2001-02 Southern Conference Preview
by Jon Gonzalez
All roads to the North Charleston Coliseum (site of this years SoCo Tournament) and the Southern Conference championship will once again run through the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. The defending conference champion Spartans enjoy the luxury of having four returning starters, including sharp shooting senior point guard Courtney Eldridge. Hot on UNCG’s heels in the SoCo North Division will be a trio of North Carolina schools: Davidson, Appalachian State and Western Carolina. All three schools struggled last season, but have experience on their side and look to be much improved. Defending division champion East Tennessee State could also be a factor, while VMI’s main objective will be escaping the conference cellar.
As far as the South Division goes, the College of Charleston will once again be the team to beat. John Kresse’s team has never finished lower than first in the division and with four returning starters, history may well indeed repeat itself. Giving close chase to the Cougars will be Chattanooga, who was only seconds away from reaching the NCAA Tournament last season. Furman and Georgia Southern will sneak up on people in 2001-02 and could wind up being serious conference contenders. The Citadel is another team that schools cannot afford to overlook. Wofford is rebuilding and a double-digit number in the win column would be nothing short of an accomplishment.
1. UNC Greensboro: As Courtney Eldridge goes, so go the Spartans. The little big man (he stands 5-10) was pivotal in the success of the conference champion Spartans last season averaging 14.6 points per game, and looks to pace UNCG again this year. Besides Eldridge, the Spartans are powered by the return of four starters. However, the biggest return for UNCG could be that of head coach Fran McCaffery. McCaffery was courted by several schools after guiding UNCG to the NCAA Tournament in 2000-01, but opted to stay in Greensboro.
Although he only averaged an anemic 1.7 points per game last season, 7-2 sophomore center Nathan Popp could be key to the Spartans staying atop the Southern Conference. If he plays up to his potential, UNCG should control the paint in every game they play. Not to be outdone is 6-7 forward Ronnie Burrell, who has the tools to be the best freshman in the league.
2. Davidson: Don’t look now, but head coach Bob McKillop’s Wildcats are back with all their starters and a strong supporting cast. Senior guard Michael Bree, junior guard Peter Anderer and sophomore guard Nick Booker, who started 23 games last season, are the main components of a bench that will help win many games for the Wildcats in 2001-02.
But while the backups are good, let us not forget about what starts things off for Davidson. Starting guards Wayne Bernard and Fernando Tonella work well together and 6-9 junior forward Chris Pearson left many opponents with a feeling of rejection last season with 51 blocks. The cornerstone of the frontcourt is 7-2 senior center Martin Ides, who is due for a breakout season. The Czech Republic native worked hard in the off-season to improve his game and has something to prove.
3. Appalachian State: What a difference two seasons can make. Back in 2000, the Buzz Peterson led Mountaineers were celebrating an NCAA Tournament berth. A year later, first-year head coach Houston Fancher suffered through an 11-20 season. Now Fancher and ASU are back with five starters, including junior stud Josh Shehan. The 6-9 center averaged 11.3 points per game last year and showed significant improvement during the off-season.
A cast of transfers will also help the Mountaineers try to get back to the NCAAs. Juniors Shawn Hall, Graham Bunn, Nate Carson and Ahmad Smith all have prior college playing experience and could see significant playing time. Add in the incoming freshman and you have a team where playing time will be at a premium. With so many able bodies at his disposal, Fancher could look to employ more of an up-tempo game in 2001-02.
4. Western Carolina: After winning only six games last season, the Catamounts have nowhere to go but up. Luckily for them, ascension got a little easier when JuCo star Lamont Speaks decided to transfer to Western Carolina. Speaks is big (6-9, 285) and he will immediately improve Western’s horrid rebounding margin, which was last in the league last season. Joining Speaks in the paint will be 6-7 sophomore Rans Brempong, who registered 93 blocks in 2000-01. Brempong, a native of Ontario, Canada, played in the 2001 World University Games over the summer as a member of the Canadian national team.
If Western Carolina can control the paint, and veteran backcourt aces Casey Rogers and Kori Hatcher can control tempo, fans in Cullowhee, NC could have a lot to smile about. The addition of Division II transfer Kelvin Wylie, who shot 65 percent from the field two seasons ago at Gardner-Webb, will also help. Wylie practiced with the team last season, but was ineligible to play due to NCAA transfer rules.
5. East Tennessee State: The defending division winners will undoubtedly be hurt by the loss of forwards Adrian Meeks and Renaldo Johnson to graduation. The team is left with a trifecta of veteran guards that will have to carry the Buccaneers on their backs. Dimeco Childress, Cliff Decoster and Ryan Lawson will carry the bulk of ETSU’s scoring responsibilities while the inside game takes shape. Sophomore forward/center Cory Seels leads a relatively young group of post-men who will try to make opponents pay attention to the paint, and not just the perimeter.
If the ETSU front line can’t account for at least 25 points per game, it will be a long year in Johnson City. Reigning SoCo coach of the year Ed DeChellis was awarded a two-year contract extension, a sign that the ETSU brass believe DeChellis is the man that will take the Bucs back to the NCAAs, a place they haven’t been since 1992. Unfortunately for DeChellis, ETSU may not have enough inside to seriously contend for a conference championship.
6. Virginia Military Institute: There is one positive thing that can be said for the Keydets, they have a bright future. With eleven of the team’s players either freshmen or sophomores, VMI can only get better as the season progresses. At least that’s what coach Bart Bellairs is hoping for. Bellairs has been at VMI for seven seasons and has an 81-113 record to show for it. If things don’t get better soon in Lexington, it could be curtains for Bellairs.
To win for their coach, the Keydets must play to their strengths, speed and athleticism. VMI will look to utilize those strengths by pushing the ball up and down the court and playing pressure defense. Swingman Radee Skipworth is the team’s best returning player but needs to become more consistent from the field for VMI to stand a chance. Freshman forward Jason Conley has tremendous range and could emerge as one of VMI’s best players.
1. College of Charleston: Coach John Kresse’s biggest challenge in the new season will be figuring out a way to replace center Jody Lumpkin and his 17.1 points per game. Lumpkin was an absolute beast and the main reason why the Cougars posted a record of 22-7. While the loss of Lumpkin is huge, C of C fans should fear not because a man by the name of Jeff Bolton is still in town. Bolton, who averaged 16.1 points per game in 2000-01, was nothing short of scintillating at times last season and looks to carry over his superb play into this campaign.
Bolton will be joined by a solid supporting cast, which includes guards Troy Wheless and A.J. Harris and forward Leighton Bowie. Bowie is a 6-6 junior with soft hands and decent shooting range who has a chance to fill the inside void Lumpkin’s departure created. Florida transfer Orloff Civil is a sleeper who is looking to make good on his move to Charleston from Gainesville. The Cougars will have home court advantage during the SoCo Tournament, as the championship will be held at the North Charleston Coliseum.
2. Chattanooga: With only seconds left in the Southern Conference Championship game, the Mocs were up on UNCG and staring a trip to the NCAA tournament dead in the eye. Then the unthinkable happened. The Spartans went the length of the court, scored and sent the Mocs home with thoughts of what could have been. The ending of that game was a microcosm of Chattanooga’s entire season, riding high one second, nursing the sting of defeat the next. In 2001-02, coach Henry Dickerson’s biggest challenge will be helping his schizophrenic team find its identity. Hopefully for Dickerson, the Mocs will play with a purpose every game, not every other game.
An influx of junior college talent will be the main reason to whether or not the Mocs can get over the hump. 6-9 junior transfer Aaron Morgan comes in and immediately fills the void left by the departure of center Oliver Morton. Fellow transfer Petie Spaulding is a 6-0 guard with a sweet stroke and will see significant minutes. The newcomers, transfers and freshmen alike, join an already solid core of current Chattanooga players. Senior Toot Young is a tremendous shooter and the guy the Mocs go to when they need a bucket. Young scored 12.5 points per game last season and was the catalyst to Chattanooga’s high scoring offense. If the Mocs could find a defense to match their offense, the conference could be theirs.
3. Georgia Southern: Fourteen games into the 2000-01 season the Georgia Southern Eagles were 4-10 and looking at a long year. Then head coach Jeff Price’s offense kicked in. The Eagles rode their coach’s wide open, run it up the floor philosophy to a 13-3 finish that included second place in the South Division. GSU looks to carry over the momentum from last season and they certainly have the bodies to do so. Back are all five starters and a solid core of bench players comprised mostly of seniors.
Leading the team that turns most games into track meets is the inside-outside all-conference tandem of guard Julius Jenkins and forward Kashien Latham. Jenkins is ultra-smooth and scored 16.7 points per game last season while Latham is a bruiser who can board with the best of them. Sophomore forward Frank Bennett is a big body who can rebound and another reason why the Eagles were the best rebounding team in the SoCo last season. Underrated guard Sean Peterson is another shooter with great range, and when given the chance to, can light it up. Freshman guard Terry Williams averaged 29.5 points per game in his senior year of high school and will be given a chance to shine in Price’s offense. Overall, GSU has the offense to win the conference, but has one problem that could hold them back (see Chattanooga).
4. Furman: Two words: Karim Souchu; and that’s all you need to know. Souchu, a junior, averaged 18.9 points per game last season and is one of the best players in the SoCo, if not the best. He can shoot, he can dunk, he can do it all. Getting Souchu the ball will be the job of point guard Guilherme Da Luz, whose size (6-3, 205) allows him to bully and post-up smaller guards. Junior forward Anthony Thomas quietly had a great 2000-01 campaign and must be ready to execute when opposing defenses double Souchu.
Another player who is due for a big year is sophomore center Marijan Pojatina. Pojatina play sparingly last season but showed flashes of brilliance in the times that he did play. Freshman forward Paco Gonzalez is 6-7 and showed during the off-season that he may be capable of being a factor. The keys for the Paladins to be successful come down to their coach, Larry Davis, and every player other than Souchu. Davis lost his team last season after Furman started quickly and faded just as fast. He must rally his squad and be a stable force if the Paladins should struggle in 2001-02. As far as Souchu, if he doesn’t get any help, the team goes nowhere.
5. The Citadel: The cardiac kids of the Southern Conference (they won six games by two points or less) return with one objective in mind: get The Citadel into the NCAA Tournament for the first time ever. Coach Pat Dennis’ squad faces a tough challenge playing in the talent laden South Division, but his Bulldogs are tough and have great chemistry. Also in the Bulldogs’ favor is the fact that the team only lost one key player, albeit a great one, in point guard Mike Roy. The loss of Roy will be alleviated by the progress of junior Kenny Milford, who has more quickness than Roy.
Seniors Travis Cantrell and Alan Puckett (40.3 percent from three-point range last season) love the three-ball and can fill it up from long range. All-name team candidate Max Mombollet is more than just four syllables, he can block shots too. Mombollet registered 22 blocks last season and will have a chance to double that number with extended playing time. Mombollet and 6-7 senior center Michael Washburn could combine to form a solid inside duo for the Bulldogs. If the Bulldogs can play together, as they did last season, and the frontcourt finds it’s identity, they at least have a punchers chance of winning the Southern Conference.
6. Wofford: Graduation day last spring at Wofford was a time of celebration for many people, except those affiliated with the Terrier basketball program. On that fateful day last spring, Wofford lost one of the best players in their history, guard Ian Chadwick. Chadwick was all-conference three times, the league’s top scorer last year (20.4 points per game) and career three-point leader. Not to mention he was a leader on and off the court and an honor student. So where does a team that, even with Chadwick, finished with a losing record go? Coach Richard Johnson might shudder to think.
For the Terriers to be halfway competitive, guards Lee Nixon and Mike Lenzly have to pick up the scoring slack. Nixon averaged 10.1 points per game last season while Lenzly shot at a 47.3 percent clip. Inside, center Kenny Hastie must improve his play from last season and junior center Edvin Masic has to react positively to increased minutes. The two also have to rebound better than they did last year and give the Terriers an inside presence. The wildcard on this team could be sophomore guard Edmond Davis. Davis, a transfer from LSU, is short (5-10), but has great speed and quick feet. For Wofford to have a chance at a .500 season Johnson has to find someone to replace at least half of the departed Chadwick’s scoring and the team must survive a tough non-conference schedule, which includes NC State, Georgia Tech and Clemson.
North Division Champ: UNCG
South Division Champ: College of Charleston
Tourney Champ: UNCG
Bubble Burst: Georgia Southern
Player of the Year: Jeff Bolton, College of Charleston
Newcomer of the Year: Lamont Speaks, Western Carolina
Coach of the Year: Bob McKillop, Davidson
Coach on the Hot Seat: Bart Bellairs, VMI
Best Name: Max Mombollet, The Citadel
Best Shooter: Alan Puckett, The Citadel
Best Defender: Cliff Decoster, ETSU