Southern Conference 2005-06 Preview
by Michael Protos
The Southern Conference will have a new look this season after Davidson dominated it from start to finish last season – or at least the finish of the regular season.
The Wildcats finished 16-0 in conference play but lost to UNC-Greensboro in the conference tournament semifinals. Davidson loses a lot of its firepower in the post but still returns a lineup capable of winning the South division. But that can be said of almost every other team in the Southern Conference.
One team that struggled last season definitely will not contend for the SoCon title this year, and that team is East Tennessee State. The Bucs won’t have a chance to contend because they left to go to the Atlantic Sun Conference. With one less team in the North division, Chattanooga should have a good chance to repeat as division winners. The Mocs earned the SoCon’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament by virtue of winning the conference title.
This season, the Mocs look good to win the North Division again. But that division is the SoCon’s second-class citizen compared with the South Division, in which all six teams could make a run for the division title and possibly conference title. Georgia Southern, Furman and Davidon appear to have a slight edge, but don’t count out Wofford, College of Charleston or the Citadel.
Conference MVP: Elton Nesbitt, Georgia Southern
If the Eagles meet expectations and contend for the conference title, Nesbitt will have to lead the way. He’ll also earn the praise of people throughout the conference en route to leading his team to the top and earning an MVP award as the Eagles’ best player.
Elton Nesbitt, Georgia Southern
Brendan Winters, Davidson
Howard Wilkerson, Wofford
David Berghoefer, Western Carolina
Kyle Hines, UNC-Greensboro
Rookie of the Year: Stan Jones, Furman
Playing on a team with plenty of other talent will benefit Jones this season. The Paladins have a lot of experience in the backcourt, forcing opponents to dwell on the guards rather than the forwards. If Jones remains dedicated to rebounding and defense, he could make a significant impact on a team that could contend for the conference title.
The Hot Seat: Pat Dennis, The Citadel
The Bulldogs usually have low expectations entering each season. But this year, the Citadel returns a fairly talented lineup that features one of the best sophomores in the conference in forward Warren McClendon. The Bulldogs play in the tough South division, and if the team fails to win more than four or five conference games, the Citadel may grow tired of Dennis’ propensity toward mediocrity.
Chattanooga Mocs (20-11, 10-6, 1st)
Senior forward Charles Anderson
Senior forward Alphonso Pugh
Senior guard Steve Cherry
Junior guard Casey Long
Junior guard Ricky Hood
At Holy Cross
The Mocs finally passed East Tennessee State to become the class of the Southern Conference outside Davidson. Chattanooga reached the NCAA Tournament, in which the Mocs lost to Wake Forest in the opening round. The only losses from that team are Mindaugas Katelynas and Chris Brown. Those two combined to average more 23 points per game on a team that struggled to score last season.
To replace Katelynas and Brown, the Mocs need senior forwards Charles Anderson and Alphonso Pugh and senior guard Steve Cherry to carry the team. All three are talented players who play solid defense. Pugh has the most potential, but he doesn’t always play at a high level. He averaged 11.3 points per game last season despite coming off the bench for most of the season. If he plays solid all year, he could become an all-conference player.
Junior guards Casey Long and Ricky Hood join Cherry in the backcourt. Neither lights up the net, but they are solid defensive players, which is the principal concern of coach John Shulman. He will use the same formula for success as last season, hoping for slightly more consistent offensive production. With an experienced team led by senior leaders, the Mocs should win the mediocre North Division and contend for another NCAA bid.
Appalachian State Mountaineers (18-12, 9-7, tie 2nd)
Sophomore forward Douglass McLaughlin-Williams
Sophomore forward Jeremy Clayton
Junior forward P.L. Henderson
Junior guard Demetrius Scott
Junior guard D.J. Thompson
At Wake Forest
At North Carolina State
Appalachian State has an intriguing lineup filled with potential but also riddled with question marks. The team dismissed its best athlete, senior forward Derek Thomas, for violating team rules. If he remains off the team, the Mountaineers will miss his thunderous energy around the basket and 8.2 points and 4.9 rebounds per game.
Despite the loss of Thomas, the Mountaineers return a host of players who saw meaningful minutes last season. Junior point guard D.J. Thompson leads the way, averaging 11.2 points per game last season. At 5-8, he presents a match up problem for teams that don’t have solid ball handlers at the point. On offense, he runs the show, which is critical on a team that lacks other proven stars. The rest of the backcourt is also solid, with juniors Demetrius Scott and Nathan Cranford. Neither one scored frequently last season, but Scott is a solid defensive player.
In the frontcourt, the Mountaineers will sorely miss Thomas. Sophomores Jeremy Clayton and Douglass McLaughlin-Williams averaged less than five points and four rebounds per game last season. They are a microcosm of the Mountaineers’ problem: plenty of potential, but no proven source of points. That makes Appalachian State a difficult team to rate. The Mountaineers have a good recruiting class, including forwards P.L. Henderson and Tyler Webb, and guards Ryann Abraham, Eduardo Bermudez, A.J. Highsmith and Jarvis Jackson. Henderson is most likely to contribute as a scoring machine out of a junior college. The Mountaineers will need him to step in to fill Thomas’ place.
UNC-Greensboro Spartans (18-12, 9-7, tie 2nd)
Freshman forward David McClenny
Sophomore forward Kyle Hines
Junior guard Ricky Hickman
Sophomore guard Kevin Oleksiak
Sophomore guard Dwayne Johnson
At South Carolina
The Spartans enter the 2005-06 season with a new coach after Fran McCaffery bolted Greensboro for a chance to coach Siena. The Spartans reached the SoCon championship game last season, but the loss of three starters could leave new coach Mike Dement with a tough road ahead.
New is old with Dement, who coached the Spartans more than a decade ago when UNC-Greensboro was a Division II program. He guided the Spartans into Division I and led the team to a 23-win season in the Big South before other programs caught wind of his success. After nine years and a 138-120 record at SMU, the Mustangs grew tired of Dement’s inability to get the team over the hump. Dement was out of coaching for a year before he jumped at the opportunity to coach the Spartans again.
The Spartans lose Ronnie Burrell, Josh Gross and Ray Bristow from last season’s squad. Those players accounted for almost 35 points per game last season. But UNC-G does return sophomore forward Kyle Hines and junior guard Ricky Hickman, two of the team’s three leading scorers. Hines was a beast last season, averaging 13.6 points and 8.6 rebounds per game. One of the better post players despite measuring only 6-6, Hines will force opposing defenses to collapse in the paint, which will create open shots for Hickman, who averaged 14.5 points per game last season.
The rest of the lineup is a question mark for the Spartans. The team has no seniors and only three juniors, so the lack of experience will show early and often. Freshman forward David McClenny was one of the better recruits in North Carolina and will have to contribute during his first season. JuCo transfer Bart Tooms is the biggest player on the roster at 6-11, and Dement needs him to learn quickly. The Spartans will struggle against a few teams, but they will be a force to reckon with during the next couple of seasons.
Elon Phoenix (8-23, 5-11, 4th)
Senior forward Colin Wyatt
Senior forward Jackson Ayotebi
Junior forward Chris Chalko
Senior guard Scottie Rice
Junior guard Brian Waters
At Georgia Tech
Elon doesn’t lose any significant parts from last season, primarily because fifth-year senior forward Jackson Ayotebi received a medical redshirt last season after injuring his shoulder. The free pass allows Ayotebi, now a graduate student at Elon, to maintain his last year of eligibility. He is the Phoenix’s most reliable player, averaging 16.1 points and 7.8 rebounds per game as a junior two years ago. He had to have rotator cuff surgery to repair the shoulder, however, so his ability to bounce back will be critical to Elon’s success this year.
In the absence of Ayotebi, several inexperienced sophomores and juniors logged more minutes, which gives coach Ernie Nestor more seasoned leaders to rely on this season. Senior Colin Wyatt and juniors Chris Chalko and Brian Waters played more minutes last season to help cover for Ayotebi. Wyatt and Chalko join Ayotebi in the frontcourt, which is the strength of this team. Unfortunately, the Southern Conference does not lack talented post players so that won’t allow the Phoenix to create mismatches.
In the backcourt, Elon’s best player is senior Scottie Rice, who averaged 10.5 points per game last season. But Rice shot less than 40 percent from the field, which was a product of constant harassment from opposing defenses. The Phoenix need to establish a solid inside-out game, feeding Ayotebi in the lane and kicking it out to Rice on the perimeter. If Rice improves his touch and Ayotebi rebounds from his injury, the Phoenix will score more points this season and improve in the SoCon standings.
Western Carolina Catamounts (8-22, 3-13, 6th)
Senior center David Berghoefer
Senior swingman Cory Muirhead
Junior guard Kyle Greathouse
Sophomore guard Trey Hopkins
Sophomore guard Antonio Russell
The Catamounts ditched coach Steve Shurina, who never led Western Carolina to the top of the Southern Conference. New coach Larry Hunter has plenty of success on his résumé, including 23 winning seasons in 25 years as a coach at Ohio University and Division III Wittenburg. Most recently, he was an assistant coach at North Carolina State.
Hunter plans to implement a motion offense that resembles North Carolina State’s version of the Princeton offense. But the Catamounts might have a rough adjustment period because they don’t have the proper personnel. The North Carolina State model requires a roster full of good shooters, especially among the guards, and the Catamounts’ strongest players are frontcourt mates David Berghoefer and Cory Muirhead. Both are more effective in the post than stepping out to shoot jumpers.
At guard, the Catamounts return junior Kyle Greathouse and sophomores Trey Hopkins and Antonio Russell. All three are short guards who don’t exactly torch the nets. Outside Berghoefer and Muirhead, they represent the most returning points per game from last season. But if they fail to hit shots, Hunter may sit them in favor of other players. Hunter has a good mixture of experience with three starters who are seniors or juniors and eight freshmen or sophomores, but many of those youngsters are unproven. Look for the Catamounts to struggle for the most part with flashes of potential.
Georgia Southern Eagles (18-13, 10-6, tie 2nd)
Senior forward Sean Olivier
Sophomore forward Louis Graham
Junior forward Jimmy Tobias
Senior guard Elton Nesbitt
Junior guard Donte Gennie
At Texas Tech
At Kansas State
The Eagles lost two starters in point guard Terry Williams and big man Jean Francois. But Georgia Southern returns senior guard Elton Nesbitt, a sensational scorer who averaged more than 20 points per game. At 5-9, he’s one of the most dangerous small guards in the country and doesn’t have to play the point to dictate the offense. Those duties belong to junior guard Donte Gennie, who must replace Williams.
In the frontcourt, the Eagles return senior Sean Olivier, who is a hard worker despite only putting up average statistics. Fellow big man sophomore forward Louis Graham is a more dangerous offensive weapon after averaging 8.2 points and 6.9 rebounds per game.
The rest of the Eagles’ lineup lacks experience but not talent. Juniors Jimmy Tobias, Lafayette Lofton and Diego Salazar are JuCo arrivals who will make immediate impacts. Georgia Southern also has senior forward Willie Dunn and sophomore forward Anthony Marshall to add depth to the frontcourt. Sophomore guard Dwayne Foreman will back up Gennie at the point. Foreman may miss time early in the season, however, because he and freshman forward Rob Robinson were wounded during an altercation at a bar in October.
Although this team does not have clear third or fourth scoring options, Nesbitt should carry this team to success throughout conference play. If the team can develop reliable options to aid Nesbitt and Graham, the Eagles could be a serious conference championship contender.
Furman Paladins (16-13, 9-7, 4th)
Freshman forward Stan Jones
Junior forward Moussa Diagne
Junior guard Robby Bostain
Junior guard Eric Webb
Senior guard Tony Carter
At Texas Tech
The Paladins lost forward Quan Prowell, the team’s leading scorer, who left Furman to transfer to Auburn after the season. But Prowell had been suspended because of academics for the latter half of last season, so the team is familiar with playing without him.
The loss of Prowell hurts the frontcourt, but the return of Moussa Diagne is a big boost. Diagne averaged 12.3 points and 5.8 rebounds per game last season, and the Paladins need him to improve to match up with some of the SoCon’s other good post players. They also need him to excel because the rest of the post players have little to no experience. The Paladins will likely start freshman forward Stan Jones, who has a lot of potential but obviously nothing to show for it yet.
Almost the oppostive of the frontcourt, the backcourt is strong, experienced and deep. Juniors Robby Bostain and Eric Webb join senior Tony Carter. Webb is the best ball handler while Bostain is an athletic swingman. All three can step out to hit the three-pointer. No other Southern Conference team has three reliable three-point shooters in the starting lineup. Senior Gerad Punch and sophomore swingman George Brozos can also play on the perimeter to give the Paladins superb depth at guard.
The ability to develop a strong rebounding presence will determine the Paladins’ ability to move up in the SoCon standings. This team has more experience than many of its competitors, but the questions in the post could prevent Furman from making a run at the conference title.
Davidson Wildcats (23-9, 16-0, 1st)
Junior forward Ian Johnson
Sophomore forward Thomas Sander
Senior guard Brendan Winters
Senior guard Matt McKillop
Senior guard Kenny Grant
At North Carolina
The Wildcats lost two major parts of their squad from last season, which went 16-0 in SoCon play. Forwards Logan Kosmalski and Conor Grace graduated, leaving a gaping hole in the frontcourt, which several less-experienced players and recruits will try to fill. But the Wildcats shouldn’t fall too far off their stellar mark last season thanks to the best backcourt in the conference.
Seniors Brendan Winters, Matt McKillop (the coach’s son) and Kenny Grant comprise the three guards who must lead this team to victory. Winters may be the best player in the conference and will need to have a huge year despite becoming the focal point of opposing defenses. To make his job easier, Grant, the team’s point guard, must continue to run the offense to near-perfect precision. To add to that talented trio, the Wildcats also return senior Jason Morton and sophomore Jason Richards. Morton averaged more than 10 points per game last season despite playing off the bench.
The frontcourt is more unsettled, however, with junior Ian Johnson and sophomore Thomas Sander inheriting the responsibility of leading a team filled with unproven big men. In addition to those two, coach Bob McKillop has a pair of internationally-trained post players in Boris Meno of France and Andrew Lovedale of England. The team also has Max Gosselin of Canada and Can Civi of Turkey.
If the Wildcats can get some semblance of consistency in the frontcourt, the talented guards will carry this team to another solid SoCon finish. Like other members of the conference, the Wildcats have some experience in either the frontcourt or backcourt, but not both.
Wofford Terriers (14-14, 7-9, 5th)
Senior center Tyler Berg
Senior forward Howard Wilkerson
Junior guard Eric Marshall
Sophomore guard Drew Gibson
Senior guard Byron Fields
At West Virginia
At Notre Dame
By only losing Adrien Borders and his 12.6 points per game, Wofford returns one of the conference’s best starting five. Senior forward Howard Wilkerson is a legitimate candidate for conference MVP if he bounces back from knee surgery last season. While he missed most of last season, fellow big man Tyler Berg garnered valuable experience. Berg and Wilkerson form one of the best frontcourts in the conference.
Junior guard Eric Marshall shoots better than 40 percent from three-point range, one of the best shooters in the SoCon. Because few teams have bona fide perimeter threats in this conference, Marshall gives the Terriers an added dimension on offense, which could free space inside for Wilkerson and Berg. Sophomore guard Drew Gibson and senior guard Byron Fields will split the point guard responsibilities, and both are solid scorers. Fields is a more reliable shooter, but Gibson is more consistent with ball handling.
Wofford’s optimism is based on their starting five and backup guard Shane Nichols, a transfer from St. Peter’s who was MAAC freshman of the year two seasons ago. In the frontcourt, no backups have any experience playing at Wofford. If depth becomes an issue, the Terriers may run into problems, so Wofford cannot afford injuries or foul trouble. That will hinder their game plans. But such a talented starting five should keep the Terriers in the top half of the SoCon.
The Citadel Bulldogs (12-16, 4-12, 6th)
Sophomore forward Warren McClendon
Junior forward J’mel Everhart
Senior guard Dante Terry
Junior guard Donny McClendon
Senior guard Kevin Hammack
At North Carolina State
The Bulldogs did not lose any meaningful contributors to last season’s team, which was riddled with injuries and illness. Despite finishing last, the Citadel had one of the league’s more promising players emerge in sophomore forward Warren McClendon. One of the conference’s best freshmen last season, McClendon will be a critical piece to the puzzle this season. The Citadel lacks dominant players but has 10 or 11 players who could contribute every night. If the Bulldogs can find the right combination, this team could rise from the SoCon cellar into the top two or three teams in the South Division.
Joining McClendon in the charge out of the basement, senior guards Dante Terry and Kevin Hammack must provide stability in the backcourt. McClendon’s brother, Donny McClendon, is another reliable guard whom the Bulldogs need to become a better shooter. The Citadel added Mark Shiavoni from the Coast Guard, and he will probably become one of the team’s most consistent deep threats.
The guards will need to shoot well to expand opportunities for Warren McClendon and his fellow post players, including junior J’Mel Everhart, Aaron Xia and Andy Miller. The Bulldogs have a lot of mediocre talent at all positions, and everyone has decent experience, which is better than several SoCon teams that have a lot of talent at one or two positions coupled with a complete void of experience at others.
College of Charleston Cougars (18-10, 10-6, tied 2nd)
Sophomore forward Josh Jackson
Junior forward David Lawrence
Freshman forward Jermaine Johnson
Junior guard Dontaye Draper
Senior guard Drew Hall
At Virginia Commonwealth
The Cougars lost leading scorer Tony Mitchell and forwards Bernard Jackson and Stanley Jackson, meaning that the College of Charleston must find new sources of scoring this season. But the Cougars have a lineup full of possible replacement scorers thanks to transfers and a talented recruiting class. Newcomers David Lawrence and Jermaine Johnson will start for the Cougars, while Virginia Tech transfer Philip McCandies will be one of the first players off the bench each game.
But the strength of this team is in the backcourt, where senior guard Drew Hall will lead the Cougars’ offense. Junior guard Dontaye Draper is the team’s leading returning scorer after averaging 12.0 points per game last season. He must improve on those numbers to provide enough offense for the Cougars to remain one of the best SoCon squads. Freshmen Javon Parris and Ryan Scott give the Cougars good depth, though no experience.
In the frontcourt, sophomore forward Josh Jackson must lead the fresh Cougars. He only averaged 5.1 points per game last season, but he is the go-to guy in the paint this season. If he cannot handle the pressure, the Cougars could run into trouble against some of the more talented big men in the conference. Look for the Cougars to play inconsistently as youth and inexperience produce frustrating mistakes. With Hall and Draper leading the way, however, the Cougars will remain in most games. The Cougars don’t seem imposing but usually find a way to win under coach Tom Herrion. This season should not be different – the Cougars are not frightening until you take them for granted.
Unlike in past years dominated by Davidson or East Tennessee State, parity will rule in the Southern Conference this season. Just about every team can win on any night. That makes defending the home court all the more critical because road wins could come at a premium. Additionally, winning divisional games will also be mandatory because a two-game sweep would give a significant advantage in the final standings. The top few teams in each division earn a first-round bye in the conference tournament, which is a huge step toward winning the SoCon’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.