The SoCon was supposed to be “cut and dry” this season: Chattanooga and East Tennessee State would battle for first.
Everyone else would be battling for conference tournament seeding and hoping for some March magic. The league’s preseason poll will tell you as much, with Chattanooga and ETSU grabbing all of the first place votes, separating themselves by 17 points from the rest of pack.
Way down at fifth place in that poll, you’ll find UNC Greensboro.
Besides the top two teams, the Spartans were picked to finish behind both Wofford and Mercer as well. They aren’t even alone in fifth, as the poll has them tied with Furman.
So it’s a bit surprising to find UNC Greensboro in first place as we approach conference play’s halfway point.
The Spartans sit at 7-1 following an 81-72 win over The Citadel on Saturday night. They only have a half game cushion on second-place Chattanooga, but currently own the tiebreaker by virtue of a Jan. 2 victory over the Mocs. They’re riding a six-game winning streak, and are off to one of the best starts in program history.
How did UNC Greensboro get to this unexpected point?
As is the case with many great mid-major teams, strong leadership from upperclassmen has fueled the hot start. The Spartans’ two seniors, R.J. White and Diante Baldwin, are major parts of the team’s offense. White was named to the preseason all-SoCon team, but hasn’t made as large of a contribution as was expected, largely due to foul trouble during league play. Still, when he’s on the floor he’s one of UNC Greensboro’s most heavily used players. Baldwin, on the other hand, is having the best season of his career. He’s already surpassed his career high for three pointers made in a season, and is making free throws at nearly a 10 percent higher rate than he ever has before.
Sophomore guard Francis Alonso leads the Spartans in scoring (14.1 PPG). Alonso led the team in scoring as a freshman too, but is shooting better from three this year (41.6%). His offensive development is critical to the team’s success moving forward.
However, despite UNC Greensboro’s hot start to SoCon play, there’s still reason to be skeptical.
The Spartans have struggled with turnovers during conference play, turning the ball over at a higher rate than any other team in the league. They’ve also struggled against middle and bottom tier conference foes at home. Their one conference loss was by double digits to Samford in Greensboro. The Spartans also needed late game heroics to defeat Mercer, and had to erase a six-point hal time deficit in their most recent win over The Citadel. These performances don’t inspire much confidence.
On the other hand, the Spartans have recorded wins over the conference’s “supposed” top two teams. They’ve beaten both Chattanooga and ETSU already, and can clearly play up to the level of the SoCon’s best competition.
Two statistics should also give UNC Greensboro reason for optimism. During conference play, the Spartans lead in both three-point shooting and offensive rebounding percentage. In a league with some high powered offenses, being able to knock down threes and get second chance scoring opportunities could be the difference.
KenPom is leaning toward the more pessimistic view of UNC Greensboro. The projection currently has the Spartans finishing conference play 12-6, meaning a 5-5 finish to the season. According to the projection, that would tie the Spartans for third in the SoCon.
But UNC Greensboro hasn’t been playing to projections thus far.
The Spartans have put themselves in control of their own destiny in the SoCon, and will be out to prove more people (and computers) wrong as the season continues at Wofford on Jan. 25.