With Davidson Gone, Upstart Wofford is SoCon’s King of the Hill

Posted by Ray Curren on November 29th, 2014

Davidson has become synonymous with the Southern Conference over the last decade, and with good reason. Bob McKillop has built a mini mid-major power at the tiny, private, North Carolina liberal arts school, posting 13 straight winning records in the SoCon, most famously, of course, becoming a national name by going all the way to the Elite Eight in 2008, led by some kid named Stephen Curry. Whatever happened to that kid? Davidson used its success to parlay a move to the “greener” pastures of the Atlantic-10 before this season, but did you know the team that beat out Davidson for the SoCon’s NCAA bid in three of the last five seasons is still there? And that’s its coach has been on campus just as long as McKillop?

As noted by Forbes Magazine, Wofford coach Mike Young is one of the biggest bargains (salary wise) in Division I basketball. (Getty)

As noted by Forbes Magazine, Wofford coach Mike Young is one of the biggest bargains (salary wise) in Division I basketball. (Getty)

Mike Young came to then-Division II Wofford, another tiny, private liberal arts school in the Carolinas (Spartanburg, S.C.) in 1989 as an assistant and never left, spending 13 years as an assistant to Richard Johnson (who is currently athletics director at Wofford), before moving up to the head chair in 2002. It took a while — Wofford didn’t post a winning mark (overall or in the SoCon) until his seventh season — but the Terriers have now gone to the NCAA tournament three times in five years, and return a veteran team that was picked to make it four in six. With expectations come a little pressure for Wofford, but Young and his team have waited a long time for it, so it’s much better than the alternative. “I’ve been here 26 years now. It’s the most unique situation in the world. The only pressure I’ve ever felt is internal pressure,” Young said. “It’s an unbelievable situation because I have an opportunity to coach our team and do it the way I think the program should be run. That certainly gives you good peace of mind. There’s nothing wrong with a little expectation, I think it’s justified. I think it’s well earned. We have great depth.”

Wofford has tried to emulate Davidson’s success off-the-court in recent years as well. A scan of its current roster shows contributors from Illinois (Lee Skinner), Minnesota (C.J. Neumann), and Colorado (Eric Garcia). With technology closing the geographic gap, the name “Wofford” is starting to be known by recruits, an image that is obviously helped by NCAA appearances (Wofford made a run at Michigan last year before falling), but also hosting a game in ESPN’s Tip-Off Classic, where the Terriers beat a very good Iona team decisively. “It’s something we’ve done the last six or seven years. We’ve had to go out of our area partly because our admission standards are so high,” Young said. “We’ve had to go into the bigger metropolitan areas like Chicago and Minneapolis on and on. We’ve got a good thing going, we’ve got a new facility coming online in a year or so with a practice facility. It’s a great school, a wonderful place.”

Here. (Star News Online)

Karl Cochran might not be the biggest guy on the court, but he’s the engine that makes Wofford’s offense go. (Star News Online)

Its best player comes from relatively nearby Atlanta, though. Senior Karl Cochran fits the mold of the mid-major star: slightly undersized at 6-feet, but able to score in bunches. Cochran has averaged in double-figures in each of his first three seasons at Wofford and is at 17.8 points per game early this season. He also currently leads the team in rebounding, and Young knows his value goes beyond the offensive end. “I ask so much of Karl, not just offensively, but defensively,” Young said. “People don’t understand how good a defender he is.”

Cochran is aware of the expectations as well, which he has on two levels, both the team’s and being the first name on opposition scouting reports. Both were on full display in the season opener as many were disappointed the team didn’t do better, even in a 15-point loss at Stanford in which Cochran was held to just 11. “We talked about expectations at the beginning of the season because we did win the SoCon last year,” Cochran said. “We knew there would be pressure and a target on our backs. After Davidson left, we are one of the teams to beat in the SoCon. We kind of like the pressure. It challenges us to get better.” Wofford has won five straight since the Stanford game, including three at the Coaches vs. Cancer classic in Bridgeport, Conn., where they beat Fairfield, South Dakota, and Sam Houston St. (another veteran team who is among the favorites in the Southland) in consecutive days, Wofford’s first trip ever to Connecticut.

The Terriers won’t lack for challenges, even before the 18-game conference season opens in January. Wofford plays at CAA contender William & Mary Saturday and will travel to NC State, West Virginia, and Cameron Indoor Stadium in December, a slate that looks a lot like what McKillop and Davidson used to put together. There are many potential hurdles the Terriers can trip over on the way to March, including the Duke slayer and new SoCon member Mercer as well as Chattanooga (who got first-place votes in the preseason coaches’ poll) and another new conference member, VMI. However, Wofford seems to fit the mold of one of those teams that might make a sound or two in March: veteran leadership, veteran coach, and a team that has both NCAA tournament experience and encounters with big-name teams earlier in the campaign.

As we close November, though, Wofford and Young will choose to stay in the now, thank you, and let the future take care of itself. “We have a lot of challenges ahead. We are very cautious not to look ahead,” Young said. “The only thing that matters is tomorrow’s practice. You start looking ahead, that’s when you get a baseball bat across the kneecaps. We will stay in the present.

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