It was a high point for the SoCon. In 1997, the Chattanooga Mocs went to the Sweet Sixteen. Since then, the only time that the SoCon team has won an NCAA Tournament game is during that 2008 run by Davidson.
From 2002 until now (a span of thirteen seasons), Davidson went to the tournament six times. The Wildcats were the team that the nation took notice of, at least in basketball.
In 1997, the year the Mocs went to the Sweet Sixteen, the Cougars won a first round game in the NCAA Tournament as the champion of the old Trans America Atlantic Conference (now the Atlantic Sun). They advanced to the NCAA Tournament three times prior to joining the SoCon at the start of 1998-99 season. The Cougars promptly advanced to the NCAA Tournament in their first year. John Kresse was the coach of the Cougars.
Kresse finally hung it up in 2001, and the program fell into a bit of slide under Tom Herrion. When Bobby Cremins was hired as the head coach there in 2006, he brought instant credibility back to the Cougars. People had not forgotten their run in the mid-90s.
Three other teams have left the SoCon other than Davidson and College of Charleston since the end of last year. Georgia Southern and Appalachian State have been down in basketball and left for football reasons. Both brought some national names because of their football success, but neither was bringing much to the basketball arena. Appalachian State had had their moments, but none worth mentioning in recent years.
Elon was the most surprising team that left the SoCon. The Phoenix are a small private school, which does fit in with the SoCon, but they did not seem to ever fit in culturally. They were in the SoCon for eleven seasons and never advanced to the NCAA Tournament. They did advance to the CIT two years ago, and that was their only appearance in postseason play. They were a program on the rise. Their loss does hurt some, but the Phoenix were losing four senior starters and were due for a step back anyway.
That leaves the two major losses to this conference in the last two years is Davidson and College of Charleston.
The SoCon ranked #30 in RPI last year. Davidson and Elon were two of the teams that got a bye last year in the SoCon Tournament are both gone. The conference appears to be heading towards a steep decline.
The reasons for the decline are numerous, but one of them is the decline of other teams in the conference over the last decade or so.
With Davidson and College of Charleston as the major national brands, there was a team mysteriously missing that went on an NCAA Tournament run from the SoCon. That team was Chattanooga. The Mocs, despite going to the NCAA Tournament in 2005 and 2009, sunk into a slump under Henry Dickerson and John Shulman as the head coaches.
Another team won an NCAA Tournament game in the 90’s from the SoCon. That team was the East Tennessee State Buccaneers. They beat Arizona in the first round in 1992. The Bucs left the SoCon in 2005 and went to the Atlantic Sun.
Then, something strange happened when the SoCon announced the schools that were joining the conference. First of all, there are the VMI Keydets. VMI left the SoCon in 2003. Since that time, the military academy has not won any Big South titles. But they have developed a bit of a national brand. They score points in bunches and play pretty much the fastest basketball on the planet. VMI is a program that may not contend for SoCon titles, but they are a solid “depth provider.” Are they better than Appalachian State or Georgia Southern?
Also invited to rejoin the SoCon was the school that left in the 2005, those ETSU Buccaneers. The Bucs had some success in the Atlantic Sun, including two NCAA Tournament appearances, an NIT appearance and a CIT appearance last year. The Bucs are a solid program and could easily contend for SoCon titles immediately. This was one of the SoCon’s best programs during the 90s. More than likely, they are back on their way to rejoining that group.
The final team that is joining the SoCon is Mercer. The Bears came up with a shocking upset of Duke in the Round of 64 a year ago before falling to Tennessee in the Round of 32. Yes, that means that with Davidson leaving and Mercer joining, the SoCon has a more recent win in the NCAA Tournament now. Yes, the Bears lost a lot off of last year’s team. But this is a program clearly on the rise. This is a team that is going to find themselves contending for SoCon titles soon (possibly this year) and will be near the top every year.
In the meantime, while Davidson has been gathering all of the headlines in the SoCon, it has been the Wofford Terriers that has been the representative three times in the last five years. While Wofford has never won an NCAA Tournament game, they have played reasonably well in those games. They have done it with more than one group of players as well. The back-to-back appearances a few years ago were basically one great recruiting class. This year’s team returns almost everyone and is the favorite to win the SoCon again. All that is missing from Wofford’s resume is an NCAA Tournament win.
The Mocs program has been relatively average for most of the time since their 1997 NCAA Tournament run. Last year, Will Wade was hired from Shaka Smart’s staff at VCU. Wade turned the team into a contender almost immediately. Last year, the Mocs finished second in the regular season, before falling in the SoCon quarterfinals. The athletic department seems to be reinvesting in basketball again at Chattanooga, and they appear to be on the rise again. This is a school that can win relatively big at basketball. Wade is turning the program back around, something that the SoCon has not had in recent years.
Furman has Niko Medved as head coach and he seems to be making strides for the Paladins basketball program. They were way down, so they have a long way to go, but they seem to be slowly getting there. Western Carolina just graduated a large chunk of a group that went to two SoCon championship games, so they may struggle for the next year or two, but Larry Hunter has proven he will put together decent teams. UNCG has put their eggs in Wes Miller’s basket. The coach is young and learning and needs to get his team going in the right direction. They have been wildly inconsistent the last few years and need to keep things going in the right direction. Samford has had back-to-back Freshman of the Year in the SoCon, but both have left the program. The school is starting over with Scott Padgett and he needs to develop more cohesion in the program. The Citadel has been an absolute disaster in recent years. There does not seem to be a dedication to winning at basketball going on in Charleston.
To improve, the conference needs to become dedicated to scheduling winnable games against mid-major D1 competition. The recent trend of scheduling non-D1 teams and major conference powers and that’s just about it has to stop. Every team needs to win games against the mid-major D1 competition that they play. If they want to move up, they need to win consistently against the teams they are expected to be competing against. The universities need to invest in their basketball programs. The next couple of years are critical to whether this league becomes another SWAC or if they move back up into respectability.
On the whole, as was mentioned earlier, the SoCon was #30 last year. Yes, losing Davidson and Elon will hurt, but losing Georgia Southern and Appalachian State might actually help. The top of the conference features teams like Mercer, Wofford, Chattanooga and ETSU, all of which have the potential to be low to mid major basketball powers. The middle of the conference may be stronger than in years past with VMI, Furman, UNCG and Western Carolina all being decent teams. The bottom of the conference appears to be Samford and The Citadel and those teams will likely not be good.
The SoCon should have a better RPI this year on the whole. They are probably not going to return to the teens like they were just a few years ago, but to expect to get back to the mid-twenties is not too much to ask from the conference this year and in the next couple of years. Eventually, there may be a return to the teens, but that is too much to expect this year.