The oldest college basketball tournament in the nation will get underway Friday in Asheville, N.C., as East Tennessee State tops the 10-team field of what could possibly be the strongest contingent of teams to ever take part in the SoCon Championship.
East Tennessee State held off Western Carolina on Saturday afternoon to claim the SoCon’s outright regular-season title and remain in at-large conversations. The Bucs currently rank 38th in the NET.
This year’s SoCon tournament has a chance to be the one of the best in college basketball.
All times Eastern.
First round (Friday, March 6) — ESPN+
Game 1: No. 8 Samford vs. No. 9 VMI, 5 p.m.
Game 2: No. 7 Wofford vs. No. 10 The Citadel, 7:30 p.m.
Second round (Saturday, March 7)— ESPN+/Nexstar
Game 3: No. 1 ETSU vs. Game 1 winner, noon
Game 4: No. 4 Mercer vs. No. 5 Western Carolina, 2:30 p.m.
Game 5: No. 2 Furman vs. Game 2 winner, 6 p.m.
Game 6: No. 3 UNCG vs. No. 6 Chattanooga 8:30 p.m.
Semifinals (Sunday, March 8) — ESPN+/Nexstar
Game 7: Game 3 winner vs. Game 4 winner, 4 p.m.
Game 8: Game 5 winner vs. Game 6 winner, 6:30 p.m.
Championship (Monday, March 9) — ESPN
Game 9: Game 7 winner vs. Game 8 winner, 7 p.m.
ETSU is so good defensively. The Bucs held 16 of their 18 conference opponents under 70 points in league play this season, but went 1-1 in games in which the opposition posted 70 or more points. Mercer handed ETSU its lone home loss of the season with a 71-55 win in Johnson City. The only other time the Bucs allowed more than 70 points in league play was against Samford.
Aside from Mercer, the only other conference team to knock off the Bucs was No. 2 seed Furman.
The Bucs come to Asheville as the favorite, having battled plenty of adversity along the way, which has included overcoming an injury to forward Jeromy Rodriguez, who missed nearly the entire conference season before returning against Wofford in the Bucs second-to-last conference game.
Rodriguez was instrumental in helping the Bucs notch the league marquee win in non-conference play, as the Bucs took down LSU in Baton Rouge. That win has kept the Bucs in the conversation as an at-large qualifier for the NCAA Tournament even if they don’t cut the nets down in Asheville.
Should ETSU win it, it would mark their second conference tournament title under fifth-year head coach Steve Forbes.
Outside of ETSU, the primary contenders are the usual suspects: Furman and UNC Greensboro.
Second-seeded Furman hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament in 40 years. Despite the fact that most couldn’t have envisioned Bob Richey’s Paladins coming close to the season they had in 2018-19, all Furman has done is match a school-record with 25 regular-season wins.
Led by dynamic scorer Jordan Lyons, the Paladins enter the tournament as one of the hottest teams in the league, having won 10 of its last 11. The only loss in that span was a 75-66 setback at East Tennessee State. Also included in that span might be Furman’s signature win of the season, which was an 81-67 win at UNC Greensboro last week.
The road for Richey’s Paladins, however, is tricky. The Paladins face a potential quarterfinal matchup with No. 7 seed Wofford and a rematch with Wes Miller’s ultra-talented UNCG Spartans in the semifinals.
The Spartans lost their final two conference games of the season, dropping back-to-back contests to Furman and at Chattanooga. The Spartans have the hardest player to guard in the SoCon in Isaiah Miller, who is once again the league’s top defensive player with a league-leading 83 steals.
Miller’s 12 games with 20 or more points are tied for the most in the league this season. Eight of those 20-plus performances have come in league play. The Spartans’ path to a Monday night title clash with ETSU would likely involve knocking off the two teams that beat them to close the regular season.
The dark horse
Western Carolina is the toughest team to guard. With Mason Faulkner running the point and the league’s best post player — double-double machine Carlos Dotson — Western Carolina has all the ingredients to win the SoCon title.
Faulkner has two triple doubles this season, while Dotson has 18 double-doubles, with 14 of those coming in league play. If he can stay out of foul trouble and the Catamounts can tighten up a team defense that ranked eighth in scoring defense (74.6 PPG), then they have a fighting chance to make it to Monday night.
On one hand, a two-bid SoCon if any team beats ETSU in the championship would be good for the conference. More likely than not, Furman vs. ETSU will be a good matchup; both won by nine on each other’s home floor this season. The SoCon as a whole wins if the Paladins cut down the nets and the Bucs receive an at-large bid after UNCG’s snub last year.
On the other hand, ETSU has been finding different ways to win, including Patrick Good’s eight-minute instructional three-point shooting video in a win regular-season finale over Western Carolina.
While we're at it, let's take a look at Patrick Good's 7 3's, putting the team on his back. @patgood00 hit all of them with under 8 minutes left in the game. Clutch work for @ETSU_MBB. @WJHL11 pic.twitter.com/Irw71grBrQ— Michael Epps WJHL (@MichaelEppsWJHL) March 1, 2020
If the Bucs do win, it will be another one-bid year.
Prove us all wrong again Furman, and you will reward the oldest conference tournament with two bids for the first time ever.