The SoCon Lowdown: One superstar returns, another departs
Plus: UNCG's intriguing, ETSU's bewildering, and VMI's depressing
Until Saturday, nothing had hung over this SoCon season more than the extended absence of Samford star Ques Glover, who broke out with 19.2 points per game in a magical 2021-22 season for the Bulldogs. He’d had a solid start to the 2022-23 season, but was lost in late November after struggling with injuries and never playing 30 minutes in a game. The season predictably fell apart without Glover—he was unavailable for a loss to NAIA UT-Southern, and Samford entered conference play on a seven-game losing streak.
You’d assume he had returned by the 8-0 start that followed, but Glover’s first game back was their last game; they rolled through nearly the entire league, including Chattanooga and UNCG, without their best player. Now he’s back, just in time for a road visit to Furman that could remove all doubt to Samford’s claim as the best team in the conference. We’ve been wondering how good they can be with such a key addition, and now we’ll finally get to see it.
On the other hand, we also have to wonder how bad Chattanooga can be without their best player—Jake Stephens, the runaway SoCon Player of the Year before a hand injury at the end of a loss to Furman that will keep him out for a few weeks at minimum. The Mocs lost 78-62 to a middling ETSU in their first game without Stephens, and things could get grim if he doesn’t return by the end of the season. Overall results and a head-to-head matchup have already shown us a changing of the guard between the reigning conference champs and this year’s heavy favorites, but this feels like a significant shift in its own right. With the lynchpin of one of their top challengers missing, can anyone hold a candle to the ascendant Bulldogs?
There’s always a bit of nervousness when a player as good as Glover returns to a team that’s been performing as well as Samford was without him. There’s no doubt that he adds talent to the roster, of course, but minor tweaks to the lineup of a team that’s rolling like this can have disastrous effects. It did briefly look like the Bulldogs might do the unthinkable in his return and drop their first SoCon game to a middling WCU, but Glover turned it on with 13 second-half points and powered a 74-65 win. Samford has wins over eight teams in the SoCon; the last and perhaps the toughest, Furman, awaits in Greenville on Wednesday. Don’t miss it.
As much narrative significance as the clash between the Bulldogs and Paladins holds, it’s not Furman but UNCG that stands second in the conference. The Spartans, lest we forget, nearly beat Samford at home and have otherwise rolled almost everybody. An overtime win over the ‘dins is their only other single-digit affair in the SoCon, and that was a masterful performance in its own right, a major comeback in regulation and a clinic in the extra period on the road. It’s unlikely this team can go into Pete Hanna Center and pull off a win in February, but if they can, they stand the best chance of anybody at stealing the top seed in the conference tournament.
If the rest of the season feels like something of a foregone conclusion, don’t forget that the Paladins can turn it on its head with one home upset this week. Stopping the Samford offense at full strength feels like an impossible task for a defense that just gave up 82 points to Wofford, but scoring on the Bulldogs’ middling defense should be a cakewalk. The last time these two teams met, they produced an instant classic in the SoCon semifinals; this meeting will be must-watch stuff as the Paladins look to throw the conference race into chaos.
I’ve extolled the virtues of Torvik’s game score before—it’s a catch-all metric that summarizes how good or bad a team’s performance was on a 0-to-100 scale—and it’s quite revealing in the case of ETSU. Since New Year’s Day, they’ve lost four games with scores of 11, 5, 10, and 24, and won two with scores of 82 and 85. If the Buccaneers could play like they do at their best every day, they’d stand with the best in the SoCon. If they played like they do at their worst every day, they’d be fighting with VMI to avoid a winless season in conference play. Maybe someday this team will figure out a consistent offensive attack or find a way to lean on its capable defense, but it’s anyone’s guess when.
You can’t expect to beat Samford given their recent form (and the addition of Glover), but the way the Catamounts punched up against them following a win over Wofford made for a nice rebound week. WCU should be favored in its next two games (versus The Citadel and at VMI), but they’re Torvik underdogs by more than 3 points in six remaining games, and an 8-10 record could cut it close to avoid the bottom four in the standings and a tournament play-in.
Stephens’ injury is a blow not just to Chattanooga, but to the SoCon and to college basketball as a whole. The PORPAGATU! stat (Points Over Replacement Per Adjusted Game At That Usage) has him as the second-best player in college basketball behind only Purdue’s Zach Edey, and he’s even more versatile. Capable of dominating inside with his height, raining down threes outside, and racking up rebounds, assists, blocks, and steals, Stephen is an incomparably complete player. The game is a bit less fun without him; here’s hoping he returns sooner rather than later.
The Terriers are working on their depth, but it’s improving by fits and starts. Their top two players, veteran senior BJ Mack and star freshman Jackson Paveletzke, have been an excellent pairing, but the roster around them is lacking. In their most recent game, a loss to Furman, Mack and Paveletzke put up 21 and 25 respectively, but Corey Tripp’s 8 points were the most by any other Wofford player. Defensive depth is an even bigger concern, with four poor performances in a row culminating in those 96 points allowed to the Paladins. As with most of the SoCon’s second division, the Terriers are capable of more, but they’re simply missing key pieces.
The Citadel is a good enough team that they should avoid the first round of the tournament, but they need to knock off at least a couple teams down the stretch to do so. They’ve picked up recent wins over WCU and VMI, but they’re only favored twice in the rest of the season, and one of those games is a home date with Chicago State. The defense is finally rounding into form, but will it be enough to hold down some of the other teams in the middle of the SoCon?
The Mercer offense doesn’t have any truly elite playmakers, but it has enough depth to perform better than it did to start conference play, and it’s been better lately. The Bears picked up their first SoCon wins by score 68 on ETSU and 69 on VMI, and while they regressed against UNCG, the days of scoring 45 points on 68 possessions against WCU’s bottom-100 defense are probably behind them. It’s still a year of transition without many expectations as a senior-heavy roster bows out, but at least it’s not as embarrassing as it could have been, given how Mercer looked in early January.
Speaking of embarrassing…well, it’s not a charitable way to describe VMI’s season, but what is? The Keydets are 2-16 in D1 play and have lost ten straight, including every game in the SoCon so far. They haven’t come closer than 7 points against any conference opponent, and with home losses to Mercer and The Citadel this week, an 0-18 campaign seems like a very real concern. Nobody expected much of a team losing its coach and its key superstar to Chattanooga, but it’s evident from this year that there’s a lot of work to be done.
Around the former SoCon…
Alabama won its eighth straight, dominating a solid Missouri team and making a serious claim to the overall #1 ranking.
Auburn also extended a winning streak, reaching five games by rolling past LSU and South Carolina on the road.
Charleston remained the winningest team in the nation, moving to 21-1 despite an early scare from 1-19 Monmouth.
George Washington moved to 4-2 in the hotly-contested A-10, picking up a big home win over preseason favorite Dayton.
Marshall survived a challenge from Arkansas State for its fifth straight win, bringing it to 17-4 overall and tied for the Sun Belt lead at 6-2.
Maryland made an emphatic statement with a home victory over Michigan, then took soon-to-be-#1 Purdue down to the wire on the road.
North Carolina pulled off what might be their best win of the season, dominating rival NC State in a decisive 80-69 win at home.
Tennessee bounced back from a loss to Kentucky, overcoming an early deficit to beat Mississippi State before crushing LSU.
Virginia added to a five-game winning streak, cruising past rival Virginia Tech and Wake Forest to move to 7-2 in the ACC.
Virginia Tech recovered from that loss—their seventh straight—to knock off Duke with the season arguably on the line.
Washington & Lee overcame a 21-point deficit to stun Ferrum, outscoring the Panthers 9-1 in the final 54 seconds of a thrilling victory.
West Virginia finally got their first Big 12 win, shocking TCU in a dominant 74-65 showing that moved them to 1-5 in league play.
The Southern Conference announced its 2023 football schedule today, with a mid-October meeting between Samford and Furman looming large. Sixteen SoCon players were ranked in the first 2023 wrestling coaches’ panel rankings, led by App State’s Jon Jon Millner, #9 in the 149-pound class.