Southern Conference Preview
by David Smotherman
After a banner year in 2001-02 that saw the Southern Conference finish the season ranked in the RPI’s top 15, the teams of the SoCon are out to prove that last year’s strong overall effort was not a fluke. The road is always rugged for a Mid-Major conference and the SoCon is no exception. Member institutions will take on 34 major college teams (with only one game on a home court). This composite schedule includes 12 SEC and 7 ACC schools.
While playing David and Goliath can be fun in the out of conference portion of the schedule, the real season begins the first week in January when the road to Big Dance starts with a nationally televised (ESPN 2) game between North division favorites East Tennessee State and UNC-Greensboro and ends on March 8th with the finals of the Southern Conference Tournament at the North Charleston Coliseum.
Listed below is our predicted order of finish for each division and a snapshot of each team.
1. East Tennessee State
Head Coach: Ed DeChellis (85-82, 6 years at ETSU)
ETSU is the consensus pick to win the North division and the early favorite to win the tournament title in March. The Bucs return three full-time and two part-time starters from last year’s team. Will this be the year that Ed DeChellis wins the “big one” and makes it through to the NCAA’s?
The past: SoCon Player of the Year Dimeco Childress (17.5 ppg/4.0 rpg)
The present: Pre-season SoCon selections Zakee Wadood (14.5 ppg/9.2 rpg) and Jerald Fields (13.5 ppg/7.2 rpg)
The future: SoCon Pre-season Newcomer of the Year Brad Nuckles (F 6’9″ 245 Fr)
Out of conference highlights: at South Carolina (Nov 24th), at Vanderbilt (Dec 4th) and at Virginia (Dec 17th)
Best chance for a quality “W”: Vanderbilt
Big Game: ETSU vs. UNCG (Jan 4th). Showdown to be televised nationally on ESPN 2
Head Coach: Fran McCaffery (54-36, 3 years at UNCG)
UNCG is realistically the only other North team to be able to make a run at ETSU for the division title. Spartans coach Fran McCaffery knows how to win close games and I wouldn’t be too surprised to see a UNCG-ETSU final in Charleston. At worst, UNCG has a great shot to return to the post-season NIT.
The past: All-SoCon performers Courtney Eldridge (12.6 ppg/3.8 apg) and David Schuck (13.4 ppg/6.7 rpg)
The present: Pre-season SoCon selection James Maye (13.8 ppg/5.9 rpg)
The Future: Ray Bristow (G 6’0″ 190 Fr)
Out of conference highlights: at Alabama (Dec 3rd), at West Virginia (Dec7th), and at Syracuse (Dec 10th), Not to mention getting to host a pre-season NIT game against Wagner, with a possible 2nd round game with Kansas.
Best chance for a quality “W”: West Virginia
Big Game: ETSU vs. UNCG (Jan 4th)
Head Coach: Bob McKillop (205-171, 13 years at Davidson)
You know you are rebuilding when five of your players from last year’s NCAA team are now playing professionally in Europe. But Bob McKillop has always been able to get more out of his players than any other coach in the league. A return to title contention is probably a year away, but this is not a team you would ever want to take lightly.
The past: All-SoCon performer Chris Pearson (11.7 ppg/8.4 rpg), plus Martin Ides (9.7 ppg/5.7 rpg), Michael Bree (10.0 ppg/4.2 apg), and Emeka Erege (13.6 ppg/6.6 rpg)
The present: Pre-season SoCon selection Wayne Bernard (10.8 ppg/3.4 rpg) and Peter Anderer (10.8 ppg/1.9 rpg)
The Future: Ian Johnson (F 6’9″ 210 Fr) and Matt McKillop (F 6’2″ 185 Fr)
Out of conference highlights: at Duke (Nov 25th ESPN 2), Charlotte (Dec 7th), at Arizona, at North Carolina (Jan 8th Jefferson Pilot)
Best chance for a quality “W”: Charlotte (although they did beat UNC last yearâ€¦)
Big Game: at Duke. The game might not be close, but you get to tell your kids someday that you played at Cameron.
4. Virginia Military
Head Coach: Bart Bellairs (91-131, 8 years at VMI)
Recruiting is always going to be tough at military school and while Jason Conley is legitimately a Top 10 player nationally, his supporting cast can only take him so far. Unfortunately, that cast probably won’t be able to even get them into the top half of the North division. It will truly be sad to see VMI leave for the Big South after over 75 years in the SoCon.
The past: Daron Pressley (8.2 ppg/3.4 rpg)
The present: SoCon Pre-season Player of the Year Jason Conley (29.3 ppg/8.0 rpg) and Radee Skipworth (14.9 ppg/4.9 rpg)
The Future: Tadas Mankevicius (C 6’9″ 220 Fr)
Out of conference highlights: at Tennessee (Nov 25th), at Virginia Tech (Dec 5th), at Georgetown (Dec 31st)
Best chance for a quality “W”: Virginia Tech (VMI lost at Tech by a point last season)
Big Game: VMI vs. UNCG (Feb 23rd). VMI’s last home game in the Southern Conference.
5. Appalachian State
Head Coach: Houston Fancher (21-38, 2 years at ASU)
If there is anyone on the hot seat in the SoCon, it is Mountainer coach Houston Fancher. Tapped to take over the program after the departure of Buzz Peterson, expectations and tragedy have left the team tumbling and the fans grumbling. With ASU’s football team not having the year that most fans expected, look for them to be in no mood for a third season of mediocrity on the hardwood. While Fancher may have actually begun to right the ship, it may be too little too late.
The past: Donald Payne (9.0 ppg/5.6 rpg) and Jonathon Butler (8.6 ppg/3.1 apg)
The present: Nate Carson (7.9 ppg/4.8 rpg) and Josh Shehan (7.8 ppg/5.9 rpg)
The Future: Nathan Cranford (G 6’2″ 190 Fr)
Out of conference highlights: Charlotte (Nov 25th), at South Carolina (Nov 30th), at Georgia (Dec 22nd)
Best chance for a quality “W”: Charlotte
Big Game: Charlotte. A big home game against a quality opponent could set the tone for the season.
6. Western Carolina
Head Coach: Steve Shurina (18-41, 2 years at WCU)
Steve Shurina is beginning his third year as coach of the Catamounts and still has a lot of work in front of him. He continues the building process with a very young team (one senior and three juniors). Kevin Martin spent most of the season in the top 10 in the country in scoring as a freshman, which would have been phenomenal for the SoCon any other year. But he practical ended up as a footnote when the “other” freshman, VMI’s Jason Conley, led the nation in scoring. Western could be a surprise team this year and end up much higher than most have predicted.
The past: Cory Largent (13.8 ppg/4.9 rpg)
The present: Pre-season SoCon selection Kevin Martin (22.1 ppg/4.8 rpg)
The Future: David Berghoefer (C 6’10” 220 Fr)
Out of conference highlights: at West Virginia (Dec 18th), at Tenneessee (Dec 23rd CSS-TV), at DePaul (Dec 31st)
Best chance for a quality “W”: West Virginia
Big Game: Either game vs. VMI (aka the Martin/Conley show). Two North division contests featuring two of the best scorers in the nation.
1. Georgia Southern
Head Coach: Jeff Price (47-39, 3 years at GSU)
When GSU was picked to fight for the South Division title last season, everyone laughed. The race would surely come down to Chattanooga and College of Charleston. While ultimately, all three ended up sharing the division crown, GSU was the team that not only beat the Mocs in Chattanooga, but also swept the season series with the ‘Cougs to clinch the #1 seed in the tournament. Chattanooga and Charleston both have something in common again this year too, both have new head coaches. Price has never had a losing season at GSU, so who’s to say that the Eagles can’t win it again this year?
The past: All-SoCon performer Sean Peterson (16.9 ppg/6.6 apg) and Kashien Latham (14.8 ppg/9.2 rpg)
The present: Pre-season SoCon selection Julius Jenkins (14.8 ppg/4.3 rpg) and Frank Bennett (9.4 ppg/6.3 rpg)
The Future: Nick Berry (F 6’8″ 235 Jr transfer)
Out of conference highlights: at Vanderbilt (Nov 26th), Air Force Academy (Dec 8th)
Best chance for a quality “W”: Air Force Academy
Big Game: Spring Hill College (Dec 16th). Ok, this sounds like I am making fun, but how can it not be a “big game” when it takes place during Christmas Break and will be played just south of Cancun, Mexico?
Head Coach: Larry Davis (62-84, 5 years at Furman)
By making it to the finals against Davidson, Furman was definitely the surprise of the SoCon tournament. This season, the Paladins have two SoCon pre-season selections and return three quality starters to a squad that should challenge for the South division title.
The past: Anthony Thomas (G/F 6’4″ 14.5 ppg/2.8 rpg)
The present: Pre-season SoCon selections Guilherme Da Luz (G 6’3″11.7 ppg/6.6 apg), Karim Souchu (F 6’6″ 14.8 ppg/5.3 rpg)
The Future: Jason Patterson (G/F 6’4″ 195 Fr)
Out of conference highlights: Guardians Classic (opponents TBA), at Georgia State (Dec 4th), at Memphis (Dec 7th), at Louisville (Dec 22nd)
Best chance for a quality “W”: at Georgia State
Big Game: Furman vs. Georgia Southern (Feb 11th). Late season home game could determine the South division championship
3. College of Charleston
Head Coach: Tom Herrion (1st year at CofC)
After GSU and Furman, the South is really a toss up with three new coaches in the division. ‘Coug fans, along with the rest of the conference, are still a bit in the dark in wondering what the team will be like without long-time (we must say legendary) head coach John Kresse. However, the word is that Tom Herrion will play so much more of an up-tempo style the ‘Cougs now have to score 98 points before the fans get free crab legs. The College is used to being picked first every pre-season (and winning at least a share of the title every year), but this year many are holding judgment until we see what Herrion can do in his first head coaching assignment. History says they will be in thick of it ’til the end.
The past: All-Socon performer Jeff Bolton (18.2 ppg/4.5 rpg)
The present: Troy Wheless (9.3 ppg/3.5 rpg)
The Future: Zeke Johnson (F 6’6″ Jr transfer)
Out of conference highlights: Great Alaska Shootout (opponents TBA), UNC-Wilmington (Dec 23rd), at Vanderbilt (Jan 2nd CSS)
Best chance for a quality “W”: UNC-Wilmington
Big Game: CofC vs. GSU (Mar 1st CSS). The regular season finale versus the team that swept them last season, the ‘Cougs will be out for revenge.
Head Coach: Jeff Lebo (1st year at UTC)
The second new coach in the South division, and arguably the biggest off-season move in the SoCon, was former UNC All-American Jeff Lebo leaving a 27-win Tennessee Tech squad to try and resurrect a struggling Chattanooga program that has not returned to the NCAA tournament since their Sweet 16 run in 1997. Lebo has his work cut out for him. The Mocs lost four starters from last year’s tri-championship team and their lone returner (Nick Benson) will be ineligible until the 2nd semester. Lebo will have his young team ready to play, but a return to title contention could be a two to three year project.
The past: Neil Ashby (11.6 ppg/5.6 rpg), Clyde McCully (10.4 ppg/3.5 apg) Toot Young (12.3 ppg/4.3 apg)
The present: Nick Benson (10.0 ppg/7.1 rpg)
The Future: Juco All-American Jason Rogan (G 6’2″ 215 Jr transfer)
Out of conference highlights: at UAB (Nov 24th), Kent State (Dec 18th), at Cincinnati (Jan 2nd)
Best chance for a quality “W”: Kent State
Big Game: Chattanooga vs. ETSU (Feb 1st). With Lebo being a former ETSU assistant and the Bucs being the team to beat, watch for ETSU/UTC to re-emerge as one of the best rivalries in the SoCon.
Head Coach: Mike Young (1st year at Wofford)
Wofford always seems to be the team that flies under the radar. Maybe it is because it is one of the smallest enrollments in all of Division 1. Most college pre-season magazines didn’t even know that the Terriers have a new coach. 16-year head coach Richard Johnson has been promoted to Athletic Director and long-time (13 years) head assistant Mike Young has taken over the helm. Look at it this way, no one expected much from them in football either, but they will finish no worse than 2nd in the SoCon in that sport, so who knows what will happen on the hardwood. The Terriers return their top three scorers and could be the surprise team in the South division. BTW-Who made this schedule? The Terriers easily play the toughest out of conference road schedule (see below), but they also have the worst home schedule, playing only four games and they are all against Non D-1 schools.
The past: Kenny Hastie (6.4 ppg/7.7 rpg)
The present: Pre-season SoCon selection Mike Lenzly (14.4 ppg/6.8 rpg/30.6 apg), Lee Nixon (13.2 ppg/2.9 rpg), Justin Stephens (12.4 ppg/3.4 rpg)
The Future: Tyler Berg (F 6’9″ 225 Fr)
Out of conference highlights: at Auburn (Nov 22nd), at Clemson (Nov 24th), at Virginia Tech (Dec 2nd), at West Virginia (Dec 14th), at South Carolina (Dec 16th), at NC State (Dec 29th), at Virginia (Jan 2nd)
Best chance for a quality “W”: at Virginia Tech
Big Game: Wofford vs. Furman (Feb 22nd Fox SNS). While not quite as close as UNC/Duke, Furman and Wofford are just down the road from each other and this game is for private school bragging rights in the Upstate.
6. The Citadel
Head Coach: Pat Dennis (122-154, 10 years at The Citadel)
Just like with VMI, military school life can be a tough sell for coaches, but Pat Dennis has done as well as any coach in the Citadel’s history. Team discipline and a never give up attitude is the hallmark of a Bulldog team. Unfortunately the talent base is a little thin after losing three starters from last years 17-12 squad. However, on a game-by-game basis, they have the ability to upset anyone in the conference.
The past: Travis Cantrell (16.6 ppg/2.9 rpg), Cliff Washburn (10.1 ppg/6.7rpg)
The present: Michael Joseph (12.1 ppg/5.6 rpg)
The Future: Kevin Hammack (G 6’1″ 175 Fr)
Out of conference highlights: at Navy (Nov 25th), at Maryland (Nov 27th), at South Carolina (Jan 2nd)
Best chance for a quality “W”: at Navy
Big Game: Either game vs. College of Charleston. These two teams are only a couple of miles away from each other, both being in downtown Charleston.
All-SoCon First Team
Jason Conley, VMI
Kevin Martin, WCU
Mike Lenzly, Wofford
Zakee Wadood, ETSU
Guilherme Da Luz, Furman
All-SoCon Second Team
Julius Jenkins, GSU
Wayne Bernard, Davidson
Karim Souchu, Furman
Jerald Fields, ETSU
James Maye, UNCG
Pre-Season Player of the Year: Jason Conley, VMI
Newcomer of the Year: Brad Nuckles, ESTU
Coach of the Year: Ed DeChellis, ETSU