Furman slight favorite in Southern Conference

By Greg Peterson  (VSiN.com) 

November 10, 2017 07:34 PM

A year ago, the Southern Conference did not follow the script. Chattanooga, the defending champion, was returning nearly all of its players from a 29-win season in 2015-16 and got off to a nice start with a win at Tennessee.

From there, things went haywire for the program, opening the door wide for Furman and East Tennessee State to claim the SOCON's bid to the NCAA Tournament. East Tennessee State was the team that seized the opportunity and is looking to get back into the field of 68 after earning a 13-seed in March.

If the Buccaneers do make it back, it will be without T.J. Cromer, who was the SOCON Player of the Year with 19.1 points per game while hitting over 40 percent of his 3s. His absence means the team's other double-digit scorer from last year, Desonta Bradford, will need to have a monster year for this team's win total to not dip significantly. Bradford had a team-high 3.9 assists per game to go with 10.4 points and 4.4 rebounds.

Bradford is the only one of the team's top five scorers to return, but East Tennessee does bring back several of its sharp 3-point shooters after the team made 38.2 percent of its triple tries last season.

The Buccaneers have had loads of success with transfers the past few years and are pinning their hopes on 6-foot-3 former Longwood shooting guard Kanayo Obi-Rapu meshing with their lineup and the team becoming an unstoppable small-ball group. As for bigs, they did not have a player taller than 6-foot-6 returning, so ETSU is relying on 6-foot-10 Serbian center Mladen Armus and 6-foot-7 junior-college transfers Jeromy Rodriguez and James Harrison to fill the void.

East Tennessee will look more like the team that went to the Vegas 16 in 2016 than the one that made the 2017 NCAAs.

Furman, which tied ETSU for the best record in the conference, has most of last year's roster returning and has the chops to supplant the Buccaneers.

Devin Sibley is the most gifted scorer in the conference, as he averaged 17.7 points as a junior while making nearly 45 percent of his 3s and over 52 percent of his shots overall. His backcourt running mate, Daniel Fowler, is also back.

The team did a good job of retaining all of its players from a year ago despite coach Niko Medved bolting the program for Drake. The program stayed in-house and elevated assistant Bob Richey to the top job and he figures to run the team in a similar fashion to Medved.

The forgotten team from last year's three-way tie atop the conference standings is UNC Greensboro, which posted its first winning record since the 2007-08 season and first ever 25-win season. The team played a very weak nonconference schedule which ranked 241st in the country.

With that said, there are a lot of big guns back from last year, including leading scorer Francis Alonso, a 6-foot-3 guard. The team should be even better in the post with James Dickey leading the team with 7.2 rebounds per game as a freshman.

Greensboro's schedule is setting up to be a bit more difficult than last year, so 25 wins might not be in the cards, but with all the experience on this roster and the coaching staff doing such a great job of developing players, this is a team that should still be in the top three of the SOCON standings and challenging Furman for the top spot.

Now we get to perhaps last year's most disappointing mid-major, Chattanooga. The Mocs went from being a 12-seed in the 2016 NCAA Tournament to 10-8 in SOCON play despite nearly everyone returning. To add to the issues, coach Matt McCall decided to bolt the program during the spring to accept the Massachusetts opening, so former Wisconsin assistant Lamont Paris is now steering the ship.

He takes over a team that loses all of its top five scorers. The grim news means 6-foot-10 forward Makinde London, who began his career at Xavier, will have to produce on a massive scale for the team to have success.

Rodney Chapman and Iowa transfer Andrew Fleming will have be the team's starting backcourt. Paris is a solid coach who can recruit, but this year is going to be a tough one with the cupboard being so bare. The Mocs have had a losing record just three times this decade, but that number could go to four.

It almost feels like Wofford making the NCAA Tournament was eons ago, but since the Terriers made it in both 2014 and 2015, they have regressed.

The good news is they have a junior guard in Fletcher Magee who has conference player of the year potential. He scored 18.6 points per game while hitting over 42 percent of his 3s for a team that relied heavily on outside shooting. Wofford made 40.3 percent of its 3s as a team, good for seventh in the nation.

Wofford seems poised to get back to at least 18 or 20 wins this season thanks to Magee and Ryan Sawvell, a 6-foot-8 junior, being such explosive players.

Mercer made the NCAA Tournament as a member of the Atlantic Sun in 2014, when the Bears slayed Duke in a 14-over-3 upset, but in four years in the SOCON, they have yet to either get back into the field of 68 or get to the 20-win plateau.

The Bears should have the biggest win-total jump of any team in the conference with all of their major contributors from last year returning and 7-foot JUCO transfer Harvey Barr entering the fold. Ria'n Holland was a bit of a volume shooter last year, but it got him 17.7 points. He pairs well with the conference’s best stretch player in Demetre Rivers, who stands 6-foot-8 yet has hit 83 3s the past two years.

A team that is not very good but might have the most eye-popping stats of anyone in the conference is The Citadel. The program is one of just four of the original Division I schools to never make the NCAA Tournament — St. Francis (NY), Army and William & Mary are the others.

The Bulldogs managed to go 12-21 last year despite averaging the most points per game in D-I college basketball with 89.8. The problem was, The Citadel also ranked 351st out of 351 teams in defense, allowing 94.8 points per game.

Guard Preston Parks led the team with 17 points per game. With The Citadel being a military institution, it will never be easy for the program to bring in many highly coveted recruits, making the coaching staff's job of developing players all the more paramount. Duggar Baucom, who is entering his third year at the helm, has set up a system where players do not play a lick of defense, and he plays 12 or sometimes 14 different players in a game for significant minutes even though they are not even close to having the depth to play that style. The Bulldogs will be a sub-.500 team.

Ironically enough, during the late 2000s, VMI was very similar to what The Citadel is now in trying to score 100 or more points in every game, but now the Keydets are an anemic offensive squad. The team also won much more back in those days and are now coming off a 6-24 season.

The Keydets were ranked 283rd in offense last year, scoring 68.6 points per game. VMI also ranked in the bottom 50 in the nation in defense, giving up 78.2 points. Obviously, that is not a recipe for success, and with its top three scorers from last year out of eligibility, things look grim for VMI. Armani Branch is the team's leading returning scorer and will be a senior this year, which makes it very likely that he will have to shoot it a lot.

Western Carolina ranked 347th in D-I college basketball in scoring, and its 3-point shooting also regressed as the team hit just 30.7 percent of its triple tries, which was 334th in the nation. The key for the Catamounts is improved shooting. Coach Larry Hunter will get the most out of his men on the defensive end, so if the team can just be average on offense, it has a chance to see a nice increase in its win total.

Samford is the forgotten team in this conference, but its has seen its win total either increase or stay the same in each of the past six years, reaching the 20-win mark last season. It was the Bulldogs’ first winning season as a SOCON member and first since the 2005-06 season. To make things even better, the Bulldogs do not lose any of their top seven scorers from a season ago, including four double-digit scorers, spearheaded by 46 percent 3-point shooter Demetrius Dyson.

All in all, things look good for Samford. It's doubtful this squad can capture the conference crown, but Samford should remain above .500.

The SOCON has several decent teams, though no one team could be called a clear favorite. As of right now, it looks like Furman has the upper hand in the conference, but with the demise of Chattanooga things are wide open.

Greg Peterson’s Southern Conference forecast:

1. Furman

2. UNC Greensboro

3. Samford

4. Mercer

5. Wofford

6. East Tennessee State

7. Chattanooga

8. Western Carolina

9. The Citadel

10. VMI

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