Saturday, December 29, 2007

SoCon North Division


While Davidson likes to flaunt its rich tradition of basketball, no Southern Conference school can hold a candle to the basketball history of UT-Chattanooga. The Mocs' men's and women's teams have each won 24 conference titles and have been in the title game in most other years. Two years ago, the Mocs took a young team, after graduating a conference championship class the year before, and returned to the title game as a five seed. And we won't talk about how dominant the Chattanooga women's team has been over the years.

But last year, the Mocs fell on hard times. They finished 6-12 in the conference and were bounced by Davidson as an 8 seed in the quarterfinal round of the tournament. They finished eighth in the league in scoring offense, and their top scorer, Keddric Mays, finished just 11th overall in the conference in points per game.

With Mays and Casey Long lost to graduation, fans in Chattanooga had little to look forward to in 2007-2008. The Mocs were picked to finish fourth in the preseason polls while most of the outside attention of the Conference went to Davidson and UNC-Greensboro. But now, at the end of December, the Mocs sit with the conference's best record of 3-0 (7-4 overall). They have knocked off the College of Charleston and handed Elon its own conference loss of the season. They also came within six points of knocking off regional rival Tennessee.

This year, little known Stephen McDowell has stepped into the scoring role and has averaged over 15 points a game. He has been joined by fellow junior Nicchaeus Doaks who has averaged over 12 points and 6.5 rebounds a game. As a team, the Mocs have shot 48% from the field and averaged 81 points a game. Only five of Chattanooga's fourteen players have hit less than half of their shots taken (compare that to nine players for Davidson).

Davidson has struggled to play well in Chattanooga's McKenzie Arena over the years, sporting just a 2-5 record in that building since 2000 (that includes Davidson's 1-1 record in the 2005 SoCon tournament in McKenzie Arena). The Mocs have averaged nearly 40 rebounds a game this year. Combine that number with their high shooting percentage and it shows that most of those rebounds must be coming on the defensive end. Davidson will have to play very crisp basketball in order to sweep the season series with the Mocs this year. Chattanooga looks to be back to defend their basketball tradition.


When the Elon Phoenix joined the Southern Conference several years ago, most conference fans complained about adding another basketball cupcake. The tiny school from Burlington, NC has a gym that doesn't even seat 1,500 people and a basketball program with little notable history. But two years ago, Elon found themselves at the top of the North division and playing in the SoCon tournament semifinal game against Davidson. The Wildcats bested the Phoenix and sent them back down to the road of mediocrity as they put together an atrocious 7-23 record while going 5-13 in the conference last year.

Little more was expected from Elon this year, but they have been a pleasant surprise so far, putting together a 3-1 conference record with their only loss coming at Chattanooga. The Phoenix have been led by returning starter Ola Atoyebi who has averaged seven rebounds and fourteen points per game. He has been helped by senior guard Montell Watson who has averaged just over 10 points a game.

While Elon was one of only a handful of teams to beat Appalachian State last season, they dropped an embarrassing loss to Davidson in front of a home crowd that was louder for the Wildcats than the Phoenix. Davidson's first matchup comes next week when they travel up to Burlington for a late 9 p.m. tip.

Western Carolina

The Western Carolina Catamounts were counting on this year to be one in which they moved out of the basement of the Southern Conference. The Catamounts have not won a conference title since 1996, but they looked to compete in a weakened North Division because of returning star forward, Nick Aldridge. Aldridge would have been a shoo-in for Conference Freshman of the Year in 2007 had it not been for some guy named Curry.

But less than a month into the season, word came out of Cullowhee that Aldridge was gone. Personal issues between him and the staff and players led the school to cut ties. All of a sudden, the Catamounts did not have an identity. Role players were forced to produce and they were unsuccessful. After starting 2-2 with a two-point loss to Cincinnati, the Catamounts have gone 2-6 with their only wins coming against first-year D-I programs N.C. Central and Presbyterian.

Stepping in to fill Aldridge's shoes has been 6-6 sophomore Brandon Giles and 6-2 freshman guard Michael Porrini. Both have averaged double digits in scoring while Giles scored 46 points in Western's two conference losses against College of Charleston and Elon.

Appalachian State

Through the middle of last January, App State thought that they had become the most dominant sports program in the Southern Conference. The school had wrapped up back-to-back football national championships, and had rolled through their basketball season picking up wins against Virginia, Vanderbilt, VCU, and defending SoCon champion Davidson.

But then, they home. Then, in the SoCon semifinal, star Virginia transfer Donte Minter had the chance to send the Mounties to a finals rematch with Davidson. But he missed the free throw. App State lost to CofC, went on to the NIT and got blown out in the first round. D.J. Thompson graduated and then everyone started watching football again. Not that football was ever questioned as the premiere sport up in Boone, but after a stunning upset of Michigan and a third straight national title, fans could care less about a Mountaineer basketball program trying to find an identity.

So far this season, it has seemed as if the players don't care much either. App State now sits 0-2 in the conference and 5-6 overall after dropping games to Davidson, San Jose State, Georgia Southern, and East Tennessee State. Against the Wildcats, App gave up 39 points to sophomore sensation Stephen Curry while star forwards Jeremy Clayton and Donte Minter struggled to produce offensively.

But then Appalachian State went and messed up all the trends. They went out on the road and beat SEC power Arkansas on the Razorbacks' home court. Donald Sims, a young point guard who had pretty much averaged the same amount of points as he had turnovers, went off for 24 points including 4 threes. He only turned the ball over once and managed the game perfectly for Houston Fancher's squad. Minter, a player who had underachieved ever since he arrived in Boone, scored 20 points and pulled down nine rebounds.

The Mountaineers have shown that they have the talent to make noise in the North Division. But only time will tell if they can play well consistently, and draw enough fan support to create a menacing home court environment.

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