- Ky McKeon
Player of the Year: Fletcher Magee, Sr., Wofford
Coach of the Year: Scott Padgett, Samford
Newcomer of the Year: Isaiah Tisdale, Jr., East Tennessee State
Freshman of the Year: Kevin Easley, Chattanooga
1. UNC Greensboro
Key Returners: Francis Alonso, James Dickey, Demetrius Troy, Kyrin Galloway, Isaiah Miller
Key Losses: Marvin Smith, Jordy Kuiper
Key Newcomers: Eric Hamilton (Wichita State), Mohamed Abdulsalam, Angelo Allegri, Kaleb Hunter (Redshirt)
Outlook: Wes Miller, the reigning SoCon Coach of the Year, has been objectively phenomenal at the helm of the UNCG Spartan basketball program. Miller has improved UNCG every year since he took over as head coach in 2011-12 and led the Spartans to their best season ever in 2017-18. Greensboro faithful should enjoy Miller while they can, as the young skipper is destined for bigger and better jobs in the near future (UNC anyone???). This year, Miller will look to bring his Spartans back to the Big Dance with a good chunk of production returning from his 13-seed squad a year ago.
When Miller first took over at UNCG, he implemented an extremely uptempo, transition-focused attack. That pace has cooled down considerably over the years and last season the Spartans ranked in the bottom 50 of tempo, shifting to a more half-court oriented, mover-blocker-esque system. Three-pointers are still the primary focus of the UNCG offense, and most possessions involve setting a bazillion screens for Francis Alonso in order to free up the sharpshooter in space. The loss of Marvin Smith, an All-Conference performer, and Jordy Kuiper will hurt a bit in terms of outside shooting, but Miller has bodies waiting in the wing ready to take on a higher volume. When not scoring via the three, UNCG gets buckets off the offensive glass primarily as a result of having James Dickey on the roster. The Spartans were one of the best rebounding teams in the country on both ends of the floor last season, and Dickey attacks the glass with fervor.
Offense is obviously important in basketball, but oftentimes defense is overlooked despite being the reason teams enjoy successful seasons. UNCG was the best team in the SoCon last year largely because it was so dominant defensively. Per KenPom, the Spartans ranked 26th in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency (KenPom) thanks to an aggressive, trapping 1-2-2 full court press that drops back into a high-pressure man-to-man set. The Spartans force a ton of turnovers (#27 in TO rate nationally last year), block shots at a high rate, close out on shooters, and box out effectively. Nothing about the current year roster suggests a major drop-off from last season’s defensive dominance.
Francis Alonso is the engine of the Spartan offense, a 6’3” sharpshooter and 1st Team All-SoCon member in 2017-18. Last season, Alonso shot a scorching 40% from downtown and 86% from the FT line. As mentioned above, UNCG’s offense emphasizes freeing Alonso up for open looks off down screens, and the senior scored a blazing 1.214ppp off screens last year (86th percentile in the country, per Synergy). He’ll assume the primary scoring role once again for UNCG in 2018-19.
If Alonso is the engine on offense, James Dickey is the engine on defense. The 6’10” junior might be the most valuable player on the squad with how much of the game he impacts on a nightly basis. Last season, Dickey took home SoCon Defensive Player of the Year honors and was a 2nd Team All-SoCon member. On offense, the big man is an effective post scorer but he excels on the glass with his never-ending motor and incredible nose for the basketball – Dickey ranked #1 in the SoCon last year in RPG. On defense, Dickey is the best shot-blocker in the league with his giant wingspan and elite athleticism.
Alonso and Dickey are the main pieces, but Miller’s supporting cast is talented in their own right. Point guards Demetrius Troy and Isaiah Miller likely play a lot more together this year, which is good news for the UNCG defense, which allowed only 0.81ppp when the two shared the floor in 2017-18 (per Hoop Lens). Troy ranked 5th in the SoCon in assist rate last season and contributes on offense as a knockdown three-point shooter (43.3% in SC play) and creator off the bounce. Miller, a SoCon All-Freshman member last season, ranked 1st in the conference in steal rate and somehow 2nd in the conference in offensive rebounding rate despite standing just 6’0”. Miller’s aggressive style of play on offense brings a nice change of pace to the spot-up nature of the rest of the squad. He gets to the line and into the teeth of the defense on a regular basis and rarely shoots it from beyond the arc.
Junior guard Malik Massey, sophomore Kylia Sykes, redshirt freshman Kaleb Hunter, and true freshman Angelo Allegri will form the primary reinforcements in the backcourt. Hunter is the main guy to watch of this group; he was a top 5 recruit in the state of North Carolina in the class of 2017 but took a redshirt last year following an injury during his senior season in HS. Massey is a good candidate to make up some of the lost three-point shooting production.
Inside, look for junior Kyrin Galloway, Wichita State import Eric Hamilton, and freshman Mohamed Abdulsalam to see the majority of run next to and behind Dickey. Galloway is a good rebounder and rim protector and showed ability to space the floor during his sophomore season. Hamilton should be valuable as a rebounder, switchable defender, and potential floor spacer after seeing limited minutes for the Shockers. Abdulsalam, a 4-star prospect per ESPN and 3-star most other places, is a big, strong post with a wide body. He can play either the 4 or 5 in the SoCon and should be a force on the block.
Bottom Line: Wofford returns their entire roster this year, but UNCG should be considered the team to beat. The Spartans are just too good defensively to fall out of the top three of this conference and should be a pretty good offensive team as well. If Miller brings UNCG back to the Promised Land, expect a wave of Power 6 offers to come the coach’s way in the 2019 offseason.
Key Returners: Fletcher Magee, Cameron Jackson, Trevor Stumpe, Nathan Hoover, Storm Murphy, Matthew Pegram
Key Losses: Derrick Brooks
Key Newcomers: Chevez Goodwin (Charleston), Ryan Larson, Isaiah Bigelow, Messiah Jones
Outlook: *God loves a Terrier… Yes he does… God loves a Terrier… That’s because…*
Yes, it feels like everyone should love the Wofford Terriers this year with essentially everyone returning from an inexperienced team that managed to go 21-13 (11-7) and knock off Georgia Tech and UNC on the road. Mike Young has been in Spartanburg since 2002-03 and had led his Terriers to four NCAA tournaments in that time span, the last one coming in 2015. Wofford has consistently been a conference contender under Young and this year it’ll look to take home yet another SoCon regular season and tournament championship.
Wofford’s offense is a lock to be top three in the SoCon and will challenge for top 75 in the country. Young’s squad is all about the three-ball, shooting 40.5% from deep in conference play last season while scoring the 7th highest percentage of points from behind the arc in the country (KenPom). Four guards surround big man Cameron Jackson in a spread-out attack that looks to feed the post and drop bombs from the perimeter. When a team has four guys on the floor that all shoot around 40% from deep, they’re nearly impossible to stop.
Defense is Wofford’s weakness. The Terriers ranked 5th in the SC last year in defense and 243rd in the country, per KenPom. Young’s squad allowed way too many easy looks from deep and gave little resistance near the rim outside of Jackson. Some promising athleticism via the transfer wire and high school ranks could help this defensive issue, as well as just another year under the belts of Young’s primary returners. Wofford plays mostly man-to-man in the half court, but Young mixed in a little zone last season. Very few teams in the country have pressed less than the Terriers over the past five years.
Casual college basketball fans across the country were introduced to Wofford last season after it took down two ACC opponents, most notably North Carolina. These performances formally introduced the world to Fletcher Magee, who has been one of the best shooters in the country the past three seasons. Magee took his game to another stratosphere last season, earning the unofficial title of “Jimmer-lite” and narrowly missing the 50/40/90 club by posting a 48/44/91 clip. Magee is as pure of a shooter as players come in the D1 ranks, but he expanded his game further his junior year to more than “catch-and-shoot”. Media members selected Magee as the 2018 SoCon Player of the Year and he was a unanimous member of the 1st Team All-Conference squad. Look for the talented guard to pour in over 20ppg this season and raise his NBA Draft stock.
Magee’s starting guard mates include juniors Nathan Hoover and Trevor Stumpe and sophomore Storm Murphy. Stumpe is a wing that plays a lot of 4 for the Terriers in their 4-guard lineups. He’s a good passer and rebounder at 6’5”, is able to shoot the three (42.5%) and is a solid defender on the other end. Hoover is yet another money shooter, knocking down 39.4% of his tries last season. Both guards shot over 80% from the foul line in 2017-18. Murphy, a member of the SC’s All-Freshman squad last season, was solid in his role as PG as a rookie. He posted a strong assist rate but, like all freshmen, struggled at times protecting the ball. Murphy is another three-point weapon from the perimeter and should continue to be a valuable table-setter for Magee and company.
Returning guards Donovan Theme-Love and Tray Hollowell should remain in the backcourt rotation, and freshmen Ryan Larson and Isaiah Bigelow each have opportunities to carve out some minutes of their own. Larson is a promising floor leader off the bench that possesses quickness, poise, and shooting ability. Bigelow brings talent and size to the perimeter at 6’7”. Like everyone else on the team, he too can shoot the long-ball.
Inside duties will mostly fall on 2nd Team All-SoCon member Cameron Jackson and backup big Matthew Pegram. Jackson is an all-around excellent post player that uses a high number of Wofford’s possessions. He’s consistently been one of the SoCon’s best rebounders, shot blockers, and stealers over the past two seasons. Pegram saw his minutes decline a bit last year, but given Jackson’s foul history, he’ll see his fair share of court time in 2018-19. He’s valuable for his rebounding but lacks much defensive ability.
College of Charleston transfer Chevez Goodwin should be a major boost to the Wofford frontcourt. He didn’t see a whole lot of run behind a crowded Cougar frontline his freshman year, but put up gaudy rebounding and block rates when given the opportunity. 3-star freshman Messiah Jones, a Simeon product with a college-ready body, and returning big Keve Aluma round out Young’s frontcourt rotation.
Bottom Line: The SoCon might be Wofford’s to lose this season, but conference contender regulars like ETSU and UNCG will still be tough obstacles to overcome. Young has the best offense in the league led by the best player in the league – if the defense comes together, the Terriers could be back dancing in March.
3. East Tennessee State
Key Returners: Bo Hodges, Mladen Armus
Key Losses: Desonta Bradford, Jalan McCloud, Devontavius Payne, David Burrell, Peter Jurkin, Jermaine Long
Key Newcomers: Kevon Tucker (JUCO), Isaiah Tisdale (JUCO), D’Andre Bernard (JUCO), Tray Boyd III (JUCO), Patrick Good (Appalachian State), Octavion Corley (JUCO), Jeromy Rodriguez (Redshirt), Carlos Curtis
Outlook: ETSU came within a breath of the NCAA Tournament last season, losing the SoCon championship to UNCG. The Bucs enjoyed yet another tremendous year under head coach Steve Forbes, finishing 14-4 in the conference for the third year in a row. This year, ETSU loses the SoCon Player of the Year (per coach’s poll), Desonta Braford, and fellow All-Conference guard Jalan McCloud. But, in true Steve Forbes fashion, the Bucs have an embarrassment of talent coming in from the JUCO ranks ready to take the floor.
ETSU’s overall tempo fell last season, but that was mostly due to the Bucs creating longer defensive possessions. Offensively, Forbes’ crew was still one that looked to push the ball in transition. The Bucs ranked in the 94th percentile in points per possession (1.164ppp) in transition, per Synergy, which accounted for the most effective part of their offense. When not running the floor, ETSU was a balanced half-court team, though it relied more on driving and post play to score versus the three-ball.
Defensively, the Bucs ranked right around 50th best in the country, per KenPom, posting one of the best block rates and steal rates in the country. ETSU’s immense athleticism at nearly every position helped spur this success, and an emphasis on limiting three-point attempts did wonders in a conference that shot the most threes in the country in 2017-18.
Only two major contributors return from last year’s ETSU squad and both of them happen to be sophomores. Bo Hodges, the SoCon coaches’ pick for Freshman of the Year, is a 6’4” wing that plays bigger than his size suggests. Hodges is an excellent offensive rebounder for his position and draws a lot of fouls by driving hard to the basket. On defense, Hodges was one of ETSU’s best, ranking 9th in the SoCon in block rate his freshman year. Big man Mladen Armus, a member of the All-Freshman Team, is the other key returner. Armus ranked 4th in the country in offensive rebounding rate and 1st in the SoCon, posting 5.5rpg in only 18.1mpg (that’s 12.1rpg per 40 minutes). The 6’10” Serbian is a steady post presence on offense and a wall defensively – opponents scored only 0.603ppp on post-up plays against Armus in 2017-18, per Synergy.
Everyone else of consequence on this roster is new to Johnson City (at least, they haven’t yet officially worn an ETSU uniform). Forbes has a history of opting for JUCO guys on the recruiting wire instead of freshmen, and this year he hit the jackpot. The class is led by Isaiah Tisdale, the #15 ranked JUCO recruit and a 2-time NJCAA All-American. Tisdale averaged 17.4ppg and 4.5apg last season and will be a consistent source of shooting and scoring while being able to run the offense.
Tisdale should start immediately for the Bucs along with one of either Kevon Tucker, a Honorable Mention NJCAA All-American, or Tray Boyd III, the #35 JUCO recruit in the class of 2018. Tucker averaged 19.5ppg last season while shooting 43.2% from downtown. He’s a physical wing that projects as a good defender, but his best asset is his outside shot. Boyd put up 14.5ppg while shooting a scorching 45% from deep; he could lead ETSU in scoring with his uncanny knack for putting the ball in the hoop.
As if those three weren’t enough, Forbes also brings in a former top ten Canadian recruit in the class of 2015 in D’Andre Bernard and welcomes the #16 JUCO recruit from the class of 2017, Jeromy Rodriguez, to the squad after he sat out 2017-18 with an injury. Bernard originally redshirted at North Florida before transferring to JUCO. The 6’8” 4-man can jump out of the gym, as his several highlights where he basically smacks his face on the rim suggest. On top of his dunking ability, Bernard can step out and hit the three and promises to be a shot-blocking menace on defense. Rodriguez played this past offseason with the Dominican Republic’s U-19 FIBA squad and functions as a paint presence at 6’7”. He’ll try to crack the frontcourt rotation along with 7-foot JUCO import Octavion Corley, a skinny shot blocker extraordinaire.
Forbes’ final two recruits will bolster the backcourt rotation. Former App State guard Patrick Good comes into Johnson City looking to provide a source of shooting to the roster. In 125 three-point attempts in 2016-17, Good knocked down 40% while playing 29 games for the Mountaineers as a freshman. Carlos Curtis, an ESPN 3-star prospect, is the only true freshman on the squad. Curtis can score the basketball any way he feels, able to shoot, drive, and finish above the rim. His toughness and physicality should fit right in at East Tennessee State and he should compete for serious playing time in year one.
Bottom Line: ETSU loses a ton of production from 2017-18, but Forbes reloaded the cupboards in a major way. No other SoCon team can touch the level of talent the 4th-year head coach brought in this offseason (mayyyybe Samford), meaning we should expect to see the Bucs right near the top of the standings for another year in a row.
Key Returners: Josh Sharkey, Stefan Lakic, Kevion Nolan
Key Losses: Justin Coleman, Demetrius Denzel-Dyson, Eric Adams, Alex Thompson, Triston Chambers, Christen Cunningham
Key Newcomers: Brandon Austin (Alabama), Ruben Guerrero (South Florida), Myron Gordon (JUCO), Steven Fitzgerald, Deandre Thomas, Stanley Henderson Jr., Robert Allen, Logan Dye
Outlook: All signs pointed to Samford being a very good basketball team in 2017-18 after the Bulldogs returned a ton of experience from a 20-win squad. Despite the amount of talent on paper though, Samford flat out sucked last season. This year, only three players that earned regular minutes return to the roster, but Scott Padgett will look to resume his rebuild of the Samford basketball program by bringing in one of the school’s best recruiting classes ever. The Bulldogs have never finished above 9-9 in the SoCon, so Padgett will hope his newcomers come along quickly in their first season in Birmingham.
Samford’s offense was actually very good last year, representative of the talent level of the squad. Padgett implemented an uptempo system (2nd fastest team in the SC) that shot the three well and often. To boot, the Bulldogs were one of the best FT shooting teams in the country, cashing in on regular trips to the foul line. Turnovers were an issue, and Samford was an awful rebounding team, but the shooting was so good it hardly mattered. When not running or bombing, Samford got buckets through the pick-n-roll, specifically by hitting the roll man either fading behind the arc or crashing to the bucket. Per Synergy, Samford ranked 16th in the country in frequency of plays ended by the PnR roll-man, and 15th in points scored per possession by the roll-man.
The Bulldogs finished 10-22 (6-12) due in large part to their defense, which ranked as the 3rd worst unit in the country, per KenPom. Samford was dead last in 2PFG% defense (58.3%) and allowed a ton threes, partially due to the three-happy nature of the league and partially due to the soft zone Padgett often played. To pile on, Samford was the 8th worst rebounding team in the country, another probable consequence of the poor zone. In recent years, Samford has been known as a team that pressures in the full-court, and while the Dogs still pressed at the 36th highest rate in the nation last season, Padgett dialed back the frequency in 2017-18.
Padgett’s three lone returners are junior Josh Sharkey, senior Stefan Lakic, and sophomore Kevion Nolan. Sharkey ran the point last year in a dual role with Justin Coleman – Coleman ranked #1 in the conference in APG and Sharkey ranked #2. Sharkey is more than capable of running the team, he’s finished 2nd in the SC in assist rate the past two seasons, but he must button down a turnover rate that encroached 30% last year. On defense, Sharkey has been one of the best stealers in the conference the past two seasons, ranking 5th in SPG in 2017-18. Offensively, the guard is not a shooter but rather a hard-nosed basket attacker that led the SoCon in FT rate last season.
The other two returners, Lakic and Nolan, are really replacement level players susceptible to losing minutes to the talented group of newcomers. Lakic is a stretch big that shot 38% from deep last year, but he rarely puts in the work on the glass. Nolan is a shooting wing that hit only 32.8% of his long-ball tries in 2017-18.
Padgett brings in eight new guys that could all see playing time during the year. Let’s start with the two transfers: Brandon Austin and Ruben Guerrero. Austin comes by way of Alabama where he was seldom used, especially after an injury derailed most of his 2016-17 season. He’s a good-sized wing at 6’5” 200 lbs. that should find plenty more success in the SoCon as a capable perimeter stopper. Guerrero, from South Florida, offers size and rebounding, which was a major weakness on last year’s squad. A regular starter for USF, Guerrero was a top 5 shot blocker by rate in the AAC all three years he played. Expect Guerrero to start at the center position and for Austin to compete with his fellow newbies for a starting wing spot.
Myron Gordon comes to the program by way of JUCO. Last season, Gordon scored 23.1ppg and shot 36.3% from downtown, vaulting himself to the status of the 85th ranked JUCO recruit in the land per JUCOrecruitng.com. Gordon can run the point and is a big-time scorer. As a bonus, the 6’3” junior led the NJCAA last season in FTA and FTM while converting 87% of his charity stripe tries.
Rounding out the backcourt rotation are freshmen Steven Fitzgerald and Deandre Thomas. Fitzgerald is a 4-star recruit per ESPN and the #1 prospect in the state of Kentucky in the class of 2018. The 6’4” wing is a deadly shooter from deep and scored over 3,000 points during his high school career. He has the best shot along with Austin to start at the 3. Thomas received plenty of D1 offers coming out of high school before committing to Samford. He’s an aggressive, slashing wing that projects as a strong two-way player, something the Bulldogs can’t get enough of.
In the frontcourt, freshmen Stanley Henderson Jr., Robert Allen, and Logan Dye will each compete for the starting 4-spot with Lakic. Henderson, a natural 3-man capable of playing the 4, is versatile and athletic and very good defensively. Allen is a long, athletic forward that can handle the ball, guard multiple spots, switch onto point guards in the PnR, and attack the rim and offensive glass. Dye is one of the top recruits in the state of Alabama. His biggest strengths are his strength, size, and ability to score with his back to the basket.
Bottom Line: The jury is still out on Scott Padgett. The consensus appeared to be the former Kentucky standout was a good coach when he led the Bulldogs to a successful 2016-17 season, but he lost control of his team last year. Hopefully with a clean slate and a fresh batch of talent, Padgett can successfully resume his quest to take the Dogs to SoCon relevance.
Key Returners: Matt Rafferty, Andrew Brown, Jordan Lyons, Clay Mounce
Key Losses: Devin Sibley, Daniel Fowler, John Davis, Geoff Beans
Key Newcomers: Noah Gurley (Redshirt), Jaylon Pugh, Mike Bothwell, Andrew Taylor, Jalen Slawson
Outlook: Bob Richey inherited an experienced team from Nico Medved last season after the current Colorado State coach built the Paladins into a SoCon competitor. Richey was known for his recruiting ability as an assistant at Charleston Southern and Furman before assuming head coaching duties and now looks to improve upon a 3rd place SoCon finish. Without three of his best players returning from last season – Devin Sibley, John Davis, and Daniel Fowler – Richey will face a difficult challenge in 2018-19.
Furman had the #1 offense in the SoCon last season propelled by its spread-out, three-point focused attack. Richey often plays four guards on the court at once, all of whom are capable of hitting outside shots, and while they don’t necessarily play fast, the Paladins look to score in transition often. This season, expect a lot of the offense to be run through senior forward Matt Rafferty, a major post-up threat and offensive creator from the top of the key.
Sibley was a 1st Team All-SoCon member last season, but Rafferty was arguably the most valuable player on the roster. The 6’8” big man notched the 7th best O-Rating in the country last season, ranked 6th in the SoCon in rebounds per game, and was a good defender and finisher. Rafferty’s biggest value is his passing ability; in 2017-18, he led the Paladins in assist rate, demonstrating his excellent vision and patience when passing out of the post. When Rafferty isn’t in the game, expect junior Jalen Williams or redshirt freshman Noah Gurley to earn minutes at the “5”. Gurley in particular could be in for a good year, he’s a long 3 / 4 tweener that can shoot, block shots, and rebound.
Richey has plenty of shooters with which to surround Rafferty. Andrew Brown shot 50.6% from downtown in conference play last year, the 2nd best mark in the SoCon. He also doubles as a solid defender on the opposite end of the floor. Jordan Lyons is a high-usage off-guard gunner that could play more point guard this season; he’ll share ball-handling duties with Alex Hunter, another capable outside shooter. Clay Mounce didn’t shoot the ball well during his freshman season, but he did just about everything else well. He’s an excellent rebounder by rate, especially offensively, and finished well inside the arc.
A quartet of freshmen joins the squad this season. Jaylon Pugh, a talented and athletic PG, should be a weapon in transition and an option to handle the rock outside of Lyons / Hunter. Combo guard Mike Bothwell was one of the better players in Ohio during his senior year in high school and could see minutes immediately. Andrew Taylor is an excellent shooter and another transition threat, while Jalen Slawson will add depth to the wing.
Furman’s defense was a big reason for its success last season as well. The Paladins ranked 3rd in the SoCon in adjusted defensive efficiency (per KenPom), defending the three-point arc at an elite level and forcing turnovers at one of the highest rates in the league. Fowler and Davis were both excellent defenders, but Mounce and Brown should be able to make up for most of the lost production. Richey’s system should remain consistent and the Paladins should once again be a force on that end.
Bottom Line: Furman is likely to take a step back in 2018-19 without the leadership of its three-headed guard monster. Richey appears to have the requisite coaching chops to keep the Paladins near the top-half of the standings, but he’ll need a guy like Lyons or Mounce to emerge as a go-to player.
6. The Citadel
Key Returners: Zane Najdawi, Kaelon Harris, Matt Frierson, Alex Reed, Quayson Williams, Hayden Brown
Key Losses: Preston Parks, Frankie Johnson, Leandro Allende, Tariq Simmons
Key Newcomers: Lew Stallworth (UT Rio Grande Valley), Connor Kern (Arkansas State), Jerry Higgins III, Dimitri Georgiadis
Outlook: Duggar ball is back! For the uninitiated, Duggar Baucom has built a reputation over the years of playing a very distinct style of basketball. The Citadel runs like crazy, shoots a ton of threes, and essentially gambles on defense to try to create a quick steal in order to get back down on offense to shoot more threes. Baucom’s past squads (the Citadel and VMI) have finished in the top 2 nationally in tempo 10 of the last 13 seasons, a testament to his laser focus on playing fast. This style of play, while sometimes fun to watch, has yet to translate into success at the Citadel; Baucom’s Bulldogs have finished at or near the SoCon basement in each of his first three seasons.
Remember folks, scoring a lot of points per game does not mean you are a good offensive team. Talking heads, even those that claim to know the game of basketball, love to site that the Citadel essentially leads the country every year in scoring. This means nothing – pace absolutely matters. Virginia often scores 40 or 50 point per game, and its offense is LIGHT YEARS better than the Citadel’s. Last year, Baucom’s team ranked 238th in offensive efficiency per KenPom, 239th per Bart Torvik’s T-Rank, and 295th per Haslametrics.
Defense under Baucom is almost always poor. Last season, Baucom implemented a lot of zone, mostly an aggressive 1-3-1, matchup style, which failed to stop much of anything. The Bulldogs also press full court a lot (8th most in the country in 2017-18) in order to speed the game up even more. The result of gambling for steals? The Citadel is often burned in transition and at the rim, and shooters are constantly left open to rain fire.
The Citadel has some talented players, but as long as Baucom continues to play his extreme style of basketball, it’s highly unlikely the Bulldogs will ever become a conference contender. Zane Najdawi was a 1st Team All-SoCon member last season after ranking 3rd in the conference in points per game. He plays the “5” for the Dogs in their ultra-small lineup and shot 47.9% from downtown in conference play last season (3rd best in the SC). Offensively, Najdawi is the Citadel’s only post-up threat, and he actually does a good job of producing from down on the block. Defensively, he blocks a fair amount of shots (4th highest block rate in the SC), but his rim protection ability is often used in vain.
Baucom’s starting wings this year will likely be junior Kaelon Harris, senior Matt Frierson, and sophomore Alex Reed. Harris is a good rebounder for a 6’4” wing and draws fouls at one of the highest rates on the team; he’s more “slashy” than his teammates. Frierson is all about the three-ball, shooting 290 threes compared to just 28 twos during his junior season. A career 35% 3P shooter, Frierson also gets to the FT line a fair amount where he converts at nearly a 90% clip. Reed is most valuable for his defensive versatility; he had an ok freshman year offensively, not shooting as well as he’ll need to in order to help improve the Citadel’s efficiency.
The starting point guard spot will be a battle between returning senior Quayson Williams, UT Rio Grande Valley grad transfer Lew Stallworth, and freshman Jerry Higgins III. All three should see minutes due to Baucom’s tendency (and need) to play heavy bench minutes. Williams mostly shoots threes on offense and is the best turnover creator on the team, ranking 3rd in the SoCon in steal rate last season. Stallworth also racked up steals at UTRGV and adds rebounding from the perimeter. Higgins should be a perfect fit within the system with his quickness, ability to handle the ball, ability to shoot, and ability to be an on-ball pest on defense.
Remaining rotation players include sophomore Hayden Brown, Arkansas State grad transfer Connor Kern, freshman Dimitri Georgiadis, and sophomores Kaiden Rice and Derek Webster Jr. Brown should see plenty of time at the second forward spot, Kern will be another source for three-pointers, and Georgiadis brings size and an alternative post threat outside of Najdawi.
Bottom Line: We know what we’re going to get from Duggar Baucom and the Citadel this season. Despite the continuity on the roster, it’d be unrealistic to expect a major jump in efficiency on either end of the floor. The Dogs appear destined for yet another bottom-half SoCon finish.
Key Returners: Marcus Cohen, Ross Cummings, Jaylen Stowe, Cory Kilby, Ethan Stair
Key Losses: Ria’n Holland, Jordan Strawberry, Stephon Jelks, Desmond Ringer, Demetre Rivers
Key Newcomers: Djordje Dimitrijevic, DJ Peavy, Daniel Love, CJ Williamson, Fardaws Aimaq, Luke Hamilton, Brandon Thomas
Outlook: Last season should’ve been the Bears’ year. Mercer featured a squad that ranked 11th in the country in experience and 15th in minute continuity, and was picked to finish 1st in the preseason SoCon coaches poll. The Bears stumbled out of the gate in conference play, going 3-7 in their first ten contests, but finished the year strong with eight straight regular season victories. 11th-year coach Bob Hoffman now loses five important seniors to graduation and is left with a team with no clear floor leader or go-to guy. As an added challenge, Mercer’s roster this season is mighty thin in the frontcourt and size departments.
Hoffman has built a reputation as a good-to-great game-plan coach, especially offensively where he tailors his attack to his personnel. A few constants have remained throughout Hoffman’s recent stretch at Mercer, including a tendency to play at a slow tempo, shoot a high volume of threes (though relatively low from a SoCon point of view), and rebound the basketball at a high level. Last season the Bears were an overall excellent shooting team and scored the ball with ease inside the arc and via the foul line. Hoffman’s motion offense relied heavily on the pick-n-roll to free up creators and keep defenders helping off shooters. Mercer’s 60th ranked offense last year, per KenPom, was its best of the Hoffman era.
Defensively, Hoffman’s goal is to wall-off the paint and prevent penetration and easy second chance points. This means the three-point line is the best way to defeat the Bears, which is usually a boom or bust strategy. Unfortunately for Mercer, three-pointers fell for opposing teams last year and interior resistance, particularly in the paint, was non-existent. Mercer still rebounded the ball at a nationally elite level (#32 in defensive rebounding rate, #1 in the SoCon, per KenPom), but opposing squads scored much too easily. This year’s squad’s lack of size suggests Hoffman will stay with his “packed in” style of defense and throw out his usual multitude of zone looks.
With so much senior turnover, someone will need to step up and be the leader of this team in 2018-19. Sophomore guard Marcus Cohen and junior guard Ross Cummings appear to have the most to gain from the increased playing time. Cohen showed promise at the point guard position during his freshman season, setting the table and running the offense well enough, but the 6’4” guard was too often bit by the turnover bug. Further, his one dimensional style of play (he cannot shoot from outside) limits his scoring avenue to “slash and draw contact”. Cummings will likely lead the Bears in scoring after forcing his way into the starting lineup the latter half of last season. The 6’3” 2-guard shot a blistering 44.2% from downtown (45.7% in SC play) and also showed ability to score inside the arc.
Veterans Jaylen Stowe and Ethan Stair will compete for starting spots after filling reserve roles for much of last season. Stowe is a slashing wing that’s able to get to the foul line, though he must shoot better than 59.5% this year. Elsewise, Stowe is an excellent rebounder on both ends for his position and is one of the better Bear defenders. Stair started a few games in 2017-18 before injury derailed his season. He’s an all-around wing that can score from all three levels of the floor and is valuable on the defensive end.
Hoffman has too many bodies in the backcourt for everyone to play a role, but JUCO import Djordje Dimitrijevic likely sees a good amount of floor time in his first season in Macon. Dimitrijevic averaged 13.7ppg in JUCO and shot 50% from downtown on a medium volume. His unique ability at the point guard position to blow-by slower defenders and post-up smaller ones could be key for the Bears.
Freshmen guards DJ Peavy, Daniel Love, Brandon Thomas and CJ Williamson will fill out the remaining bench spots behind the returners and Dimitrijevic. All four are combo-guards, able to handle the ball and create their own offense. Love is probably the best shooter of the group while Williamson projects as the best defender.
Size is a major problem for Hoffman this season. Cory Kilby is the only returning frontcourt player from last season’s squad and even he is more “wingy” in nature. He’ll likely get the starting 4 job out of necessity, but he has yet to prove to be a capable rebounder or inside presence. Freshman Fardaws Aimaq is enormous at 6’11” with a 7’3” wingspan, but he’s very raw and may not yet be able to compete at the D1 level. Likewise, walk-on 7-footer Breck Cuddy isn’t projected to be a major contributor either. Cuddy is not very athletic, but he is more skilled and aware on the court than Aimaq, meaning we could see him for spot minutes throughout the year. Freshman forward Luke Hamilton is a stretch-4 that can light it up from three, but his weight gives question to his rebounding / defensive abilities.
Bottom Line: Never count out Bob Hoffman in a SoCon race, but Mercer could be in for a rough season. The Bears lack a true scoring leader and have zero size to maintain their always-effective rebounding. Hoffman may just say “screw it” and run out five guards, but that opens up more questions on the glass and defensively on the interior. Hoffman will have his work cut out for him as he tries to fit his misshapen puzzle pieces into a complete picture.
Key Returners: Bubba Parham, Austin Vereen, Tyler Creammer, Garrett Gilkeson, Jordan Ratliffe, Will Miller
Key Losses: Keith Smith
Key Newcomers: Connor Arnold, Rafael Jenkins, Jake Stephens
Outlook: VMI was one of the youngest squads in the country last season, and it showed as the Keydets stumbled to a 9-21 (4-14) record. That performance has been par for the course for Dan Earl in his first three seasons at the helm in Lexington, as the Ed DeChellis disciple has yet to win more than 9 games in a season and/or more than 4 games in the SoCon. I think he gets there in 2018-19. Earl returns nearly everyone from last year’s team including the media Freshman of the Year – this could be the season VMI finally gets to… 8th in the conference!
To be fair to Earl, he inherited a roster built to play Duggar Baucom’s frenetic style of basketball. In his 4th year, Early finally gets to have a roster built entirely of his guys to play his preferred style. Offensively, the Keydets cannot be worse than they were last year, finishing dead last in the SoCon in adjusted offensive efficiency and bottom five in the entire county (per KenPom). VMI shot the ball poorly from everywhere on the floor, didn’t take care of the ball, and rebounded poorly – three surefire ways to ensure your offense is a pile of dog crap.
Earl played ball for DeChellis at Penn State and coached under him for a number of years, but he has not brought over DeChellis’s offensive philosophy to VMI. Earl likes pushing the tempo (VMI was the third fastest team in the SoCon in 2017-18) and shooting the long-ball. When not running and gunning, VMI’s superlative young guard Bubba Parham, among others, used the pick-n-roll to create offense. Expect the same offensive blueprint this year in Earl’s 4th season.
Defensively, Earl has borrowed a bit from his old coach’s schemes, implementing a weird 2-3 matchup / 1-3-1 zone look for about half of VMI’s defensive possessions in 2017-18. Oddly enough, VMI was excellent when it played man-to-man, allowing just 0.831ppp in the half-court, but turned into an average defensive team when it switched to zone. The Keydets also show a fair amount of full court pressure in an effort to force turnovers. VMI’s defense wasn’t horrendous in 2017-18 and should be at least as good, if not better, this season with greater roster experience.
Bubba Parham is the straw that stirs the drink, as my colleague Matt likes to say. The second year combo guard out of Snellville, GA handled the ball part-time with the departed Keith Smith and likely slides over to full-time point duties in 2018-19. Parham is valuable for his ability to create offense, whether off the bounce, from the behind the arc, or by setting up his teammates. He was the 5th highest used player in the conference last season, sometimes to a fault, and should be up there once again this season as he makes his case for an All-Conference spot.
Look for sophomore guard Jordan Ratliffe to receive an uptick in playing time this year as Keith Smith moves on from the Institute. Ratliffe was an offensive spark off the bench last season, but was way too much of a “volume shooter” (in the worst possible way), attempting too many wild shots and shooting only 28.7% from outside the arc. VMI needs Ratliffe to step up and be a consistent secondary scorer, because frankly there is very little offensive firepower outside of himself and Bubba.
Austin Vereen, Garrett Gilkeson, and Tyler Creammer all likely resume their starting roles from 2017-18. Vereen’s three-point shot is his best asset on offense, but he can also get to the foul line off the bounce. Defensively, Vereen is a switchable piece with which Earl can work. Gilkeson is much more known for his defensive ability than his offensive chops, posting a top ten SoCon steal rate last season. The junior wing was VMI’s most impactful defender on a +/- basis, as the Keydets allowed 0.08ppp less when he was on the floor (per Hoop Lens). Creammer is an important part of an otherwise small lineup. He’s one of the best offensive rebounders in the conference and a fairly good rim protector. Like Gilkeson, Creammer has yet to “wow” anyone on the offensive end.
Reserves Will Miller, Myles Lewis, Greg Parham (unrelated to Bubba), and Sarju Patel all look to resume supporting roles in the VMI rotation. Miller will compete with incoming freshmen Connor Arnold and Jake Stephens for time in the frontcourt. Arnold comes in as a knockdown three-point shooter, perfect for the VMI system, and long enough to bother posts defensively. Stephens can also stretch the floor from the center spot and has good touch around the basket and from the mid-range area. Lewis, G. Parham, and Patel were all freshmen last year and underwhelmed overall. Lewis was the most effective offensive piece, proving he could score by slashing to the bucket. Patel was the best outside shooter, knocking down 37.5% of his 40 tries.
Freshman PG Rafael Jenkins may be a couple years away from contributing considering the crowdedness of Earl’s backcourt, but the 6’0” guard is an excellent shooter and passer (averaged 10apg in HS) and has a deadly off-the-dribble stop-and-pop jumper.
Bottom Line: Theoretically this is a year in which VMI can make a huge jump in the SoCon standings. There’s a lot of turnover on middling conference teams and the Keydets return pretty much everybody of consequence. I’m not sure I completely trust the offense enough to vault VMI any higher than 7th or 8th in the preseason standings, but either finish would be an improvement over the past three years.
Key Returners: David Jean-Baptiste, Duane Moss
Key Losses: Makinde London, Rodney Chatman, Nat Dixon, Makale Foreman, Joshua Phillips, James Lewis
Key Newcomers: Jerry Johnson Jr. (Fairfield), Thomas Smallwood (UAB), Ramon Vila (Arizona State), Rod Johnson (JUCO), Jonathan Scott (JUCO), Justin Brown (Redshirt), Maurice Commander, Donovann Toatley, Kevin Easley, Keigan Kerby
Outlook: Welp, last season was the worst in Chattanooga program history. The Mocs stumbled to a 10-23 (3-15) record under first-year head coach Lamont Paris after former head honcho Matt McCall took his talents to UMass. Paris inherited an inexperienced roster, but it wasn’t without talent. Unfortunately, nearly all of that talent departed this offseason, mostly via the transfer wire. Paris will lean on a crop of newcomers to start a laborious rebuild process at UTC.
Paris comes by way of Wisconsin where he served under both Bo Ryan and Greg Gard. Previously, the young head coach served under Keith Dambrot at Akron, so he has a good pedigree and should be successful down the road. In true Wisconsin fashion, Chattanooga played a slow brand of basketball, often running the swing offense or implementing a hi-lo attack with bigs on the elbow and block. Threes and free throws were UTC’s primary avenues of scoring, but the Mocs also finished possessions via the post-up at the 11th highest rate in the country.
The Mocs were a train wreck defensively last season, constantly destroyed inside despite being an ok rebounding team and forcing a fair amount of turnovers. It’s hard to see that area improving with a slew of newcomers, none of which are necessarily world-beaters in the paint.
Only two players that saw the floor last season return to the roster. David Jean-Baptiste saw starter’s minutes in his freshman season, playing mostly off the ball next to Rodney Chatman. With Chatman’s transfer, Jean-Baptiste likely sees a bit more run as the leading ball handler, though newcomers Maurice Commander (awesome name) and Donovann Toatley both will have cases to start at the PG spot. Jean-Baptiste was just so-so in his first season at UTC, Commander is a quick lefty PG, and Toatley is a ball of energy capable of knifing into the lane with ease.
Duane Moss, the other returner, played only seven games before succumbing to injury last season. He projects as a versatile presence on the wing and should start in his “second” freshman year. Expect Fairfield transfer Jerry Johnson Jr. and freshman Kevin Easley to get cracks at the starting rotation as well. Johnson is primarily a three-point shooter, nailing 40% of his deep-ball tries his freshman season but only 33% as a sophomore. Easley is Paris’s biggest recruit, a 4-star prospect out of Indiana. The former VCU-commit is a physically mature forward with a very good outside shot. His moves, shot off the dribble, and footwork are advanced for his age, so expect him to be a prime time player at Chattanooga.
Two transfers, Thomas Smallwood (UAB) and Ramon Vila (Arizona State) will see plenty of time up front. Smalllwood is a 7-footer from France that didn’t see a whole lot of floor time at UAB. He’ll add shot blocking, rebounding, and shooting to the Moc roster. Vila won’t be eligible until second semester but should see a lot of PT once he is. At ASU, he proved to be an effective offensive rebounder and paint finisher.
I’m not super high on the remaining newcomers. Rod Johnson, Justin Brown (redshirt), and Keigan Kerby will all fill out the frontcourt rotation but probably aren’t ready for major minutes. Jonathan Scott shot 44% from deep in JUCO and is athletic enough to hold his own on the wing in the SoCon.
Bottom Line: Chattanooga’s likely in for another rough year under Lamont Paris. There simply isn’t enough talent on the roster to suggest a major bump in the standings. I’m a believer that Paris will eventually bring this program back to prominence, but it will take a few years.
10. Western Carolina
Key Returners: Marc Gosselin, Matt Halvorsen, Marcus Thomas
Key Losses: Mike Amius, Deriece Parks, Devin Peterson, Haboubacar Mutombo, Desmond Johnson
Key Newcomers: Carlos Dotson, Kameron Gibson, Josh Cottrell, DJ Myers
Outlook: Moment of silence for former Western Carolina head coach Larry Hunter, who passed away this past May. Hunter amassed over 700 wins during his head coaching career, which spanned the DIII and DI collegiate ranks. He coached 13 seasons at WCU, took the Catamounts to two postseason Tourneys (CBI and CIT), and oversaw some of the best years in program history.
Mark Prosser takes over for Hunter, who resigned following the 2017-18 season prior to his death. Prosser brings with him an impressive pedigree, both in a genetic (he’s Skip Prosser’s son) and an experience sense. Prosser served as an assistant at Marist, Wofford, and Bucknell before joining Pat Kelsey’s staff at Winthrop where he spent the last seven years. Now, Prosser inherits a WCU roster decimated by transfer, graduation, and early departures. 2nd Team All-SoCon performer Mike Amius is among the five key contributors that departed this offseason, meaning 2018-19 figures to be a very challenging one in Cullowhee, NC.
WCU’s offense was terrible last season, ranking 323rd in the country and 9th in the SoCon, per KenPom. Hunter’s squad relied on post-ups, offensive rebounds, and the free throw line to score points, and his transition drag screen attack failed to be an efficient route of scoring. From a national perspective, WCU shot a fair amount of three-balls, but from a SoCon perspective, the Catamounts were primarily an inside-the-arc team. Pat Kelsey’s Winthrop squads over the past three seasons have been “run ‘n’ gun” offenses characterized by a fast tempo and a willingness to shoot threes early and often. It’ll be interesting to see if Prosser brings his former boss’s style to WCU.
The Catamounts won games last year because of their defense, a unit that ranked 4th in the SoCon, per KenPom. WCU forced a lot of turnovers playing Hunter’s preferred high-pressure, extended style, using a mixture of full-court press, zone, and man-to-man to contain offenses. Kelsey ran exclusively man-to-man and never forced a full court press at Winthrop, so again we’ll see what kind of style Prosser brings to the Catamounts in year one.
WCU returns several players that received minutes (Hunter played a lot of guys), but the three noteworthy returners are Marc Gosselin (whose name reminds me of Mark-Paul Gosselaar, aka Zack Morris), Matt Halvorsen, and Marcus Thomas. Gosselin started every game for the Catamounts last year and contributed as a solid two-way rebounder, shot blocker, and stealer. The Frenchman showed he could step out behind the arc and space the floor or bang on the block. Expect Gosselin’s number to get called more frequently in 2018-19 without Amius and Deriece Parks leading the way.
Halvorsen turned in a respectable freshman season in which he was named to the media’s All-Freshman squad. The 6’1” off-guard is primarily a three-point shooting threat on offense, but knocked down a mere 33.5% of his attempts last year (31.2% in SoCon play). An 88.3% FT clip (91.8% in SoCon play) suggests Halvorsen has plenty of room to grow from a long-ball accuracy standpoint. Thomas is the most likely breakout candidate on the squad, a player that used a high percentage of WCU’s possessions last season when he saw the floor. He flashed his scoring potential against UNC Asheville (21 points) and Furman (19 points) last year as a freshman and should be a guy relied upon to create offense. Also, since the Mounts lack a true point guard option, Thomas may be forced into the primary ball handler role.
Of the four newcomers, JUCO import Carlos Dotson and freshman wing DJ Myers stand out the most. Dotson averaged 13.3ppg and 7.8rpg last season in JUCO and plays a center role at 6’7” 265 lbs. Dotson is great at using his large frame to seal off paint defenders and win favorable position on the block. He’ll compete with returning big man Adam Sledd for the starting 5 job. Myers is a big, strong wing with a D1-ready body. His aggressive style of play and potential to be a factor on both ends of the floor makes him a sure bet to end up in the starting rotation at some point during the year and even growing into one of the better players on the team.
Freshmen Kameron Gibson, a fairly highly regarded recruit out of Ohio, and Josh Cottrell are likely a year or two away from being ready for consistent minutes at this level. Gibson can definitely shoot the ball, either behind the arc or in traffic, but he’ll need to put on some weight to be a factor. Cottrell is a combo guard that could be forced into playing the point. His shot is deadly and comes with a quick, albeit low, release.
Bottom Line: This is a transition year for WCU basketball in the full sense of the word. New head coach Mark Prosser seems to be a homerun hire for a program looking to continue the overall good building job started by Hunter. A bottom tier finish is likely in 2018-19, but hope exists for the future