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SoCon Basketball 2017-18: League play is ready to commence Saturday

Checking in on the SoCon as league play fires up.

Furman guard Devin Sibley
Photo courtesy of Furman athletics

The Southern Conference will tip off its season on Saturday. Here’s a look at the opening slate of games.

Furman (9-4, 0-0 SoCon) at VMI (5-6, 0-0 SoCon)

Furman finished non-conference play with an impressive 9-4 mark, including posting an impressive performance at No. 21 Tennessee before eventually falling 66-61.

Head coach Bob Richey, who in his first season as the head coach of the Paladins, has led the Paladins to its best non-conference record since 1954-55. He hopes that strong play, which saw the Paladins win five of their final six games in the non-conference, will continue Saturday afternoon at Cameron Hall despite the 10-day layoff.

Since the start of the 2015-16, Furman has had its stride when conference play has begun. They’ve posted a 25-11 record in regular-season league play over the past two years, including a 14-4 conference record last season.

Meanwhile, VMI enters at a respectable 5-6 in non-conference play under the direction of third-year head coach Dan Earl, who has helped the Keydets more than exceed expectations through the non-conference portion of the slate.

In its most recent outing against Atlantic 10 power VCU, the Keydets rebounded from a 23-point deficit in the second half to force a furious rally down the stretch, only to drop the contest 75-65.

For Furman, it all revolves around preseason Southern Conference Player of the Year Devin Sibley (16.2 PPG, 4.5 RPG), who is coming off a game-high 22 point effort against Tennessee. So far this season, Sibley has posted seven 20-point games in the first 16 games of the season.

Sibley is surrounded by a pair of juniors and seniors in the starting lineup, helping Furman put one of the most-experienced collections of talent in mid-major basketball in its starting five.

Senior guards Daniel Fowler (11.5 PPG, 3.8 RPG), John Davis III (12.4 PPG, 2.4 RPG) and junior guard Andrew Brown (6.9 PPG, 2.8 RPG) round out the backcourt, while junior forward Matt Rafferty (12.4 PPG, 8.0 RPG, 64.5 FG%, 2.8 APG) has been among the most consistent producers in each offensive and defensive category for Furman in 2017-18.

For VMI, it’s been a new, fresh start for the Keydets, as they have had to replace their three top scorers from a year ago. Gone are the likes Q.J. Peterson (19.6 PPG)—the SoCon’s leading scorer each of the past seasons— as well as fellow backcourt mate Julian Eleby (12.9 PPG).

The Keydets have had young players step up. Freshman guard Bubba Parham (12.1 PPG, 3.9 RPG) and sophomore forward Tyler Creammer (9.5 PPG, 6.5 RPG) have played well, and sophomore guards Keith Smith (8.9 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 4.5 APG) and Garrett Gilkerson (5.6 PPG, 3.6 RPG) have had their bright spots.

Add to that a junior guard Austin Vereen (9.4 PPG, 3.4 RPG) who is the third-leading scorer for the Keydets off the bench this season, and it’s easy to see Earl is building something in Lexington.

Expect this one to be a little closer than most would think, but Furman’s experience to carry it to a tough road win to open conference play.

Prediction: Furman 83, VMI 77

Western Carolina (4-8, 0-0) at The Citadel (5-7, 0-0)

The Citadel will host the last team it beat on the Southern Conference hardwood in the first league game of the 2017-18 season—Western Carolina. The Bulldogs claimed a 78-72 win in Asheville last March.

The teams look a little different this time around, especially for the Bulldogs, who are without SoCon Freshman of the Year Preston Parks after he was dismissed from the team earlier this year. That has affected Duggar Baucom’s club, but certainly has not deterred it.

The Bulldogs won just two non-conference games heading into league play, with victories on the road at High Point (79-77) and at home against James Madison (84-82).

Meanwhile, Western Carolina has relied on mostly youth for a second-straight season. The most impressive win for the Catamounts during the non-league slate came on Dec. 17, with a 76-72 win at preseason Big South favorite UNC Asheville.

With the departure of Parks, the Bulldogs have had to find new players to rely on. The good news is, Baucom’s team is still relatively young. Leading the way for The Citadel has been freshman guard Tariq Simmons (13.2 PPG, 3.5 RPG), who is making his own case for Southern Conference Freshman of the Year.

He is one of two Bulldogs averaging in double figures through the first 12 games this season, with the other being junior guard Matt Frierson (10.8 PPG, 2.3 RPG). The fun-and-gun Citadel offense once again leads the SoCon in scoring offense (87.2 PPG)

Head coach Larry Hunter’s Catamounts counter with strong guard play so far this season, led by redshirt senior Deriece Parks (11.3 PPG, 3.6 RPG) and freshman Matt Havlorsen (10.1 PPG, 1.3 APG, 1.1 RPG). Other important ingredients in the backcourt include seniors Devin Peterson (8.0 PPG, 3.5 APG) and Haboubacar Mutombo (3.5 PPG, 3.0 RPG).

Forward Mike Amius (10.0 PPG, 5.0 RPG), who had a game-winning dunk against Appalachian State in non-conference play, has been impressive underneath the basketball so far for the Catamounts. He’ll join sophomore Marc Gosselin (8.0 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 1.8 APG) as the main go-to-players for the Catamounts. Amius has been a tremendous athlete all season for Western and has been a great rim protecor, averaging nearly a block-per-game (0.8).

It will be interesting to see if a win for either one of these teams helps give them enough confidence to refute the preseason conference predictions. I like Hunter’s Catamounts on the road in a close one.

Final Score Prediction: Western Carolina 80, The Citadel 77

Two huge games remain in the opening weekend of Southern Conference play, as UNC Greensboro hosts Wofford at the Greensboro Coliseum, and Mercer travels to defending league champion and NCAA Tournament participant East Tennessee State on New Year’s Eve.

The Spartans and Terriers have already combined for three ACC wins this season, with the Terriers of course knocking off No. 5 North Carolina and Georgia Tech, while UNCG took down NC State on the road.

Chattanooga and Samford will duke it out in Birmingham in the only other Southern Conference game Saturday night. The 4-9 Bulldogs have been one of the biggest disappointments so far in conference play, while the Mocs have been one of the biggest surprises at 6-7 after losing all five starters and surviving a coaching change.

Other Predictions:

ETSU 72, Mercer 67 (Dec. 31)
UNCG 66, Wofford 64
Samford 72, Chattanooga 66