Chattanooga (24-7, 14-4) and Furman (20-11, 12-6) head to Asheville, N.C., and the Harrah’s Cherokee Center as the top two seeds and the two primary favorites.
For Mocs head coach Lamont Paris, things have come full circle in the Scenic City. In 2021-22, he has the oldest team in college hoops. When he arrived prior to the 2017-18 season, he had the youngest.
Paris has the league’s most dominant player, in SoCon Player of the Year Malachi Smith. Talented veterans surround Smith, such as forward Josh Ayeni and all-league guard David Jean-Baptiste, who the Mocs owe a lot of their success to in large part thanks to their leadership, maturity and savvy.
Contributors like James Madison transfer Darius Banks, South Alabama transfer A.J. Caldwell, and most recently as of this past August, Kansas graduate transfer and big man Silvio DeSousa.
Grant Ledford is another shooter that foes most be wary of. Just ask ETSU, as Ledford dropped a career-high 25 points at Freedom Hall in the regular-season title clinching win fort the Mocs. He knocked down 6-of-8 from 3-point range in the opening half to help the Mocs to a key 83-77 road win.
If Furman is going to enjoy the kind of tournament it hopes to have, it needs SoCon Defensive Player of the Year Jalen Slawson to be the rudder of the Paladins’ ship on the defensive end of the floor. To say he’s had a breakout season would be an understatement.
“A big word that comes up during the grind of the season is ‘fun’,” Slawson said following his team’s 94-59 win in the regular-season finale at The Citadel. “We gotta make sure its fun...The fun is in imposing will on people and absolutely taking your opponent’s soul and seeing them fold up...that’s the fun in this game...We know that starts on the defensive end.”
Slawson is just one part of Furman’s three-headed monster it brings to Asheville, along with Mike Bothwell and Alex Hunter.
The x-factor for Furman is unquestionably Conley Garrison, and he has proven to be a key piece to the Paladin puzzle this season.
Samford (20-10, 10-8) has become one of the more remarkable stories in not only mid-major college hoops, but college basketball as a whole.
The main ingredient in Bucky’s secret proverbial hardwood BBQ sauce is the Q in the offense itself— Ques Glover—giving Samford just the right among of zing and spiciness.
Glover combined with unheralded big man Logan Dye to lead the Bulldogs to wins in nine of their final 11 SoCon games heading to Asheville. They are smoking hot at the moment.
Wofford (18-12, 10-8) enters the 2022 tournament having seen nine of their 18 league games decided by 10 points or less.
In those games this season, the Terriers are just 3-6. After dropping the first three of these games, they split the final six.
VMI (16-14, 9-9) was the team that started off the strongest, winning two tough league games on the road at Wofford and at home vs. Furman before suffering a heartbreaking 81-79 road loss at ETSU.
The big question for the Keydets heading into the weekend is the status of big man Jake Stephens, who went down with an ankle injury just two games before the end of the regular-season against on the road in a win at Chattanooga.
Stephens is the fulcrum of Dan Earl’s offense, and even if he’s not 100% against Wofford Friday afternoon, it’s good enough to make VMI a viable threat all weekend long.
While defending champion UNCG (17-13, 9-9) has had to navigate some major departures, first-year head coach Mike Jones has also added some major pieces, in guys like transfers De’Monte Buckingham and Dante Treacy in the backcourt.
They join up with guys like the Langley brothers—Kobe and Keyshaun Langley—as well as two of the league’s most undervalued big men in Mohammed Abdulsalam and Bas Leyte to give the Spartans plenty of their own winning maturity. This combination wins in March, and I don’t care what conference you are in.
The Long Shots:
ETSU (15-16, 7-11) is a stranger to its unfamiliar starting block in Asheville, and a danger to all those who might regard first-year head coach Desmond Oliver’s Bucs lightly for being a “lower seed.”
It has the talent to be a problem for Chattanooga should they find a way past The Citadel Friday night. Underestimate them at your own peril.
Point guard David Sloan, sharp-shooting perimeter threat Jordan King, and the human highlight reel brother tandem of Ledarrius and Ty Brewer are enough to handle most any challenge.
Throw in Egyptian-born and all-freshman guard Mohab Yasser, who has shown a maturity and shot-selection well beyond his class, and the Bucs resemble a team that could make a run for Monday.
If there’s another team to watch out for coming from Friday night—it’s Western Carolina (11-20, 5-13).
The Catamounts remind me some of the 2015 Paladins, who went all the way to the title game despite being a double-digit seed.
Nicholas Robinson carried Western Carolina for much of the early portions of conference play, but now the Catamounts arrive in Asheville playing some good basketball and getting other players involved in leading the charge heading to Asheville.
A player that has seemingly come alive late is Marlow Gilmore.
The Catamounts will open against the Mercer Bears (15-16, 8-10 SoCon).
The Bears entered the 2021 SoCon Tournament in similar fashion—as the No. 7 seed. The Bears are looking to make the title game as the No. 7 seed for a second straight season.
Last season in the title game, Mercer fell to UNCG 69-61. However, this season, the Bears have been without star point guard Neftali Alvarez for the entirety of SoCon play.
They have turned to all-conference forward Felipe Haase, who has the league’s lone 40-point of the season, which came early in non-conference play in an overtime loss at Winthrop, which saw him post 41 points.
Hayden Brown has truly been a joy to watch this year for The Citadel (12-17, 6-12).
Brown’s astonishing 27-career double-doubles are tied for the school’s all-time regular-season mark. With just one more, he will leave The Citadel as the double-double king.
“He's been a monster here,” Bulldogs coach Duggar Baucom said following Saturday’s senior day loss to Furman. “As much as he is a great basketball player, he’s a terrific person way before anything else and what he’s done on the court this year....I just couldn’t be prouder of him.”
Players to Watch:
Malachi Smith, Chattanooga (20.3 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 51.0 FG%, 41.2% 3-pt FG%, 54 3-pt FGs, 1.7 SPG)
David-Jean Baptiste, Chattanooga (14.6 PPG, 2.9 RPG, 2.4 APG, 41.8 FG%, 38.2 3-pt FG%, 83 3pt FGs, 1.7 SPG)
Silvio DeSousa, Chattanooga (11.2 PPG, 6.8 RPG, 56.6 FG%, 1.1 BPG)
Jalen Slawson, Furman (14.5 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 49.0 FG%, 3.9 APG, 1.7 BPG, 1.8 SPG)
Mike Bothwell, Furman (15.4 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 46.4 FG%, 34.9 3-pt FG%, 84.0 FT%, 1.0 SPG)
Alex Hunter, Furman (13.7 PPG, 2.5 RPG, 3.9 APG, 105 3-pt FGs, 42.2% 3-pt FG%, 1.1 SPG)
Ques Glover, Samford (19.1 PPG, 2.9 RPG, 4.4 APG, 46.9 FG%, 1.2 SPG)
Logan Dye, Samford (12.9 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 54.9 FG%, 1.0 BPG)
B.J. Mack, Wofford (16.4 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 55.0 FG%, 45.0% 3-pt FG%, 2.2 APG, 0.6 BPG)
Max Klesmit, Wofford (15.0 PPG, 2.9 RPG, 44.2 FG%, 34.6 3-pt FG%, 2.0 APG, 1.7 SPG)
Jake Stephens, VMI (19.3 PPG, 9.2 RPG, 66 3-pt FGs, 55.9 FG%, 48.9 3-pt FG%, 2.0 BPG, 3.3 APG)
Trey Bonham, VMI (13.0 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 47.0 FG%, 1.3 SPG, 4.0 APG)
De’Monte Buckingham, UNCG (12.0 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 46.0 FG%, 61 3-pt FGs, 42.4% 3-pt FG%)
Bas Leyte, UNCG (9.1 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 52.7 FG%, 0.4 BPG)
Felipe Haase, Mercer (14.9 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 3.1 APG, 47.6 FG%, 68 3-pt FGs, 47.3pt FG%, 86.1 FT%, 1.3 SPG)
Jordan King, ETSU (14.7 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 46.1 FG%, 95 3-pt FGs, 43.2 3-pt FG%, 2.3 APG)
Ledarrius Brewer, ETSU (14.6 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 41.5 FG%, 60 3-pt FGs, 35.1 3-pt FG%, 2.1 APG)
Hayden Brown, The Citadel (18.5 PPG, 9.4 RPG, 51.3 FG%, 28.8 3-pt FG%, 1.1 SPG, 2.4 APG)
Jason Roche, The Citadel (13.3 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 106 3-pt FGs, 40.2 3-pt FG%)
First Round (Friday, March 4) ESPN+
Game 1: No. 8 East Tennessee State vs. No. 9 The Citadel, 5 p.m. EST
Game 2: No. 7 Mercer vs. No. 10 Western Carolina, 7:30 p.m. EST
Quarterfinals (Saturday, March 5), ESPN+/Nexstar local affiliates
Game 3: No. 1 Chattanooga vs. ETSU/The Citadel winner, noon EST
Game 4: No. 4 Wofford vs. No. 5 VMI, 2:30 p.m. EST
Game 5: No. 2 Furman vs. Western Carolina/Mercer winner, 6 p.m. EST
Game 6: No. 3 Samford vs. No. 6 UNCG, 8:30 p.m. EST
Semifinals (Sunday, March 6), ESPNU
Game 7: Game 3 Winner vs. Game 4 Winner, 4 p.m. EST
Game 8: Game 5 Winner vs. Game 6 Winner, 6:30 p.m. EST
Championship (Monday, March 7), ESPN
Game 9: Game 7 winner vs. Game 8 winner, 7 p.m. EST
Second-seeded Furman will win the title game over No. 1 Chattanooga with neither team leading by more than six the entire game. It will be a back-and-forth game that will feature double-digit lead changes before the Paladins hold on for a 76-73 win.