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2016-17 Southern Conference Post-Mortem

August 7, 2017 Columns, Conference Notes No Comments

The Southern Conference has been around for seemingly forever. Longer than the ACC. Longer than the SEC. Shoot, the league basically served as the breeding ground for both of them.

It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that a league that has withstood the loss of Alabama, Duke, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, etc., etc., could also move on just fine after losing one of its most prominent recent members. A conference doesn’t stick around for nearly 100 years without being able to roll with the changes, and while Davidson’s departure a couple years ago was thought to be a major blow to the SoCon’s basketball product, the truth is the league is stronger now than it’s been in years.

It can’t be said enough just what a job the Southern has done since its flagship basketball program left for the Atlantic 10 in 2014. The re-additions of East Tennessee State and longtime member VMI plus the add of Mercer from the Atlantic Sun were tremendous. Just as important have been the improvements of other members, keyed by smart coaching hires and some coaching stability in the league now as well.

The Southern finished a very healthy 15th in the conference RPI in the 2016-17 season, its best ranking ever. League play featured no less than seven teams strong enough to contend, and a terrific three-team race down to the wire for the title resulted in a three-team tie for first between East Tennessee State, Furman and UNC Greensboro, with UNCG coming from behind on the final day of the regular season to win the top seed in the conference tournament.

Five of the SoCon’s 10 teams won at least 19 games, and compared to other like conferences, the league was a combined 9-2 against the widely presumed superior Conference USA and the Sun Belt, plus 9-0 against regional competition from the Atlantic Sun and Ohio Valley.

Furman continued its rise and led the league standings for much of the regular season, while UNC Greensboro improved from 15-19 to a 25-win season and an NIT appearance. In the end, East Tennessee State was the Southern’s representative in the NCAA Tournament, with Steve Forbes getting the Buccaneers back to the Big Dance in just his second year.

With long, athletic talent, an experienced roster fortified by transfers and T.J. Cromer blossoming into a premium scorer as a senior, ETSU won 27 games. The Bucs boasted a formidable frontcourt, were a stout defensive outfit and were a trendy upset pick in the NCAA Tournament before falling to Florida.

Forbes has brought excitement back to the Tri-Cities area at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains, with the Buccaneers playing before sellout crowds three times this season and bringing plenty of fans to the SoCon tourney just an hour away in Asheville. Fan support also was solid throughout the conference tournament this year, and perhaps there’s no better measure than that of a league that of late has been making all the right moves.

Final Standings:

Southern Overall
East Tennessee State 14-4 27-8
UNC Greensboro 14-4 25-10
Furman 14-4 23-12
Tennessee-Chattanooga 10-8 19-12
Wofford 10-8 16-17
Mercer 9-9 15-17
Samford 8-10 20-16
The Citadel 4-14 12-21
Western Carolina 4-14 9-23
VMI 3-15 6-24

Conference Tournament
The ancient Southern Conference Tournament was held for the 97th time, continuing as the longest-running league tourney in the country. This year’s event-in Asheville, N.C. for the fifth straight year-looked like one of the most promising and wide-open of all NCAA Division I tourneys, and it delivered. Seven of nine games were decided by single digits, including all five games involving the two eventual finalists.

The first round saw ninth-seeded Citadel scrape by 8 seed Western Carolina 78-72 and No. 7 Samford handling 10 seed VMI 79-61. Both also made noise in the quarterfinals. The Citadel led top seed UNC Greensboro at halftime and even late in the second half before the Spartans pulled away in the final five minutes to win 76-67. Samford did one better, holding second-seeded Furman to 30.3% shooting in a 67-63 upset win. Also advancing were No. 3 East Tennessee State (73-66 over No. 6 Mercer) and fifth-seeded Wofford, which took out reeling 4 seed Chattanooga 79-67.

UNCG was on the ropes again in the semifinals, trailing Wofford at halftime before rallying for a 77-73 win. East Tennessee State then ended Samford’s run easily, racing to an early 19-point lead and never trailing in an 81-72 victory in which T.J. Cromer scored 41 points, including nine three-pointers.

The title game had another major swing of momentum, and then very nearly another right at the end. UNC Greensboro led East Tennessee 38-31 at the break, but the Buccaneers turned up the energy in the second half and built a 12-point lead late. The Spartans were not done, though, and a couple ETSU turnovers later, UNCG had a chance to tie in the final seconds. Francis Alonso was outstanding with 28 points in the game, but his wide-open look from the left corner just rimmed out, and the Buccaneers survived for a 79-74 win. ETSU was a perfect 19-for-19 from the free throw line in winning its first Southern tourney title since 2004.

Postseason Awards
Player of the Year:
 Devin Sibley, G, Jr., Furman
Defensive Player of the Year: Justin Tuoyo, F, Sr., Tennessee-Chattanooga
Freshman of the Year: Preston Parks, G, The Citadel
Coach of the Year: Niko Medved, Furman

All-Conference Team
T.J. Cromer, G, Sr., East Tennessee State
Eric Garcia, G, Sr., Wofford
Fletcher Magee, G, So., Wofford
Devin Sibley, G, Jr., Furman
Justin Tuoyo, F, Sr., Tennessee-Chattanooga

Season Highlights

  • The Southern Conference finished 15th in the conference RPI, its best ranking ever.
  • Four SoCon teams played in the postseason-East Tennessee State (NCAA), UNC Greensboro (NIT), Furman (CIT) and Samford (CIT). Furman advanced to the CIT semifinals, while Samford also won its CIT opener before falling in the second round.
  • The Citadel led NCAA Division I in scoring, averaging 89.8 points per game. The Bulldogs also ranked third in the country in three-pointers per game (12.0). Mercer ranked fifth nationally in free-throw percentage (78.2%), while Wofford was right behind in seventh at 78.0%. The Terriers also ranked seventh in the nation in three-point field goal percentage (40.3%).
  • Wofford’s Eric Garcia had an outstanding senior season, ranking third in the nation in both assists per game (6.8) and assist-to-turnover ratio (3.77). He also was sixth in the country in free-throw percentage (92.1%).
  • Tennessee-Chattanooga’s Justin Tuoyo also was fifth in field goal percentage (64.5%) and seventh in blocks (2.9 bpg).

What we expected, and it happened: We saw East Tennessee State and UNC Greensboro as two teams on the rise entering the year. Many said the same about ETSU; UNCG not so much. Both came through, and were part of the three-team tie for first in the SoCon regular season.

What we expected, and it didn’t happen: Chattanooga entered the season as heavy favorites to repeat as league champions. The Mocs lost Chuck Ester to injury before the season even started, though, and the year ended with a thud with five straight losses and some turmoil at the end with one senior starter (Tre’ McLean) suspended late in the year for a game and another (Greg Pryor) missing his final two games after breaking his hand in frustration following a loss.

What we didn’t expect, and it happened: Furman did not just maintain after the loss of 2016 SoCon player of the year Stephen Croone-Niko Medved’s team was even better. The Paladins won 23 games-four more than the year before-tied for the regular season title, and Devin Sibley succeeded Croone as the conference’s top player.

Team on the rise: The Citadel, Mercer. The Bulldogs? One of the four original Division I members that still has never made the NCAA Tournament? Yes. Duggar Baucom brought in a very talented freshman class last year, and just about everyone is back from a team that was competitive throughout SoCon play and won three straight at the end of the year before giving UNC Greensboro a push in the league tourney. Also, Mercer returns just about everyone from last year’s team that led the conference in rebound margin and lost a bevy of close games.

Team on the decline: Even with a senior-laden starting lineup, Chattanooga slipped from the top of the league to a tie for fourth this year, and now the Mocs face a future next year with a new coach and five new starters. Lamont Paris will be challenged right off the bat in his first head coaching job.

2017-18 Southern Outlook
As wide-open as the SoCon was last year, it could be every bit as much again this coming year. Two of the three tri-champions-East Tennessee State and UNC Greensboro-suffer some heavy graduation losses. The Buccaneers must replace four starters, while the Spartans lose two of their top three scorers, including low-post horse R.J. White. Meanwhile, a pair of contenders from the second level-Mercer and Samford-and run-and-stun Citadel return just about everybody and are poised to make moves up the standings.

UNCG still has Alonso and the rest of a deep group of athletic frontcourt players, while it’s hard to expect ETSU to fall too far as long as Forbes is in charge. The most intriguing team to watch may be Furman, which returns player of the year Sibley and almost everyone else, but will have to replace Kris Acox-right with UNCG’s White among the top post players in the conference last year-and coach Niko Medved, who did a masterful job building the Paladins into a contender and now is off to Drake of the Missouri Valley.

Who’s the favorite? Furman? UNC Greensboro? Perhaps experienced Samford or resurgent Mercer coming up from the outside? With key losses by the leading teams a year ago, it’s impossible to gauge right now, but it should ensure another fun season on the conference loop for this venerable league.

Twitter: @HoopvilleAdam
Email: hoopvilleadam@yahoo.com

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