- Matt Cox
3MW’s All Conference Team:
1. Chattanooga Choke?
The Mocs are undeniably one of the biggest head scratchers of the 2016-17 season, not just in the SoCon but in all of college basketball. After tallying 29 wins last year, which earned them a 12 seed in the NCAA tournament, 4 of Nooga's top-5 scorers all returned for a repeat run, along with the conference player of the year in 2014-2015, Casey Jones, who missed all of last season with a dislocated ankle. On paper, the starting 5 appeared to one of the best the SoCon had seen in quite some time, so expectations were naturally sky high. However, the series of unfortunate events started early in the preseason, when Chuck Ester went down with a season-ending injury and despite a respectable non-conference showing, the downward spiral resumed about halfway through conference play. This free-fall hit rock-bottom on Monday, when the bottom-feeder Citadel Bulldogs handed the Mocs a 9 point defeat in Charleston, capping off a 4-game losing streak to finish the regular season. After this debacle, head coach Matt McCall had some concerning post-game remarks, particularly regarding the effort of Tre' McClean, who's questionable effort led to him being benched for the 2nd half. The Mocs will need to put their internal distractions aside, and do so quickly, if they any chance to compete in a deep SoCon tournament field this weekend.
2. Rise of the Spartans
Trusting the process has finally paid off for Spartan nation - and no, I'm not referring to the Empire in East Lansing. When ex-UNC point guard Wes Miller was hired to man the helm in Greensboro back in 2012, he had just turned 28 years old, making him the youngest coach in the country at the time. Now in his 6th year, the 'grizzled vet' is finally turning the corner after making steady improvements over the past two seasons. The timing finally seems right for this squad, who is led by a pair of proven veterans, RJ White and Diante Baldwin. Together, this duo assumes what are arguably the two most important roles on any basketball team - a reliable point guard and a dominant paint protector. Throw in a rising sophomore star in Francis Alonso, and it's easy to see how the Spartans made a monumental leap this season, finishing in a 3-way tie for first place.
3. No Croone. No Problem.
It's not often you see a team lose a back-to-back all-conference caliber performer and actually get better the following year. However, this is precisely what the Paladins did this season after losing their senior point guard and leading scorer Stephen Croone to graduation. The pleasant surprise for head coach Niko Medved has been the ascension of Daniel Fowler, who was handed over the keys to the point guard position this season, despite being turnover prone playing off-the-ball last year. He, along with Devin Sibley, make up one of the bigger and more athletic backcourts in the SoCon and have seamlessly filled the scoring void left behind by Croone. What's most impressive is just how good the purple Paladins have been without arguably their best big guy in Matt Rafferty. Lingering back issues have kept Rafferty sidelined for much of the season, after he exploded onto the SoCon scene as a freshman last year. Iceland-native Kris Acox has stepped up in his senior year, providing exactly what the Paladins thought they would get from Rafferty - consistent, two-way rebounding and reliable finishing around the rim.
The SoCon offers a standard 10-team format, similar to the Missouri Valley, in which the bottom-4 seeds have to win 4 games 4 in days (woah, watch out for '4's). All games will be played at the U.S Cellular Center in Asheville, NC.
Best Team(s) and Projected NCAA Tournament Seed(s):
While this is certainly up for debate, Furman is my choice here. The Paladins feel like the least sexy of the three teams that finished neck-and-neck atop the regular season standings, but the reality is that this squad s a complete basketball team with a ton of skillset variety in their starting line up: two, big athletic guards in Sibley and Fowler, an interior monster in Acox and four long range snipers in Geoff Beans, John Davis, Andrew Brown and Jordan Lyons. The slashing of Sibley and Fowler spearhead a perimeter-oriented attack that can bury opponent's with a burst of 3s, typically generated from drive-and-kick action. With the stable of shooters surrounding Fowler, the Paladins feature a 4-out, 1-in offensive look that centers around the active Acox, who consistently delivers all of the dirty work inside.
Dark Horse Team(s):
Per my tournament predictions below, my dark horse pick is clearly Wofford. If the Terriers are able to sneak by an uber-talented - but faltering - Chattanooga team, I love their matchup in the Semis with top-seeded UNC Greensboro. The Spartans will typically drop back from their 2-2-1 three-quarter court 'press' in a half-court zone, which doesn't emphasize taking away the 3-point shot. This could be problematic against the Terriers, who can absolutely light it up from downtown behind the precision shooting of Fletcher Magee and Eric Garcia.
(9) The Citadel defeats (8) Western Carolina
(7) Samford defeats (10) VMI
(1) UNC Greensboro defeats (9) The Citadel
(4) Chattanooga defeats (5) Wofford
(2) Furman defeats (7) Samford
(3) East Tennessee St. defeats (6) Mercer
(5) Wofford defeats (1) UNC Greensboro
(2) Furman defeats (3) East Tennessee
(2) Furman defeats (5) Wofford