The Southern Conference has had some unprecedented success among its top four teams this year, and the strength of the league has been the talk of mid-major basketball this season.
Let’s take a look back at some of the definining moments in the first half of conference play, and some of the stories that have shaped league play through the first nine conference games. I will also provide my mid-season power rankings and All-SoCon teams.
Through the first half of Southern Conference play, no team has been as good as the Terriers, who head into Thursday night’s road clash at Mercer with a perfect 9-0 record. Mike Young’s Terriers have won more than their fair share of close games so far, including thrillers against both Furman (59-54) and Samford (107-106 OT) in the last couple of weeks.
Wofford is trying to become the first team to complete the regular-season conference slate unbeaten since Davidson in 2007-08, as Bob McKillop’s Wildcats went 20-0 in regular-season play and became one of the few teams in recent Southern Conference history to complete both the league slate and tournament unbeaten, finishing out 23-0.
If the Terriers could do that, Mike Young’s Wofford team could put this team up against that Davidson team and the 1998-99 College of Charleston club as one of the greatest teams in modern Southern Conference history. But first things first.
Over the second half of SoCon play, the Terriers will make trips to Mercer (Jan. 31), East Tennessee State (Feb. 7), at Furman (Feb. 23) and at Samford (Mar. 2). All of the aforementioned teams gave the Terriers all they could handle in Spartanburg the first time around.
No one will soon forget the play of Storm Murphy through the first half of Southern Conference play for the Terriers. All Murphy did was hit a game-winning three-pointer with 18 seconds remaining to beat Furman, and hit a fade-a-way jumper at the buzzer to help the Terriers best Samford.
Fletcher Magee and Cameron Jackson, as expected, have also been key to Wofford’s early conference play dominance thus far. Magee has posted back-to-back games of 31 and 24 points in wins over both Samford and Chattanooga, respectively. Magee is also the SoCon’s all-time record-holder in three-pointers made, and continues to climb the charts in hopes of setting a new NCAA mark, which is a very remote possibility.
He currently has 436 made three-point field goals, and needs 69 more triples this season to surpass Oakland’s Travis Bader mark of 504, likely meaning the Terriers need to at least win the SoCon Tournament and make some kind of run in the NCAA Tournament. Magee is already a part of the Lou Henson Award watch list, which is given to the top player in mid-major basketball. Magee’s 436 triples ranks him fourth all-time in NCAA history.
Another player on that list for the Terriers is Cameron Jackson, who has had an outstanding first half of Southern Conference play, averaging 15.2 PPG and 7.9 RPG. Jackson has scored in double figures in all but one game this season for Wofford. Jackson narrowly missed a triple-double against Samford, scoring 19 points, dishing out nine assists and recording eight rebounds.
With all the talk about Furman early in the season, the Paladins were ranked and finished non-conference play with a 12-1 record and wins over No. 8 Villanova and Loyola-Chicago. However, the Paladins are just 5-4 in Southern Conference play.
Three road losses to East Tennessee State (56-79), UNC Greensboro (79-89) and Wofford (54-59) were kind of expected, although maybe the margin of defeat in the ETSU game was a little lopsided. Still, Bob Richey’s Paladins expected to get on a run with a favorable home schedule down the stretch.
That started nicely last week with a 73-58 win over Chattanooga at Timmons Arena, as the Paladins improved to 10-0 this season on the home hardwood. But Saturday’s 75-73 home loss to Samford has some questioning whether or not Furman has already peaked this season. The Paladins held a 71-61 lead with 4:21 remaining, but got out-scored 14-2 over the final portion of the game to drop a two-point contest at home.
That loss likely extinguished any regular-season title hopes for the Paladins, so Furman likely will fix its sights on finishing as high as it can in preparation for the Southern Conference Tournament.
One thing that has been evident this season is that the play from senior forward Matt Rafferty only seems to get stronger as the season progresses. Like Wofford’s Magee and Jackson, Rafferty is a part of the Lou Henson Award Watch list for mid-major basketball player of the year.
Rafferty has 10 double-doubles this season, which is second in the Southern Conference, while coming off an outstanding performance in the loss against Samford, posting 21 points, nine rebounds, seven assists and five steals. Rafferty is currently averaging 17.7 PPG, 4.3 APG and 9.1 RPG, while also sporting an impressive field goal percentage of 63.0%.
The Paladins will host games against ETSU (Feb. 9), UNCG (Feb. 14) and Wofford (Feb. 23). Furman begins a tough three-game road trip Thursday night as the Paladins begin the second go-around of conference games with a Thursday night trip to The Citadel.
Can ETSU and UNCG catch Wofford?
Both UNC Greensboro and East Tennessee State certainly survived the first half of Southern Conference play better than Furman did, and both sported home wins over the Paladins. Currently, the Spartans sport the SoCon’s best overall record at 19-3 overall and 8-1 in Southern Conference play.
The Spartans’ lone conference loss was a big one, which came on the home hardwood by 29 points (73-44) to Wofford earlier this month.
The two SoCon titans, who have met in each of the past two SoCon title games, met last week, with the Spartans taking a 75-68 win over the Bucs at Freedom Hall.
It was a bloodbath between the two SoCon rivals, as many expected it would be. The Spartans got a surprising performance off the bench from Angelo Allegri, who nailed five three-pointers and finished with 15 points off the bench. He was tied for team-high honors with All-SoCon guard Francis Alonso.
With James Dickey now fully healthy, I fully expect the Spartans to be the team we all thought they might be in the preseason in the second half.
Having said all that, watch out for ETSU. The Bucs responded to that rare home loss in strong fashion last time out, getting a school-record 11 triples from Patrick Good en route to a 91-69 win over Western Carolina.
First Half Grades:
- Wofford (A+)—Terriers have done nothing to disappoint so far, and could threaten an unbeaten SoCon mark.
- UNCG (A)—Only one blemish on the SoCon record, and it came as a result of a bad shooting night against the best team in the league to this point.
- ETSU (B+)—The Bucs have looked like the best team in the SoCon at times through the first half, and the emergence of both Patrick Good and Daivien Williamson has seen the backcourt come along quickly
- Furman (B-)—It probably would have been a B+ if Furman could have held serve Saturday on the home floor against Samford. Good teams close those games out. Paladins, the challenge has been issued.
- Samford (B-)—Scott Padgett’s Bulldogs looked extremely good in both games in their trip to the Upstate of South Carolina. It will be interesting to see the confidence level of this team Thursday night against ETSU.
- Chattanooga (B+)—Lamont Paris’ Chattanooga Mocs are performing above expectation to this point, and the Mocs have some nice young pieces, especially Jerry Johnson Jr. and Kevin Easley, who has arguably been the best freshman so far.
- Mercer (B)—Bob Hoffman has been a good enough coach to keep Mercer in most SoCon games thus far, and the Bears have done it with defense.
- Western Carolina (B)—Like Mercer, Western Carolina has been in most of its SoCon games, and the biggest win over the first half of league play came against Samford. Newcomers Kameron Gibson and big man Carlos Dotson are rising stars in this league.
- The Citadel (C-)—The Bulldogs have been a little disappointing so far through the first half of SoCon play, as I really thought the Bulldogs would be a darkhorse in the conference race.
- VMI (D)—The Keydets have had some tough setbacks as well, but the one bright spot continues to be guard Bubba Parham continues to lead the SoCon in scoring at 21.1 PPG.
First Half All-SoCon Team
G-Francis Alonso (UNCG)
G-Fletcher Magee (Wofford)
F-Matt Rafferty (Furman)
F-Jeromy Rodriguez (ETSU)
C-Cameron Jackson (Wofford)
First Half Player of the Year:
Matt Rafferty (Furman)
First Half Defensive Player of the Year:
Matt Rafferty (Furman)
First-Half All-Newcomer Team:
G-Daivien Williamson (ETSU)
G-Ryan Larson (Wofford)
G/F-Kevin Easley (Chattanooga)
F-Noah Gurley (Furman)
First-Half Newcomer of the Year:
Kevin Easley (Chattanooga)