ASHEVILLE, N.C.--Just like that,the 96th edition of the Southern Conference Tournament is over and a new champion has been crowned. The trophy engraver had gotten used to Davidson and Wofford being carved into the name plate over the past few seasons, but for the first time in seven years, he would have to carve out an old, yet familiar name--Chattanooga.
The Mocs have their dancing shoes on and perhaps its own choo-choo ready to head into the NCAA Tournament with a 29-5 record and a chance to make some noise, much like the Mocs did in 1997.
The Mocs run through the tournament, which featured wins over No. 9 Samford (59-54), No. 5 Western Carolina (73-69) and No. 2 East Tennessee State (73-67). It had become a tremendous psychological roadblock in recent years for the Mocs, as it was a hurdle just to get over the hump in the tournament's first game. In fact, the five-point win over Samford in the quarterfinal opener for Chattanooga snapped what had been a six-game losing streak in conference tournament play, dating back to an 82-62 win over Georgia Southern in 2010 in Charlotte at the Bojangles Coliseum.
The 29 wins are a school record, and the 11 Southern Conference crowns, are the most among the current membership and the Mocs need just one more to tie the all-time leader in that category of 12 held by former league member Davidson.
The Mocs as usual, will be a tough out for anyone in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament, and UTC will awaits its destination plans until Sunday at 4 p.m. on CBS, as the pairings for the 2016 NCAA Tournament will be released.
Congratulations Mocs! You played like a worthy champion the entire season, and have a class-act as a head coach, in Matt McCall. He did something even his mentor couldn't do in this league, which is win a Southern Conference Tournament crown.
McCall handled the adversity of not having Casey Jones beautifully, and it wasn't easy, because McCall and staff had to make a tough decision on whether or not to employ his services late in the season, however, the wiser choice, given the way the Mocs had played, was to redshirt Jones and give him a chance to enjoy the final season in the Scenic City that he so richly deserves.
Chattanooga became the first team to sweep the men's and women's league conference tournament titles, and coupled with its win on the football gridirion earlier this fall, became the first school in 16 years to win both the Southern Conference Football crown and tournament basketball crown in the same season since Appalachian State tied for the 1999 SoCon Football title with Furman and Georgia Southern, and then won the 2000 Southern Conference Tournament crown at the BI-LO Center in Greenville, S.C.
Matt McCall is pure class, much like Donovan was in the SoCon and remains to this day as a head coach in the NBA of the Oklahoma City Thunder. McCall became the first first-year coach to win the Southern Conference Basketball Tournament title since John Shulman did it back in 2005.
I can't say enough good things about this young man. A player that came into the season and stepped into a difficult role and did everything that was asks of him and more this season. No player in the league improved like McClean did and it just goes to show what happens when a player makes the most of an opportunity. McClean had double figures in each game, and he was a player that did not just one thing, but so many throughout the season for the Mocs. He'll be a tough matchup for someone come tournament time.
For much of the season I've called this guy one of the most underrated point guards in the Southern Conference, and throughout the season, he continued to show why. Pryor is smart, takes care of the basketball and can shoot. Not only that, he's one of the team's best defenders. Pryor was named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player. In the title game, he posted 13 points, six boards and three assists. He posted 16 points in the four-point win over Western Carolina. In the opening game of the tournament against Samford, Pryor was saddled with foul trouble much of the day and was not able to score. He heads into the NCAA Tournament averaging 9.9 PPG, 2.3 RPG and 3.5 APG.
There's nothing but good things to say about one of the most dominant centers in Southern Conference history since the likes of maybe Greg Dennis of East Tennessee State during the early 1990s for East Tennessee State. Tuoyo, many times, was a man among boys out on the court and there's a big reason why he was the two-time Southern Conference Defensive player of the year, an has posted 179 blocks in two seasons. He heads into the NCAA Tournament averaging 11.1 PPG to go along with 2.3 blocks-per-game and 5.0 RPG.
Bucs Lose But Season Probably Not Over:
East Tennessee State is back and back with a vengence in its second year in the Southern Conference, finishing the regular and postseason with a 23-11 overall mark and will likely see their season extended in the CIT or CBI with the Bucs' overall body of work put in this season.
The Bucs gave us plenty of moments throughout the season, however, with three of their top three key pieces slated to graduate following the season, including leading scorer Ge'Lawn Guyn (18.2 PPG, 3.7 RPG). The Bucs also bid farewell to two other greats at season's end, with the graduation of Deuce Bello (9.4 PPG, 3.3 RPG) and Lester Wilson (6.7 PPG, 2.8 RPG), who like Chattanooga's Pryor, was one of the more underrated players in the Southern Conference season, certainly will be missed next season for the Bucs.
The Bucs had the kind of athleticism this season that was so reminiscent of some of those teams led by Keith "Mister" Jennings and explosive dunker Calvin Talford. Though Bello wasn't the leaper that Talford was, he was a player that could excite the masses. One of the positives for Steve Forbes club is a strong signing class on its way in, including Jason Williams Jr., who is a 5-10 guard out of Detroit. He will look to step in and fill the role vacated by Petey McClain.
AJ Merriweather (pictured above) Returns As a Key Leader For The Bucs Next Season
ETSU's season is likely not over just yet, and the Bucs, while they probably won't find themselves in the NIT, it will likely wind up in the CBI, which is considered maybe a cut above the CIT. But the Bucs might also end up in the CIT, where they went all the way to the semifinals in 2010.
The Bucs played a good brand of basketball in the Southern Conference Tournament, and unlike last year, didn't disappoint with a first-round exit. That season concluded with a 16-14 overall record--well below the standards and expectations of those in Johnson City, ultimately leading to the dismissal of former coach Murry Bartow, who helped the Bucs to the 2004 Southern Conference title, although many attribute that success to his predecessor, Ed DeChellis.
Southern Conference Player of the Year Stephen Croone (Pictured Above)
Croone Captivated Crowds; Furman's Program Trending Upwards
Whether you are a fan or not of Furman basketball, there's no denying this team has come a long way in a short four years under head coach Niko Medved. One of those major reasons for that jump is Stephen Croone. Consider this, In Croone's first two seasons suiting up for the Purple and White, he had only 23 wins through three regular seasons coming into his final season at Furman. He would nearly match that all in one season, with 17 regular-season wins, including helping Furman match its best ever home mark in the league, going unbeaten against SoCon foes at home this season.
Perhaps the indelible memory that stands out came in Croone's final game at Timmons Arena, kissing the Diamond F in the middle of the floor to show his appreciation for Furman, it's fans, and the foundation he has now forged for Furman basketball. If it's the genesis of something special in Greenville, then you can be sure that the 2016 Southern Conference Player of the Year had very much to do with Furman's rise back to the top of the league's elite.
Croone did for Furman what I think Frankie King did for Western Carolina in the Southern Conference all those years ago, and it would lead to the Catamounts' lone league crown with Anquell McCollum at the controls a year later.
Croone was the catalyst in lasy season's run to the Southern Conference title game as the No. 10 seed, and carried over that strong play to the 2015-16 season, helping Furman claim a 17-14 overall record and an 11-7 Southern Conference mark, which was good enough for a third-place finish in the Southern Conference this season--it's highest finish in the league-race since tying for the Southern Conference crown in 1991-92--and he also helped the Paladins finish the season with a school-record tying 13-1 home mark, including a perfect 9-0 record against SoCon foes.
Croone helped the Paladins to a buzzer-beating win over Wofford on January 23, as he tipped in a Devin Sibley miss at the buzzer, helping Furman put an end to a six-game losing skid to the Wofford Terriers.
Croone had just two points in the opening half, but posted 15 in the second frame, with none more important than the final two, as Furman posted its first win over Wofford since Jan. 14, 2013, when the Paladins posted a 69-65 win over the Terriers at Timmons Arena. Croone scored nine of the Paladins' final 11 points in the contest, as Furman closed the game on an 11-2 run to capture their first win over the Terriers of the Medved era.
In an early 70-55 win over eventual Southern Conference regular-season title winner Chattanooga, Croone helped combine with backcourt mate Devin Sibley to score 35 of Furman's 70 points. The senior from Covington, GA, posted 17 points, four assists, three steals and three boards in the win.
In his Senior Day finale against Mercer, Croone saved his best for last, finishing the contest with 31 points, one rebound, a steal and three assists in what was the 13th home win for the Paladins--85-74 over Mercer.
He added 21 points in the opening round, 80-64, win over No. 6 seed UNC Greensboro in the final quarterfinal game of the opening round. Though he was held to just nine points in his finale, it was the rarest of feats. Croone finished his career, if there is no CIT or other postseason tournament, posting double figures in an amazing 87 of his final 92 games in his career. Croone finished his career as the program's fifth all-time leading scorer with 1,899-career points.
Since the final two regular-season games last season, Furman has now posted a 22-17 overall record, which is a remarkable turnaround. Prior to last season's Southern Conference Tournament, the Paladins were a meager 17-45. It was some turnaround. The Paladins have gone from seven wins in head coach Niko Medved's first season-to an increase of 11 wins by the end of his 3rd season in charge, and he effectively improved by seven wins in the regular-season totals from last year to this year, and helped including tournament wins, a total of seven wins overall.
Whether or not the CIT comes calling remains in question, but the Paladins certainly would do no harm to that tournament should it make it there. The Paladins fashioned a strong performance in their tournament opener against a red-hot UNCG team, which came in with its longest winning streak since Wes Miller's first season at the helm, having won six-straight entering tournament play. But 20 points from both Devin Sibley and Stephen Croone to go along with 14 off the bench from Geoff Beans, the Paladins were able to stymie the Spartans by holding them to just 42.9% shooting for the game. The lone two Spartans that would finish their nights in double figures were RJ White with 10 and Kayel Locke with 16.
In the next outing--the second of the two semifinals--Furman was able to hang around with the Bucs for the most part in the opening half of play, but a surge just before the break. It looked like Furman might be ready to seize control of the basketball game, after Devin Sibley knocked down back-to-back jumpers as part of career-high tying 29 points he poured in against the Bucs in a 66-59 loss loss last season, and the Paladins took a 25-20 lead with 6:12 to play in the opening frame, had the Paladins starting to gain confidence.
However, a 9-0 run by the Bucs, which was highlighted by a pair of Lester Wilson triples, would help the Bucs regain the lead which they would even extend to seven, at 38-31, at the break. The Bucs stretched their lead to as much as 15 in the second half, and would for the most part maintain an eight-nine point advantage en route to the 84-76 win. Croone was held to nine points, while ETSU's Ge'Lawn Guyn posted a team-leading 22 points. The Paladins, who struggled from beyond the arc all season, went just 4-for-20 from long range. Meanwhile, ETSU connected on 24-of-27 foul shots, while Furman went just 18-for-27.
A solid nucleus to build around returns, and while losing three pillars like Kendrec Ferrara (4.6 PPG, 2.5 RPG), Larry Wideman (2.8 PPG, 2.4 RPG) and Stephen Croone (17.0 PPG, 3.5 RPG)--a once in a lifetime type player--the Paladins have arguably the league's best defensive player back, in Daniel Fowler (6.0 PPG, 3.9 RPG), one of the SoCon's up-and-coming scorers, in Devin Sibley (11.9 PPG, 2.8 RPG), one of its best all-around ball-handlers and clutch shooters, in John Davis III (4.8 PPG, 1.7 RPG) one of its best shooters, in Geoff Beans (team-leading 44 triples), one of the league's top two big men, in Kris Acox (9.1 PPG, 5.8 RPG) and All-Freshman team honoree Matt Rafferty. Adding even more excitement is the signing of the top-rated guard coming into the SoCon next season, 6-3 guard Jordan Lyons out of McIntosh High School in Peachtree City, GA.
Stay tuned for Part 2 coming up tomorrow.