SoCon Tournament Preview: Four Legit Teams Have a Shot
© Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports
The SoCon tourney features four teams with 20+ wins in the field for the first time ever. With that kind of balance at the top, this could be one of the most exciting conference tournaments of the season. UNCG, Mercer, and Furman have combined to lose just four games in the month of February. And ETSU looked like the team to beat all season until a recent slide. There’s going to be some good basketball this weekend at US Cellular Center.
2018 SoCon Tournament Overview
All 10 Southern teams make the conference tournament, with the top six seeds receiving a bye. The entire tourney will be played over four days in Asheville, North Carolina. The first round tips off at 5 p.m ET today, with the Final being played on Monday night. You can stream all SoCon tournament games on WatchESPN.
I will first take an in-depth look at the three favorites to come through the SoCon bracket then finish up with a potential sleeper and R1 ATS predictions.
Who Should Win
UNC Greensboro +185
The Spartans came from behind to overtake ETSU for the SoCon’s top seed. With an aggressive style and a veteran core that fell short in last year’s title game to ETSU, UNCG is a dangerous team.
Only Portland State applies full court pressure more frequently than UNCG, as it blitzes teams with a 2-2-1 zone press that generated the country’s 25th highest turnover rate. The Spartans’ press is aided by long-armed James Dickey at the back end, who posted the league’s second highest block rate. Per hoop-math.com, UNCG allows the 23rd lowest FG% at the rim nationally. With an aggressive, trapping full court press and a dominant rim presence, it’s excessively difficult to find points against the Spartans, who allowed just .95 points per possession (ppp) in SoCon play. Additionally, only Cincinnati is more efficient in transition defense than UNCG.
Offensively, UNCG runs a secondary break offense that segues into ball screen motion if a quality look isn’t immediately available. UNCG’s halfcourt offense is predicated on multiple stagger screens to free up sharp-shooting Francis Alonso (pictured above), who scores 1.3 ppp off screens, per Synergy. Freshman ball hawk Isaiah Miller leads the SoCon in steal rate, but he’s added a new dimension to the UNCG offense of late with his ability to break defenses down off the dribble. The Spartans are also dominant on the boards, leading the league in offensive rebounding rate and posting the second best rate on the defensive end. With the ability to grab putbacks and generate turnovers, UNCG can survive poor shooting nights with the extra possessions it creates.
If Not UNCG, Then…
The Bucs are an increasingly difficult team to gauge at the moment. ETSU jumped out to a 13-0 SoCon start, but faded badly down the stretch. The Bucs have dropped four of their last five, losing the SoCon regular season title in the process. That said, with some extra rest and prep for Steve Forbes, the defending champs can’t be overlooked.
Offensively, ETSU prefers to attack the paint whenever possible, as it attempts shots at the rim at the 54th highest rate nationally. The Bucs are a capable three point shooting team (38% in league play), but are most efficient when spreading the floor in transition and attacking off the dribble with Desonta Bradford, Bo Hodges, and Jalan McCloud.
Forbes models his aggressive hard hedging pick and roll defense after Gregg Marshall’s at Wichita State, where he previously served as an assistant. The Bucs are long and versatile on the perimeter, led by Bradford and Jermaine Long, which allows them to switch on almost all screens 1-4. However, ETSU’s late season swoon was characterized by poor defense. It registered three of its four worst defensive efficiency outings in SoCon play during the final two weeks of the season. In ETSU’s last four losses, opponents shot 45% from 3. That’s maybe bad luck (or perhaps regression), as the Bucs only allowed teams to shoot 33% from deep in SoCon play. Although offenses also shot 51% from 2 in that span, and ETSU only allowed 44% shooting for the season. Can the Bucs flip the switch in Asheville?
ETSU will face the winner of No. 7 seed Samford and No. 10 seed Chattanooga. The Bucs handled both with ease in all four meetings. Samford was one of the more disappointing mid-majors this season. The Bulldogs had high expectations, as they returned the 18th most experienced team in the country. Head coach Scott Padgett also added former Alabama point guard Justin Coleman, who has played brilliantly. Coleman actually leads the league in assist rate.
While injuries to Chris Cunningham and Wyatt Walker early in the year hurt, Samford’s defense has been disastrous. Samford allows 1.20 ppp, which is the third worst mark in the country. Padgett wants to press and then go zone in the halfcourt (similar to Steve Masiello’s defense at Manhattan, which makes sense given both coach’s ties to Rick Pitino). Unfortunately, the Bulldogs struggle at both. With Coleman at the point and volume shooter Demetrius Denzel-Dyson on the wing, Samford can still put a scare into teams offensively.
Chattanooga meanwhile suffered through a predictably down year in head coach Lamont Paris’ first season. Paris comes from the Bo Ryan school, and attempted to implement elements of the swing offense, which doesn’t happen overnight. Chattanooga tallied only three league wins, but one came against Samford and it also beat top seed UNCG in double OT. Nat Dixon has shown signs of being a pure off-ball scorer, and 6’10 Makinde London’s length/mobility combo makes him a matchup headache in the league. However, point guard Rodney Chatman is still a game time decision with an ankle sprain.
Next in Line
No. 3 seed Furman and No. 4 seed Mercer are the league’s hottest teams, having won a combined 14 consecutive games. Furman ran the league’s most efficient offense at 1.14 ppp. The Paladins run a well oiled 4 out cut and fill motion offense with three absolutely lethal shooters in Andy Brown, John Davis, and Daniel Fowler. Senior Dev Sibley accepted a late season role switch to 6th man, and Furman hasn’t lost a game since.
However, Furman is vulnerable at the rim, as Matt Rafferty is the only effective height on the roster. Even with Rafferty, he’s more of a high post threat, not a banger inside. The good news for the Paladins is that no one in their half of the bracket has strong post play. Quarterfinal opponent No. 6 seed Western Carolina doesn’t pose much of a threat to the Dins. WCU runs a spread motion offense as well, which Furman is well familiar with. While the Catamounts generated the highest defensive turnover rate in the league, it hardly mattered against a Furman offense with three ball handlers on the floor at all times. Furman scored 1.24 ppp in a season sweep of WCU.
Mercer finally looked like one of the nation’s oldest teams by ending the season on an 8-game winning streak. The Bears started five seniors until leading scorer Ria’n Holland broke his wrist, but sophomore wing Ross Cummings has been spectacular. He has seemingly come from the depths of Bob Hoffman’s bench to revitalize the Mercer offense. Cummings has shot 46% from deep in SoCon play in Hoffman’s ball screen motion offense. That in turn allows PG Jordan Strawberry to return to a primary facilitator role in Holland’s absence. (Holland could return off the bench in Asheville).
Mercer has been on fire offensively during this winning streak, but Hoffman’s underscreening man to man and 3-2 zone can still get bombed from the outside. And No. 5 seed Wofford is certainly capable from the perimeter, thanks to the country’s best pure shooter in Fletcher Magee. Mercer swept the Terriers, but Magee shot just 6-22 from 3 in the two games. Despite Mercer’s compact defense, it had a hard time keeping Cam Jackson off the block. He was 8-9 from the floor in a one point loss to close the regular season. If they survive against Wofford, the Bears were the only team to defeat top seed UNCG in the February. They actually nearly swept the Spartans, as they lost in OT in Greensboro in the first meeting.
Most Intriguing Matchup
What better way to kick off the tournament than with a bitter rivalry game between No. 8 seed The Citadel and No. 9 seed VMI? VMI swept the regular season series, exacting some revenge on former coach Duggar Baucom, but The Citadel is one of the league’s most volatile teams. Baucom has actually backed off some from the infamous “Loot and Shoot” defense. The Bulldogs have effectively slowed down a few ticks with junk zones rather than constant full court pressure. VMI only defeated two league teams this season (sweeping The Citadel and Chattanooga), but freshman guard Bubba Parham carved up the Bulldogs in both meetings, whether it was against the Loot and Shoot or a zone defense. The Citadel meanwhile boasts wins against Furman, ETSU, Mercer, and Wofford.
Friday ATS Predictions
The Citadel -4 (top ATS pick)
UNCG over Furman
Photo credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports