The Southern Conference race is really starting to get interesting.
The fourth through the tenth spot are separated by a total of two and a half games. ETSU and Western Carolina are tied for fourth at 6-6. Furman is currently in sixth at 4-7. Samford and VMI are tied for seventh at 4-8. UNCG and The Citadel are tied for ninth at 3-8.
Samford started 0-8 in SoCon play, and now sits just a half game out of the six seed, which would be good enough to earn them a bye in the SoCon Tournament in Asheville. The Citadel has lost five straight games, yet is still just one game out of that spot. VMI lost to UNCG by 29 points at home Tuesday night and is just one half game back of the six seed.
That may not sound like it means much, but it does. After all, no team has won the SoCon Tournament with four wins in four days since Clemson did it in 1939. Earning a top six seed is the goal of every team.
But the real intrigue is at the top of the conference. Wofford is the league favorite, Chattanooga is in second just one game back and Mercer is in third just one game behind the Mocs. ETSU and Western Carolina are two and a half games behind Mercer.
In other words, the top three have really started to separate themselves. These three are the clear favorites to win the SoCon Championship on the night of March 9. There is a big advantage to earning the one seed and not having to face one of the other three until the finals.
So with seven games to go, who has the best chance to win the SoCon regular season title?
Wofford has three home games and four road games. They host Chattanooga as their toughest home contest, but go to both Mercer and Western Carolina, who is very tough in Cullowhee.
The Terriers are the reigning SoCon champs, and have the favorite for SoCon Player of the Year in Karl Cochran on their roster. They also have a now healthy Eric Garcia, which is critical. He has been hampered by injuries, but seems to be back to being fully healthy. He is very important to his team at point guard and often underappreciated. Wofford is 8-1 against the bottom seven teams in the SoCon while being 2-0 against the top three.
Chattanooga also has three home games and four road games remaining. They host ETSU and Mercer down the stretch, while going to Wofford and Western Carolina.
The Mocs have Casey and Justin Tuoyo, who both have been mentioned in the Player of the Year discussion. They also have their own underappreciated point guard in Greg Pryor, and Chuck Ester is starting to look more and more comfortable. The Mocs are 9-0 against the bottom seven teams, while going 0-2 against the top three.
Mercer has four home games and three road games left on their schedule. They host Wofford and ETSU in their final two games, and go to Chattanooga and red hot Samford the week before. That's a very difficult closing four games for the Bears.
Mercer has been very balanced, while Ike Nwamu is one of the most exciting players to watch in the SoCon. He generally makes about one spectacular play per game. Phillip Leonard leads the league in assists, while Darious Moten has been very good. TJ Hallice also have done his part inside and sometimes seems to be the forgotten man on this team. Mercer is 7-2 against the bottom seven in the SoCon while going 1-1 against the top three.
The match-ups between the top three could not have been closer so far this year. Chattanooga was up double digits against Wofford before Karl Cochran went off for a monstrous second half and the Terriers came up with a four point win. Mercer jumped out to a double digit lead at Chattanooga in Macon and the Bears slowly watched it evaporate. The game went to overtime, where Mercer survived by three in a thriller. The Bears followed that up by going to Wofford and battling back and forth in a low scoring war. Wofford survived that one by three.
That's three games decided by a total of ten points between these three teams. I think it is safe to say that the three teams are pretty evenly matched clubs.
Is there a difference between the two and three seed? A slight one. The six through ten seeds are all so close. The three seed will face the six seed in the quarterfinals. The second seed will face the winner of the seven seed against the ten seed. The difference between those two teams will not be significant. However, there is a slight advantage to playing a team that has already played one game the night before. So the two seed has the slight advantage on the third seed for that reason.
Obviously, there are huge differences between the one and two seed. The one seed gets an automatic bid to the NIT if they are to fall in the SoCon Tournament. Also, as mentioned before, they would not have to face one of the other top three seeds in the SoCon semifinals.
It appears that Mercer has the schedule edge for the next week and a half (three games). The Bears will need to win those to make the final four games meaningful. They are down two games right now on the conference leaders. If they were just down one game, the Bears would be a real threat to win the conference, but winning the SoCon from two games down at this junction would be surprising.
If Chattanooga had not blown the double digit lead against Wofford at home, the Mocs would be in first place right now, up a game on the Terriers and have a real chance to win it. But it is hard to imagine that they will go to Spartanburg and pick up the win. Without that win, they will be down two games, plus lose the tiebreaker to the Terriers. Hard to imagine they can win the conference like that either.
That leaves us with Wofford as the favorite, which is right as it should be. As a matter of fact, Lunardi has the Terriers just after the teams that are the Last Four In. That means that Wofford, if they somehow manage to win out between now and Championship Monday, the Terriers could make a case for at large consideration in the NCAA Tournament.
The Mocs have the one game lead on Mercer right now, but Mercer has the schedule advantage. The two seed will likely come down to the winner of the game between the Bears and Mocs in Chattanooga. The Mocs are probably favored to come up with the close win at home and get the two seed.
But with the tight games these three teams have played against each other, none of these picks are set in stone. Anything could happen still. Best of all, there should be some tremendous battles between these teams in March in Asheville.