The Southern Conference, and the nation, got a little taste of what life without Stephen Curry would be like when the College of Charleston knocked off Davidson in last year's conference semifinals. The Cougars then lost to Chattanooga on the Mocs' home floor, extending the Cougars tournament drought to 10 seasons, while simultaneously making UTC the third league team to claim multiple tournament bids during the 00s. The Mocs represented the conference in 2005, former member East Tennessee State won back-to-back crowns in 2003 and 2004, and Davidson first won in 2002 before claiming three straight between 2006 and 2008. The 2008 Elite Eight squad managed the conference's only three NCAA wins in the decade. Seeing as this squad was the only conference champion to escape the bottom four seed lines during the 00s, that's understandable.
Appalachian State and UNC Greensboro were the other two SoCon qualifiers during the decade. They represented the league in the 2000 and 2001 tournaments, respectively.
Even with Curry gone, the Wildcats will challenge for the title, especially with the conference tournament shifting to their backyard (Charlotte) this season. However, look to two of their South Division competitors, Bobby Cremins' Cougars and their crosstown rivals, The Citadel, fresh off their first ever postseason berth. to lead the way. In the North Division, Buzz Peterson is back at Appalachian State, and he has some talent at his disposal, while Western Carolina brings back all five starters from a team that tied for the division crown last time around.
As you can see, there's still plenty to watch in this conference, even after the player who may arguably be its greatest ever has moved on to the NBA. More on all 12 teams after the jump.
Here are my picks for 2009-10, presented in reverse order, starting with the North Division. (Click here to see my College of Charleston preview and my preseason All-SoCon team, as it wouldn't attach to this post.)
UNC Greensboro (last NCAA: 2001) The Spartans lost one starter from last year's 5 win team, F Damian Eargle (9.2 ppg, 5.6 rpg), a gifted sophomore who departed for personal reasons. The remaining four starters, led by 6-4 Finnish G Mikko Koivisto (12.4 ppg, 2.4 apg) and 6-5 F Ben Stywall (11.7 ppg, 8.4 rpg), will have to improve on both ends of the court to improve their win total. Meanwhile, head coach Mike Dement hopes that two freshmen, 6-8 Brian Cole and 6-7 Taylor Hoffer, can turn into the frontcourt force Eargle threatened to become. UNCG's non-conference schedule is ACC heavy, as they visit Duke and Virginia Tech, and face Maryland, NC State, and Wake Forest at the Greensboro Coliseum.
Elon (last NCAA: None) Former Davidson assistant Matt Matheny is the new head coach of the Phoenix, and his team could struggle in his first season, as last year's two leading scorers F Ola Atoyebi (13.9 ppg) and G Brett James (13.2 ppg) are both gone. The good news is that none of the team's other main performers from last season, led by the guards Josh Bonney (5.4 ppg, 3.1 apg), Devan Carter (7.1 ppg), and reserve Chris Long (7.2 ppg) left after the coaching change. Lots of players, especially an underperforming frontcourt, will have to step up to keep the Phoenix out of the basement, however. The Phoenix will participate in the South region of the NIT Season Tip-Off at Duke, where they'll open with Charlotte.
Chattanooga (last NCAA: 2009) The Mocs, last year's North Division champs, hosted last year's SoCon tourney and claimed the crown. Don't expect a repeat trip, as all five starters from that team are gone. The team's leading returning scorer is 6-6 senior G Ty Patterson, who averaged a little more than 8 points a contest this season. In fact, John Shulman's roster is loaded with reserves from last year's team, but one key newcomer is 6-5 F Troy Cage, a JC transfer who played at UNLV, and should immediately make his presence known. The Mocs schedule includes trips to Missouri and Richmond for the South Padre Island Invitational. They'll face Texas-Pan American, then either Bethune-Cookman or Longwood in the main tournament. In a scheduling coup, Georgia Tech visits McKenzie Arena this season.
Samford (last NCAA: 2000) Jimmy Tillette has four starters back from a team that finished at .500 overall, and just below that mark in the league. He also returns his five leading scorers from a season ago. The Bulldogs' strength is their backcourt, featuring 6-4 junior Josh Davis (10.1 ppg) and 6-4 senior Trey Montgomery (11.6 ppg, 4.4 rpg),the team's leading rebounder from a season ago. That should serve as a warning to a frontcourt that features 6-6 FBryan Friday (12.5 ppg. 3.5 rpg) and 6-8 C Andy King (8.8 ppg, 3.2 rpg), who certainly could put the ball in the basket, but need to increase their sometimes timid rebounding efforts. Two freshmen, 6-10 Levi Barnes and 6-9 Andrew Windler, will push them for minutes. During the non-conference season, Samford will visit Alabama, Texas A&M, and Texas Tech. They'll also take part in a round-robin event at Ohio, which, oddly enough, will feature a game against crosstown rival UAB.
Western Carolina (last NCAA: 1996) The Catamounts finished last season with a mark that was just above .500 both overall and in the SoCon. They should be better this season, as all five starters are back--led by last year's SoCon Freshman of the Year, 6-4 Canadian G Harouna Mutombo (14.4 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 1.8 spg), and senior backcourt mates Brandon Giles (13.2 ppg) and Brigham Waginger (8.4 ppg, 3.3 apg, 2.6 spg). Head coach Larry Hunter could stand to get a little more production from a frontcourt featuring starters Adrian Gailliard (4.9 ppg. 3.1 rpg), Richie Gordon (6.7 ppg, 4.5 rpg), and reserve Jake Robinson (9.2 ppg, 2.7 rpg), however. If they step up, WCU becomes a serious contender for the overall league crown. This season, the Catamounts visit Clemson, Louisville, and Texas, as part of the CBE Classic. They'll also host one of that event's subregionals, featuring A-10 contender Duquesne, decimated America East champ Binghamton, and D-2 Arkansas-Monticello.
Appalachian State (last NCAA: 2000) Buzz Peterson is back to coach the Mountaineers after nine years away from Boone. He has a chance at immediate success, thanks to the return of five starters from a team that only managed 13 wins in 2008-09. The backcourt is one of the best in the league, as 6-1 junior Donald Sims 13.7 ppg, 2.3 apg) and 6-1 senior Kellen Brand (14.8 ppg) are offensive threats from anywhere on the floor, and senior PG Ryann Abraham (9.8 ppg) returns after a season that featured a suspension. The frontcourt features two strong rebounders--6-6 senior F Josh Hunter (8.9 ppg, 7.2 rpg) and 6-10 junior C Issac Butts (8.5 ppg, 8.5 rpg)--who could stand to score a little more. Appalachian's schedule features road trips to Arkansas, Dayton, Louisville, and Robert Morris. The games against the Razorbacks and Cardinals are part of the odd Hall of Fame Showcase event.
Georgia Southern (last NCAA: 1992) (Thanks to Rose Carter in GSU's sports information department for helping me clear this entry up.) GSU alum Charlton Young replaced Jeff Price at the helm after a 8-22 season that featured only 5 league wins. Young lost two starters, though guard Julian Allen, who was one of five Eagles to average more than 9 points a contest last season was suspended for the final third of last season. That means Georgia Southern still has a few guys who can score, especially guards Willie Powers (14.6 ppg before he suffered a knee injury), Antonio Hanson (12 ppg, 2.4 apg), and Ben Drayton III (11.8 ppg, 2.6 apg). Plus, 6-7 senior F Tyler Troupe, really stepped up after Allen's suspension, averaging 13.5 ppg and 8.2 rpg during the last 10 games of the season. So he'll be an effective weapon on the wing an in the 3 spot. However, Young will have to get his players to give a better effort on the defensive end of the court for the win total to increase. The Eagles visit South Carolina and Florida, as part of the Legends Classic. GSU will welcome D-2 Arkansas-Fort Smith, Troy, and Valparaiso to Statesboro for one of that event's "subregionals."
Furman (last NCAA: 1980) The Paladins are the classic "good news/bad news" case this season. For the good, Jeff Jackson has all five starters back. Now, the bad. That team only managed six wins, four in the league. 6-2 guard Jordan Miller was the only Paladin who averaged in double figures last season (13.8 ppg), so it's no wonder this team ranked near the bottom of every offensive statistical category in the SoCon. If the players can build on its experience, and Jackson can get more out of a frontcourt that didn't do nearly enough on the glass, they should improve significantly. Trips to in-state rivals Clemson and South Carolina are on the slate, as is a trip to California for the Golden Bear Classic.
Wofford (last NCAA: None) Mike Young's squad is loaded with experience this season, as all of his starters and key reserves are back from a squad that finished 16-14. However, as there's still a lot of other talent in the South Division, it could be tough for them to leave the middle of the pack, especially as the Terriers struggled on defense last season. 6-6 junior Noah Dahlman (17.8 ppg, 6.4 rpg) anchors the frontcourt, while 6-2 senior Junior Salters(15 ppg) is the leader in the backcourt. 6-5 junior swingman Tim Johnson averaged 10 points a game, while grabbing nearly 9 boards a contest. If Wofford can focus on both ends of the floor this season, they'll surprise. The schedule should prepare them for the rigors of the SoCon slate. They open with a trip to Pitt, while they also visit Georgia, Michigan State, Bradley, and Illinois. The last two games are part of the Las Vegas Invitational, and the Terriers will face Southern and Seattle or Presbyterian in Vegas. Wofford also welcomes South Carolina to Spartanburg.
Davidson (last NCAA: 2008) Not only is Curry gone, but so are F Andrew Lovedale and G Max Paulhus Gosselin. That means the returnees, led by 6-7 F Steve Rossiter and sharpshooters Bryant Barr--a 6-4 G, and William Archambault--a 6-6 swingman, will have to really up their offense production. Curry's nearly 29 points a contest will be hard to replace, and losing Lovedale's 12.5 points and nearly 9 boards a game makes the problem even bigger for Bob McKillop's squad. Expect 6-10 soph Frank Ben-Eze and 6-10 frosh Jake Cohen to battle to replace Lovedale inside. The schedule is typically tough, starting with a BracketBuster rematch with Butler right away. The Wildcats will fill the SoCon's host slot in the Charleston Classic, where they'll face USF in their opener, then La Salle or South Carolina on day two. They also face Gonzaga in Seattle and Cornell, then Hofstra or St. John's in the Holiday Classic.
The Citadel (last NCAA: None) Ed Conroy's team managed 20 wins and the school's first ever postseason bid, a trip to the CollegeInsider tournament, where they lost to Old Dominion by 8 in round one. The Bulldogs should be competitive again, but Conroy needs to replace graduated C Demetrius Nelson (16.4 ppg, 6.5 rpg), the team's leading scorer. Look for 7-0 former Washington backup C Joe Wolfinger--who has a year of eligibility left while he's in grad school--to get the first chance to replace him. The backcourt won't be an issue, thanks to the presence of 6-1 Cameron Wells (15.6 ppg, 4.9 rpg) and 6-2 Zach Urbanus (10 ppg, 3.3 apg), while swingmen John Brown (5 ppg, 6.3 rpg) and Austin Dahn (6.8 ppg) could stand to help them out more offensively. The Bulldogs visit Houston, Texas A&M, and West Virginia, and host Michigan State.