Saturday, July 31, 2021

Chattanooga looks like the early preseason favorite in the SoCon

Chattanooga was the unanimous pick to claim the Southern Conference football title in Asheville at the league's preseason media day last week. Now, coach Lamont Paris looks like his Mocs basketball has the makings of similar expectations when the league's media and coaches covene in Asheville sometime in October for the 2021-22 basketball media day. 

Over the past couple of seasons, Chattanooga has landed some pretty solid transfers. Last season, we saw players like Wright State transfer Malachi Smith, South Alabama transfer Josh Ayeni, James Madison transfer Darius Banks, Saint Louis transfer KC Hankton, and so during the off-season, the Mocs procured former Central Florida talent, in 6-11 center Avery Diggs. 

That would have been enough to appease most Mocs fans, however, Chattanooga wasn't finished bringing in talent via the transfer portal. It could be argued, at least on paper, this club is shaping up to be as talented as the one that the Mocs put on the court in 2015-16 under first-year head coach Matt McCall. 


That team featured former greats like center and VCU transfer Justin Tuoyo, veteran point guard Greg Pryor, off-guard and maybe the Mocs most talented overall player, in Tre McClean, as well as forwards Chuck Ester and Duke Etheridge. It would a Mocs team that would go on to fall just one win shy of 30 victories for the season. Had that been the case, it would have marked the third 30-win team in five seasons for the SoCon.  Add to that a player like Casey Jones, who prior to injury, was the preseason SoCon Player of the Year. 


As good as the players are already returning to the fold for the Mocs entering the 2021-22 season, the Mocs went out and added a player, in Kansas transfer 6-9 forward Silvio De Sousa, which probably alleviated any doubts as to who the media and coaches will tab as the preseason favorite for the league's hardwood season. 


In 18 games for the Jayhawks during his junior season, De Sousa averaged 2.6 PPG and 2.8 RPG, averaging a little over eight minutes per contest. De Sousa sat out the 2018-19 season, however, as a freshman in 2017-18, was a solid piece to Kansas' Final Four puzzle, as he ended up averaging 4.0 PPG and 3.7 RPG in 20 games 


Unfortunately, as talented as De Sousa has been on the court throughout his career at Kansas, it has been overshadowed by his off-the-court troubles. He was log action in 18 games during the 2019-20 campaign before his career would take a swift change of direction in Lawrence.  


Following the events of Jan. 22, 2020, De Sousa's career at Kansas would never be the same. It was De Sousa's role in an a that altercation that quickly developed into a bench-clearing brawl against arch-rival Kansas State in a nationally-televised game at Allen Fieldhouse, which unfortunately most people recall about De Sousa, instead of his supreme talent as a hooper. 


De Sousa was suspended immediately by Kansas head coach Bill Self, as well as the Big 12 conference immediately following the game, and would miss the final 12 games of the season. 


The native of Angola announced he was leaving the Kansas basketball program just prior to the 2020-21 season, however, his trouble wasn't over, as he was caught up in altercation outside a Lawrence bar, and was charged with a felony of aggravated battery, according to KUSports.com.  That altercation took place in mid-October of 2020, and he De Sousa will have a court date slated for Aug. 2. 


The major positive is that De Sousa graduated from Kansas, managing to stick to his academic school work, despite all the off-the-court turmoil. He'll get a much needed new start at Chattanooga. 


In addition to De Sousa, the other pieces the Mocs return were enough alone for some folks to make the Mocs the odds-on preseason favorites in the SoCon even without the addition of the power-five transfer. The Mocs welcome the return of seven of their top nine scorers back from a year ago, with only big man Stefan Kenic and guard Trey Doomes, who transferred out to Oklahoma Baptist follwing the season, accounting for the only major departures for the Mocs. 


After struggling in his first couple of seasons to create the type of cohesion and continuity that would keep the Mocs in the hunt, due in large part to player departures and having to turn over rosters, head coach Lamont Paris heads into a season seemingly settled for the first time since being in the Scenic City. 


By settled, I mean the Mocs have the kind of toughness, grit, talent and depth that the 12-time league champions have seen so many seasons in the past.The Mocs finished tied for second in the league in total wins last season, tied with Mercer (18 wins)  and trailed only UNC Greensboro (21 wins) in total wins a year ago. 


The Mocs return four starters for the 2021-22 season, including a player in David Jean-Baptiste, who helps bridge a large gap in Mocs basketball, as Jean-Baptiste is the only remaining player from Paris' first team as head coach of the Mocs back in 2017-18. In Paris' first season, the Mocs were not good. The 10 wins by the Mocs were tied for the worst in the program's NCAA Division I history, dating back to 1977-78.  


Needless to say, Jean-Baptiste has seen it all during his time as a Moc, and he will finish out his career as the most-experienced Mocs player in program history, thanks to the extra year awarded as a result of COVID-19. 


Midway through last season, it even appeared as though Jean-Baptiste was going to change his course away from the Scenic City all together, entering the transfer portal for a couple of weeks, shocking everyone, only to return to the Mocs team two weeks later in time for Chattanooga's SoCon opener against Furman.


He'll once again be the fulcrum for the Mocs this coming season, and will almost assuredly enter the 2021-22 campaign as a first-team all-conference guard. 


In 2020-21, Jean-Baptiste garnered All-SoCon honors for a second-straight season, and finished as the team's second-leading scorer, averaging 16.1 PPG and 3.3 RPG last season, while leading the club in made three-pointers, knocking down a total of 59 triples last season. 


Other starters returning to the fold will be preseason Player of the Year candidate Malachi Smith (16.8 PPG, 8.8 RPG), 6-5 guard Jamaal Walker (5.1 PPG, 1.5 RPG), redshirt senior guard and ultimate "glue guy" A.J. Caldwell (6.4 PPG, 4.7 RPG), and junior power forward Josh Ayeni (5.5 PPG, 2.3 RPG) all return for the Mocs for the upcoming season. 


Smith was Chattanooga's most talented player a year ago, and is a double-double machine. While most figure it will be The Citadel forward Hayden Brown to be chosen as the preseason SoCon Player of the Year in October, you'd be wise not to sleep on Smith. He was sensational last season, averaging a double-double per game over the first two-plus months of the 2020-21 season.


The Mocs will also return the SoCon's version of former Kentucky standout guard Tayshaun Prince, in the form of K.C. Hankton (8.7 PPG, 5.5 RPG), as well as Darius Banks (11.2 PPG, 4.0 RPG), who began to emerge as reliable scorer for the Mocs, as his minutes increased towards the latter part of the season. 


For now at least, the Mocs are my team to beat heading into the 2021-22 campaign. 


Saturday, July 10, 2021

Furman Basketball 2021-22: A look at the non-conference slate to date

It's the middle of summer, and while most are preparing to take in a full football season with full capacity most places, Furman's basketball staff has been busy comprising an impressive non-conference slate. 

Like most teams around mid-major basketball last season, the non-conference was compromised due to COVID-19 in one sense or another. For most teams around college basketball, the non-conference was an exercise in managing tentative chaos, having to try and find opponents to fit into a date on the schedule should a team test positive for COVID. 

That happened to head coach Bob Richey's Paladins at least once last season, as Richmond, who came into the season as one of the top mid-major teams in the nation and had just broken into the national polls at No. 21 when the team tested positive for COVID-19 just 48 hours from when it was slated to host Furman. 

Furman's staff scrambled to find an opponent, and it came in the form of a pretty good initial road test, as the Paladins traveled to former SoCon rival and current CAA member College of Charleston to do battle with the Cougars at TD Arena. As it turned out, Furman put together one of its strongest performances of the season, and shot the ball with blistering accuracy from long-range, as the Paladins connected on 47.1% from long range, which included knocking down 16 triples in an 81-57 rout of the Cougars. 

The Paladins also had the opportunity to face power conference opposition Cincinnati (L, 73-78) and eventual SEC regular-season and tournament champion and Sweet Sixteen participant Alabama (L, 80-83) for the second-straight season. The Paladins led most of the game, holding as much as a 14-point lead early in the second half only to see the Crimson Tide storm back to pick up an 83-80 win. 

The best mid-major on the schedule for the Paladins also handed Furman its worst loss of the season, as Winthrop handed the Paladins an 87-71 setback in the penultimate non-conference game of 2020. 

The 2021-22 slate will feature three power conference foes, as the Paladins will face opposition from the Atlantic Coast Conference and the Southeastern Conference, which of course, were the two conferences that the SoCon gave birth to back in 1952. 

Also, before checking out all the info in preparation for the 2021-22 season, take a look back at last season for Furman hoops by clicking the link below. The second link provided is to the SoCon regular-season recap.

https://documentcloud.adobe.com/link/review?uri=urn:aaid:scds:US:088e0997-a11d-4c3d-9276-273043fec915

https://documentcloud.adobe.com/link/review?uri=urn:aaid:scds:US:ad652755-69d7-4c21-85bc-af3eaa7f2d1f

at North Carolina (Dec. 14)

Furman will face all three of those major opponents in consecutive fashion, squaring off with as storied as any basketball program across the land, with the Paladins slated to travel to Chapel Hill and the Dean E. Smith Center to face off against the University of North Carolina, who will be under the direction of first-year head coach Hubert Davis. 

 The 2021-22 season will mark the beginning of a new era for North Carolina basketball, as Hubert Davis takes over the seven-time national champion North Carolina basketball program. The Tar Heels will certainly have their share of talent returning to the mix for the 2021-22 basketball season, but the new head coach will have some work to do, as Day'Ron Sharpe, Garrison Brooks, and Walker Kessler are no longer part of the fold for North Carolina basketball heading into the 2021-22 season. 

That said, it goes without saying that the Tar Heels will always be talented. Senior guard Leaky Black (5.6 PPG, 4.9 RPG) returns to be the foundation by which Davis can build around for the future. Brady Manek (), a transfer from the University of Oklahoma, will be a big addition to the Tar Heel lineup.  Armando Bacot (12.3 PPG, 7.8 RPG) also returns to strenghen the paint, and will provide a big test for Furman's smaller front line. 

Additionally, the Tar Heels also welcome the return of Caleb Love (10.5 PPG, 2.6 RPG), R.J. Davis (8.4 PPG, 2.3 RPG), Kerwin Walton (8.2 PPG, 1.7 RPG), and Puff Johnson (1.1 PPG, 0.5 RPG) are key returnees. Along with Manek, the Tar Heels also added Justin McKoy (3.7 PPG, 3.4 RPG) from Virginia. 

The 2020-21 season saw the Tar Heels finish the campaign with an 18-11 overall record, including a 10-6 record in ACC play, which was good enough for a fourth-place tie in the final overall standings. North Carolina was knocked out in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament, with an 85-62 loss to Wisconsin in West Lafayette, IN. 

It will mark the 26th all-time clash between the Paladins and Tar Heels, and it will mark the first meeting between the two programs since the 1986-87 season when the two face off against each other in the annual North-South Doubleheader in Charlotte, N.C., as the Paladins dropped a 95-65 decision on that particular occasion, which marked North Carolina's seventh-straight win in the series, dating back to the 1979-80 season.

Furman's lone two victories in the series against the Tar Heels came in back-to-back seasons, knocking off the legendary Dean Smith and the Tar Heels in the 1977-78 and '78-'79 campaigns, respectively. The Paladins, who were under the direction of Joe Williams, who would be in what would prove to be his final campaign as the head coach of the Paladins during an ultra-successful decade in which Furman was arguably the team of the decade in the SoCon.

In the 1977-78 meeting, which took place Feb. 3, 1978, and saw the Paladins pick up what was an 89-83 win over the AP sixth-ranked Tar Heels. 

It would ve part of what was a 19-win season, and it yielded an NCAA Tournament berth, as Williams' Paladins went on to  defeat Chattanooga (83-73) in the opening round of the tournament at the Memorial Auditorium in Greenville before finishing off the tournament with wins over bitter rivals Appalachian State (W, 72-68) and Marshall (W, 69-53) to cut down the nets in Roanoke. Furman was knocked out of the NCAA Tournament losing a 63-62 heartbreaker to Bobby Knight's Indiana Hoosiers. 

Furman big man Bruce Grimm scored 32 points, as Paladins knocked off AP No. 6 ranked North Carolina, 89-83, on Feb. 3, 1978 at the North-South double-header/photo courtesy of Furman athletics 
The early February 1978 matchup between Furman and North Carolina featured one of the most memorable performances by a Paladin post man in program history, as big Bruce Grimm scored 32 points to lead the Paladins to the six-point win in the Queen City. Furman's Rodney Arnold calmly knocked down five free throws in the final 15 seconds, as the Paladins held on for the victory. 

Almost a year to the day later and under the direction of a new head coach, Eddie Holbrook, the Paladins defeated North Carolina by an even wider margin in the North-South double-header, posting an 83-70 win in Charlotte. This time the eventual ACC regular-season champions came into the contest ranked No. 5 in the country, only to see the Paladins have their way once again at the Charlotte Coliseum.  

The loss to the Paladins by the Tar Heels was just the fourth of the season. That North Carolina team included future NBA talents such as guard Al Wood, forward Mike O'Koren, forward Dudley Bradley, and forward Rich Yonakor. 

The Paladins would go on to finish out the 1978-79 campaign with a 20-9 mark overall, which included a 9-3 mark in league action. That was good enough to give the Paladins a second-place finish in the regular-season standings. In the Southern Conference Tournament, the Paladins made it to the title game before losing 86-83 to a Bobby Cremins-led Appalachian State team in Roanoke, VA. That Paladin team included some of the program's all-time greats like center Jonathan Moore,  and the brother tandem of Mel and Al Daniel. 

The last time the Paladins and Tar Heels met, was of course, the 1986-87 campaign, in which the Tar Heels had their way with an easy, 95-65, win. That meeting came on Dec. 22, 1986, as it would be a Tar Heels team came into the clash ranked No. 4 in the nation and would go on to unbeaten ACC season, finishing a perfect 14-0 in league play. 

North Carolina would go on to an impressive 32-4 season, winning the regular-season and losing a heartbreaking, 68-67, ACC championship game decision to Jim Valvano's NC State Wolfpack. The NCAA Tournament run in 1987 would come to an end just short of a national title, as the Tar Heels were beaten 79-75 in the Elite Eight by eventual national runner-up Syracuse.

A team that included the likes of former greats and future NBA talents such as guard Kenny Smith, forward J.R. Reid, forward Joe Wolf, guard Jeff Lebo, forward Scott Williams, and center Dave Popson. It would be the size and strength of Popson that the Butch Estes-led Paladins would ultimately have no answers for in the middle, as he scored a game-high 16 points and grabbed a career-high 11 boards in leading the Tar Heels to the easy win. 

A Shawn Reid three-pointer would give Furman a brief 9-8 lead, but unlike the to wins in back-to-back seasons eight years earlier, the Paladins were overmatched at all five positions, and North Carolina was never really threatened the remainder of the game.

Furman and North Carolina will square off on the college basketball hardwood on Dec. 14. The Paladins will be looking to become the fourth team  from the Southern Conference to knock off the Tar Heels in the Dean Dome since 1999. College of Charleston, Davidson and most recently, Wofford (2017 and '19), to take down the Tar Heels on their home floor. On Nov. 21, 2018, Furman knocked off No. 8 Villanova, 76-70, in overtime on the Wildcats' home floor, Gamble Pavilion. 

at Mississippi State (Dec. 17)

See the source image
Mississippi State guard Iverson Molinar/photo courtesy of Mississippi State athletics
Just three days following the trip to face North Carolina in Chapel Hill, the Paladins will be Starkville, MS, at Humphries Colieseum, more affectionately known as "The Hump" to Bulldogs fans, to face Mississippi State. 

It will mark just the fifth meeting between the Paladins and Bulldogs, with Mississippi State having won each of the previous matchups, including the last time the two met during the 1970-71 campaign, as Mississippi St came to the Greenville Memorial Auditorium and claimed an 84-74 decision. 


The 2020-21 season saw the Bulldogs post an 18-15 overall record, which included an 8-10 record in SEC play, which was good enough for an 11th-place finish in the 14-team league. Head coach Ben Howland's Bulldogs would end up making some noise in the postseason, however, as the Bulldogs made it all the way to the NIT championship game where they would face Penny Hardaway's Memphis Tigers. Memphis would claim the NIT hardware in Frisco, TX.

The prospects of a strong season for the Bulldogs in what will be Howland's seventh season at the helm are solid, with the additions of four high-profile transfers, Garrison Brooks (North Carolina),  D.J. Jeffries (Memphis), Rocket Watts (Michigan St.), and Shakeel Moore (N.C. State), and all four will be eligible to play for the Bulldogs immediately. That should inject an immediate boost into SEC title aspirations this coming winter. 

Another transfer addition to the Mississippi State lineup will be Jalen Johnson, as the 6-6 redshirt senior comes to Starkville from Louisiana-Lafayette where he comes off a 2020-21 season, which saw him average 5.2 PPG and 1.8 RPG.

The good news for Howland and the Bulldogs, is on top of the talent coming in, there is enough talent returning to make the Bulldogs a factor in the SEC in 2021-22. Iverson Molinar, who is a 6-3 guard and member of the Panamanian National Team, and started 29 of Mississippi State's 30 games last season. He ended the campaign by averaging 16.7 PPG and 3.7 RPG, as he is the leading returning scorer for the Bulldogs. 

Historically, the Paladins and Bulldogs have a very limited history in terms of facing each other on the college basketball hardwood. It's been half-a-century since the two have faced off on the basketball hardwood after all. 

at Louisville, TBA

The third matchup against a power conference opponent for Furman will be against another ACC member Louisville. It will be the first meeting between the Paladins and Cardinals since the 2002-03 campaign. On that particular occasion, Furman was blown out 104-63 on Dec. 22, 2002. 

rticular contest, Marvin Stone and Taquan Dean were too tough of a tandem to handle for the Paladins, as each scored 21 points to pace a hot-shooting ranked Louisville team at Freedom Hall. Stone was also a menace to Furman on the backboards, ripping down a game-high 13 rebounds in the contest.

Furman was able to get 13 points from Jason Patterson in the losing effort, as he was among four that placed in double figures for the Paladins. The Paladins shot just 39% from the field, while committing 21 turnovers against the Cardinals' full-court pressure employed by head coach Rick Pitino.

Some 19 years later, the Cardinals are in a new conference under a new head coach, in Chris Mack. Much like Furman's Bob Richey, Mack oversaw a somewhat subpar season by the lofty standards of Cardinals basketball in 2020-21, as Louisville finished just 13-7 overall and 8-5 in ACC play. 

Like so many programs during the 2020-21 basketball season, continuity was often hard to find for the Cardinals, as the season was often broken up into parts due to COVID-19. Though Mack wouldn't be one to make such excuses, it was easy to deductively reason from an outsider's perspective that this, at least that it had a pretty major effect on how things turned out last season. The Cardinals 8-5 conference record saw them finish seventh overall in the ACC standings. 

The Cardinals started out the season by winning nine of their first 10 games of the 2020-21 season, rising as high as No. 16 in the nation before COVID issues and offensive shooting woes crept in to disrupt overall team morale. 

Like most programs at this point, Louisville has a roster, which is still influx for the most part.  The Cardinals have had six players depart from the program after last season's subpar campaign. The Cardinals, like most programs that lost significant pieces, went to the transfer portal to find some of the hopeful solutions to some of those departures. Guard Jarrod West (Marshall) is a graduate transfer, while big man Matt Cross (University of Miami) comes from a fellow ACC member. 

The Cardinals also added a high-profile shooting guard transfer from Florida, in Noah Locke, who transfers into Louisville following three seasons as a Gator, where he finished his career in the top 10 in program history three-pointers made.  He finished averaging 10.6 PPG and 2.4 RPG and started 24 of 25 games for Florida last season.

Some key returnees for Mack's Cardinals this upcoming season will include center Malik Williams (5.0 PPG, 6.0 RPG) after having battled through an injury-plagued 2020-21 season. Also returning will be small forward Sam Williamson (9.6 PPG, 8.1 RPG) and power forward JJ Traynor (3.9 PPG, 2.0 RPG).

This season's clash between the Paladins and Cardinals will mark just the fifth all-time clash between the two programs, while Louisville having won all four of the previous encounters. The closest Furman has been in the previous four meetings with Louisville was a 19-point loss to the Cardinals (L,68-87) in the 1959-60 season.

For reference purposes, most true SoCon hoops fans will remember Dec. 12, 2009. That, of course, was the time when upstart Western Carolina went to Freedom Hall and claimed a shocking 91-83 win over the Cardinals. Furman hopes to become the next Southern Conference team wearing Purple to complete such a feat. 

Other Non-Conference Opponents:


College of Charleston has won 30 of the past 37 meetings between the two programs dating back to the 1998-99 season/Photo courtesy of Furman athletics

Dec. 3 vs. College of Charleston

On Friday, Dec. 3, Furman will welcome College of Charleston back to Greenville for the first time since the 2014-15 season, when the Paladins opened the season by getting blitzed the Cougars, dropping a 75-40 decision to the Cougars at Timmons Arena. The Paladins would avenge that substantial loss by delivering what was a substantial beat-down in the Holy City last December, as the Paladins posted an 82-57 win at TD Arena in Charleston.

That performance marked one of Furman's best overall performances of the 2020-21 season, and it showed the rest of mid-major basketball just how good the Paladins could be when and if hitting on all cylinders. The Paladins were outstanding in all phases of the game, as it was the first road game of the 2020-21 season. 

For anyone that knows Mike Bothwell helped Furman run out to a 47-23 halftime lead, scoring 17 of his game-high 26 points in the opening half, going 5-for-5 from three-point range as a part of the Paladins’ first-half three-point barrage, which helped to the 24-point halftime advantage. Bothwell was on fire the entire game, as he connected on 10-of-14 shots from the field, which included going 6-for-8 from three-point range in the contest. 

Bothwell was one of three Paladins in double figures in the contest, as Jalen Slawson finished one assist shy of a triple double, with 16 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists, while Noah Gurley connected on 7-of-12 shots from the field and 4-for-8 from three-point range, as he finished with 18 points in the win.

The Cougars took a 4-2 lead following a Peyton Willis jumper, however, the Paladins would respond with a 26-4 run to take control of the basketball game from that point, staking the Paladins to a 28-10 lead with 10:01 remaining in the half following a Marcus Foster layup. 

The Paladins connected on six three-pointers during the run, which included three from Bothwell. The game would lack much drama following that, although the Cougars didn't quit and made some headway into their deficit in the second half. The win by the Paladins marked the first victory over the Cougars on the road for the first time since the 2010-11 season. 

The Cougars will have a new direction this season under a new head coach, however, its a name that is very familiar to both Furman basketball fans, as well as those that follow college basketball within the Palmetto State. Former Winthrop head coach Pat Kelsey took the reins of the Cougars' basketball program following former head coach Earl Grant's departure to take an ACC post, as the head coach of the Boston College Eagles. 

During his time at Charleston, Grant served CofC well, posting a 127-89 record as the head coach and led the program to its first NCAA Tournament appearance in 19 years back in 2018. He was also named the 2017 Colonial Athletic Association Coach of the Year. 

Kelsey takes over a program steeped in tradition, and it was a tradition which was started by legendary head coach John Kresse during his 23-year coaching career, which spanned from 1979-2002. 

In fact, Kresse, who posted 560-career wins and led the Cougars to the 1983 NAIA national title, coached his last game against Furman in the 2002 Southern Conference Tournament. In what was a defensive struggle, the Paladins surprised the Cougars was a 40-39 SoCon Tournament semifinal win, helping the upstart Paladins to the championship game where they would eventually run out of gas in the title game against sharp-shooting Peter Anderer and the Davidson Wildcats. 

Kresse led the Cougars from NAIA prominence, to the Trans America Athletic Conference and eventually into the Southern Conference. Few will ever forget CofC's 1998-99 team, which was not only maybe the best in school history, but also one of the best in Southern Conference history. 

That was the Cougars' first year in the Southern Conference, and CofC would win 28 games, run roughshod over the rest of the conference, even achieving a national ranking, finishing the season ranked No. 16 in the nation, and headed to its first round matchup with Tulsa riding a 25-game winning streak! Although the Cougars would drop a 62-53 decision to the Golden Hurricanes in the NCAA Tournament, that season, which included wins over UMass and North Carolina, won't soon be forgotten. 

The Cougars would never again approach that type of success as a Southern Conference member, and in its 15-year membership inside the league, would never punch its ticket to the NCAA Tournament again, despite making the SoCon title game five more times after that magical run during that inaugural season. 

Kelsey inherits a team that finished just 9-10 overall and 6-4 in the CAA following a season dominated by inconsistencies due to youth, as well as lack of team rhythm caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Kelsey helped off-set some key personnel losses due to the coaching change by adding some key additions via the transfer portal. 

Kelsey added 6-11 center Charles Lampten (10.1 PPG, 8.7 RPG/Dawson Community College) and shooting guard Dimitrius Underwood (UT Dallas), where he was a Division III All-American at UT-Dallas following a season in which he averaged 19.3 PPG and 8.5 RPG, while finishing among the nation's leaders in steals-per-game, averaging 2.35 thefts-per-game. He also added an impressive 6.5 assists-per-game. Lampten ended his season by being named a JUCO All-American. 

Kelsey came into his new job needing to replace most of the roster from a year ago, including six of the top seven scorers which had either transferred out, or gone ahead and moved on as a result of graduation. Only guard Brendan Tucker (9.4 PPG, 1.9 RPG) and forward Osinachi Smart (4.9 PPG, 6.3 RPG) return from the top eight scorers from a year ago. Six-eleven center Keegan Harvey (3.9 PPG, 3.4 RPG) is another holdover from last season's club.

In addition to adding Lampten and Underwood via the transfer route, Kelsey also got a pretty significant transfer from the conference he comes from, in Big South Freshman of the Year guard Fah'Mir Ali (10.6 PPG, 3.6 APG), who comes to Winthrop after starring at Radford last season, where he was the Highlanders' leading scorer. He started 23 of 26 games for the Highlanders last season. 

The Cougars also added three more transfers, with two of them from the Division I ranks, in 6-5 forward Nick Farrar from North Carolina State, 6-6 forward and graduate transfer John Meeks (25.3 PPG) from Bucknell, and 6-4 Dalton Bolon (21.6 PPG) from Division II West Liberty University. All told, Kelsey added six players to try and compensate for what was lost following the coaching change. 

Kelsey's Winthrop Eagles dealt Furman its largest defeat of the 2020-21 season, handing the Paladins an 87-71 setback in Rock Hill last December. 

When Furman and College of Charleston meet on Dec. 3, it will mark the 85th all-time meeting between the two programs, with the series all tied, 42-42. Though the series is tied, College of Charleston has dominated the series of late, having won 30 of the past 37 meetings between the two programs, dating back to when the Cougars joined the SoCon originally in 1998-99. 

vs. Appalachian State (Dec. 10)

On Dec. 10, Furman will entertain an old Southern Conference foe inside the friendly confines of Timmons Arena, as Appalachian State comes to town to tangle with the Paladins. The Mountaineers are the reigning Sun Belt Conference champions, and come into the 2021-22 season off a campaign, which saw the Mountaineers finish the campaign with a 17-12 overall mark and a 7-8 mark in Sun Belt Conference play before going down to New Orleans and taking home the Sun Belt Tournament crown.

Prior to making the championship game in New Orleans against Georgia State, then second-year head coach Dustin Kerns' club knocked off Little Rock (W, 67-60), Texas State (76-73 OT) and Coastal Carolina (64-61, OT) before knocking off the Panthers, 80-73, in the championship game to punch what was just the third NCAA Tournament ticket, and first since the 1999-2000 season for the Mountaineers.

Appalachian's 7-8 regular-season record inside the Sun Belt Conference was good enough for a fourth-place finish in the six-team Sun Belt Eastern Division. The Mountaineers played in one of the First Four games in the NCAA Tournament, as one of the No. 16 seeds, taking on Norfolk State for the right to play top overall seed Gonzaga. The Mountaineers, however, could not pick up the program's first NCAA Tournament win, as the MEAC champion Spartans posted a close, 54-53, win over the Mountaineers.

The good news for Kerns' Mountaineers is that Appalachian State should enter the 2021-22 campaign as one of the favorites to capture the Sun Belt regular-season and tournament crowns. All five starters are projected to return off that 17-win team of a year ago, as guard's Michael Alomancy (12.7PPG, 4.3 RPG) and Justin Forrest (13.2 PPG, 3.4 RPG) announced just after the season that they would be taking advantage of the extra year of eligibility awarded by the NCAA as a result of COVID-19 to return for one more season for the Black and Gold. Forrest will enter his final season for the Mountaineers ranking 14th on the school's all-time scoring scroll. 

Along with Alomancy and Forrest, the Mountaineers return a solid supporting cast, which includes forwards,  RJ Duhart (2.6 PPG, 3.1 RPG) and Donovan Gregory (10.7 PPG, 6.1 RPG), as well as another player that will be leaned on heavily for experience, in senior guard Adrian Delph (13.0 PPG, 4.4 RPG). 

Kerns is no stranger to the Southern Conference, as he was one of the key members of the Wofford basketball staff, serving as the Associate Head Coach for the Terriers under then head coach Mike Young from 2013-17. Kerns was responsible for recruiting the NCAA's all-time career three-point field goals made record-holder, Fletcher Magee, to Wofford. 

After serving as a key member of the Wofford staff, Kerns' first head coaching post came at the helm of Presbyterian, where he took the Blue Hose to unprecedented heights in its Division I stint during his short time spent in Clinton, S.C, prior to arriving in Boone. He helped the Blue Hose to their first winning record (20-16) and first postseason appearance (CIT) in 2018-19, and was named as a finalist for the Hugh Durham Award, which is given to the top head coach in mid-major college basketball. 

Kerns is very familiar with the territory, as well as Furman's staff, with the two staff's routinely looking for the same type of student-athlete to fit the mold of their respective program's. The third-year head coach had a motto for Mountaineer basketball heading into his first season at the helm in 2019-20--"Take The Stairs"--which focused on the daily grind to get the program back on solid footing, and that approach helped the Mountaineers get back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 21 years this past season. 

As far as the Furman-Appalachian State rivalry is concerned, it will mark the 87th all-time meeting between the two, with Furman holding the narrow, 47-39, all-time edge, including having won each of the past three between the two programs. The last time the Paladins and Mountaineers met was in the 2015-16 season, with the Paladins winning 79-70 on Nov. 17, 2015. The last meeting in Greenville came on Nov. 14, 2014, which saw the Paladins pick up an 84-65 win over the Mountaineers. 

Appalachian left the Southern Conference for the Sun Belt following the 2013-14 season. During its time as a Southern Conference member, success was fleeting, unlike the Mountaineers' celebrated football program. Appalachian claimed two NCAA berths as a Southern Conference member from 1972-2014, going to the Big Dance first under Hall-of-Famer Bobby Cremins in 1978-79, defeating Furman in the Southern Conference Tournament championship game, with an 86-83 win in Roanoke, VA. 

The Black and Gold faithful would have to wait a little over two decades to cut down the nets at the end of a SoCon Tournament again, as head coach Buzz Peterson--the coach who was influential in helping chart the course of Kerns' career in coaching--helped Appalachian to a second league crown in 2000-01, cutting down the nets in Greenville, S.C., with a 68-56 win over the College of Charleston.

vs. Radford (Nov. 19)

One of the teams that the Paladins have rarely seen on the hardwood over the years is Big South member Radford. The Highlanders, like the Paladins, have been one of the stronger team's in their league over the past few years. 

With former Highlanders head coach Mike Jones having taken the head coaching position at UNC Greensboro after leading what was truly a remarkable turnaround story at Radford, leading the Highlanders to 174 wins in 10 seasons at the helm. That included leading the Highlanders to a remarkable run to the NCAA Tournament back in 2017-18.

The Highlanders churned out high-level players under Jones, like guard Carlik Jones, who would end up transferring to Louisville, and now has submitted his name as NBA Draft hopeful. 

Jones laid a foundation that included knocking off the likes of Texas, Notre Dame, Northwestern, Georgetown, Virginia Tech and Penn State during his time in the small town, which sits just outside of Roanoke. 

With Jones gone, there's a new sheriff in town to coach the Highlanders, hoping to keep that winning foundation intact for the foreseeable future. The new hire staff will have a distinctly Wofford look, as Darris Nichols takes over as the head coach. Nichols is a hometown product of Radford, VA., and is the eighth head coach in the history of Radford basketball. 

Nichols spent one season as an assistant at Wofford in 2013-14 and helped guide the Terriers to a 20-win season and a Southern Conference title after being picked to finish sixth in the league in the preseason. Following one season at Wofford, Nichols went and spent six seasons at Florida (2015-21) under head coach Mike White. 

As a player, Nichols played at West Virginia for mentor John Beilein where he was a member of the Mountaineers' 2008 Sweet Sixteen run, helping the Mountaineers to a 26-11 record, finishing his career with 993 points and 399 assists.

The Highlanders return a good nucleus off a team that exited the Big South Tournament in the semifinals, with a 78-60 loss to Campbell. The biggest loss for the Highlanders will be figuring out a way to replace Fah'mir Ali, who was the leading scorer for the Highlanders last season, averaging 10.6 PPG, dished out 98 assists and recorded 42 steals en route to collecting Big South Freshman of the Year honors. He transferred following Jones' departure, and will be continuing his career at College of Charleston, playing for Pat Kelsey. 

Dravon Mangum returns as Radford's leading scorer heading into the season, as he comes off a campaign which saw him average 9.4 PPG, and was the second-leading scorer. The six-eight forward is the leading returning scorer for the Highlanders this season, and he will be the player in which Nichols will look to lead this group this upcoming season. Magnum will team with Lewis Djonkam in the paint for Radford this season. 

The meeting between the Paladins and Highlanders will be part of a an early-season multi-team event, and in that event, it will also mark the first-ever meeting between the Paladins and Highlanders on the college basketball hardwood. 

vs. Navy (Nov. 21)

The other part of that early-season multi-team event, which Furman will host at Timmons Arena, will be Navy, who is under the direction of veteran head coach Ed DeChellis.

The former East Tennessee State boss led the Midshipmen to a 15-3 record last season, and enters his 11th campaign as the head coach of Navy. One of the more notable wins of the season came in Washington, as DeChellis' Midshipmen downed Georgetown, claiming a 78-71 win on the road

The Midshipmen were tough to beat pretty much anywhere, and produced a 12-1 record inside the Patriot League during the regular-season, with the only loss for Navy coming in a 87-78 overtime contest in Annapolis against Army. 

And with its 12-1 conference record, which was best in the league, there was reason for Navy to celebrate. That meant cutting down the nets following the regular-season finale win over Loyola even though the Patriot League said it would not recognize the regular-season champion.

In reality, the significance of the season was not lost on the players, and they celebrated as though it was the regular-season title, which without COVID-19, would have been and it would also have marked the first regular-season league crown was the Naval Academy's first since the 1999-2000 campaign. 

However, that momentum would be thwarted in the quarterfinals of the Patriot League Tournament, and it would come in the unlikeliest of places, as Navy hosted the 5-10 Loyola Greyhounds on its home floor. For just the second time in the 2020-21 season, the Midshipmen dropped a decision to a Patriot League member, as the Greyhounds handed the Midshipmen a 76-68 setback to end what had been such a successful season by Navy abruptly. 

Although DeChellis would never be one to make excuses for the quarterfinal setback against Loyola, the Midshipmen did play without leading scorer Cam Davis, who was sidelined with COVID-19, and was not able to play in the game. Davis hasn't 

The 2020-21 season was an emotional one for a number of reasons, and one of the main reasons was due to the health of their head coach, as Ed DeChellis suffered a stroke early in the 2020-21 season. For his efforts amid so many hardships and challenges DeChellis was able to navigate during the 2020-21 season, he was named the Patriot League Coach of the Year.

While leading scorer Davis has moved on from the backcourt, the Naval Academy, the Midshipmen will have experience returning in the backcourt, with the return of seniors John Carter Jr. (10.9 PPG, 3.9 RPG) and Greg Summers (10.2 PPG, 6.2 RPG), who ranked second and third on the team, respectively, in scoring last season, gives Navy a solid nucleus to build around. 

In the front court, both Tyler Nelson (5.3 PPG, 3.4 RPG) and Richard Njoku (7.6 PPG, 4.2 RPG) return to give the Midshipmen plenty of experience in the paint. In all, four starters are back for the Midshipmen off that team that won 15 of its 18 games a year ago, making Navy likely the favorites in the Patriot League coming into the season. 

The meeting between the Paladins and Midshipmen will mark the fourth all-time clash between the two programs, with the most recent being the 2015-16 season, as the Paladins claimed an impressive 79-46 win over the Midshipmen on a day when Andrew Brown announced he would be one of the best three-point shooters in school history, as he connected on six triples in the 33-point win. 

Preseason Southern Conference Power Poll

With Furman's non-conference schedule now beginning to come together, it's time to look at an early look at what the SoCon pecking order could look like this winter. With the SoCon having finished ranked ninth overall out of 32 NCAA Division I conferences last season, there is more momentum heading into the 2021-22 than maybe any in recent memory. 

That being said, the pressure remains for the SoCon to at least put up a comparable season in terms of competitiveness in order to keep the league's recent rise on the national landscape ever-present in the minds of the NCAA Basketball selection committee. After all, staying power appears to be the only road to the league gaining that seemingly elusive second NCAA Tournament bid. 

Chattanooga GR senior guard David Jean-Baptiste

1. Chattanooga--It is close, but Chattanooga would edge out Wofford in the preseason ranking based on simply the fact that the Mocs return almost everyone, with seven of their top eight-man rotation back That being said, In a weird way, I think who Wofford returns favors it more to win the conference tournament than the regular-season crown, however, it should be another wide-open tournament in Asheville this coming March.

After struggling in his first couple of seasons to create the type of cohesion and continuity that would keep the Mocs in the hunt, due in large part to player departures and having to turn over rosters, head coach Lamont Paris heads into a season seemingly settled for the first time since being in the Scenic City. By settled, I mean the Mocs have the kind of toughness, grit, talent and depth that the 11-time league tournament champions have seen so many seasons in the past.

The Mocs return all five starters for the 2021-22 season, including a player in David Jean-Baptiste, who helps bridge a large gap in Mocs basketball, as the Mocs return all four of five starters from a 18-win club a year ago. The Mocs finished tied for second in the league in total wins last season, tied with Mercer (18 wins)  and trailing only UNC Greensboro (21) in total wins a year ago. 

Jean-Baptiste is an all-conference guard, who shocked everyone when he announced his transfer late in non-conference play last season only to re-think that decision and decide to return to the Mocs roster in time for the post-Christmas grind, and the Mocs SoCon opener against Furman. Jean-Baptiste garnered All-SoCon honors for a second-straight season, and finished as the team's second-leading scorer, averaging 16.1 PPG and 3.3 RPG last season, while leading the club in made three-pointers, knocking down a total of 59 triples last season. 

Other starters returning to the fold will be preseason Player of the Year candidate Malachi Smith (16.8 PPG, 8.8 RPG), 6-5 guard Jamaal Walker (5.1 PPG, 1.5 RPG), redshirt senior guard and ultimate "glue guy" A.J. Caldwell (6.4 PPG, 4.7 RPG), and junior power forward Josh Ayeni (5.5 PPG, 2.3 RPG) all return for the Mocs for the upcoming season. 

Other key returnees include the SoCon's version of former Kentucky standout guard Tayshaun Prince, in the form of K.C. Hankton (8.7 PPG, 5.5 RPG), as well as Darius Banks (11.2 PPG, 4.0 RPG), who began to emerge as reliable scorer for the Mocs, as his minutes increased towards the latter part of the season. 

Although not by much, Chattanooga is probably the team to beat coming into the season.

2. Wofford--Head coach Jay McAuley's third season at the helm of the Wofford basketball program is shaping up, at least on paper, to be his most successful one to date, and that's taking in pretty solid campaigns each of the past couple of seasons, which includes a 19-win campaign and a remarkable trip to the championship game in his first season, and being on the doorstep of a regular-season title last season after a 15-win regular-season. 

While the Terriers must replace Storm Murphy and Tray Hollowell in the backcourt--a tandem that combined for 148-career starts--will not be returning for their optional second senior season, due in large part to Wofford having no grad school. 

With that said, Murphy will continue his career as a grad transfer playing for his former head coach Mike Young at Virginia Tech.  Meanwhile, Tray Hollowell will continue his playing career at reigning Ohio Valley Conference champion Morehead State.

Other than that, the Terriers return a solid nucleus of talent, which includes 6-7 wing Isaiah Bigelow, who sat out the 2020-21 season with a knee injury. Bigelow will enter the season as an All-SoCon performer in the preseason heading into 2021-22 campaign. 

He will add an element of athleticism that the Terriers were lacking at times this past season. He would have been in line for a strong 2020-21 campaign prior to his injury, but as it turns out, it will actually be a blessing in disguise for Wofford in the upcoming season. He will also add an element of versatility in the backcourt for Wofford, as he will have to be accounted for as an outside shooting threat. In the 2019-20 season, Bigelow averaged 5.4 PPG and 3.0 RPG.

Bigelow will be a candidate to start in the backcourt for the Terriers, alongside sophomore Morgan Safford (9.3 PPG, 4.4 RPG) and rising senior Ryan Larson (5.9 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 68 assists, 24 steals). Safford was an All-SoCon freshman selection last season, while Larson will return as one of the most experienced point guards in the SoCon. 

Larson is the lone holdover that played a meaningful role on that 2018-19 Wofford team that went to the NCAA Tournament and ended up winning 30 games. Bigelow was a member of that particular team, but redshirted that particular season. One of the biggest improvements Larson made to his game was his shooting from beyond the arc, as he connected on an impressive 25-of-55 from three-point range last season, which is good enough to compute to 45.5% from three-point range.  

Another key returnee in the backcourt is rising sophomore Max Klesmit who, like Safford, was a member of the SoCon All-Freshman Team. Klesmit will once again be a vital role player in the Terrier. In the paint, Messiah Jones has developed into an all-conference player, while B.J. Mack will only get better as he develops, and played a big role in one of Wofford’s biggest wins of the season--at home vs. East Tennessee State. Sam Godwin--another member of the SoCon’s All-Freshman team--will also add even more depth to the paint next season.

He may be asked to play an even bigger role with the announcement of Nick Pringle entering the transfer portal earlier this spring. With so much talent slated to return, the Terriers will be one of favorite’s to claim the 2021-22 Southern Conference title. 

I have Wofford as my favorite in Asheville to cut down the nets in the 2021-22 season heading into the season at least. 

Furman GR senior point guard Alex Hunter

3. Furman--It goes without saying that the 2020-21 season didn't go according to plan for Furman head coach Bob Richey and his Paladins, but then again, in a year that featured topsy-turvy pauses and plenty of unknowns, it was always going to a bad recipe for Furman basketball, which is a team that thrives on rhythm of routine and the togetherness gained throughout rugged routine of a season.

The Paladins, who were the preseason favorite from almost all of the college basketball soothsayers, fell short of those predictions, finishing third in the league standings before bowing out in the opening round of the SoCon Tournament with a loss to VMI.  Furman finished a disappointing 16-9 overall and 10-6 in Southern Conference play.

Though Furman loses Noah Gurley via the transfer portal to Alabama, which is a hit that came unexpectedly but in this day and age, limiting the damage to just one significant departure due to transfer is a small win. 

That being said, there’s no dodging the fact that losing Clay Mounce to graduation, and Gurley via transfer to the University of Alabama are siginificant departures, however, what the Paladins return in talent is strong, with three starters returning to the fold, and a talented transfer and recruiting class on the way, it should be enough to ensure that, despite the losses of Mounce and Gurley, the Paladins should remain in the mix for a Southern Conference title for yet another year. 

With Wes Miller having now left to take he head coaching opening at the University of Cincinnati, Furman head coach Bob Richey will enter his fifth season at the helm of the Paladin basketball program as the most sought after coach in the SoCon when their is a big name program looking to make a change at the top.

But more than having Hunter, Bothwell and big man Jalen Slawson (8.7 PPG, 5.3 RPG), Furman must get production from other areas. That means players like sharp-shooting big man Johnny Lawrence (2.7 PPG, 1.4 RPG), as well as forward Garrett Hien (4.2 PPG, 2.4 RPG), who had some big moments in his rookie campaign with the program . Others that must step up include a player like guard Marcus Foster (2.7 PPG, 2.2 RPG), who battled injuries during his freshman season, but is expected to be a reliable performer on both ends in 2021-22. 

His improvement might be the most prominent among the sophomores returning to the fold for the Paladins. All will be required to step up and provide some valuable scoring to help collectively compensate for the departures of Mounce and Gurley. 

Sharp-shooting point guard Jaylon Pugh (3.7 PPG, 0.7 RPG) will give the Paladins outstanding depth once again behind Alex Hunter (11.1 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 91 assists) at the point. Joe Anderson (1.5 PPG, 0.6 RPG) and Colin Kenney (2.3 PPG, 0.8 RPG) will also add veteran leadership and depth to the Paladin backcourt. Hunter was again stellar taking care of the basketball for the Paladins last season, ranking first in the league, with a ratio of 2.7. 

The good news is Furman has arguably its best crop of incoming talent it has had under head coach Bob Richey, and it will include freshman Jalen Pegues out of Nashville, Tenn., as well as well as swing man Alex Williams out of Cincinnati, while the Paladins also added talented 6-7 forward Tyrese Hughey out of Worthington, OH.

Though rare, the Paladins also added a transfer during the off-season, and it's a pretty good one. Conley Garrison transferred into Furman from Drury University, as he was standout guard at the Division II level. Garrison was a three-time All-Great Lakes Valley Conference selection and two-time NABC All-Midwest First Team choice at guard. In his senior campaign of 2020-21, Garrison averaged  17.3 PPG, 5.7 RPG and 4.0 APG. 

In his previous four seasons as the head coach in Greenville, he’s posted an 89-34 record at the helm of the Furman basketball program, and while the Paladins have three veterans back, including a pair that average in double figures, the determining factor on whether or not the Paladins realize their ultimate goal and get back to  the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 42 years will be hinge primarily on how the aforementioned supporting cast steps up.

4. East Tennessee State--It appeared the sky was falling in Johnson City in mid-March, however, in a span of about two months, things changed quickly.

Jason Shay's sudden resignation amid pressure from the stance his team took and he supported, during the national anthem, led to and rightfully so, some immediate turmoil. That would all be alleviated with the hire of Tennessee assistant coach Desmond Oliver.

Shay, who helped lead the Bucs to a 13-12 season and an 8-7 mark in the SoCon, while also coaching LeDarrius Brewer to All-SoCon honors, while redshirt freshman Damari Monsanto was selected as the Southern Conference Freshman of the Year, suddenly stepped down just three weeks following ETSU’s seminal exit at the Southern Conference Tournament.

Oliver's expertise and know-how comes from 27 years as an assistant under some outstanding head coaches, including of course, Rick Barnes, at Tennessee.

Prior to his time as an assistant at Tennessee, Oliver also spent time as an assistant at Charlotte (2010-15), Canisius (2009-10), Georgia (2004-09), Rhode Island (2001-04), St. Bonaventure (2000-01), Cornell (1998-2000), Texas A&M (1997-98) and Niagara (1994-97).

The fallout continued even after Oliver was hired to become the new head coach. Marcus Niblack, Damari Monsanto, Sadaidriene Hall, Serrell Smith, and Truth Harris announced their intent to transfer out of the program.

Oliver was of course known for procuring such talents as Admiral Schoefield, Jordan Bone, John Fulkerson and Grant Williams to Knoxville. And, according to the new head coach, the situation he inherited at Tennessee was a little like the chaos he encountered when he took his new post in Johnson City. In some small way, that helped prepare Oliver for this moment.

He’s prepared for the moment, and that’s thanks in large part not only to his mentor at Tennessee, who helped groom him to become the head coach at ETSU.

Much of the reason as to why the sky was falling in Johnson City for a brief period of time was due in large part to two players, who entered the transfer portal--the Brewer brothers--LeDarrius (16.2 PPG, 4.5 RPG) and Ty (8.5 PPG, 4.0 RPG). Those two were major reasons why the Bucs were able to at least be a threat to follow up their SoCon title of a year earlier in Asheville before bowing out in the semifinals with a loss to eventual tournament champion UNCG.

Six-foot-eight post Silas Adheke (5.9 PPG, 6.0 RPG) returns to the fold for the Bucs, as does point guard David Sloan (11.1 PPG, 2.2 RPG). Oliver has been able to put together a solid recruiting class, despite all of the departures. Wichita State transfer Jaden Seymour is a key addition to the fold for the Bucs, and he'll play right away.

High-flying Kordel Charles will only add to the front court depth the Bucs should have heading into the 2021-22 season. Charles, a native of Ontario, Canada, is a 6-8 power forward, and was a three-star recruit after emerging from the IMG Academy in Bradenton, FL.

With the Brewers leading the way, the Bucs will use what is shaping up to be a pretty tough non-conference slate, which includes trips into SEC country, with games at Georgia and Tennessee, as well as some solid mid-majors, to prepare for the rugged SoCon gauntlet. You can certainly expect the Bucs to be in the mix for a league title once again this year. They aren't going anywhere.

5. Mercer--It's a little bit hard to believe the two teams that contested the title a year ago would be fifth or lower in the preseason power rankings, however, that is also an indication of just how strong the SoCon has become. For the Bears under head coach Greg Gary, the first two seasons with him at the helm have gone exceedingly well. Now the Bears will be hungry for even more. The Bears were 69-61 loser's in the Southern Conference championship game last season to UNC Greensboro.

The Bears had to do it the hard way, making it to the title game as the No. 7 seed, marking the second-straight season that has been the case. The run to the title game came on the heels on what was somewhat of a disappointing conference campaign after such a bright start to the campaign in non-conference play, winning seven of its eight non-league games, including a win over eventual ACC Tournament champion Georgia Tech.

Head coach Greg Gary will have to replace some talented players, with the graduation of Ross Cummings, who will finish his career second in school history in three-pointers made (246 made three-pointers). He finished just 11 shy of setting what would have been a new school mark.

The Bears must also replace Leon Ayers III, who has decided to enter the transfer portal following the season. Maciej Bender is also another player that must be accounted for, as he has decided to turn pro towards the end of the 2020-21 regular-season.

The good news for the Bears is that leading scorer Neftali Alvarez (13.3 PPG) and Felipe Haase (11.9 PPG) will be the two players returning that head coach Greg Gary can start to build things around immediately, and the two will be preseason all-conference players.

6. UNC Greensboro--When a new coach takes the reigns in a new destination, sometimes the transfer portal is more unforgiving than at other times. That has seemingly been the case at UNC Greensboro since Wes Miller left to become the head coach of the Cincinnati Bearcats.

It's inevitable for all strong mid-major programs that it will one day in the future need to find a replacement for the coach responsible for that success. Last year, it was Steve Forbes, who was hired away from ETSU by Wake Forest. This year, it was Wes Miller getting hired away by Cincinnati.

When you’re the ninth ranked conference in all of college basketball, and when you’re the reigning champion within that conference, it means you have pretty good players, and yes, the Spartans, who were 64-54 losers to Florida State in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament had just that--excellent players.

Mike Jones comes over from Radford after winning 175 games at the helm of the Highlanders, quite the rebuilding project in front of him.

Including senior Isaiah Miller, the Spartans will need to replace five of their top seven scorers heading into next season, with the only pieces that really played meaningful minutes returning to the fold for the 2021-22 season being point guard Keyshaun Langley (10.0 PPG, 1.8 RPG, 101 assists, 34 steals), as well as Khyre Thompson (3.7 PPG, 3.2 RPG). The rest have either joined Wes Miller at Cincinnati, or having transferred somewhere else.

The mass exodus came due to the fact that Director of Athletics Kim Record and school president Dr. Kevin Gilliam decided to go outside the UNCG family to bring in the next head coach. The player’s were waiting to see if Record hired from within, which would have been either Chris Lepore or Andre Gray, as both were a big part of the 184 victories and two NCAA Tournament berths that Miller was able to take the program to over a decade of leadership.

However, while Lepore or Gray would have been outstanding hires, the hire that Record and Gilliam agreed upon is an excellent choice, and one with a proven winning formula and track record. That’s because he comes from a program, in Radford, which has a lot of similarities to that of UNCG. Like Miller did with UNCG, when Mike Jones left the Radford job for UNCG, he left it a better job than it was when he got the gig.

In fact, when Jones took over at Radford, he took over at a time when things couldn’t have been much worse, as the Highlanders were coming off what was a 1-24 record and were on NCAA probation following the exit of Kevin Greenberg, who was the son of former Virginia Tech head coach Seth Greenberg.

Jones’ transformation of the Radford basketball program was almost immediate. Record was familiar Jones due to UNCG playing the Highlanders in back-to-back seasons in 2018-19 and 2019-20, winning both of those games, but both came in hard-fought fashion.

Talent still remains, however, as Jones did manage to lure Kaleb Hunter (8.6 PPG, 3.8 RPG) and Bas Leyte (1.3 PPG, 1.7 RPG) to return to the Spartans after initially entering the transfer portal. UNCG wasn’t so lucky with some of the others that decided to jump ship, like Angelo Allegri, who will continue his career at Eastern Washington next season, or seven-foot center and rim protector Hayden Koval, who has decided to join former head coach Wes Miller at the University of Cincinnati.

Scoring production will return in the form of both Hunter and Keyshaun Langley, who is the Spartans’ second-leading scorer from a year ago after averaging 10.0 PPG, while Hunter added 8.6 PPG. The Spartans appear to have enough returning to at least be a factor in the championship race once again in the 2021-22 season, however, scoring was a struggle even this season with Miller.

It will interesting to see how Jones might change things up this season for the Spartans to a more offensively imposing club. One thing we know for sure is that the Spartans can most certainly defend. The best big man returning for UNCG will be Mohammad Abdulsalalam.

7. The Citadel--It’s probably hard to imagine The Citadel might find itself with such optimism following a 2019-20 season, which saw the Bulldogs close out go winless against SoCon competition (0-19) and for a large portion of the final month of that season, the Bulldogs had only seven players available to dress due to injury.

A year removed from one of the worst in the recent history of Bulldog basketball, that low point for head coach Duggar Baucom and fans of “Embrace The Pace” brand of basketball seems like only a distant memory. However, for a program that is one of the few to have never made it to an NCAA Tournament, the optimism is seemingly at an all-time high for Bulldog basketball.

Rightfully so, and it all starts with the fact that The Citadel return a player, in Hayden Brown, who will enter the season as a legitimate SoCon Player of the Year candidate, returns to lead the Bulldogs heading into the 2021-22 season. He comes off an outstanding campaign, putting together one of the best individual season’s for a big man in the history of The Citadel basketball. 

Brown finished his redshirt junior campaign, and has opted to exercise his free season which allow for an optional extra year for seniors, which the native of Duncan, S.C., has decided to take advantage of his extra season as a result of the pandemic, announcing his return next season. He finished the 2020-21 campaign by averaging 18.8 PPG, which ranked second in the league in scoring for the season, while his 10.5 RPG helped him lead the league by one more rebound than the next closest player in that same category.

Brown also ranked second in the league in field goal percentage last season, connecting on 50.8% (159-of-313) from the field. Brown enjoyed some outstanding performances this past season, leading the SoCon in double-doubles, with 13 overall and eight in league action, highlighted by a career-high 37-point, 13-rebound effort in a home win over Chattanooga.

For the season, Brown posted 22 double-figure scoring performances in 25 games, finishing the season with five performances of 15 or more rebounds, including a career-high 21-rebound performance in a non-conference win over Piedmont. Brown’s 13 double-doubles last season were tied for 11th in the nation last season., while his 10.5 RPG also ranked 11th nationally.

Brown completed the campaign with 451 points last season, and will head into his senior campaign in 2021-22 with 1,692-career points, and likely, the active career leading scorer entering his final season. Brown already ranks second in program history in career points, needing just 363 points in 2021-22 to surpass Cameron Wells--the program’s only career 2000-point scorer with 2,054-career points from 2007-11--and will have a chance to do that despite what has, at times, been an injury-plagued career.

While Brown has announced his return next season, the Bulldogs will have to find a replacement for grad transfer Kaiden Rice, who has opted to utilize his extra final year of eligibility by becoming a Georgetown Hoya.

Rice was the Bulldogs’ second-leading scorer this past season and finished the campaign ranking fifth in overall scoring average (17.6 PPG). Rice also finished the campaign leading the SoCon in three-pointers made (92) last season. He averaged 3.7 made three-pointers per game, and his 92 triples helped him lead the next closest player in made threes by nine triples last season.

The next closest player in the “made threes” statistical category was Western Carolina’s Matt Halvorsen, who knocked down 83 triples last season. Rice connected at a 34.8% (92-of-264) from three-point range last season.

As a team, The Citadel finished the season with 246 made three-pointers, which was second-most made threes in the SoCon last season, with VMI’s 270 made treys made finishing as the top mark for made three-pointers in the 2020-21 campaign.

Returning alongside Brown in the paint for the Bulldogs next season will be Stephen Clark (5.9 PPG, 4.6 RPG) who finished the 2020-21 season second in the SoCon in blocks (1.8 BPG/46 blocks). Clark is one of the quicker jumper’s in the Southern Conference, and gives The Citadel excellent athleticism and a great rim protector in the paint heading into the upcoming season.

On the offensive end of the floor, the 6-8 center finished the 2020-21 campaign by posting three double-figure scoring performances, which saw him produce two of those in his final three games of his sophomore season. Clark reserved his best performance for a opening round tournament win over Western Carolina, as he posted 18 points and six rebounds in the 100-86 win, connecting on 6-of-8 shots from the field in the process.

Joining Clark in the paint in the 2021-22 season will be talented rising junior Brady Spence (4.5 PPG, 2.6 RPG), who has battled injuries in each of his first couple of seasons for The Citadel. His only double-figure performance of the season game in a January home loss to Mercer, as he posted 10 points in that particular contest.

In the backcourt, the Bulldogs will have experienced point guard Tyler Moffe (9.7 PPG, 4.2 RPG) returning as the starter, while Rudy Fitzgibbons III (4.9 PPG, 1.3 RPG) will provide excellent depth at the position. Also returning in the backcourt for the 2021-22 season to provide another proficient shooting threat in the backcourt for Baucom’s Bulldogs this upcoming season will be Brent Davis (4.5 PPG, 2.6 RPG).

8. VMI--VMI was another one of those teams that exceeded expectations last season, and it's one of the main reasons Keydets head coach Dan Earl was named Southern Conference Coach of the Year last season.

VMI must replace some outstanding performers from this past season, such as Greg Parham (18.4 PPG), who garnered first-team all-conference honors this past season, and has decided to use his grad season as a transfer to South Alabama. Parham finished the season starting all 25 games for the Keydets, and ranked second on the team in made three-pointers, connecting on 43.5% from three-point range this past season, as he made good on 64-of-147 from three-point land.

The other key loss for the Keydets entering the 2021-22 season is Myles Lewis (10.3 PPG, 7.5 RPG), who like Parham, will be pursuing his graduate season as a transfer elsewhere, as he will be continuing his hoops career at McNeese State in Lake Charles, LA. Lewis was a key cog for Dan Earl’s Keydets, having started 18 of 22 games this past season for the Keydets, and was the team’s fourth-leading scorer.

While those two aforementioned players are significant departures, like The Citadel, the Keydets return plenty of talent and scoring punch for the 2021-22 season, with four of the top six scorers returning. All-SoCon big man Jake Stephens (14.9 PPG, 7.8 RPG) leads the returnees for Earl’s Keydets in 2021-22.

Stephens will be a preseason All-SoCon pick, and comes off a 2020-21 season, which saw him record 20 double-figure scoring performances in 25 games for the Keydets. He posted a career-high 33 points in a January win over The Citadel.

Stephens was once again among the league’s most lethal inside-outside threats, as he finished the 2020-21 season by connecting on 31.5% (34-of-108) from three-point range last season. In terms of total field goal percentage, Stephens completed the campaign connecting on 46.7% (122-of-261) this past season. Stephens also ranked third in the league in total blocks last season, as he swatted away 41 shots and averaged 1.6 blocks-per-game last season.

The Keydets also return two of the top three-point marksmen in the Southern Conference for the 2021-22 season, with both sharp-shooting guards Kamdyn Curfman (12.7 PPG, 2.1 RPG) and Sean Conway (10.1 PPG, 6.2 RPG) returning for the 2021-22 campaign.

Both Curfman and Conway combined to connect on 127 of the team’s 270 triples last season, with Curfman ranking fourth in the SoCon in three-pointers made, knocking down 70 triples last season, averaging 2.7 made threes per game. Meanwhile, Conway finished the 2020-21 season ranking fourth in the SoCon in three-point field goal percentage, connecting on 40.4% (57-of-141) of his shots from downtown last season.

The x-factor returning in the backcourt for the Keydets entering the 2021-22 season could be rising sophomore guard Trey Bonham (8.6 PPG, 2.8 RPG), who was a SoCon All-Freshman team selection for the 2020-21 season. Bonham saw action in 24 games for the Keydets last season, logging seven starts in those contests. His 26 steals on the season ranked second on the team behind only Greg Parham in total steals in 2020-21. Look for Bonham to challenge to be the starting point guard for the Keydets for the upcoming season.

Knowing exactly where both The Citadel and VMI will be picked to finish in the SoCon pecking order for the 2021-22 season is hard yet to know, with the entire summer ahead and with the transfer portal making things for every SoCon program a “fluid situation.” However, one would expect both the Bulldogs and Keydets to be given their rightful respect earned in the preseason media and coaches’ polls when that time rolls around for the league’s annual media day in October.

9. Samford--You might might think that with so much going wrong to end Bucky McMillan’s first season in charge--that it might in some way be hard to attract players to a program that has struggled in recent seasons--however you would be way wrong if you were to make such an assumption. McMillan’s staff has hit the recruiting trail hard during the off-season.

The last-place team in the SoCon just happened to be the landing spot for one of the top prospects in the SoCon heading into the 2021-22 season, as well as one of the top recruits in the history of Samford basketball.

It’s not uncommon for the Bulldogs to land big-time recruits, as four-star Stephen Fitzgerald landed in Homewood three years ago. He never panned out, but his recruitment certainly raised more than a few eyebrows.

Now, McMillan and staff have landed another four-star recruit, in 6-5 guard Wesley Cardet Jr. from Orlando, FL, starring for West Oaks High School, which is also the same school that produced current the same school that produced AJ Staton-McCray, who of course, ended the 2020-21 season as a SoCon All-Freshman selection.

Cardet, Jr. is a combo guard with outstanding athleticism. He comes in ranked No. 60 in the nation and No. 13 at his position according to rivals.com. During his prep career at West Oaks High School, Cardet Jr. ended up averaging 18.4 PPG and 9.4 RPG, and will be an instant impact player in the Southern Conference.

Joining Cardet, Jr. in the backcourt as newcomers for the 2021-22 season are a pair of talented transfer, in University of Florida transfer Ques Glover and Loyola Chicago transfer Cooper Kaifes. Glover is a 6-0, 185-lb sophomore guard, who comes to Samford following a couple of seasons at Florida where he averaged 3.6 PPG, which included a career-best 10 points vs. No. 6 Tennessee in his two seasons in Gainesville.

The 6-0 guard is from Knoxville, Tenn, where he was a standout at powerhouse Bearden High School. Like Cardet, Jr., Glover will be an immediate impact performer with his quickness off the dribble and overall athleticism. He was the Knoxville Sentinel’s Player of the Year in 2018 following a senior prep season, which saw him average 21 PPG and led Bearden to a Class AAA state title. He was named Tennessee’s Class AAA Mr. Basketball as a senior, and garnered all-state honors as both a junior and senior.

Kaifes is a 6-4 redshirt sophomore guard comes to Samford from Loyola Chicago, and was named to the Missouri Valley Conference All-Freshman Team following the 2018-19 season, as he averaged 5.7 PPG and and connected on a blistering 46.5% shooting from three-point range as a freshman, while connecting on a total of 53 triples.

Two other newcomers that will add immediate impact for Samford as soon as next season will be 6-6 forward Jermaine Marshall, who returns after spending a season at Akron, as well as guards Jaden Campbell and Angel Smith.

Marshall had been a part of the Bulldog basketball program before transferring out abruptly. He previously played at NJCAA power Florida Southwestern State College, where he averaged 10.2 PPG and 8.8 RPG, posting double figures in 16 games.

Campbell and Smith, like Cardet, Jr., give the Bulldogs two more athletic combo guards. Campbell is a 6-5 guard from Brampton, Ontario, and like Marshall, transfers in from Florida Southwestern State College, where he averaged 13.7 PPG, 4.0 RPG and 2.0 APG after having played a couple of seasons as a JUCO and will have a couple of years of eligibility remaining. Campbell connected on 52% if his shots from the floor, including connecting on 38.5% from three-point range.

Smith comes to Samford after spending a season at the University of Southern Mississippi, where he played in four games in the 2019-20 season before a shoulder injury brought an abrupt end to his freshman season for the Golden Eagles. He managed a career-high 10-point scoring performance against Tulane before having to call it a season.

He arrived at Southern Miss as one of the top prospects out of the state of Florida, as he ranked as highly as No. 25 in the state, according to MaxPreps. As a senior prep at Northeast High School, Smith averaged 18.0 PPG and and 10.2 RPG, while dishing out an impressive 5.1 APG.

This impressive cast of recruits joins a solid corps of returning players, which includes SoCon All-Freshman Team selection A.J. Staton-McCray (10.0 PPG, 4.5 RPG) and talented backcourt mates Jaron Rillie (5.2 PPG, 2.4 RPG) and Marcellus Vail (2.7 PPG, 1.7 RPG). Forward Logan Dye (9.7 PPG, 4.4 RPG) highlights the returnees in the paint for the Bulldogs in 2021-22.

The guard-oriented Bulldogs could be headed for a middle-of-the-pack or higher finish in the SoCon if all the impressive additions pan out in the impressive recruiting haul for McMillan. One thing is for sure, the Bulldogs will not be short on athleticism entering the 2021-22 season.

10. Western Carolina--The last of the three programs in the SoCon to welcome in a new coach for the 2021-22 season is Western Carolina, which welcomes in former Wake Forest standout and Winthrop assistant Justin Gray into the fold as the new head coach of the Catamount basketball program.

Like ETSU and UNCG, Gray will have to deal with massive fallout following a transition of coaching staffs. The Catamounts were one of the disappointments in the SoCon last season, and after the season, Mark Prosser wasted little time in bolting to another mid-major--Winthrop--to take the head coaching vacancy there following Pat Kelsey's promotion to become College of Charleston's new head coach.

Many of Prosser's former players followed suit, transferring to various places all over the mid-major and power conference landscape. That includes leading scorer Mason Faulkner, who could have utilized his extra year of eligibility to stay in Cullowhee or opt to turn pro, but instead will continue his career in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, suiting up in Boulder for the Colorado Buffaloes in the 2021-22 season.

The Catamounts will look vastly different than it did this past season, as only five players return to the roster for the 2021-22 season, with new head coach Justin Gray having to start almost from scratch.

Gray acknowledged that one of the neat things about the job just days after taking it was the simplicity of being able to be the one that organized his own day.

“I guess one of the things I like most is simple enough, as it’s pretty neat to be able to set your own schedule,” Gray said. I love the ability to be able to do things my way and the challenges of daily scheduling,” Gray added.

“The most important thing so far at least has been being able to meet with the guys and figure out who wants to be here and who doesn’t.”

Part of that early schedule has been almost set for Gray, and that has been hitting the recruiting trail especially hard. Like most young coaches, it’s an aspect of of the job that Gray really enjoys, and was a part of the job that he was able to familiarize himself with during his time serving as an assistant coach under Pat Kelsey at Winthrop each of the past couple of seasons.

“When I took the job at Winthrop, I told him [Pat Kelsey} that one day I wanted to be a head coach and he said I am going to prepare you for that. He allowed me to help with gameplans for opponents and obviously scouting and recruiting and all that goes with those things and then one of the most important things was just being able to sit in and listen to conversations and see like how the conversations go between him and the AD and learning from those situations.”

Gray has gone out and procured some solid talent and made some good enroads in recruiting in just a little over a month on the job. The most impressive committment, at least on paper, to this point for Gray and the Catamounts is 6-5 wing Marvin Price.

Price comes to Western Carolina from Salt Lake Community College in Salt Lake City City, Utah. During the 2020-21 season for the Bruins, Price ended up averaging 12.6 PPG amd 5.5 RPG. According to ESPN.com, the Baltimore, MD product Price is a three-star addition to the Catamount roster. Price will have three years or eligibility remaining with Western Carolina.

Joining Price via the transfer route for the Catamounts coming into the 2021-22 season will be fifth-year senior guard Cam Bacote (Indiana State), point guard Jamir Moultrie (North Carolina Central), point guard Vonterius Woolbright (Lawson State CC), power forward Bryce Brown (South Georgia State College), power forward Johan Crafoord, wing Marlow Gilmore, Jr. (Dodge City CC), wing Madison Monroe (Independence CC), wing Marcus Banks (Fork Union Military Academy), and wing Nick Robinson (Saint Joseph’s).

The Catamounts have added perhaps their most talented performer to the fold recently, with the addition of 6-6 forward Marlow Gilmore, who heads to Cullowhee from Dodge City, Kansas, where he played for Dodge City Community College. In 23 games with the Conquistadores, the ultra-athletic Gilmore averaged 9.6 PPG and 5.5 RPG, finishing the season with 11 double-figure performers.

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