RTC Conference Primers: #15 – Southern Conference

Posted by rtmsf on October 21st, 2011

Will Rothschild is the RTC correspondent for the Southern and the Atlantic Sun conferences. He can be found on twitter @warothschild.

Reader’s Take I

Top Storylines

  • The Arrival of Adjehi Baru. The highest-rated prospect ever to choose the College of Charleston, Baru is a 6’9″ native of the Ivory Coast who picked the Cougars from a final group that included North Carolina, Maryland and Virginia Tech. Bobby Cremins has always been known as a great recruiter – if not exactly John Wooden on the bench – but this was clearly his biggest coup since he beat out North Carolina, Georgetown, St. John’s and Syracuse for Kenny Anderson back in 1988. Though Baru has only been playing basketball a short time and his offensive game is a major work in progress, he quickly established himself as a game-changer on the AAU circuit and shot up the recruiting rankings, eventually settling in as a consensus top-five center prospect. He will be an absolute load to deal with in the SoCon. After his eligibility was initially held up the NCAA Clearinghouse, he was cleared to play this season in early October.

Steward Will Be an Absolute Load in the SoCon

  • The Big Dogs Are Back: Will it be Davidson or Chattanooga?  The two most tradition-rich programs in the Southern Conference are back on top this season and appear head and shoulders above what otherwise looks to be a very balanced league. Each team returns four starters, top-notch point guards, and a nice blend of versatile wings and size in the post. They also have coaches – Bob McKillop at Davidson and John Shulman at Chattanooga – who know how to get a team through the SoCon tournament and into the Dance. Davidson will be looking for its 6th NCAA trip under McKillop and its 11th overall, but its first since the team that was a rimmed-out Jason Richards jumpshot from making it to the Final Four in 2008. Chattanooga is also after its 11th NCAA trip, its third in eight seasons under Shulman, and its first since 2009.
  • How Far Will Wofford Fall?  After two straight Southern Conference championships and NCAA Tournament bids (in which they lost first-round games to Wisconsin and BYU by a combined 12 points), the consensus is Wofford won’t be much of a threat in 2011-12. Coach Mike Young, who has turned down a couple of overtures from other schools the past two springs, watched five of the most celebrated players in program history graduate in May. But even with POY Noah Dahlman, the two title teams were more a testament to Young and his staff’s ability to bring the right kind of players to Wofford, one of the most challenging liberal arts colleges in the South. Indeed, those teams always had a sum-is-better-then-their-parts ethos about them. Meanwhile, Young and his staff are excited about their past two recruiting classes, including a freshman group seven strong. Expecting the Terriers to win 20 games for the third straight season isn’t realistic, but in his 10th season Young has this program rolling and stocked with young talent that will keep the Terriers from slipping very far down the standings.
  • Will Appalachian State be better WITHOUT Donald Sims?  While the 6’1″ Sims was a dominant scorer (21 PPG in 2010-11) he also dominated the basketball, and his teammates deferred too much at times to his one-on-one offensive ability. With the graduation of the school’s all-time leading scorer and 2010 SoCon POY, the sense around Boone is that Jason Capel’s second team will be much more balanced and difficult to defend. Omar Carter, a 6’5″ forward, is back after averaging 16.3 points and nearly 6 rebounds, and 6’10” center Isaac Butts returns after missing all of last season with an injury. As a junior in 2009-10, Butts averaged 8.5 points and 8.1 rebounds, and he makes Appalachian one of the few teams in the league with someone to physically match up with Baru. Capel also welcome a pair JUCO transfers – Rodney Milum, a 6’0″ guard from Houston, and Jamaal Trice, a 6’6″ forward from L.A. – who are expected to step in and contribute immediately.

Predicted Order of Finish

North Division

  1. Chattanooga (15-3)
  2. Appalachian State (12-6)
  3. Western Carolina (9-9)
  4. Elon (7-11)
  5. UNCG (6-12)
  6. Samford (5-13)

South Division

  1. Davidson (16-2)
  2. Charleston (12-6)
  3. Wofford (9-9)
  4. Furman (7-11)
  5. Citadel (6-12)
  6. Georgia Southern (4-14)

All-Conference First Team

  • Keegan Bell, G, Chattanooga: Yes, we know he only averaged 9.3 PPG last year. But anyone who has spent anytime watching Bell play knows he’s not only the best point in the SoCon, he’s one of the best anywhere. On the final Bob Cousy Award watch list last season, Bell drove the young Mocs to a North Division title. Coach John Shulman will count on Bell to make Chattanooga play more inside-out this year.
  • JP Kuhlman, G, Davidson: A 6’4″ combo guard, the junior led Davidson in scoring at 12.8 PPG last season. He also contributed 3.5 RPG and 3.3 APG for a team that featured seven freshmen or sophomores among its top eight scorers. Look for Kuhlman to shoot it better than he has showed so far in his career as he and the Wildcats move to the top of the South Division.
  • Omar Carter, G/F, Appalachian State: A 6’5″ senior, Carter can fill it up. He averaged 16.3 PPG last year and is the conference’s leading returning scorer. Perhaps the league’s most complete package of shooting and strength, Carter shot 40% from three and averaged nearly six rebounds a game while earning all-SoCon honors in 2011.
  • Omar Wattad, F, Chattanooga: A 6’5″, 220-pound forward, Wattad was miscast as a perimeter-only player at Georgetown for two seasons before transferring to Chattanooga. A major matchup headache, Wattad was an all-SoCon pick last season after averaging 14.3 PPG. He reached 20 points seven times a year ago while making 88 three-pointers. A good free-throw shooter, expect Wattad to spend more time closer to the basket this year.
  • Adjehi Baru, C, Charleston: Perhaps not since Adonal Foyle picked Colgate in ’94 has a more highly-regarded big man spurned the sport’s elite for a mid-major. Indeed, it’s not often a 6’9″ center with long arms, good feet, and an NBA ceiling enters the Southern Conference. Now comes the tricky part – can Bobby Cremins teach him how to play?

6th Man.  Jake Cohen, F, Davidson: For two seasons, Cohen has put up good numbers while battling stronger, more experienced players in the post. Now a 6’10”, 220-pound junior, big things are expected from Cohen, who averaged 12.2 PPG and 6.2 RPG in 2010-11. If he can become a more consistent offensive force, it will open up things more for Kuhlman and make the Wildcats a very tough out in the SoCon Tournament.

Impact Newcomer.   Adjehi Baru: Enough said.

Predicted Champion

Chattanooga (NCAA Seed:  #14): It’s a tough call, especially in a one-bid league where it all comes down to one game in the conference tournament. You can expect both Chattanooga and Davidson to bring a ton of folks to Asheville, and if these two teams make it to the title game on March 5, take our word for it: the atmosphere at the Civic Center will be electric. We’re going to give the nod to Chattanooga, mainly because of our man-crush on Keegan Bell. Seriously, in a tight game between two well-coached, experienced teams, go with the best point guard, and our money is on Bell to make a couple of big-time plays in the final five minutes to deliver the NCAA bid to the Mocs.

Top Contenders:

  • Davidson (NIT): Picking against an experienced, talented Bob McKillop team is the definition of risky. But it’s not like we don’t think the Wildcats are good. They are, and Davidson would represent the league equally well in the NCAA Tournament.
  • Charleston (NIT): We’re not totally sold on Baru’s supporting cast, and how quickly he can become a go-to offensive player will determine how good the Cougars become this year as they deal with the loss of their top three scorers from a year ago. But if they finish with a respectable record, it would make sense for the NIT to have Baru in their event.
  • Appalachian State (CIT): After getting off to an 8-13 start, the Mountaineers came alive down the stretch last season, winning eight of nine before falling to eventual champ Wofford in the SoCon Tournament semis. With Carter and Butts, an infusion of JuCo talent and a better understanding of what Capel wants, the Mountaineers will be a formidable challenger for Chattanooga in the North Division. But outside of Carter, it’s not clear who else can be counted on to score, and unlike Shulman and McKillop, Capel hasn’t proven his coaching chops over the course of a full season.

Reader’s Take II

Here Today, Gone Tomorrow?

  • Adjehi Baru, C, Charleston: Guess who. Typically post players with Baru’s athleticism and upside don’t stick around very long in college basketball. But it will be interesting to watch how Baru’s decision to play in the SoCon affects his draft status.

Jason Capel Has the Family Connections to Get His Shot (credit: ASU)

  • Jason Capel (Appalachian State) and Chuck Driesell (The Citadel): They’re both entering their second seasons in charge, and Capel and Driesell have last names that will get them attention if they can win. That’s easier done at ASU than at The Citadel, but Driesell’s predecessor in Charleston, Ed Conroy, proved it’s possible before leaving for Tulane after a 20-win season in 2010. And Driesell has already been tearing it up on the recruiting trail, with a seven-player freshman class expected to help jump-start the rebuilding process.

Spotlight on… the SoCon Tournament’s return to Asheville

The oldest postseason college basketball tournament makes its return to Asheville, a tourism mecca in the Blue Ridge Mountains where the tournament previously enjoyed perhaps its greatest run of sustained success in terms of attendance and excitement from 1984-95. With its natural beauty, coffee-shop culture, broad selection of lodging and dining, and central location in the league’s geographic footprint, Asheville itself was a major draw for SoCon fans, and regular sellout crowds created an environment worthy of the best in postseason college basketball. The conference eventually was forced to move its tournament when the city was unable to finance needed renovations to the Asheville Civic Center in the mid-90s, but a $5.5 million project that included new seating for the lower level of the arena, renovating the balcony seating and flooring, improving the locker rooms and dressing rooms, upgrading the lighting, messaging and sound systems in the arena, concourse renovations, and information technology improvements, has brought the tournament back home.

Final Thoughts

The Southern Conference remains a notch below the most major of the mid-majors, but with McKillop (Davidson), Shulman (Chattanooga), Cremins (Charleston), Young (Wofford), Larry Hunter (Western Carolina), and Jimmy Tillette (Samford), the league boasts a deep roster of successful, veteran coaches. Each of those coaches have either been at their current schools at least eight seasons or have won at least 300 games, or both. That kind of coaching talent and stability is the most important ingredient in program- and conference-building. Add in young lions with impressive college basketball genes like Capel, Driesell, and Elon’s Matt Matheny (a McKillop protégé), and the SoCon has the leadership in place to improve its place in the pecking order of mid-major conferences. Expect Chattanooga and Davidson to significantly bolster the SoCon’s case this year – both should have RPIs in the top third of the nation.

rtmsf (3954 Posts)

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