The Southern Conference’s climb to mid-major elite status last year was an arduous one, and it goes back more than just a season.
Since 2015-16, the league has progressively improved, thanks in large part to its big four teams: East Tennessee State, UNC Greensboro, Wofford and Furman. ETSU won 100 games in four seasons, while UNCG won 96 and Furman posted 90.
Now, it’s time to see if the league can sustain its momentum in the post-Matt Rafferty, Fletcher Magee, Cam Jackson and Francis Alonso eras. To that end, let’s catch up with several teams and players from the conference, and see what they’ve been up to in the season’s early stages.
Furman returns four starters, so we knew the Paladins would be good. But exactly how good? Well, they have looked more than capable of being one of the teams to challenge league favorite East Tennessee State, at least so far, with dominating wins over Loyola University Chicago at home and Charleston Southern on the road.
Some questioned why I was so high on Clay Mounce last season, and now he is showing why, as he averaging 17.3 points per game on the young season.
Mounce, Noah Gurley and Jalen Slawson have been difference-makers for this Furman team early on, taking the pressure off of others and filling the void Rafferty left. Mounce has scored in double figures in all three games out of the gate this season, which he did in two stretches last season.
Also, Jordan Lyons has developed into one of the most complete players on both ends of the floor in mid-major basketball and Mike Bothwell is starting to emerge off the bench. Bothwell had 12 points and a career-high four assists Tuesday night against , and has scored in double figures in back-to-back games.
We warned you about Mark Prosser’s club during the offseason.
Since a season-opening loss to Georgia, the Carlos Dotson-led Catamounts have posted impressive wins over Gardner-Webb and North Carolina A&T.
While Dotson’s 17 points and 15 boards were impressive in the opener against the Bulldogs, Northern Kentucky transfer Mason Faulkner did something that is rarely done on the SoCon hardwood by posting a triple-double (13 points, 10 assists, 10 boards).
That was the first-ever triple-double ever recorded in Western Carolina’s Division I era, which dates back to 1976-77. Available records suggest it might be the first in the school’s entire history.
The Catamounts have a tough Florida road trip on the horizon, facing Florida State (Nov. 15), Jacksonville (Nov. 21) and Stetson (Nov. 24) consecutively. Nonetheless, Western Carolina should reach their win total of seven games of a year ago well before the holiday break.
Our coach is pretty smart. https://t.co/e65sY7kg7x— UNCG Basketball (@UNCGBasketball) November 11, 2019
Like Furman, it isn’t that much of a surprise that UNC Greensboro is once again looking like a team that will compete for a conference title. Along with the Paladins, expect Wes Miller’s bunch to be right there at the doorstep of ETSU.
The Spartans and Kaleb Hunter showed us all they could against Kansas in UNCG’s second game of the season, as the Spartans held five first-half leads over the third-ranked Jayhawks before eventually going to the locker room with a 36-32 deficit. Hunter recorded his first-career double-double with 17 points and a career-high 12 rebounds in what was a more than respectable 74-62 loss at Allen Fieldhouse.
A newcomer to keep an eye on as the season moves forward is Michael Hueitt Jr. A transfer from Old Dominion, Hueitt was forced to sit out last year due to NCAA transfer requirements, but through the first three games is averaging 10.0 points per game and is shooting 47.1 percent from three.
Catching up with The Citadel’s Hayden Brown:
Back at the Mac this Saturday. Looking for the same energy as Tuesday night.— The Citadel Basketball (@CitadelHoops) November 14, 2019
Thanks to @SECNetwork and @UGAAthletics / @UGABasketball for sharing the footage with us! #EmbraceThePace | #CitadelMBB pic.twitter.com/iqQ5mhCMDe
I had a chance to catch up with The Citadel’s Hayden Brown following the Bulldogs’ 91-76 home loss to UNC Asheville.
”It is necessity for me to step up and not only be a vocal leader, but also on the court because our team is so young and that’s something that will be a must going up against a team like Georgia,” Brown said.
Despite an 95-86 loss to Georgia, there was a whole different feel about The Citadel’s basketball team coming out of that game as opposed to the season-opening loss to Asheville.
”We’re excited about the rest of this season even though today didn’t go how we wanted it to go, and we realize what we lost with the graduation of guys like Lew [Stallworth], Zane [Najdawi], Matt [Frierson] that guys like me, Kaiden [Rice] and Kaelon [Harris] are the veterans that have to step up now and lead us forward the rest of this year because this isn’t last year...This is a completely different team,” he added.
All Brown did was prove his own words to me this past Saturday to be prophetic, as he went out and nearly led The Citadel to a shocker, with 26 points and six rebounds against an SEC opponent.
The visiting Bulldogs from Charleston were in the game all night and never trailed by more than 12 points. It was one of Brown’s four triples that actually got The Citadel to within a point of Georgia, as the Bulldogs trailed 74-73, with just under 10 minutes to play.
He finished the game against Georgia with 26 points, six rebounds and two assists. He was 8-14 from the field, including going 4-7 from three-point range.
Wofford loses at home to William & Mary
Murphy making points with ease pic.twitter.com/8jLWS2EsOH— Wofford Basketball (@WoffordMBB) November 13, 2019
Wofford had the fourth-longest homecourt winning streak coming into Tuesday night’s game, but ended up with an 80-79 setback to William & Mary.
Bryce Barnes’ layup with just under four seconds to play handed Wofford its first loss of the season, bringing an end to a 17-game homecourt winning streak for the Tribe.
Though the loss was disappointing for the Terriers, it offered more of a chance to see Wofford’s athleticism and willingness to try and get out on the break. The Terriers got 18 points apiece out of guards Nathan Hoover and Storm Murphy, while Trevor Stumpe chipped in with 16 points in the loss.
The Tribe shot the ball at a blistering 56 percent from the field in the contest, and out-rebounded the Terriers 28-21 in the contest.
There will be some ups and downs in Jay McAuley’s first season as the head coach, but the positives should far outweigh the negatives this season for the Terriers. As players like 6-9 Messiah Jones and 6-7 Isaiah Bigelow continue to develop, this team will be one that should be playing its best basketballl of the season come February and March.
The Terriers head to Butler on Saturday, which will commence a string of four-straight games on the road.