ASHEVILLE, N.C. — After a 17-year hiatus, the Southern Conference tournament is returning to Asheville, N.C. With Davidson standing as the clear favorite, the tournament tips off Friday with four first-round games, including sixth-seeded Chattanooga’s nightcap against third-seeded Georgia Southern. Here’s what you need to know for the weekend ahead.
Location: U.S. Cellular Center (formerly Asheville Civic Center)
Dates: March 2 to March 5
Championship game: Monday, March 5 ~ 9 p.m. ~ ESPN2
Defending champion: Wofford
Friday, March 2
Game 1 - (4S) College of Charleston vs. (5N) Appalachian State, 11:30 a.m.
Game 2 - (3N) Western Carolina vs. (6S) The Citadel, 2:00 p.m.
Game 3 - (4N) Samford vs. (5S) Furman, 6:00 p.m.
Game 4 - (3S) Georgia Southern vs. (6N) Chattanooga, 8:30 p.m.
Saturday, March 3
(1N) UNCG vs. Game 1 winner, 12:00 p.m.
(2S) Wofford vs. Game 2 winner, 2:30 p.m.
(1S) Davidson vs. Game 3 winner, 6:00 p.m.
(2N) Elon vs. Game 4 winner, 8:30 p.m.
Sunday, March 4
Semifinal 1 - 6:00 p.m.
Semifinal 2 - 8:30 p.m.
Monday, March 5
Championship Game - 9:00 p.m.
The only SoCon team to claim as many conference tournament titles as UTC is Davidson. The top-seeded Wildcats are looking to pass the Mocs and earn their 11th title this year. The tournament’s top seed enters the weekend with a 16-2 league record. Behind co-players of the year Jake Cohen (media selection) and De’Mon Brooks (coaches’ selection) Davidson tore through the conference schedule with just four of its 16 wins coming by less than 10 points. The Wildcats’ only SoCon losses came at Samford and at College of Charleston. The highlight of the year, for both Davidson and the SoCon, was the Wildcats’ 80-74 win at Kansas — the same Kansas team now positioned to secure a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament — on Dec. 19. After riding an eight-game winning streak into late January, coach Bob McKillop’s team won seven of 10 to close the season but got roughed up at Belk Arena by Wichita State in a 17-point home loss during BracketBusters. Davidson could face Samford in its opening game if the Bulldogs get past Furman on Friday night.
Two-time SoCon tournament MVP Noah Dahlman is no longer the catalyst, but back-to-back defending champion Wofford is still the title holder. If the Terriers, the No. 2 seed out of the South Division, make a run to a third straight title, it will be behind their defense. After allowing just 61.8 points per game in league contests, coach Mike Young’s team finished 12-6 in the SoCon. Four straight league wins to end the year allowed Wofford to tie Georgia Southern for second place in the final week of the regular season. A tiebreaker, and the first-round bye that came with it, went to the Terriers. Wofford is led by Kevin Giltner (15.3 ppg) and Brad Loesing (14.6), a pair of coaches’ all-conference team members. The Terriers will face the winner of Western Carolina and The Citadel on Saturday.
Last week’s losses to Davidson and Charleston dampened an otherwise wildly successful campaign for Georgia Southern. The Eagles mounted the second-best single-season turnaround in the SoCon’s 91-year history. After a 1-17 finish in league play a year ago, former UTC assistant coach Charlton Young spearheaded a 12-6 about-face in his third year on the job. He did so by guiding GSU to a slew of close victories. Young’s team went 9-2 in SoCon games decided by eight points or less. The Eagles, a long and athletic team, defend the 3-point line well and create 7.5 steals per game. If Georgia Southern (UTC’s first-round opponent), can manage to win four games in four days, the Eagles will make their first NCAA tournament since 1992.
What about the Mocs?
Chattanooga is 25-12 all-time in first-round games and has the highest tournament winning percentage (52-24, 68.4 percent) of any SoCon team. None of that means anything after the Mocs’ harrowing season. A 5-13 league record landed coach John Shulman’s team in the North Division basement. UTC is simply happy to enter the tournament on a one-game winning streak after losing 11 of 12 games from Jan. 14 to Feb. 23. UTC lost both meetings with GSU, Friday night’s first-rebound opponent, and split the season series with Elon, Saturday’s would-be opponent.
Players to watch
Jake Cohen/De’Mon Brooks, Davidson: Both ranked among the league’s top 15 in scoring, rebounding and field-goal percentage. Both were given a player-of-the-year nod, Cohen by the media, Brooks by the coaches. The two best players of the SoCon’s best team combine to average 29.7 points and 12.5 rebounds per game.
Trevis Simpson, UNCG: Pouring in 18.2 ppg, Simpson became the first UNCG player to lead the league in scoring. He’s a big reason the once 2-14 Spartans ended up 12-18 overall and captured the North Division title with a 10-8 league mark.
Mike Groselle, The Citadel: The Bulldogs’ 6-8 junior center has posted 14 career double-doubles and nine career 20-point games. He ranked first in the SoCon in rebounding (9.7 rpg) and second in scoring (16.6 ppg).
Keaton Cole, Western Carolina: The senior entered the season with 88 career made 3-pointers. He sank 102 this year alone — 22 more than anyone else in the league — and managed to shoot 41.6 percent from deep while doing so.
Despite its 16-2 league record, Davidson has no chance of an NCAA bid without winning the tournament outright. A SoCon title will likely earn the Wildcats a 14 seed. Any other team to win the league crown will likely be a 15.
Davidson over Wofford for the SoCon title.