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Southern Conference: News and notes ahead of Saturday’s action

Two of the league’s best scorers face off on Saturday.

NCAA Basketball: Wofford at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Thursday night, East Tennessee State took a 68-58 win over UNC Greensboro in a rematch of the 2017 Southern Conference championship game. For all intents and purposes, that game was a statement by the Buccaneers, who dropped both regular-season games to the Spartans last year.

With that hard-fought win in what was a defensive slug-fest for most of the night, it was the big men for the Bucs that had the final say in how things went down at Freedom Hall. Mladen Armus and Peter Jurkin were impressive all evening once again for the Bucs, and Armus continues to be more impressive with each outing for the Bucs. The Serbia native posted 13 points and six rebounds, connecting on 5-of-6 shots from the field.

Jurkin, meanwhile, finished out the game with 11 points, seven boards and a pair of blocked shots. Jurkin is the reigning Southern Conference Player of the Week. The seven-footer recorded his first-career double-double in an 85-66 win over Chattanooga last Saturday, posting 15 points, 11 boards and three blocks.

What’s Wrong With Mercer?

The Bears were supposed to be one of the league title favorites this season, however, the Bears are 0-3 to start the season in SoCon play, and will be fighting upstream now as they try to get back into the league race.

The Bears were 58-56 losers at Western Carolina Wednesday night, and have now lost the last two games in league play by a combined five points. In the loss at Western Carolina, Mercer only mustered a 35.3% shooting clip from the field even though the Catamounts shot just 39.6% for the game.

Mike Amius continues to be impressive for Western Carolina this season. The junior forward and JUCO transfer led all scorers in the game with 21 points, connecting on 8-of-11 shots from the field.

Mercer’s woes have to be a bit concerning to veteran head coach Bob Hoffman and staff. This was a team picked by the league coaches to win the SoCon this season, and with five senior starters returning, it would be hard to bet against the Bears.

However, the opening 19-point loss to East Tennessee State raised more than a few eyebrows around the SoCon. Then the Bears suffered consecutive road setbacks at media favorite Furman and an up-and-coming Western Carolina squad.

The Bears have struggled shooting the basketball in their first three SoCon games. Not all too long ago, Mercer ranked as one of the top shooting teams in college basketball. Now, the Bears rank second in the Southern Conference behind Wofford, connecting on 47.5% from the field—still good enough for second in the SoCon. However, in two of the past three games, the Bears have failed to eclipse 40% shooting from the field, and the Bears are just 14-of-53 from three-point range over the past three games.

Saturday’s game against Samford at Hawkins Arena amounts to a must-win situation for the Bears if they want to keep hopes alive of living up to those preseason expectations bestowed by the league’s coaches.

Lute Olson Award Watch List Performers set to Square off Saturday Night

On Saturday night, I will find my way back to Jerry Richardson Indoor Stadium to take in the I-85 rivalry between Furman and Wofford, and not only will it be a chance to witness two of the best teams in the SoCon and mid-major hoops, but also two of the best players. I had a chance to cover Wofford’s opener against South Carolina in the palatial venue and look forward to returning.

Wofford’s Fletcher Magee and Furman’s Devin Sibley were recent additions to the mid-season Lute Olson Award Watch List. Magee currently ranks second in NCAA DIvision I in three-point field goals made (72) and is ninth in scoring average (23.0 PPG).

Sibley continues to climb the Furman scoring charts, following in the footsteps of predecessor Stephen Croone, who finished his career fifth on the Paladins’ all-time scoring charts. Sibley has scored 1,629 career points to rank 12th in school history.

He, Croone and former Paladin Karim Souchu are the only three to eclipse the 1,500 scoring plateau over the past two decades. Sibley was the preseason Southern Conference Player of the Year and is coming off a nine-point, 10-rebound effort in Furman’s 73-55 win at Chattanooga.

Wofford has claimed 12 of the past 14 meetings, but each of the past six between the two have been decided by nine points or less, including four of the six being decided by four points or less. Furman has not claimed a win at Wofford since 2011. Furman’s 4-0 start in league play marks its best since 1986-87.

Updated SoCon Power Rankings:

1) ETSU - 13-4, 4-0 SoCon

2) Furman - 13-4, 4-0

3) Wofford - 11-5, 2-1 SoCon

T-3) UNCG - 11-5, 2-1 SoCon

5) Samford - 7-10, 2-1 SoCon

6) Western Carolina - 7-9, 3-1 SoCon

7) Mercer - 7-9, 0-3 SoCon

8) Chattanooga - 6-11, 0-4 SoCon

9) VMI - 5-9, 0-3 SoCon

10) The Citadel - 5-11, 0-4 SoCon