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Southern Conference 2017-18 preview: 10 Questions For 10 Teams

NCAA Basketball: Mercer at Ohio State Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

The season is almost upon us. Soon, they’ll roll the balls out for real, fans will pack into gyms nationwide, and the game will finally count. But before each of the Southern Conference’s 10 teams take the court, we look at one critical question facing each.

How does Furman replace the production of Kris Acox?

There is no question that Kris Acox was a huge factor in the paint last season, and that was magnified further when Matt Rafferty went down with a back injury mid-season. It will be incumbent upon Rafferty, newcomer Clay Mounce, and redshirt sophomore Jalen Williams to collaborate in an effort to replace the All-SoCon Acox. Acox finished his senior season ranked 14th in the SoCon in scoring (13.0 ppg) and ranked second in the league in both field goal percentage (62.8%) and rebounding (7.7 rpg). Rafferty will be the likely replacement for Acox, and while he lacks the athleticism his predecessor possessed, he will give the Paladins a different dynamic in the paint with his ability to shoot the three and pass out of the post.

Will Wofford’s big three of Jackson, Hoover, and Magee be enough to lead the Terriers back to the NCAA Tournament?

Wofford should have one of the best starting fives in the SoCon this season, with a great inside-outside game led by Cameron Jackson in the paint, and Fletcher Magee and Nathan Hoover on the perimeter. Last season, Hoover and Magee combined to knock down 165 of the team’s 311 three-point field goals. But the big loss on the perimeter might be Eric Garcia, who led the Southern Conference in assists (226). Garcia was also one of the best perimeter shooters in the SoCon last season, shooting 45 percent. While Garcia is a big loss in the backcourt, the Terriers have some formidable newcomers that should contribute right away in the backcourt. Storm Murphy and Tray Howell add depth to the backcourt, while Matthew Pegram and Derrick Brooks will be asked to step up and complimentJackson in the paint after the graduation of Ryan Sawvell.

Can Mercer win its first Southern Conference basketball title?

By the time Mercer graduated the Atlantic Sun for greener pastures, the Bears were at the head of the class in that league. In fact, their final game as an Atlantic Sun basketball member in 2014 came in the Round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament, on the heels of maybe the biggest moment in the program’s athletic history: a 78-71 win over Duke. Bob Hoffman probably has his best club since that season, with all five starters returning from a club that went 15-17 overall and 9-9 in the SoCon. Ria’n Holland, Jordan Strawberry, and Demetre Rivers will contend for postseason All-SoCon honors, and expect the Bears to be a factor in the Southern Conference title race all season. Whether or not the Bears can claim the title will depend on the Bears getting better production in the paint from Stephon Jelks and Desmond Ringer.

Will Samford be able to maintain its success coming off its first 20-win season in 11 years?

The last time Samford finished with 20 wins in a season, it was 2006 and the Bulldogs were members of the Atlantic Sun. Like Mercer and Furman, Samford returns most of its heavy hitters from a season ago. The Bulldogs have seen improvement each year under Scott Padgett, who heads into his fourth season at the helm. Among the many things Padgett has gotten right is recruiting, and his most recent class of signees might be his best. All five starters return to the fold for the Bulldogs, with four potential postseason all-conference honorees returning. Demetrius Denzel-Dyson, Christen Cunningham, Alex Thompson and Wyatt Walker all return. Denzel-Dyson and Cunningham comprise what might be the best backcourt in the SoCon, while Walker and Thompson return as two double-digit scorers in the frontcourt. Add Alabama transfer guard Justin Coleman and rising sophomore guard Triston Chambers, who garnered SoCon All-Freshman team honors last year, and Padgett’s men might not only challenge for an eighth 20-win season in program history, they might also challenge for a first SoCon title.

What will ETSU do for an encore in 2016-17?

East Tennessee State is one of the toughest SoCon teams to gauge. They are coming off their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2009-10 and come into the season with more question marks than in any other campaign since rejoining the Southern Conference in 2014-15. The Bucs return just one starter from the squad that won 27 games and played Florida in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament. That one starter is athletic guard Desonta Bradford. A supporting cast of David Burrell and Devontavius Payne returns in the backcourt, while seven-footer Peter Jurkin has been granted an extra year of eligibility after sitting out most of last season with an injury. Jurkin will be an important player for the Bucs, with the losses of Hanner Mosquera-Perea, Tevin Glass, and Isaac Banks. Whether the Bucs can approach the success that they were able to achieve last season will depend on frontcourt play and on defense. Watch out for newcomers Jalan McCloud in the backcourt and Jeromy Rodriguez in the frontcourt. Both could have an immediate impact in 2017-18, and they will keep the Bucs competing in the top half of the SoCon.

Can UNC Greensboro re-load after losing Diante Baldwin and RJ White?

The Spartans must replace two main cogs from one of their best teams in program history in guard Diante Baldwin and center RJ White. The duo helped get the the Spartans to their first SoCon title game since 2005, only to drop a 79-74 tournament title contest to East Tennessee State. The Spartans have some impressive returnees back, however, with the return of arguably the league’s top shooter, Francis Alonso, and inside-outside threat Marvin Smith. Demetrius Troy will be asked to fill some rather large shoes, having to replace Baldwin at the point. James Dickey is one of the most athletic players in the SoCon and his ability to rebound and be a rim protector will help compensate at least a little for White’s graduation.

How will Lamont Paris re-Invent Chattanooga?

The Mocs are the most successful program in the Southern Conference with 12 tournament crowns to their credit. However, the Mocs suffered a bit of a black eye last season, failing to win the league title despite returning all five starters off a 29-win club a year earlier. Matt McCall was in his second year in the program, and with players like Justin Tuoyo and Tre McClean, there weren’t too many people who doubted the Mocs. A late-season game against Mercer saw internal matters reach a boiling point between teammates, and that signaled the un-raveling of those championship hopes. McCall bolted for UMass shortly after the season, and with all five senior starters no longer a part of the program, Lamont Paris gets his shot to try and put the Mocs back on the mid-major map. Paris learned most of his trade under Bo Ryan at Wisconsin, so expect the Mocs to be one of the better defensive teams in the league for years to come. Makinde London returns in the paint and he is the player this Mocs team will be centered around. Makale Foreman and Rodney Chatham are players to keep an eye on in the backcourt, along with newcomers David Jean-Baptiste and Fairfield transfer Jerry Johnson Jr.

Is The Citadel ready to take the next step?

We’ve waxed poetic about how The Citadel was going to be the team of the future in the SoCon under Duggar Baucom. We figured by year three in Charleston, he would have the pieces in place to be a real competitor in the league with his high-octane offense. This is year three. The question is, can Baucom’s recipe for success work in Charleston like it did at VMI? The good news is The Citadel returns a deep backcourt, which includes the likes of SoCon Freshman of the Year and the league’s fourth-leading scorer Preston Parks, as well as one of the best young big men in the SoCon, Zane Nadjawi. The Bulldogs should rise to the middle of the pack in the SoCon in 2017-18.

Can the Catamounts regain respect in 2017-18?

Since taking the helm in 2005, Larry Hunter, the winningest basketball coach in the Southern Conference, probably endured his most trying season in Cullowhee in 2016-17. The Catamounts finished with just a 9-23 overall record and a 5-13 mark in SoCon play. The good news is the Catamounts were also one of the youngest teams in Division I. With guards like Trey Sumler, Harouna Mutombo, Mike Brown and Rhett Harrelson all having developed, there is plenty of hope moving forward. Both Mutombo and Peterson are potential all-conference candidates, and both stepped up their scoring last season. The bigger question might be the development of the Catamount big men, which includes Marc Gosselin, who sometimes plays more like a guard, but is a perimeter threat. Newcomer Mike Amius could be an immediate impact player for the Catamounts.

How will VMI replace its three top scorers?

Losing QJ Peterson, Julian Eleby and Trey Chapman to graduation should signal all kinds of alarms for head coach Dan Earl, who heads into his third at VMI. However, it might be a blessing in disguise for Earl, who is trying to implement a defensive mindset into players that were once programmed only on one end of the floor. Rather than going for an immediate change, Earl opted to adapt to the personnel he had. Now, he has his players to implement his system to his liking. Though Peterson was excellent offensively, he was a liability on defense. Eleby was pretty much only a perimeter threat, and the best all-around player of the three graduates might have been Chapman, as his athleticism was a factor on both ends. Look for younger players like forward Tyler Creammer and freshman guard Greg Parham to step up this season and provide the needed depth and defensive capabilities to help fit into more of the style Earl is looking for. Armani Branch and Fred Iruafemi will the Keydets’ go-to-players underneath, while Austin Vereen, Garrett Gilkerson and Keith Smith will be the players the Keydets look to in the backcourt.