Photo courtesy of UNC Greensboro athletics
In the south, there is no debate that college football is king.
College basketball, though, is a strange phenomenon. Many residents of states below the Mason-Dixon line are merely waiting for football season to start again, while others are living and dying with every shot.
For college basketball fans, when thinking of southeastern basketball, many think of teams like North Carolina, Florida, Florida State, and Duke. Those schools might be traditional powerhouses, but there is a conference with some very talented programs lurking.
That conference is the Southern Conference — better known as the SoCon. Not only does it have some of the better mid-major programs in the country, it has a very deep conference with five teams with legitimate aspirations to win the conference title.
Founded in 1921, the SoCon is actually the fifth-oldest conference in the country. It has not only been an emergent basketball conference, but have had many teams pull off shocking upsets in football. The first one to come to mind for any college sports fan would be when Appalachian State pulled off an impossible 2007 upset of Michigan in the Big House.
Outside of the football success, the SoCon has been groundbreaking in implementing new, innovative rule changes. In 1980, it was the first conference to actually implement the three-point line. In a game between Western Carolina and Middle Tennessee State, Ronnie Carr historically hit the first ever three-pointer in college history.
The SoCon is also immortalized for being the first conference to have a conference championship tournament. In 1921, North Carolina beat Mercer by a score of 40-25 to win the SoCon.
While basketball historians might be very familiar with the SoCon and the groundbreaking rule changes, the casual fan might not have the same level of familiarity with the conference. The conference made a big impact on the casual fan when the Davidson Wildcats became one of the most famous Cinderella teams in college basketball history.
In 2008, the Wildcats famously made a Cinderella run to the Elite Eight led by guard Steph Curry. Davidson was a member of the SoCon at the time, but has since moved to the Atlantic 10.
Every year, analysts are looking for the next Cinderella team. It might just happen that there are five teams that could make a Cinderella-esque run in the NCAA Tournament. All hail from the same conference.
This year, the conference is seeing a revelation of sorts, with roughly five teams having the ability to both make the NCAA Tournament and to make a run. Here is each contender and what they bring to the table come March:
Starting off with the team in first place, the UNC Greensboro Spartans are sitting atop the standings with a 10-4 conference record. They are most known for hosting the ACC Tournament, but they have had a long history that is actually connected to Iowa of all teams.
The Spartans’ program has been in Division I since the late-1990s, and had, in short, been pretty terrible. The team experienced their first winning season in 1993-94 under Mike Dement, but did not make it to the NCAA Tournament until the turn of the century in 2000-01.
Coaching this historic team was none other than Fran McCaffery, current head coach of the Hawkeyes. He took the Spartans to new heights, and upon reaching those heights, he was wooed away by Siena, and then Iowa.
This year, the Spartans have put together one of their best teams yet. They are a complete team, with shooting and scoring riddled throughout the roster. They’re roughly eight men deep — something that is actually pretty rare for a mid-major these days.
The scoring comes from senior guard Isaiah Miller. Far and away their top offensive option, he is averaging 18.2 points per game.
UNC Greensboro is a tough defensive team, with two big, strong players on the blocks in Mohammed Abdulsalam and Hayden Koval. They do not jump off the stat sheet, but can pose a very big threat to any team in March.
One of the most dominant teams in the conference, Wofford is in a familiar spot to earn a berth in the NCAA Tournament. Since winning the conference for the first time in 2010, the Terriers have made it to the tournament a total of five times. This is including a win against Seton Hall in the 2019 tournament.
They were led by their record-breaking point guard Fletcher Magee. He was an automatic shooter from just about anywhere on the court. Magee has since graduated, but the Terriers have not missed a beat.
Strangely enough, none of the Terriers’ regular rotational players are taller than 6-foot-9. They exemplify small ball, and use three-point shooting to beat opponents.
With five players having more than 50 attempts from beyond the arc on the season, it is clear that head coach Jay Mcauley is emphasizing shooting and quick offense. They have made themselves into an offensive power. Given the right match-up in the NCAA Tournament, they can be a scary opponent for any team.
The Furman Paladins are a historically lackluster program. They have gone a total of 41 years since their last NCAA Tournament berth. The program has only one win in March Madness to date, which was way back in 1974.
The Paladins are looking to shatter narratives, and they have compiled quite the roster. Furman probably poses the biggest threat to a Power 5 team in March, solely based on the fact that it has comparable talent, and similar playing styles.
Led by junior guard Mike Bothwell, the Paladins’ leading scorer is one of the most entertaining players in the nation. Averaging nearly 16 points per game, he is a complete player.
Although he is not shooting well from beyond the arc, he is a three-level scorer, and someone who can take over games. Right behind him is Clay Mounce and Noah Gurley. Those two combine to average 29 points per contest.
The Paladins do not shoot many threes, playing mainly through their big men and in the pick-and-roll game to get to the basket. The difference in playing styles as compared to Wofford is one of the main reasons they can thrive.
They do not live and die by the three-pointer. Being able to generate offense from inside, is similar to a lot of Power 5 teams who use their size and physicality to their advantage.
Chattanooga has been a very streaky team this season. The Mocs started off the year by winning their first nine contests. They followed that up by winning just three of their next eight.
Currently, they are riding high on a five-game winning streak. The Mocs are a team that actually have a history of being the Cinderella in March. In 1997, they were a No. 14 seed that made it all the way to the Sweet 16 by beating No. 3 seed Georgia and sixth-seeded Illinois.
The Mocs, while very streaky, seem to be trending in the right direction. When they are winning games with a particular formula, they are hard to beat. This formula consists of three-point shooting and three-point defense.
The Mocs are shooting 36% as a team — a strong mark for a team — while holding opponents to just 32% from deep. The first number is not overwhelmingly impressive on a national scale. It is important, though, when considering that their opponents shoot significantly worse from deep.
This ability can stifle some teams in the postseason. Sometimes, all a team needs is to get hot and stay hot. The Mocs are very capable of doing so, already riding a lengthy win streak.
Potentially the most historic team in the conference, East Tennessee State has all of the tools to make a run. The Buccaneers have played some big games in their history.
In their most recent NCAA Tournament appearance, the Bucs lost to fourth-seeded Florida in the round of 64 in 2017. They are seemingly always at the top of the conference. Under first-year head coach Jason Shay, they are in a position to do that once again.
Shay has only been the Buccaneers’ head coach for less than a year. Steve Forbes, the most successful coach in program history, left the team for the greener pastures that awaited at Wake Forest.
Ledarrius Brewer is the leading scorer for the Bucs, averaging 16.5 points per game. He is a transfer from Southeast Missouri State, and has impressed this season.
Additionally, redshirt freshman Damari Monsanto has been a revelation. He has been pouring in 12.4 points per outing.
This team thrives on late-game heroics. The Bucs do not have any statistical advantage over their opponents this season.
That being said, they have thrived in the second halves of games. They have outscored opponents by a total of 80 points in the second half this season. That might be the key reason why they are one of the most dangerous teams in the conference.
They have an uncanny ability to come back from deficits and just win ball games. It is great to be a dominating team, but in the NCAA Tournament, it is better to be able to win than to put up numbers.
Unfortunately for SoCon fans, this conference will most likely only send one team to the NCAA Tournament. That might just be a travesty. It is worth noting, though, that the conference is very top-heavy, which creates certain issues.
The conference has seen the teams at the top of the conference beat up on the teams at the bottom. This creates what some analysts call a “schedule imbalance”. This means that while many wins were against good teams, there are a lot against lackluster teams.
In the end, this will hurt the conference’s ability to send two teams to the tourney. That being said, the team that does make it will be very prepared to play against the nation’s elite.
Overall, the SoCon reverses a lot of the logic that mid-major conferences employ. For many mid-majors, there has been a logic to relevancy in the NCAA Tournament. That is to send a very dominant team to the “Big Dance” in hopes of making it far. The SoCon, ever innovative, has a new theory.
That is to send a battle-hardened team to represent the conference. It has seen one of the best seasons in the SoCon’s lengthy history. With no obvious ending to this entertaining story, the conference is looking to make its mark on the college basketball landscape.