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A wild start to league play in the Southern Conference

Observations from the first week of conference play in the SoCon

NCAA Basketball: Samford at Georgia
Logan Dye has been a catalyst for Samford’s 2-0 start to SoCon play. He has netted 20+ points in both conference games.
Athens Herald Banner-USA TODAY NETWORK

Shock might be the best way to describe the first couple of opening nights of Southern Conference action with a pair of likely title contenders falling to teams picked to finish in the lower half of the league.

The SoCon is very bipolar this season. If you can’t figure out who is the actual favorite to win the league, join the club.

If the first week of league play is any indication of how things are going to pan out this season, then buckle up because it’s going to be one wild ride. Here is a brief overview of all 10 teams and their first full week of conference play.

Furman (10-5, 1-1 SoCon)

Maybe the most bipolar of the bunch is Furman. Supremely talented, yet sometimes leave you scratching your head, or in coach Bob Richey’s case, leaves you hoarse from trying to get his team to respond defensively. You see glimpses of just how good the Paladins can be, but it’s only glimpses and without consistency.

The Paladins showed their ‘defensive’ side in their league-opening 85-62 win over VMI. They limited the Keydets to just 27.3% shooting and 21 points in the opening half, and just 37.7% shooting for the game, including 29.4% (5-of-17) from 3-point land.

The win marked Furman’s ninth-straight league-opening win. While Jalen Slawson and Mike Bothwell were limited to just a combined two points at halftime against a pretty solid defensive plan from VMI head coach Andrew Wilson, Paladin redshirt junior Marcus Foster came to life, scoring 15 of his career-high 23 points in the opening half of play. Foster knocked down a career-best seven 3-point field goals in the contest, hitting 7-of-12 shots from long range in the contest and went 8-of-15 from the field. Foster also added eight rebounds and two assists without turning the ball over in 35 minutes off the bench.

Less than 48 hours later, Furman headed to Cullowhee to face a Western Carolina team looking to bounce back from a forgettable second-half shooting effort against UNCG that saw the Catamounts connect on just 3-of-31 (9%) from the field. While Furman’s Foster had 23 against VMI, he failed to score on 0-of-4 shooting from the field in the 79-67 loss to Western Carolina. Meanwhile, Western Carolina found its shooting touch and overcame nine-point second-half deficit by outscoring the Paladins 38-17 the rest of the way.

Samford (8-7, 2-0 SoCon)

What’s the best remedy for seven-straight losses entering SoCon play? Winning your first two conference games. Suddenly the team picked to finish second by the league’s coaches looks like the team that should finish first as its best player—point guard Ques Glover—is on the mend. Glover is expected to return at some point in January.

Both Jermaine Marshall and Logan Dye showed why they were preseason Southern Conference all-league selections as they combined for 48 points in the conference opener against Mercer. Marshall posted a season-high 25 points, while Dye chipped in with 23 points. The Bulldogs connected on a season-high 13 3-pointers, knocking them down at a 57% clip to blitz a Bears team that came to the Pete Hanna Center after having finished non-conference play in impressive fashion with wins over Morehead State and Troy.

This past weekend, Samford turned right around to duplicate the feat with an impressive 75-63 win at The Citadel. Dye, who claimed the SoCon’s latest player of the week award, notched a 20-point, eight-rebounds effort in the 12-point road triumph at The Citadel.

UNCG (8-7, 2-0 SoCon)

Defense is the first thing you think of when you consider Mike Jones’ UNCG Spartans, and through the first two games, they have certainly shown us their share on that end of the floor. They held Western Carolina to a mere 9% (3-for-31) shooting from the field in the second half in 25-point road win. UNCG then posting a second-straight road win over Wofford 73-64. The Spartans held the Terriers to less than 40% shooting for the game and just 6-for-24 from 3-point range. This is their first 2-0 start to a league campaign since the 2019-20 season.

Jones has a veteran backcourt led by the Langley twins—Keyshawn and Kobe—and that veteran leadership bodes well moving forward, as the Spartans chase another Southern Conference regular-season title over the next couple of months. If the Spartans can do that, it will once again be because of their desire to play defense and their ability to impose their will and their style on the opponent.

Keep an eye on Keondre Kennedy. The UMBC transfer is off to a strong start this season for the Spartans, leading UNCG in both scoring (13.7 PPG) and rebounding (7.2 RPG) and could be the x-factor for the Spartans.

Chattanooga (9-6, 1-1 SoCon)

Chattanooga responded to its surprising 76-68 road loss at The Citadel to open Southern Conference play with one of its largest road wins in its Southern Conference history as the Mocs traveled to Mercer Saturday and came away with an 80-51 victory over the Bears. It marked the fourth-largest road win in UTC’s Southern Conference history.

One thing that has been on point for Dan Earl’s club has been its ability to shoot the ball well from the perimeter. It hit 14 triples over the two contests.

Jamal Johnson has also gotten off to a strong start to SoCon play for the Mocs, leading UTC in each of the past couple of outings with a pair of 21-point efforts.

The league’s top 3-point shooting team will now head to UNC Greensboro to take on the SoCon’s top defensive team tonight in what amounts to a huge early-season league clash.

Wofford (8-7, 0-2 SoCon)

While losing the conference opener on its home floor to East Tennessee State 73-71 certainly isn’t good, the defeat pales in comparison to having head coach Jay McAuley resign right at the start of SoCon play. He submitted his resignation less than 24 hours after the Terriers’ loss to the Bucs. Dwight Perry was named the interim head coach. Mid-major madness will provide more on this developing story as details are released.

No reason for McAuley’s resignation was given at the time, however, it was reported by Stadium’s Jeff Goodman that several players met with Wofford Director of Athletics Richard Johnson about excessive practice time among other things. That was immediately followed by a forced leave of absence for McAuley.

In the loss to ETSU, Wofford started 1-for-24 from 3-point. In Saturday’s contest against UNCG, things didn’t get much better as the Terriers were just 6-for-24 from the deep in the 73-64 loss. Wofford has connected on 11-of-55 3-point shots (20%) in the first two league games.

Wofford’s recent skid comes after posting what was its biggest win of the game over Texas A&M (W, 67-62).

East Tennessee State (6-9, 2-0 SoCon)

With the start of SoCon play, things seem all well in the tri-cities. It was not two weeks ago that it seemed like the Bucs could not close a comic book, however, now the Bucs find themselves with a 2-0 mark in the league.

When ETSU’s game with Wofford headed down to the wire Thursday, Bucs fans must have been reaching for the Maalox and thinking ‘here we go again’. That’s because the Bucs entered the matchup having lost five straight games by a grand total of 14 points. This time, however, ETSU found a way to get a win in a close one, closing out a 73-71 win.

This season to date, the Bucs have had 10 of their 15 games decided by eight points or less. The Bucs are 2-8 games with games decided by eight or less this season and were 10-10 in games decided by that same margin last season.

Following the two-point win at Wofford, ETSU had a little more cushion in their road win over VMI behind a balanced effort. The Bucs, who are now officially growing in confidence, finished with five players with eight or more points in what was a solid 64-50 victory. Jalen Haynes led the way in the win in Lexington, posting 15 points and eight boards.

ETSU has won 24 of the last 26 meetings with VMI.

Mercer (7-8, 0-2 SoCon)

It’s hard to know what to make of Greg Gary’s Mercer Bears to this point in the 2022-23 season. Like Wofford, the Bears finished non-conference play strong with wins over Morehead State (W, 79-52) and on the road at one of the better Sun Belt teams, in the Troy Trojans (W, 82-79). However, the Bears suffered back-to-back losses at Samford (L, 69-78) and at home vs. Chattanooga (L, 51-80), which might be cause for concern for them moving forward.

The glaring concern was the 29-point loss to the Mocs. Last season, the matchup came down to a last-second buzzer-beater from AJ Caldwell to lift the Mocs. The bright spot for the Bears was Jalyn McCreary’s career afternoon, which saw him notch his first-career double-double for Mercer, posting 19 points and 15 rebounds.

Western Carolina (8-7, 1-1 SoCon)

Fresh from a 9% shooting effort in the second half against UNCG, Western Carolina bounced back with a big win over Furman on New Year’s Eve to snap a 13-game skid against the Paladins.

However, when the chips were down, the Catamounts overcame a nine-point deficit by outscoring Furman 38-17 the rest of the way. They did it on the defensive end of the floor by holding a Paladin team that shot better than 60% in the opening half of play to just 34.6% from the field in the second.

“We’re still a work in progress,” head coach Justin Gray said. “The most important thing is to have unwavering confidence in the work you put in.”

One of the more notable attributes that could be gleaned from Saturday’s Catamount win was the dedication put in by WCU in terms of being a tougher, more edgy team. Western Carolina was the right kind of physical, keeping its emotions in check and doing so without going over the line.

“We want to be a team that’s physical but doesn’t cross that line, but we want to be a team that gets right up to that line,” Gray said.

Stay tuned for a more in-depth story coming in the next week on WCU newcomer Tyzhaun Claude, who has been one of the league’s top newcomers this season. The Catamounts head to Johnson City tonight.

The Citadel (6-8, 1-1 SoCon)

If you didn’t’ know it already, Ed Conroy is one heck of a college basketball coach. That was clearly shown in The Citadel’s start to SoCon play, as the Bulldogs notched arguably the biggest upset of the opening night of a league play last week, handing defending league champion Chattanooga a 76-68 setback.

The Bulldogs were able to weather 14 3-point field goals from the Mocs. They holding the Mocs to just 35.4% (23-of-65) shooting for the game. Chattanooga was held below its normal proficiency from 3-point range and shot 36% (14-of-39) from long range for the game. Things didn’t go as well when The Citadel hosted Samford in its second league test, as Samford won the matchup of the Bulldogs.

Still, The Citadel has proven it will be a tough out because of its collective dedication on the defensive end of the floor, despite ranking eighth in the league in field goal percentage defense (42.9%) and eighth in scoring defense (70.7 PPG). The additions of graduate transfer guards Austin Ash (16.4 PPG, 4.7 RPG) and Elijah Morgan (8.2 PPG, 2.7 RPG) should see the Bulldogs spring their share of surprises along the way in Conroy’s return to Charleston.

VMI (5-10, 0-2 SoCon)

Back-to-back losses at Furman (L, 62-85) and against East Tennessee State (L, 50-64) offered new VMI head coach Andrew Wilson a rude awakening into the Southern Conference. Wilson can at least be satisfied that his undermanned team has been scrappy and competitive through its first couple of league games.

Part of the problem in the first two SoCon games of the season has been the struggles of leading scorer Sean Conway, who has been held below his 15.8 PPG scoring average through non-conference play. He posted just eight points in the loss at Furman and 12 in the home setback to ETSU. In his first two league games, Conway is just 6-of-21 from the field, including just a 2-for-10 effort from three.

As a team, the Keydets entered SoCon play with the league’s best shooting percentage from long range (39.6%) and were second in threes made per game (11.8 per game). However in losses to Furman and ETSU to begin league play, that element has been noticeably absent, as the Keydets are shooting just 22.9% on 11-of-48 from long range.