While it hasn’t been talked about as much as, say, the Colonial or the Missouri Valley in this context, the Southern Conference is a mid-major conference that has of late been hit hard by conference realignment. That will continue with Davidson heading to the Atlantic 10 after this season and Elon becoming the second team in as many years to leave for the CAA.
Davidson finished its tenure in the SoCon with a great year, going 15-1 in conference play before losing to Western Carolina in overtime in the semifinals of the conference tournament. It was the third straight season where the Wildcats had the best mark in conference play, and they went on to the NIT, losing to Missouri in the first round.
When you add up the recent departures of College of Charleston, Davidson and Elon, the last of whom had a nice season in finishing tied for third this year, it’s clear the SoCon is taking a big hit. The hit is already clear with a look at the RPI, as by one measure only two conferences rated lower than the Southern Conference this season.
The departures leave a question as to who the signature program(s) will be, but there are some with potential. There’s this season’s champion, Wofford, who has had success before and will return most of the team next year. There’s Chattanooga, which has had some success in the past and had a great first season under new head coach Will Wade, as well as UNCG, which has good young talent including Rookie of the Year Tevon Saddler, who was prepared to transfer but will now return.
In all of this, it’s easy to forget that Appalachian State and Georgia Southern, both powerhouses on the gridiron, are leaving for the Sun Belt. But neither has been very relevant on the hardwood of late, and as such their departures won’t hit as hard as the aforementioned ones will.
But this is nothing new for the storied conference. The Southern Conference has been home to many a powerhouse program in its time. It led to the formation of both the ACC and SEC. Perhaps as much as any conference in Division I, the Southern Conference has evolved over time, and this will be the latest step in that evolution. Part of it will involve three newcomers next season, two of whom have been in the Southern Conference before. East Tennessee State, who had been a member from 1978-2005, rejoins, along with Mercer and VMI. VMI was a member from 1924-2003 before leaving for the Big South.
The first round saw three double-digit games, with two of the higher seeds winning. Samford beat Appalachian State 70-56 in what would prove to be Jason Capel’s last game as head coach. Georgia Southern beat Furman 65-50, then The Citadel was the lowest seed but managed to beat UNCG 86-76 to advance.
The quarterfinals saw two double-digit games bookend a pair of close ones. Davidson opened up by blowing out Samford 77-54, then Western Carolina edged Elon 66-64 to start their run. Georgia Southern eliminated Chattanooga with a 62-55 win, then Wofford handled The Citadel 68-51.
It was a tale of two games in the semifinals, as Western Carolina edged Davidson 99-97 in an overtime thriller before Wofford ended Georgia Southern’s hopes of a run to the final with a 71-57 win.
That set up a championship game matchup that not many would have expected in October. Western Carolina was picked third in the preseason coaches poll, while Wofford was picked sixth. Wofford built a 44-33 lead more than halfway through the second half, but had to hold on late to take home the title with a 56-53 win behind a game-high 23 points from tournament Most Outstanding Player Karl Cochran.
Player of the Year: De’Mon Brooks, Davidson
Rookie of the Year: Tevon Saddler, UNCG
Coach of the Year: Mike Young, Wofford
Defensive Player of the Year: Z. Mason, Chattanooga
De’Mon Brooks, Sr. F, Davidson
Kyle Cain, Jr. F, UNCG
Karl Cochran, Jr. G, Wofford
Stephen Croone, So. G, Furman
Jelani Hewitt, Jr. G, Georgia Southern
Casey Jones, So. G, Chattanooga
Z. Mason, Sr. F, Chattanooga
Trey Sumler, Sr. G, Western Carolina
Lucas Troutman, Sr. F, Elon
Tim Williams, So. F, Samford
- Wofford won their third conference championship in five years
- Davidson reached postseason play for the third straight year
- Chattanooga had their best season in three years in Will Wade’s first season at the helm
- Three teams made it to a postseason tournament
What we expected, and it happened: Davidson won the regular season title. While the Wildcats weren’t picked to win, no one was surprised that they emerged on top in their final go-round. Bob McKillop had a good team that had winning experience, and that combination has often worked well for him.
What we expected, and it didn’t happen: Appalachian State was expected to be a contender, but finished near the bottom. The Mountaineers were in the news more for an off-court matter pertaining to a player they signed last year and did not release than for their performance on the court, and Jason Capel paid for it with his job.
What we didn’t expect, and it happened: Chattanooga finished second. The Mocs had fallen on hard times before changing coaches, and with just one senior in Will Wade’s first season it was far from a given that they would contend right away.
Team(s) on the rise: Chattanooga. The Mocs will miss Z. Mason and Gee McGhee, the latter of whom is transferring, but they should be among the preseason favorites as they return everyone else of consequence. Also: Wofford, as the Terriers lose only a bit player off this season’s team and should be right there.
Team(s) on the decline: Western Carolina. Larry Hunter can coach, and they should be fine again in due time, but the Catamounts are losing a great deal of production from this season’s team.
Next Season Conference Outlook
The Southern Conference will certainly look different next season given the aforementioned membership changes. Chattanooga and Wofford look like the early favorites next season, as both return much of their team from this past season. UNCG looks like the next best contender with Tevon Saddler returning, but don’t sleep on newcomer VMI, fresh off a run to the CIT quarterfinals. Mercer should contend in time, but they were a senior-laden team that knocked off Duke in the NCAA Tournament.
One thing is a given with history as its guide: the Southern Conference will continue to evolve, with next season being just the latest chapter of that.