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Southern Conference Basketball 2015-16 Season Recap (Part 2 of 2)

Southern Conference Recap Part 2 and an early look ahead to 2016-17

Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Chattanooga Champs Again:

For the 11th time in Southern Conference Tournament history and regular-season history, Chattanooga punched its ticket to the NCAA Tournament and claimed a regular-season league title, as the Mocs effectively went from wire-to-wire as league preseason favorites to tournament champs. With four of five starters back, including preseason player of the year Casey Jones, the Mocs were an easy pick.

Chattanooga's Matt McCall did his mentor Billy Donovan proud, leading the Mocs to the title win in his first season as the head coach. Donovan, of course, was once a coach in the Southern Conference during his days at the helm of the Marshall Thundering Herd from 1994-96.

Donovan would help assemble the Thundering Herd team, which all the way to the 1997 Southern Conference Tournament title game only to lose a heartbreaker (73-72) to the Sweet Sixteen-bound Mocs, in what was Marshall's final member as a Southern Conference member before joining the Mid-American Conference. McCall would be named the Southern Conference Coach of the Year for the 2015-16 season.

Though the Mocs were handled rather easily against No. 5-seeded Indiana (99-74) in the opening-round of the NCAA Tournament, the Mocs could find solace in putting together a strong season in finishing with wins over Georgia, Illinois and Dayton en route to a school-record tying 29-win season. The Hoosiers shot nearly 70% for the game in the opening-round win over Chattanooga.

However, when Jones went down indefinitely with an injury in December, some might have questioned the Mocs, and after an early, 70-55, league loss at Furman, the questions might have grown even more. But Chattanooga's Tre' McClean took the "next man up" mentality, filling Jones' role perfectly and helping the Mocs take home the title. McClean ended up garnering all-conference honors and was the team's leading scorer, averaging 12.1 PPG.

McClean also led the team in rebounds (6.3 RPG) and steals (56), while ranking second in assists (2.5 APG). Greg Pryor (9.8 PPG, team-leading 121 assists) was an underrated point guard in the league, but did manage to pick up Second-Team All-SoCon honors en route to the title run and was named the Southern Conference Tournament Most Valuable Player.

Guards Eric Robertson (8.6 PPG, 1.4 RPG), Jonathan Burroughs-Cook (6.0 PPG, 1.2 APG) and Dee Oldham (7.3 PPG, 4.8 RPG), as well forwards Chuck Ester (7.7 PPG, 4.9 RPG) and Duke Etheridge (7.5 PPG, 3.8 RPG) were also instrumental in helping the Mocs to the title.

Chattanooga, however, was not a one-trick pony during the 2015-16 season, as Justin Tuoyo defended the paint with ferocity once again, garnering Second-Team All-SoCon honors and winning the league's Defensive Player of the Year award for the second-straight season.

The Mocs claimed a 15-3 regular-season mark heading into the Southern Conference Tournament as the top seed. However, the title wouldn't come easy, with Samford (W, 59-54) and Western Carolina (W, 73-69) offering stern tests before the Mocs looked a little more at ease in the title game against arch-rival and No. 2 seed East Tennessee State, knocking off their Volunteer State rival for a third time on the season, with a 73-67 win in the tournament title. The Mocs have now won five-straight against the Bucs since ETSU re-joined the SoCon at the beginning of last season.

What Returns:

The Mocs will lose some talented players no doubt, with leaders like Eric Robertson, Dee Oldham and Duke Etheridge all having exercised their eligibility, however, there's no reason to believe the Mocs won't be favored to win the Southern Conference title once again in 2016-17, with potentially and even more solid nucleus of players returning, including Tuoyo and Jones. Tuoyo and Jones will team with the two other returning starters, in Pryor and Ester, giving the Mocs four returning starters to the fold for a second-straight season.

Furman's Stephen Croone Rips The Ball Free of Chattanooga Guard Tre' McClean (Photo Courtesy of Chattanooga Free Press/Chattanooga Athletics)

Furman's Continued Resurgence:

Furman experienced what was its second-best season since tying with Chattanooga and East Tennessee State back in 1990-91, when the Paladins posted a 20-9 record en route to tying for the regular-season title.
The 2015-16 Paladins were able to build off the momentum they had established last season, making the run all the way to the Southern Conference title game as the No. 10 seed overall heading into the tournament, having posted just eight regulaer-season wins.
After knocking off The Citadel (73-56), No. 2 Chattanooga (69-67) and No. 3 Mercer (52-49) to make the conference title game against No. 1 Wofford. The Paladins would eventually drop a 67-64 decision to the top-seeded Terriers, causing many to question whether head coach Niko Medved's magical weekend was just a case of capturing lightning in a bottle, or was there more to it.
Furman's Matt Rafferty garnered SoCon All-Freshman honors in the 2015-16 season following a campaign which saw Rafferty average 8.0 PPG and averaged 6.7 RPG.Last season, Furman had three players make SoCon All-Freshman honors last season, with Daniel Fowler, Geoff Beans and Devin Sibley all garnering All-Freshman honors last season, with Sibley being named Southern Conference Freshman of the Year. Over the past two seasons, the Paladins have now had the SoCon's Player of the Year (Stephen Croone, 2016) and had the SoCon's Freshman of the Year (Devin Sibley, 2015).
The Paladins were predicted to finish fifth in the Southern Conference coming into the season, and Furman would show that the 2015 tournament run, led by All-SoCon guard Stephen Croone and 2015 Southern Conference Freshman of the Year Devin Sibley. The dynamic duo in the Paladin backcourt was back for another season, and the Paladins in fact returned all five starters in 2015-16, and they would more than acquit themselves against the league in 2015-16.
The Paladins would better their preseason projected finish by two places in the league's standings, finishing third with a 19-16 overall mark and posted an 11-7 mark in league play to finish third in the league standings. Furman posted a 14-2 record on its home floor, including going 9-0 against Southern Conference competition inside the friendly confines.
The season featured two buzzer-beater victories on the home floor, as the Paladins were able to experience an unprecedented season at Timmons Arena, with the 14 home wins accounting for a school record. The 14 wins eclipsed the 13 garnered by the 1990-91 Paladins. Furman registered a buzzer-beating win on Jan. 23 against Wofford, as Stephen Croone's tip-in allowed the Paladins to escape with a 63-62 win over the reigning Southern Conference champions, snapping a six-game losing streak to the Terriers.
Furman's second buzzer-beating win came in the postseason, as it helped Furman post its first a win in the opening round of the Tournament (CIT). In what was Furman's first non-conference sponsored postseason win since 1974, Daniel Fowler's fade-a-way, buzzer-beating effort helped Furman tto a thrilling 58-57 win over Louisiana Monroe. It was part of an 11-0 run that helped the Paladins close out the game on an 11-0 run to garner the first-round win.
Furman's Stephen Croone was named Associated Press Honorable Mention All-American, as well as being named to the NABC District 22 All-Region pick, as well as being named Lou Henson All-American. It marked the first time a Paladin had garnered Associated Press All-America honors since Jonathan Moore in 1978.
What Returns:
For Furman, the 2015-16 basketball season will be remembered for the way the Paladins developed a mental edge over its foes, and gained a mental toughness unseen until last season's Southern Conference Tournament under the direction of current head coach Niko Medved. Since the final five games of the 2014-15 season, the Paladins have posted a 12-12 record in games decided by 10 points or less.

Prior to those final five games to close the 2014-15 season-to-present under Medved, the Paladins played 25 games decided by 10 points or less under Medved, having posted a 7-18 mark. It's clear that this basketball team matured quite a bit over the past year and it goes with gaining experience as well as coaching.

As much as the team has matured, the coaching staff has too. They have learned the ropes in the Southern Conference, and now the Paladins head into the 2016-17 season needing to replace the consensus Southern Conference Player of the Year Stephen Croone, however, it's a season that also sees the return of four starters.

Devin Sibley, Daniel Fowler, Matt Rafferty and Kris Acox all return for the Paladins. The Paladins also add one of the top recruits in the Southern Conference, with the addition of McIntosh High School product Jordan Lyons in the backcourt, the Paladins look to once again be in strong shape for a run at the Southern Conference title.

An area that still needs improvement is winning games in hostile environments, however, there is a little question that this team has grown up over the past year. Now, the onus willl be on the likes of Devin Sibley to step as Furman's go-to-scorer next season.

Wes Miller Helped UNCG Back To The Postseason:

For the UNC Greensboro men's basketball program, the 2015-16 season was one of getting back to where head coach Wes Miller and the Spartans hope to remain for a while--towards the top half of the Southern Conference and competing for an opening-round bye in the conference tournament.

It looked as if the Spartans might be set up for failure when leading returning scorer Tevon Saddler left the program, however, the departure ended up being a blessing in disguise for Miller's Spartans, with each player knowing he needed to do a little more work this season heading into the campaign to try and make up for the loss of Saddler.

The 2015-16 season saw the Spartans do exactly that, completing the campaign with a 15-19 overall record and were able to make their first appearance in the college basketball postseason since the 2002 season, and marked the most wins by the program since the 2007-08 season, when the likes of Kyle Hines and Mikko Koivisto still owned roster spots for UNCG, as the Spartans were owners of a 19-12 mark back during the 2007-08 campaign.

UNCG, like Furman, Chattanooga, Wofford, Western Carolina and East Tennessee State, were impressive inside the friendly confines of the Greensboro Coliseum in 2015-16, completing the home slate with an impressive 12-4 mark, which incuded an opening round win over Houston Baptist (69-65) in the College Basketball Invitational (CBI). Against league foes at the Coliseum this season, the Spartans were an impressive 7-2, with the lone losses on the home hardwood coming against both East Tennessee State (L, 68-65) and Chattanooga (L, 73-60).

In the opening round of the CBI, the Spartans were able to put together what was their first-ever win in four postseason tournament appearances (1996 NCAA, 2001 NCAA, '02 NIT, 2016 CBI), as the Spartans took care of Houston Baptist out of the Southland Conference, claiming what was a 69-65 win over the visitors. The Spartans rallied from what was a six-point halftime deficit and embarked on what was a 20-2 second-half run en route to the four-point win. The frontcourt was key as it had been all season for the Spartans, as senior forward Kayel Locke (13 points, 5 rebs) and junior center R.J. White (15 points, 8 rebs) combined for 28 points and 13 points to help lead the Spartans hold off the Huskies in the opening round contest.

Both Locke and White were named All-Southern Conference, while Francisco Alonso, who set a freshman scoring record for the Spartans (443 points), and he was also named to the SoCon's All-Freshman squad for the season. Alonso, who hails from Malaga, Spain, completed the campaign averaging 13.0 PPG to lead the club, while knocking down a team-best 85 triples on the campaign.

Alonso finished the season ranking fifth overall in made-threes-per-game, knocking down 2.5 three-pointers per game. He also shot the ball at a rather impressive 39.5% from beyond the arc for the season, ranking just outside the league's top 10 at No. 11 in the final statistical rankings for that category.

Alonso was not the lone impressive freshman talent in the backcourt for UNCG this past season, as Demetrius Troy, who came in touted as one of the top young guards in the SoCon entering the campaign, completed the season averaging 6.0 PPG and 2.1 RPG. Troy, who battled mononucleiosis in the middle of the season, forcing him into a lengthy period of absence, still managed to be a difference-maker off of the Spartan bench towards the latter part of the season.

The Spartans also had the likes of Marvin Smith (9.4 PPG, 5.5 RPG), Diante Baldwin (11.6 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 5.0 APG, 1.5 SPG) and Asad Lamot (4.8 PPG, 1.8 RPG) all play key roles in the backcourt for the Blue and Gold, while Lloyd Burgess (1.7 PPG, 1.1 RPG) proved to be one of the top frontcourt players who emerged as a key reserve in 2015-16.

UNCG's would end up posting a 10-8 record in Southern Conference play, which was good enough to see the Spartans tie Western Carolina for fifth in the Southern Conference league standings. The Catamounts got the tiebreaker heading into the conference tournament, which put UNCG into the No. 6 seed, as UNCG just missed the play-in round of the Southern Conference Tournament.

The Spartans' stay in Asheville wouldn't be that long, dropping an 80-64 decision to Furman in an opening round clash. After an opening round win over the Houston Baptist in the CBI, the Spartans would eventually bow out of the postseason tournament with a 72-67 setback to the Ohio Bobcats.

What Returns:

The only real significant loss for the Spartans heading into the 2016-17 season is Kayel Locke, who turned in quite the career during his days in the Gate City. Locke started all four seasons as a Spartan, finishing his senior campaign averaging 12.6 PPG and 5.4 RPG. He finished his career sixth all-time in scoring at UNCG, with 1,522 points and seventh all-time in career rebounds, collecting 652 boards in his career.

With the exception of losing Locke to graduation, the Spartans appear to be in mostly good shape, with one of the SoCon's top big men returning to the fold next season, in R.J. White, who completed the season with a league-leading 61.6% field goal clip. White also finished the season averaging 6.9 YPG to rank fourth in the SoCon overall in rebounding this past season.

Diante Baldwin figures to be one of the top guards returning in the SoCon next season, returning to the backcourt, as will Marvin Smith and Francisco Alonso all return to the fold next season, which should at least make the Spartans a contender for the SoCon title.

Mercer All-SoCon Forward Stephon Jelks Led Mercer To 18 Wins and a CIT Appearance In 2015-16 (Photo Courtesy Mercer Athletics)

For the Mercer Bears, the 2015-16 season will be one that they would like to forget, but likely never will. On Feb. 4, 2016, the season would change a very major way for Bob Hoffman and his team, as senior Jibri Bryan was murdered at a local convenience store and two days later, the Bears would knock off The Citadel, 88-72, at an emotional Hawkins Arena, as would lose their final seven games of the regular-season to stumble to an 17-13 record heading into the Southern Conference Tournament, which was enough to knock the Bears out of the bye round of the Southern Conference Tournament.

Adding to the struggles for the Bears was the fact that leading scorer Jestin Lewis and one of its leaders in the paint, Desmond Ringer, would be suspended for the remainder of the seasn shortly threafter for an undisclosed violation of team rules, and it would severely affect the team dynamic for the Bears in the remaining games of the regular-season.

Even before the season the Bears had to deal with some adversity, with the departure of one of the SoCon's top players, in Ike Nwamu, who transferred to UNLV for his senior season.

The Bears would win their opening round tournament game against The Citadel as the No. 7 seed in the Southern Conference Tournament, posting what was a narrow 71-69 opening-round win to snap the seven-game skid. The Bears would lose in the next round of the SoCon Tournament, however, as East Tennessee State ended Mercer's 2016 run in the General Shale Southern Conference Tournament, handing the Bears an 81-65 loss.

Despite the loss, the Bears were to that magic number of at least 19 regular-season wins for a fifth-straight season with the opening round win over The Citadel, and that meant for a fifth-straight season under the leadership of veteran head coach Bob Hoffman, Mercer was good enough to qualify for the college basketball postseason, finishing the campaign Tournament (CIT)--a tournament that the Bears won in 2012.

However, the Bears were for the first time in five trips to the college basketball postseason, Mercer was knocked out in the first game of the postseason, dropping a 65-57 opening round contest at Coastal Carolina, which brought the Bears' season to an official end, as the Orange and Black finished the season with a 19-15 record overall and were 8-10 in Southern Conference play.

Just prior to Bryan's untimely death, the Bears found themselves in the thick of the Southern Conference race, as Mercer was in second spot in the SoCon standings. But following that tragic moment coupled with the suspensions, the Bears were never able to reclaim the momentum they had throughout the month of January and early in the month of February.

If anything, Bob Hoffman's 2015-16 team in Macon will be remembered for their ability to rebound from adversity and remain a competitive factor in most games down the stretch following suspensions to both Lewis and Ringer, as the Bears would lose one of their final seven regular-season games by double digits, which was an 85-74 setback on Furman's Senior Day in a game that was a little closer than the score might indicate for most of the afternoon.

The season was a disappointment in many ways, however, the overall progress of young players like center Andrew Fishler and guards Ethan Stair and Jaylin Stowe certainly won't go unnoticed. The season won't be deemed a disappointment because of what these players contributed in any way, however, it will be a season that will be looked back upon and what might have been being the ultimate process of thought. If the Bears don't lose three players, they might have been a real force in the Southern Conference race down the stretch and in the Southern Conference Tournament.

The Bears got most of their production thi season from Stephon Jelks, who was the Southern Conference rebounding champion last season, leading the SoCon averaging 8.4 RPG. Jelks was the lone Mercer player to find his way onto the First-Team All-Southern Conference squad in 2015-16. Jelks was instrumental in helping the Bears lead the Southern Conference throughout the season in rebound margin, completing the campaign with a +8.4 RPG margin edge against its foes this past season. In scoring, Jelks' average of 11.7 PPG ranked 18th in the SoCon in points-per-game, and his 78.5% from the free throw line ranked 15th in the Southern Conference in free throw shooting.

Jelks was also one of the top perimeter shooters on the team following the dismissal of Lewis, as he finished the season with a team-leading 48 triples. He bested Lewis' total of 47 triples by one in 2015-16.

Point guard Phillip Leonard has been the starting point guard for each of the past two campaigns for the Bears, and he will be one of three starters that must be replaced if you count both Lewis and Ringer. Leonard finished out his final season in the Orange and Black, averaging 10.6 PPG and 4.5 RPG, and was the second-leading scorer and led the team and ranked fourth in the SoCon in assists in his final season as the Bears' court general, averaging 4.8 helpers-per-game.

What Returns:

The Bears will basically lose three starters to graduation if you count both Jestin Lewis and Desmond Ringer, as well as Phillip Leonard.

The team will built around the a trio of juniors that will likely head into the season as starters for Bob Hoffman's Bears, as Jelks and guards Demetre Rivers (9.7 PPG, 3.2 RPG) and Jordan Strawberry (8.1 PPG, 2.4 RPG) all return to the fold for this coming 2016-17 campaign.

The Bears will have plenty of that young talent back next season, including four players that should be significant contributors, Stowe, Stair, Fishler and Cory Kilby all returning to the fold. Expect to see Mercer once again towards the top of the Southern Conference competing for a league title.

Samford was a team that in many ways was fool's gold in 2015-16, and after winning 10 games in the non-conference, including registering one of the banner wins of the season for the SoCon, with a non-conference win over Big 10 member Nebraska (69-58) being one of those 10 wins. Following that impressive 10 wins to open the season, including winning six of their first seven games, the Bullogs went just 4-14 in Southern Conference play, which was a disappointing end to what was a positive start for head coach Scott Padgett in what was his second season as the head coach.

On a more positive note, however, the Bulldogs were able to finish the season relatively strong, winning a thriller in the opening round of the Southern Conference Tournament, claiming a 92-85 overtime win over VMI in the opening round f the Southern Conference Tournament. Then in the quarterfinals and facing eventual league champions and No. 1 overall seed Chattanooga, the Bulldogs gave the Mocs all they could handle before succumbing in defeat, 59-54, which capped what was a 14-19 season for Samford.

Still, Samford was one of the youngest teams in the Southern Conference and with the talent returning for the Bulldogs next season and could certainly be one of those teams that figures in the SoCon race as a darkhorse or an outside title contender in 2016-17.

A trio of Bulldogs ended up garnering All-Southern Conference honors this past campaign, with Darius Jones-Gibson, Matt Rose and Wyatt Walker all finishing with All-Southern Conference honors in 2015-16. Jones-Gibson completed the campaign. The lone senior in that mix is Darius Jones-Gibson, and the Lexington, KY guard, who is coming off a season which saw him pace the Bulldogs in scoring this past season, averaging 14.9 PPG. Jones-Gibson was a Third-Team All-SoCon pick, according to the Southern Conference Sports Media Association.

In addition to what he did as a scorer for the Bulldogs as a scorer this past season, Jones was also a factor in distributing the basketball, completing the campaign with 107 assists and also finished just 13 free throw attempts shy of setting a new school record for free throw record, finishing the season with 230 attempts.

The 6-7 Matt Rose, who also hails from Lexington, KY, was named to the All-SoCon freshman squad, and was one of two Bulldogs to garner that distinction. Rose finished out his impressive freshman season for the Bulldogs averaging 9.0 PPG and 4.2 RPG, as well as finishing the season ranked sixth in the league in three-point shooting, connecting on 41% from long range. Rose was named Southern Conference Player of the Week for the week of Dec. 15.

Rounding out the trio honored for Samford was 6-9 forward Wyatt Walker, who was also named to the SoCon's All-Freshman squad following a debut season for the Bulldogs, which saw him average 10.7 PPG and 6.0 RPG, as he became the second player to garner SoCon All-Freshman honors in 2015-16. Walker also shot a team-high 58.5% clip from the field. He started 30 of 33 games for the Bulldogs in the 2015-16 season.

The Bulldogs played well in the Southern Conference Tournament, facing off against VMI in a game that pitted the league's top scoring threat, in QJ Peterson against a team, in Samford, playing some of its best basketball of the season coming into the postseason tournament.

The game would prove to be one of the best of the 2016 Southern Conference Tournament, and it just happened to be the very first game of the postseason tournament. The Bulldogs, of course, emerged triumphant, posting a 92-85 overtime win led by the dynamic backcourt combo of Jones-Gibson (25 pts) and Christen Cunningham (21 pts), which combined for 46 points and helped off-set a 47-point effort from VMI's scoring duo of Peterson (27 pts) and Tim Brown (20 pts), as the Keydets saw their season end with the seven-point loss in the opening round of the conference tournament. Cunningham became the first Samford player in the history of the program to end record back-to-back 125-assist campaigns.

The win meant Scott Padgett's club would face off against top-seeded Chattanooga in the opening SoCon quarterfinal clash of Saturday's quartet of games. The Bulldogs would give the eventual champion Mocs all they could handle in the quarterfinal clash, leading most of the way before eventually dropping a 59-54 decision to UTC.

The Bulldogs actually held a 36-31 lead at the break, shooting a solid 40.7% in the opening frame and 87.5% (14-of-16) from the charity stripe. In three halves and an overtime of basketball in the SoCon Tournament, the Bulldogs had proven nearly automatic at the charity stripe, connecting on 46 of its first 52 free throws of the 2016 tournament.

But Chattanooga used a crucial 10-0 run midway through the second frame, helping the Mocs erase a seven-point deficit and take a 41-38 lead with 10:24 remaining. The Mocs defense held Samford to easily its worst half of the tournament, as the Bulldogs connected on just 6-of-24 shots from the field.

What Returns:

Quite a bit of talent returns for Samford, and the future looks bright for Padgett's Bulldogs, which welcome the return of three players with starting experience for the 2016-17 season. However, the graduation of Jones-Gibson, Jamal Shabazz and Iman Johnson leave big voids in terms overall scoring, team athleticism, rebounding and three-point shooting.

The good news is Christen Cunningham (14.4 PPG, 5.2 APG), Wyatt Walker (10.6 PPG, 6.0 RPG), Matt Rose (9.0 PPG, 4.2 RPG) and Dakota Quinn (2.6 PPG, 1.8 RPG) are all back to form a solid nucleus heading into next season, as Padgett looks to continue to build the Samford brand and lead the program towards contender status in the Southern Conference next season.

VMI was projected to finish dead last in the league heading into the 2015-16 season, and it had little to do with the talent returning and more to do with the style of basketball employed by the program's new, discipline-oriented head coach, Dan Earl, as the former Penn State player and Navy assistant took over the reins of the program following an eight-year stint by Duggar Baucom.

Baucom, who matriculated to VMI's biggest rival in the SoCon, The Citadel, had employed a type of basketball that VMI had become used to over the past couple of decades, dating all the way back to the Bart Bellairs era in 1994-95. Bellairs replaced Joe Cantafio, who took the vacancy left by Butch Estes at Furman prior to the campaign. Cantafio's eight years in Lexington had not been a success having not even recorded a winning season, despite leading the 1987-88 Keydets to the tournament title game.

In stepped Bellairs who would start the systematic overhaul of VMI basketball, utilizing the likes of players like Bobby Prince, Maurice Spencer and Lawrence Gullette as big-time scorers in helping the Keydets become competitive in the always-tough SoCon, employing a fast-paced style of play that enabled the Keydets to end the 1994-95 season with a 10-17 record. Though VMI struggled, it was a new brand of basketball that enabled the recruiting to get a boost because of the "likability" of the style of play.

VMI Basketball Highlights 1994-95

VMI Ups The Tempo

After a trip to the league semifinals a year later, losing to eventual league champion Western Carolina, the Keydets would see that style employed by Bellairs have a dramatic effect, allowing VMI to stay competitive in the SoCon. Bellairs stepped down following the 2004-05 season, which was VMI's second season as a member of the Big South Conference.

In stepped Baucom and the success level and impact upon his arrival at VMI were almost instant. He would take the Keydets to a truly unbelievable win over Kentucky in the early portion of the 2008-09 season, and then went on to lead VMI to the Big South title game three times, however, would not be able to break through and make the NIT. VMI was able to get into the Tournament in VMI's final campaign as a Big South Conference member, the Keydets won three games in the CIT to make it all the way to the semifinals of the tournament before eventually losing to Yale.

The 24-win campaign gave the Baucom and the Keydets some added confidence when they re-entered the Southern Conference in 2014-15, however, VMI would lose dynamic scorer QJ Peterson midway through the campaign due to illness, which changed the team dynamic down the stretch. Still, the Keydets were strong enough to garner a sixth-place finish in their first season back in the Southern Conference and that meant the Keydets got to avoid the first day of tournament play. However, the Keydets would get trounced (92-66) in the opening round of the Southern Conference Tournament.

It wasn't a good re-entry season back into the league for VMI, however, four starters returned for the 2015-16 season and may were patiently awaiting Baucom to work his magic again with a more experienced lineup. That was until Baucom jumped ship to become the head coach at bitter rival The Citadel just two days prior to April Fools Day.

With Baucom, the high-octane basketball that had entertained many around Cameron Hall and the Big South and Southern Conferences over the past 22 years, dating back to the Bart Bellairs era, was gone. Enter Earl, who like his former head coach and mentor Ed DeChellis, had a great respect for play on the defensive side of the floor.

Much of the season for VMI was built upon improving its play on the defensive end, which saw the Keydets yield 47% shooting to foes per game last season. It was also about getting the Keydets into the habit of playing a set offense instead of just trying to run. Maybe a less exciting way to play and a less exciting brand to watch, however, in the long run, what Earl is trying to do might even prove to be more effective than that high-octane style enjoyed under Bellairs and Baucom.

What Returns:

After finishing 11-18 in its first season back in the Southern Conference, which yielded a sixth-place finish in the standings (7-11 in SoCon), and completing the 2015-16 season with a 9-21 mark and 4-14 in league play, Earl will look towards his second season at the helm and third for the Keydets back in the SoCon, as he hopes to take VMI back up in the SoCon power structure.

It won't be easy, however, as the Keydets will lose some significant pieces, including Tim Marshall (7.6 PPG, 2.4 RPG) and maybe the best athlete in the Southern Conference, in Phillip Anglade (8.3 PPG, 5.4 RPG), who ranked second in the league in blocks each of the past two seasons, trailing only eventual league defensive player of the year Justin Tuoyo each the past two seasons in that category.

Still, there's no denying the talent that returns in one player, with QJ Peterson (19.8 PPG, 6.3 RPG) returning to the fold. The league's leading scorer in 2015-16 is likely to be the preseason favorite for SoCon Player of the Year accolades come 2016-17.

Peterson garnered First-Team All-SoCon accolades this past season and was the Southern Conference's leading scorer at 19.8 PPG, while also ranking second in the league in three-point field goals made, having connected on 83 triples in 2015-16. Peterson went off for a career and season SoCon high 46 points in a late-season win over Mercer.

Even more good news comes with the return of Julian Eleby (13.8 PPG, 4.8 RPG), who was VMI's second-leading scorer last season. Eleby finishe his sophomore season in the Red and Gold

Earl will also have the likes of Trey Chapman (8.0 PPG, 4.6 RPG), Adrian Rich (3.3 PPG, 1.2 RPG), Fred Irufemi (2.3 PPG, 2.2 RPG) Austin Vereen (3.2 PPG, 1.6 RPG) and Jordan Weethee (3.7 PPG, 2.0 RPG) returning to form the nucleus of the team as far as experience is concerned next season. The Keydets were literally a team stocked with athletic combo guards last season, and VMI should again be one of the more athletic teams in the SoCon next season.

Looking Back At The Citadel

The Citadel rounds out the 2015-16 Southern Conference basketball recap, as the something more than a Low Country boil was taking place in the Port City this past season. The high-octane style was implemented by Duggar Baucom when he took over at The Citadel in late March.

The brand of basketball played in the Low Country was certainly more appealing to the eye than say the brand played during the Pat Dennis era some two decades ago. The Bulldogs were among the top scoring teams in college basketball this apst season, and that was throughout the campaign.

It's not often that a coach moves from one rival school to another within the same conference, but that's exactly what happened when Baucom matriculated from Lexington-Charleston, and it made for the awkard occasion when the two faced off against each other this season. The two teams split those two meetings, with The Citadel claiming a 78-75 in Charleston before the Keydets wallopped the Bulldogs, 111-95, in the final game of the regular-season in what was a cauldron of payback for the Keydets.

The Bulldogs were given a shot in the arm by some of the newcomers coming into the 2015-16 season, adding some solid talent to help fit into Baucom's system, which focused on that same high-octane style of basketball that had made the head coach so successful at VMI and Tusculum before his arrival in the Low Country.

The Bulldogs, which a mere total of just 10 games (10-22) in 2015-16, were overall a better basketball team than a year ago, despite the overall record for the Bulldogs actually being better last season, with the Bulldogs claiming a couple more wins coming last season, with the Bulldogs actually finishing with an 11-19 record. The Bulldogs registered seven their wins, however, prior to ever entering Southern Conference play, and it appeared Baucom might indeed be a miracle worker once again.

In fact, the Bulldogs won seven of their 10 games in non-conference play, and it looked like the Bulldogs might even be a candidate for a darkhorse in the SoCon race this season. However, it was not the case, as teams started to figure out how to best manage the Bulldogs explosive offense that led the nation in scoring for much of the season.

The Bulldogs must find an adequate replacement for Derrick Henry (16.2 PPG, 4.1 RPG),P.J. Boutte (7.9 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 175 assists) and Quinton Marshall (11.3 PPG, 3.8 RPG), who have both graduated, but talent is on the way in the backcourt for Baucom's Bulldogs in the form of some of the league's best incoming guards, as does SoCon All-Freshman selection Zane Najdawi (7.2 PPG, 4.2 RPG). Sharp-shooting rising junior guard Warren Sledge (10.3 PPG, 2.3 RPG) also returns in the backcourt, as does rising senior Brian White (9.0 PPG, 3.4 RPG).


1. Chattanooga (29-6, 15-3 SoCon)

2. East Tennessee State (24-12, 14-4 SoCon)

3. Furman (19-16, 10-8 SoCon)

4. Western Carolina (15-19, 10-8 SoCon)

5. UNC Greensboro (15-19, 10-8 SoCon)

5. Wofford (16-18, 15-17 SoCon)

7. Mercer (14-19, 8-10 SoCon)

8. Samford (14-19, 4-14 SoCon)

9. VMI (9-21,4-14 SoCon)

10. The Citadel (10-22, 3-15 SoCon)

Early Outlook For 2016-17:

1. Chattanooga--Hard to imagine anyone picking against the Mocs, especially with virtually everyone returning and the return of Casey Jones, who was the preseason SoCon Player of the Year prior to suffering a season-ending ankle injury in early December.

2. Furman--Despite losing the league's Player of the Year to graduation, the Paladins welcome in one of the top recruiting classes in the SoCon, which includes dynamic scorer Jordan Lyons out of McIntosh HS in Peachtree City, GA. The Paladins also return four starters, including potential All-SoCon talents Kris Acox, Matt Rafferty and Devin Sibley.

3. Wofford--Mike Young's Wofford Terriers should be back in a big way next year, with SoCon Freshman of the Year Fletcher Magee back, as well as bringing two of the best recruits in the SoCon, in 6-7 forwards Justin Tucker and Dishon Lowery.

4. Mercer--Mercer endured a tough 2015-16 season for plenty of reasons, mostly off the court, however, Bob Hoffman's Bears should be near the top once again with the return of talented All-SoCon forward Stephon Jelks, as well as adding transfers J.J. N'Ganga from New Mexico and Ryan Jones from Tallahassee Community College, where he averaged 11.3 PPG last season.

5. East Tennessee State--As I learned last year, ETSU's status could change as we hit the summer, depending on just how many transfers second-year head coach Steve Forbes decides to add to a talented nucleus returning, which includes T.J. Cromer, who returns for his second season in the program. Forbes added Jermaine Long--a 6-3 athletic guard from New Orleans--as he joins the Bucs from Allen County Community College.

6. Samford--A team that I expect to rise into a very competitve darkhorse in the SoCon race next season is Samford, which returns four starters, however, replacing leading scorer Darius Jones-Gibson won't be easy. Among the talents that return are Christen Cunningham and SoCon All-Frosh selections Matt Rose and Wyatt Walker underneath the basket. Keep an eye on incoming talents James Boone and Triston Chambers for the Bulldogs next season.

7. UNCG--Losing a player of the ilk of a player like Kayelle Locke won't be easy to replace, however, there is plenty of talent back, including outstanding freshman shooter Francisco Alonso, as well as Diante Baldwin, who is quietly becoming one of the top point guards in the SoCon. Watch out for R.J. White, as he might be the top big man in the SoCon returning next season.

8. VMI--Powered by the league's top returning scorer, in Q.J. Peterson, the Keydets could also be a team that will enter the season as a potential surprise package in 2016-17. Julian Eleby is also as strong as shooter in the SoCon. Head coach Dan Earl added Chuchu Enechionyia, Garrett Gilkeson and Keith Smith to the Keydets roster in the spring signing period.

9. Western Carolina--The departure of four seniors will give Larry Hunter one of his least experienced teams he has had since becoming the head coach in Cullowhee in 2005. Fortunately, the Catamounts went out and got some solid signees in the spring signing period, adding five newcomers, including 6-8 forward Yalim Olcay, who could be one of the league's top newcomers in 2016-17.

10. The Citadel--Despite bringing in one of the top classes in the SoCon this past signing period, Duggar Baucom's high-flying Bulldogs are probably still a year away, but will once again have one of the SoCon's most exciting clubs to watch once again, led by dynamic point guard P.J. Boutte.

Ranking The Top 10 SoCon Recruits/Transfers (As of May 10, 2016):

1. Darius Roy (Mercer)--Head coach Bob Hoffman went out and attained a huge signing with the addition of 5A Oklahoma State Player of the Year (Oklahoma Basketball Coaches Association) Darius Roy, who averaged 21.3 PPG and 3.3 APG as a senior at Lawton Eishenhower HS in Lawton, OK.

2. Jordan Lyons (Furman)--A 5-11, jet-quick point guard out of McIntosh HS in Peachtree City, GA, who is set his school's all-time record for points and is a dynamic weapon from beyond the arc.

2. Dishon Lowery (Wofford)--A teammate of Jordan Lyons at McIntosh High School, Dishon Lowery has a chance to be a breakout player for the Terriers. He is much in the same mold as former Wofford power forward and glass-eater Tim Johnson, and much like the former Terrier, the 6-7 Lowery's best attribute is ability to hit the glass.

4. Jermaine Long (ETSU)--A 6-3 shooting guard from New Orleans, LA, will make a nice addition to the Bucs' backcourt where he will team with T.J. Cromer to once again give the Bucs an outstanding backcourt despite the loss of Ge'Lawn Guyn. Long averaged 20.6 PPG and 4.7 RPG in his sophomore season at Allen County Community College in Coffeyville, KS.

5. Preston Parks (The Citadel)--Freshman guard Preston Parks will look to make an immediate impact for head coach Duggar Baucom's Bulldogs this season, as he comes off a standout career, which saw him contribute 1,596 points and average 23.1 PPG at Wade Hampton High School as a senior, where he was a two-time 4A All-State selection and 4A Greenville County Player of the Year this past season.

6. Yalim Olcay (Western Carolina)--One of the top incoming recruits big men in the Southern Conference, the Tur6-8 forward from Izmir, Turkey, Yalim Olcay, will be relied on heavily in his first season in Cullowhee, as the Catamounts graduated their entire starting frontcourt from a year ago. Olcay averaged 12.4 PPG and 6.8 RPG in his final season of prep basketball at Spire Academy in Geneva, OH.

7. J.J. N'ganga (Mercer)--Another potential big man to be a big-time performer in the league next season is 6-11 J.J. N'ganga, who transferred to Mercer this spring and will be eligible to play in the 2016-17 season for Bob Hoffman's Bears. Mercer has a propensity for developing quality big men, as evidenced in players like T.J. Hallice and the school's all-time leading shot-blocker Daniel Coursey in past seasons.

8. James Boone (Samford)--James Boone will join an already talented Samford group of underclassmen, as Scott Padgett continues to me enroads in Birmingham. The 6-6 Boone has good enough ball-handling skills to be utilized as a guard and is athletic enough to play in the post, but will need to add some weight at just 185 lbs.

9. Kaelon Harris (The Citadel)--Kaelon Harris is another member of that talented class of seven recruits signed by Duggar Baucom for the upcoming season. The 6-4 guard who played basketball at Mundy's Hill just outside of Altanta, will add eve more scoring punch in the backcourt with the talented Parks.

10. Clay Mounce (Furman)--Clay Mounce looks almost identical to Paladin rising junior Geoff Beans, and Mounce has game like his fellow look-a-like upperclassmen teammate. Just like Beans a couple of years ago, the 6-7 Mounce can score in a variety of different ways, whether slashing to the basket or shooting from the outside. As a senior at Mt. Airy High School last season, Mounce averaged 25.2 PPG, 10.7 RPG, 3.2 APG ,3.0 BPG and 2.7 SPG , leading the program to an impressive 25-4 record in 2015-16.

Stay tuned throughout the summer for more Southern Conference basketball coverage. I will be talking some of the league's assistant coaches during the off-season to asses their respective recruiting classes. Stay tuned for a complete review of each of the 10 league recruiting classes coming up throughout the summer.