In most seasons, the Southern Conference table looks like a big mess with endless possibilities in play for a league champion at the end of the first month of the league play.
That isn’t the case this season, however, as we embark on the most important portion of conference slate, the picture is about as clear as Secretariat’s 31 horse-length record-setting victory at the 1973 Belmont Stakes.
But unlike that famous event, the SoCon is a two-horse race this season. Chattanooga (18-4, 8-1 SoCon) and Furman (16-7, 8-2 SoCon) have distanced themselves from the rest of the conference.
When the two met in mid-January at Chattanooga’s legendary home venue “The Roundhouse,” the Mocs broke out their new gold-rush uniforms and knocked off a pesky Paladin club 71-69 before an excited and raucous home crowd.
Chattanooga currently sits at No. 41 in the NET rankings as of Tuesday morning, while Furman sits at 66. That means that both teams are worthy of being in the NCAA Tournament 68-team field.
The Mocs have had a healthy NET rank all season long, which includes a Quad 1 win at VCU (56-54 on Nov. 20).
The only tumble the Mocs took in the NET was following a 70-59 loss at Western Carolina, They bounced back three days later with that two-point win over Furman.
Not all conference schedules offer that built-in luxury, which is a testament to the league’s overall improvement.
Furman had dropped into the triple digits in the NET after the loss to Chattanooga, but Bob Richey’s team, has bounced back with a string of impressive victories: topping Western Carolina by 38, beating Wofford by 25, defeating VMI by 15 and winning at Mercer by 30. The Paladins won at Louisville in overtime during non-conference.
Mark your calendars for Feb. 12, Furman hosts Chattanooga. This game will go a long way in determining the No. 1 seed at the conference tournament in Asheville next month.
Battle for byes
The No. 3 team in the SoCon as we head into the final month of league play is Mercer (13-10, 6-4 SoCon).
The Bears have had their share of ‘ups’ and ‘downs’ through the opening month of league play. They are adjusting to playing without all-league first-team point guard Neftali Alvarez, who suffered a broken ankle late in non-conference play.
They started strong with wins in four of their first five SoCon games, and the only loss was at Furman. Over their last five games, the 2021 tournament runners-up have dropped three.
Mercer closed the month out in strong fashion, thanks to Jalen Johnson’s late triple to defeat Wofford. Coming up, the Bears are scheduled to face Chattanooga twice in a 48-hour span, starting with a trip to Chattanooga Saturday.
Wofford (13-10, 5-6) heads into their final month of the conference season on a down note, having dropped three of its last four.
One of the positives for the Terriers of late has been the play of Isaiah Bigelow, who has elevated his game during league play. The athletic wing, who missed the entire 2020-21 season with a knee injury, has scored in double figures in nine of his last 11 games.
The Terriers now will have a chance to pick up some victories, as Wofford faces the four teams currently at the bottom of the standings. Saturday’s game against East Tennessee State will be no picnic, as most times these two teams play it’s a battle no matter where they rank in the league standings. I fully expect Coach Jay McAuley and his staff to get things rolling in the right direction by the time the conference tournament rolls around next month.
VMI (12-10, 5-5) is in the middle of the the standings. It had a strong start to league play, which featured eyebrow-raising wins over Furman and at Wofford. That was promptly was followed by three-straight losses: at East Tennessee State 80-79, at home against UNCG 72-56 and at Mercer 97-91.
Offensively, VMI’s 79.3 PPG and 12.5 3-pointer per game lead the SoCon. This offensive firepower makes the Keydets a tough out for anyone at the tournament. Just ask Furman, who was upset by VMI in come-from-behind fashion last year in the quarterfinals.
VMI played Chattanooga about as well as anyone this season and fell by just four points 78-74 last week.
After a 79-64 loss at Furman, the Keydets won a thriller at home against East Tennessee State, which ended a 13-game skid in the series by the Bucs. The Keydets open February with a game at UNCG Wednesday and at home against Western Carolina Friday night.
The bottom half of the standings is filled with teams with similar records: UNCG (12-9, 4-5 SoCon), East Tennessee State (12-11, 4-6 SoCon), Samford (13-8, 3-6 SoCon), The Citadel (9-11, 3-6 SoCon) and Western Carolina (8-14, 2-7 SoCon).
They will compete for the final bye in the conference tournament, and the teams most likely to secure it are ETSU and UNCG. Those two have developed quite the rivalry over the past few seasons.
They are slated to square off on Feb. 27 on CBS Sports Network in what could be one of the biggest remaining games in the conference, as it could decide who will grab the final bye for the opening round of the tournament.
The final month of the season should be outstanding.