One could argue that the Southern Conference has one of the most illustrious and most important histories in all of college basketball. The SoCon was the first to ever sponsor a conference tournament, gave birth to two power five conferences (the Atlantic Coast Conference and the Southeastern Conference) and, of course, had plenty of memorable teams and players along the way.
Below, I have ranked what I believe to be the top five teams in the 97-year history of Southern Conference basketball. Will one of this season’s teams crack this top five?
5. East Tennessee State (1990-91)
Alan LeForce’s 1990-91 East Tennessee State Buccaneers reached as high as No. 10 in the AP’s NCAA Basketball poll before a road loss at Furman in mid-February. During the regular-season, ETSU’s non-conference resume had wins over Brigham Young, at Cincinnati (90-79) and North Carolina State (94-91), with its lone loss at No. 3 Arizona. With a roster consisting of Keith “Mister” Jennings, Greg Dennis, Alvin West, Major Geer, Marty Story, Rodney English and Calvin Talford, the Bucs tore through the Southern Conference Tournament with blowout wins over The Citadel (99-70), Chattanooga (104-71) and Appalachian State (101-82) to claim their third straight title. The Bucs couldn’t quite pull the 7-over-10 upset against the opening Acie Earl-led Iowa Hawkeyes in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
4. Davidson (1968-69)
Coached by the legendary “Lefty” Driesell, the Wildcats cruised to a 27-3 overall record and a 9-0 record in the Southern Conference. Led by Mike Maloy, Doug Cook, and Jerry Kroll, the Wildcats knocked off VMI (99-76), Richmond (97-83) and East Carolina (102-76) en route to the league title. The Wildcats opened the NCAA Tournament with a 75-61 win over Villanova at the old Reynolds Coliseum in Raleigh, then survived a tough challenge from St. John’s (75-69) to set up a showdown with North Carolina. The Wildcats came into the matchup No. 8 in the nation, while the Tar Heels were ranked No. 4. It was Driesell’s Wildcats vs. Dean Smith’s Tar Heels for a second-straight season in the NCAA Tournament. Unfortunately for the Wildcats, Smith’s Tar Heels dashed their Final Four hopes yet again with a heartbreaking 87-85 loss.
3. West Virginia (1957-58)
Future Hall-of-Famer Jerry West led this team to both the Southern Conference regular-season title, and the tournament title with a 26-2 overall record and and a 12-0 record in SoCon play. The Mountaineers, who were coached by Fred Schaus, ended up bowing out of the NCAA Tournament in the opening round with an 89-84 loss to Manhattan.
2. Davidson (2007-08)
Thanks to a lanky, sharpshooting sophomore guard named Stephen Curry, the Davidson Wildcats made noise throughout college basketball by making the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament. But a tough non-conference slate, which included games against UCLA, Duke, North Carolina and N.C. State helped prepare the Wildcats for their NCAA Tournament run. The Wildcats strolled through the SoCon, finishing with a perfect 20-0 record in league play and easily won the SoCon tournament title with a 65-49 victory over Elon.
In the opening round of the NCAA Tournament, the Wildcats gutted out a 82-76 win over perennial NCAA Tournament and mid-major power Gonzaga on the strength of a 40-point performance from Curry, and a 15-point, nine-assist performance from Curry’s sidekick, Jason Richards.
But 2-seeded Georgetown loomed in the second round. Trailing by as many as 17 with 17 minutes to play, Curry, Richards and the Wildcats went on a 19-4 run to cut Georgetown’s lead to two with 8:45 left. Curry hit a three-point play the old-fashioned way, getting fouled on a circus-style layup in the lane to give Davidson its first lead, 60-58, with 4:35 left and the Wildcats never trailed again en route to the 74-70 upset win. The Sweet 16 was a cakewalk, Curry posted points, while Richards added 20 in Davidson’s 73-56 win over Big Ten power Wisconsin. But the Wildcats’ road finally came to an end in the Elite Eight against eventual national champion Kansas, who had to survive a last-ditch Richards three for a gutsy 59-57 win. The Wildcats finished the season with a 29 wins, tied for the best mark in school history.
1. West Virginia (1958-59)
The 1958-59 West Virginia Mountaineers were the first and only team in Southern Conference history to make the Final Four and a national title game. Junior guard Jerry West was one of the best players in college basketball, pouring in 38 points and ripping down 15 boards in the semifinal, 94-79, win over Louisville. He followed that up with 28 points and 11 boards in the heartbreaking, 71-70 championship loss to California. That season, West earned his first of two All-American awards.