Mercer and East Tennessee State of the Atlantic Sun Conference as well as the Big South's VMI will replace the departing schools in the SoCon next season.
There is a very strong chance that one of the schools in their Southern swan song will take home the crown this season. The Phoenix have an excellent shot at dethroning Davidson with five starters returning from the squad that won the SoCon North last season. Elon's only previous first place finish within its division came in the 2005-06 season and it has not won the SoCon tourney once since joining the league in 2003. The Wildcats have been a powerhouse in recent history and won their fifth tournament championship since Elon's entrance last season, but they will miss three of the starters that helped them earn 26 total wins before falling to Marquette by just one-point in the NCAA Tournament.
While the only two programs that finished last season with winning records have their sights set on a trip to the NCAA Tournament, Appalachian State, Western Carolina and Samford will all try to rise from the middle of the pack to replace the vacant spot in the upper echelon that the Cougars occupied in 2012-13. The Mountaineers exceeded expectations last season despite starting four underclassmen, but need to improve on the defensive end if they hope to take the next step.
The next group is not too far behind as Chattanooga, Wofford and Georgia Southern are all going to be tough outs in conference action. Chattanooga is entering its first season under coach Will Wade, who was the top assistant under Shaka Smart at Virginia Commonwealth for the past four years. Georgia Southern was the only SoCon school to notch a win over Davidson in 2012-13, but its inconsistency on the offensive end prevented it from stringing together a meaningful winning streak.
UNC Greensboro, The Citadel and Furman round out the conference. The Paladins are beginning a new era under former Colorado State assistant Niko Medved, who will have a tough task rebuilding the program that finished last in the league in scoring margin a season ago.
CONFERENCE CHAMPION: Elon
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. Elon, 2. Davidson, 3. Appalachian State, 4. Western Carolina, 5. Samford, 6. Chattanooga, 7. Wofford, 8. Georgia Southern, 9. UNC Greensboro, 10. The Citadel, 11. Furman
TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:
ELON: Matt Matheny enters his fifth season at the helm of the program with a 59-68 career record after guiding the Phoenix to a 21-10 finish, which gave them the third-most total wins in the SoCon. The former Davidson player and assistant coach endured losing seasons in his previous three years. Elon's fourth campaign under Matheny ended with a first round loss to Canisius in the CIT, which marked its fourth loss in six games. The Phoenix were nearly unstoppable after they fell to 1-2 in conference play and won 12 of their next 13 games en route to the divisional title. First-team all-conference forward Lucas Troutman (15.1 ppg, 5.2 rpg) has proven himself as a finisher in the post and is one of the leading candidates to win the SoCon Player of the Year. Although Troutman is often a matchup problem for the opposition, the 6-foot-7 Ryley Beaumont (11.8 ppg, 7.1 rpg) makes it challenging to provide help from the opposite forward position. The 6-8 Sebastian Koch (9.6 ppg) gives the Phoenix a third big man with some scoring ability. Elon's backcourt has a couple of guards who can fill it up from beyond the arc to keep the defense honest. Senior Jack Isenbarger (13.2 ppg) will be instrumental for Matheny as he tries to dethrone his alma mater.
DAVIDSON: Bob McKillop led the Wildcats to the NCAA Tournament for the sixth time in history and second year in a row in 2012-13 as they coasted to a 19- point victory over Charleston in the conference title game. Davidson came up just short of an upset of the third-seeded Marquette in the second round of the Big Dance, falling 59-58 to Buzz Williams and the Golden Eagles in a defensive battle. The Wildcats have been a force over the past two seasons with a 33-3 league record not including their six consecutive SoCon Tournament victories. They will have trouble maintaining their high standard of success after losing last year's SoCon Player of the Year, Jake Cohen, along with fellow starters Nik Cochran and J.P. Kuhlman. However, McKillop still has a pair of proven assets in De'Mon Brooks (13.7 ppg, 6.2 rpg) and Chris Czerapowicz (9.1 ppg, 5.0 rpg) to spearhead the quest for a third consecutive NCAA Tournament berth. Much of the Wildcats' success last season came courtesy of their excellence on the offensive end of the floor that helped them lead the conference in scoring (73.7 ppg), field goal percentage (46.3) and 3-point field goal percentage (36.9). Junior guard Tyler Kalinoski should help DC after finishing second on the squad in makes from beyond the arc off the bench en route to 7.1 ppg. Miami-Ohio transfer Brian Sullivan is a key addition having been named to the All-MAC Freshman Team in 2011-12.
APPALACHIAN STATE: The Mountaineers nearly finished with a winning record after a disappointing 1-7 start with the only victory during that stretch coming over Montreat College of the NAIA. They finally climbed back to the .500 mark with a 14-point decision over Furman in the first round of the conference tourney, but finished 15-16 after a 65-62 loss to Davidson in the semifinals. The Mountaineers had no problem offensively and finished third in the league in scoring with 71.3 ppg, but allowed 71.6 ppg on the defensive end of the floor. Coach Jason Capel returns four starters but will certainly miss SoCon Defensive Player of the Year Nathan Healy on the interior. The 6-8 Michael Obacha has potential to fill that role after serving as a steady contributor and leading the team in assists with 113. Junior forward Jay Canty (14.3 ppg, 6.2 rpg) has potential to earn a spot on the all-conference team after an impressive campaign last season, which was his first since transferring to Appalachian State from Xavier. The backcourt has plenty of depth with Mike Neal (8.8 ppg), Tab Hamilton (9.2 ppg) and the 5-8 Chris Burgess all back in the fold, who will all be instrumental for the Mountaineers if they are going to make their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2000.
WESTERN CAROLINA: Larry Hunter has plenty of experience to work with as he enters his ninth season as the Catamounts' coach with all five starters returning, including SoCon Player of the Year candidate Trey Sumler, who finished second in the conference in scoring last season at 18.4 ppg. WCU was the only team that managed to knock off Davidson, but still ended the campaign with a 14-19 overall record that included a 9-9 performance versus league foes. The Catamounts were not stellar defensively as they surrendered just under 70 ppg, however they did lead the league in steals with 7.6 per outing. Sumler has plenty of talent surrounding him as forward Tawaski King (11.0 ppg, 6.3 rpg) and swingman Brandon Boggs (10.3 ppg, 3.6 rpg) both ended their junior seasons with double-digit scoring averages. Tom Tankelewicz (9.7 ppg) and James Sinclair (7.4 ppg) round out the three-man backcourt. Incoming freshman Haboubacar Mutombo, who is the nephew of former NBA star Dikembe Mutombo and the brother of four-year WCU starter Harouna, is expected to make an impact as well.
SAMFORD: Although the Bulldogs went 11-21, nine of their losses came by four points or fewer. Coach Bernie Seltzer enters his second year with the program after electing to start four underclassmen in his debut campaign, which should pay off this year. Samford's tally of only 11 wins was partially due to its tremendously difficult non-conference schedule that included the likes of Louisville, Memphis, Florida Gulf Coast, Kentucky and Wisconsin. It did end the regular season with a 9-9 mark versus league foes after falling losing three of its final four games by a combined total of six points. Reigning SoCon Freshman of the Year Tim Williams (14.1 ppg, 7.1 rpg) will try to build upon his promising rookie campaign, during which he converted 54.4 percent of his field goal tries. He is joined by second-team all-conference selection Raijon Kelly (14.1 ppg, 4.7 apg), who is one of the most versatile players in the SoCon. The Bulldogs added a pair of centers in Emeka Ikezu (6-9) and Michael Bradley (6-10) to help prevent them from finishing last in the conference in rebounding for a second year in a row.
CHATTANOOGA: After eight consecutive losing seasons under John Shulman, Chattanooga's administration decided to part ways with the head coach in favor of Wade, who is expected to integrate VCU's energetic and chaotic approach to defense with him to Tennessee. Although he inherited a team that went 13-19 overall and 8-10 in league play last season, Wade may be able to propel the Mocs to the top of the conference immediately with four starters returning. He has a very talented forward in senior Z. Mason, who posted 14.9 points and 7.6 rebounds per contest to lead the team. Sophomore guards Gee McGhee (12.1 ppg) and Casey Jones (5.3 ppg) along with the 6-3 junior Ronrico White (10.2 ppg) will all play keys roles. VCU was well known for its defense and 3-point shooting during Wade's tenure as an assistant, but encouraging Chattanooga's backcourt to hoist up heaps of attempts from beyond the arc may not be a wise decision considering the Mocs finished last in the SoCon with only a 28.9 percent clip on 3-point attempts.
WOFFORD: Despite an unbelievable defensive performance that limited the opposition to only 59.1 ppg, which was second-best mark in SoCon history, the Terriers went 13-19 including a 7-10 record against league rivals after netting only 58.1 ppg themselves. Coach Mike Young's squad hit on only 39.1 percent of its field goal attempts and was held to 50 points or less on nine occasions. Wofford showed its potential with four consecutive non-conference victories including a 94-52 rout of Jacksonville and a one-point upset of Xavier in Cincinnati. The Terriers will need to be more consistent to be more competitive, but their offense should improve as Karl Cochran (15.6 ppg) progresses from a stellar sophomore campaign during which he sank 78 attempts from 3-point range. Spencer Collins (12.4 ppg) showed he has potential to be an all-conference caliber guard as a freshman last season. Wofford also has the other three players who frequented the starting lineup with Lee Skinner (10.3 ppg, 7.4 rpg), Indiana Faithful (4.3 ppg) and the 6-8 Aerris Smith all back for another year in Spartanburg.
GEORGIA SOUTHERN: The Eagles will also be under new leadership as former Virginia Tech assistant Mark Byington takes over following a 14-19 overall finish that included a five-point road win over the Hokies. Byington will try to turn around the struggling program that has compiled a lackluster 43-84 record over the past four seasons under Charlton Young. The Eagles had the fifth-lowest scoring defense average at 65.1 ppg, however their offense needs a boost as they netted only 62.1 ppg for themselves. Georgia Southern has a pair of seniors to rely on as Eric Ferguson (13.9 ppg, 6.3 rpg) and Trey Bussey (8.8 ppg) are expected to appear in its starting five again. The lack of scoring came due to the team's poor ball movement which left it with an average of only 9.6 assists per game, which ranked 337th nationally. One of the Eagles will need to step into a bigger role to replace Cleon Roberts, who transferred after posting 8.5 ppg. Senior forward Marvin Baynham (4.8 ppg, 4.1 rpg) and freshman guard Torlorf Thomas should both get an opportunity to secure a spot in the regular rotation.
UNC GREENSBORO: Although the Spartans finished second to only Davidson in scoring at 71.7 ppg, they do not return a single player who averaged in double figures and have to find a replacement for the SoCon scoring champion Trevis Simpson, who decided to leave school early to test his talents on the professional level. Even with Simpson, UNC Greensboro went 9-22 with only six wins in league play and ranked last in the conference defensively with an allowance of 73.7 ppg. Sophomore forward Kayel Locke is the top returning starter and should have no problem improving his averages of 9.9 points and 4.4 rebounds per game without Simpson and Derrell Armstrong around to pace the offense. Coach Wes Miller is entering his second full season on the Spartans' bench with a 20-32 record after taking over in the middle of the 2011-12 season and guiding the team to an 11-10 finish to the campaign. Miller has one promising addition to make up for the noticeable losses as Arizona State transfer Kyle Cain is eligible after sitting out last season. Cain saw action in 60 games with 40 starts during his two-year stint in Tempe and connected on 49.3 percent of his field goal tries during that span. Sophomore guard Jordan Potts will need to make strides as a distributor to give UNCG a chance of progressing.
THE CITADEL: The Bulldogs continued their stay in the cellar of the SoCon with only eight wins in 30 games last season, and that was with the departed second- team all-conference center Mike Groselle. They were outscored by an average of 8.8 ppg despite ranking second in the league with a 45.3 percent clip on field goal attempts. The Citadel's average scoring margin was the second worst in the SoCon and it could have finished last had it not completed routs of non- Division I foes Montreat College and Union College in November. Coach Chuck Driesell will rely on the forward tandem of Matt Van Scyoc and P.J. Horgan as he enters his third season with the team with a disappointing 24-68 record. Van Scyoc and Horgan combined for 21.8 points and 9.4 rebounds per game while junior point guard Marshall Harris III dealt out 5.2 assists per game to the team to a league-high 15.1 helpers per game. The freshmen tandem of Brian White and Nate Bowser should provide some of what was lost when Groselle graduated. Junior guard Ashton Moore (5.7 ppg) will provide experience and steady play alongside Harris in The Citadel's backcourt.
FURMAN: Jeff Jackson and the Paladins parted ways after they went 7-24 overall and finished last in the South Division. Jackson did not have too much success during his stay in Greenville as he went 85-131 over the course of his seven years at the school. Former Furman assistant Niko Medved will return to take over the program after spending the previous six years as an assistant for the Colorado State Rams. Luckily for Medved, Jackson gave his underclassmen a lot of playing time last year with the hope that they could grow with the early experience. The youth movement delivered very poor results which left the Paladins with the worst scoring margin in the SoCon (minus 10.0 ppg) and just five wins over Division I opponents. Furman graduated its leading scorer Colin Reddick, but his twin brother Charlie (9.5 ppg, 5.3 rpg) still has two years of eligibility remaining. The Paladins also have an intriguing sophomore tandem in Stephen Croone and Larry Wideman, who combined for 18 points per game their freshman year.