The defending Southern Conference champs no longer have Mindaugas Katelynas and Chris Brown patrolling the paint. But guard Casey Long and widebody Alphonso Pugh should keep things stable until the seven-man recruiting class gets comfortable on the floor. The biggest hole to replace for second-year coach John Shulman may be the loss of his associate head coach Charlton Young, who took a job as an assistant at Georgia Tech. And alas, the conference tournament will be in Charleston, not Chattanooga, this year.
2. Appalachian State (18–12, 9–7)
It’s been a four-year roller-coaster ride in Boone. The Mountaineers have gone from 10 wins, up to 19, back down to nine and then back up to 18 last season. If you believe in trends, that’s not a good omen for this season. But if you believe in talented guards like D.J. Thompson and Nathan Cranford, then there’s hope for App State. That is, as long as someone grabs a few rebounds.
3. UNC Greensboro (18–12, 9–7)
Mike Dement is back at UNCG, where he coached the Spartans from 1991-95 and led the school to 23 wins in his final season. This time around, Dement inherited a talented, but young, team from Fran McCaffery, who left to take the head coaching job at Siena. Leading the way will be Kyle Hines, last season’s conference Freshman of the Year and a rebounding (8.6 rpg) and shot-blocking (3.5 bpg) machine. But Ray Bristow left school, leaving a gaping hole at point guard.
4. Elon (8–23, 5–11)
Last season was a nightmare for the Phoenix, which lost 19 of 20 games at one point. All-conference center Jackson Atoyebi went down with a season-ending injury just four games into the campaign, and sharpshooter Matt Nowlin decided to transfer. The good news? Elon pulled together to win six of its final 10 games, and Atoyebi will be back for a fifth season. He’ll be surrounded by an experienced team capable of bouncing back in the SoCon.
5. Western Carolina 8–22, 3–13)
The Catamounts pulled off a coup when they lured Larry Hunter, winner of more than 500 games as a college head coach, up to Cullowhee. Hunter’s already had an impact, as senior swingman Corey Muirhead, who had taken an indefinite leave of absence from the team, has decided to return for one more season. Muirhead joins all-conference big man David Berghoefer and sophomore guard Trey Hopkins, giving Hunter a decent talent base. Still, the Catamounts will be hard-pressed to make a move up the conference standings this season.
1. Davidson (23–9, 16–0)
The Wildcats went on a preseason trip to Italy in August. The last two times Davidson went on similar journeys, it reached the NCAA Tournament. That’s certainly possible again, as Bob McKillop’s squad should be the favorite in the South one year removed from a perfect 16–0 SoCon regular season. Davidson will be led by the perimeter trio of Brendan Winters, Matt McKillop and Kenny Grant, but the key will be forward Ian Johnson, who must shore up the inside after the loss of inside bangers Logan Kosmalski and Conor Grace.
2. Furman (16–13, 9–7)
Can the Paladins build on last season, Furman’s first winning record in conference play since 1991-92? It certainly would have helped to have Quan Prowell back, but the talented forward transferred to Auburn. Still, there is plenty of talent left at Furman, including a trio of tested juniors, guards Robby Bostain and Eric Webb and forward Moussa Diagne. All three averaged in double figures last year, and their presence is enough to make the Paladins a threat to earn a critical first-round bye in the conference tournament.
3. College of Charleston (18–10, 10–6)
Tom Herrion has won 63 games in his first three seasons at the College of Charleston, but that won’t satisfy the Cougars’ fan base until he gets the school back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1999. To do that, Herrion will have to rely on the experienced backcourt duo of Drew Hall and Dontaye Draper and hope that someone — perhaps Philip McCandies, a 6'9" transfer from Virginia Tech — can develop into a consistent threat down low.
4. Georgia Southern 18–13 (10–6)
The Eagles have the conference’s top returning scorer in senior guard Elton Nesbitt (20.2 ppg). But scoring has never been an issue for Georgia Southern. Making headway in the conference tournament has. In their 12 years in the league, the Eagles have never made it to the championship game. If they hope to reverse that trend this season, they’ll need to find someone to replace Terry Williams’ ball-handling and Jean Francois’ low-post scoring.
5. Wofford (14–14, 7–9)
The Terriers posted their first non-losing record after 10 seasons at the Division I level and did it despite a rash of injuries. If senior forward Howard Wilkerson comes back strong from a knee injury suffered last January, he will team with center Tyler Berg to form one of the best inside tandems in the league. Wofford needs junior guard Eric Marshall to build on the end of last season, when he played his best basketball.
6. The Citadel (12–16, 4–12)
The Bulldogs made strides last season, but that still wasn’t enough to earn a winning record. In order for The Citadel to keep improving, someone needs to be able to spell senior point guard Kevin Hammack occasionally. If the Bulldogs can get a handle on their ball-handling and get steady improvement from the McLendon brothers, sophomore Warren and junior Donny, they might just bridge the gap between themselves and the rest of the South Division.