The country's oldest conference tournament gets underway on Friday as the Southern Conference starts in Asheville. Three teams have a realistic chance of cutting down the nets on Monday night with East Tennessee State the favorite.
Tournament schedule (all times Eastern)
VMI/Samford vs #1 East Tennessee State, Noon, ESPN+/Nexstar
The Citadel/Wofford vs #2 Furman, 6:00, ESPN+/Nexstar
Game 3 winner vs Game 4 winner, 4:00, ESPN+/Nexstar
Game 5 winner vs Game 6 winner, 6:30, ESPN+/Nexstar
Game 7 winner vs Game 8 winner, 7:00, ESPN
East Tennessee State has compiled a resume worthy of an at-large bid should they fail to win in Asheville. The Buccaneers defeated LSU in Baton Rouge, which is the reason they can still make the field of 68 even if they slip up this weekend. They're one of the best defensive teams in the country, second in the league in blocked shots and steals.
In losing forward Jeromy Rodriguez, East Tennessee State has had a number of players step up and contribute. Tray Boyd III leads the team in scoring (13.6), free throw percentage (90.7) and thee-point percentage (37.9). Center Lucas N'Guessan is the SoCon's leading shooter (63.0% from the floor) while Isaiah Tisdale is tops in assists (2.9).
Second seed Furman is the hottest team in the league, having won 10 of their last 11 games and are led by Jordan Lyons. Averaging 16.3 points per game, the guard is one of four Paladins averaging double figures in scoring. Coach Bob Richey's squad are lethal on the offensive end, averaging 77.1 points per game and a league-best 47.6 percent from the floor.
Third seed UNC Greensboro lost their last two games of the season, but are not to be counted out. Isaiah Miller is the premier guard in the SoCon, averaging a team-best 17.8 points, 3.0 assists and 2.7 steals per game (he also has a league-leading 83 overall) as well 12 games of 20 or more points. The Spartans are tops in the conference in steals (9.29) and blocks (4.23) per game.
If there's one lower seed that can make some noise, it's fourth-seeded Western Carolina. The Catamounts are the best scoring (79.3), rebounding (38.3) and three-point shooting team (37.4) in the SoCon as well as second in three-pointers made per game (9.9). The dynamic inside-outside duo of guard Mason Faulkner (17.2 ppg, 6.1 apg) and forward Carlos Dotson (15.6 ppg, 10.0 rpg) make WCU a legitimate threat to cause a few shocks in Asheville.
Who will win the tournament?
This is always one of the best conference tournaments in any year. The league has a ton of tradition, the quality of the teams, coaches and players as well as the competitiveness of the games makes it a fun watch. This is an especially strong year for the SoCon with three legitimate championship contenders and a darkhorse with a ton of firepower.
Semifinal matchups between Western Carolina and East Tennessee as well as UNC Greensboro and Furman could be the best set of semifinals outside of the power conferences. Players like Boyd, Miller, Lyons and Dotson are all capable of showcasing themselves in the NCAA Tournament should they get there. In a strange way, East Tennessee State losing would be the best thing for the conference.
If the Buccaneers do fall, they will likely still receive an at-large bid. They've done too much and are too good of a team not to be in the field of 68, regardless of what happens this weekend. Furman have been knocking on the door for a while now and have strung together four straight 20-win seasons, including a school-record tying 25 this year.
I think Lyons will emerge from a pack of great players and teams to lead the Paladins into the NCAA Tournament in what should be a memorable four days in Asheville.
Prediction: Furman def. East Tennessee State