SoCon keeps growing

By Matt Hill

   The Atlantic Ocean may be deep, but not as deep as the basketball teams are in the Southern Conference this year.
   Many teams return practically their whole squad, so expect this year's chase for the SoCon title to be very intense with several clubs having good chances to stake their claim at the league's top prize.
   Defending Southern Conference Tournament champion UNC-Greensboro returns four starters, and will be the favorite to win the North Division. ETSU lost two starters from last year's team, but still has enough talent to contend for its second-straight division title.
   Davidson and Appalachian State could easily be contenders, while Western Carolina and VMI are looking to improve on last year's dismal campaigns.
   College of Charleston is the slight favorite in the South, but Georgia Southern returns all five starters and should give the Cougars all they want.
   Chattanooga and The Citadel may surprise, while Furman and Wofford should bring up the rear.
   The Spartans enjoyed a banner season in 2000. They took home 19 victories and won the Southern Conference Tournament. Expect that magic to continue with four starters returning. It all starts with Southern Conference Player-of-the-Year candidate Courtney Eldridge. The point guard averaged 14.6 points and five assists per-game.
   Eldridge will be joined in the backcourt by Jay Joseph, who averaged over 13 points per-contest for the Spartans during the 2000-2001 season.
   The Spartan frontcourt is dangerous with 6-7 forward David Shuck and 7-2 center Nathan Popp providing a punch. Shuck averaged 14.5 points a contest last season, while Popp brings great shot blocking ability to the Spartan lineup. Forward Luke Boytue and guard Ronnie Taylor should step up and be very productive this season.
   The Wildcats had a rare below .500 season last year, but finished up with a bang by defeating South Division champion College of Charleston in the first round of the Southern Conference Tournament. All five starters return from that team.
   The backcourt starters will be Wayne Bernard and Fernando Tonella. Bernard averaged 13.7 points per-contest last year, while Tonella dished out 79 assists.
   Chris Pearson, Emeka Erege and Martin Ides will man the frontcourt. Pearson was a pleasant surprise in 2001, and he should improve on his 7.8 scoring average. Erege averaged 12 points per-game, while Ides averaged nine points per contest in 2000-2001. Ides is also a major rebounding threat for the Wildcats.
   The Mountaineers had to battle through the death of guard Rufus Leach, and several defections in 2000-2001, but things are looking much brighter for the Mountaineers as all five starters return.
   Center Josh Shehan is the Mountaineers' leading returning scorer. He averaged 11 points and made 65 percent of his field goals.
   Donald Payne joins Shehan in the frontcourt. Payne averaged 8.8 points per-contest in 2000-2001.
   Sophomore guards Noah Brown and Matt Jones showed a lot of promise last season. While point guard Jonathan Butler showed strong leadership.
   Incoming freshman Chris McFarland is considered to possibly be the top freshman in the Southern Conference this year.
   The Catamounts only won six games in Steve Shurina's first year under the helm. But five starters return, so things should be looking up in Cullowhee.
   Cory Largent will be the main man for the Catamounts. The forward averaged 15.8 points last season. Largent will be joined in the frontcourt by Willie Freeman and Rans Brempong. Freeman also averaged in double digits.
   Casey Rogers brings his 11 points per-game average back for his final campaign, while Kori Hatcher will accompany Rogers in the backcourt.
   The Keydets probably have the Conference's most colorful coach in Bart Bellairs, but even he may have a hard time laughing after having to replace three starters on a team that went 9-19. VMI lost double digit scorers Eric Mann and Nick Richardson to graduation. This leaves big holes to fill.
   Guard Richard Little and forward Radee Skipworth return for Bellairs.
   Cougar head coach John Kresse has won divisional titles the last two seasons, but his team has not won the SoCon Tournament or made the NCAA Tournament in that time span. But with four starters returning and the conference tournament being in Charleston, things are looking good for the Cougars.
   The Cougars do have the Southern Conference Preseason Player-of-the-Year in Jeff Bolton, who returns a 16.1 points per-game average. Charleston returns their starting backcourt, which features A. J. Harris and Troy Wheless. Forward Leighton Bowie (9.8 ppg) should provide leadership in the frontcourt.
   The Cougars will have to replace superstar Jody Lumpkin and his 17 points per-game average, but they have a strong freshman class that should contribute early on for Kresse.
   The Eagles were probably playing better than anybody in the Southern Conference at the end of last season. Georgia Southern started the season 4-11, but won eight of its last 12 games. The Eagles also defeated North Division champion ETSU twice, and knocked the Bucs out of the SoCon Tournament in the first round.
   Georgia Southern should carry that momentum into this season, as all five starters are back. They are led by guard Julius Jenkins, who averaged 16.7 points per-game in the Eagles run and gun offense.
   Joining Jenkins in the backcourt will be Sean Patterson and Kenny Faulk. Patterson averaged 13.6 points per-contest. 6-9 Kashien Latham and 6-7 Frank Bennett make up a dominant front court. Latham also averaged in double digits last season.
   The Mocs were defeated on a last-second shot by UNC-Greensboro during the 2001 SoCon tournament. It was definitely a heartbreaker, but the Mocs must now reload after losing key personnel.
   Gone is center Oliver Morton and guard Irdis Harper, but three starters do return. Guard Toot Young is leader of the bunch, averaging 12.5 points per-game last season. Guard Clyde McCully and forward Michael Townsend also return.
   Chattanooga is known for recruiting junior college players, and this season is no different. Nick Benson, Petie Spaulding and 6-9 Aaron Morgan should give the Mocs a boost.
   The Bulldogs return four starters from a team that won 16 games last season. Three of those four starters scored in double digits. Guard Travis Cantrell (12.7 ppg.) and forward Alan Puckett (10.6 ppg)are major three-point shooting threats.
   Cliff Mashburn (10.3 ppg) is a very physical presence inside. Also in the lineup is forward Romas Krywonis. Overall, The Citadel lost just one letterman from last year's squad.
   The Paladins haven't reached the .500 mark in a decade, but this may be the year as four starters return. Furman does have a pro prospect on its squad in 6-7 forward Karim Souchu. He averaged nearly 19 points per contest, and netted over five rebounds a game.
   Also returning are guards Guihereme Da Luz (11.2 ppg), guard Anthony Thomas (11.1 ppg) and center Kenny Ziegler, who is one of the Southern Conferences top rebounders. Ziegler averaged 7.5 rebounds per-contest.
   The Paladins do lack depth, and that could hurt them as the SoCon battles start.
   The Terriers couldn't win with Ian Chadwick, so it's going to be even tougher to win without him. Chadwick was one of the best players to ever play in the Southern Conference, but the Terriers only went 12-16. It could be another tough year in Spartanburg.
   Three starters do return. Guard Lee Nixon (10.1 ppg), guard Mike Lenzly (9.6 ppg) and center Kenny Hastie (5.9 ppg) lead the Terrier attack.
   (Predictions) North Division: 1. UNC-Greensboro, 2. ETSU, 3. Davidson, 4. Appalachian State, 5. Western Carolina, 6. VMI.
   South Division: 1. College of Charleston, 2. Georgia Southern, 3. Chattanooga, 4. The Citadel, 5. Furman, 6. Wofford.