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Southern Conference Tournament Primer: Can Furman realize its dream?

The 97th edition of the SoCon Tournament will tip off Friday evening in Asheville.

NCAA Basketball: Furman at Connecticut David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

It’s the nation’s oldest conference basketball tournament, and of the mid-majors, the SoCon has perennially proven itself as one of the most exciting. 10 teams will battle it out at the US Cellular Center in Asheville, NC for the the right to represent the tradition-rich league in the NCAA Tournament in a couple of weeks. All games will be available via ESPN3, and the championship game on Monday night will be on ESPN2.

Tournament Format:

(all times Eastern)

Friday, March 3

8 Western Carolina vs. 9 The Citadel, 5 p.m.
7 Samford vs. 10 VMI, 7:30 p.m.

Saturday, March 4

1 UNCG vs. Game 1 winner, Noon
4 Chattanooga vs. 5 Wofford, 2:30 p.m.
2 Furman vs. Game 2 winner, 6 p.m.
3 ETSU vs. 6 Mercer, 8:30 p.m.

Sunday, March 5

Semifinal 1, 5 p.m.
Semifinal 2, 7:30 p.m.

Monday, March 6

Championship Game, 7 p.m.

Three Things To Watch:

1. Can Furman continue its momentum off the program’s first regular-season title in 26 years?

If the Paladins can, they will qualify for their first NCAA Tournament in 37 years. It’s been quite a week for Furman head coach Niko Medved, who was by his wife’s side as she gave birth to the couple’s first child — a baby girl named Alexa Ann Medved — at 5:30 a.m. Wednesday. Just a few hours later, Medved learned he had been the first Furman coach to be named league coach of the year since 1991. For Furman to have success, it will need to get the same kind of production from leading scorer and SoCon Player of the Year Devin Sibley (17.3 ppg), as well as second team all-conference selection Kris Acox (13.0 ppg). It’s often the case that if Acox plays well, the Paladins are a tough out in the SoCon, and Medved hopes that is the case for three more games in Asheville.

2. Who are the most dangerous lower seeds?

In any conference tournament, there’s always a sleeper team or two. In the Southern Conference, that is particularly true, with both 6 seed Mercer and 7 Samford capable of making deep runs in Asheville. The Bears have been involved in plenty of close games this season, and have two of the most dynamic guards in the conference, in second-team all-conference pick Ria’n Holland (17.3 ppg) and Jordan Strawberry (12.1 ppg) — son of former major league slugger Darryl Strawberry. The Bears also have one of the best coaching staffs in the conference, led by proven winner Bob Hoffman. Samford is a team many thought might challenge for conference title this season, but like Mercer, the Bulldogs found themselves on the wrong end of plenty of close games. The Bulldogs have an excellent inside-outside combo of guard Demetrius Denzel-Dyson (16.6 ppg) and center Wyatt Walker (12.5 ppg).

3. Who wins?

This has the makings of one of the best SoCon Tournaments in the history of the tradition-rich mid-major. As the bracket sets up, the bottom half looks tougher, with both ETSU and Furman playing on the bottom half of the bracket, while top-seeded UNC Greensboro will be the team to beat in the top half. Look for Furman to get past Samford and ETSU to meet Wofford in the title game. The fifth-seeded Terriers know how to win in the postseason, and though a run to the title game would be surprising, all-league guards Fletcher Magee (18.3 ppg) and Eric Garcia (14.1 ppg) are two of the league’s most pure perimeter shooters. That being said, look for Furman to avenge its loss in the 2015 league tournament title game and qualify for the program’s first NCAA Tournament in 37 years.

Friday night predictions:

Look for The Citadel and Samford to both advance Friday night.