Monday , Nov , 08 , 2004 C.Y. Ellis

College Basketball Preview – Southern Conference

*** College Basketball Preview – Southern Conference ***

The Sports Network

By Pat Taggart, College Basketball Staff Writer

OUTLOOK: In the SoCon’s North Division, East Tennessee State is once again the
team to beat. The Bucs will be vying for their fifth straight share of the
North Division title, and it will be interesting to see if this year’s club
can be as good as the group last year that went 15-1 against league opponents.
The stiffest competition from within the North Division may come from
Chattanooga, as it certainly has the bodies up front to cause problems. The
biggest question for the Mocs involves its young guards, a group of talented
performers who must pay dividends right away. UNC-Greensboro finished below
.500 in conference play a year ago at 7-9, but a wealth of talent has been
added to the program. Expect the Spartans to win one or two more conference
tilts than they did last season. The same could be true for Elon, as it has
every significant contributor back from the 2003-04 squad. There may not be a
better darkhorse candidate in the SoCon than the Phoenix. Appalachian State
and Western Carolina round out the North Division, and it would be surprising
to see either one of those clubs win more than four league tilts. As for the
South Division, Davidson is loaded for a run at the crown. The Wildcats were
tremendous in the second half of the league season a year ago, and the roster
is loaded with returning talent. College of Charleston will undoubtedly be
tough as well, as the program is coming off another 20-win season that
included 11 league victories. The Cougars may have the best perimeter depth of
any squad in the league. Georgia Southern has put up big offensive numbers in
recent years, and there is reason to be optimistic once again. Furman, like
Elon, has a tremendous collection of young players who could turn some heads.
The good news for Wofford is that the majority of its key contributors are
back from a year ago. That team finished 4-12 in league play, however, so the
group has proven little. Rounding out the South Division is The Citadel, and
there is no reason to believe that the Bulldogs will be able to get out of the
basement this year.

CONFERENCE CHAMPION: Davidson

PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: NORTH: 1. East Tennessee State; 2. Chattanooga; 3.
UNC Greensboro; 4. Elon; 5. Appalachian State; 6. Western Carolina

SOUTH: 1. Davidson; 2. College of Charleston; 3. Georgia Southern; 4. Furman;
5. Wofford; 6. The Citadel

TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:

NORTH:

EAST TENNESSEE STATE: The Bucs lost some talented performers from last year’s
outstanding team, but they are expected to be potent once again with Tim Smith
running the show. The 5-9 point guard led ETSU to the SoCon Tournament
championship and a berth in the NCAA Tournament last March, and he was
recently named the league’s Preseason Player of the Year. Smith averaged 17.7
ppg and 4.5 apg last year, and there is no reason that he couldn’t average
20.0 ppg or more in 2004-05. While Smith is understandably the headliner,
there are other capable performers on the roster. Senior James Anthony and
juniors Ben Rhoda and Brad Nuckles all have talent and experience. Rhoda
averaged 10.7 ppg thanks to 54.3 percent shooting from the floor a year ago,
and he will likely be the second option this year.

CHATTANOOGA: John Shulman’s tenure as head coach of the Mocs will officially
begin November 20th against Toccoa Falls. Shulman’s squad figures to win that
game and many more this year, but it remains to be seen if the group has what
it takes to challenge ETSU for divisional supremacy. Ashley Champion and Jason
Rogan are gone, but the frontcourt is in good hands thanks to Chris Brown,
Alphonso Pugh and Mindaugas Katelynas. Pugh averaged 11.1 ppg and 5.2 rpg a
year ago and is the leading returnee in both categories. As for Brown, a
swingman who shot nearly 40 percent from behind the arc, he netted 10.6 ppg in
2003-04. Katelynas has the best size of the trio at 6-9, and he has looked
outstanding in preseason workouts. If one or two of the rookie guards can step
in and contribute immediately, ETSU could have a problem.

UNC-GREENSBORO: It is clear that the success of UNC-Greensboro will hinge
greatly on the play of senior forward Ronnie Burrell, a member of the
preseason All-SoCon First Team. Burrell shot 58.4 percent from the floor a
year ago and averaged 17.1 ppg and 7.6 rpg against conference opposition.
Unfortunately, the team’s two best offensive options aside from Burrell are
gone, and he will rely on an influx of talent to help carry the load. Coach
Fran McCaffery did a tremendous job of recruiting, but it remains to be seen
if the young players who were brought in are ready for immediate action.

ELON: The Phoenix possess arguably the premier big man in the league in the
person of Jackson Atoyebi, a member of the All-SoCon Preseason First Team.
Although he is just 6-6, Atoyebi does carry a 250-pound frame that enables him
to anchor down in the post. Atoyebi finished the 2003-04 season ranked among
league leaders in scoring (sixth/16.1 ppg), rebounding (third/7.8 rpg) and
field goal percentage (sixth/.562), and he showed tremendous consistency by
scoring in double digits in 29 of 30 games. Fortunately for Atoyebi, all seven
of the top scorers from the team a year ago (including himself) are back.
Scottie Rice and Matt Nowlin both averaged double figures in points last
season, and their ability to score prevents teams from focusing too much on
Atoyebi.

APPALACHIAN STATE: After a strong start last season, the Mountaineers quite
simply collapsed. One player who plans to help avoid a similar fate this year
is Noah Brown, the leading scorer from a year ago (13.1 ppg). Brown made good
on only 37.1 percent of his field goal attempts in 2003-04, including 31.6
percent from three-point range, and a much more accurate showing is needed
this year. Fellow senior Chris McFarland is back as well, and the 6-5 forward
pitched in 11.7 ppg and 5.0 rpg as the team’s only other double-digit scorer.
There are certainly better duos in the league than Brown and McFarland, and
their supporting cast is weak. There isn’t much reason for Appalachian State
to be optimistic.

WESTERN CAROLINA: Kevin Martin meant everything to the Catamounts, and his
enormous talent was rewarded with a first round draft choice in the most
recent NBA Draft. Without the superb performer, Western Carolina could be on
the verge of a truly miserable campaign. For this team to even be competitive,
a pair of juniors must carry the load. Center David Berghoefer was the only
double-digit scorer aside from Martin last year (12.4 ppg), and Muirhead
wasn’t far off the mark (9.2 ppg). Berghoefer posted 13.2 ppg and 7.9 rpg in
2003-04 against league opponents, and he has what it takes to be an all-
conference performer. As for Muirhead, he will get considerably more looks at
the hoop than he did a year ago.

SOUTH:

DAVIDSON: The Wildcats, who finished in a three-way tie for first in the South
last year, have been picked to win the division this season by the league’s
coaches. Head coach Bob McKillop likes the high expectations, as he was with
the program when it was picked to finish near the bottom of the standings just
a few years ago. A major reason that Davidson is expected to be so good is the
return of junior guard Brendan Winters. Winters, a 2004 All-SoCon performer,
followed an outstanding freshman campaign with an even more impressive
sophomore season. The standout led the Wildcats in scoring with an average of
17.8 ppg, third-best in the league. Winters was even more impressive in
conference action, netting 20.3 ppg (second-best in the SoCon). The ‘Cats
return their top five scorers and top four rebounders, so all of the hype
appears to be justified.

COLLEGE OF CHARLESTON: The Cougars are coming off a 20-9 record last season
and their sixth consecutive SoCon South Division title. They open their season
on November 15th against Colorado in the opening round of the Preseason NIT,
and third-year coach Tom Herrion hopes to lead his group to its 12th straight
20-win campaign in 2004-05. Georgetown transfer Drew Hall is expected to
contribute in a major way right from the season’s opening whistle. As for the
returnees, Tony Mitchell and Stanley Jackson are the best of the bunch.
Mitchell averaged 12.9 ppg a year ago thanks to his 39.9 percent accuracy from
three-point range, and Jackson pitched in 9.9 ppg. While the backcourt is set
with Mitchell, Jackson and Hall, the team will need some of its unproven
frontcourt players to make some noise.

GEORGIA SOUTHERN: The Eagles possess one of the league’s elite backcourt duos,
as Elton Nesbitt and Terry Williams are both outstanding performers. Williams
is still recovering from surgery that removed a portion of the meniscus in his
left knee. The arthroscopic surgery, performed in late October, was the second
performed on the knee since the end of the 2003-04 season, but he is expected
to be ready to go by the opener. Nesbitt led the Eagles in scoring last season
at 15.7 ppg while also dishing out 105 assists, second on the squad to
Williams’ 158. Speaking of Williams, he netted 12.1 ppg despite the fact that
he struggled with this shooting accuracy. Much like College of Charleston,
Georgia Southern has to prove that its frontcourt is capable of being
formidable.

FURMAN: Last season, a group of freshmen developed into solid contributors for
the Paladins. Now, with a whole year of experience under their respective
belts, the sophomores are ready to challenge some of the division’s better
teams. Quan Prowell may be the best of the bunch, and he has been named to the
All-SoCon preseason team. Prowell, the reigning league Freshman of the Year,
was the only Paladin named to the 10-man squad. Last season, the 6-8 standout
averaged 9.9 ppg and 4.4 rpg while shooting 53.3 percent from the field. Robby
Bostain, a fellow sophomore, is the only returning double-digit scorer for the
squad (10.2 ppg). Senior forward Nick Sanders and junior guard Tony Carter add
some steady veteran play to the roster.

WOFFORD: Developing team chemistry shouldn’t be a problem for Wofford, as all
the key contributors from last year are back as mentioned. What will be
challenging is getting the group to play up to its potential and ultimately
win games. Howard Wilkerson is one of the conference’s top frontcourt
performers, and the 6-6 junior is coming off an impressive 2003-04 campaign in
which he averaged 13.8 ppg and 8.0 rpg while shooting 57.3 percent from the
floor. Wilkerson proved his versatility by also contributing 69 assists, 38
steals and 25 blocked shots. In SoCon games only, Wilkerson ranked first in
rebounding with 8.8 rpg. Adrien Borders is the only other returning double-
digit scorer, as he netted 10.9 ppg a year ago. While he and Wilkerson will be
solid once again, the Terriers will likely lose plenty more games than they
win.

THE CITADEL: It’s pretty safe to say that The Citadel is the least talented
team in the league. The leading scorer from last season, Dante Terry, returns
his 11.3 ppg to the lineup, but he shot only 34.2 percent from the floor.
Kevin Hammack should be solid this year, as he is coming off a campaign in
which he averaged 10.1 ppg in league action. As for J’mel Everhart, he is the
top returning rebounder for the club at 7.0 rpg. If those three players
(Terry, Hammack and Everhart) can improve significantly from last season, The
Citadel will be able to be at least competitive most nights. Unfortunately,
there is no reason to believe that such a thing will happen.