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The SoCon’s defining rivalry got national stage attention tonight

ETSU openned on the road at league favorite Chattanooga Thursday night on ESPNU

Syndication: The Knoxville News-Sentinel Saul Young/News Sentinel / USA TODAY NETWORK

East Tennessee State and Chattanooga sport one of the most-decorated mid-major basketball rivalries you might or might not be aware of.

It’s why this particular mid-major matchup had a national audience tonight when the two tipped it up with the ESPNU cameras on hand.

The two SoCon titans squared off against each other in the league opener for both. It was the 95th all-time meeting between the Volunteer State rivals, with UTC holding the narrow 49-45 series edge.

But the lead-up to the matchup deserves some hype, even if Chattanooga took a convincing 82-52 win to improve to 11-3 and take its 50th win in the series.

The Bucs posted one of the six power six league wins for the SoCon during the non-conference, becoming the second team to knock off Georgia, with thrilling 86-84 win in Athens a week ago.

The two tradition-rich mid-major league rivals have seen success follow them whatever level or league they have been a part of.

ETSU and UTC have combined to win 52 regular-season or conference tournament titles, with UTC having won 30 (11 regular season/11 tourney titles/eight division crowns).

The Bucs can lay claim to 22 league crowns, which includes 14 North Division titles and eight regular-season titles. Like UTC, the Bucs have made 11 NCAA Tournament appearances, matching the most NCAA appearances of any of the league members.

Chattanooga snapped a 10-game skid — the longest in the series by either program — in a big way last season, posting a regular-season sweep with thrillers of 67-65 in Johnson City on a buzzer-beating three by A.J. Caldwell. The Mocs also held on for dear life in Chattanooga to gut out a 53-51 victory.

As fate would have it, the two would meet in the Southern Conference Tournament quarterfinals, with the Mocs heading to Asheville as the No. 4 overall seed, while ETSU as the No. 5 seed.

The Mocs received some unfortunate news due to COVID-19 positive tests within the program, with a couple of key players having to miss the semifinal clash with UTC. One of those missing pieces due to the pandemic unfortunately for the Mocs was leading scorer and rebounder Malachi Smith, who was sidelined due to a positive test.

That was enough to see the Bucs claim their lone win over UTC last season, posting a 63-53 win over the Mocs to end UTC’s season two wins short of 20 victories, while ETSU would be knocked out in the semifinals the very next day by eventual champion UNCG.

While the Mocs were selected to win the league by the conference coaches and media, the perennial SoCon power Bucs were picked third in by the league’s coaches, while the media selected ETSU fifth.

By far ETSU’s best non-conference win came over Murray State in the Naples Invitational.

The Mocs have notched pair of wins against one of the favorites to win the Big South Conference, in UNC Asheville, winning 78-73 on the road while routing the Bulldogs, 75-45, in mid-November.

A 56-54 win over VCU and a 77-65 win over a Middle Tennessee State that should compete towards the upper half of the Conference USA have been enough to say that, at least so far, the Mocs have lived up to expectation.

Chattanooga’s consensus selection to get back to the NCAA Tournament, as well as win the regular-season league crown were as close to a “no-brainer” as you could get for both media and coaches.

After all, not only did the Mocs return two all-conference guards, in David Jean-Baptiste (14.5 PPG, 2.5 RPG, 43.4 3-point percentage) and Malachi Smith (20.4 PPG, 6.5 RPG), but also added two major transfers during the off-season, in 6-foot-9 former Kansas big Silvio De Sousa and former 6-foot-10 Central Florida center Avery Diggs.

Both have been immediate impact performers, and have given the Mocs a power conference edge in one of the top emerging mid-major conferences in the country over the past seven years.

De Sousa gives the Mocs something they lacked last season: a rim protector. The grad senior heads into Thursday night’s clash averaging 1.3 blocks-per-game, which is good enough to rank him fifth overall in the SoCon in that particular category. On the offensive end, one needs to look no further than De Sousa’s league-leading 58.3% field goal clip to understand he’s made quite the impact on both ends.

His addition, although not a like comparison being that former transfer and all-league big man Justin Tuoyo (2014-17) came from VCU as opposed to Kansas, but the impact that Tuoyo when he first came on to the scene for the Mocs back during the 2014-15 season before helping lead the Mocs to the title the very next season.

Unfortunately for UTC fans, De Sousa only gets one year to get it all right.

As good as De Sousa has been, however, the Mocs’ top player, and the SoCon’s top player has been wing guard Malachi Smith. Smith leads the SoCon in scoring (20.4 PPG), ranks second in field goal percentage (54.8%). Over his last seven games, Smith is averaging 26 PPG, scoring at least 21 points in six of those.

Like Chattanooga, ETSU entered the season with plenty of transfer talent to look to, and the embarrassment of riches talent-wise for the Bucs is starting to come of age just in time.

While most who have followed ETSU basketball during the post-Steve Forbes era will easily recognize players like LeDarrius Brewer (12.5 PPG, 5.2 RPG), Ty Brewer (9.7 PPG, 6.4 RPG) and David Sloan (11.8 PPG, 58 assists, 2.8 RPG), the continued impact of player’s like Siena transfer Jordan King (12.2 PPG, 2.9 RPG) and Wichita State transfer Jayden Seymour (3.4 PPG, 2.8 RPG) has Buc fans giddy about what might be in store for league play.