SOCON TOURNAMENT PREVIEW
ASHEVILLE, N.C.--The Southern Conference race has not failed to disappoint once again this season, and for the fifth-straight year, the General Shale Southern Conference Tournament will get underway in beautiful southern hamlet of Asheville, and like the previous five years, the NCAA Tournament ticket could literally be claimed by any one of the 10 competing teams.
The 2015-16 season will mark the 96th renewal of college basketball's oldest postseason conference tournament, and every year, the tournament seems to add a new twist. Last year, it was No. 10 seed Furman, which had only eight regular-season wins and just five league wins last season, but for four days in Asheville, the Paladins captivated crowds by their never-say-die attitude was something that has become a microcosm of March Madness, conference tournament style.
Many times the real stories are written in championship week, and the NCAA Tournament offers only a broader projection of the most exciting part of the month of hoops mania. The stories start at the conference level. Each league crowns a league champion and it's a week when college basketball is at its best.
The Southern Conference is the grandfather of conference tournaments, and routinely, one of championship week's most exciting, enthralling events. Though Furman's run to the title game was exhilarating, the Paladins ended up three points short of making one of the more miraculous runs in the history of any conference tournament.
It was Wofford, which for a second-straight tournament title, and fourth title in the past six seasons, as head coach Mike Young has built what is subsequent to a mid-major conference dynasty over the past six seasons.
The Terriers are the No. 4 seed in this year's tournament, and have as good of a shot as anyone at winning the tournament, especially with senior Spencer Collins now leading the way, carrying the torch passed on to him by Karl Cochran.
Many wondered if the Terriers could continue the success through the grueling Southern Conference regular-season, but once again, the Terriers head into the tournament as one of the pre-tournament favorites.
But the Terriers are decidedly less so the juggernaut they have been the past two seasons, but that doesn't mean the Terriers aren't good enough to win it. After all, Mike Young's teams traditionally win with defense, and in a conference tournament, nothing is more important.
The juggernaut tag coming into this season's tournament belongs to Chattanooga (26-5, 15-3 SoCon) under the direction of first-year head coach Matt McCall, who has continued what Will Wade initiated a couple of years ago in the Scenic City before taking over as the head coach at VCU following the 2014-15 season. The Mocs' 2015-16 regular-season conference title marks the program's first since claiming the regular-season North Division crown in 2010-11, when the Mocs won the North Division title.
The Mocs come into the tournament with the most wins in their Division I history, having won 26 games, and matched their 15-3 record in Southern Conference play of last season. The non-conference slate was especially impressive for the Mocs, taking down mid-major powerhouse Dayton, along with posting two wins over power five conference teams, in Illinois and Georgia and have one of the highest RPIs in the modern era of the SoCon Tournament heading into March.
Raising The Altitude in Asheville
When the ten teams descend upon Asheville for the Southern Conference in a couple of weeks, it will return to a place that has memories literally written within its walls, and perhaps as much as any other tournment, with so many down-to-the-wire finishes over the years.
Add to that, the breathtaking backdrop of beautiful Asheville, and it's the perfect mix to spend a conference tournament weekend, and there's already a buzz surrounding the tournament.
In the first part of this article, I was able to catch up with Southern Conference Associate Commissioner Geoff Cabe late last week and get his overall take on the upcoming tournament.
When you look at the 10 teams, it's not out of the realm of possibilities that someone could make that unfathomable run in run in the tournament--the one much like No. 10 seed Furman made last season.
While Chattanooga sports that outside shot to win an at-large bid, the odds are once again the SoCon will be a showdown for one bid, making a tournament among the most exciting in all of college basketball.
"I think this tournament is a rewarding experience for its players, fans, coaches and we treat it like this is a real championship for these kids. We want to make this a memorable experience for our guys, so really, or goal is to put on the highest level and class conference tournament out there. This is about the kids, and we want to make it as enjoyable for them as possible, said Associate Southern Conference Commissioner Geoff Cabe."
"We told Asheville when we left what needed to be done in terms of upgrades to get us to consider returning to the venue in the future after we moved the league tournament following the 1995 tournament. To Asheville's credit, they did that and more by making the type renovations to make it a great atmosphere for basketball, and we have been fortunate enough over the past four tournaments to really see some great basketball much like it was in the previous 12 tournaments played here. We have really wanted more than anything to make this the most first-class tournament in college basketball, and I think if you take a look at what we have done for this tournament, I would put it up against any as far as the first-class individuals that put on a first-class tournament in this great tournament," Cabe added.
The facility itself has undergone much change over the years in two different stints as the conference tournament host. While the 2015-16 Southern Conference Tournament will be the 96th all-time postseason classic played in the nation's oldest conference tournament,it will mark the 17th that has taken place in Asheville.
the 13th time the tournament has made its way to the Altitude city, starting way back in 1983. Tournament organizer Ben Van Camp elaborated on some of the events surrounding the tournament, which has an assortment of events surrounding the game, such as the downtown dribble, BBQ in Beer and there certainly won't be a shortage of activities to take part in this 2016 tournament weekend.
"There will literally be something to do for all ages, and obviously we have seen the downtown dribble and KidsFest have been a huge success in the past few tournaments, and those events will begin at 9 AM Saturday morning prior to the quarterfinal matchups in the tournament, which start at noon. Those participants in KidsFest and downtown dribble kind of get a cool perk in that they will receive free admission to the noon quarterfinal game at the US Cellular Arena. Also, the downtown dribble will be giving away T-Shirts and basketball, as a part of participation in the dribble parade, which runs from Pack Square to the arena," Van Camp said.
"Saturday will also feature the teddy bear toss and making a small donation to the Mission Children's hospital, and you will receive a Bear to be thrown onto the court during the 2016 SoCon Teddy Bear toss. There will be 1,500 bears to be thrown out onto the floor to will be donated to kids receiving treatment at the hospital, which is always a neat thing to kind of give back and as much as this weekend is about basketball, it's also about giving back to the community and to those in need, and certainly this is one of the favorite events because of the ability to make a child smile or make their day. That's the really neat thing about college athletics because everyone has a chance to make someone's day, and who better to serve than a child in need," Van Camp added.
"Also, for the adult crowd as well as the younger crowd, one of the neater things last year was the BBQ and beer will once again take place on championship evening prior to the title game, and this was a real success last season, with a large turnout and we think it will be once again this season. While the beer is obviously available to only those of the legal age of 21 at some of the local breweries, the event is not limited to just adults, as younger folks are more than welcome to sample some of the local BBQ at the tailgate from local restaurants about, as we think it's some of the best around, so all ages are welcome. Ticket prices range $15-$10. The $10 tickets are for those who will be designated drivers and those under the legal drinking age of 21. The $15 tickets are for those of 21 or older looking to sample the flavor of both the breweries and BBQ too," Van Camp added.
PAST TOURNAMENTS IN ASHEVILLE:
The Asheville Champions
1984-- (Mar. 2, 1984) No.1 MARSHALL DEF. No. 2 Chattanooga, 111-107
What Happened: It was perhaps the most exciting title game in the history of the Southern Conference Tournament, with LaVerne Evans leading top-seeded the way with 38 points to lead top-seeded Marshall to a thrilling, 111-107, title game win in double overtime. The game was one filled with stars, including former Cleveland Cavalier and New York Knick, Gerald Wilkins, who was one of the greatest players to ever suit up in the the Civic Center. The Herd went on to the the 53-team NCAA Tournament, sporting a 25-5 record.
1985--(Mar. 3, 1985) MARSHALL 70 DEF. VMI, 70-65
What Happened: Marshall continued its dominant run in Asheville by claiming a second-straight conference crown led by the former Thundering Herd great Skip Henderson, who scored 21 second-half points, as the Thundering Herd were able to hold off stingy Gay Elmore and the VMI Keydets. For the Herd, it was the third time in the history of the Marshall basketball program it had punched its NCAA Tournament ticket by using key second-half run to help carry the Thundering Herd home to the win. After Gay Elmore jumper got the Herd with two, at 47-45, with 9:52 left, and it appeared for all intents and purposes, the game would come down to the wire. But an 11-0 run by the Herd pushed the advantage to 13 (58-45) with 6:47 left. Howeve
1986--(Mar. 2, 1986)--DAVIDSON DEF. CHATTANOOGA, 42-40
What Happened: It was one of the lowest scoring title game meetings in the history of the Southern Conference Tournament, but Gerry Born would sink a 22-footer as time expired, giving Davidson its first Southern Conference title in 16 years, marking the first NCAA Tournament trip for the Wildcats since 1970.
1987--(Mar. 1, 1987) No. 1 MARSHALL DEF. No. 3 Davidson, 66-64
What Happened:The city of Asheville had become one that Skip Henderson had grown to love of over the years for the Thundering Herd, dusted off their fourth Southern Crown in four seasons, as Henderson's heroics led the Herd into the Big Dance with 20-10 record overall. The game was tied, 57-57, at the end of regulation, and then the game a tip-in with one second remaining to allow the Thundering Herd to escape with the 66-64 win.
1988--(Mar. 6, 1988) No.5 CHATTANOOGA DEF. No. 7 VMI, 75-61
What Happened: The 1988 title game would see Lance Fulse post 17 points and Benny Green added 16, as Chattanooga went on to claim a 75-61 win over VMI in the 1988 Southern Conference Title game at the Asheville Civic Center. Making the title somewhat remarkable is the fact that the Mocs entered the tournament as the No.5 overall seed, while VMI entered the postseason festivities with the No. 7 overall seed, making the 1988 title game one of the true Cinderella Tournament title games. Ramon Williams led the Keydets with 25 points in the title game, while his twin brother Damon Williams added 13.
1989--(Mar. 5, 1989) No. 4 EAST TENNESSEE STATE DEF. No. 6 Marshall, 96-73
What Happened: After just getting past arch-rival Tennessee-Chattanooga in the SoCon semifinal with a 76-73 win, East Tennessee State had little trouble in dispatching high-scoring John Taft and Marshall, with the 96-73 win in the title being the first of four-straight Southern Conference titles, and marked the second-straight season in which both teams in the title game ranked fourth or lower in
the SoCon title game. Keith "Mister" Jennings scored 16 points, while Calvin Talford led the way with 20 pts. The Herd was without Taft, who posted 38 Marshall upset semifinal win over No.1 seed Chattanooga.
1990 --(Mar. 4, 1990) No. 1 EAST TENNESSEE STATE DEF. No. 3 Appalachian State, 96-75
What Happened: East Tennessee State left little doubt as to who the top team in Asheville as the final decade of the 20th century commenced, posting a second-straight blowout win in the title game, with a tournament record high-tying nine three-pointers and shot a sizzling 53.8% in the title game (32-of-60). Center Greg Dennis scored a game-high 24 points, while Keith "Mister" Jennings added 16 points and was a major part of a tournament record 25 assists in the title game, helping the speedy sophomore guard garner 45 out of 50 for the Most Valuable Player honor.
1991--(Mar. 3, 1991) No. 2 EAST TENNESSEE STATE DEF. No. 4 Appalachian State, 101-82
What Happened: East Tennessee State became the first Southern program to claim three-straight tournament titles since Chattanooga claimed three-straight Southern Conference Tournament titles from 1981-83. The 28 regular-season wins were a program record for the Bucs. It marked the fourth-straight Southern Conference title game decided by 14 or more points.
1992--(Mar. 8, 1992)--No.1 EAST TENNESSEE STATE DEF. NO. 2 Chattanooga, 74-62
What Happened: The run of success for the Bucs continued, winning a fourth-straight Southern Conference crown, and did it against arch-rival Chattanooga before a raucous crowd on-hand to take in the atcion at the Civic Center. During the regular-season, both teams had been powered to victory on the other team's home floor. However, while it was a win in the series for the Bucs, the tide was slowly starting to switch to the UTC side in the series as the mid-1990s rolled around. Earlier in the season, the Mocs beat No.15 ETSU in Johnson City. ETSU returned the favor before nearly a crowd of 11,000 at McKenzie Arena later in the season. ETSU, who rose is high as No. 10 nationally prior to losing to Furman that season, got a game-high 28 points and nine boards from Greg Dennis and that was more than enough to secure the ETSU win.
1993--(Mar. 7, 1993)--No. 1 CHATTANOOGA DEF. NO. 4 East Tennessee State, 86-75
What Happened: Chattanooga ended East Tennessee State's four-year dominance of the Southern Conference basketball scene, handing the the Bucs a loss in the tournament title game for the first time in ETSU's fifth-straight trip to the title game. The high-octane Mocs gave the Bucs some of their own medicine running at them from tip-to-buzzer, and the led by Tee Jay Jackson's 22 points and another 20 from Tim Nelson, the Mocs went on to an 11-point win.
1994--(Mar. 6, 1994)--No. 1 CHATTANOOGA DEF. NO. 2 Davidson, 65-64
What Happened: The Volunteer State dominance continued in the Southern Conference, as for a sixth-straight season, a team which hailed from that state won in Asheville. For the first time in six tournaments, the title game would be decided on the final possession. Davidson, which was back in the Southern Conference for the first time in 1992-93 following a brief hiatus in the Big South and as an independent, would give the Mack McCarthy's Mocs all they wanted, but when Brandon Born helped Chattanooga cut down the nets at the Civic Center by hitting big shot late, it helped soften the wound delivered by his Gerry Born (Brandon's brother) delivered a dagger of a shot to break the hearts of Chattanooga some five years earlier. The Mocs were led in the win by fellow golden-haired sharp-shooting guard in black low-tops, as Chad Copeland nailed five of the team's seven triples en route to a game-best 21 points in the win.
1995--(Mar. 3, 1995)--No. 1S CHATTANOOGA DEF. NO. 2S Western Carolina, 63-61
What Happened: In another exciting title game meeting, it was was Chattanooga that overcame a 17-point deficit in the final 10 minutes, and closed the game on a 12-0 run to take the trophy out of the hands of Frankie King and Anquell McCollum and the upstart Chattanooga Mocs and put it in the hands of the Mocs for a third-straight season. The Mocs would be paced in the title-deciding contest by Brandon Born, who posted 17 points, while Frankie King had a game-high 18 points and Anquell McCollum chipped in 17 points in the loss. It would be the final game played in Asheville for another 17 years, as tournaments moved to Greensboro, Greenville, Chattanooga and Charlotte before eventually returning to Asheville in 2012.
2012--(Mar. 6, 2012)--No. 1 DAVIDSON DEF No. Western Carolina, 93-91, 2 OT
What Happened: The 2012 Southern Conference title game between Davidson and Western Carolina was, of course, a rematch of the 1996 title between the two teams, which saw the Catamounts, behind the efforrts of a strong defensive game-plan and solid performances from Anquell McCollum and Kevin Kullum on the offensive end, while the Catamounts limited the Wildcats to a season-low 32.5% shooting clip from the field en rout to a 69-60 win over the 26-win Wildcats. The epic NCAA Tournament ticket decider saw the nip-and-tuck game finally able sealed in the final 65 seconds, as Iowa State transfer Clint Mann's dunk gave the Wildcats the lead for good with 1:05 remaining, and then a 20-foot three-point field goal attempt by the league's most prolific perimeter threat, Keaton Cole, with just three seconds remaining caromed off the rim with three seconds left and allowed the Bob McKillop-led Wildcats to escape with the 93-91 double-overtime win.
2013--(Mar. 12, 2013)--No. 1 DAVIDSON DEF. No. 3 College of Charleston, 74-55
What Happened: It was the lone real lopsided title game since the tournament made it's return to Asheville, with Davidson handing College of Charleston its final loss as a Southern Conference member before riding off into the CAA sunset and joining a new conference. It would be the first of what would turn out to be five teams that would find new conference homes over the next two seasons. The Wildcats would lead the Cougars wire-to-wire, and it was De'Mon Brooks who would lead the way in helping the Wildcats to the memorable win, pouring in a game-high 24 points, while adding eight rebounds en route to leading Davidson to its 14th and final Southern Conference Tournament crown.
2014--(Mar. 11, 2014)--No. 3 WOFFORD DEF No. 5 Western Carolina, 56-53
What Happened: In stark contrast to the 2013 title game, which lacked little drama, the game between the Terriers and Catamounts was another Asheville classic, with the Terriers handing Western Carolina a narrow 56-53 loss in the title game. For Wofford, it was all about Karl Cochran and the tenacious Terrier defense ,which catapulted Wofford and Mike Young to 20 wins and the championship podium for the first time since 2011. Cochran posted 23 points and the Terriers held the Catamounts to 35.1% from the field, but had to survive a Trey Sumler three that rimmed out at the buzzer. It would be a season which would see five SoCon teams bow out of the league, with Western eliminating two of those teams, sending Elon and Davidson packing for the CAA and Atlantic 10, respectively, while Wofford took care of Sun Belt bound Georgia Southern in the semifinals.
2015--(Mar. 9, 2015)--No.1 WOFFORD DEF No. 10 Furman, 67-64
What Happened: It was one of the more remarkable runs in the history of the Southern Conference Tournament, as Furman became the first bottom seed to ever reach the Southern Conference tournament title, providing the ultimate David vs. Goliath matchup in the final. The Paladins would play well the entire night, despite losing the services of talented forward Kris Acox to a broken foot early in the contest. It would prove costly, as Lee Skinner exerted his control in the paint, adding a team-best 17 points, while Eric Garcia added 15 points, but it was a 25-footer from Cochran in the final minutes with the shot clock winding down that gave Wofford a 65-62 lead. After Furman's Stephen Croone converted a layup to cut it to one, the Paladins fouled Eric Garcia, who calmly stroked home a pair of foul shots to make it a 67-64 game. From there, Furman had one final chance, however, Furman's Devin Sibley had his three-point field goal blocked by Cochran, and then after Skinner missed the front end of a 1-and-1, John Davis III's halfcourt heave as time expired fell short and the Terriers celebrated their fourth title in six seasons.