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Western Carolina and Samford ready for huge matchup before national television audience

First place in the SoCon is up for grabs

NCAA Basketball: Western Carolina at Georgia
Vonterius Woolbright leads a group of talented Western Carolina guards.
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Who: Samford (15-2, 4-0 SoCon) at Western Carolina (15-2, 4-0 SoCon)

When and Where: Jan. 16, 2024 / Cullowhee, N.C. / Liston B. Ramsey Activity Center (7,826)

Coaches: Samford — Bucky McMillan (63-37, fourth season) / Western Carolina — Justin Gray (44-39, third season)

Series: 31st meeting / Samford leads 16-14 / Samford won both meetings last season (74-65 in Birmingham and 85-77 in Cullowhee)

Where To Watch: CBS Sports Network, 6 p.m. ET

When the camera lights come on for CBS Sports Network on Tuesday night and Western Carolina (15-2, 4-0 SoCon) and Samford (15-2, 4-0 SoCon) do battle to decide the top team in the Southern Conference standings, it has the potential for being one of the best regular-season games that mid-major hoops could witness during the 2023-24 season.

These two programs are unique, and have been on the rise the past couple of seasons under young, energetic head coaches.

Both Samford’s Bucky McMillan and Western Carolina’s Justin Gray have taken programs that feature somewhat pedestrian basketball histories in recent times and have elevated them in the SoCon hoops hierarchy in a short amount of time.

A look at the Catamounts:

The 2022-23 season for Western Carolina basketball program was somewhat of a breakthrough season, as the Catamounts closed out the campaign with an 18-16 record. They finished fourth in the league’s final standings and were one of two teams in the SoCon to make a postseason appearance, as the Catamounts took part in the College Basketball Invitational (CBI).

The Catamounts saw their NCAA Tournament hopes come to a heartbreaking end in the semifinals of the Southern Conference Tournament, with an 83-80 overtime loss to Furman after fighting hard to get back into the game.

The Catamounts took the bitter tastes in their collective mouths from that loss that took away their opportunity to make just the school’s second NCAA Tournament appearance (1996), and that has fueled a strong start to the 2023-24 season.

Unlike the only team make the NCAA Tournament in program history, the Catamounts won 15 of their first 17 games to open the season, while that ‘96 team got off to a 1-7 start and finished the regular-season with just 14 wins.

In an era where the transfer portal is so prevalent, Gray convinced his backcourt — arguably the best in the SoCon and maybe one of the top collections of talent in all of mid-major basketball — to stick around for another season. WCU returns Vonterius Woolbright, Tre Jackson, DJ Campbell and Russell Jones Jr. The only player that ended up departing off that WCU team from a year ago was Tyzhan Claude, who decided to continue his career at Georgia Tech and was the Catamounts’ top big man a year ago.

Woolbright (20.6 PPG, 12.6 RPG, 5.4 APG) was the SoCon Preseason Player of the Year. Campbell (12.0 PPG, 3.8 RPG), Jackson (13.5 PPG, 3.5 RPG) Jones (11.5 PPG, 2.7 RPG) are also in double figures. This is as good of a group as the Catamounts have ever had at one time, and that includes when the program featured two of the best scorers in all of college basketball in the 1994-95 season in Frankie King and Anquell McCollum.

Should Woolbright be able to maintain those astounding averages in all three categories, he’d be the first player in college basketball history to do so. Woolbright was recently named Southern Conference Player of the Week for the sixth time this season. His 14 double-doubles in 17 games leads the nation.

Woolbright is a unique find, as he is one of the most versatile players in all of college basketball. At 6-foot-6 and with tremendous ball-handling skills, slashing ability and overall athleticism, he’s a matchup nightmare for anyone. His 12.6 rebounds-per-game rank him second in the nation in overall rebounding average. His 20.6 PPG ranks him tied for 14th nationally in scoring average with Tyon Grant-Foster from Grand Canyon.

His ability as a slasher this season has made him nearly unstoppable, and it usually results in Woolbright either scoring a layup or dunk, or if he doesn’t do that, he is able to draw a foul and get to the free throw line.

While Woolbright is the star, he is part of a group of guards that really makes the Catamounts go and makes them so versatile. Jackson can get points in a hurry, as evidenced by his 47-point barrage he delivered in an overtime win at Wofford last season. Jackson is also the team’s top perimeter threat this season, having knocked down a team-best 52 triples this season, and is shooting them at a 36.6% (52-of-142) clip this season.

Jones Jr. ranks second on the team in three-pointers made this season with 39 trifectas, and he sports an impressive 41.1% (39-of-95) from 3-point land this season. All told this season, the Catamounts are shooting the ball at a 35.4% (135-of-381) from long-range this season, while as a team the Purple and Gold is connecting on 7.9 three-pointers made-per-game to rank sixth in the league.

Campbell has kind of been the x-factor for the Catamount backcourt this season. His scoring for WCU this season has been a revelation, and he’s given the backcourt yet another scoring option to be accounted for defensively.

Rounding out the starting five will be College of Charleston transfer Charles Lampten (2.3 PPG, 4.6 RPG). At 6-foot-11, has provided the necessary rim protection the Catamounts have needed on the defensive end of the floor this season. LSU transfer Cornelious Williams (3.8 PPG, 2.8 RPG), 6-foot-9 forward Colin Granger (2.6 PPG, 2.6 RPG) and 6-foot-8 Catawba transfer Bernard Pelote (7.5 PPG, 5.7 RPG) have added the depth underneath off the bench for the Catamounts. If there were an award for sixth man of the year in the SoCon, it should probably be Pelote who would win it. He has tremendous athleticism and is a player that can provide a scoring punch from the perimeter as well.

As a team, the Catamounts are averaging 77.1 PPG, which ranks sixth in the SoCon, while allowing just 65.5 PPG, which leads the league. Western Carolina ranks second in the league in both team field goal percentage (47.0%) and field goal percentage defense (39.1%).

A look at the Bulldogs:

Bucky McMillan’s Samford Bulldogs are in somewhat familiar territory, as they are once again off to a fast start in the Southern Conference. Last season, the Bulldogs got off to an 8-0 start before losing back-to-back games at Furman and Wofford. They finished 15-3 and tied for the regular-season Southern Conference regular-season crown.

The Bulldogs lost as the No. 2 seed to seventh-seeded Chattanooga, making their time in Asheville last March a short one in the Southern Conference Tournament.

Like Western Carolina, it’s been hard for the Bulldogs to scratch out any kind of meaningful basketball tradition prior to the arrival of McMillan back during the 2020-21 season. With that said, the Bulldogs struggled in that first season under their new head coach, posting a 6-13 record in the COVID-19 shortened season. However, since then McMillan has strung together back-to-back 21-win seasons and has put the Bulldogs in position to win a second-straight regular-season title yet again this season.

The Bulldogs, who are tied with No. 20 Utah State for the nation’s longest winning streak at 15, have recorded 12 of those 15 in the friendly confines of the Pete Hanna Center, which has become one of the hardest places to play in mid-major basketball.

The 15-straight wins are a school record. The Bulldogs will find out a lot about who they are as a basketball team beginning tonight, as three of their next four are on the SoCon road.

After hosting Mercer on Saturday, they have back-to-back road trips at two of the toughest venues to win in the league, facing off against defending champion Furman at Timmons Arena, and then head to Freedom Hall to face an ETSU team that has won 10 of its last 11 on its home floor.

The Bulldogs arrive in Cullowhee with the nation’s top scoring offense, pacing the nation with a scoring average of 91.5 PPG. The Bulldogs posted a Division I program record 134 points last time out against VMI.

Fueling that high-octane offense is a tenacious, pressing defense designed to create live-ball turnovers and easy scoring opportunities. The Bulldogs lead the conference in scoring average (91.5 PPG), field goal percentage (49.9%), 3-pointer field goal percentage (40.8%), and 3-pointers made (185). The Bulldogs also lead all of college basketball in bench points per game (39.65).

The Bulldogs currently rank 12th nationally in overall team field goal percentage, while ranking third in 3-point field goal percentage.

That high energy style employed by McMillan and staff requires a lot of players to get minutes, and one of those players that has not been involved of late is preseason All-SoCon guard Jermaine Marshall, who is sidelined for a while with a lower body injury. Fortunately for the Bulldogs, others have stepped up in strong fashion. The Bulldogs use that pressing style to generate more scoring opportunities, and that is reflected in the fact that the Bulldogs also rank sixth in all of college basketball in turnovers forced per game (18.29).

The Bulldogs have one of the most improved players in the nation, in 6-foot-9 junior forward Achor Achor (15.5 PPG, 5.8 RPG), and he’s found his way into double figures in 14 of 17 games to start the season for the Bulldogs. He has scored 20 or more points in four games this season, including a career-high 26 points in a win over North Carolina A&T.

Like WCU, the Bulldogs employ a four-guard lineup, with Achor Achor left to go it alone in the paint. AJ Staton-McCray (13.2 PPG, 4.8 RPG), Jaden Campbell (9.9 PPG, 3.1 RPG), Dallas Graziani (4.8 PPG, 1.5 RPG) and Rylan Jones (7.5 PPG, 3.1 RPG) comprise the backcourt for the Bulldogs.

One of the more interesting storylines is between the 5-foot-7 Graziani and WCU’s Jones, who is 5-foot-8. You could essentially have two of the smallest guards in college hoops going up against each other.

The real surprise this season has not only been the play of Achor but also that of Staton-McCray, who has progressed into an all-conference performer this season after averaging a solid 10.3 PPG a year ago. In Samford’s SoCon opening win over Chattanooga, Staton-McCray dropped a career-high 29. It will likely be Staton-McCray that draws the unfortunate assignment of trying to slow WCU’s Woolbright on the defensive end. Staton-McCray is shooting a blistering 47.2% from long range this season, having knocked down 25 triples.

Incredibly, the 3-point field goals distribution on Samford’s roster is pretty impressive. The Bulldogs have knocked down a league-high 185 treys this season. Four players have knocked down 20 or more: Staton-McCray (25), Chandler Leopard (24), Rylan Jones (24), Jaden Campbell (22). That quartet is shooting a combined 45.5% (95-of-209) from long range this season.

Off the bench, the Bulldogs obviously have a strong supporting cast in both the backcourt and frontcourt. Leading the way in backcourt is Garrett Hicks—a transfer from Alabama A&M—and has given McMillan some good scoring support off the bench in the backcourt, as has freshman Josh Holloway (5.2 PPG, 1.4 RPG).

In the front court, Riley Allenspach (6.4 PPG, 3.8 RPG) is making his case for SoCon Freshman of the Year. Nathan Johnson (4.9 PPG, 2.3 RPG) has also been old reliable off the bench for the Bulldogs, flourishing in that role last season, as he split his time starting and coming off the bench last season, starting 16 of the 32 outings for the Bulldogs a year ago.

Prediction:

Both of these teams play well at home, and Western Carolina comes in with a 10-game winning streak of its own. With that said, I wonder how this one dynamic will play out tonight...Will Samford be able to afford to press Western Carolina’s experienced backcourt like they normally would other opponents? I am not sure that will be possible with one of the best downhill guards in mid-major hoops in Vonterius Woolbright. That’s why I am picking the Catamounts in this one.

Western Carolina 79, Samford 74