But the USA Today Coaches Poll has seen a single vote cast for Duke ahead of Kentucky this season, and Mark Wiedmer of the Chattanooga Times Free Press has found the culprit. Among the 32 coaches who vote in the poll, only Wofford head coach Mike Young has placed the Blue Devils at No. 1.
Young explained his rationale to Wiedmer:
“Well, I know one No. 1 vote Duke got, and that was mine,” Young said to Wiedmer. “I know Kentucky is such a remarkable team — so long and so deep. But Duke is just as terrific. I know I’d love to see them play each other in the (NCAA) tournament.”
To further explain Young’s thought process behind putting Duke at No. 1, you just need to look at the Terriers’ schedule. The Blue Devils smashed Wofford, 84-55, on New Year’s Eve. You might think that Wofford is some pushover mid-major program with no basis of knowledge of the bluebloods of college basketball, but the Terriers lost to No. 2 seed and Final Four participant Wisconsin last season in the NCAA Tournament and also beat N.C. State on the road this season.
At 11-4, Wofford is favored to win the Southern Conference and make it back to the NCAA Tournament this season. So Young is a good coach who has seen some really talented teams the past few years. His opinion doesn’t come without merit. In this case, he just happens to disagree with everyone else who follows college basketball.
Young is a big fan of Duke freshman center Jahlil Okafor, however, and that could also aid in his decision to put the Blue Devils in the top spot.
“If you try to play him one-on-one, he’ll just overpower you; he’s almost unstoppable. And if you double him, he throws lasers back to the perimeter, which usually result in wide-open 3-pointers,” Young said of Okafor.
The nation’s college basketball fans will just have to agree to disagree with Young on his vote, but he does make one point that we can all get behind. We’d all love to see Duke and Kentucky face each other in March to determine on the floor who the better team is.
For years, the Southern Conference has been considered one of the strongest mid-major conferences in the country.
The reason for that, more than anything, was the presence of Davidson at the top of the conference. Regardless of how good the Wildcats have been, ever since Steph Curry burst onto the scene, first leading Davidson to within a 3-pointer of the Final Four and then playing his way into the top 10 of the NBA Draft, the Wildcats have been a default pick as one of the nation’s best mid-major teams.
That’s no longer the case, however, as Davidson has made the move to the Atlantic 10 for this season. Elon, Appalachian State and Georgia Southern followed the Wildcats out the door, which mattered less for the basketball side of things than last season’s departure of the College of Charleston.
The news isn’t all bad for the league. VMI won 24 games last season and will be rejoining the conference after spending time in the Big South. East Tennessee State and Mercer, two quality basketball programs that are well-funded and well-supported, join the conference as well. And that’s before mentioning that Will Wade has turned Chattanooga into the epicenter of ‘Chaos’. Perhaps the best news for the SoCon is that the Wofford Terriers are currently the best program in the conference, which, for those of you that aren’t fluent in South Carolina basketball, is quite surprising.
That’s not me being mean, either.
Wofford’s head coach Mike Young will tell you the same thing, and he would know. He’s been with the program since 1989. He’s been the head coach since 2002. He knows the program better than anyone else in the entire world.
“Not a chance in hell,” Young said when I asked him if he ever thought the Terriers would be in this spot, and he wasn’t done driving the point home, either. “Nope. Not. A chance. In hell.”
And there’s a reason for that.
You see, when Young first joined the Wofford staff, he was joining a program that was making the transition from the NAIA to the NCAA. Division II, that is. It was almost a decade until the Terriers would move up to the highest level of college sports, but it would still take another 13 seasons before Wofford would make their first NCAA tournament.
That was in 2010.
And here we are in 2014, and the Terriers have won three of the last five automatic bids, own a pair of regular season titles during that stretch and will enter this season as the favorite to make the Big Dance once again.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think that was attainable,” Young said. “But here we are. We’ve done it and we’ve it the right way and continue to do it the right way, and that’s a special feeling.”
The example that Young gives when he talks about doing things “the right way” is Aerris Smith, a senior on last year’s NCAA tournament team that just so happened to be the only holdover from the group that made the 2011 tournament. That didn’t mean he played much, however, as Smith had the kind of knee issues that would have forced him to sit out if his future was in professional basketball. He needed microfracture surgery, the procedure that helped turn Amare Stoudamire and Greg Oden into a shell of themselves.
But Smith couldn’t do anymore damage to himself by playing and putting off the surgery, so he put off the surgery, swam six mornings a week at the Y to stay in shape, sat out every single practice of his senior season and gave Young the seven or eight minutes a night off the bench that he knew the team needed to help them win.
By the time the regular season was over, Smith knew that he had had enough. He would play out the SoCon tournament and then get the surgery, regardless of how the Terriers did.
“He came into my office and, very matter of factly, no emotion, said, ‘Coach, I can’t do it anymore. I’m having trouble sleeping now. I’ve got to get this thing taken care of,'” Young said, pausing to keep compose himself. “I get emotional thinking about it.”
You know the rest of the story. Wofford won the automatic bid, and Smith announced that his career was over in a powerful, emotional postgame interview.
Smith is gone, coaching high school ball back in his native Charlotte, but everyone else on the Terrier roster is back this season. That includes nine of the 10 players on the Wofford roster that started at least five games last year.
Karl Cochran, who averaged 15.7 points and 3.0 assists, will likely enter the season as the SoCon Player of the Year even though he may not be the most valuable player on the roster. That title goes to Les Skinner, Young says, an undersized power forward that averaged 11.1 points and 8.5 boards through sheer determination.
“He’s the straw that stirs our drink,” Young says. “He doesn’t get the notoriety and accolades that some others may get, but we’re not nearly as good without him.”
Skinner and Cochran are both seniors, which means that, regardless of how this season plays out, Wofford will have some pieces to replace next season. But Spencer Collins, a 6-foot-4 guard that was the team’s second-leading scorer last year, has started every game in his first two seasons on campus. And according to Young, the team’s two most improved players — sophomore Jaylen Allen and junior Justin Gordon — both have a long time left in Spartanburg, South Carolina.
No league underwent as much of a makeover during this offseason as the Southern Conference. Four of the league’s 11 teams departed to different leagues this offseason, with Elon, Georgia Southern and Appalachian State departing for football purposes. The biggest hit, however, was the loss of Davidson, the league’s marquee program, to the Atlantic 10. That hurt, but the good news is that the three programs joining the conference this season — Mercer, East Tennessee State and VMI — all have quality basketball programs. Losing Steph Curry’s alma mater is tough to overcome, but the league may actually be tougher in the future with the new additions.
Everyone should be aware of Mercer. The Bears beat out Florida-Gulf Coast for the Atlantic Sun’s automatic bid last season, and they made the most of their NCAA tournament trip by knocking off No. 3 seed Duke in the opening round. But the Bears lose seven seniors and five starters from last year’s team, meaning that their first year in the SoCon will be spent in regrouping mode. VMI loses two of their three leading scorers, who averaged a combined 39.0 points, but they bring back sophomore Q.J. Peterson and bring back a roster that should allow them to be a factor in the league title race. The third new addition is East Tennessee State, who returns back court stars Rashawn Rembert and Jalen Riley, who should start this season, but will have to find a way to replace their front court.
The favorite in the SoCon this season will be Wofford, who played their way into the NCAA tournament a season ago by winning the league’s automatic bid despite finishing third in the regular season. Mike Young’s club returns essentially their enter roster from a season ago, a year that saw Young start ten different players at least five times during the regular season. It took Wofford awhile to find their rhythm last year, part of the reason that Young used so many different lineups, but once he found up that worked, the Terriers finished the season strong. Karl Cochran and Spencer Collins will anchor the back court, while Lee Skinner will be their biggest interior presence.
It won’t be easy for the Terriers, however, as Will Wade’s Chattanooga program will enter their second season playing ‘Chaos’. Wade is a member of Shaka Smart’s coaching tree, meaning that his goal is to eventually get the Mocs playing the full-court, all-out pressing style that has allowed VCU to be so successful. Wade is starting to get his players into the program, and while last season saw Chattanooga forced into more zone and half-court defense than Wade would have liked, this season will bring much more pressure and … chaos. Casey Jones and Rico White are the two players that will anchor the back court, but the guy to keep an eye on is Justin Tuoyo, a 6-foot-10 transfer that followed Wade from Richmond.
One team to keep an eye on is Furman. The Palladins were just 3-13 in the league last season, but they have a young and promising back court, headlined by Stephen Croome. Keep an eye on William Gates, the son of the star of the movie ‘Hoop Dreams’, who had a promising freshman season despite battling knee issues much of the year.
PRESEASON SOCON PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Karl Cochran, Wofford
Cochran averaged 15.7 points and 5.0 boards as a junior, a feat made all the more impressive by the fact that he’s just a 6-foot-1 guard. The leading scorer and best player on the Terriers, Cochran only started 22 of Wofford’s 33 games a season ago.
THE REST OF THE PRESEASON ALL-SOCON TEAM:
Q.J. Peterson, VMI, So.: VMI’s system allows players to put up huge numbers, but Peterson averaged 19.0 points as a freshman.
Stephen Croome, Furman, Jr.: The 6-foot-0 guard averaged 19.1 points and 3.7 assists while helping change the culture of the Palladin program.
Lee Skinner, Wofford, Sr.: An undersized power forward, Skinner is the heart and soul of this year’s Wofford team.
Casey Jones, Chattanooga, Jr.: The leading returning scorer for the Mocs, Jones is a 6-foot-5 forward that should fit well into the ‘Chaos’ system Will Wade runs.
ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @(link)
3. East Tennessee State
7. Western Carolina
8. UNC Greensboro
9. The Citadel