GREENSBORO, N.C. — When Furman was ranked for a few weeks this past December, media folks from the national and local level flocked to the Paladins’ game to see what was up. And during that time, there was one question head coach Bob Richey grew tired of being asked.
How good is the SoCon?
“The SoCon has been good,” Richey said matter-of-factly on Dec. 4, when he was again asked the question after Furman beat Elon. “We don’t get on TV. We don’t get on ESPN. So, nobody knows, but like, we played last year at ETSU with 6,000 people there… This is some of the best mid-major ball you’re going to find.”
“You go down the line and it’s a great league… It’s pure. If you want to see good ball, there’s a lot of good basketball in the Southern Conference and there’s a lot of phenomenal coaches.”
Indeed. The Southern Conference has gotten more publicity than usual in recent seasons because of the success its teams are having.
But this year, talk about the league based in the southeastern corridors of the United States has been elevated. Some have even wondered: Is the SoCon a two-bid league? We’ll find out soon.
Spotlight on the league began this season when Richey’s side beat two Final Four squads from last March, as Furman topped Loyola Chicago and Villanova on the road in November. Those wins highlighted an eight-game winning streak and voters put them in the AP Top 25 Poll. But the Paladins were quickly booted from the ranks after back-to-back losses to LSU and ETSU to end December.
National attention has returned to the league because of Wofford’s recent run. The Terriers are 21-4, have won 12 straight and are armed with several talented players, one of which is Fletcher Magee, who just passed a guy named J.J. Redick for second place on the list for career three-pointers.
But the SoCon isn’t all Wofford and Furman. The league is deep. The league is talented. The league is damn good.
In the 2018-19 non-conference slate, teams from the SoCon notched wins against the Big East, the SEC, the American, CUSA and the Mountain West. And those games weren’t won by just Furman and Wofford. As of Monday, five SoCon teams were ranked in the top 140 by KenPom.
And the team that might win the conference title again hasn’t even been mentioned yet.
While Furman and Wofford have been highly discussed this season, UNCG is quietly having one of its best seasons in program history.
The Spartans win over VMI on Jan. 31 marked the first time in the school’s history that its men’s basketball team had won 20 games or more in three consecutive seasons. UNCG is 22-3 on the year, only losing to LSU, Kentucky and aforementioned Wofford. Currently, they’re riding an eight-game winning streak. They’ve also won six straight games on the road, trailing only Wofford and No. 1 Tennessee for the longest run of road victories.
With UNCG’s win over Chattanooga on Saturday, it became the fastest Spartan team to reach the 22-win mark. The only other teams with 22 wins so far this season are Gonzaga, Houston and Nevada.
Is UNCG hitting its stride? Brace yourself: head coach Wes Miller is about to give a boring answer to this cliched question, and he knows it.
“Y’all will hate this answer, but I don’t ever think like that. Are you struggling or not struggling – it’s hard to keep this mentality, but we’re trying everyday as a staff like, ‘What can we do tomorrow to get better?’ That’s all we’re trying to think about,” Miller says. “But sometimes you think you’re hitting your stride and you show up the next day and you stink. Sometimes you think you stink and you show up the next day and you’re great. Let’s just focus on what we can control and for us, that’s just trying to get better tomorrow.
“And that’s boring, but it’s the truth.”
The thing that is the furthest from boring is how UNCG plays basketball.
It might not seem that way on paper, as the Spartans don’t lead the SoCon in made three-pointers or tempo or blocked shots, but they have mastered unpredictability. The Spartans know who they are, but no one else does.
Over this eight-game winning streak, Miller hasn’t wavered from the same starting lineup of Demetrius Troy, Francis Alonso, Isaiah Miller, James Dickey and Kyrin Galloway. But in that same stretch, five different players have led UNCG in scoring, and two of them came from the bench.
This isn’t a one-trick pony team. This isn’t a team that can be stopped if you throw a box-and-one or a triangle-and-two at the star player. The Spartans can have a different leading man on any given night.
“We have a lot of offensive weapons if we continue to play the right way with five guys attacking aggressively but also willing to share the ball and do their jobs,” Miller said. “It’s five guys consumed with trying to get a great shot.”
Aside from just scoring, the Spartans also have multiple players who can handle the ball, read the defense, run the offense and create shots for others. Over that same stretch of eight games, four different Spartans have led or tied for the team lead in assists.
“It makes us a little unpredictable because we do have a lot of weapons and we have a great bench,” Troy said. “We’re very deep.”
The usual suspects are Alonso, Miller and Troy.
A 6-foot-3 senior from Spain, Alonso has an ability to slow the game down. One moment, it looks like he’s lost possession of the ball and the next he’s crossing it back over, scurrying by his opponent and lofting a shot towards the basket. He’s fourth in the SoCon in scoring this season.
Miller, a 6-foot sophomore from Covington, Georgia, is armed with a nose for the ball, speed and explosiveness that at times can’t be matched. Against VMI, he brought the Greensboro Coliseum to its feet when he swiped away a ball in the backcourt and took off for a one-handed slam. In Rupp Arena against Kentucky, he picked an errant Wildcats pass out of the air and bolted to the other end of the floor, dunking the ball with such force that the partners on the ESPN broadcast said “Wow!” and “Oh my goodness!” at the same time. As of Monday, he was eighth in the nation in steals and ninth in the SoCon in scoring.
Isaiah Miller does it all by himself!— Basketball Society (@BBallSociety_) December 1, 2018
(via @clippittv) pic.twitter.com/mgnIbCRfs6
And then there’s Troy, a 6-foot senior from nearby Raleigh. He’s third in the SoCon in assists with 4.2 per-game, and is often tasked with being the on-floor organizer for the Spartans. But he can score it too. He only has nine games with double-digit points this season, but scored 20 against VMI, showing that, when his team needs him, he can put the ball in the bucket. In high school, at Word of God Christian, Troy had three games with 40 points or more as a senior.
“He’s always been a leader within our team, but he’s become a better floor leader within games over the course of this year,” coach Wes Miller said. “He helps organize our team, he’s an elite passer, makes others better, and he has this great ability to score the basketball.
“When he scores it at a high level, we’re a different team. We’re a much more dynamic team. You can’t just pay attention to Francis and Isaiah.”
A season ago, the SoCon spotlight was on Steve Forbes and his ETSU team as they went on a run of 16 straight wins from Dec. 19 through Feb. 10. And then the Buccaneers lost to UNCG and lost their grip on the regular season title with three straight losses to end the season. ETSU lost in the SoCon tournament final and didn’t appear in the NCAA tournament or the NIT.
It’s a reminder that, for a league like the SoCon, these individual moments of fame and success can fade quickly with one or a handful of losses. Had a Pac-12 team won 16 games in a row at any point in a season, they would have been shoe-ins for the Big Dance. That’s not the case coming from the SoCon.
So, while Furman and Wofford have carried the torch for the conference in December, January and February, what’s likely going to matter is who emerges from the March dust in Asheville, when the SoCon tournament is played.
UNCG won it last season, and while they’ve flown under the radar this year, they have the talent to do it again.
“We got to stay consistent, keep our effort where it needs to be, stay together and make sure our focus is there every single day – every practice, every film session, every game,” Troy said. “We feel like we’ve put ourselves in a great position to have a chance to win the league.”