For this early in the season, Saturday has some really intriguing conference games this afternoon. After all, with the way The Citadel is playing and Western Carolina and Furman all tied at 2-2 in SoCon action, Saturday's games will go a long way to starting to narrow down the field a bit. VMI and Western Carolina are the popular choices to receive those last two byes, but the Keydets are just 1-4 in SoCon play and really need to come up with a win.
That means that with Furman hosting VMI we have one absolutely critical game for both squads. It means that The Citadel has a chance to make some real noise by going into Mercer and shocking the Bears. It means that Western Carolina is in a virtual must win against a team they should beat at home in UNCG. On top of that, Wofford plays Samford for the second time in a week, and Chattanooga goes to ETSU in a rivalry renewal that will start to sort out the top of the conference.
All in all, January games don't always mean the most, and I'm sure most of these games will be mostly forgotten by the end of the year. But the standings are being defined and refined at this point. This set of games will continue to help separating the teams and figuring out where teams fit in the conference race.
Game of the Day- Chattanooga at ETSU (4:00)
What Does It Mean: The Mocs and the Bucs renew an old SoCon rivalry that really matters. The Mocs are 3-1 in SoCon play while ETSU is 4-1. A win for Chattanooga would be a huge road win that would establish itself as the second best SoCon team behind Wofford. A win for ETSU would give them an early league up on Mercer and Chattanooga for the second seed in the SoCon team, since they would have beaten both in consecutive games on their home floor. This rivalry has always been intense and meant something. It's about to get nasty again.
Match-up: It is a question for every SoCon team- how are they going to match up with Justin Tuoyo and keep him from blocking nine shots and scoring in double digits? It may be a bigger question for the Bucs. They are such a small team, they could really struggle with Tuoyo's size. Then again, the Bucs outrebounded a much bigger Mercer team on Thursday. They may be able to do it again. It is very difficult to guard Rashawn Rembert and Jalen Riley- the best guard combo in the SoCon. The Mocs will be without Greg Pryor again, creating more problems at guard for the Mocs. Casey Jones may need to have a huge game for the Mocs to come up with the road upset.
Prediction: The Mocs have the advantage in size. How much can they take advantage of that? The Bucs can get so red hot shooting from outside. It may be a reminder to the Mocs of how Karl Cochran went off on Monday night. Riley may go off in that way. In Johnson City, the Bucs guard advantage (with Pryor out) will be the major difference. ETSU will come up with a close hard fought, relatively high scoring win. Bucs 78, Mocs 74.
The Citadel at Mercer (4:00, ESPN3)
What Does It Mean: The Bulldogs are 2-2 in the SoCon and have won back-to-back games. A third win would be a huge statement to the rest of the SoCon. They would become the next big thing and would be tied with Mercer in the SoCon standings. That would clearly turn the whole SoCon upside down. For Mercer, after the really tough loss at ETSU on Thursday, the Bears need to bounce back emotionally against the hot Bulldogs. The Bears have their next three at home and now it is time for them to go on a winning streak and firmly establish themselves as one of the top seeds in the conference.
Match-up: The team that I think is the best defensive team in the league (Mercer) squares up against the team I think is the second worst defense in the league (The Citadel). Yikes. That's not a good match-up. But both teams are going to slow things down, creating a low scoring atmosphere will neither team will be able to pull away. Ashton Moore has been hot lately and PJ Horgan has been a tough match-up as well. The Bears have been getting more production from Darious Moten lately, and Ike Nwamu has not been playing as well. That's surprising, because Nwamu is truly a special talent.
Prediction: This is a nice run by The Citadel and maybe the Bulldogs can win a second straight SoCon road game and third straight SoCon game overall. But the Bears are the better team. It's hard to imagine the Bulldogs scoring a lot of points. They just aren't equipped for that against a defense like Mercer's. The Bears offense is not tremendous, but they are good enough to score some against The Citadel. If this game was in Charleston with the current momentum, I might pick the Bulldogs. But it's impossible to pick against the Bears at home. Bears 60, Bulldogs 49.
VMI at Furman (4:00)
What Does It Mean: If VMI wants to get the final bye, now would be a good time to win a big road game. The Keydets are 1-4 in the SoCon and Furman is 2-2, so a loss here would be more than just a loss for VMI- it would put them behind the Paladins even further. VMI has three road games in the next four, before five straight at home. The Keydets will need to steal a road game or two during this swing in order to keep them in contact for the final bye. If the Paladins somehow came up with a win in this one, they would have a winning conference record and be in position to really make a run at one of the bye spots. With three straight road games coming up, this is a huge contest for Furman. The Paladins are in a really interesting position in this one. It's a meaningful game in Greenville in conference play. Yes, it's early, but that's a nice change.
Match-up: The Keydets went 1-7 in their last eight games. They can score, but they have plenty of problems shooting. QJ Peterson is shooting 35% from the field and 28.8% from three point range on the season. The Keydets absolutely have to shoot better than that to win. The Paladins defense let Western Carolina go off against them on Monday. But this time the Paladins will be in front of their home crowd. Kendrec Ferrara and Stephen Croone combined for just ten points against UNCG on Thursday. More than likely they will need to do more than that this time around. Croone should have a lot of good shots against this VMI defense.
Prediction: The Keydets up and down offense will give Furman problems. The Paladins are not a great offensive club, but will find ways to score against VMI. Ferrara and Kris Acox will be very important players, and Croone will score plenty. This is a very tight game and really a toss up. That being said, I think the Keydets will give them too many problems and will hold on for a tight win in a huge game for VMI. Peterson has his best game in weeks. Keydets 91, Paladins 88.
UNCG at Western Carolina (4:30, ESPN3)
What Does It Mean: The Spartans are 1-3 in the SoCon and may have lost Tevon Saddler for a substantial amount of time. But a win here undoes a lot of the team's ills. They have lost three straight and really looked bad doing it. However, Western Carolina is just 2-2, and a win by the Spartans would get these two teams tied at 2-3 in the SoCon. The Spartans need to win at least two of their next three (at Western, VMI, at Samford) to keep contact in the bye race. Western Carolina is 2-2, but the losses are at ETSU and at Chattanooga. That is hardly an embarrassing couple of losses. This team can contend for a spot in the upper crust of the SoCon. After this one, the Catamounts get games at home against Mercer and ETSU and at Wofford, so a win here sets them up heading into their huge three game stretch.
Match-up: Torrion Brummitt is averaging 11.4 points per game and 6.4 rebounds per contest. His performance against Kayel Locke and RJ White in the paint may be the difference in this one. The Spartans need Locke and White to step up, but Brummitt has been a solid inside presence. I also enjoy watching Justin Browning play basketball, even though he doesn't do a lot of flashy things. This may be one of the games where he can score. For the Spartans, if Saddler is out, Diante Baldwin will take on even more importance. His play at point guard will become the most important thing to watch from game to game.
Prediction: These teams are separated by one game in the standings, but a world in actual performance. Rhett Harrelson and James Sinclair will score points. Remember how the Catamounts couldn't miss against Furman at home on Monday and followed that up with a poor shooting performance against Chattanooga? Now they are at home against one of the worst defensive teams in the country. They will shoot lights out and win relatively easily. Catamounts 82, Spartans 71.
Samford at Wofford (7:00)
What Does It Mean: The Bulldogs are 0-5 in the SoCon, but they are better than that really. They have been close at home against ETSU and Wofford and deserve plenty of credit for that. But losing at The Citadel really puts them in a bind. Yes, the Bulldogs probably are not going to win this one, thus putting them into an even bigger hole for the bye. But the reality is that 8-10 will probably get the bid. A win here would give them another game to play with later, and they played Wofford close just a week ago. The Terriers have played three SoCon games and won by a total of twelve points. That's hardly as impressive as you would expect from a team that people think will roll through conference play. The near home loss to VMI on Thursday was not inspiring. It's time for Wofford to come out and show what they are capable of.
Match-up: Samford really needs to get some production out of Tyler Hood. Hood scored zero against the Terriers just a week ago. He will need to do much better. He has to step up his game to match Christen Cunningham and Darius Jones-Gibson as a third scorer. If he does not step up, the Bulldogs are in big trouble. The Terriers need Lee Skinner to step it up a notch. He scored just three points a week ago. There is no reason Skinner can't have a really solid game against Samford. Which team's player will perform better than a week? That may be the deciding factor in this one.
Prediction: The Terriers are due for a breakout game...but I said that Thursday. Wofford will make it ugly, but in the end, does anyone really think that Samford is going to walk into BenJo and come out with the win? It's hard to see. Skinner gets a double-double, and Cochran scores about 15. It will be ugly, and Wofford will win. Terriers 71, Bulldogs 58.