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.
Wofford is a basketball power right now.
No one, quite literally, saw that coming.