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Southern Conference bracket, preview and schedule: Can Furman punch its ticket to the Big Dance?

Will we see the same magic at this year’s Southern Conference Championship that capped off last year’s title game?

Furman Paladins
The Furman Paladins claimed a share of the SoCon regular season championship with a 15-3 mark.
John Hooper/

Last year the Southern Conference title game came down to the final play of overtime as Chattanooga’s David Jean-Baptiste drained a 3-pointer at the buzzer to lift the Mocs over Furman in overtime.

Furman was left to suffer the cruelest of fates of seeing its March Madness dreams evaporate in the matter of seconds. While not the primary reason for Mike Bothwell and Jalen Slawson returning for their fifth year, Jean-Baptiste’s game-winner last March probably made it an easier decision. The Paladins have waited 51 weeks to get back to this point, and they have given themselves the best possible chance to cut down the nets this year.

“We have to be hungry,” head coach Bob Richey said after Furman’s 93-79 win over Samford last Saturday to claim a share of the regular-season SoCon title. “We have to go into the tournament with the humility that if we go play together and we do the things necessary to play a complete game like we did today, then yeah, we can earn the right to be successful.”

It’s been well-documented that the Paladins haven’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 1980, which is the third-longest drought in the Southern Conference behind VMI (1977) and The Citadel (never qualified). Top-seeded Furman will take on the winner of No. 8 Mercer and No. 9 The Citadel on Saturday at noon in the first of four quarterfinals.

Furman was at an interesting juncture of the season early in conference play. Following an 88-80 home loss to UNC Greensboro, the Paladins were set for a title game rematch at Chattanooga on Jan. 18. The Mocs are tough at home and have one of the top big men in the country in Jake Stephens. Richey took a unique approach to get his players ready for the game.

“Coach Richey’s message to us before the game was to keep our joy,” star guard Mike Bothwell said. “[Coach said] there’s a lot of things in life that are bigger than this ballgame. He took the pressure off us by saying ‘guys we don’t have to win this game, and this game won’t dictate our season. This game won’t dictate your life. So if things don’t go your way, don’t put too much pressure on yourself that you really don’t need to.’

Furman won the game 77-69. That was the first win of the Paladins winning 11 of their final 12 contests.

“I feel like tonight a couple of times when the crowd got into it and they cut our lead and they took the lead, we were able to just stay poised,” Bothwell said that night. “We’ve struggled with that in a lot of our losses and we kind of freaked out when a team came back on us or a team took the lead on us especially on the road but today, we were able to just keep our focus on just trying to do the next right thing.”

Furman should be comforted by the fact that seven of the last eight and 18 of the past 24 tournament winners have been the top seed.

Both Samford and UNC Greensboro are hoping they get a chance to have their say as to who wins in Asheville. The Bulldogs shared the SoCon title with the Paladins after finishing with just their fourth 20-win season in program history under third-year head coach Bucky McMillan. At UNCG, Mike Jones was in his second year at the helm of the Spartans and has them in the mix once again. They have plenty of veterans still around from the 2021 championship team.

One thing that is a certainty, Asheville will deliver plenty of madness.



Note: All times listed Eastern. All Games at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center in Asheville, N.C.

First Round (Friday, March 3, 2023), ESPN+

Game 1: No. 8 Mercer vs. No. 9 The Citadel, 5 p.m.

Game 2: No. 7 Chattanooga vs. No. 10 VMI, approx. 7:30 p.m.

Quarterfinals (Saturday, March 4, 2023), ESPN+

Game 3: Game 1 Winner vs. No. 1 Furman, 12 p.m.

Game 4: Game 2 No. 4 Western Carolina vs. No. 5 East Tennessee State, approx. 2:30 p.m.

Game 5: Game 2 Winner vs. No. 2 Samford, 6 p.m.

Game 6: No. 3 UNC Greensboro vs. No.6 Wofford, approx. 8:30 p.m.

Semifinals (Sunday, March 5), ESPNU and ESPNEWS

Game 9: Game 3 winner vs. Game 4 winner, 4 p.m. EST (ESPNU)

Game 10: Game 5 winner vs. Game 6 winner, approx. 6:30 p.m. EST (ESPNEWS)

Championship (Monday, March 6), ESPN

Game 11: Game 9 winner vs. Game 10 winner, 7 p.m. EST

The Favorites

Furman (24-7, 15-3): Looking for its first Southern Conference Tournament title and subsequent NCAA Tournament appearance since 1980, the Paladins are a tough matchup for anyone in Asheville, primarily because they score the basketball so well. The Paladins come in averaging 82.2 PPG, which ranks them 10th in the country.

While Mike Bothwell and Jalen Slawson are the two veteran leaders and are the primary reason why the Paladins were the favorites coming into the season, it’s been the play of J.P. Pegues at point guard that has fueled this team. Pegues scored in double figures in 13 of Furman’s final 14 games, which almost directly coinciding with Furman’s strong run over the final month and a half of the season. He’s a big reason the Paladins enter the tournament ranking 13th nationally in assist/turnover ratio (1.51) and fifth nationally in total assists (17.7 APG).

Samford (21-10, 15-3): The key to success in Asheville for the Bulldogs will be getting to the free throw line. The Bulldogs are leading the Southern Conference in free throw attempts per game (23.3) and rank 12th in Division I in that category. They convert on 17.5 of those attempts, which is fifth-best nationally.

Like Furman, the Bulldogs like to get up and down the floor. They rank second in the SoCon with 78.6 PPG. Samford is also good from deep and rank fourth in the league at 35.1%.

UNCG (20-11, 14-4): The team known for its defense closed the season with some outstanding offensive games. The Spartans scored 90 or more points in three out of four games in a late season stretch in Southern Conference play. They fell to East Tennessee State 63-62 in the regular-season finale, which cost the Spartans a share of the Southern Conference title.

Keondre Kennedy and Mikeal Brown-Jones have been huge additions from the transfer portal. They joined an already solid nucleus, which included Kobe and Keyshaun Langley, Mohammed Abdulsalam and Bas Leyte. These players helped guide UNCG to the 2021 tournament title.

The Underdogs

Western Carolina (17-14, 10-8): Western Carolina has only been to the NCAA Tournament once: 1996.

Justin Gray has taken his team far beyond its preseason expectations as the Catamounts were picked to finish eighth but came in fourth place. The Catamounts are the only team to knock off Furman (79-67 back on Dec. 31, 2022).

The Catamounts have three of the top players in the SoCon: big man Tyzhaun Claude and guards Tre Jackson and Vonterius Woolbright. Claude ranked second in the SoCon in double-doubles with 10. Jackson scored a league-high 47 points in a win over Wofford. Woolbright posted the program’s fourth triple-double when he posted 14 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds in WCU’s 85-66 win over VMI to close out the 2022-23 regular-season.

East Tennessee State (12-19, 8-10): East Tennessee State was a team that struggled to close games this season, losing 10 times by four points or less. However, ETSU reversed that trend in the regular-season finale with a 63-62 win to capture the No. 5 seed.

It’s been a strange season for the Bucs, who lost eight-straight home losses and then finished the season by winning their final four home games. They played some of their best basketball down the stretch.

Guard Jordan King can score points in bunches. He dropped 42 in a win at the Citadel earlier this season. The Bucs also have Josh Taylor back, who missed most of conference play with a broken wrist.

Wofford (16-15, 8-10): Dwight Perry replaced Jay McAuley as head coach before Christmas. Perry and the Terriers raised more than a few eyebrows by beating Texas A&M—a team that currently sits in second in the SEC.

Freshman point guard Jackson Paveletzke played wise beyond his years. He scored 22 points in the 67-62 win over the Aggies. He also hit a buzzer-beater to help the Terriers earn a 53-52 win at Mercer. Wofford also has one of the league’s best big men in BJ Mack, who isn’t scared to step out and shoot the three. He has a team-high 52 triples this season.

The Long Shots

Chattanooga (15-16, 7-11): What could have been? Jake Stephens suffered a season-ending injury when he tried to take a charge in the Furman game on Jan. 18. He was averaging 21.8 points, 10.2 rebounds and 3.6 blocks per game. While the Mocs were just 3-4 in league games with Stephens in the lineup, they finished league play 4-7 without him. which placed them as the seven seed and gives them an opening-round showdown with No. 10 VMI, Stephens’ former team.

Mercer (13-18, 6-12): Perhaps nowhere in the league are expectations more magnified than they are in Macon, Ga., and that probably has Greg Gary feeling the pressure in knowing he might need to lead the Bears on a deep run in the tournament to keep his job. It’s not something Gary is unaccustomed to, however, as he led the Bears to 2021 championship game as the seven seed.

The Bears are a team that wants to make the game ugly. They got off to their worst start to conference play since joining the league prior to the 2014-15 season. Following the 0-4 start, the Bears finished out by winning six of their final 14 league games.

The Citadel (10-21, 5-13): First-year head coach Ed Conroy probably would have wished his second stint would have gotten off to a better start. However, there were more than a few positives the Bulldogs can hang there proverbial hats on. For example, they earned a 69-65 win over Furman.

Center Stephen Clark ranks second in the SoCon in 20-point games this season (10) and is maybe the best rim protector in the SoCon, leading the league with 56 blocks this season.

VMI (7-24, 2-16): With just seven scholarship players available, and having to start five freshmen at times late in the season, the Keydets arrive in Asheville with nothing to lose. Keep an eye on guard Asher Woods and center Tyler Houser, who have proven to be an outstanding freshmen scoring tandem in the league this season.

When they take on Chattanooga in the opening round, get ready to see a lot of 3-pointers. The two teams combined to make 654 triples this season.

Players to Watch

Mike Bothwell, Furman (17.9 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 3.1 APG, 52.5% FG%)

Jalen Slawson, Furman (15.7 PPG, RPG, 4.1 APG, 47.9% FG%)

JP Pegues, Furman (11.2 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 4.0 APG, 35.8% 3pt FG%)

Jermaine Marshall, Samford (12.8 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 46.5% FG%)

Ques Glover, Samford (15.5 PPG, 2.6 RPG, 48.5% FG%)

Logan Dye, Samford (13.0 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 50.7% FG%)

Keyshaun Langley, UNCG (14.7 PPG, 2.9 RPG, 57 steals, 44.7% FG%)

Keondre Kennedy, UNCG (13.3 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 39.2% 3pt FG%)

Mikeal Brown-Jones, UNCG (10.1 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 58.7% FG%)

Tre Jackson, Western Carolina (15.9 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 43.5% 3pt FG%)

Vonterius Woolbright, Western Carolina (14.4 PPG, 7.3 RPG, 5.2 APG)

Tyzhaun Claude, Western Carolina (15.4 PPG, 8.6 RPG, 51.5% FG%)

Jordan King, ETSU (15.5 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 34 steals)

Jalen Haynes, ETSU (14.3 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 57.1% FG%)

Jackson Paveletzke, Wofford (14.9 PPG, 2.7 RPG, 3.8 APG)

BJ Mack, Wofford (16.6 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 50.1% FG%)

Jake Stephens, Chattanooga (21.8 PPG, 10.2 RPG, 54.9% FG%, 40.8% 3pt FG%)

Jamal Johnson, Chattanooga (13.7 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 82 3pt FGs, 39.0% 3pt FG%)

Jalyn McCreary, Mercer (15.2 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 55.2% FG%)

Kamar Robertson, Mercer (10.9 PPG, 2.4 RPG, 41.0% 3pt FG%)

Stephen Clark, The Citadel (16.6 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 56 blocks)

Austin Ash, The Citadel (15.2 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 102 3pt FGs)

Asher Woods, VMI (14.1 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 27 steals)

Tyler Houser, VMI (10.9 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 35.3% 3pt FG%)


College basketball’s oldest tournament never disappoints. I made the prediction before the season that Furman would face UNC Greensboro in the championship game, and I am sticking with that pick. As for the winner, Furman will defeat UNCG in another classic SoCon Tournament championship game, 66-63. Bothwell will hit a three with less than a second left to clinch Furman’s first trip back to the NCAA Tournament since 1980.