While most have been paying attention to the wins chalked up by Chattanooga and East Tennessee State over some college basketball power conferences in the early portion of the season, they might have missed what head coach Scott Padgett is doing at Samford, as the Bulldogs are off to their best start in 19 seasons.
The Bulldogs enter Saturday's game at Austin Peay with a 5-1 record, having won five-straight since opening with a loss to Louisville.
The Bulldogs have looked far from a team selected to finish in the bottom third of the Southern Conference so far this season, as the Bulldogs looked strong in the Mean Green Showcase at North Texas, winning games over Troy (83-79), North Texas (74-72) and Idaho (75-58) to claim the tournament title.
The Bulldogs are looking to look like basketball's version of The Citadel, who were the preseason No. 7 pick in the 2015 Southern Conference football race only to tie for the regular-season league title.
The Citadel makes their first postseason appearance in some 23 years later this afternoon.
For Samford, it's been a long road that has seen the program go through two head coaches since the end of the 2011-12 basketball season, which was the final campaign for Jimmy Tillette was fired, and then Benny Seltzer's nearly single-handedly destroyed the program, with one of the biggest mass exoduses since Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt.
Now, former Kentucky standout Scott Padgett is starting to teach his young team how to win basketball games, as the Bulldogs have claimed five-straight wins after the season-opening loss. The Bulldogs got a taste of success last season, winning six-straight games during a remarkable run from mid-January until early February in Southern Conference play. That run helped put the Bulldogs squarely in the race for a top-six seed in the Southern Conference Tournament, however, the Bulldogs would falter down the stretch and finish out as the No. 8 seed, finishing the season with a 10-20 overall record and a 6-12 mark in Southern Conference action.
The Bulldogs have gotten it done primarily because of their guard play this season, as the Bulldogs enter Saturday night's contest against former rival Austin Peay having one of the league's most productive backcourts to this point, in Darius Jones-Gibson and Christen Cunningham, who have combined to average 33 PPG this season to go along with 6.6 RPG.
Cunningham was one of the league's top freshman players last season, having posted 125 assists for the season, which ranked him among the league leaders last season, and Cunningham has picked up right where he left off a year ago, averaging 3.3 APG to rank sixth in the league, while his 15.5 PPG ranks him seventh overall in scoring this season.
Jones-Gibson is off to an even better start to his senior season for Padgett and the Bulldogs, ranking fourth in the Southern Conference in scoring, at 18.0 PPG, and has led the Bulldogs in scoring in four out of their six games this season. He posted a career-high 31 points in a win over Auburn-Montgomery back on Nov. 16.
Iman Johnson has teamed with Jones-Gibson and Cunningham in the backcourt this season, and while Gibson and Cunningham have gotten it done on the offensive end of the floor, it's been Johnson's defense that has been just as important to the Bulldogs' early-season success, as he has 10 steals through the first six games, averaging 1.7 thefts-per-game, ranking third in the SoCon individually. The Bulldogs rank 55th nationally and fourth nationally in steals-per-game, averaging 7.3 takeaways per game.
The Bulldogs have also gotten big-time production out of freshman forward Matt Rose, who has been one of the top freshman peroformers in the league this season, averaging 9.3 PPG and he has proven to be a shooting threat off the bench for the Bulldogs, much like Geoff Beans of Furman. The 6-7 forward from Lexington, KY, is shooting 47.4% (9-for-19) from three-point range so far this season, leading the team from downtown through the first six games.
Rose had his most productive game in the win over Sun Belt member Troy, posting 13 points off the bench in the win, going 4-for-6 from the floor and draining three three-pointers.
The Bulldogs have seven non-league games left, including tonight's game, before entering league play in earnest on Jan. 2 with a trip to Mercer. A key stretch, starting with tonight's game and including games against Jacksonville State (Dec. 1), Texas (Dec. 4) and Florida A&M (Dec. 12) will close out what has been a seven-game road trip.
Whether or not Padgett's Bulldogs are a contender for elite status in the SoCon basketball title race remains to be seen, but one thing is for certain and that is the Bulldogs appear to be a team that will contend for a top six seed and will be a tough out for all teams in league play this season.