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Wofford Still the Favorite in the Southern Conference

The Southern Conference race shapes up as an interesting race, but Wofford has established that they are the favorites.

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The conference portion of the schedule is about to get underway in earnest for the Southern Conference, and the Wofford Terriers appear to have separated themselves from the pack thus far.

There was a set of conference games played early in December, and that helped to start determining the positions of the SoCon teams. The most shocking result during those games was UNCG going to Johnson City and upsetting ETSU, 80-79.

The Buccaneers are one of three SoCon teams to have played two games already. They are 1-1, having beaten Western Carolina prior to the UNCG upset loss. Samford lost at home to VMI and at Furman to go to 0-2, while VMI also lost to Mercer.

Wofford was the only team to not play a SoCon game during that stretch. Four teams went 1-0- Chattanooga, Furman, Mercer and UNCG. Only two are 0-1 (matching Samford as a winless team)- The Citadel and Western Carolina.

How important are those early games? To teams like Western Carolina, who lost a game they were expected to lose at ETSU, maybe not very meaningful. To teams like Chattanooga, who won a game they were supposed to win at The Citadel, maybe it doesn't mean much. But for ETSU, the loss to UNCG could prove costly. The Spartans are a team capable of beating anyone, but the Bucs find themselves having lost a game most of the league favorites will be expected to win.

Let's take a shot at some predictions for the conference race.

  1. Wofford- The Terriers returned the nucleus of last year's NCAA Tournament team and were the preseason conference favorites. With what they have done so far, there is no reason to go away from that. Karl Cochran is still the favorite to win SoCon Player of the Year and Wofford even has an outside chance at getting an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament this year if they need it, though that is hardly the advised route to get there. Wofford goes to Samford and Chattanooga in their first two SoCon games, looking to establish early dominance.

  2. Chattanooga- The Mocs have been anything but special away from home, but have looked very good at McKenzie Arena this year, taking out Coastal Carolina, UAB and Robert Morris at home. They havethe player who changes the game the most of any player in the conference on the defensive side of the ball in Justin Tuoyo. The Mocs get their next three conference games at home, against Furman, Wofford and Western Carolina, giving them a chance to make an early run in conference play.

  3. Mercer- The Bears are still a bit of a mystery in their first year in the SoCon, but they did win at home against VMI. In the preseason, there were questions about who would be the Bears breakout performer. Those doubts have gone away as it is now clear that Ike Nwamu is going to be a force in SoCon play. Nwamu is one of the better players in the conference. The Bears were done no favors by the SoCon  schedule makers, though. Their next three games? At UNCG, at VMI and at ETSU. It is a critical part of the schedule for a team that has won just once away from home (and that was on a neutral court) this year.

  4. ETSU- The Bucs may be an even bigger mystery than Mercer at this point. Ron Giplaye is out for the year, and he was really coming on as the team's go-to big man. Since the injury, the Bucs have just played three games, losing to UNCG and at VCU and winning at Eastern Kentucky in a close one. So will the Bucs be able to rebound from this injury? More than likely, though they are hampered by this injury. He was one of the players that could least afford to be lost like this. Rashawn Rembert and Jalen Riley are still two of the better guards in the conference though. In the first eight days of SoCon action in January, ETSU plays VMI, Mercer and Chattanooga at home. We will all know a lot more about this team at that point.

  5. Western Carolina- James Sinclair has really developed into a nice player for the Catamounts, and Rhett Harrelson has been one of the most pleasant surprises in the SoCon this year. This club nearly beat Alabama at Alabama and was up double digits in the first half at Vanderbilt, so they should not be intimidated by any environment they face in SoCon play. The Catamounts may be 0-1 in SoCon play, but they get The Citadel and Furman at home in early SoCon play. That's a pretty good way to try to get on a roll in early January.

  6. UNCG- The Spartans are as good as any SoCon team man for man. They match Mercer as the SoCon's biggest team, per Pomeroy's Effective Height rankings. RJ White and Kayel Locke are as good as any SoCon team can offer up in the paint. Tevon Saddler is as good of a two guard as anyone in the conference. If Diante Baldwin (who was injured for the first eight games this year) can step in and be the point guard this team desperately needs, they could rise up and be a surprise some people. If he cannot, the Spartans may sink even lower than this.

  7. VMI- The Keydets are exciting and a team absolutely no one will want to see in the conference tournament in Asheville because of their style of play. However, they just don't seem to be made for a regular season run this year. They have three wins over D1 competition and rarely seem to look good in back-to-back games. They are the third highest scoring team in the country and no one in the conference is looking forward to facing QJ Peterson and the rest of this crew. The first three games in January will be brutal though- at ETSU, home against Mercer and at Wofford. They have already gone to Mercer. That means their first four conference games are against teams in the top four of these predicted standings. No one else has to face a challenge like that.

  8. Furman- The Paladins are not that far off. Stephen Croone is as good as any player in the conference. He is really good, but can Kendrec Ferrara or Geoff Beans step up and be the consistent second best player that this club needs? They have a conference win already but just one other out of conference win. That's not good. The Paladins go to Chattanooga and Western Carolina in their first two SoCon games in January. If they can come up with a split in those two games, they may be ready to be a factor in the conference race after all.

  9. Samford- The Bulldogs are going in the right direction. There are some clear pieces in place, but they are also still clearly a ways away from competing for the regular season title. This team likes to get up and down the floor, putting pressure on the ball all over the court. Michael Bradley and Tyler Hood have come into their own, but it is freshman Christen Cunningham that has given the program that jolt of energy they needed. He looks like a long term building block. This team is someone higher seeded opponents will not want to see in Asheville. They host Wofford and ETSU in their first two SoCon games and could really make things interesting with an early upset.

  10. The Citadel- The Bulldogs are better than they were a year ago. They have P.J. Horgan, C.J. Bray and Ashton Moore that all at least make the other team think a bit when facing them. Last year, the team won a SoCon Tournament game. Can they do something like that again? Sure they can. But it is a long time until March. In the meantime, this team will be trying to sneak out a few conference upsets and come away with some solid performances along the way. They will win a few that they shouldn't, but they are not a long term competitor in the league. With games at Western Carolina and at UNCG to start off conference play, this team will have to learn how to win away from home, something they have not done yet this year.

It appears to me that the SoCon has four teams that have separated themselves a bit from the rest of the pack- Wofford, Chattanooga, ETSU and Mercer. The next four are tightly bunched as well.

The top six all receive first round byes, with the top two seeds facing teams that played the night before. That means that finishing in the top two has advantages and finishing in the top six is a must have. The race for the final two bye spots should be very tight, making this race exciting from here on out. The race for the top two should also be thrilling, with Wofford appearing to have a clear upper hand for one spot and the race for the next spot being anyone's guess.

This should be as fun of a SoCon race as we have had for a while. Buckle in and enjoy the ride.