It's the beginning of another weekend of Southern Conference games. By the end of the weekend, Chattanooga, Samford, Furman and Wofford will all have completed a third of their conference schedule. It will be much easier to start analyzing the conference race a little more accurately.
The bye race will start to develop and the race for the regular season title will be taking full shape. With six current teams having one loss or less in SoCon action right now, the race is wide open, and pretty difficult to analyze. After this weekend, there will be a little more definition to the race.
Each week John Hooper and I will be looking at power rankings and a key question in the conference, followed by a brief look at the schedule ahead. It's almost like winning the Powerball, and you don't even have to buy a ticket! It will make you feel like a billionaire. Or some percentage of a billionaire. Like .000000001% of one. Maybe.
Furman- Tough to believe, isn't it? But they beat Chattanooga. The Mocs beat Mercer. ETSU hasn't won a game anywhere near as tough as Chattanooga. So this is a default placeholder.
Chattanooga- If the Mocs win both games this weekend, they likely jump Furman regardless. But a poor forty minutes at Furman and twenty minutes at Wofford leave the Mocs below the top spot.
ETSU- It's certainly true that the Bucs have not exactly beaten a bunch of great teams in SoCon play. But they are unbeaten. If they win both games this weekend at Samford and at Chattanooga, they will almost certainly jump Furman.
Mercer- The Bears don't really deserve to drop from my number two spot. But the Mocs loss leaves the Bears a little bit lower, and the Bucs undefeated conference season so pushes the Bears down undeservedly. We'll see what they do at home against Furman and Wofford.
Wofford- The Terriers blew an early second half eight point lead against Chattanooga that would have left the Mocs in a bad place in conference play. Instead the Terriers are left in need of a big road win this week at Mercer to prove they have not fallen far.
Western Carolina- Well, OK. Call me unconvinced that the Catamounts are really a good team this year. They have played all their conference games at home. There was a blowout loss to ETSU, a blowout win over VMI and an OT win over UNCG. Going to Samford and Chattanooga should be a step up.
UNCG- A team with two D1 wins ahead of Samford, a team who beat Nebraska? For now. The Spartans nearly won at both ETSU and Western Carolina last weekend. Instead, they lost them both. The Spartans are in a must win game at home against VMI on Sunday.
Samford- Look, I don't really buy it. The Bulldogs are better than UNCG, I think. But the way Samford is playing right now since conference play started, it is really hard to put them higher. They get home games against ETSU and Western Carolina with a chance to move up substantially.
The Citadel- This team is not a disaster and has two more home chances against good teams this weekend. Furman and Wofford both come to Charleston. Will the Bulldogs get one or both of those?
VMI- The Keydets have been downright bad on the road in conference play. They go to UNCG this weekend. Not a good start. VMI is in desperate need of a positive showing and could use something good to happen to them. As it is, they are struggling.
Chattanooga- Despite the loss, the Mocs are the team to beat in the league. Though this isn't quite the talent disparity that UTC exerted over its football foes over the past few years.
Mercer- Yes, I know Mercer got beat pretty bad at Chattanooga, but with Desmond Ringer and Stephon Jelks, Bob Hoffman's Bears will be trouble.
Furman-The Paladins are playing the best defense in the SoCon right now, and it's a question of learning to win on the road that holds this team back from even higher aspirations.
Wofford- Lost a crazy game to Chattanooga that it looked it was going to get blown out in before the Terriers made it interesting late. Mike Young will have his team there in the end.
ETSU-Yes, ETSU has been impressive, but I am a little shaky on putting them higher after the injury to Merrieweather. We'll just have to wait and see, but good performances at Samford and Chattanooga could move them to the top.
Western Carolina-Western is kind of like the brother you lose in Kmart only to find that he is already in the car waiting to go home. If folks take the Catamounts for granted, they are capable of making that championship drive from relative obscurity, and Larry Hunter likes it that way.
Samford-It's do or die time for Samford. They are a young team and coach Padgett has to figure out how to challenge his team without damaging their confidence completely. This weekend will be key.
UNCG- Ironically, it's Wes Miller's club that seemingly is in a better position than Samford. They have experience, a coach who knows that they will hit their stride soon because of experience. The Spartans already have a nice win over Furman.
The Citadel-How can you not like Duggar Baucom. A guy who knows about basketball, and his own personal story is one that is so inspirational. Baucom loves a challenge and he's never been one to stay down too long, he just needs the shots to start falling for his team this season. They will in time.
VMI-Dan Earl is one of the most intelligent coaches in this league and he's built for this job. He's had to teach a whole new system and it will take some time, but I bet Earl turns out to be the right answer for VMI in the long run. The Keydets are not as bad as the scores are indicating right now, but rather, just a little overwhelmed. They will eventually settle into the system come February.
QUESTION OF THE WEEK
Can Furman win the regular season conference title?
That Furman is even in this discussion seemed about as likely as me winning the Powerball about ten and a half months ago.
They have one of the top players in the SoCon in Stephen Croone. They have one of the top defenses in the SoCon. They have beaten Chattanooga, Samford and VMI at home in convincing fashion, and lost a heartbreaker at UNCG.
This team is capable, but I don't truly believe they have a chance to win the Southern Conference. I think they are a good team, but one that still needs to prove they can win away from home and one that still needs to prove that they can win consistently. They have not done that in the regular season this year.
They have more than enough talent to win the title and if they win at Mercer on Thursday it will be time to start taking this more seriously. But at this point, I think it is more likely that the Paladins wind up outside the top four than that they win a conference championship. Winning consistently and getting better shooting are the keys to sustained success. The Paladins haven't proven they can be counted on to deliver either yet.
The question is an intriguing one. But as the season progresses, the question might just be more valid than you think. Not since the 1980-81 season has Furman tasted the glory of the NCAA Tournament. With wins over VMI (85-57), Chattanooga (70-55) and Samford (77-57) at home, the Paladins have gotten off to their best start in Southern Conference play since the 2010-11.
The early going has seen the Paladins do it in shocking fashion, winning three conference home games and one of which that came against a Chattanooga team that ranked No. 33 overall in the RPI. While it may be too early to starting talking title town just yet, a remarkable trend has remained with Furman since that magical march run of a year ago, and that's the play on the defensive end of the floor.
The Paladins have faced 10 Southern Conference foes since the final two regular-season games last season, and have gone 7-3 in those games. The Paladins have not allowed their last 10 Southern Conference opponents shoot better than 43.6%, which was accomplished by Chattanooga in its Southern Conference Tournament loss last season. Furman has held nine of its 18 opponents to less than 43% or less shooting from the field this season, going 6-3 in those games. Only Charlotte (41.4%), Navy (42%) and UNCG have managed wins against the Paladins when shooting at or less than 43% in a game this season.
The last 10 games against SoCon foes has also seen Furman, naturally, limit opponents' scoring, holding foes to a shade under 59 PPG, including limiting both Western Carolina and Mercer to 49 points apiece in a pair of wins. The Paladins have not allowed 70.
The Paladins currently lead the Southern Conference in points-per-game allowed (62.6%).
In comparison, the previous 16 games in SoCon play a year ago saw the Paladins prior to the 54-49 win over the Western Carolina Catamonts saw the Paladins allow 70 or more points on eight of the previous 16 occasions.
The Paladins are literally a point from being in sole possession of first place in the Southern Conference standings.
It's been the defensive play of a pair of seniors off the bench that has sparked the Paladins to start league play, as Larry Wideman and Kendrec Ferrara have begun to really take on bigger roles off the bench as the season progressed.
Nowhere has it been clear than in the past two games against Samford and Chattanooga for the Paladins, as Ferrara has nine blocks in the past two wins, while Wideman is providing relentless defensive minutes.
The Paladins must now navigate yet another three-game stretch, which by no means will be easy, beginning at the league's most hostile away venue, Mercer, before tangling with high-octane Citadel Saturday and hosting Wofford Monday.
While it's too early to tell whether a championship run in Greenville is in the cards, it is now evident that the way Furman ended the regular season last season in its final two league games and the Southern Conference Tournament has carried over to Southern Conference play this year--at least through the early stages of it.
If you are interested in having a question answered, post one in the comments and we may answer it in the future.
Each game will be given a 1-10 rating, based on how interesting the game is. A one indicates not particularly interesting and a ten indicates very interesting.
Wofford at The Citadel (3)- The Terriers need a bounce back road win in a big way.
Western Carolina at Chattanooga (5)- The Catamounts first conference road game.
Furman at Mercer (9)- Can the Paladins take their winning ways on the road?
ETSU at Samford (7)- The Bulldogs struggled on the road- time to get it going at home.
Furman at The Citadel (5)- The Bulldogs early season challenges keep on coming.
Wofford at Mercer (8)- Key early season showdown between two of the best.
ETSU at Chattanooga (9)- This is the Bucs chance to show they might just be the best.
Western Carolina at Samford (6)- Two teams who could battle for a bye at the end.
VMI at UNCG (4)- Near must win for UNCG in the bye race.