I’m Thankful To Be Able To React

It’s been about a week since the last time I reacted/overreacted to Southern Conference basketball.

But I’m confused. Isn’t it Thanksgiving week? I’m supposed to be thankful this week.

So I guess I should just be thankful that I can react, because it’s time to get to five thoughts again.

Of course, with each passing game, things are less an overreaction and more actual good reactions. I’m learning more and more each day about these teams. But it is still November. Everything is still an overreaction.

Samford- the season has started, in case you were wondering.

I was as high on Samford as anyone in the preseason. I thought more of them than Brad did, for example. I thought there was a real chance we were wrong to put them second in our preseason podcast. Maybe it will play out that way. The opening schedule for the Bulldogs was always going to be brutal. Arkansas, LSU and Illinois Chicago are all good teams. But Samford hasn’t been close in any of these. They’ve averaged losing to those three teams by 26.3 points per game. Of course, 39 of those points were to Arkansas, but they were never really in the game against any of those teams. Wyatt Walker has been out for undisclosed reasons. Without Walker, this team is really not good. He’s one of the best players in the SoCon, but he hasn’t shown it yet. They play Valparaiso on Tuesday, but then have two easier games this weekend. They need to get those.

Mercer, Furman, UNCG all doing what we thought.

Preseason, you could have made a case that the top four teams were Furman, Samford, Mercer and UNCG. In our podcast, that’s what we said. Ignoring Samford, the other three teams have all lived up to expectations. Furman is 1-2 vs. D1 teams, Mercer is 3-2 and UNCG is 1-1. But the losses are all explainable. I think those three teams have clearly established themselves as the best of the bunch in the SoCon so far. Mercer’s performance at Paradise Jam (advancing to the title game before falling to Colorado) was really the most impressive thing a SoCon team has done so far. But if you’ve watched UNCG play (even against the non-D1s) it’s clear that this team may lack Diante Baldwin, but they are going to be really good. Furman’s losses to Butler and Duke are understandable, and the win over Elon is one of the conference’s better wins so far. They could use neutral court wins over New Hampshire and Northeastern this weekend.

ETSU is reloaded.

The Bucs didn’t play great against Kentucky on Friday night for about the twenty middle minutes, but they were respectable in their 17 point loss. They did not look good against Northern Kentucky. But they dominated Savannah State and Delaware State and looked really good. Those are probably two of the worst teams in America, though. Devontavius Payne and Desonata Bradford have been great so far. David Burrell has been solid as well. They also have Jalan McCloud and Peter Jurkin as seniors. That is five seniors on the roster that are contributors. Mladen Armus certainly showed what he was capable of scoring 15 tonight against Delaware State. He’s a freshman that is only going to get better. The Bucs are really good. They probably belong with the three listed above to make the top four of the conference.

Western Carolina and VMI- sorry, we were right.

These teams are bad. Not a little bad. Really bad. Yes, VMI beat Presbyterian by 20 points at home in their home opener. They are playing better than expected, by a little. But it still really seems like they are quite bad. Longwood at home on December 9 may be their next real shot at a D1 win. If they get one between now and then, consider it an upset, and a great testament to this team being much better than expected. Western Carolina has been getting smoked, but they have played three KenPom Top 50 teams. But they haven’t even really shown flashes, and they really struggled to put away Hiwassee. These two are the teams that seem to be the worst teams in the SoCon at this point. These teams are not very good right now. Things can always change, but right now, it’s not pretty.

Chattanooga still inconsistent.

Anyone shocked that the youngest team in America is wildly inconsistent? The Mocs played Wyoming close and then were destroyed by UAB. Then, the Mocs played Hiwassee (who played Western Carolina close) and left no doubt with a blowout win. Then the Mocs dominated Alabama State with a first half defensive performance to remember. The second half wasn’t as good, but they were up 29 late in the first half. Nat Dixon has been a revelation, capitalizing on the promise he showed in flashes last year. Makinde London and Rodney Chatman have been the other top performers. David Jean-Baptiste also has stood out in a few moments this year. It will be interesting to see which Mocs team shows up against Jacksonville State on Tuesday night. By February, this team will be better and might even be a top half SoCon team. They aren’t there yet. They are still a bottom half of the SoCon team.

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Is this Paradise? No, it’s Lynchburg

The Mercer Bears are heading to Lynchburg, Virginia, to play in the Paradise Jam. I know, paradise doesn’t seem to describe Lynchburg really well, but the US Virgin Islands have been devastated by hurricanes this fall. Therefore, the games were moved to Lynchburg with Liberty as the host. All the proceeds are going to hurricane relief, so this is for a good cause.

So, how will Mercer perform in Lynchburg? The other teams competing in the tournament are Liberty, Drexel, Houston, Quinnipiac, Colorado, Drake and Wake Forest.

According to Ken Pomeroy, four of the teams are ranked in the Top 100, which means that we could get a pretty interesting tournament. The Bears are one of the four in the Top 100, checking in at #99.

Houston- 59
Wake Forest-70
Colorado- 81
Mercer- 99
Liberty- 145
Drexel- 215
Drake-223
Quinnipiac- 314

The problem for Mercer is that open in a true road game against Liberty, which is a team that is the highest ranked team not ranked in the Top 100. The Bears could be in the consolation portion of the bracket by mid-afternoon Friday, since that is the opening game of the tournament.

A win there would likely set up a match-up with Houston, the highest ranked team in the field. That is tough, but really any of the top three teams in the field would have been difficult match-ups.

So, can Mercer win this tournament? It doesn’t seem likely with three teams ranked ahead of them. However, it is also not impossible.

Ria’n Holland has been playing really well so far this year, and is a possibility for SoCon Player of the Year if he puts it all together. He has been shooting tremendously and really being a stud player. Desmond Ringer and Demetre Rivers are both 6-8 or taller, and play very good defensively. Stephon Jelks always seems to do a lot of things that help the Bears win big games.

Then, there is Jordan Strawberry, who I feel like has been at Mercer for ten years, and I’ve been talking about how much I like watching him play for about that long.

This is a team that has been playing pretty well (outside of ten minutes against UCF on opening night) and was picked to win the SoCon by the coaches. The media had them all the way down at sixth. I think we are going to learn a bunch about this team between Friday and Sunday. Even with a loss to Liberty and going into the consolation bracket, they could get two wins there and finish in fifth place. This is a huge opportunity for a SoCon team.

We are going to know on Sunday whether this team is closer to the 6th place SoCon team or the 1st place SoCon team. This tournament is not an impossible task for the Bears to have a solid performance in. I think all SoCon fans should be playing close attention to this to see exactly where these Bears are right now.

Q&A With Dean Keener

If there is one voice on SoCon men’s basketball that is most well known among the fans, it is Dean Keener. He calls games on WatchESPN for the conference, and calls every game (except for the championship game) of the conference tournament. His articles that appear on SoConSports.com are often insightful on the workings of college basketball and also provide great information on the teams.

I asked Dean if he would take some time and answer a few questions before the season started for us to post on here. Yes, the season has begun now, but his answers are still pertinent and interesting.

We appreciate Dean taking time to answer some questions. Hopefully, we will have the opportunity to do this again as the season progresses.

What atmosphere is the best one in the conference?

Keener: ETSU (Freedom Hall) has become a terrific home-court advantage for the Bucs, although I would guess Richardson Indoor Stadium (Wofford’s new arena) will be a terrific venue based on size and the “wow factor”.

You’ve been covering the SoCon for a while. What game sticks out as the most memorable that you were covering?

Keener: Without question it is Karl Cochran of Wofford going off against Chattanooga on January 5, 2015. He dropped 33 that night. I’m not sure how many he had the last 15 minutes, but it was crazy. He hit tough shot after tough shot against a very good Mocs team.

If you could pick any current SoCon coach to coach any team in one game, which one would it be?

Keener: Mike Young of Wofford. He is always prepared.

If you could take any coaching job in the conference, taking everything into account (fans and their expectations, facilities, recruiting base, current state of the program), which one do you believe you would take?

Keener: Chattanooga is the best job in the league, with ETSU a close second. They are by far the best jobs. The reasons for both are similar. There is the care factor of the administration, tradition, facilities and the ability to get prospects into school- and keep them in.

Turning to this season, Mercer is obviously causing quite a division of opinion. The coaches picked them first, while the media picked them sixth. Which do you think is more likely? Why do you think there is such a difference of opinion?

Keener: Mercer has as much talent as anyone. They will start five seniors. I’m not sure why people would predict them to finish outside the top four. That said, they have never truly recovered from the death of Jibri Bryan in February of 2016. Also, will Ria’n Holland be able to cut down on his bad shots? As good as he is, I thought he shot them out of games last year. Finally, what will their chemistry be like? Can this group put aside egos and personal agendas for a great season?

Is there a team not receiving much attention in the preseason that you think could be a surprise factor in the race?

Keener: The Citadel has a chance to make some noise. I’m not sure they can win it, but with their style and Preston Parks, they have a chance every night.

It’s Time To Overreact…Again

I overreacted to the first set of games on Friday night. Now, every team (except for UNCG) has played at least one more game, so it’s time to react/overreact again. Here’s five quick thoughts on what we’ve been watching since Friday night.

That’s 4-4 vs. D1 competition since Friday

I was not kind to the SoCon teams on Friday night after an 0-8 showing against D1 competition. Since then, the SoCon has played eight more games against teams from the top level of college basketball, and gone a very respectable 4-4. The wins came against Alabama A&M, Savannah State, Jackson State, and Elon, not exactly a Who’s Who of college basketball powerhouses. The losses were to Virginia Tech, UAB, Cincinnati, and Duquesne. In other words, the SoCon teams won the four games they should have won and lost the four games they should have lost. Couple that with the now 4-0 record vs. non-D1 teams, and the conference is right about where it was expected to be.

Tariq Simmons is the best freshman so far.

I spoke highly of Simmons after his performance against Oglethorpe, and I will again after what The Citadel freshman did against Virginia Tech. Yes, I know that the Bulldogs style lends itself to high scoring totals and can make it misleading. But if you’ve watched The Citadel play, you’ll notice Simmons out there making plays. Maybe he hits a wall at some point, but right now, Simmons deserves a lot of credit.

Mercer, Furman, Samford…that’s more like it.

If Mercer, Furman and Samford are the conference favorites (and UNCG may have something to say about that), they have played like it since Friday night. Furman was fine on Friday playing a non-D1, but Samford was dreadful in their loss to Arkansas. Mercer had a bad ten minute stretch against UCF and lost because of it. But since then, Mercer dominated a non-D1 and then blew by Jackson State tonight. The Bears have looked very good, and while they probably do not deserve to be the preseason favorite like the coaches made them, they have looked like they belong in the conversation. Ria’n Holland has been shooting very well, knocking down 13 of 21 shots in the two wins. They have, as a team, shot over 50% in both games. Furman has the best win in the SoCon over a pretty good Elon team. Devin Sibley did not look great in the first half, but got 16 in the second half to propel the Paladins to the win. This team needs Matt Rafferty to be good. He has been so far. For Samford, their win over Alabama A&M was good, but Wyatt Walker needs to stay on the floor. He finished with a team high 14 points, but fouled out, playing just twenty minutes. He makes the Bulldogs so much better when he is on the floor. The Bulldogs are counting on him.

Inconsistency mars Chattanooga.

The Mocs hung around with a pretty good Wyoming team on Friday night, but were completely dismantled by a UAB that shouldn’t be much better than the Cowboys. When you are a team as young as Chattanooga, there are going to be nights like that. UAB packed it into the lane and forced the Mocs to shoot over them and dominated the young guys physically. That’s not the last night that will happen to Chattanooga this year. The question is if there will be more nights like Friday or like Monday.

ETSU out of sorts again, but gets the win.

The Bucs did not look great at the end of the first half and the beginning of the second half against Northern Kentucky. They lost. On Monday, they played really well at the end of the first half and the beginning of the second half against Savannah State. They won. I have to believe that the Bucs do not want to rely on Devontavius Payne to score 28 points every night to get the win. The Bucs have not looked particularly good this year yet. Yes, they are 1-1. But they have a bunch of newcomers and should improve as the year goes on. But there has been very little flash of greatness from these Bucs yet. Still, a 16 point win on the road is a 16 point win on the road. Now, the Bucs go to Kentucky on Friday night. Can they upset the young Cats?

5 Quick Opening Night Thoughts

The SoCon opened their season on Friday night with all ten teams in action. It was…not a particularly good day, as the only wins were against non-D1 competition. Here are 5 thoughts on the first night of the season.

It wasn’t all bad.

The SoCon did not lose to a non-D1. Yes, Oglethorpe and Bob Jones are not exactly strong competition, but The Citadel and Furman won by an average of 44.5 points. That’s strong, even if the competition was not. Did we learn anything? Not really, but at least there wasn’t an embarrassing loss in there. The SoCon needs to not lose games like these, and through one night, no losses. Whew!

Only three teams lost by less than 18 points, raising some serious questions.

Of the games tonight, ETSU could have beaten Northern Kentucky. Samford could have upset Arkansas. Wofford could have beaten South Carolina as the Terriers opened their new home arena. Those three lost by an average of 26 points. Yes, 39 of those were Samford’s total no show at Arkansas. I know that can happen at an SEC team, but wow. For a team that everyone thinks is a real contender in the SoCon that was shocking. I actually thought Wofford would beat South Carolina at home- not even close. Wofford was totally outclassed by the Gamecocks. Then ETSU played well for a half but then completely collapsed in the second half against Northern Kentucky to lose by 18. Not a good look SoCon. Not a good look.

Mercer, UNCG and Chattanooga may provide some bright spots.

No one is going to mistake UCF for a national title contender, but Mercer did go on the road and play the Knights close for most of the night. They had a bad ten minute stretch where the game kind of got away from them, but the Bears only lost by nine. UNCG went to Virginia and showed that last year wasn’t really a fluke with a solid performance. They were not great offensively, but we’ve heard about the Cavaliers defense, right? A twelve point loss to open the year could have been worse. Chattanooga was expected to really struggle this year, but they hung around with a decent Wyoming team all night in Laramie, before falling by nine points. It will be interesting to see the Mocs develop, as they are obviously young, but showed real flashes of being a decent team tonight.

Tariq Simmons impresses.

Yes, it was Oglethorpe. But The Citadel freshman Tariq Simmons stood out in the opener. In the first half, he seemed to be doing everything. He wound up with 15 points, 8 assists and 4 steals. I was very impressed with his play. Of course, things get much more real against Virginia Tech on Sunday, but if Simmons is going to be a solid contributor with Zane Najdawi and Preston Parks, this team gets much more dangerous. Sorry if after one day I’m starting to buy into The Citadel a bit. I know- it was one game against Oglethorpe. But with the way the rest of the conference looked, it actually did feel like it might mean a bit more than usual. We’ve all got to see what happens at Virginia Tech on Sunday.

Western Carolina and VMI may be as bad as advertised.

Yes, this is probably a gross overreaction to one game. But Western Carolina still couldn’t shoot, making under 40% of their shots as a team and only one player (Brad’s choice Haboubacar Mutombo) got into double digits, and he just got 10. They turned the ball over twenty times. There are still major questions about the Catamounts offense, which is why they were picked to finish so low in conference play to begin with. That was a 28 point loss to Clemson. Sure, Clemson is an ACC team, but that wasn’t good looking basketball from Western Carolina. VMI was bad as well, losing by 35 to North Carolina State. The Keydets shot 36% from the floor, gave up 15 offensive rebounds and allowed the Wolfpack to shoot over 50%. VMI does not appear to be good. There was little doubt that they were going to struggle early in the year. They may improve as the season progresses with all of those young players. But they are far from being a good team right now.
 

Team Previews: ETSU

Last Season: 25-8 (14-4 SoCon)

Major Non-Conference Wins

  • @ Mississippi State
  • Fordham
  • @ Morehead State

Major losses

  • TJ Cromer – 19.1 ppg 3.2 apg
  • Tevin Glass – 8.9 ppg 6.3 rpg
  • AJ Merriweather – 8.6 ppg 3.6 rpg

Top Returners

  • Desonta Bradford – 11.4 ppg 4.4 rpg 3.9 apg
  • Devontavious Payne – 6.5 ppg

2017-2018 Schedule Highlights

  • 11/17 @ Kentucky
  • 11/10 (away) & 12/6 (home) Northern Kentucky
  • 12/16 @ Xavier

Outlook

  • Stop me if you’ve heard this before, there’s a lot of turnover this year in Johnson City. ETSU roster is always in flux, and that’s just how coach Steve Forbes works. Forbes is a master JUCO recruiter and has done well in the transfer market. This year though, he’ll be looking to replace the best player in the Southern Conference for a year ago, TJ Cromer.
  • Longwood transfer Kanayo Obi-Rapu looks to make a big impact after sitting out last season. He averaged 12 ppg in his sophomore season with the Lancers.
  • Before the season has even started, the Bucs have lost prospective starter Jeromy Rodriguez for the season.
  • Look for Bradford, Payne and David Burrell to help carry the team early as it finds the right chemistry. Bradford looks like an All-Socon performer who could challenge for POY status.
  • Plugging the Bucs into our power rankings is hard in this preseason. They’ve lost a lot from last year. But Steve Forbes and Desonta Bradford make us think this team has a lot of upside and could climb a lot higher than their starting spot of 6th in our poll.

Team Previews: The Citadel

Last Season: 12-21 (4-14 SoCon)

Major Non-Conference Wins

  • @ Stetson
  • USC – Upstate

Major losses

  • Warren Sledge – 7.6 ppg 2.7 rpg 3.4 apg

Top Returners

  • Preston Parks – 17.5 ppg 3.7 apg
  • Zane Najdawi – 15.0 ppg 6.7 rpg

2017-2018 Schedule Highlights

  • 11/12 @ Virginia Tech
  • 11/24 @ Florida State
  • 12/19 @ Ohio State

Outlook

  • The Bulldogs return almost everyone to a team that is really just starting to be molded into a roster to coach Duggar Balcom’s liking. With virtually no roster turnover, that will make it easier to implement their frenetic pace.
  • Preston Parks has a chance to be the best player in SoCon. His 40% field goal percentage leaves a lot of room for improvement. But again with the style of play, he’s certainly going to get a high volume of shots.
  • So, I guess when talking about the Bulldogs it all comes down to how much do you trust their style? It has the potential to be amazing. If it goes south, it can go way south. But their experience tends to take some of the edge off of our skepticism. They appear to be at the top of the lower tier of the SoCon with a legit chance to move into the middle tier and maybe beyond.