When all was said and done, there was just nothing that could stop Tennessee-Chattanooga’s re-emergence in 2015-16 as the Southern Conference’s best team.
A first-year, first-time head coach? No problem. Early season road chances against teams like Dayton, Georgia and Illinois, rather than being confidence-shakers, instead were platforms for glossy wins. A season-ending injury to the team’s top scorer was only a minor hiccup. A brutal conference schedule that included a stretch of five games in 10 days was just a chance to win five games in 10 days.
Chattanooga weathered a whole lot in putting together a superb 29-6 year that included SoCon regular season and tournament titles. It was a season that didn’t get nearly the national respect it deserved, even as the team went out rather quietly in the NCAA Tournament against red-hot shooting Indiana.
The Mocs under first-year coach Matt McCall again played the up-tempo style of former coach Will Wade and won with a true team approach. With the eight-game exception of preseason conference player of the year Casey Jones, who missed the final 27 games due to an ankle injury, just two players averaged in double figures, and none more than 12.1 points per game. Any of eight different players could pick up the scoring load on any given night, while the team’s size on the perimeter, backed up by center Justin Tuoyo, made the team consistently a pest to score against.
UTC may not have always passed the eye test, for those who expect nothing less than world domination for a team to be worth talking about outside the Big Football tier. Fourteen of its 29 wins came by single digits, but the Mocs’ reliability down the stretch in games might’ve made their win total even more impressive than if they had blown out everyone in their path.
Elsewhere, the SoCon also received a jolt from new old member East Tennessee State, which was back to being a force again in the second year of its return to the league. Under first-year coach Steve Forbes, the Buccaneers continued to improve all year and won 24 games, were the top challenger to Chattanooga and are positioned to be good for years to come.
|East Tennessee State||14-4||23-11|
The 96th edition of the oldest conference tournament in the country was another quality one in Asheville, N.C., which continues to be a comfy host for the event. Though the tourney went almost entirely according to plan-only No. 5 Western Carolina won as a lower seed, with its 88-83 double-overtime win over 4 seed Wofford was a minor upset at best-it had plenty of drama.
That included top seed Chattanooga, which won the tourney as the favorite but had to sweat plenty to do so. The Mocs trailed at halftime in the quarterfinals against 8 seed Samford before rallying for a 59-54 win, fended off Western Carolina 73-69 in the semifinals and then withstood second-seeded East Tennessee State 73-67 in the final.
Seven of the nine games were decided by eight points or less, including two in overtime. It started in the first round with a pair of surprisingly good games, as Samford held off 9 seed VMI 92-85 in overtime and seventh-seeded Mercer edged 10 seed Citadel 71-69. The only relative snoozers came in the quarterfinals, as East Tennessee handled Mercer 81-65 and third-seeded Furman topped No. 6 UNC Greensboro 80-64.
ETSU also eliminated Furman 84-76 in the second semifinal, setting up an all-Tennessee final. As it did in two previous tourney games, though, Chattanooga came up with the big plays when it needed down the stretch. The Mocs answered every time the Buccaneers made a run-including after ETSU cut an 11-point deficit down to one-and won their first league tourney title since 2009.
Player of the Year: Stephen Croone, G, Sr., Furman
Defensive Player of the Year: Justin Tuoyo, F, Jr., Tennessee-Chattanooga
Freshman of the Year: Fletcher Magee, G, Wofford
Coach of the Year: Matt McCall, Tennessee-Chattanooga
Mike Brown, G, Sr., Western Carolina
Spencer Collins, G, Sr., Wofford
T.J. Cromer, G, Jr., East Tennessee State
Stephen Croone, G, Sr., Furman
Ge’Lawn Guyn, G, Sr., East Tennessee State
Stephon Jelks, F, So., Mercer
Tre’ McLean, F, Jr., Tennessee-Chattanooga
Q.J. Peterson, G, Jr., VMI
Justin Tuoyo, F, Jr., Tennessee-Chattanooga
R.J. White, C, Jr., UNC-Greensboro
- UT-Chattanooga won a school-record 29 games, defeated Dayton, Georgia and Illinois on the road in non-conference play, and made its 11th NCAA Tournament appearance by winning its 11th Southern Conference Tournament crown.
- Six SoCon teams played in the postseason, with East Tennessee State (Vegas 16), Furman (CIT) and UNC Greensboro (CBI) all winning one game each in their appearances.
- ETSU increased its win total by nine from a year ago, while Furman also upped its win total from 11 to 19.
- Wofford freshman Magee led NCAA Division I in free throw percentage, shooting 92.5% from the line, and also ranked third in three-point field goal percentage (47.9%).
What we expected, and it happened: UT-Chattanooga was the conference’s preseason favorite and it delivered and then some, once again giving the league a team on the fringe of the national conversation and proving again that the Southern could withstand the loss of Davidson just fine.
What we expected, and it didn’t happen: Not a whole lot, but Wofford not near the top of the league again may have surprised some. Karl Cochran and Lee Skinner were the heart and soul of the 2014-15 SoCon champions, and it made perfect sense that theirs would be tough shoes to fill. A sign of the respect for Mike Young’s program, though, is that the Terriers still were picked second in the conference preseason poll, but Wofford struggled against a tough non-conference schedule and had a thin margin for error all year.
What we didn’t expect, and it happened: Most had a pretty good feeling Steve Forbes would get East Tennessee State on the right track pretty quickly, but 24 wins, a second-place finish and a serious challenge to Chattanooga was lofty stuff in his first year. Who knew Ge’Lawn Guyn would be one of the biggest impact scoring newcomers in the country?
Teams on the rise: East Tennessee State, UNC Greensboro. The Buccaneers should be even better next year and will possess the type of size and length inside not often seen at the SoCon level. Barring offseason departures-sadly, a qualification one always must make these days from teams in leagues like the SoCon-UNCG will return four starters from a team that recovered from a rough start to win nine of 14 games late in the season before a narrow loss in the CBI quarterfinals.
Team on the decline: Western Carolina. The Catamounts will be searching for firepower after the top four scorers depart, including do-everything first team all-conference guard Mike Brown plus Torrion Brummitt, who became one of the SoCon’s very best post players.
Next Season Conference Outlook
UT-Chattanooga loses three players from its eight-man rotation-three-point bomber Eric Robertson, valuable reserve guard Dee Oldham and inside enforcer Duke Ethridge-but gets one back with the return of Jones. Coupled with Tuoyo, long defender Tre’ McLean and others, the Mocs shouldn’t slip far next year, if at all. Pencil in Chattanooga as the favorites again, especially with the experience now of playing a year with a target on its backs.
At the same time, watch out for East Tennessee State. Desonta Bradford should step in seamlessly to take over Guyn’s scoring load, and all-conference performer T.J. Cromer also is back on the perimeter. The Bucs also will be able to go with players 6-7, 6-8, 6-9 and even 7-0 inside, many of them athletic enough to fit into the team’s fast-paced style. In fact, the battle between the two Tennessee schools could be a dandy, one of the best two-team duels in the country.
Elsewhere, Furman shouldn’t go away, as league MVP Stephen Croone is the only major loss. Their histories say Mercer and Wofford will be improved, and UNC Greensboro won’t be an easy out either. The bottom of the league-Samford, The Citadel, VMI-could be improved, but will have to be vastly improved to make a significant move up the standings. Looking at it now, it’s almost comical to think Davidson’s departure to the Atlantic 10 two years ago was considered to be big trouble for the SoCon. The league made wise additions (and re-additions) with ETSU, Mercer and VMI, some of the holdovers have stepped up, and the result is a league that is deeper now than it was through much of Davidson’s recent run.