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Southern Conference Tournament preview: UNC Greensboro and ETSU are the teams to beat

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ETSU is looking to defend their title, but they’ll have to get through the top seeded Spartans.

UNCG looking for first NCAA Tournament bid since 2001
Photo Courtesy of UNCG athletics

The Southern Conference Tournament tips off on Friday, and it should be one of the more competitive tournaments in the country. UNC Greensboro rallied late in the season to claim the top seed, but East Tennessee State was top dog for much of the season. Add in dangerous teams like Wofford and Mercer and you have a recipe for a fun few days. Let’s take a look at the field.

#1 UNC Greensboro

Did You Know: UNC Greensboro joined the Southern Conference in 1997-98, and claimed its only Southern Conference Tournament title in 2001. They knocked off Chattanooga, 67-66, thanks to a David Schuck buzzer-beater. Most recently, UNC Greensboro was in the SoCon title games in 2005 and last season. Of course, they lost both of those games. UNCG is 16-17 all-time in SoCon Tournament play.

#2 East Tennessee State

“I am gonna try to tell these guys its not the end of the world. We still got a lot of basketball to play and we’re still capable of winning the whole thing. It’s a whole new season”

Desonta Bradford (ETSU)

Did You Know: East Tennessee State picked up its seventh Southern Conference Tournament title last season by knocking off UNC Greensboro 79-74 in a thrilling championship tilt in Asheville. It was not only the Bucs’ first Southern Conference Tournament title since returning to the SoCon as an official league member in 2014-15, but also their first SoCon tournament title since 2003-04.

The Bucs are under the direction of third-year head coach Steve Forbes, who has helped the Bucs to an impressive 74-28 record — including two tournament title appearances — during his tenure. The Bucs are led by one of the top players in the Southern Conference, Desonta Bradford (15.5 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 104 assists, 56 steals), who is the lone holdover starter from last year’s championship team.

#3 Furman

Did You Know: Furman hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 1980, but the 2017-18 squad might represent the Paladins’ best chance to return to the Big Dance.

Bob Richey is in his first season as the head coach of the Paladins, and if Furman wins three-straight in Asheville, he would become the first first-year head coach to lead the Paladins to the Big Dance since Joe Williams led the Paladins to the 1971 NCAA Tournament. The Paladins come into the tournament on a six-game winning streak, including a 79-76 win at ETSU to denying the Bucs a share of the Southern Conference regular-season crown.

The Paladins continue to be led by last year’s Southern Conference Player of the Year Devin Sibley (14.8 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 2.1 apg), who has looked good in his new role of coming off the bench for the Paladins this season. He had 17 points in last Sunday’s win at ETSU, including a key four-point play that gave the Paladins a crucial 75-71 lead.

Furman’s four seniors — which include Sibley, Daniel Fowler (11.3 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 3.2 APG), John Davis III (11.5 PPG, 2.6 RPG, 2.7 APG) and Geoff Beans — have combined to make 360 starts in their respective careers. This is an experienced and dangerous squad.

#4 Mercer

Did You Know: Mercer enters the tournament as the hottest team in the SoCon with an eight-game winning streak. The Bears have done all this damage without leading scorer Ria’n Holland (19.0 ppg, 3.2 rpg), who has been out with a wrist injury.

The Bears are coached by Bob Hoffman — one of the most successful coaches in the SoCon — who won his 500th game as a head coach earlier this season. Since the start of the 2011-12 season, the Bears have posted a 149-93 record under Hoffman, and have won a CIT, competed in the NIT and CBI, and recorded a victory in the NCAA Tournament during that timeframe.

Mercer last visited the NCAA Tournament as a member of the Atlantic Sun back in 2014. That postseason, they pulled off a massive upset of No. 3 seed Duke, 78-71.

This season, other players have stepped up down the stretch without Holland, including sharp-shooting sophomore guard Ross Cummings (8.4 ppg, 1.4 rpg, 49 made threes on a 44.1% clip), who has helped Mercer from beyond the arc. Senior guard Jordan Strawberry (10.8 ppg, 3.7 rpg) and senior forward Stephon Jelks (9.7 ppg, 7.2 rpg) have also stepped up on both ends of the floor in Holland's absence.

#5 Wofford

Did You Know: Wofford comes into the tournament as an under-the-radar pick. The Terriers lost a heartbreaker on the final day of the regular season against Mercer by dropping a close 69-68 decision.

Head Coach Mike Young, the dean of coaches in the Southern Conference, has led the Terriers to four Southern Conference tournament titles since taking over as head coach in 2001. Wofford has maybe the best shooter in college basketball on its side, with junior guard Fletcher Magee (22.3 ppg, 2.9 rpg) entering the tournament with a nation-leading 134 made threes.

But Magee is not alone in helping lead Young’s Terriers: Wofford has one of the top big men in the Southern Conference, with Cam Jackson (11.5 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 50 steals) underneath the basket.

The Terriers last took home the title in 2015.

# 6 Western Carolina

“We have the potential to do a lot in this tournament, with our preseason schedule and playing teams like Clemson and Cincinnati, we feel we are prepared for anyone in this tournament.” “I am blessed to be here and be able to be able to play here. This is a special place.” — Mike Amius (Western Carolina)

Did You Know: Amius leads the Catamounts in scoring (12.6 PPG) and rebounding (5.7 RPG). Western Carolina’s lone Southern Conference Tournament crown came in 1996 in Greensboro, N.C., upsetting Davidson 69-60 on the strength of a strong defensive performance and play of current assistant coach and ‘96 Tournament MVP Anquell McCollum. The Catamounts nearly became the first No. 16 seed to ever knock off a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament when they dropped a 73-71 decision to Gene Keady-led Purdue.

#7 Samford

Did You Know: Samford matched its best advancement in the Southern Conference Tournament last year, when the Bulldogs beat VMI and No. 2 seed Furman to reach the SoCon semifinals, only to lose to eventual champion East Tennessee State. Samford was a 20-game winner a year ago, but have struggled some this year without two all-conference caliber players.

#8 The Citadel

“Playing tough teams in the beginning and we learned a lot and watched film and we learned from our mistakes.” -- Zane Najdawi

Did You Know: Zane Najdawi (15.4 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 40.6% from 3pt range) and The Citadel Bulldogs certainly have learned some valuable lessons this season, and the results are starting to show. Najdawi has posted 20 or more points in nine games this season, including a career-high 37 points in a win over Chattanooga. He has been a key cog for the Bulldogs as a scorer in the paint, rim protector on the defensive end, and a shooter from the perimeter. The Citadel has never been to the NCAA Tournament, thus meaning the Bulldogs have never won the Southern Conference Tournament.

#9 VMI

”It’s a big key for us to be able to be able to progress together and the upperclassmen in the past have told me it’s tough to handle the military aspect and all that by themselves, but we’re really lucky that there are seven of us (freshmen) and we’re going through all of it together and helps being able to talk to one another and each of us have kind of a common ground.-- Bubba Parham

Did You Know: VMI has had some of the league’s most exciting freshmen in SoCon basketball history, including the likes of Jason Conley (2002) and Bubba Parham this season. Parham has been outstanding for Dan Earl’s Keydets, averaging 14.9 PPG. Parham has led a young team, which claimed sweeps of The Citadel and Chattanooga during the regular-season to account for its Southern Conference wins. The Keydets will face The Citadel in the 7:30 p.m. first round matchup Friday night.

#10 Chattanooga

Did You Know: Chattanooga has won more Southern Conference Tournament titles than any other team in the league, having claimed 11 conference tournament titles. The Mocs are under first-year head coach Lamont Paris, and have been led by talented guard and former Boston College wide receiver Nat Dixon (14.9 PPG, 4.6 RPG) all season.