SoCon Preview: Can Chattanooga knock Wofford off their perch?

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Beginning in October and running up through November 13th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2015-2016 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the Southern Conference.

Wofford has reigned supreme in the SoCon the past two seasons, as Mike Young has led the Terriers to back-to-back NCAA tournaments. They currently rein supreme as the regular season champs as well, but it’s going to be tough for this group to repeat as the dual-SoCon champs with star guard Karl Cochran and veteran big man Lee Skinner graduation. That’s a lot to replace, but the good news is that Wofford has a strong enough program established to be able to handle that kind of turnover. Seven of their top ten players return from last season, including second-leading scorer Spencer Collins and starting point guard Eric Garcia. Big men Justin Gordon, a senior, and Cameron Jackson, a sophomore who lost 20 pounds this offseason, will be counted on for front court production.

The Terriers will certainly be in the mix once again this season, but they’re not going to be entering the season as a favorite. That title belongs to Chattanooga despite the fact that they lost their head coach, Will Wade, back to VCU. He’ll be replaced by Matt McCall, as assistant from Florida, which means that the players on the Mocs roster shouldn’t have to adjust to too much this year. Wade is part of Shaka Smart’s coaching tree, and Shaka got his start as an assistant under Billy Donovan at Florida.

The Mocs will be led by Casey Jones, a 6-foot-5 senior wing that is our Preseason SoCon Player of the Year pick. Jones averaged 14.5 points and 7.0 boards last season, and while he’s not the greatest athlete in the world or the best shooter, he’s a smooth, strong player with a knack for getting into the lane and finishing. McCall will also get back Justin Tuoyo, the league’s best shot blocker, and veteran guard Greg Pryor back.

East Tennessee State is going to look nothing like the team they were last season. Head coach Murray Bartow was fired and the Buccaneers lost their top two scorers from last season. New head coach Steve Forbes, a former assistant at Wichita State and Tennessee, took over and immediately added nine new players this season. With Indiana transfer Peter Jurkin, Cincinnati transfer Ge’Lawn Guyn and Missouri transfer Deuce Bello joining a roster that includes Lester Wilson and A.J. Merriweather, the Bucs will make some noise.

After those top three, things get wide open. Mercer is led by arguably the best coach in the conference in Bob Hoffman, but the Bears lose their top three players from last season and didn’t have all that much depth on their roster in the first place. He’ll win games on his coaching acumen alone, but this could end up being a rebuilding year.

UNC-Greensboro is routinely one of the most talented teams in the conference, but they’ve always had trouble turning that talent into wins. Led by Tevon Saddler, Kayel Locke and R.J. White — all of whom could end up being first-team all-SoCon this season — the Spartans have one of the best starting fives in the league. But can they finally start winning close games?

There are two x-factors in the league race this year. The first is Furman, who came within a couple of possessions of going from dead last in the SoCon standings to the NCAA tournament. The good news is Niko Medved returns everyone from last year’s team. The bad news is that their run to the SoCon title game doesn’t mask that the Palladins finished with just four regular season league wins. Samford, like Furman, had a late season run — they won five straight at one point after losing their first eight in the league — and they return a handful of key pieces as well.

MORE: 2015-16 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

COACH’S TAKE

  • Favorite: “Chattanooga. I think their experience, with Casey Jones leading the charge, and depth. At every position. They’ve got size, shooting, they’re athletic. They’ve got the total package. They’re poised for a very good year.”
  • Sleeper: “Samford. They went on a streak late in the year, winning five in a row, and finished really well. They played with more confidence and belief and swagger. They started seeing it all come together last year. They return some guys, add some good recruits. I could see them being a team that makes a jump. Their senior, Darius Jones-Gibson, is a stud.”
  • Star to watch: “Casey Jones. He’s a matchup nightmare with his versatility. He’s a hybrid position guy: four and the three. He lets them play small or play big. He’s hard for bigs to guard, hard for guards to guard. He has a uncanny touch in the paint. If he gets the ball in the lane, he doesn’t miss, just a natural touch in the mid-range. Gets going down hill, spins, rises up and it’s in.”

PRESEASON SOCON PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Casey Jones, Chattanooga

The coach we quoted above basically said it all. Jones, a 6-foot-5 wing, causes all sorts of problems for opponents. Bigs can’t guard him because he takes them out onto the perimeter. Guards can’t guard him because he takes them down to the block. And he can guard threes or fours, meaning that he fills that Draymond Green-esque role for the Mocs; he lets them play really big or really small. That versatility is what makes Chattanooga so tough.

THE REST OF THE PRESEASON SOCON TEAM:

  • Justin Tuoyo, Chattanooga: A Player of the Year candidate, Tuoyo is the league’s best defender (3.3 blocks) and a nightly double-double threat.
  • Spencer Collins, Wofford: With Cochran gone, Collins will take over the lead-dog role for the Terriers this season.
  • Darius Jones-Gibson, Samford: A bit out there, but if Jones-Gibson makes the leap so many junior college transfers make in their second year, he could be the difference between Samford struggling and finishing in the top half of the league.
  • Tevon Saddler, UNCG: Saddler is arguably the most talented play maker in the conference.

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @SoConSports

PREDICTED FINISH

1. Chattanooga
2. Wofford
3. East Tennessee State
4. Mercer
5. UNC Greensboro
6. Furman
7. Samford
8. Western Carolina
9. VMI
10. The Citadel