Sunday, October 13, 2013

Conference Calling's 2013-14 College Basketball Previews: #26 Southern

Over the past 18 seasons, the Southern Conference has been Davidson's toy to play with as it saw fit. 13 of those seasons ended with the Wildcats either hoisting the regular-season or the tournament championship. Six times, they did the double.

Because of that, next season will truly feel like the end of an era when Davidson heads off to the Atlantic 10. Charleston has already left for the CAA, with Elon to follow next season. Appalachian State and Georgia Southern will chase football crumbs off to the Sun Belt. In place of these rising programs, the SoCon will pull Mercer and East Tennessee State away from the Atlantic Sun and regain former member VMI from the Big South.

Doesn't look like a tremendous trade, does it? Davidson is a college basketball power hitter in this deal, perhaps not Frank Robinson-caliber, but still. Guess that makes Mercer Milt Pappas.

If there's good news, it's for writers and sportscasters everywhere. Both the Big South and SoCon will settle at 10 members, removing the division structure and the need for announcers to spout gibberish like "they lead the Big South North" or the "Southern South" with a straight face.

What makes it even more bittersweet for the SoCon is the expectation that the departing programs will be the primary powers this season, one or another likely to take a championship with them to their new home.

Who's got the inside track? Read on after the jump.

(All statistics and rankings per unless otherwise noted.)

1. Elon

--2007 is the last time a SoCon school put three players on the all-conference first and second team. Look for it to happen again this season, as Elon brings back its entire top eight from its CIT-bound roster. Double-figure scorers Lucas Troutman (15.1 PPG), Jack Isenbarger (13.2) and Ryley Beaumont (11.8) can all press for all-league honors.

Troutman shot career-high percentages from the floor (54.6) and the line (67.2) while also leading the SoCon in blocks at 2.1 per game. Coach Matt Matheny would love to see a 6'10" player pull more than five rebounds per game, and if Troutman can become more aggressive on the glass, he can win conference POY.

Beaumont excelled in the mid-range game, making 45% of his jumpers according to, and was one of the top defensive rebounders in the league. If he improves on his 30% three-point accuracy, the Fighting Phoenix will have an army of court-spreaders to surround Troutman.

Isenbarger, senior Sebastian Koch and sophomore Tanner Samson shot a combined 37% from beyond the arc. Koch's 44% ranked second in the league, while Isenbarger excelled through volume, canning 2.5 per game. 5'10" junior PG Austin Hamilton led the team in APG and SPG, but missed the second half of the season with a knee injury. Look for him to push Samson back to the bench if he's healthy.

Elon's chances could really improve if it learns to attack the basket more frequently. Hamilton and reserves Kevin Blake and Ryan Winters were the only rotation players with FTA/FGA ratios greater than 0.35. The team made 71% from the line, but it doesn't mean much if they're ranking near 300 nationally in attempts.

With so much of the nucleus in its senior season, the future is now for the Phoenix. Should they manage a conference title this year, a repeat in next year's CAA will be hard to manage. It's easy to like this year's chances, though.

2. Davidson

--The Stephen Curry era was the first time Davidson had reached the NCAA tournament since Lefty Driesell and Terry Holland were coaching in the late 1960s. Now, the De'Mon Brooks era is threatening to make it another trifecta, but Brooks may have to shoulder a Curryesque load to do it.

The all-conference forward led the Wildcats in rebounding last season, ahead of departed 6'10" center Jake Cohen. Last season's three double-doubles and 26 double-figure scoring nights will be a good start. Guard Chris Czerapowicz, the other returning starter, is the perimeter threat to balance Brooks' slashing ability. The 6'7" native of Sweden was a 54% effective shooter last season.

Senior Tom Droney and junior Tyler Kalinoski will provide additional backcourt scoring, but neither will fill the primary hole left by graduated PG Nik Cochran. The duo of 3* recruit Jack Gibbs and Miami (OH) transfer Brian Sullivan will attempt to fill the position, although Sullivan wasn't a major creator when he made the MAC All-Freshman team in 2011-12. He shot 45% from long range, hoisting 176 attempts. Gibbs may see first crack at the point, with Sullivan joining Kalinoski as instant offense.

Cohen will be equally hard to replace. 6'11" Scotsman Ali Mackay is the only big upperclassman on the roster, and he averaged less than three minutes last year. Two sophomores and two freshmen will try to provide some sort of post depth.

Coach Bob McKillop has had to replace departed seniors at Davidson for a quarter of a century now. He's put Duke, Virginia, North Carolina and Wichita State on this year's schedule, so he's expecting these players to rise to the occasion in a big way. If they don't, their record won't look very Davidson-like when the conference tournament rolls around, but they're still one of the SoCon's kings until proven otherwise. Or until they bail next July.

3. Western Carolina

--WCU coach Larry Hunter operated a tight rotation last season, with only seven players earning double-figure minutes per game. Six of them return, giving WCU one of the league's more experienced cores.

Topping that group is the league's No. 2 scorer, senior guard Trey Sumler. He's averaged 14.4 PPG for his career, partly because he never leaves the floor. Sumler has pulled 35 MPG for his career, nearly 38 last season. He's great at creating turnovers (1.9 SPG last season, second in the league), but just as good at giving them away (3.6 TOPG, also second in the league). For a player who led his team in assists, recording one more giveaway than assist is far from optimal.

Sumler's supporting cast is strong, with the league's most prolific three-point shooter in Tom Tankelewicz and burly rebounder Tawaski King. King's 2.7 ORPG placed second in the SoCon. Guard Brandon Boggs dropped 10.3 PPG last year, but that's on a shaky 45.3 TS%. The bulk of his shots were mid-range jumpers, but even they only fell at a 33% clip according to Hoop-Math.

Other than junior James Sinclair and sophomore Mike Brown, there is no other returning production. Hunter needs to develop more depth, especially among his bigs. Senior Josh Mendenhall, sophomore Torrion Brummitt and freshman Charlendez Brooks will all have opportunities to produce in support of King.

WCU stumbled to a 9-9 league record after a 4-0 start, losing seven of its final 11 games. The team shot less than 40% in six of the final eight, and that can all be attributed to losing their legs by mid-February. Hunter has to be able to rest Sumler in particular, but better bench production all around will serve the Catamounts well as March approaches.

4. Chattanooga

--Under new coach Will Wade, the Mocs will be worn out by March, but for a whole different reason than Western Carolina. Wade is a former VCU assistant under Shaka Smart, and he's bringing his version of the "Havoc" defense to the SoCon. He calls it "Chaos" and his players will call it "exhausting."

Three double-figure scorers return, led by All-SoCon forward Z. Mason, all 6'5" and 240 of him. Mason finished top-10 in the league in scoring, rebounds, blocks, FG%, eFG% and TS%. Rumors of him saving a box of puppies from a house fire have yet to be confirmed.

Pictured: How Z. Mason spent his summer break.
Guards Gee McGhee and Ronrico White also broke 10 PPG last season, and McGhee made SoCon All-Freshman for his efforts. Both struggled from the perimeter, which was a team-wide Achilles' heel for the Mocs last year. The team finished in the bottom 30 nationwide at only 29.8% accuracy from the arc. Mason actually led the team at 31.6%, along with all that other stuff.

The point guard position is up for discussion, as White and McGhee tended to juggle playmaker duties during the season. Freshman Greg Pryor has caught Wade's eye during early practices with aggressive penetrating on offense and ferocious defense.

Another freshman, 6'7" T.J. Williams, will learn from and support Mason in the post.

The Mocs return most of the players who helped make them one of America's fiercest rebounding teams. Their 53.9 TR% ranked 21st in Division I. And that's with only one player taller than 6'7" on the roster. Hitting the glass that hard, especially on the offensive end, will be crucial if the team still can't shoot straight.

5. Samford

--First-year coach Bennie Seltzer pulled a fifth-place finish out of a team that spent its season getting blasted on the glass. The Bulldogs' 46.2 TR% was the 16th-worst in the nation. Some of that damage was mitigated by good shot selection, since Samford's 36% three-point shooting was among the country's top 75 and second in the SoCon.

Three of the team's four prolific shooters return, including All-SoCon first-teamer Raijon Kelly. Kelly finished second in the conference with 4.7 APG and is one of the league's most dangerous returning shooters (40.4%). Juniors Tyler Hood and Connor Miller also shot around 35% from long range.

Conference Freshman of the Year Tim Williams, a 6'8" forward out of Chicago, can be one of the better post players in the SoCon if he only echoes last season's 14.2/7.1 and 54% shooting. Improvement could push him into the POY conversation.

UConn transfer Michael Bradley, at 6'10" and 250 pounds, should help with the rebounding woes. Nigerian freshman Emeka Ikezu (6'9", 230) is athletic, but green.

The Bulldogs lost nine games by four points or fewer last season, and they only had a rebounding advantage in three of those. It was more common to see Samford outrebounded by ridiculous margins like 43-22 (three-point OT loss to Chattanooga) or 34-20 (four-point loss to Charleston). An extra couple of possessions per game, and the Bulldogs are a 20-win team.

6. Wofford

--The Terriers gnawed on their opponents' ankles all season, ranking in the top 60 nationwide in defensive efficiency. However, they ran away yelping on the other end. The Terriers put up a toothless 44.6 eFG% last season, one of the 30 worst in the country. They were a great foul shooting team (72.5%, 69th in the country), but their 28.1 FTA/FGA rate stood 335th in D-I. Wofford returns a lot of last season's talent, but the offensive philosophy needs some tweaking.

Junior guard Karl Cochran is a fine example. At 15.6 PPG, he ranked third in the conference, but his ugly 45.3 TS% represented a lot more points left on the table. He took the shot on 40% of his possessions, the highest rate in America. Cochran shot better than 50% in only three games last season.

We could go on, but there are other teams to cover. Suffice to say that Cochran's a Big Lots version of Russ Smith, minus any sort of effort to be efficient. To Cochran's credit, though, he did lead the Terriers in steals and blocks.

Sophomore guard Spencer Collins and senior forward Lee Skinner were also double-figure scorers last season, which is impressive considering the relative crumbs that Cochran was leaving. Skinner shot 44% on the season, best on the team among shooters that took 100 attempts. He also ranked top-six in rebounds on either end of the floor.

Forward Aerris Smith and point guard Indiana Faithfull round out the starting five, with Smith being the team's only senior. The 250-pound Smith regressed after taking a full-time starting role, struggling to assert himself on the glass. Faithfull made 37% from the arc and 81% at the foul line, demonstrating that he could become a viable shooting threat if Cochran would share the damn rock given enough chances.

Off the bench, guard John Swinton is the team's finest shooter. He and sophomore Justin Gordon both established reps as defensive playmakers in their limited minutes.

If coach Mike Young's team can't shoot any better, it at least needs to find some offensive rebounding. Wofford's 27% offensive rebounding ranked 313th in the country. Cochran and Collins both flexed terrible shot selection, and the team might be helped by leaning more on Skinner.

7. Appalachian State

--Losing the SoCon's Defensive Player of the Year and leading rebounder is a blow, but Appy State had a little more going for it last year than just Nathan Healy.

Four returnees averaged at least 8.8 PPG, and all were at least 45% effective shooters. Junior forward Jay Canty, a former Xavier Musketeer, found Boone very much to his liking in his first season. He averaged around 14/6/3, ranking in the league's top 15 in all three categories. Senior forward Tevin Baskin and junior guard Tab Hamilton are the two most efficient returning offensive players, with Hamilton being the primary perimeter threat.

Point guard Mike Neal could be one of the SoCon's best point guards, but for one nagging problem. He's a solid shooter, good distributor and effective defensive player, but damn, does he hock the ball up a lot. In both of his seasons, he's carded a TO% greater than 30, and that's high even for a point guard who's always on the ball. For his career (again, two seasons) he has exactly ONE more assist than turnover.

Off the bench, forward Michael Obacha is a sturdy rebounder and backup PG Chris Burgess is only slightly less turnover-prone than Neal. Like Obacha, freshman Mike Kobani is a Nigeria native, albeit a 250-pound one who was rated 3* by both Rivals and Scout. Freshman guard Aaron Scott earned 3* from Rivals, as well.

While the Mountaineers were the SoCon's best scoring team last season, they struggled defensively, allowing 51% two-point shooting. Again, losing the DPOY won't help that, so every other Apper has to grow a pair on the defensive end. If they do, a top-four finish is very attainable.

8. The Citadel

--Chuck Driesell's team gets a lot back from last season, but losing All-SoCon big man Mike Groselle is like Nickelback losing Chad Kroeger: a team with not much to offer already losing its most recognizable piece.

Swingman Matt Van Scyoc and forward P.J. Horgan are the primary returning options, with Horgan hitting the ground fast after Driesell made the decision to burn his intended redshirt. A 10/8 performance against Western Carolina was an auspicious debut, but he really got rolling in late January. Horgan put up 64 points and 25 rebounds in wins over Wofford and Furman--the Citadel's only back-to-back wins over D-I opponents--and a loss to Chattanooga.

Van Scyoc scored in doubles in six of his first nine college games, then was held without a three-point bucket in only two conference games. He's one of the league's better shooting threats. Point guard Marshall Harris III led the SoCon in assists (5.2/game), but he is NOT one of the league's better shooting threats (38.3 eFG%).

The entire team proved capable as shooters, thanks to good ball movement. The Bulldogs' 57.5 TS% ranked 20th in the country, and their 15.1 APG ranked 30th. Like Appy State, however, the defense was sievelike, ranking in the bottom 12 in opponents' eFG%. Defense is discipline-based, which should come naturally at a military school, but size also helps. Three freshmen taller than 6'6" enter to help make up for the loss of Groselle.

9. Furman

--The good news: Furman can't equal last season's 12th-place finish. The bad news: just because the basement was moved up a floor, it doesn't mean there aren't still leaks, drafts and rats the size of swiftboats. With a sophomore-laden nucleus, though, there should be enough improvement to avoid last place.

New coach/former Furman assistant Niko Medved returns four players who made at least 16 starts, but they're part of a bunch that lost by an average of 11.4 PPG in conference play, nearly four points worse than anyone else. Kendrec Ferrara, Charlie Reddick and Larry Wideman all shot at least 35% from three last season, with Wideman and Ferrara doing well as freshmen. Point guard Stephen Croone was also a solid freshman performer, averaging 9.9 points and four assists.

Eyes on the ball, kids. Eyes on the ball.
Another pair of sophomores, Keith Belfield and Kevin Chuisseu, provide perimeter shooting and rebounding, respectively.

Medved may get to reap the benefits of a foundation Jeff Jackson began assembling, but to do so, he'll have to figure out how to get the same players scoring more efficiently and preventing opponents from doing same. Preferably without the use of a ghost who looks like Dwayne Wayne from A Different World.

10. UNC Greensboro

--UNCG's top two scorers combined for more than 33 PPG last season, making them one of the league's most potent duos. The Spartans' 73.9 PPG ranked among the nation's top 40, but high-scoring teams give the opponents lots of chances to capitalize. While opponents didn't put up extremely gaudy shooting numbers from the floor, look at the free throws. Only five teams in America put opponents on the line for more than the 844 attempts UNCG surrendered.

Oh, and now the top two scorers are gone. So now what?

Coach Wes Miller will try to build around sophomore Kayel Locke, junior Nick Paulos and Arizona State transfer Kyle Cain. The 240-pound Locke put up 9.9 PPG and led the team in offensive rebounding. Paulos was a 40% three-point shooter. Cain ripped 5.5 RPG over his two seasons in Tempe, playing only 22 minutes per game. He could stand among the SoCon's top impact newcomers.

Beyond those three, Miller may have to look to his freshman class. Shooting guard Tevin Saddler (19/7/3 as a senior) had offers from Oregon State, Miami and South Florida, while swingman Tyrone Outlaw (24/12/4.5) spurned Ole Miss.

Point guard Drew Parker should exceed last season's 2.6 APG without Trevis Simpson and Derrell Armstrong working isos, and he can be a good SoCon creator if he maintains last season's 2.0 A/T ratio.

11. Georgia Southern

--New Eagles coach Mark Byington has walked into a spinning fan by taking this job. Three of the top five scorers are gone and top man Eric Ferguson will redshirt after April knee surgery. The top three returnees are seniors, but it appears a freshman shall lead them.

6'4", 190-pound combo guard Torlorf Thomas put up 16/5/5 as a HS senior and could easily play either backcourt position for the Eagles. Either he'll run the point or start at the 2 alongside senior Brian Holmes. Holmes was second on the team with 1.7 APG. Wing Tre Bussey is the top returning scorer after Ferguson's injury, but his eFG% came in less than 42%. Junior Jelani Hewitt redshirted last season after averaging nearly 10 PPG and shooting 40% in his first two years.

Senior Marvin Baynham and junior Kameron Dunnican should be the primary rebounders, while juco transfers Curtis Diamond and Angel Matias will try to provide wing scoring. Next season, Charleston transfer Trent Wiedeman becomes eligible, but four seniors will be gone and Ferguson will become a grad student. Him using the grad transfer exemption would surprise no one right now.

Jack Owens: budding national icon?

Appalachian State: Nov. 8 at NC State
--The Wolfpack have a lot of talent, but not much of it is used to a primary role. If T.J. Warren and co. expect to coast, the game could get scary.
Chattanooga: Nov. 24 at UCLA
--If Steve "Hoosier Loser" Alford is as feckless as Bruin fans would make him out to be, this is the kind of game that his team could lose. Ya know, like Ben Howland dropped one to Cal Poly.
The Citadel: Nov. 21 at Wake Forest
--Demon Deacon fans want coach Jeff Bzdelik fired, but the school won't oblige. If he loses to The Citadel, Bzdelik will need the National Guard to make it to his car...which will probably already be doused in manure and set on fire.
Davidson: Nov. 8 at Duke
--A nationwide audience will tune in to ESPNU to watch a mega-hyped freshman make his debut. And Jabari Parker will be there, too.
Elon: Dec. 31 vs. Duke (Greensboro, NC)
--The Blue Devils are feasting on the SoCon, eh? Elon's job is to get Lucas Troutman over on Duke's smaller post players and give the Dukies indigestion.
Furman: Nov. 26 at Virginia Tech
--The Hokies should still be able to win this one, but without national scoring champ Erick Green, it'll probably be ugly.
Georgia Southern: Nov. 11 at Miami
--The 'Canes players may still need name tags, but the Eagles are still coming in as glorified roadkill.
Samford: Dec. 14 at Florida Gulf Coast
--We hear Dunk City's lovely in December, but how adapted will the Eagles be to new coach Joe Dooley by then?
UNC Greensboro: Dec. 7 at North Carolina
--Coach Miller gets to go back to the alma mater and collect a check for getting run over. Capitalism at its finest, folks.
Western Carolina: Dec. 18 vs. Charleston Southern
--Yes, the Cats play at Oregon, but CSU coming to Cullowhee is a great matchup pitting Sumler against Bucs backcourt stars Arlon Harper and Saah Nimley.
Wofford: Nov. 21 at Minnesota
--An experienced Terrier team chases new coach Richard Pitino down the Gopher hole. If Little Ricky doesn't have his rotation in gear by then, he might have some 'splainin' to do.

"Eat it, Plumlee."

De'Mon Brooks, Davidson
Z. Mason, Chattanooga
Trey Sumler, Western Carolina
Lucas Troutman, Elon
Tim Williams, Samford

Ryley Beaumont, Elon
Jay Canty, Appalachian State
Raijon Kelly, Samford
Tawaski King, Western Carolina
Gee McGhee, Chattanooga

PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Lucas Troutman, Elon
--Averaged fewer than four boards per game over his final eight. That must double, or De'Mon Brooks will take this award and beat Troutman about the head and ears with it.
COACH OF THE YEAR: Larry Hunter, Western Carolina
--Hunter's known as an offensive guru, and this season, he's got some horses to run with. If he gets some post depth and rebounding help, WCU can lead the league in scoring.
NEWCOMER OF THE YEAR: Kyle Cain, UNC Greensboro
--Expect him to lead the Spartans in both scoring and rebounding.

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