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SoCon Tournament preview: Wofford goes in search of perfection

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Is this the most anticipated SoCon Tournament in its long history?

NCAA Basketball: Wofford at Kansas Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

In the history of the nation’s oldest conference-sponsored postseason basketball tournament, the 99th edition of the Southern Conference tournament might be more anticipated than any other.

Two programs achieved national rankings for the first time in their respective histories, with one of those teams still ranked as we head into the Southern Conference Tournament. Current AP No. 22 Wofford and former No. 23 Furman have both been ranked this season, which marks the first time that two teams have ever been ranked in the same season in SoCon history.

Consider that statement for a second. A conference tournament that has played host to Jerry West, Stephen Curry, Frank Selvy, Rodney Clark, “Hot Rod” Hundley and Keith “Mister” Jennings being less anticipated than the 2019 edition says something about just how tough the SoCon has been to navigate this season.

It marks the third-straight season four teams have won 20 or more games. To give you an idea of how significant that is, it’s never happened before in SoCon history. With four more wins this season, Samford would become the fifth team to win 20 games, which is a feat having never been accomplished in the 100-year history of the SoCon.

The top four teams in the SoCon have combined for 99 wins, posting a record of 99-23 in the regular-season. Those four (Wofford, UNCG, Furman and ETSU) were a combined 47-1 against the bottom six teams in the SoCon.

For the first-time with serious consideration, and not in passive conversation, the phrase “at-large bid” is being bantered about among fans, as well as both local and national media pundits.

Favorites:

NCAA Basketball: Furman at Villanova Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Furman: The excitement started from the very outset of the season, when Clay Mounce’s dunk allowed Furman (24-6, 13-5 SoCon) to claim the first of its two Final Four scalps from a year ago, as his thunderous finish allowed the Paladins to escape Loyola Chicago with a shocking 60-58 win. Furman’s 24 wins coming into the tournament are a school record.

“It’s been an awesome season both personally and team-wise,” senior forward Matt Rafferty said. “In the summer we all believed in each other and we were all excited for the season and ready for it, and you know although we lost some guys, we were all confident we could do what we have done this season.”

It would be the start of a nine-day stretch that would put both Furman basketball and the SoCon on the national radar all season, and it would be a destination the SoCon never ghosted all season.

The Paladins also upset No. 8 and defending national champ Villanova, defeating the Wildcats, 76-68, in overtime. In Furman’s win over the Wildcats, Rafferty would become a household name for even casual college basketball fans, as he posted 15 points, 17 rebounds, three assists, four blocks, and two steals.

It would culminate in a 12-0 start to non-conference play, a Top 25 ranking for three weeks, and national exposure for both Furman and the SoCon that you couldn’t put a price on. Furman would rise as high as No. 23 in the Associated Press poll, but would be brought back down to earth, with a 75-57 loss to LSU just before Christmas.

Rafferty admits this season has been fun with so much competition within the SoCon.

“It’s fun going out there against this kind of competition every night in this kind of season for the conference,” he said. “As both an individual and as a team you know you are going to get challenged every night, and that’s what makes it fun”

Vocal leadership was something Rafferty had to step up and take as one of his new roles this season. That’s something that he admits he had to work at in the offseason and as this campaign has progressed, but it’s been his teammates, like Jordan Lyons that have helped be part of a collective leadership group for the Paladins.

“The spring was a little weird working out without the four seniors there and some of our most vocal guys last year, but I think on top of increasing myself vocally,” he said. “I think Jordan Lyons has done a great job with his growth this season in that area has been greater than anyone I’ve ever seen and that’s not only on the court, but off the court as well.”

While Furman’s start was the tip of the iceberg for a big season for the SoCon, it’s what Wofford has done through its remarkable run through Southern Conference play that has most people talking now. Furman sustained the league’s presence in the national media through Christmas, and the Terriers have carried that torch ever since.

Wofford: The Terriers became the first SoCon team since 2007-08 Davidson to complete the regular-season unbeaten, finishing with a perfect 18-0 league record. It was their fourth regular season title since joining the SoCon as a member in 1995-96. The Terriers have yet to lose in 2019 and haven’t tasted defeat since losing at Mississippi State back on Dec. 19.

The Terriers come to Asheville sporting a school-record 17-game winning streak, which ranks second to only top-ranked Gonzaga. Wofford, which is sporting its first-ever national ranking, will enter the 2019 SoCon Tournament ranked No. 22 in the Associated Press poll, while also being ranked No. 22 in the USA Today coaches poll.

Head coach Mike Young brings one of his most talented teams he’s ever coached in his 17 seasons at Wofford, and that includes four teams that claimed NCAA Tournament berths.

That talent was evident from the outset of the season, as Wofford made an early statement beating South Carolina in November.

NCAA Basketball: Wofford at North Carolina
Fletcher Magee has led a dominant Wofford squad.
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Wofford is led by two of the SoCon’s top players, in record-setting guard Fletcher Magee (20.7 PPG, 2.7 RPG) and All-SoCon post Cameron Jackson (14.5 PPG, 7.5 RPG). Wofford also played the toughest non-conference slate of any team in the league, preparing the Terriers for their regular-season title run.

Wofford faced No. 8 North Carolina (L, 67-78) at the Jerry Richardson Indoor Stadium to open the season, and the Terriers also went toe-to-toe on the road with No. 2 Kansas (L, 47-72), No. 17 Mississippi State (L, 87-98), and Oklahoma (L, 64-75) during non-conference play, and had a game canceled with Stanford early on in the season due to forest fires.

Given what each has done this season, the game against the Cardinal would have been another golden opportunity for the Terriers to slay one of college basketball’s big boys.

Should the Terriers win three games in Asheville, it would mark just the third time in the history of the SoCon that a team has finished conference play 16-0 or better and gone on to win the tournament.

Only the 1998-99 College of Charleston Cougars and the 2007-08 Davidson Wildcats went 16-0 or better and gone on to win the SoCon Tournament. Magee also needs just 15 more three pointers to set the all-time NCAA mark.

Furman and Wofford will be the favorites based on what they have shown throughout the regular season, but really, Wofford is the team to beat and the main favorite heading to Asheville.

Other Contenders:

UNC Greensboro (26-5, 15-3 SoCon) and East Tennessee State (23-8, 13-5 SoCon) round out that top four that comes to Asheville ranked in the Top 66 of the NET rankings. Both have played in each of the previous two league title games, while the Bucs have been in the last three.

The Spartans are the defending SoCon champions, knocking off the Bucs, 62-47, in the 2018 championship game in Asheville. For ETSU, head coach Steve Forbes needs just one more win to reach 100 in now his fourth season as the head coach of the Bucs. That would equate to an average of 25 wins a season. The Spartans have won 25 or more games each of the past three seasons.

Keep an eye on high-flying guard Isaiah Miller (14.8 PPG, 3.03 SPG) for UNCG, as well as rebounding machine Jeromy Rodriguez (11.5 PPG, 11.0 RPG) for ETSU. Miller is one of the SoCon’s most electrifying dunkers, and Rodriguez has been one of the top newcomers in the SoCon this season. Rodriguez ranks seventh nationally in rebounding (11.0 RPG), and ranks second in the SoCon this season with 14 double-doubles. Miller ranks fifth nationally in steals per game (3.03 SPG)

One of the dark horse teams to watch could be Samford (16-15, 6-12 SoCon). They took Wofford to overtime before losing 106-105. Less than 48 hours later, the Bulldogs, under the direction of fifth-year head coach Scott Padgett, shocked Furman, with a 75-73 win at Timmons Arena.

Samford will be the No. 7 seed and will face No. 10 The Citadel in the second Friday night first round game. If you’re a fan of mid-major basketball, you need to be tuned into this tournament because you will be in for a real treat. There’s still one chapter of this amazing season in the SoCon still to be written.

Prediction:

Wofford comes in firing on all cylinders, and even if the Terriers don’t win the title, Mike Young’s club will be dancing as the SoCon’s first-ever at-large bid. However, while that is a real possibility, I will take the Terriers over the Paladins in the SoCon championship game Monday night. ETSU, UNCG and Furman are all capable of winning this tournament, but what makes Wofford so versatile is three players shooting 40 percent from three, and then having one of the best post scoring presences in the SoCon in Cam Jackson. While it’s very possible Wofford gets knocked off, it’s not likely if it keeps executing at this level. However, if they do, SoCon commissioner John Iamarino and the league as a whole wins big-time, getting two bids for the first time.