"Everyone on this team wants to be here."
Those were the words Coach Wes Miller said towards the end of Spartan Madness last Thursday night in Greensboro.
That was music to all the UNCG fans' ears. After all, the Spartans had lost three players this past offseason. Tyrone Outlaw, Jordan Potts and Kyle Cain all left the school in the offseason. That was a combined 27.4 points per game, 13.3 rebounds and 3.9 assists. That was the leading scorer and rebounder in Cain. That was the second leading three point shooter, the player who came up with the second most steals and the player with the third most assists in Potts. That was a 6-6 guard who had shown promise in Outlaw.
2014-15 Southern Conference Basketball Preview
The Southern Conference has changed a lot in the last few years losing several high profile members, but this year one of the nation's oldest conferences looks to it's past for new members and added three new faces. Who is the team to beat in the new look SoCon and who are some of the teams to keep an eye on?
Hope seems to reign in Greensboro. The fan base believes this year will be significantly better. The Spartans are expected to be a mid-range SoCon contender this year.
UNCG was recently picked to finish fifth in the SoCon. Spartan faithful feel optimistic about their team, and there is reason to. After all, Kayel Locke, Tevon Saddler and Nicholas Paulos have talent. RJ White looks like he could be on his way to become one of the best big men in the SoCon.
The Spartans are one of the most volatile teams in the SoCon. With talent like Saddler and Locke and the breakthrough coming from White, they could certainly contend in the conference. Very few teams in the conference have three players with that much potential to be stars. Throw in that Paulos can shoot lights out from three point range when he is on, and it is easy to get on board with this team.
But where is this team? In Wes Miller's two full seasons, the Spartans have gone 23-40, 13-21 in SoCon play and 1-2 in the SoCon Tournament. He had one magical two month stretch from mid-January through early March in 2012. They went 11-5 during that stretch, and have won just fourteen SoCon games since then. That's not good.
The Spartans have won back-to-back games just three times in the last two years. In 2012-13, it was just once. In 2013-14, the Spartans won back-to-back games twice, one of them against two non-D1s. They won three straight from January 6-16 in SoCon play, but never won back-to-back games again. That's two streaks against D1 competition over the last two years.
Saddler, who took just eleven threes all of last year, still made under 40% of his shots. He is supposed to be one of the top point guards in the league, and yet his assist-to-turnover ratio was 0.74. Locke, who should be an inside presence in the SoCon, shot twice as many threes as Saddler.
What has Miller done to convince everyone that this year will be different from the rest? His teams have underachieved. He rarely seems to be able to get the same team to show up in back-to-back games. Why will this year be different?
Will Saddler learn to make a long range shot? Will Locke figure out good shot selection? Will the team feed Paulos when he is hot? Will White break out like he is expected to? Will anyone else surprise? Will the Spartans actually be better without all the talent that left the program?
Spartan fans will argue that one of the reasons for the struggles could easily be that the teams have had bad apples on it. The guys leaving could actually be a blessing in disguise.
For my money, I can't figure out UNCG. The floor is also low. We've learned never to know what to expect from a Wes Miller coached team. This is not the time to start believing we know the answer.
But if everyone really wants to be at UNCG, if everyone has really bought in to the program, if Miller has figured out the best ways to motivate his teams, the Spartans could well be the most pleasant surprise in the whole conference and far exceed their predicted fifth place finish.