Top SoCon storylines to watch in 2017-18:

1. How deep is the SoCon this year? Last season ended with a three-way tie at the top of the standings. This year as many as six teams could finish in a tight cluster at the top, with a large gulf between them and the bottom tier.

2. Bob Richey and Lamont Paris are the two new coaches in the league at Furman and Chattanooga, respectively. Richey was at Furman through the whole Niko Medved rebuild, so not much will change there. Paris, however, will bring a philosophy that’s the total opposite of the Will Wade/Matt McCall era, on both ends of the court.

3. The league nearly lost Steve Forbes to New Mexico, but if ETSU has another season like last year, he won’t be in Johnson City much longer.

4. Wofford opens up the brand new Richardson Indoor Stadium, bidding adieu to the creaky but charming BenJo Arena.

PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH:

1. Furman– The Paladins are loaded with seniors in the backcourt but have to replace two key pieces, head coach Niko Medved and do-everything center Kris Acox. Continuity on the sideline should not be an issue with Bob Richey, Medved’s top assistant and player favorite, taking over. Replacing Acox on the other hand might not be as seamless, but if Matt Rafferty is healthy after back surgery, the Paladins have to be considered the favorite in the SoCon. Let’s start with the backcourt first, where Furman is loaded. Daniel Fowler leads the way at the point, and he’s a matchup nightmare on both ends with his long 6-foot-4 frame. Devin Sibley returns off the ball as an efficiency monster, shooting 45 percent from 3 and blowing by defenders on the bounce when they over hedge off the screen. John Davis is the third senior guard; he’s another lights out shooter and Richey’s best on-ball defender. Add in sophomore Jordan Lyons, another near 40 percent volume 3-point shooter and Andy Brown on the wing (who has the best stroke in college basketball), and you have one of the most lethal backcourts in mid-major basketball. As I mentioned before, replacing Acox inside in the four-out scheme is imperative, particularly since all the guards are so skilled at extending pressure in the halfcourt, a staple of Furman’s defense last year. Acox was so skilled and versatile that he could erase most blowbys when the defense got overzealous. Basically, Acox did everything on the basketball court extremely well except shoot from outside. It will be up to Rafferty and his surgically repaired back to replace that production, and the good news for Richey is that he’s actually capable of doing that… if he’s healthy. As a freshman, a healthy Rafferty posted top-10 rebounding rates on both ends and top-10 steal and block rates. That’s Acoxian! He’s also able to stretch out to the perimeter offensively, something Acox didn’t do. Geoff Beans returns to the frontcourt as a stretch 4 as well, while redshirt freshman Clay Mounce is an underrated addition from an athleticism standpoint. Look for Jonathan Jean to have an increased role off the bench at the point and ultra athletic Tre Clark to see more minutes on the wing. Furman is deep, confident and experienced, and if Rafferty can provide a reasonable Acox impersonation, then Richey should complete what Medved started when he totally rebuilt this program.

2. Mercer– We know what Bob Hoffman can do when he brings a recruiting class to full term (ask any Duke fan in case you forgot), and this year Hoffman has five senior starters and experienced depth behind them. Hoffman’s motion offense starts with Ri’an Holland, who was phenomenal in his first season coming over from Wichita State. He was a devastating penetrator off the ball and posted a 118 ORtg despite high usage rates. Holland also displayed a plus jump shot to keep defenses from sagging off him. Holland’s life was made easy with Jordan Strawberry running the point, as his 125 ORtg and 44 percent shooting from 3 made it impossible for defenders to help off him against Holland. And he posted the league’s fourth-highest assist rate. 6-foot-8 Demetre Rivers is a headache on the wing at, but he has to improve his shooting and propensity to turn the ball over. He pairs with Stephon Jelks at the 3/4, with Jelks being the better defender and rebounder. Desmond Ringer returns at the 5 as one of the league’s better rebounders, and he’s a big reason why Mercer led the SoCon in both offensive and defensive rebounding rate. He also drew a ton of contact offensively in the paint. With a veteran squad in place, the Bears should continue to improve on Hoffman’s infamous pack line principled saggy defense. The goal of the scheme is to deny penetration at all costs, undercutting screens to induce jump shots and being closer to the rim to rebound from nearly all five positions. This team won’t be as good as the Langston Hall 2013-14 team that upset Duke, but they’ll certainly contend for a SoCon title.

3. ETSU– Steve Forbes is building a monster in Johnson City, and while the Bucs lose four starters from last year’s title team, he has reloaded the athleticism that allows his team to thrive in the open court and overwhelm teams defensively. Uber penetrator Desonta Bradford is the linchpin of the Bucs this year, and he’ll move over to the point. That’s bad news for smaller on-ball defenders, as Bradford’s 6-foot-4 physical frame makes him unstoppable when he wants to get to the tin. ETSU turned the ball over at an excessive rate last year, and Bradford’s already had turnover problems in the past while playing off the ball. That could be an issue to watch this year, and Forbes could turn to Texas Southern transfer Jalan McCloud if it gets out of hand. Bradford’s also the epitome of Forbes’ hard-nosed man-to-man defense that held opponents to 0.96 points per possession in SoCon play. That defense led the league in 2PT% defense, steal rate, block rate, and, naturally turnover rate – which spurred a lethal transition offense. Bradford has two deadly shooters to kick to off his penetration in Devontavious Payne and David Burrell. Both shot 40 percent from 3, while Burrell was one of Forbes’ most versatile defenders. Kanayo Obi-Rapu comes in from Longwood and gives Forbes yet another lethal shooter on the perimeter. Jermaine Long and Jason Williams round out the backcourt, and both are key cogs when Forbes needs to crank up the ball pressure. Forbes has some work to do to replace Tevin Glass’ offense and Hanner Perea’s defense in the frontcourt. JUCOs Jeromy Rodriguez and James Harrison will factor in immediately, and Forbes will take whatever he can get out of Peter Jurkin at this point. Freshmen Mladen Armus could give Forbes the stretch shooter he lacked last year, but he’ll have to defend to stay on the floor. Questions in the frontcourt and the fact that so many contending SoCon teams lost nothing personnel wise while ETSU lost four starters will likely keep the Bucs from a SoCon repeat, but with Forbes’ ability to maximize his roster’s athleticism, it wouldn’t be the most shocking development in mid-major basketball if ETSU ended up on top of the standings for a second straight year.

4. UNCG– Wes Miller’s squad loses two key pieces from a team that tied for the SoCon’s best record and was a rimmed-out 3 away from taking champ ETSU to OT in the SoCon tourney title game. But with James Dickey set to replace RJ White and Diante Baldwin’s production at the point able to be replicated by junior Demetrius Troy, the Spartans should once again be a contender in an extremely top-heavy SoCon. Starting in the backcourt, Troy might not be the same scorer as Baldwin, but he’s likely a more willing distributer – he did post the league’s fifth-highest assist rate in a reserve role last year. He’s also a plus perimeter shooter and an equally good on-ball defender as Baldwin in Miller’s newfound full-court pressure scheme. Troy’s transition to full-time PG is eased quite a bit by having Francis Alonso as his running mate. Alonso is one of the most efficient off guards in the country, posting an absurd 130 ORtg in SoCon play thanks to a lethal 52 percent shooting mark from 3 and getting to the stripe at the eighth-highest rate in the league (while hitting 87 percent of them). On the wing, Marvin Smith has to improve his efficiency if he’s going to continue to be a volume shooter. He’ll also have to be a more willing defensive rebounder at the 3, as the Spartans had some issues there last year. Jordy Kuiper returns at the 4 as a solid rebounder and a potential floor stretcher, but Dickey’s continued development at the 5 in White’s stead is probably the biggest key to UNCG’s season. Dickey posted insane conference rates on the glass (third in offensive rebounding rate, first defensively), defensively (third in block rate), and offensively (66 percent shooting at the rim in low usage). If Dickey makes the typical freshman to sophomore leap, Miller will have the best frontcourt player in the league. Depth wise, Kyrin Galloway had flashes of brilliance offensively and as a rim protector in limited/mop-up minutes, while mountainous Lloyd Burgess can camp out in the lane and soak up fouls when needed. The backcourt rotation will feature a cast of Malik Massey, Justin Jordan and Kylia Sykes as well as freshman Isaiah Miller. Whoever proves capable in Miller’s full-court press will probably see the most minutes. Speaking of that press, it’s not necessarily designed to generate turnovers (although that’s obviously a welcome byproduct), but rather to delay offenses from getting into their sets in the 30-second shot clock era. UNCG’s defense forced an 18-plus second APL, which is key in a league with transition-heavy teams like ETSU, The Citadel and Samford. If Dickey and Troy develop as expected, UNCG should keep pace in a deep SoCon.

5. Samford– The Bulldogs are yet another backcourt-oriented team that loses almost nothing from last season, and if Scott Padgett can figure out a defense for this team (he vacilated between pressing full court and using a pretty awful 3-2 zone), Samford could very well win the league. Offensively, Samford can be electric. They went to the free throw line more than any team in the SoCon, and although the slashing Bulldogs didn’t shoot the 3 often, they hit them at the best mark in the SoCon when they did. The engine for Padgett is Chris Cunningham on the ball, who posted the league’s third-highest assist rate. He was paired with Demetrius Denzel-Dyson off the ball, a volume shooter out of UMass who canned 47 percent of his triples and did a little bit of everything but defend. Cunningham and DDD formed arguably the best penetrate-and-kick duo in mid-major basketball. Sophomore Triston Chambers returns to his role as a lethal spot shooter, while fellow sophomore Josh Sharkey posted the league’s second-highest assist rate backing up Cunningham; he was also sixth nationally in steal rate, obviously the key to Padgett’s press. I raved about Sharkey’s quickness last year, and I stand by my statement that he was the quickest guard I saw in D1 last season. Padgett also added former four-star Alabama recruit Justin Coleman, who could give the Bulldogs the league’s most potent four-guard attack (and I haven’t even mentioned three-star freshman Kevion Nolan yet). The frontcourt is anchored by stretch 4 Alex Thompson, who hit 41 percent of his 3-pointers, and Wyatt Walker, a highly-efficient big around the rim as the "one in" in Padgett’s spread offense; he was an outstanding rebounder on both ends. There’s no doubting this team’s ability to score from every position on the floor, but Padgett has to find a way to shore up the defense. He has the players, led by Sharkey, to press – but in the halfcourt the wings/4 can’t defend in man, and zoning in a shooter’s league like the SoCon is asking for trouble.

6. Wofford– Mike Young is arguably the best coach in the SoCon, and his penchant for developing outstanding guards will have to be on full display this year if the Terriers are going to stay in the top half of the league. Young has to replace Eric Garcia at the point, and Garcia dominated possessions on the ball like Peyton Manning dominated snaps, making it hard for Young to groom an heir. The point guard duties will likely fall to sophomore Donovan Theme-Love. The good news is that he has Fletcher Magee running beside him, one of the best shooters in the country. Magee has fleshed out his offensive game as well, adding some penetration ability when teams overplay him off the screen. Freshmen Tray Hollowell and Storm Murphy could factor into the point guard mix as well, with Hollowell being a pure scorer and the most likely to evolve into the second coming of Karl Cochran. Nate Hoover returns as another sharpshooter in a prolific 3-point offense that helped the Terriers post a league-best 1.13 points per possession efficiency rating. Cam Jackson is arguably the most important Terrier this season. Young’s defensive scheme is elite in chasing shooters off the 3-point line, and Jackson is a very good natural defender on the back end for someone his size. Unfortunately, he can’t do it without fouling, and the Terriers were gashed at the rim when he couldn’t stay on the floor. To make matters worse, 6-foot-11 Matt Pegram fouls at even higher rate than Jackson. To make things even more frustrating, both are skilled offensively at the rim, and Jackson posted the league’s highest usage rate, as he’s an outstanding passer out of double teams, usually always finding the open shooter – and Wofford’s shooters are deadly. It’s absolutely imperative that Jackson find a way to stay on the floor. I’m not one to dismiss a Mike Young coached team, but questions at the point and Jackson’s proclivity to foul keep the Terriers out of true contention in a deeper than usual SoCon. Wofford opens a new gym this year, and playing in Spartanburg was never easy in the first place.

7. The Citadel– Duggar Baucom’s "Loot and Shoot" and "Embrace the Pace" philosophy should see some dividends in year three. The Bulldogs scored some big conference wins last year (over UTC and shockingly at Wofford), and with Preston Parks and Zane Najdawi back, The Citadel can’t be viewed as opportunity to pad your scoring average. Parks basically came out of nowhere to torch the nets in Baucom’s Loot and Shoot. Dating back to 2006-07 (when Baucom was at VMI), there have been just two seasons when a Baucom coached team didn’t finish top two in tempo, and those years they were fourth and ninth. Five times in that span, his teams averaged more than 80 possessions. Parks jacked up 216 3-pointers last year, and he had the highest shot rate and second-highest usage in the league. He also posted the eighth-highest assist rate and fourth-highest steal rate in the "loot" aspect. In Baucom’s offense, where the first available 3 is the best 3, Parks thrived. Najdawi emerged in the old DJ Covington role for Baucom as the trailer in transition and cleaning up any of the plethora of misses he could get his hands on. Najdawi does have the ability to shoot the 3, which is a bit of a wrinkle for the one big in Baucom’s system. He also led the team in block rate, but that’s generally of the chase down variety, as buckets inside are cheap and easy if you get past the first wave of pressure. Sophomore Kaelon Harris looked like he could emerge as a poor man’s Stan Okoye before an injury cut short his season. He’s an excellent rebounder with a jump shot at 6-foot-5. Quayson Williams, Frankie Johnson, Leandro Allende and Matt Frierson all return to the backcourt, and all figure to be significant factors in a system that requires a deep, deep bench (hence why Baucom thought the Loot and Shoot would be a perfect system for a military academy roster). Williams can play on or off the ball, Johnson would be a true PG anywhere else in the SoCon, Allende was a factor in the press as a freshman, and Frierson trails in transition as a 3-point specialist, shooting 153 times from deep compared to nine attempts inside the arc. Late qualifier Tariq Simmons is arguably the best recruit Baucom has ever had, and he should make an impact as a freshman in the backcourt. Derek Webster is the other freshman with the most likely immediate impact, as Baucom needs bodies in the frontcourt to spell Najdawi. The Loot and Shoot is always exciting, but this year The Citadel should actually be competitive in the greater SoCon landscape.

8. Chattanooga– The Mocs had one of the more wildly disappointing seasons in all of mid-major basketball last year, especially considering the preseason expectations. The Mocs season was derailed by first injuries and then substantial locker room issues (literally, as lockers were punched and hands were broken) involving infighting and feuding over National Anthem protests. Then Matt McCall left for UMass after Pat Kelsey spurned the Minutemen, and subsequently a talented recruiting class bolted as well. Then in June, the AD left unexpectedly. So that’s the situation Lamont Paris inherits in his first head coaching stop. Paris comes in as a Bo Ryan assistant, so expect to see some swing offense and stifling transition defense in Chattanooga this year. That’s a totally different style from the iso heavy offense and Billy Donovan matchup pressure defense from the Wade/McCall eras. Paris’ most intriguing returnee is Makinde London, a 6-foot-10 mobile big who can play on the perimeter when the swing offense inverts. London hasn’t quite lived up to the expectations of a four-star transfer from Xavier, but maybe a change in coaching perspective will help along with an increased role. Rodney Chatman is the other "known" player for Paris. He figures to slot in at the point after filling in for locker punching Greg Pryor. Nat Dixon is likely to play major minutes off the ball immediately as a "3 and D" guy. After that, I’m not sure Paris can even guess at this rotation at this point, so I certainly can’t. Of the freshmen, 6-foot-10 Justin Brown is the most "Wisconsin offense" ready of the group given his ability to shoot from the perimeter. The Mocs are going to play an entirely different style than last year, so the upside of Paris’ inexperienced roster is that he can mold them without preconceived notions on either side.

9. Western Carolina– Larry Hunter is one of the best spread motion and transition offense coaches in the country. He’s been teaching it for nearly 40 years, but last season the wheels fell off in Cullowhee when a rash of injuries forced underclassmen to learn the offense on the fly. Predictably, last year did not go well, and WCU failed to reach double-digit wins for the first time in Hunter’s 12 years as head coach of the Catamounts. This year Hunter will have a senior backcourt led by Deriece Parks (back from injury), Haboubacar Mutombo and Devin Peterson to run his motion. Parks returns some much-needed shooting potential, as the Mounts were absolutely horrific on the offensive end, posting 0.90 points per possession. Only three teams in the entire country were more inefficient offensively. Peterson returns on the ball, while Mutombo on the wing is the most skilled offensive player Hunter had last year (being the only player to even sniff 1.00 points per possession earns you that title). Marc Gosselin headlines the frontcourt along with Onno Steger and Adam Sledd. Gosselin and Sledd were both plus offensive rebounders, a staple of Hunter’s tenure at WCU, and an absolute necessity with how many misses the Mounts put up last year. Steger, meanwhile, can move to the wing with more depth, and he’s the best shooter on the roster and the lone bright spot from beyond the arc last year; he hit 46 percent in league play. Ashley Williams, another senior who battled injuries last year, has potential as a slasher on the wing. Of the freshmen, Memphis product Des Johnson is the future point guard, and he’ll see minutes spelling Peterson. WCU won’t bottom out like they did last year, and depth was created as a result of the last season’s injuries, but they’re still a few years away from being a factor in the SoCon race.

10. VMI– The goal for the third year of Dan Earl’s tenure at VMI should be double-digit wins and hovering around .500 in league play. A quick scan of the roster makes that seem like a distant objective. While QJ Peterson and Julian Eleby are gone, the "glass half full" approach for Earl is that he has a roster of his guys, instead of Duggar Baucom’s – which was built to play the infamous "Loot and Shoot." Earl’s basketball gestalt is as far from the Loot and Shoot as possible. He’s an Ed DeChellis guy and his brother is Brian Earl, former Princeton great and current Cornell head coach. That means his offensive scheme is influenced heavily by methodical motion and off-ball action. The Keydets will be led by a sophomore class that should see Keith Smith take over at the point and Garrett Gilkeson slot into the high post role. Will Miller will anchor the frontcourt along with senior Armani Branch. Alden Parham and Myles Lewis could be impact freshmen with their length and athleticism on the wing, while Jordan Ratliff is the best pure scorer of the incoming class; he could battle Smith to be the Keydets’ top scorer.

FINAL OUTLOOK: The SoCon race is going to be a fun one to track all season, as Furman, Mercer, ETSU, UNCG and Samford can all make legitimate cass to be the favorite. That means all five should see postseason play, and maybe even Wofford as well.

SOCON PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Devin Sibley, Furman

ALL SOCON FIRST TEAM:
Devin Sibley, Furman
Chris Cunningham, Samford
Ri’an Holland, Mercer
Jordan Strawberry, Mercer
Francis Alonso, UNCG

ALL SOCON SECOND TEAM:
Wyatt Walker, Samford
Cam Jackson, Wofford
Preston Parks, The Citadel
Desonta Bradford, ETSU
Daniel Fowler, Furman

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