After three thrilling games Monday night, Thursday has a lot to live up to.
It appears that five teams have separated themselves in the SoCon race for now. According to Pomeroy, five teams will finish with a winning conference record, and one team with seven conference wins will wind up with the sixth seed. Those five teams are Wofford, ETSU, Chattanooga, Mercer and Western Carolina.
On this day, four of the top five teams will battle each other in key early season match-ups. The only two teams with three SoCon wins will play each other in Johnson City. Two teams chasing the leaders early will square off in Chattanooga. Two teams that were expected to be the two worst in the conference but find themselves with some early momentum hook up in Charleston, the conference favorite plays the fastest paced offense in the league in Spartanburg. Finally, the two teams with the most upset fan bases will match up in Greenville.
All in all, it should be another fun day of SoCon basketball on Thursday evening. Let's get to the full previews.
Game of the Day- Mercer at ETSU
What It Means: Mercer is at 3-0 in SoCon play and would love to get a win in Johnson City against one of their main competitors for the conference title. The Bears have the league's best defense and will be pressed hard by the Bucs offense. ETSU, on the other hand, will be trying to come up with a high quality home win and get themselves right back into the SoCon race. That home loss to UNCG will just be a distant memory if the Bucs can win this one and at home against Chattanooga on Saturday. This game figures to be quite the showdown.
Match-up: There are 351 teams in Division 1 basketball. Per Pomeroy, ETSU ranks 349th in Effective Height. Mercer is the second biggest team in the SoCon. That height mismatch could make this intriguing. ETSU has proven that they can win without Ron Giplaye, but of their five players that played the most minutes on Monday night, none are over 6-4. Jalen Riley and Rashawn Rembert are two of the best guards in the league. Can anyone stop them? If anyone can, it is probably this Bears defense, which is the best in the league, in my opinion. Ike Nwamu is great, but T.J. Hallice may be the most important one in this game. At 6-10, he is a very difficult match-up for the Bucs. How will they control Hallice? What about Darious Moten, who is also bigger than any of the Bucs five highest minute players.
Prediction: Look- it's always hard for ETSU because they are at a size disadvantage. After all, they lost at home against UNCG (who has been terrible), who is the biggest team in the SoCon. Can the Bucs make up for the lack of size? It's going to be very difficult to predict the Bucs because you just never know when the size disadvantage is going to catch up with them. Mercer has been very good, and presents a match-up problem to the Bucs. Still, at home, in Johnson City, the Bucs are the very slight favorite to beat the Bears. ETSU 73, Mercer 70.
Western Carolina at Chattanooga
What It Means: The Catamounts have won two SoCon games in January, and are now 2-1, while the Mocs come in fresh off a home loss to Wofford and at 2-1. The Catamounts could not miss against Furman on Monday night, but were swept last year by Chattanooga, and are just 3-35 in Chattanooga against the Mocs all-time. The Mocs sit at a critical junction, a loss here could easily spiral into a loss at ETSU, and suddenly the Mocs would be just 2-3 in conference play. This game matters a lot to both teams. With five quality teams in the conference, there is an advantage to not getting the four or five seed because those teams will likely have to beat three of the top five to win the SoCon Tournament, whereas the top three would not. This game may be an important piece to the puzzle of getting into the seed position these teams want to be in.
Match-up: It has become increasingly clear that any team that plays the Mocs will have to come up with a way to deal with Justin Tuoyo. What will Western Carolina do with him? Torrion Brummitt will have his hands full, but Brummitt has done well enough so far this year. The Mocs just let Karl Cochran go off on Monday night...at roughly the same time the Catamounts were wrapping up a game where they shot over 60% for much of it. Can the Mocs defense hold Western Carolina in check on the offensive end of the floor? When Western Carolina is that hot, they are incredibly difficult to beat. James Sinclair is an excellent player, but Rhett Harrelson is one of the better pure shooters in the SoCon.
Prediction: The Catamounts will certainly try to shoot over and around the Mocs. These two teams rank first and second in the SoCon in OR% in conference games, so getting on the defensive glass will be critical to both teams. Yes, Casey Jones is very good for the Mocs, but in the end, it will be that the Catamounts won't be able to slow down Tuoyo that will be the difference. Chattanooga 75, Western Carolina 68.
Samford at The Citadel
What It Means: Who would have thought a week ago that we would be talking about the intriguing importance of this one? Samford is 0-4 in SoCon play, but after losing by a total of five points to Wofford and ETSU (teams that are a combined 5-1 in SoCon play), there is some real positive momentum going for the Bulldogs from Alabama. The Citadel finally won a road game again on Monday, when they won at UNCG. Now they sit at 1-2 in SoCon play. The winner of this game keeps the positive momentum going. If The Citadel wins, they will really be in position to make a run at the final bye spot. If Samford wins, they will be able to keep their hopes alive for that kind of run. A loss here would make it incredibly difficult for Samford to get there.
Match-up: The Citadel's inside play of PJ Horgan and CJ Bray is tough for everyone. Samford will have a hard time matching up with them inside. That being said, Michael Bradley and Tyler Hood are solid contributors in the paint. This will be an interesting match-up between the two teams. Ashton Moore went off on Monday night for the Bulldogs. Derius Jones-Gibson and Christen Cunningham will try to match Moore's production. The Citadel has been the worst defensive team in the league so far, per Pomeroy, while Samford has been the second worst offense. Something has to give. The Citadel commits turnovers at the highest rate in the league, which may be a problem against Samford's full court defense, though Samford is 9th in the league in forcing turnovers.
Prediction: This is a decent game between two teams that are actually better than almost anyone thought they were a week ago. It is also a critical game for both teams as they search to see if they can get a bye. Can Samford turn their close losses into a win to gain momentum? Can The Citadel build off their positive momentum and come up with a second straight win and get to .500 in SoCon play? I think Samford is probably the better team on the whole. They have just a touch more overall depth. Coming home from an emotional win, though, The Citadel finds a way to eek one out. The Citadel 69, Samford 67.
VMI at Wofford
What It Means: The Keydets are now 1-3 in SoCon play and desperately need something good to start happening to them. They are in real trouble for this early in conference play for getting the final bye spot. They are still considered by most to be the likely favorite for the final spot. A win at Wofford would certainly cement them into that position. Wofford remains unbeaten in SoCon play after coming back from fourteen down in the second half at Chattanooga on Monday night, and remain in decent position to make a real run at an at large bid to the NCAA Tournament. Their RPI sits at 23 per RPIForecast.com. They can not afford to slip up at home against a team like VMI if they want to keep those slim hopes alive.
Match-up: VMI's plan? Same as always. Get up and down the floor, shoot a ton of threes and hope they fall. They have not been falling lately, as VMI is shooting a league worst 30.9% from three point range. That is why they find themselves in this 1-3 SoCon hole. Wofford's defense is very good, holding opponents to the second best three point defense in the league at 33.3%. The Keydets will have to hope that Karl Cochran is not as blazing hot as he was against Chattanooga in the second half. If he is, this thing might as well be over before it starts. VMI is not a big team either, which means this is the sort of game that Lee Skinner can go off in.
Prediction: The only question is really if Wofford will be able to come down from the emotions of coming back and winning at Chattanooga on Monday night in dramatic fashion. Their last dramatic win was at North Carolina State, and the Terriers came out cold against Charleston Southern in their next game. VMI will have to be making shots. If this is the game where the Keydets get hot shooting, there may not be much the Terriers can do. That seems pretty unlikely at this point. Wofford 92, VMI 77.
UNCG at Furman
What It Means: Thesse two teams have been really struggling as of late. No two teams looked worse on Monday night. The Spartans may thrive away from their home arena, where the home fans may be starting to turn on them. Can this team come together and unite and play their best game in a while? They are just 1-2 in SoCon play, so they are not out of it yet, by any means. Furman is also 1-2 in SoCon play, but has looked bad in their two January SoCon games. The winner of this game gets themselves back into the bye race, while the loser is left with a ton of questions that need answering. No game will have a bigger impact on their fan bases than this one.
Match-up: Two fan bases are mad. However, one of these two teams will be at .500 on Thursday night. Who handles the emotions of the bad Saturday/Monday performances better? That will be a huge key in this one. Of course, the Spartans defense has been atrocious, giving up way too many open threes. Stephen Croone is made to capitalize on that type of defense. He was awful against Western Carolina. He should be able to score against UNCG. Can the Spartans Diante Baldwin and Tevon Saddler keep him in check and answer on the offensive end? Furman has Kendrec Ferrara and Kris Acox inside, while UNCG has Kayel Locke, Ben Dickinson and RJ White. The Paladins inside guys have struggled when playing other big men at times. They will need to hold their own in this one.
Prediction: It is hard to imagine two teams coming in feeling worse about themselves. UNCG is a mystery team, and always has been under Wes Miller. They are wildly inconsistent. Do they show up in this one? Maybe. Still, it is hard to imagine a worse individual match-up for them than Stephen Croone (although Karl Cochran or Stephen Collins for Wofford may come close). If Ashton Moore can score 28, how many will Croone put on them? In front of their home crowd, Furman rallies to get an important win and get to .500 in the SoCon. Furman 81, UNCG 76.