- Matt Cox
- 'Spartans Steal the Show': When Steve Forbes lost 4 starters from one of the best teams in the history of ETSU basketball, it's safe to say most folks anticipated that the 2018 campaign would be somewhat of a 'reset and reload' type of year in JOHNSON CITY, TENNESSEE (shouts to Old Crow Medicine show). Led by a blanketing perimeter defense, courtesy of hyper-athletic guards Desonta Bradford, Jalan McCloud, Devontavius Payne and David Burrell (all of whom were overshadowed by the likes of TJ Cromer and AJ Merriweather last season), the Buccaneers quickly put to bed any talks of 'rebuilding'. After a disappointing home loss to Troy way back on November 22nd, the Bucs suddenly had a Bat Signal-sized light bulb turn on - from Thanksgiving all the way to the beginning of February, ETSU went on a tear to end all tears, winning 20 of their next 21 contests with the only slip up coming AT Xavier by a bucket.
Then, inexplicably, the fairytale run ended in the blink of an eye - the Bucs hobbled across the finish line, dropping 4 of their final 5 games which opened the door for the pesky Spartans to swipe the SoCon regular season crown and retain the SoCon title belt from last season. It's been 7 years since Wes Miller assumed the head coaching duties in Greensboro, but he's finally branding the Spartans as a perennial SoCon contender after back-to-back regular season conference championships.
- 'Samfor[d] Drops the D': While we here at 3MW remained relatively bearish on Samford in our preseason predictions (some publications predicted the Bulldogs to win the league), no one - and I mean NO ONE - could've foreseen a defensive meltdown like what we witnessed this season from Scott Padgett's squad. To put in perspective how atrocious Samford's defense was, all 23 schools representing the notoriously poor SWAC and MEAC conferences got stops more consistently than Samford this year, whose 349th ranked adjusted defensive efficiency topped only Bryant and USC Upstate in the entire country (yes, that equates to 3rd worst in the land).
- 'SoCon Bombs Away': It's no secret that the 'pace and space' movement in the NBA has increasingly infected college basketball over the last few seasons. Before 2015-16, only three times in the history of the kenpom era had a conference as a whole finished with a 3PA rate of 39% or higher - in other words, it was rare to find a team that attempted 39% or more of their field goals from behind the arc, much less an entire conference. In just the last three seasons, that mark has been surpassed a whopping 16 times, three of which have been accounted for by the SoCon. After leading the country two seasons ago with a 38.9 3PA% clip, the SoCon went full bore bombs away this season as the league SHATTERED the single season conference mark - 43.7% of all shots in the SoCon this season were from the land of plenty, a whole 3% above the next closest league.
All games will be played on a neutral site in Asheville, NC at the US Cellular Center.
What to Watch:
- Can the Bucs right the ship? In ETSU's four losses over the past few weeks, the notoriously stingy defense was MIA - the Bucs surrendered 1.12, 1.11, 1.14 and 1.05 points per possession to UNGC, The Citadel, Wofford and Furman, respectively, a far cry from their conference season long average of 95.2.
- Who will get hot? Given how reliant so many SoCon squads live and die with the 3-ball, he who catches fire this weekend will likely mask any and all lineup and matchup disadvantages. While this narrative could be said for any of the 32 conference tournaments, it rings especially true in the 3-point trigger happy SoCon.
Who will win:
- Furman: I'm staying true to my preseason prediction that the Paladins will be the Socon's representative in the Big Dance this year. Furman was the most balanced team in the conference all season long thanks to the timely ascension of Matt Raftery, the Paladins lone big in a perimeter-oriented, 4-guard lineup.
If not them, then...
- East Tennessee State: Anything can happen in a single elimination 10-team field bracket, especially on a neutral court, but I think Steve Forbes and the boys are set up nicely to make a deep run. Assuming the Bucs can get by the play-in winner of Samford / Chattanooga, ETSU will likely face Furman in the semis. The two SoCon leaders split the head-to-head matchups during the regular season (both teams won on each other's home floor), but ETSU is well equipped to slow down Furman's continuous drive-and-kick offense, which so often results in an open 3 for a plethora of shooters. With David Burrell and Bo Hodges often playing the '4' on defense, the Buccaneers have the athleticism and lateral quickness needed to check Furman's constant dribble penetration and run shooters off the 3-point line.
- Mercer: Unlike the reeling Buccaneers, Mercer has been white-hot since the calendar turned to February. It appears the Bears are now fully adjusted to life without their offensive spark plug, Ria'n Holland, who has been sidelined with a right wrist injury since January 18th. Jordan Strawberry has been given exclusive rights to the ball handling and playmaking responsibilities while Ross Cummings has been instant offense since being injected into the starting lineup.