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Southern Conference Notebook

February 21, 2004 Conference Notes No Comments

Southern Conference Notebook

by Paul Oren

“It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

For the coaches of any mid-major college basketball team, those words ring true, especially in the late days of February. Unlike the ACC or SEC, most mid-major conferences such as the SoCon only get one bid to the NCAA Tournament, and regardless of the regular season, that automatic bid is given to the Conference Tournament champion. So much like a marathon, most of the conference race is based on pacing and positioning, where the next game always becomes the most important game.

Georgia Southern (19-5, 10-3) won a very important game on Wednesday night, defeating College of Charleston (18-6, 10-4) 82-76 to take over first place in the South division. Terry Williams led the way with 25 points including 5 three-pointers. Even with the win, Coach Jeff Price understands he cannot get caught up in celebrating a victory.

“(Wednesday) night’s game didn’t win the conference for us, or lose it for Charleston. We have our work cut out for us. Our win at Charleston means nothing if we lose one of these next ones.”

The Eagles suffered a scare during the game when leading scorer Elton Nesbitt had to leave the game with a sprained ankle. Jean Francois stepped up in Nesbitt’s absence with a season-high 16 points and Chad Fleming added a career-high 14 points. Nesbitt, a 77% free throw shooter, returned in the closing seconds and hit four free throws to clinch the victory. Charleston had a balanced offense with Tony Mitchell having a team-high 15 points and 7 rebounds.

“It was a very excellent college basketball game,” stated Charleston head coach Tom Herrion. “We contributed greatly to the loss with 20 turnovers, some of them were very costly.”

Georgia Southern now prepares for it’s next biggest game of the year when they host the UNC Greensboro Spartans (8-15, 5-8) Saturday night. The Eagles have a chance to distance themselves from Charleston and Davidson and move closer to clinching a very important first-round bye in the conference tournament, something that all coaches have their eye on as they prepare for their games.

“Seeds are very important,” said Herrion. “The bye is a big ingredient, we can’t let opportunities slip out of our hands.”

The next opportunity for Charleston is a big one. They along with SoCon conference champion East Tennessee State (20-4, 14-0) will participate in the ESPN Bracket Buster this Saturday. Charleston travels to Western Michigan (ESPN2 – 4:30 EST) and ETSU will play at Fresno State (ESPN Fullcourt – 3:00 EST).

The Bracket Buster is a series of games between Mid-Major schools in hopes of raising their collective RPI’s, in order to gain a better seed in the NCAA Tournament. Last season, Southern Illinois used a thrilling victory over UWM in the Bracket Buster to catapult them to an At-Large bid when they stumbled in their conference tournament. This season there seems to be a shortage of Mid-Major teams that could warrant an At-Large bid, and the general consensus is that while ETSU is 20-4, and a perfect 14-0 in conference, a slip-up in the conference tournament could prevent them from going to the Big Dance.

The main problem is RPI. According to CollegeRPI.com, as of February 19, the Buccaneers are ranked 83rd in the country, while Fresno State are only ranked 103rd. The match-up looked good for ETSU on February 2nd, when the pairings were announced, but since then Fresno State has lost three of it’s last 5. Charleston on the other hand is 117th in RPI, while their opponent, Western Michigan, is 59th. The Broncos are looking at Charleston the same way ETSU is viewing Fresno State. Charleston looked like a good match-up for Western, but now they have lost three of their last five.

The final verdict on the Bracket Buster for the SoCon is that while neither ETSU or Charleston are going to get an At-Large bid, a victory in their respective game would increase their chances of getting a better seed in the tournament. Again, the general consensus is that ETSU would get a 14 seed in the NCAA Tournament at this point. Of course, they’d have to win the conference tournament, something that is surely not a given with some of the other teams in the conference.

“Top to bottom, there are no easy outs,” remarks Davidson head coach Bob McKillop. “This conference traditionally has teams that can shoot threes, create mismatches, that causes great parity in the league.”

Davidson (14-11, 9-5) is a team that has a very real shot of doing well in the conference tournament, especially if things fall their way and they can sneak up into the number 2 seed in the South, something they worked towards Wednesday night with a 73-63 victory over Wofford.

“I don’t have enough energy to forecast what could happen,” McKillop stated. “If I start focusing on that, it will take away from getting this team prepared for the next game. We just have to concentrate on what we can control.”

The Wildcats have two remaining conference games against Furman (14-10, 6-7) and Appalachian State (9-17, 4-9), both winnable games. While Charleston, the team they are trying to catch still has to play Conference champion ETSU in the regular season finale on February 28th (2:00 EST – ESPN2).

Brendan Winters scored 19 points to lead the Wildcats over Wofford (8-17, 4-10) in the 10-point victory. A key to the game was a decided rebounding advantage for Davidson (46-31.) Four players have 6 or more rebounds including Conor Grace who led all players with 14. Winters has continued to be the spark for the Wildcats.

“Winters is very consistent, and that’s impressive,” said McKillop. “He gets it done with the three-pointer, the free throws, he rebounds and plays good defense, this isn’t just a guy who shoots jump shots.”

Rounding out the rest of Saturday’s upcoming games,

Chattanooga (15-9, 8-5) looks to clinch the second seed in the North, and with it a first-round bye when they travel to Appalachian State. The Mountaineers upset the Mocs in their first meeting of the season 94-77.

Western Carolina (12-12, 5-8) and Elon (9-16, 5-8) will battle for positioning in the North. The Catamounts feature Kevin Martin, who is leading the nation in scoring at 26.4 points a game. Martin scored 42 points against the Phoenix in an 81-72 Western victory.

• Furman has a chance to get back to .500 in the conference when they take on The Citadel at home. The Citadel (4-20, 0-13) are looking for their first conference win, and they have already clinched the 6 seed in the south. The Paladins are in 4th right now, but could move up or down one spot in either direction.

As the regular season wraps around the bend, every game meaning more and more, with the finish line in sight, the marathon is slowly turning into a sprint. It will culminate during four days in March.


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