Regardless of how conference tournament turns out, the SoCon deserves to send more than one team to the Big Dance
One of the most unpredictable and chaotic college basketball seasons in recent memory — if not the most — leaves us on the doorstep of March with a murky NCAA Tournament bubble.
A postseason as promising for surprises as this one deserves some bold and perhaps surprising moves from the outset on Selection Sunday: The selection committee needs to extend two invites to the Southern Conference.
The Southern Conference has provided March with plenty of madness, both historically and in more recent times. Take Furman, which in 1974 beat a South Carolina team with Hall of Famer Alex English plus Brian Winters, and Mike Dunleavy. Then 21 years later, Western Carolina came a single shot away of becoming the first No. 16 seed to beat a No. 1 seed, 22 years before UMBC pulled off the feat.
Chattanooga chugged into the Sweet 16 a year after Western Carolina's near-date with immortality. In 2008, a Davidson team with a skinny guard named Steph Curry fired its away to the Elite Eight.
Just last year, Fletcher Magee tore down Curry's litany of three-point-shooting records as Wofford reached the AP Top 25. Magee then out-dueled one of this season's leading contenders for National Player of the Year, Myles Powell, when Wofford bounced Seton Hall from the Big Dance.
The Terriers very nearly advanced to the Sweet 16 before falling to Kentucky in a memorable matchup. Wofford's performance in the 2019 Tournament aside, last March could fairly be deemed disappointing for the SoCon.
As is all too often the plight of conferences labeled mid-major, Selection Sunday 2019 left a variety of worthy teams out of the field — including Lipscomb, Furman, and East Tennessee State.
The latter two represent the SoCon. Yes, two. As in, the "mid-major" Southern Conference arguably deserved three NCAA Tournament bids in 2019. And yet, in a season when the oft-maligned Pac-12 received three bids, the SoCon was relegated to its usual, lone auto-bid.
Evidently, there's cachet in having power-conference distinction, even a media punching bag like the Pac-12 was a year ago.
The opposite precedent has proven true more often than not for quality mid-majors like Monmouth in 2016, Middle Tennessee in '18, or the SoCon's runners-up in '19. Even with a surefire NBA lottery pick on its roster and run to the Elite Eight a year prior, Davidson couldn't get a call in 2009.
So history suggests one shouldn't hold their breath awaiting two SoCon programs called this time around. Unless...
Three Southern Conference teams again near Selection Sunday with intriguing resumes. Both Furman and this year's SoCon pace-setter, East Tennessee State, are in the mix. So, too, is UNC Greensboro, which last year was a fourth team from the league with a top-100 resume.
This year's SoCon has one less top-100 team, but the chaos of the nationwide college basketball landscape compensates for the league having one less upper-echelon squad. The weekend of Feb. 22-23 provides a fitting snapshot.
The upset bug bit all around the country, most notably with then-top-ranked Baylor, No. 2 Gonzaga, No. 4 San Diego State, No. 7 Maryland and No. 9 Penn State all suffering losses.
And that's just the top 10. No. 17 West Virginia and No. 22 Houston both lost to unranked opponents, compounding the tumult.
In the SoCon, meanwhile, each of ETSU, Furman, and UNCG rallied from halftime deficits to win crucial games that keep their at-large aspirations alive. ETSU is riding an nine-game winning streak and has put itself in an outstanding position with regard to the NCAA NET ratings, hovering right around the top 40 after closing the regular season with a defeat of Western Carolina.
The Buccaneers have won nine straight since Jan. 29, and have just two losses in the 2020 calendar year; one of which came against another SoCon team worthy of some at-large attention.
Furman and UNC Greensboro have work to do. But as far as showing their ability to play with NCAA Tournament-caliber competition, each has done that.
Furman took 2019 Final Four participant and one of this year's SEC front-runners, Auburn, to overtime. UNC Greensboro played top-ranked Kansas tough at Allen Fieldhouse, has a head-to-head win over another mid-major on the periphery of at-large contention, Vermont, and beat at-large contending Georgetown.
The two faced off in the final week of the regular season, and will have a likely rubber match in the SoCon Tournament. Should the tournament go chalk to set up a semifinal rematch, the winner gets another resume boost ahead of a potential title tilt against ETSU.
A quick snapshot of each team's profile:
- 27-4, 16-2 SoCon
- KenPom No. 66, NET No. 41
- Key Wins: at LSU; UNCG; at UNCG; Furman
- Noteworthy Loss: 75-63 at No. 1 Kansas
- 25-6, 15-3 SoCon
- KenPom No. 74, NET No. 65
- Key Wins: Loyola Chicago; UT Arlington; ETSU; at UNCG
- Noteworthy Losses: 81-73 at Alabama; 81-78 (OT) at Auburn
- 23-7, 13-4 SoCon
- KenPom No. 87, NET No. 78
- Key Wins: at Georgetown; at Vermont; at Furman
- Noteworthy Losses: 74-62 at Kansas; 80-77 vs. NC State
UNC Greensboro dropping its regular-season finale to Chattanooga weakened the Spartans' resume considerably, dropping them five places in the NET. Furman, on the other hand, climbed considerably into the 60s with its regular-season finish.
A Paladins or Spartans run in Asheville may be the SoCon's best bet for two bids with the strength of ETSU's overall resume. But given the Southern Conference's strength at the top for a few years now, the league deserves at-large consideration regardless.
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.