published Thursday, March 1st, 2012

SoConversation: Pre-tournament edition

Welcome to the pre-Southern Conference basketball tournament edition of the SoConversation between The Citadel beat writer Jeff Hartsell of the Charleston Post and Courier, Elon beat writer Adam Smith of the Burlington Times-News and UTC beat writers David Uchiyama and John Frierson of the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

That’s right, the TFP is bringing twice the knowledge to these proceedings. Actually, John put these questions together and will chime in toward the end when the conversation turns to the women’s tournament.

First off, we know we said we were going to keep the SoConversation going during basketball season and we didn’t. We’re sorry. We wanted to, but the demands on everyone’s time were just too great to make it happen.

The good news is that you’ve got a tasty edition right here — and we will be back for football season. You can count on that.

Here are the pairings for the men’s tournament:

Friday


Game 1 - (4S) College of Charleston vs. (5N) Appalachian State, 11:30 a.m.


Game 2 - (3N) Western Carolina vs. (6S) The Citadel, 2 p.m.


Game 3 - (4N) Samford vs. (5S) Furman, 6 p.m.


Game 4 - (3S) Georgia Southern vs. (6N) Chattanooga, 8:30 p.m.

Saturday


(1N) UNCG vs. Game 1 winner, Noon


(2S) Wofford vs. Game 2 winner, 2:30 p.m.


(1S) Davidson vs. Game 3 winner, 6 p.m.


(2N) Elon vs. Game 4 winner, 8:30 p.m.

Sunday


Semifinal 1 - 6 p.m.


Semifinal 2 - 8:30 p.m.

Monday


Championship Game - 9 p.m.

What are your thoughts on the regular season the team you cover had and what are their chances in the tournament?

ADAM: Elon rode a roller coaster of highs and lows — cliché alert! — but managed to secure the North Division’s second seed and an important bye into Saturday’s quarterfinal round of the league tournament.

The Phoenix opened 7-2 for its best start to a season in 20 years. Then came a backslide of seven losses in eight games. Elon rebounded and won five of its next six and held sole possession of first place in the North as late as Feb. 11. And then — wait for it — five straight losses down the stretch of the regular season threatened to dump the Phoenix into a Friday’s first round of the tournament.

So here we are.

As for Elon’s chances now that March Madness is upon us, Wyclef’s “Anything Can Happen” might be a fitting soundtrack. When Jack Isenbarger, Drew Spradlin and Sebastian Koch are raining 3s and Lucas Troutman is doing work down low, the Phoenix is formidable.

Then again, Elon only has one win since Feb. 6.

Stay tuned.

DAVID: It’s been a long season for the Mocs. It started well with solid efforts at historic venues Assembly Hall and Hinkle Fieldhouse. But close losses mounted early before Chris Early drew a black eye to the team and coach John Shulman with his tweets and subsequent dismissal. It seemed to be going well during a three-game stretch in January. Then it all fell apart resulting in the first 20-loss team in UTC history, as well as the first team to not win a single road game.

UTC went 1-5 against the trio of Georgia Southern, Elon and Davidson — UTC’s draw if the seeds hold — which decreases already long odds of the Mocs winning four games in four days.

JEFF: The Citadel was expected to struggle, and the Bulldogs surely did,

winning just three league games. But toward the end of the season, Chuck Driesell figured out a way for his team to at least keep it close — slow down the pace, mix in some zone and hit the boards hard. That helped The Citadel win two games in the final week, and nearly pull of an upset of College of Charleston.

Tourney fans should check out Citadel center Mike Groselle, a true throwback player who thrives below the rim.

Who’s the favorite to win the tournament and is there a sleeper or two out there that could stun everyone and capture the NCAA tournament bid?

DAVID: Davidson is the favorite by leaps and bounds. The Wildcats won the South Division, beat a team in Kansas that has a shot at a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, and owns an RPI in the 60s. Wofford, which graduated studs Noah Dahlman and Tim Johnson, seemed to be a sleeper throughout the season. But the Terriers snagged the No. 2 seed from the South.

Of the teams that would need to win four games in four days, my sleeper is Georgia Southern. The Eagles finished with a better record than No. 1 North UNC Greensboro, they feature two senior guards and an angry bunch of underclassmen who are tired of getting thumped.

ADAM: Would I dare pick against the stately Bob McKillop? Well, not this time, at least.

Yeah, really getting adventurous here by making Davidson my tournament favorite. But it’s hard to find a team that’s better equipped and more consistent. The Wildcats’ 16-2 league record wasn’t an accident.

Davidson could open the tournament against Samford in Saturday’s quarterfinals. And Samford beat Davidson in late January. Of course, Davidson whipped Samford 81-54 two weeks ago, but still, it’s worth noting.

Can I make Wofford a sleeper even though the Terriers are the second seed out of the South and have won the last two tournaments? No? I can’t?

OK, then I’ll go with College of Charleston, the South’s fourth seed. The Cougars have won six of their last seven since losing a double-overtime thriller Feb. 2 at Elon. Antwaine Wiggins and Andrew Lawrence can get hot in a hurry for College of Charleston.

JEFF: I really do think Davidson will win it all, but the Wildcats are not a

lock. Of the non-bye teams, I like College of Charleston. The Cougars are as

healthy now as they've been since early in the season, when they beat Clemson and Tennessee and almost beat Louisville. And from what I saw when CofC played The Citadel, the Cougars have tightened up some things under new coach Mark Byington and really are playing some pretty good defense.

Winning four in four days is tough, but I think the Cougars will make some noise. Among the bye teams, Wofford is the obvious second pick behind Davidson.

Was there a dominant story in the SoCon this season, maybe Bobby Cremins taking a leave of absence or UTC struggling the way it did after being picked to win the North?

JEFF: The UNC Greensboro story was amazing. A school fired its coach, endured

an 11-game losing streak — and then won its division. Wes Miller deserves coach of the year votes and the full-time gig at UNCG, and it will be interesting to see if he gets it. Of course, his success and the Spartans' young talent has made the job a lot more enticing for other candidates.

The Cremins story was a shocker, too, and I really don't see him coming back to the job. Mark Byington could earn that job with a strong tourney run.

DAVID: Davidson returning to prominence is no surprise. I think we all saw that coming with Cohen, Cochran and Brooks maturing. UTC failing to live up to its expectations with four senior starters is a surprise. But the combined story of UNCG coach Mike Dement walking away, Wes Miller stepping in and earning the media’s coach of the year award, combined with Cremins stepping down for a breather is the biggest story of the year. That’s two SoCon programs making changes mid-season.

Without doing research, I’ll bet no other conference in the country had two mid-season coaching changes. If so, I owe Adam, Jeff and John a Coca-Cola.

ADAM: Take your pick, there’s plenty of intriguing storylines out there.

The Bobby Cremins leave of absence was a shocker that reverberated across college basketball, given his status as one of this game’s beloved figures.

Chattanooga’s face plant has been surprising. After stumbling to a 1-17 league record last season, forever upbeat coach Charlton Young and Georgia Southern have bounced back in a big way at 12-6.

For me, though, I’ve fallen into a massive man crush with 29-year-old Wes Miller and UNC Greensboro, the North Division champion.

Mike Dement was ousted in mid-December with the Spartans 2-8. And as if an in-season change wasn’t trying enough, Miller’s first seven games as interim coach were against East Carolina, Duke, VCU, Richmond, Miami, Davidson and College of Charleston.

UNCG beat College of Charleston to stop an 11-game losing streak. The rest has been a veritable rise from the ashes. Now the question becomes, does Miller get the full-time job? Also, does he want it?

It’s postseason awards time now, so who are your picks for player and coach of the year? And, who has been your favorite player to watch this season?

ADAM: Coach of the year — Wes Miller. See my love letter from above.

Player of the year — Davidson’s De’Mon Brooks. Most efficient weapon on the league’s clear-cut best team.

Favorite player to watch — UNCG’s Trevis Simpson. Silky smooth scorer.

Hardest worker — The Citadel’s Mike Groselle. Blue collar. Meat and potatoes.

Best dunk — Georgia Southern’s Eric Ferguson. He thumped a monster 1-hand jam all over and through Elon’s Austin Hamilton, who was called for a blocking foul on the play. It was the type of posterizing facial that seemed to haunt former Duke guard Greg Paulus.

Best heckle — Elon students to Appalachian State’s 6-10, 290-pound Isaac Butts: “We like you big and we cannot lie!”

Most dependable user of 3-point goggles — Chattanooga’s Omar Wattad. Regardless of percentages, he ain’t never scared.

JEFF: Davidson's De'Mon Brooks is a beast and a worthy player of the year. The

Citadel's Mike Groselle also deserved serious consideration for POY — for much

of the season, he led the league in scoring and rebounding despite being the sole focus of opposing teams' defenses. Trevis Simpson of UNCG is fun to watch — kid can elevate, as he did on the buzzer-beating miracle slam that defeated The Citadel. Coach of the year came down to the firm of Young, Young, Miller and McKillop, and I went with Miller and Mike Young of Wofford, although Charlton Young of Georgia Southern did a great job after his team won just one league game last year.

DAVID: Davidson forward Jake Cohen is my player of the year. He’s one of the most complete players I’ve seen in the SoCon over the last 10 years. He has nice touch around the rim, a variety of post moves and steps out to hit 3-pointers. I don’t think he’ll be the best professional player in Europe from this season because Eric Ferguson has a much higher ceiling based on his 6-foot-7 frame and pure athleticism.

It’s a tighter race for my coach of the year vote than any year before. Based on best team this year, it’s Bob McKillop. Based on best turn-around, it’s Charlton Young. Based on in-season change, it’s Wes Miller. Based on doing the most with the least, it’s Mike Young.

I root for the best story — be it at one game or over the course of a season. The best coaching story of the year is Wes Miller. That doesn’t mean I’d take him over McKillop or Young to coach my team in the TFP Championship.

As for the SoCon women — Jeff, you’re excused since The Citadel doesn’t have a team and John will step in for David — here are the tournament pairings:

Friday

Game 1— (8) College of Charleston vs. (9) Wofford, 11:30 a.m.

Game 2 – (7) Western Carolina vs. (10) Georgia Southern, 2 p.m.

Game 3 – (6) Furman vs. (11) UNCG, 4:30 p.m.

Saturday

Game 4—(1) Davidson vs. Winner of Game 1, noon

Game 5—(4) Samford vs. (5) Elon, 2:30 p.m.

Game 6—(2) Appalachian State vs. Winner of Game 2, 6 p.m.

Game 7—(3) UTC vs. Winner of Game 3, 8:30 p.m.

Sunday

Semifinal 1—noon

Semifinal 2—2:30 p.m.

Monday

Championship Game—5 p.m.

What are your thoughts on the regular season and the tournament?

JOHN: As always, UTC entered the season as the pick to win the league. The Lady Mocs won 21 games — they’ve won 20 or more in 12 of the last 13 seasons — and finished a game behind SoCon co-champions Davidson and Appalachian State. Any non-championship season is a letdown for UTC, but is was by no means a bad season.

The league has the big four (UTC, App State, Samford and Davidson) and everybody else, which is probably how the tournament will shake out this weekend. I’d be surprised if another team made the semifinals, but I wouldn’t be surprised if any of the top four teams won the tournament.

UTC has the momentum after closing the season with home wins against Davidson and App State. The Mountaineers, however, are hard to pick against given their super-aggressive style of play and they have the best player in Anna Freeman.

ADAM: What Frierson said.

Seriously, though, I think he’s spot on with the four-team separation at the top in Davidson, App State, Chattanooga and Samford. They should be scrapping it out in Sunday’s tournament semifinals, which would offer a convergence of all sorts playing styles.

Although — homer alert! — Elon has won four straight games heading into the postseason.

And Elon coach Charlotte Smith certainly knows what it takes to get it done at this time of year. She hit the game-winning, buzzer-beating jumper that lifted North Carolina to the 1994 national championship.

If you’ve got a question, e-mail the writers at jhartsell@postandcourier.com, asmith@thetimesnews.com, duchiyama@timesfreepress.com or jfrierson@timesfreepress.com. The guys are also on Twitter: @Jeff_fromthePC, @adam_smithTN, @UchiyamaCTFP and @MocsbeatCTFP.

about John Frierson...

John Frierson is in his seventh year at the Times Free Press and seventh year covering University of Tennessee at Chattanooga athletics. The bulk of his time is spent covering Mocs football, but he also writes about women’s basketball and the big-picture issues and news involving the athletic department. A native of Athens, Ga., John grew up a few hundred yards from the University of Georgia campus. Instead of becoming a Bulldog he attended Ole ...

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