As we head into the SoCon Tournament in Asheville starting Friday night, it's time to take a look at some predictions and some of my thoughts as we head into the games.
How many teams can win the title? I'm going with five. I know that Western Carolina has been red hot, but I just don't believe that they can win the championship. They have the advantage with the tournament played in Asheville. So maybe they can, but I think they need too much to go right for them to win three games in three days. The other five teams with first rounds byes all have a chance. Chattanooga, ETSU, Furman and Wofford are obvious choices. The Mocs and Bucs are each ranked in the Top 100 in the RPI. Furman advanced to the championship game a year ago and are the three seed. Wofford has won four championships in six years and could certainly rely on that experience to win another championship. The final option is UNCG. The Spartans have won five in a row to close out the regular season. They have a very short bench. Can they win three games in three days to get it done? Or is that too much to ask this club? Their starting five is certainly good enough to do it.
Which top four seed is most likely to go out in their first game? This is a close call. I honestly think that only one of the top four seeds is relatively safe in their first round match-up, and that's ETSU. Mercer and The Citadel both are ice cold right now. One will get a win on Friday night, but it's hard to imagine that either team will be able to turn around on Saturday and come up with a win. That being said, the other three teams all could find difficulty in their second round match-up. At this point, I worry that Furman does not have enough offensive firepower to be able to win. Yes, they went on a run last year with almost an identical team. However, Matt Rafferty may not play, and he has been a key addition to this team. How will they handle UNCG's inside game without him? Can Stephen Croone put the team on his back and carry them? Yes, defense travels in tournament play, but you have to knock down shots. I am almost certain one of the top four seeds lose in the quarterfinals and that that team will not be ETSU. What I am not certain of is which of the other teams it will be. I lean slightly towards Furman as the team with the most likely quarterfinal exist.
Which team playing on Friday is most likely to make a run like Furman did a year ago? The four teams playing are VMI, The Citadel, Mercer and Samford. If Mercer was playing remotely well, I would pick them. They have the coaching and the players to go far, but this team looks emotionally worn out when they play right now. Who could blame them for that? The Citadel looks awful. They have run out of steam. VMI has been playing much better basketball lately, but simply is not a great team. Samford, on the other hand, has already won at Nebraska. They have lost close games consistently throughout conference play. They are young. All it takes is one close win in this tournament, and all the momentum could swing their way. They are due some breaks in a close game. If the Bulldogs can win on Friday against VMI, it would set up a match-up against Chattanooga in the quarterfinals. Furman a year ago had the same thing- a match-up with Chattanooga in the quarters. The Bulldogs would be in that game all the way down to the wire. Do they have what it takes to get over the hump? Maybe. If they do, they might just win four games in four days to get to the NCAA Tournament.
What would the most entertaining semifinal match-ups be? It will be more entertaining to see the top two seeds advance to Sunday for sure. I think most people who have been following the SoCon want to see Chattanooga-Wofford in one semifinal. The regular season champs against the two time reigning tournament champs in the semifinals? Yes, please. That would be a highly intriguing game. The Chattanooga-Western Carolina semifinal would be interesting because of the Catamounts proximity to Asheville and how many fans they bring. The Catamounts also have a history of pulling upsets in the semis. Still, Chattanooga-Wofford is better. The other semifinal is more difficult. ETSU is one choice, but would it be more interesting to see them play Furman or UNCG? Furman and ETSU played twice this year, and both games were weird. Furman had a big lead in Greenville, only to let ETSU come back before holding on. ETSU had a big lead in Johnson City, only to let Furman close the gap, and then the Bucs opened it back up at the end. On the other hand, UNCG has been up on ETSU twice with a couple of minutes left, only to watch the Bucs complete improbable comebacks both time to win it. I think the UNCG-ETSU games create a slightly more interesting dynamic than Furman-ETSU. That being said, a Furman-ETSU game would be pretty good too.
Which team will win on Monday night? I'm going with Chattanooga. They are the best team in the league, which does not mean much going into the tournament. They have a six game losing streak in the conference tournament, which is unbelievable for a team with the tradition of Chattanooga. They have shown up in big spots all year long and played their best basketball in the biggest games. However, they may play tight on Saturday afternoon in the quarterfinals. If that happens, they could easily go out early and open up the tournament to all the other teams. If they get through that quarterfinal game, the pressure may actually ease on the Mocs some and that would loosen them up. I will bet on the Mocs, but I don't feel great about it.