Tiny Wofford College was one of the hidden gems of the 2014-15 college basketball season. Just as significantly, the Terriers were exactly what the doctor ordered for the venerable Southern Conference.
Stuck firmly in the middle of the pecking order among NCAA Division I conferences, the SoCon has been hit hard by conference realignment over the past couple years. Known more for its Division I-AA (or FCS) football, the league lost Appalachian State, Elon and Georgia Southern, but the biggest blow by far for basketball was the loss of a non-football member when signature hoops program Davidson jumped ship to the Atlantic 10.
The departure of the Wildcats was considered a deadly hit to the Southern in basketball, and indeed it was a big one. The re-additions of East Tennessee State and VMI and the new addition of Mercer were wise choices, but it was expected that a conference already low on the national totem poll could easily drop even lower without the iconic Bob McKillop and his program that racked up five of the SoCon’s NCAA tourney berths since 2006.
The Southern Conference needs a program to step up to help fill Davidson’s void. Enter Wofford, which was very much up to the task this year, and just may be nearly equal to Davidson’s SoCon prominence right now.
The Terriers had a terrific season, winning 28 games and taking the Southern’s regular season and tournament titles. Senior guard Karl Cochran was the only player in the nation to lead his team in scoring, rebounding, assists, steals and blocked shots, despite standing just 6-foot-1. He was surrounded by an undersized-but-tough squad that scored a big win at North Carolina State and laid down residence inside the RPI top 50. (By the way: one of the best-kept secrets anywhere right now just might be that the Terriers now have been to the NCAA Tournament four times in the last six years.)
On the strength of regular season credentials that compared well nationally, Wofford earned a very workable 12 seed to the NCAAs, and very nearly used it to pull off a win that would’ve placed the small school firmly in the national spotlight. In a first round filled with close games, the Terriers and Arkansas played one of the most competitive of them all, with neither team leading by more than three points in the second half before the Razorbacks escaped with a 56-53 win.
It was a terrific underdog story-with 1,600 undergrad students, Wofford is the third-smallest school in Division I. That story would’ve only grown with a postseason win, but the year was still a success for the Terriers and encouraging for the refurbished Southern. Tennessee-Chattanooga also shook off a shaky 3-5 start to win 22 games, while Mercer outperformed all expectations in its first year. The bottom of the league also had some rays of light-The Citadel was one of two SoCon teams to defeat Wofford, and Furman nearly ran the table in the conference tourney from a 10 seed.
In short, the league looks on the way to surviving another round of conference realignments, which should surprise absolutely no one. The Southern is coming up on 95 years of age as a conference and essentially birthed the SEC and ACC. It still maintains a firm geographic base in and around the Appalachian Mountains, though, and still has a hard-earned niche in Division I.
|East Tennessee State||8-10||16-14|
The 2015 Southern Conference tournament was once again held in Asheville, N.C., which has become a comfortable home base for the oldest conference tournament in the nation.
This year’s event went according to seed with one very notable exception. No. 10 seed Furman pulled one stunner after another in marching all the way to the championship game, where it very nearly took out the regular season champion. The Paladins dumped 7 seed Citadel 73-56 in the first round, then stunned No. 2 UT-Chattanooga 69-67 in the quarterfinals.
Up next was No. 3 Mercer, and the Paladins rallied from an 11-point second half deficit for a 52-49 upset. That set up a championship game against No. 1 Wofford, which had mowed down No. 8 UNC Greensboro 70-52 and then No. 4 Western Carolina 73-61 in the semifinals. A scintillating game featured 13 ties and 11 lead changes, but Furman missed two tying three-point attempts in the final seconds as the Terriers held on for a 67-64 win and their fourth NCAA Tournament appearance. The outcome very well may have swung the Paladins’ way, too, if not for an injury to rebounding ace Kris Acox early in the first half which sidelined him the remainder of the game.
Every other SoCon tourney game not involving Furman went according to seed. UNC Greensboro edged No. 9 Samford 81-76 in the tourney’s opener, while the other quarterfinal games saw Mercer hammer No. 6 VMI 89-61 and Western Carolina get by No. 5 East Tennessee State 67-61 in overtime.
Player of the Year: Karl Cochran, G, Sr., Wofford
Freshman of the Year: Devin Sibley, G, Furman
Defensive Player of the Year: Justin Tuoyo, F, So., Tennessee-Chattanooga
Coach of the Year: Mike Young, Wofford
Karl Cochran, G, Sr., Wofford
Stephen Croone, G, Jr., Furman
Casey Jones, G, Jr., Tennessee-Chattanooga
Ashton Moore, G, Sr., The Citadel
Darious Moten, F, Sr., Mercer
Ike Nwamu, G, Jr., Mercer
Jalen Riley, G, Sr., East Tennessee State
James Sinclair, G, Sr., Western Carolina
Lee Skinner, F, Sr., Wofford
Justin Tuoyo, F, So., Tennessee-Chattanooga
- Wofford posted a pair of marquee wins, knocking off N.C. State on the road and also defeating MAAC regular season champion Iona.
- Mercer also advanced to postseason play, defeating Stony Brook before losing to Louisiana-Monroe in the quarterfinals of the CBI
- High-scoring VMI led the nation in three-pointers made per game (11.4) while ranking fifth in scoring (80.5 points per game). UTC’s Justin Tuoyo also ranked fourth in the nation in blocked shots, averaging 3.3 bpg.
- Wofford’s Cochran led his team in scoring, rebounding, assists, steals and blocked shots, the only player in NCAA Division I to do so in 2014-15
What we expected, and it happened: Wofford and UT-Chattanooga were the two favorites coming into the season, and both performed as advertised, finishing at least three games ahead of everyone else in the conference.
What we expected, and it didn’t happen: UNC-Greensboro was thought to be at least a solid mid-pack team, maybe even a darkhorse contender for the title, but the Spartans tied for seventh in the league and went 11-22 overall.
What we didn’t expect, and it happened: No one would’ve called Furman’s SoCon tourney run, where the Paladins were seeded last of 10 teams but came just a couple points away from sweeping the top three seeds and winning the league’s NCAA Tournament berth. Also, while undoubtedly Mercer was considered a solid addition to the Southern’s basketball stable, the Bears’ immediately being competitive for the title was a pleasant surprise for a team with five new starters.
Teams on the rise: Furman, East Tennessee State. All five starters return from the Furman team that very nearly won the SoCon tourney. The expectations will be high, maybe even too high for a team that will have four sophomores playing significant roles. It’s just a matter of time before ETSU becomes a major force under Steve Forbes.
Team on the decline: Mercer. It’s hard putting the Bears here when Bob Hoffman is on the bench, but the guess is two straight years of heavy personnel losses will take a toll. Mercer must replace its top three scorers, including Ike Nwamu, who departed to UNLV for his senior year.
2015-16 Conference Outlook
While Wofford was the best team in the SoCon last year, the upcoming conference race on paper is much less clear cut. UT-Chattanooga will return one of the league’s best guards (Jones) and unquestionably its best post presence (Tuoyo). In all, seven of the Mocs’ top eight scorers return, meaning the expectations for new coach Matt McCall will be very, very high. Chattanooga was smacked down harshly early last season by Wisconsin, Butler and Georgia; better performances should be expected in early games this year against Georgia, Illinois and Iowa State.
At the same time, Furman also will be pegged for a big leap up the standings after its strong finish last year. Expecting the Paladins to go from worst to first is a stretch, but not impossible if they play like they did in March. Wofford isn’t going to go too far away, either, though Cochran and Skinner will be very, very tough to replace. It also would surprise no one if Mercer finds a way to be in the mix again.
The rest of the conference appears to be a notch or two below, though it is not without interesting squads to follow. Steve Forbes bears watching at East Tennessee State-the former juco wiz is highly respected in the coaching business and already is attracting some touted transfers. The Citadel also made one of the offseason’s most noteworthy hires, bringing over Duggar Baucom from rival VMI. UNC Greensboro also should be better after being ravaged by injuries last year, and Larry Hunter always has Western Carolina competitive.