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Southern Conference preseason rankings: UNC Greensboro is the favorite to repeat

But could Fletcher Magee and Wofford de-throne the defending champs?

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

The Southern Conference race figures to be one of the more exciting ones in mid-major basketball this season with UNC Greensboro, Wofford, East Tennessee State and Furman expecting to have big seasons. The 2018-19 power rankings are as follows.

1. UNC Greensboro (27-8, 15-3 SoCon), Lost to Gonzaga in the NCAA Tournament first round

Why UNC Greensboro in 2018-19?

In one word: defense.

What the Spartans were able to do on defense last season (62.5 PPG, No. 5 nationally in scoring defense) was nothing short of remarkable.

Starters Francis Alonso (15.6 PPG, 2.4 RPG, 111 three point field goals) and Demetrius Troy (7.7 PPG, 2.3 RPG, 132 assists) return from last season and will be candidates for all-conference awards this season. Troy is already sixth in school history for assists, whereas Alonso has 297 triples and needs just 12 more to set a new school record. a senior from Malaga, Spain, will be a candidate for SoCon Player of the Year. And as if those returners weren’t enough, reigning SoCon Defensive Player of the Year James Dickey returns to anchor the post. The 6-10 junior was not only one of the top rim-protectors in the SoCon last season by pacing the league in rebounding (8.9 RPG) and blocks (71).

While the two starters that have graduated from last season’s championship team have graduated (swingman Marvin Smith, Jr. and post presence Jordy Kuiper), Head Coach Wes Miller will try and offset the loss of those two major pieces of the championship puzzle with Wichita State transfer Eric Hamilton, who sat out last season per NCAA rules. The 6-8 forward has a chance to compete for a starting job in the frontcourt along with returnee Kyrin Galloway.

2. Wofford (21-13, 11-7 SoCon), CIT first round

When you talk Wofford basketball this day and age, you start with Fletcher Magee. He’s simply been one of the best shooters in the Southern Conference. He’s a game-changer. Just ask North Carolina, who was No. 5 last December when the Terriers went to the Dean E. Smith Center and came away with a 79-75 win, buoyed by the 28-point effort from the Orlando, FL product.

He has scored 1,807-career points and needs 715 points this season to surpass George Lyons (1962-65) as the program’s all-time leading scorer. Magee’s 751 points last season were also a program single-season record, surpassing the previous mark of 750 points in a single-season previously set by James “Daddy” Neal. His 148 three-point field goals led the nation last season, and were second only to Stephen Curry’s 162 triples in 2007-08 in SoCon single-season history.

Magee is set to be joined in the backcourt sophomore Storm Murphy (6.3 PPG, 2.2 RPG, 135 assists, 30 steals) and rising junior Trevor Stumpe (10. 8 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 25 steals). Murphy was voted to the SoCon All-Freshman team last season, and will be a candidate to garnner All-SoCon honors this season. Nathan Hoover (11.0 PPG, 2.6 RPG, 1.4 APG, 22 steals) came off the bench and posted double-figure scoring performances in eight of the final 10 games last season.

The Terriers have an embarrassment of talent and depth in the backcourt heading into the season. But Wofford’s frontcourt will be the most improved part of the team because it will be much deeper. No longer will getting Cameron Jackson (12.0 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 53 assists, 55 steals, 45 blocks, 60.1 FG%) in foul trouble be enough be considered such an advantage for an opponent, with the talent added by head coach Mike Young and staff during the off-season.

3. ETSU (25-9, 14-4 SoCon)

Steve Forbes will have a new cast of characters once again, but betting against a man that has won 76 games in three seasons would be an unwise decision. Expect Bo Hodges (9.0 PPG, 3.5 RPG) to see more time on the perimeter as a three this season, while returnee Mladen Armus (3.6 PPG, 2.2 RPG), who like Hodges, was a SoCon All-Freshman performer last season, to be a factor. Jeromy Rodriguez, another skilled post player at 6-7, will be one of the top newcomers.

4. Furman (23-10, 13-5 SoCon)

Devin Sibley, Geoff Beans, Daniel Fowler and John Davis III have all graduated, leaving Head Coach Bob Richey with just two returning starters for the 2018-19 season. Returning seniors Matt Rafferty (11.2 PPG, 7.2 RPG, 91 assists, 59.8 FG%). and Andrew Brown (8.6 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 61 three-point FGs) expected to carry the torch into what should be a successful future for Furman basketball. Jordan Lyons (8.3 PPG, 1.5 RPG, 58 three-point FGs) is also back and started the final eight games in the backcourt for the Paladins. Watch for 6-8 redshirt freshman newcomer Noah Gurley, who will provide a shot-blocking presence on defense and versatility on offense.

5. The Citadel (11-21, 5-13 SoCon)

Say what you want to about Duggar Baucom’s style of play, but it helped the Bulldogs knock off four of the top five teams in the SoCon last season. With four players with starting experience returning, most expect the Bulldogs to contend for one of those top six seeds (the top six seeds receive byes) in the 2019 Southern Conference Tournament. Post player Zane Najdawi (15.5 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 44 three pointers) gives the Bulldogs one of the most skilled and versatile big men in mid-major hoops, while Matt Frierson (9.9 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 114 three pointers) seems to be the best shooter in the SoCon not named Magee or Alonso.

6. Mercer (19-15, 11-7 SoCon) CBI first round

Bob Hoffman will have to replace all five starters this season, but brings in some high-profile transfers. The Bears will rely on one of the veteran returnees, Ross Cummings (8.7 PPG, 1.6 RPG, team-leading 57 three-point FGs), in the backcourt to be one of the top scorers in the league. Cummings will likely team with Marcus Cohen (4.2 PPG, 1.4 RPG, 84 assists) in the backcourt, who is coming off an impressive freshman season.

7. Chattanooga (10-23, 3-15 SoCon)

The Mocs might be the most-improved team in the SoCon. Head coach Lamont Paris will have nearly an entire different team for the 2018-19 season, with his top seven contributors having either transferred or graduated. Help appears to be on the way in the form of four quartet of solid Division I transfers: Ramon Vila (Arizona State), Jerry Johnson Jr (Fairfield), Thomas Smallwood (UAB) and South Alabama transfer A.J. Caldwell (although he won’t be eligible this season). The lone returning starter for the Mocs in 2018-19 is sophomore guard David Jean-Baptiste (6.3 PPG, 2.1 RPG). Forward Kevin Easley and guard Maurice Commander are two of the league’s top newcomers in the SoCon, and should contribute immediately this season.

8. VMI (9-21, 4-14 SoCon)

VMI is another team that was young last season, but Head Coach Dan Earl might have his best team yet. SoCon Freshman of the Year Bubba Parham (14.6 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 58-of-175 from three-point range) returns to anchor the backcourt, while support will be provided by players like Austin Vereen (10.4 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 60-of-175 from three), Garrett Gilkeson (3.5 PPG, 1.8 RPG) and Greg Parham (2.8 PPG, 1.5 RPG). Newcomer Connor Arnold will be an immediate shot in the arm to the frontcourt, and 6-8 junior Will Miller (2.8 PPG, 1.5 RPG) and 6-5 sophomore Myles Lewis (3.5 PPG, 1.8 RPG) have improved and should add depth underneath.

9. Samford (10-22, 6-12 SoCon)

Fifth-year head coach Scott Padgett hasn’t had it easy during his time at Samford. The Bulldogs lost last season’s starters Wyatt Walker (NC State), Christen Cunningham (Louisville), Justin Coleman (Arizona), and Triston Chambers (Alabama-Huntsville) transferring. Padgett does have some incoming talent that should contribute right away. Veteran returnees like guards Kevion Nolan (3.2 PPG, 1.0 RPG) and Josh Sharkey (7.3 PPG, 2.1 RPG, 152 assists) will be asked to do much more this season. Plus freshman Steven Fitzgerald is one the SoCon’s top recruits and could make an immediate difference for the Bulldogs.

10. Western Carolina (13-19, 8-10 SoCon)

Mark Prosser, the lone new coach in the SoCon, has quite a rebuilding job ahead of him. But with Matt Halvorsen (8.5 PPG, 2.1 RPG, 59 three-point FGs) in the backcourt, he has one of the SoCon’s best young perimeter shooters. He’ll have to get big-time production out of talented JUCO transfer and 6-7 post Carlos Dotson following the departure of Mike Amius (team-leading 12.7 PPG, 5.6 RPG), who left early to turn pro. Marc Gosselin (8.8 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 27 three-point FGs) also returns to team with Dotson in the paint, but has the versatility to be a threat from the perimeter.