Mid-Major Conference Preview: Southern Conference

USA TODAY Sports

The Southern Conference will have a whole new look next season, and teams are looking to stake one final claim to the league crown in 2013-14. Can the Elon Phoenix burn Davidson's quest to repeat as conference champs in each team's final season in the conference?

As we march towards November 8 and the official start of the 2013-14 basketball season, Mid-Major Madness will be bringing you conference previews on a regular basis to get you ready for tip-off. We'll also be highlighting these conferences and speaking with experts and coaches on our weekly podcast.  We start off with the Southern Conference.

The main theme for the Southern Conference this year will be a farewell tour for many of its members. College of Charleston left for the CAA this past year and Elon is set to join them in 2014-15. Appalachian State and Georgia Southern will move to the Sun Belt a year from now, for reasons mainly pertaining to football. Finally, the conference will lose it's prime basketball jewel with Davidson leaving for the Atlantic 10. It's not all bad news for the SoCon as Mercer will move over from the Atlantic Sun and VMI and East Tennessee State will both make their way back to their former conference.

Despite all the upheaval and realignment there is still basketball left to be played and Davidson may have a tough time defending their conference crown.

1. Elon Phoenix
Last Year: 21-12 (13-5), 3rd Southern, CIT First Round
Departures: Aaron Smith (1 ppg), Josh Bonney (3.5 ppg)
Key Returners: Jack Isenbarger (13.2 ppg), Ryley Beaumont (11.8 ppg), Lucas Troutman (15 ppg)

Elon's last year in the Southern Conference may be their best chance to grab the school's first NCAA birth ever. The Phoenix have claimed the North Division once since joining the SoCon in 2003 but have never been able to make to the NCAA Tournament. Matt Matheny's squad didn't lose any key players and the talented scoring trio of Lucas Troutman, Jack Isenbarger, and Ryley Beaumont are all seniors. Beaumont may be the conference's biggest post presence this year also. Highly touted freshman Christian Hairston (6'7) joins the squad and he turned down offers from conference rivals Davidson and Furman, as well as Richmond.

2. Davidson Wildcats
Last Year: 26-8 (17-1), Conference Champion, NCAA First Round
Departures: Jake Cohen (15 ppg), Nik Cochran (10 ppg), JP Kuhlman (8 ppg), Clint Mann (7 ppg)
Key Returners: De'Mon Brooks (14 ppg), Chris Czerapowicz (9 ppg)

Bob McKillop's squad has dominated the Southern Conference over the past couple of years with a 33-3 conference record in regular season play. The Wildcats have what it takes to three-peat in the SoCon during their farewell tour but lost serious talent in Jake Cohen, Nik Cochran, and others. Cohen was a two-time Southern Conference Player of the Year, but he isn't the only one on the team that has won the award. De'Mon Brooks was voted by the coaches as the Player of the Year two years ago, while the media chose Cohen. Brooks was also the SoCon Tournament MVP this past year as well. Davidson won't be as deep as last year, but seniors Chris Czerapowicz and Tom Droney will play a key role to the Wildcats success. The Wildcats also add some frontcourt depth with freshmen Andrew McAuliffe and Joe Aase joining the team, as well as point guard Jack Gibbs. Miami (OH) transfer Brian Sullivan should also give the Wildcats a shot in the arm, as he was on the MAC All-Freshman team two years ago.

3. Western Carolina Catamounts
Last Year:
14-19 (9-9), 6th in SoCon
Departures: Brandon Littlejohn (TR, 2.3 ppg), Preston Ross (TR, 6.3 ppg)
Key Returners: Trey Sumler (18 ppg), Brandon Boggs (10 ppg), Tawaski King (11 ppg), Tom Tankelewicz (10 ppg)

Larry Hunter and the Catamounts have been building towards this season in Cullowhee, North Carolina. Pretty much everyone comes back for this squad that will sport five talented seniors, lead by scoring machine Trey Sumler. Tom Tankelewicz is also one of the conference's premier threats from behind the arch. The Catamount haven't had a winning year since 2010-11, but expect that to change this year. The only question is, can they challenge Elon and Davidson for a SoCon title?

4. Samford Bulldogs
Last Year:
11-21 (9-9), 5th in SoCon
Departures: Jaylen Beckham (TR, 1.4 ppg), Will Cook (TR, 3 ppg), Clide Geffrard (TR, 11 ppg), Arthur McMillan (TR)
Key Returners: Tim Williams (14 ppg), Raijon Kelly (14 ppg), Tyler Hood (9 ppg)

Samford has not had a winning season since they were in the Ohio Valley Conference in 2005-06 and the squad has averaged 11 wins over their past four years. This year should be the year for Bennie Seltzer's squad to get over the hump. Tim Williams was the Freshman of the Year in the SoCon last year after averaging 14.2 points and 7.1 rebounds per game. Raijon Kelly was a SoCon first-teamer and was only a sophomore. The future is certainly bright for the Bulldogs and they should be competing for a SoCon title for the foreseeable future.

5. Appalachian State Mountaineers
Last Year: 15-16 (10-8), 4th in SoCon
Departures: Nathan Healy (15 ppg), Jamaal Trice (7 ppg), Brian Okam (Transfer, 1.3 ppg)
Key Returners: Jay Canty (14 ppg), Tevin Baskin (10 ppg), Tab Hamilton (9 ppg), Mike Neal (9 ppg)

Jason Capel is building a winner in Boone and the Mountaineers are set for the next step in 2013-14. Nathan Healy leaves a big void since he lead the team in scoring, the conference in rebounding, and was the SoCon Defensive Player of Year; but plenty of talent remains. Mike Neal was one of the conference's best point guards a year ago and he'll run a potent offense that has plenty of scoring options. If the Mountaineers can make the next step and challenge in the SoCon this year, then they may be able to make some noise in the Sun Belt next year with Purdue transfer Jacob Lawson becoming eligible.

6. Wofford Terriers
Last Year: 13-19 (7-11), 8th in SoCon
Departures: Taylor Wagener (2.1 ppg), Jarrell Byrd (TR, 4.4 ppg), Bryan Harris (TR, 0.8 ppg), Kevin Hickson (0.5 ppg)
Key Returners: Karl Cochran (16 ppg), Spencer Collins (12 ppg), Lee Skinner (10 ppg)

Wofford had their first losing season since 2006-07 last year, but the Terriers had a roster that sported seven freshmen and five sophomores. Basically no one of note has left the program and Mike Young finds himself with a team a year wiser. Lee Skinner is among the conferences best rebounders and is also developing into a reliable scorer. Karl Cochran is quickly becoming one of the SoCon's elite scorers. Look for Young's team not only to compete this year, but for the next three years in the Southern Conference.

7. Chattanooga Mocs
Last Year: 13-19 (8-10), 7th in SoCon
Departures: Dontay Hampton (10 ppg), Drazen Zlovaric (8 ppg), Farad Cobb (TR, 6 ppg)
Key Rerturners: Z. Mason (15 ppg), Gee McGhee (12 ppg), Ronrico White (10 ppg)

Will Wade brings his pinstriped suits over from VCU to lead the Mocs. The first time head coach has a lot of talent returning this year but the biggest question has to be if that talent can translate to the style of play Wade wants to play. Wade has installed a system that emulates VCU and he's labeled it as "CHAOS". To help him in the transition former Ram Justin Tuoyo transferred to UTC, but will have to sit out a year. Ole Miss transfer Z. Mason can score at will and will be the key returner for the Mocs. Look for the young core of Gee McGhee and Ronrico White to continue to grow, as the Mocs will challenge for a .500 season.

8. Furman Purple Paladins
Last Year:
7-24 (3-15), 12th in SoCon
Departures: Colin Reddick (13 ppg), Bobby Austin (7 ppg)
Key Returners: Stephen Croone (10 ppg), Charlie Reddick (10 ppg), Larry Wideman (8 ppg)

The Purple Paladins looked into their past to grab a new head coach by grabbing former assistant Neko Medved from Colorado State. Furman's leading scorer Colin Reddick is gone, but his twin brother Charlie will look to step up in his absence. The Paladins also have two talented sophomores returning in Stephen Croone and Larry Wideman, who combined for 18 points per game their freshman year. Medved will try to rebuild a program and will get a little help a year from now in South Carolina transfer Damien Leonard. But in terms of this year, there is nowhere to go but up for the Paladins.

9. UNC Greensboro Spartans
Last Year: 9-22 (6-12), 10th in SoCon
Departures: Trevis Simpson (19 ppg), Derrell Armstrong (15 ppg), Korey Van Dussen (6 ppg), Kelvin McNeil (6 ppg)
Key Returners: Kayel Locke (10 ppg), Nicholas Paulos (8 ppg)

It was a disappointing year in Greensboro last year when the Spartans did not live up to expectations behind high scorers Derrell Armstrong and Trevis Simpson. Armstrong has now graduated and Trevis Simpson inexplicably left for the pro ranks. Simpson lead the SoCon in scoring the past two years and leaves Wes Miller's cupboard bare this upcoming season. While Kayel Locke and Nicholas Paulos have potential, Miller will bring in a slew of talented freshmen led by forwards Tevon Saddler and Tyrone Outlaw.  Saddler had offers from power conference schools South Florida, Miami, and Oregon State; while Outlaw was pursued heavily by Ole Miss.

10. The Citadel Bulldogs
Last Year:
8-22 (5-13)
Departures: Mike Groselle (16 ppg), Michael Hundley (TR, 1.1 ppg), Janeil Jenkins (TR, 3 ppg), Stephen Elmore (3 ppg), Lawrence Miller (6 ppg)
Key Returners: Matt Van Scyoc (11 ppg), PJ Horgan (11 ppg)

High flying scorer Mike Groselle is gone for the Bulldogs but the rest of Chuck Driesell's returning squad was made up of three freshmen and five sophomores. Forward Matt Van Scyoc and PJ Horgan will now become the top scoring threats for the Bulldogs. Driesell's squad could continue to develop and gain experience, but can they move up the ladder in the SoCon?

11. Georgia Southern Eagles
Last Year:
14-19 (7-11)
Departures: CJ Reed (13 ppg), Cameron Baskerville (6 ppg), Jessie Pernell (TR, 5 ppg), Cleon Roberts (TR, 9 ppg)
Key Returners: Tre Bussey (9 ppg), Marvin Baynham (5 ppg)

Former Virginia Tech assistant Mark Byington takes over for the Eagles this year. The first time head coach is likely in for a rough first year in Statesboro and final year in the Southern Conference. Talented guard CJ Reed has graduated and freshman guard Cleon Roberts is headed to LaSalle. To build on the uphill battle for Byington, the Eagles leading returning scorer and rebounder, Eric Ferguson, will miss the whole season. Byington will look to develop his young talent this year and wait for Ferguson to come back, along with Charleston transfer Trent Wiedeman in 2014-15.

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