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SoCon Preseason Power Rankings: Furman sits atop a competitive league

NCAA Basketball: Wofford at Georgia Tech Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

The 2016-17 Southern Conference basketball season gave us plenty of excitement, but at the end of the road in Asheville, it was East Tennessee State cutting down the nets with a win over UNC Greensboro.

Led by veteran guards A.J. Merriweather and T.J. Cromer (SoCon Tournament MVP), and big man Hanner Mosquera-Perea and Tevin Glass, the Bucs were nearly unstoppable in the conference tournament. Four-straight wins by ETSU came on the heels of a three-way tie with both UNC Greensboro and Furman for the 2016-17 regular season title.

The Bucs would draw a tough Florida team in the NCAA Tournament ans were stifled by a stingy Gators defense. Steve Forbes, however, will have plenty to replace entering the 2017-18 campaign, losing four of five starters from a year ago, including the SoCon’s top scorer in Cromer, who averaged 19.1 points per game. In fact, four of the Bucs’ top five scorers have departed off a team that won its most games since the 2003-04 season.

Forbes and the Bucs won’t be the only ones losing significant production heading into the 2017-18 season. UNC Greensboro, which finished with the most wins in the program’s history with a 25-10 overall mark and a 14-4 ledger in the SoCon, graduated two key performers in All-SoCon guard Diante Baldwin and All-SoCon center RJ White, who were both key cogs.

Furman, meanwhile, returns most its heavy hitters from a year ago, with the lone loss to graduation being big man Kris Acox. The Paladins, who tied the school record with 23 wins last season, advanced all the way to the CIT semifinals before getting knocked out in the semifinals by eventual champion Saint Peter’s.

Here’s how we see the league shaking out (note: more detailed analysis on our all-league selections can be found here):

Southern Conference Team Capsules

1. Furman (23-12, 14-4)

Furman returns 11 of its top 12 scorers from a team that tied a program record with 23 wins last season and made the CIT semifinals. The Paladins will have a new man on the sidelines in 2017-18, as Niko Medved departed to become the head coach at Drake.

Enter Bob Richey. One of the most successful recruiters in the mid-major landscape will now take over the head coaching reins for the Paladins. Prior to coming to Furman, Richey worked under Barclay Radebaugh at Charleston Southern where he recruited five of the program’s top-10 scorers. He’s also responsible for bringing Stephen Croone and Devin Sibley (17.7 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 78 assists, 26 steals) to Furman, as the duo has won consecutive SoCon Player of the Year awards.

Sibley is the star, and is joined on the perimeter by SoCon All-Freshman Team selection Jordan Lyons (5.9 PPG, 1.4 RPG), Geoff Beans (6.3 PPG, 2.5 RPG), John Davis III (8.9 PPG, 3.3 RPG) and Andrew Brown (4.7 PPG, 2.5 RPG). All return as lethal three-point threats. Perhaps the player that will see the biggest explosion in playing time this season will be Jonathan Jean (1.6 PPG, 1.2 RPG), who is one of the Paladins’ quickest players on both ends of the floor, and a very proficient ballhandler.

The frontcourt does have one major replacement to make, with the graduation of all-conference forward Kris Acox. The good news is Matt Rafferty (7.5 PPG, 5.6 RPG) returns following back surgery, and though he is a different type player than Acox, is every bit as physical and more of a mid-range and perimeter threat. Rafferty is also an excellent passer out of the post, and could be joined in the frontcourt by redshirt freshman Clay Mounce, who is arguably the most athletic player on the team.

Daniel Fowler is the other seasoned leader on the squad, and will team with Jalen Williams (2.6 PPG, 2.3 RPG) and the ultra athletic Tre Clark (1.2 PPG, 1.3 RPG). Talented forward Noah Gurley will likely redshirt this season for the Paladins, while newcomer and sharp-shooting guard Alex Hunter will add depth to the backcourt.

Circle your calendar for three dates on the Paladin non-conference slate, with a Dec. 22 trip to Tennessee being the most likely chance for Furman to upset a power conference foe. The Paladins also travel to historic Hinkle Fieldhouse on Nov. 18 to face Butler and then 48 hours later will travel to Cameron Indoor to face Duke.

2. Wofford (16-17, 10-8)

Mike Young returns three starters from a team that finished fifth in the regular season and advanced to the SoCon conference semifinals. Plenty of excitement surrounds the Wofford basketball program, however, with the opening of the brand new Jerry Richardson Indoor Stadium.

The Terriers return guards Fletcher Magee (18.6 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 1.8 APG) and Nathan Hoover (7.8 PPG, 2.4 RPG), while big man Cameron Jackson (12.6 PPG, 5.7 RPG) returns to anchor the frontcourt.

The Terriers will have to replace guards Eric Garcia and Ryan Sawvell from its starting lineup from a year ago. Garcia was a leader on and off the court for the Terriers, and was one of the best ballhandlers in the SoCon and likely the top defender on the Terrier roster. Wofford will ask a lot of Hoover, who is a strong perimeter threat and is also excellent defensively. Last season, Hoover ranked third on the squad in three-pointers made (53). As a team last season, the Terriers ranked second in the Southern Conference in three-pointers made, posting 311 triples on the season, averaging 9.4 three-point field goals per game. The Terriers also paced the league in three-point field goal percentage, knocking down 40.3 percent from three as a team.

Wofford also returns athletic junior guard Derrick Brooks (2.5 PPG, 1.3 RPG), along with fellow classmates Bobby Perez (redshirted the 2016-17 season) and Trevor Stumpe (1.5 PPG, 1.5 RPG), who will look to provide depth in the backcourt. Dishon Lowery (1.5 PPG, 2.1 RPG), Matthew Pegram (5.1 PPG, 3.1 RPG) and Michael Manning, Jr. (Fr/Lausanne Collegiate School/Memphis, Tenn) will provide Jackson some support in the frontcourt. Pegram, a 6’11’’ senior, could be in line to join Jackson in the starting lineup in the paint. Pegram is an old-school type performer in the paint, and has a good mid-range shot and could be a significant rim protector with his size.

Keep an eye on newcomers Storm Murphy and Tray Hollowell, who should both come in and contribute right away in the backcourt. Hollowell can flat out score, having finished his prep career at University Heights Academy in Hopkinsville, KY, posting over 2,000 points in his career. The 6’2’’ guard figures to fit in as a two guard in Young’s system.

So much excitement surrounds the Wofford basketball program with the opening of its brand new facility on Nov. 10. The non-conference will also feature a game on the home floor against Georgia Tech on Dec. 6, while traveling to reigning national champion UNC on Dec. 20.

3. Mercer (15-17, 9-9)

Bob Hoffman saw his Bears fail to qualify for the postseason for the first time since 2010-11 last year, but they are locked and loaded for a run at the SoCon title this season. Since defeating Duke in the 2014 NCAA Tournament, the Bears have seen success dwindle, with some of that due to tragedy, suspensions and injury over the past three seasons. This year, the Bears welcome back veteran leadership, with four starters returning to the fold.

Leading the way will be a pair of dynamic performers in the backcourt, with the return of Jordan Strawberry (12.1 PPG, 3.4 RPG) and Ria’n Holland (17.3 PPG, 3.4 RPG). Strawberry has seen his game steadily improve since arriving at Mercer three years ago, and will be the most reliable deep threat for the Bears. In 2016-17, Strawberry led the team shooting from the outside, connecting on 44.5 percent from long range, and was second on the team with 49 triples.

Also returning to aid the Mercer backcourt will be 6’8’’ Demetre Rivers (11.2 PPG, 3.0 RPG). The senior from Ladson, S.C., can present matchup problems at guard with his size. Rivers ranked third on the team in scoring last season, and was one of three Bears in the starting five to average double figure scoring.

The Bears also have a pair of all-conference caliber players returning under the basket, in veterans Desmond Ringer (7.7 PPG, 5.8 RPG) and Stephon Jelks (7.4 PPG, 6.6 RPG). Ringer is both a rim protector and an efficient scorer in the post for the Bears, and Hoffman hopes he will stay out of foul trouble this season. The Bears have several dependable options coming off the bench, with guards Ethan Stair (redshirted in 2016-17), Rashad Lewis (2.8 PPG, 1.3 RPG) Jaylen Stowe (1.6 PPG, 1.3 RPG) and Ryan Johnson (3.8 PPG, 2.5 RPG) all adding veteran support in the backcourt.

There are several newcomers to keep an eye on. 6’10’’ junior forward Mason Green and freshmen guards Marcus Cohen and Mitch Prendergast appear to be the best of the newcomers, and the most likely of the rookies to draw playing time right off the bat.

As is usually the case with Hoffman, the Bears will play an intriguing non-conference slate, with the season starting off with a trip to Orlando to face Central Florida on Nov. 10. The non-league slate also features trips to Memphis (Dec. 2), Tennessee (Nov. 29) and Alabama (Dec. 19) before the start of Southern Conference play.

4. Samford (20-16, 8-10)

Samford made an impressive run all the way to the semifinals of the league tournament last season, qualifying for the CIT and posting its first non-conference tournament win and winning 20 games for the first time in 11 years. Credit Scott Padgett for getting the program turned in a positive direction, and most importantly, the Bulldogs return all five starters and should challenge for a regular season title in 2017-18.

A trio of leaders return this season: guards Demetrius Denzel-Dyson (16.1 PPG, 4.8 RPG) and Christen Cunningham (11.4 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 225 assists), while Wyatt Walker (12.9 PPG, 9.7 RPG) returns as one of the top big men in the SoCon.

Lightning-quick Josh Sharkey (8.2 PPG, 4.2 APG) will enter his sophomore season as a candidate to start at point guard, and Triston Chambers (7.3 PPG, 1.8 RPG) will be one of the top perimeter threats at guard. Chambers was an all-freshman team selection last season, as was Sharkey. Sharkey ranked second in the SoCon in steals (2.0 SPG), and Chambers ranked 11th in the SoCon in three-point field goals made (73).

Another strong addition to the backcourt will be point guard and Alabama transfer Justin Coleman, who sat out last season per NCAA rules, and will be eligible to see plenty of action in the Samford backcourt this season. While with the Crimson Tide, Coleman played in 33 games, with seven starts, and averaged a team-best 3.3 assists per game to go along with 11 double figure scoring games for the Crimson Tide.

The Bulldogs should be good to go in the frontcourt as well, especially with the return of Walker. Sharp-shooting Alex Thompson (11.7 PPG, 4.3 RPG) and the athletic Eric Adams (2.7 PPG, 2.2 RPG) will provide veteran leadership alongside Walker. Alex Peters, a 6’11’’ junior center, will provide excellent depth.

The Bulldogs will play three power conference teams in the non-conference slate, traveling to Arkansas (Nov. 10), LSU (Nov. 16) and Clemson (Dec. 9). The Bulldogs will also take on tradition-rich Memphis (Dec. 5) in their non-league slate.

5. East Tennessee State (27-8, 14-4)

East Tennessee State will basically be starting from scratch this season, having graduated four of five starters from a year ago. The one starter that does return, Desonta Bradford (10.4 PPG, 4.4 RPG), has a chance to be one of the best guards in the SoCon this season.

Bradford will have some help in the Bucs backcourt this season, with Devontavius Payne (6.5 PPG, 1.5 RPG) and David Burrell (7.5 PPG, 3.3 RPG) both returning to the fold. Jermaine Long (3.6 PPG, 1.7 RPG) will also be a significant contributor for the Bucs this season.

One of the biggest additions head coach Steve Forbes was able to make during the recruiting period is guard Jalan McCloud (8.5 PPG), who transferred in after helping lead Texas Southern to the 2017 NCAA Tournament.

McCloud isn’t the only newcomer that will contribute in the backcourt in 2017-18, as Bo Hodges, Andre Edwards and Kanayo Obi-Rapu will have a chance to work themselves into the rotation this season.

The Bucs lost virtually all of their point and rebounding production in the front court with the exception of Peter Jurkin (1.7 PPG, 1.5 RPG). Jurkin won an appeal with the NCAA for an extra year of eligibility after having to sit out most of the 2016-17 season with an injury.

Another potential starter in the middle for ETSU could be 6-10 Mladen Armus, who comes to Johnson City from Belgrade, Serbia. Armus adds a European flavor to the front court for the Bucs, and he will likely add a new dimension to the team being an inside and outside threat.

ETSU has several non-conference games worth keeping an eye on, including trips to Kentucky (Nov. 17) and Xavier (Dec. 16), while hosting former Southern Conference member Georgia Southern (Dec. 22) just before Christmas.

6. UNC Greensboro(25-10, 14-4 )

Wes Miller, who enters his sixth season at the helm of the Spartan basketball program, helped lead UNCG to its best season in program history last season, as the Spartans won a school-record 25 games.

However, Miller will be tasked with replacing some key contributors from last year’s team. Miller will need to replace the inside-outside punch of Diante Baldwin at point guard as well as center RJ White.

Marvin Smith (9.1 PPG, 4.1 RPG) and Francis Alonso (14.9 PPG, 1.9 RPG) return in the backcourt for the Spartans, while James Dickey (6.9 PPG, 7.1 RPG) returns in the frontcourt. All three of the aforementioned returning starters have a chance to garner all-conference honors.

The point guard position vacated by Baldwin is up for grabs, although the frontrunner to replace Baldwin as the starter running the offense is Demetrius Troy (6.9 PPG, 2.3 RPG). Also, freshman Isaiah Miller is one of the top incoming young players in the Southern Conference this season. The 6-0 jet-quick guard will definitely push for a starting spot and plenty of playing time in his first season in the Gate City.

Jack Kostanzer, Kylia Sykes and Kaleb Hunter are other newcomers that will get a chance to show they deserve a chance to see minutes this season. Malik Massey (3.5 PPG, 0.9 RPG), a 6-3 rising sophomore and veteran, rounds out the players that should see substantial minutes in the backcourt.

Lloyd Burgess (1.3 PPG, 1.4 RPG) and Jordy Kuiper (5,3 PPG, 4.4 RPG) are two veteran returnees in the frontcourt that will have the unenviable task of trying to fill the big hole left by All-SoCon performer RJ White. Kyrin Galloway (2.2 PPG, 2.2 RPG) also figures to see his share of action in the frontcourt rotation for the Spartans in the upcoming campaign.

The Spartans have some intriguing games in the non-conference, including opening up for a second-straight season against ACC power Virginia in Charlottesville on Nov. 10. The Spartans also travel to ACC foes Wake Forest (Nov. 24) and N.C. State (Dec. 16). Intriguing non-league, in-state battles at home against Elon (Dec. 7), UNC Wilmington (Dec. 13) and UNC Asheville (Dec. 19) also highlight the non-league slate.

7. Chattanooga (19-12, 10-8)

Chattanooga is the most successful program in the history of the SoCon, however, the Mocs didn’t live up to the lofty expectations last season.

Internal turmoil reared its ugly head last season, catching up with the Mocs in February, which saw UTC finish the final month of the season going 4-6, including five-straight losses in the regular season. Second-year coach Matt McCall decided to bolt for UMass after the season, and with the graduation all five starters, Chattanooga will have a completely new look in 2017-18.

The Mocs hired former Wisconsin assistant Lamont Paris to replace McCall, and he hashit the ground running. Paris becomes the 20th head coach of the Chattanooga basketball program, which will also mark his first as a head coach. He spent seven seasons as an assistant in the Big Ten, joining Bo Ryan’s staff in 2010. While Paris does not have any double-digit scorers returning to work with in his first season at the helm, there is talent waiting in the wings.

Players like forward Makinde London (6.0 PPG, 3.5 RPG) and guards Makale Foreman (3.1 PPG, 0.4 RPG), Nat Dixon (2.5 PPG, 1.8 RPG), and Rodney Chatman (5.3 PPG, 2.1 RPG) all saw significant action off the bench last season, and will form this year’s nucleus.

London is the player that could really have abreakout season. The 6’10’’ junior center transferred in from Xavier a couple of years ago, and started to come on as he got comfortable in the Mocs’ rotation. While London will have some huge shoes to fill as the potential starter at center, replacing All-SoCon performer and Defensive Player of the Year Justin Tuoyo, he won’t be the only one with a lot to prove this season. Help for London underneath the basket comes in the form of a trio newcomers, as James Lewis Jr., Duane Moss and Justin Brown could all be candidates to see significant floor action.

Moss, a 6’6’’ forward from Myrtle Beach, SC, was ranked as high as the No. 8 recruit at his position in the state per Verbal Commits, and the two-star recruit finished out his senior campaign at Carolina Forest High School averaging 13.8 points per game and 6.4 rebounds per game.

Brown is another talented freshman who will have a chance to see plenty of action in the frontcourt this season, as the 6’10’’ native of Chicago averaged 11.6 points, 10.0 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 3.2 blocks per game in his senior season. James Lewis Jr.- — a 6’6’’ freshman out of Mount Holly N.C. — has been groomed to be an immediate contributor for the Mocs. Lewis’ talents were also sought out by Colgate, Radford, USC Upstate and Kennesaw State.

Jonathan Bryant II, David Jean-Baptiste, C.J. Masengill, Jerry Johnson Jr. and Nic DesMaris also have a chance to see some significant minutes in 2017-18. Jean-Baptiste and Johnson Jr might be the best of the bunch, with both having redshirted the 2016-17 season. Jean-Baptiste, a 6’1’’ guard from Miami, FL, averaged 10.7 points, 2.2 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.4 steals per game as a senior in high school and was rated as a three-star recruit by some publications. Johnson Jr comes to Chattanooga from the America East Conference by way of Fairfield, where he made 55 appearances with 14 starts.

The Mocs will face some tough tests during the non-conference slate, including the Cayman Islands Classic (Nov. 10-13) with games in Laramie, WY and Birmingham, AL to face both Wyoming and UAB, respectively. The Mocs also will face tests at Akron (Nov. 28) and will travel to former SoCon member Marshall on Dec. 5.

8. The Citadel (12-21, 4-14)

The Citadel could be a SoCon surprise this season, as Duggar Baucom heads into his third season at the helm of the program.

For a second-straight season, the Bulldogs led the SoCon in scoring (89.8), three-pointers attempted (1,166) and three-pointers made (397), keeping with the theme of Baucom’s high-octane, Paul Westhead-inspired offense.

The Bulldogs return almost everyone, including four starters and the top five scorers for 2017-18 season. Preston Parks is the headliner, and he will will team with Kaelon Harris (9.3 PPG, 4.9 RPG), Leandro Allende (5.9 PPG, 2.8 RPG), Matt Frierson (6.3 PPG, 1.2 RPG), Frankie Johnson (7.8 PPG, 2.7 RPG) and Quayson Williams (7.9 PPG, 2.8 RPG). Williams led the Bulldogs with 121 assists last season, and was one of three players with triple digit assist totals last season.

Zane Najdawi won’t have Ezekiel Balogun (6.2 PPG, 3.7 RPG) to team with underneath the basket this season, as Balogun, a SoCon All-Freshman Team pick, decided to transfer in June. Sophomore forward Tyler Burgess (4.9 PPG, 0.9 RPG) will once again be a solid option for Baucom to turn to in the frontcourt.

Baucom welcomes six newcomers to the squad for the 2017-18 season, including 6’5’’ forward Hayden Brown (Byrnes HS/Duncan, SC), 6’8’’ guard Rob Johnson (Dillard HS/Boynton Beach, FL) and 6’0’’ guard Tariq Simmons (Keenan HS, Columbia, SC).

Baucom’s Bulldogs will challenge themselves during the non-conference, with games on the road at three power schools, traveling to ACC members Virginia Tech (Nov. 12) and Florida State (Nov. 24), and Big Ten member Ohio State (Dec. 19).

9. Western Carolina (9-23, 4-14)

The 2016-17 season was an uncharacteristic one for Larry Hunter and Western Carolina, as the veteran coach presided over one of the youngest teams in all of college basketball. Hunter’s Catamounts found themselves on the wrong side of some lopsided scores in both conference and non-conference play, however, those humbling experiences have prepared a more seasoned Catamount club to be ready to take a step forward.

The backcourt will be centered around veterans Devin Peterson (10.5 PPG, 2.5 RPG) and Haboubacar Mutombo (11.7 PPG, 5.3 RPG). Both Peterson and Mutombo are entering their senior seasons. Hunter made backcourt depth a priority in recruiting and has plenty of young, talented guards to joining the fold. Matt Halvorsen, Maurice Smith (0.8 PPG, 1.7 RPG) Jason McMillan (1.1 PPG, 0.4 RPG), Devonte Fuller (1.7 PPG, 0.6 RPG) and Desmond Johnson are all young guards that could find themselves in the mix in 2017-18. Redshirt senior Deriece Parks (9.4 PPG, 3.0 RPG) is the only veteran non-starter returning in the backcourt.

Marc Gosselin (8.9 PPG, 6.8 RPG), Onno Steger (5.8 PPG, 3.3 RPG), Charlendez Brooks (1.7 PPG, 2.2 RPG), and Adam Sledd (6.3 PPG, 4.3 RPG) form the nucleus of the frontcourt. Gosselin is the best of the bunch, and could develop into an all-conference player this season. He’si the perfect inside-outside threat, having connected on 30 triples and 36.1 percent from long range last season.

Hunter is known for scheduling especially tough out-of-conference games to get the Catamounts ready for conference play. Western kicks off the season with a pair of doozies, traveling to Clemson (Nov. 10) and Cincinnati (Nov. 13). The Catamounts will also travel to Minnesota (Nov. 19), UMass (Nov. 21) and UNC (Dec. 6). The Catamounts will also travel to CAA favorite and former SoCon member College of Charleston (Nov. 30), while also hosting former SoCon rival and current Sun Belt member Appalachian State (Dec. 4).

10. VMI (6-24, 3-15)

It’s been a struggle for Dan Earl in his two seasons in Lexington, VA, and it might not get any easier with the loss of his top two scorers, QJ Peterson and Julian Eleby.

However, losing those two players to graduation might be a blessing in disguise in some ways, because they both didn’t fit the system Earl is trying to implement. Returning to the backcourt are veteran guards Keith Smith (4.8 PPG, 1.5 RPG), Austin Vereen (1.2 PPG, 1.1 RPG) and Garrett Gilkerson (1.9 PPG, 1.8 RPG). Earl also adds some talented newcomers like Bubba Parham, Ta’Vonne Bond and Greg Parham to the backcourt.

Armani Branch (7.8 PPG, 3.3 RPG) and Fred Iruafemi (1.8 PPG, 2.1 RPG) both return. Chapman is the leading returning scorer for the Keydets and though a bit undersized underneath, is a tremendous athlete.

Branch was solid defensively last season, blocking 23 shots, while Iruafemi led the Keydets with 27 swats. Will Miller (2.4 PPG, 1.3 RPG) and Tyler Creammer (1.2 PPG, 1.3 RPG) will add depth in the frontcourt.

The Keydets play a reasonable non-conference slate, with the opener against NC State (Nov. 10) being the only game against a power five conference foe. VMI will also battle in-state rivals VCU (Dec. 22), Longwood (Dec. 9) and Radford (Dec. 2). The Keydets will host both Longwood and Radford, while traveling to VCU.