this one. It may not have been the only reason the Bucs won by 19, but it certainly was one of the main reasons.

Player of the Game: Peter Jurkin wound up with 15 points and 11 rebounds. He also had three blocks. As predicted in the preview article, Jurkin had a huge game and dominated the contest. The big man is really coming into his own, and he will be a huge asset moving forward for the Bucs. He is a critical player to the Bucs chances of repeating in Asheville.

What does it mean to ETSU? The Bucs are 3-0 in SoCon play, winning all three on the road by 18 or 19 points, an average of 18.7 points per game. That is remarkable. The Bucs get to take on UNCG on Thursday at home in their growing rivalry. This was another solid performance by the Bucs.

What does it mean to Chattanooga? The Mocs are now 0-3 in SoCon play. They play Furman at home on Wednesday. The Mocs are in real trouble for getting the sixth spot in the conference race, but they could still if they start getting hot. The injured Mocs need to start performing better if they want to make that run.

Wofford 109, The Citadel 92

What Happened? The Citadel jumped out to an early lead and were up 27-19. The Bulldogs have done that in all three conference games only to give up the lead. Wofford jumped and went up by 14, 69-55. But The Citadel was not done, as they trimmed the lead back down to 7. But Wofford was too much and pulled away for a relatively easy looking 17 point win.

Stat of the Game: The Terriers knocked down 53% of their shots. They also made 47% of their threes, knocking down 14 treys. Normally, that kind of shooting will get the job done. The Terriers offense has been playing well and the Bulldogs defense gives up points in bunches, so it was not particularly surprising, but it still was impressive to watch the Terriers shoot like that.

Player of the Game: Storm Murphy? Nathan Hoover? Trevor Stumpe? Tough call. I supposed we’ll go with Hoover, who scored 21 off the bench and knocked down 5 of 8 from three. He also made 4 of 6 from the free throw stripe. Hoover has not taken the leap I think many people were expecting to see this year out of Hoover, but maybe this game will change that and give him a boost of confidence.

What does it mean to The Citadel? The Bulldogs are now 0-3 in SoCon play and continue to struggle. They host Samford and Chattanooga next weekend in two must win games if they want to get into the race for the sixth spot in the conference race. They could do it. But the Bulldogs gave up 107 and 109 this week to SoCon foes. Not a good look.

What does it mean to Wofford? The Terriers are now back to 2-1 in SoCon play. They step out of conference play against Harvard on Wednesday before hosting Furman on Saturday. This is a team more than capable of makng a run at a SoCon title. It would certainly help matters for them if they could come up with a win against next Saturday. This game helped set the table for the Terriers. They did what they needed to do this week and came up with two relatively easy wins.

Samford 85, Western Carolina 71

What Happened? The key stretch for the game was the last four minutes of the first half. Samford was up 30-24 with four minutes left, but before Matt Halvorsen knocked down a three pointer at the buzzer for the Catamounts, the Bulldogs went on a 12-2 run. It went from a 6 point game and a 16 point game. After that, the Catamounts were never really able to get back into the game and the Bulldogs just kept them at arm’s reach the rest of the night.

Stat of the Game: Samford knocked down 52.6% from three point range. Not only that, but Western Carolina took more than half of their shots from three and made just 35% of them. That can make the difference in most games. The Bulldogs shooting was really good in this one.

Player of the Game: It’s time to give Eric Adams some credit. Adams is a senior that has never given many minutes to the Bulldogs. Yet here he is, scoring in double figures for the fifth time in six games. Adams scored 13 points on 6 of 7 shooting from the floor. He also collected nine rebounds and five offensive rebounds. He also had two steals and two blocks. Adams is really starting to come on strong.

What does it mean to Western Carolina? The Catamounts came in 2-0 in conference play and riding high. After this disappointing performance, they are just 2-1. They fought hard, and going 2-1 to open conference play on the road is impressive. Next week they get Mercer and UNCG at home. If the Catamounts find a way to steal at least one of those in Cullowhee, suddenly this team could be taken a lot more seriously in the conference race. The early momentum is not completely gone, but it is hurt by this performance.

What does it mean to Samford? Suddenly, the disappointing Bulldogs are 2-1 in conference and look to be the mild favorite to get the six spot in the SoCon Tournament. A trip to The Citadel on Thursday provides another opportunity to come up with a SoCon win and really take hold of the final bye race. A win there would set them up for a nice chance to get a win at Mercer next Saturday and a chance to announce that maybe they are better than we all think they are.

Game Previews: Top Teams Take the Road

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
Viewing: ESPN3

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.

Time: 1:00 PM
Viewing: ESPN3

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
Viewing: ESPN3

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
Viewing: ESPN3

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
Viewing: ESPN3

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.

Game Reviews: Make A Statement

It was Statement Day around the SoCon. ETSU dominated Samford, Furman blew out The Citadel, Wofford crushed VMI and Western Carolina won fairly easily against Chattanooga.

As each of the winners made a big statement about where they fit into the conference race, the three best teams playing on Thursday all seemed to be trying to one up each other. One after the other, the performances seemed to be more impressive as it went. So who was better? Wofford? Furman? ETSU? Who knows?

But that’s why we’ll keep on watching for another two months.

ETSU 90, Samford 72

What Happened? I feel like we had seen this story before. ETSU was just going along against a road SoCon opponent and then late in the first half, the Bucs started to pull away. As the second half went on, the Bucs opponent never was completely out of it, but was never really in it either as the Bucs just continued to methodically pull away for a surprisingly easy road win. Yes, that’s what the Bucs did to Mercer. That’s also what they did to Samford.

Stat of the Game: ETSU had not been a great three point shooting team this year. But for the second straight game, they were lighting it up from three. The Bucs made 11 of 20 from three point range in this one, their second straight game over 50% from long range. They also shot nearly 61% from the floor. The Bucs are shooting so well right now. They are going to be very difficult to beat shooting like that.

Player of the Game: Desonata Bradford scored 18 points, three rebounds, five assists and three steals. Bradford has always been someone that can fill up a boxscore and he really did it in this one. Bradford sometimes gets forgotten about in this conference, but he is a very good player.

What does it mean to ETSU? That’s two SoCon road wins for ETSU, by an average of 18.5 points. That’s good. They go to Chattanooga on Saturday for a rivalry game, but the game next Thursday at home against UNCG is another really great test for these Bucs. ETSU is saying that to be the champs, you got to beat the champs. No one has come close yet.

What does it mean to Samford? Feelings that Samford might be doing better? Wrong. They still don’t have Wyatt Walker or Christen Cunningham, but they really looked poor tonight. They host Western Carolina on Saturday in a key game for the Bulldogs as they chase down the six seed. Where does Samford fit into the mix? We really still don’t know.

Wofford 92, VMI 53

What Happened? Before most SoCon fans could even get the game pulled up on their electronic device, the game was over. With 11:25 left in the first half, Cameron Jackson made a layup to put the Terriers up 29-2. The Terriers outscored the Keydets 63-51 the rest of the way- a much more competitive game, but it had long since been decided. It was the second straight game that the Keydets gave up a huge run in the first half that essentially ended the game.

Stat of the Game: The Terriers shot a red hot 59% from the floor, knocking down 36 of 61 overall. The Keydets were outmanned to begin with and they need Wofford to be cold shooting. That simply did not happen. The Terriers were blazing hot from the floor and that put this thing away right away.

Player of the Game: The easy answer would be Fletcher Magee, who answered the bell after scoring zero against UNCG in the second half by scoring 25 on 9 of 11 shooting from the floor. But the better answer in this one is Trevor Stumpe. He scored 17 on 6 of 10 shooting from the floor. He also got five rebounds, two assists and three steals. Stumpe filled up the stat sheet in every department and is becoming a very valuable member of this team.

What does it mean to VMI? The Keydets have played two SoCon games, and been blown out twice, both by two of the league’s contenders. This VMI team is in real trouble. They just are not very good right now. The battles continue, as they face UNCG and ETSU in their next two conference games. That’s a brutal start to the schedule for a VMI team that needed a break.

What does it mean to Wofford? The Terriers needed to get back on the winning track after the disappointing finish against UNCG and they left no doubt against one of the league’s lesser teams. They get another shot against one of the lesser teams in the SoCon in The Citadel on Saturday. This Wofford team still looks like one of the best teams in the SoCon.

Western Carolina 75, Chattanooga 63

What Happened? The Mocs jumped out to a quick start and an early lead, but the Catamounts answered and jumped out to a twenty point lead. Chattanooga did not give up and cut the lead down to seven late, but they had dug themselves too big of a hole and the Catamounts prevailed.

Stat of the Game: Of the 36 available rebounds on the offensive end for Western Carolina, they corralled 17 of them. That is a remarkable 47.2% of offensive rebounds for the Catamounts. They were the team that controlled the glass and were the more physical team and that was very impressive.

Player of the Game: Mike Amius scored 27 points on 12 of 16 shooting from the floor. He had eight rebounds and four steals as well. Amius is one of the more underrated players in the SoCon at this point. He’s really coming on as a junior college transfer in the second half of his first year with the program. He could be a significant game changer down the stretch for the Catamounts.

What does it mean to Western Carolina? The Catamounts are now 2-0 in SoCon play, and suddenly it is time to say hello to one of the league’s early surprises. That is two SoCon road wins. They play at Samford on Saturday, and if the Catamounts get the win there and are 3-0 with three road conference wins, it may be time to take the team much more seriously. It still seems unlikely that this team can contend for a regular season title, but this team can definitely get the six seed, and are probably the favorites at the moment.

What does it mean to Chattanooga? The Mocs are now 0-2 in SoCon play and in a world of trouble. That was two games the Mocs could have won and they have lost them both. ETSU and Furman are coming to Chattanooga and that means that the Mocs are still in more trouble. The team that appeared to be in the best position for the six seed in the SoCon tournament is now 0-2 and looks to be pretty unlikely to get there in that race.

Furman 107, The Citadel 67

What Happened? The Citadel was ahead 30-29 with 6 minutes left in the half. Needless to say, things went poorly from there. This is the second straight game that Furman struggled early against a lesser opponent and then turned it on at the end of the first half and blew the game wide open. The Paladins dominating run put the game away.

Stat of the Game: Furman had a phenomenal 31 assists. They made 39 field goals. The Paladins were really sharing the basketball. It was beautiful basketball out of the Paladins. If they continue to share like that, they will continue to be an incredibly difficult team to stop on the offensive end.

Player of the Game: I’ll go with Devin Sibley, who scored 26 points, collected ten rebounds and had five assists. The preseason Player of the Year in the SoCon really made a statement after some other performances by other players had put him behind in the race. This was the sort of statement that will put Sibley square in the middle of race for the Player of the Year, if he wasn’t already there.

What does it mean to The Citadel? The Bulldogs fell to 0-2 in SoCon play, and they are struggling. That being said, this was not a game they were supposed to win. The Bulldogs still visit Wofford this weekend, but then get to host Samford and Chattanooga. Those games are where we will find out if the Bulldogs can contend for a bye spot.

What does it mean to Furman? Another game, another blowout for the Paladins over a team that they should have beaten. Furman is really showing off right now, with two really easy wins. Furman is one of the top teams in the SoCon. They finally get their chance to show it at home against Mercer on Saturday. It should be a tremendous game.

Game Previews: Upset Dreams Dance In Bottom Five Heads

There are only four SoCon games on Thursday evening as UNCG and Mercer each have the day off. Of the five teams considered the primary contenders in the SoCon race, that is two of the five not playing on Thursday night. That changes the feeling of the night.

Instead the focus shifts a bit as we head into these games. Will Wofford or Furman be upset at home? Can ETSU avoid the upset bug on the road? But really- which of the bottom five teams is going to come up with a big win to help themselves in the race to get the sixth spot. Will it be Chattanooga or Western Carolina? Will VMI or The Citadel pull a road upset? Can Samford win a huge home game?

As three of the bottom five teams face top five teams, an upset would do wonders for getting them into the bye race. It would be a win that none of those teams was expected to get and it could help change the trajectory of their seasons.

It’s a chance to pull some upsets and make a statement on Thursday night.

Game of the Day
ETSU at Samford
Time: 8:00 PM
Viewing: ESPN3

Why it matters: Both of these teams won their conference openers in impressive fashion. ETSU crushed Mercer on the road. Samford beat Chattanooga at home. Samford looked like one of the preseason conference favorites that they were expected to be, while ETSU looked a lot like the defending conference champs. We are going to learn a whole lot about Samford in this one and whether or not they are truly a championship contender this year, or merely another team hoping to get into the Top 6 of the conference race. ETSU could come up with a second road SoCon win- a very nice way to start the season.

Key Players: Justin Coleman, come on down. Coleman has been playing tremendous basketball. Watching the Mocs try to guard the pick and roll involving Coleman the other night was unbelievable. He was tremendous. It will really be up to Jalan McCloud and the ETSU defense to guard that better than Chattanooga did. McCloud has also been tremendous offensively and really played well against Mercer. Can the Bulldogs continue going that way offensively behind Coleman? Can they stop McCloud? Can McCloud step up and dominate again?

Prediction: I am cautiously optimistic about Samford. Wyatt Walker will be back in a few weeks. They get Western Carolina on Saturday. A win here would make an announcement to the league that the Bulldogs are contenders, possibly for a conference title. That being said, ETSU is going for a second conference road win against at least a decent opponent. The Bucs have jumped to the top of the conference pecking order already. A win here just further cements that. I expect McCloud to have a great game, but I also expect Peter Jurkin to have a big game in the paint. Bucs get a close but good win. Bucs 74, Bulldogs 69.

VMI at Wofford
Time: 7:00 PM
Viewing: ESPN3

Why it matters: The Keydets were hammered by Furman in their opener, while Wofford narrowly lost at UNCG. With both teams at 0-1 in SoCon play, this game becomes critical to both teams. If Wofford were to be upset by the Keydets, then they would suddenly be 0-2 in conference play and in real trouble. If VMI were to lose, it would not be a major surprise, but it would push them further out of the six spot in the conference race.

Key Players: Personally, I really enjoy Bubba Parham. He’s a talented offensive player. The freshman is under 6 feet tall and makes about 39% of his threes. He needs to have a big game, going head to head with Fletcher Magee. Magee is looking for a bounce back game after the second half against UNCG ended so badly. Also, Cam Jackson just won Player of the Week. He’s been very good for the Terriers.

Prediction: The Keydets are one of the worst teams in the country offensively, according to Ken Pomeroy. The Keydets got beaten down by Furman at home in their last game. I expect VMI to show up and play significantly better than that. However, the Terriers are so good offensively, it is tough to imagine that they are going to lose to this really poor offense. Still, expect this to be closer than the previous game for the Keydets. Terriers 78, Keydets 62.

Western Carolina at Chattanooga
Time: 7:30 PM
Viewing: ESPN3

Why it matters: This is a critical moment for both teams. Western Carolina has already stolen a road game in conference play. Chattanooga was humbled on the road against Samford. If the Catamounts win, they will have two road SoCon wins to start conference play and they could become the favorite to get the six seed for the tournament, or at least make them one of the most likely to get it, if not an even better spot. Chattanooga would fall into a pretty bad spot in the standings. On the other hand, a Mocs win would put both teams right into contention for the top six in the conference race, and get the Mocs back the road game they lost on Saturday. This game could be the Game of the Day, in a lot of ways.

Key Players: The Catamounts are not a particularly productive team on the offensive end. Mike Amius is 6-7 and is the tallest regular contributor, along with Matt Halvorsen. As a short team, they could certainly struggle with a team with any size. Chattanooga has 6-10 Makinde London and 6-8 Josh Phillips as regular contributors. If Western Carolina can control the Mocs in the paint, they will have a really good chance to win this game. The Mocs will need to control the paint as much as possible with London and Phillips. Phillips is more the inside threat for the Mocs. His performance could be the difference.

Prediction: This is really interesting. James Lewis went out against Georgia State and missed the Samford game for Chattanooga, making a thin team even thinner. Phillips will need to come up big. If Western Carolina comes up with a second road SoCon win, they will announce themselves as a prime threat for the sixth spot…and possibly more. I think the Mocs sneak out a gutty win, but this is going to be a very interesting match-up. Mocs 67, Catamounts 66.

The Citadel at Furman
Time: 7:30 PM
Viewing: ESPN3

Why it matters: The Bulldogs lost a nailbiter to Western Carolina on Saturday at home, while Furman was on the road pounding VMI. Furman is hoping to continue to establish themselves as one of the conference favorites by continuing to beat up on bottom five teams. The Citadel is hoping to make a statement and steal a game that no one expected them to win.

Key Players: The Bulldogs will race up and down the floor. They need Frankie Johnson, the 5-5 sophomore, to get them up and down the floor in this one. The Paladins are not particularly an up and down team, so the Bulldogs need to get up and down. The Paladins are 23rd in the country in 3 point defense, but rank only 291st in two point defense. That’s a problem in the long run for this team when they face teams with better inside play. In this one, that means basically that Matt Rafferty needs to control Zane Najdawi. Najdawi is a solid contributor for the Bulldogs, but Rafferty, a 6-8 player, is really solid and turning into one of the better big men in the conference.

Prediction: The Paladins are really good and are playing really well right now. The Bulldogs are playing better than they get credit for without Preston Parks. But the fact is, Furman is significantly better. The Paladins, playing at home, should win this one without too much trouble. They are just that much better than The Citadel. Paladins 101, Bulldogs 79.