As it has been the past couple of seasons, the Southern Conference men's basketball race to the finish will be a tight one.
UNC Greensboro made sure of that Monday, with a 74-56 drubbing of previously SoCon-undefeated East Tennessee State. The Spartans blocked 14 ETSU shots, with forward James Dickey blocking a school-record eight.
The win moved the Spartans (20-6, 11-2) a game and a half behind the Buccaneers (22-5, 13-1) in the league standings while also snapping ETSU's NCAA-best 16-game win streak. UNCG has won nine of its last 10 games, with the lone loss a double-overtime defeat at the hands of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
"We've got to use this as a springboard to keep getting better, to keep improving," UNCG coach Wes Miller said postgame. "I think (the Bucs) are a phenomenal basketball team; I can't tell you how good I think East Tennessee State is, so I do think it's a great win for us, but it's only great if we continue to grow and build.
"I would like to think we're not going to play our best basketball in early February; I would like to think we'll keep growing. I would like to think that's what we're about here."
A number of teams made the league look good in nonconference play, with Wofford beating Georgia Tech and North Carolina and UNCG defeating North Carolina State. Furman played Tennessee tough, falling by four, while Mercer lost 80-79 to Alabama.
The Bucs and Spartans — the teams that played for the SoCon crown last season — have separated themselves from the rest of the league in the standings.
With two weeks remaining in the regular season, Wofford and Furman are three games behind UNCG and Western Carolina is four back. The interesting part is how the bottom half of the league has fared. Mercer had a dominating win over Samford a couple weeks ago and followed that with a similar win over Wofford last week. In a four-game stretch, The Citadel (9-16, 4-9) picked up wins over Mercer, Furman and Wofford, while the league's biggest upset has been the Mocs' win over the second-place Spartans, whose other league loss was at ETSU in January.
"Night in and night out, you have battles," The Citadel coach Duggar Baucom recently said of the SoCon. "Everybody feels that about our league, but we've got a little street cred to show for it.
"It's tough every game without a doubt, and it's doubly tough on the road."
Sophomore Cummings hot
Mercer coach Bob Hoffman finally ran out of reasons not to play sophomore guard Ross Cummings.
The 6-foot-4 Dickson, Tenn., resident is making Hoffman wish he'd played him sooner.
In the last five games, Cummings has averaged 18 points per game on 49 percent shooting from 3-point range for the Bears. He's made 22 3-pointers in that span, with a career-high six coming on eight attempts in a win over Wofford on Feb. 3.
Cummings was needed in the lineup after an injury to senior guard Ria'n Holland.
"I watched him a lot in high school and AAU and I knew he could shoot, but what we were trying to get him to do was guard better and understand the nuances of offense," Hoffman said recently. "When Ria'n went down, he moved into the spot like he owned it and should have been there a long time ago.
"You might ask me why he wasn't playing before that, but you know how that is. You have a bunch of guys that are all good high school players and they all do good things. Sometimes it takes a moment, and an opportunity definitely knocked for Ross."
SoCon Players of the week
UNCG swept the SoCon weekly honors with Dickey and Ije Ajemba. Dickey averaged 10 points and 9.3 rebounds in his team's 3-0 week, highlighted by Monday's eight-block performance. Ajemba averaged 14 points and 15 rebounds as the female Spartans lost to Furman and beat Wofford.
Contact Gene Henley at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @genehenleytfp.