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The SoCon race is shaping up to be a wild one

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While there’s no 2018-19 Wofford, some interesting storylines starting to emerge as we approach the midway point of league play.

NCAA Basketball: East Tennessee State at Kansas Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

The first few weeks of Southern Conference action have made at least one thing clear: there is no 2018-19 Wofford. There is no team will make it through this season’s league race undefeated — as Mike Young’s Terriers did a year ago — following Western Carolina’s 83-79 loss at Furman last Wednesday night.

There are still plenty of contenders in one of the country’s strongest mid-major leagues. Over half the conference sits within two games of first place, which includes both Wofford and Furman, which played in a nationally-televised game last Friday night, as the two rivals went toe-to-toe with a battle on ESPNU. It was the Terriers who were able to make the most of the opportunity, taking down the Paladins for the 14th time in the last 18 meetings between the two.

The Terriers, who had shot poorly in a loss to Chattanooga, rebounded to shoot 49.1 percent in the win over the Paladins. Furman, meanwhile, looked a lot like Wofford did at Chattanooga for much of the night shooting the basketball, as the Paladins would be held to just 39.2 percent shooting for the game, and Paladin star guard Jordan Lyons was held to just five points, and went 0-8 from the field, with two assists and four turnovers.

Furman and Wofford will meet again on Feb. 22 in downtown Greenville at the Bon Secours Wellness Arena with a crowd that could potentially double the one that was on-hand at Jerry Richardson Indoor Stadium this past Friday night.

The Paladins fell to 15-2 when holding opponents under 80 points this season, with the only other team to accomplish a win over Furman when doing that being South Florida, who knocked off Furman, 65-55, back in early December.

Below are some of the storylines that have emerged early in the conference season.

Furman’s woes

The Paladins have now two of their last three SoCon games. Is it time to worry about Bob Richey’s club? Probably not. It was about this time last season following back-to-back road losses to UNC Greensboro and Wofford when we asked ourselves the same question.

Looking back at last season, however, the Paladins were 15-4 at this very same juncture, with a 4-3 conference record. Probably not time to worry just yet about the Paladins, but we’re keeping an eye on current developments.

In the second half of the win over Western Carolina and the first half in the loss to Wofford, Catamount big man Carlos Dotson and Terrier forward Chevez Goodwin combined to go 15-17 from the field for 33 points.

Catamounts come back down to earth

Coming into last week, Western Carolina sat alone atop the Southern Conference standings with a perfect 4-0 record. Wins over Chattanooga, Mercer, at The Citadel, at VMI had folks in Cullowhee entertaining thoughts of the magic of the 1995-1996 season, the only time since moving to NCAA Division I as a full-time member that the Catamounts have made it to the NCAA Tournament.

However, Catamount fans remained skeptical. Sure they had played Florida State and put out respectable performances at both Georgia and ranked Xavier in defeats, but the Catamounts had yet to find that signature win.

Wednesday at Furman and Saturday at home against East Tennessee State offered a pair of golden opportunities for Western Carolina to prove that it was a legitimate title contender, and one that was ready to take its spot at the table of the SoCon upper echelon.

After a tough 83-79 setback in Greenville on Wednesday night, the Catamounts headed back to Cullowhee looking to put an end to a 12-game losing streak they had against East Tennessee State, however, the Bucs had other ideas.

The Catamounts were dealt a huge blow when it was learned that their heart-and-soul player Carlos Dotson would have to miss the game with a lower body injury suffered in practice. That made star point guard Mason Faulkner’s job that much harder, and while young freshman post Xavier Cork is an emerging star underneath for the Catamounts, he’s not Dotson.

Isaiah Tisdale’s monster outing for the Bucs saw him finish with 26 points and 12 rebounds, as the Bucs waltzed out of the Ramsey Center with an 85-66 win. It was the 26th win for the Bucs over the Catamounts in the past 27 meetings.

What should we make of Western Carolina’s tough week? Probably not much. They played well on the road in a tough environment in Greenville in a game that the Catamounts could have very easily won. One thing is for sure, the Catamounts are a completely different team without their big man as a threat underneath. Get well soon Carlos.

UNC Greensboro continues steady play after a shaky start to league play

After a less-than-spectacular 2-2 start to Southern Conference play for head coach Wes Miller’s UNC Greensboro club, it was put up or shut time when the Spartans arrived in Greenville to face Furman fresh off a second-straight league loss.

The Spartans responded in a win that could have changed the course of their fortunes in the 2019-20 season, posting an impressive 86-73 win over previously league unbeaten Furman.

The Spartans turned 17 Paladin turnovers into 24 points, while also using timely threes to keep the Paladins from entertaining in notion of getting back into the game to give UNCG a pivotal road win.

Here’s something pretty amazing about UNCG. In wins over Furman, The Citadel and Chattanooga, the Spartans have forced 68 turnovers, with 40 steals and have converted those 68 opponent miscues into 74 points. That means 31.2 percent of UNCG’s scoring in its current three-game winning streak have come via forced turnovers converted into points on the other.

Isaiah Miller has looked every bit the part of his preseason billing of SoCon Player of the Year. He led the Spartans to victory over the weekend, scoring 26 points in the win over Chattanooga. He is currently leading the league in scoring at 18.5 PPG, while ranking second in steals-per-game (2.7 SPG) and seventh in assists-per-game (3.1 APG)

Not to be overlooked is the play over James Dickey over the past three games. In the win at Furman, Dickey posted eight points, 12 boards and seven assists in the 86-73 road win. He followed that up with a career-high 19 points and 12 rebounds in the 89-79 win at The Citadel. Dickey currently leads the SoCon in rebounding, averaging 9.0 RPG.

ETSU is starting to hit its stride

Like UNCG, East Tennessee State is starting to hit its stride. Since dropping a 65-56 game at Furman early in conference place, the Bucs have reeled off four-straight wins to catapult to the top of the SoCon.

The Bucs have been playing without one of the premier players in the league, and have had to adjust, as Jeromy Rodriguez remains sidelined with an injury. No timetable has been set for his return, however, the Bucs have had others stepped up as of late to help fill the void in rebounding in scoring left by Rodriguez.

Players like Central Connecticut State grad transfer Joe Hugley and center Lucas N’Guessan have stepped up their play underneath the basket. Over the past four games, Hugley has scored 14 points in wins over both UNCG and Samford.

N’Guessan has really stepped up his play, scoring in double figures each of the past three outings, scoring in double figures in all three, including 15 points last time out against Western Carolina. It marks the first time this season that N’Guessan has put together three-straight double-figure scoring efforts.

I’ve harped on it before, but Bo Hodges in my opinion is ETSU’s best all-around player. He’s backing up that claim this season, and his work on the defensive end of the floor has been outstanding all season.

Hodges’ individual defensive efforts are just a sample of what ETSU has been able to do as a team defensively all season. His performance might become part of what could turn out to be a record-breaking season for the Bucs on the defensive end of the floor. The Bucs are holding foes to just 61.9 PPG, which ranks 34th in the nationally.

The Bucs have been even better since the start of Southern Conference play. In seven league games so far, the Bucs lead the league in in scoring defense, allowing just 62.6 PPG, and since the calendar turned to 2020, no team in the SoCon has reached 70 points against the Bucs. The lone conference foe to score more than 70 against ETSU in SoCon play is The Citadel, and that came back in December, as the Bucs claimed a 96-84 win in Charleston.

Curious Djordje

If there has been a better player this week than Mercer’s Djordje Dimitrijevic, I am not really sure who it would be. Over the past three games, Dimitirijevic has scored 34, 26 and 25 points, respectively.

That trio of performances for the Mercer senior sharp-shooter, and the Serbian-born Dimitrejevic has looked like the SoCon’s own version of Sacramento Kings shooting guard and Serbian-born Bogdan Bogdanović as of late.

In the past three games at Western Carolina, vs. VMI, and at Samford, Dimitrijevic has connected on 14-of-22 three-pointers in the past three outings, which converts to an impressive 63.6% clip from long-range.

His 34-point effort in a loss to Western Carolina is a career-high. His 26 and 25 points in back-to-back games vs. VMI and Samford have helped Mercer first-year head coach Greg Gary to his first two SoCon wins.

Not to be overlooked for the Bears is the play of Ethan Stair, who became the 41st player in Mercer history to score his 1,000th point with Mercer’s 90-75 win at Samford last weekend.