Thanks to either luck or prescient schedule-making, the four contending teams each play one another one more time before the regular season champion is determined. Of course, winning the conference tournament -- and a guaranteed spot in the NCAA tournament -- is more important, in what’s expected to be a one-bid league. But the stretch run gives each of the top four to build momentum and send a message before the elimination games begin.
Barring upsets against bottom-half teams, which of the top four has the best chance to end up on top?
(Each team’s matchups against the other title contenders are listed in parenthesis.)
ETSU (vs Mercer, February 18; vs Samford, February 20; at Chattanooga, February 27)
Standing two games out of first place with five conference games remaining, the Bucs have the most ground to cover. But they get two of their three intra-contender games at home, and that's good news -- ETSU is 10-1 inside Brooks Gym, with its lone loss to Chattanooga on January 30th.
The bad news is that even if the Bucs hold serve at home and get help, they end the regular season at Chattanooga, against whom they’ve lost seven in a row.
A regular season title is a reach, but ETSU has more realistic odds of finishing 3rd or better, and avoiding a likely meeting with Furman in the SoCon Tournament’s 4-5 game. The Paladins are the first-round opponent nobody wants to play; ETSU and Furman split their two regular season meetings, with a cumulative score of 145-145.
CHATTANOOGA (vs Samford, February 17; vs Mercer, February 20; vs ETSU, February 27)
The Mocs have won the last three SoCon championships, and despite being in 3rd place today are well-positioned to take another title. Since their back-to-back losses to Mercer and Samford in late January, Chattanooga has won three straight, and – more importantly – gets all of its intra-contender games at home.
How important is that? They’re 11-1 on their own court this season, and the only loss was no fluke. Top-ranked Connecticut handed Chattanooga a 48-point defeat on November 30 – victory #41 of the Huskies’ current 60-game winning streak. It’ll take some doing for a SoCon opponent to win at McKenzie Arena.
With its current RPI of 57, Chattanooga is the SoCon’s only “bubble” team – they have a chance to land an NCAA bid without winning the conference tournament. But it’s a slim chance that would require a lot of dominoes falling in their favor.
SAMFORD (at Mercer, February 13; at Chattanooga, February 17; at ETSU February 20)
The Bulldogs are the only team in the top four that will have to play all of its intra-contender matchups on the road. Even tougher, those games are all in a row.
Samford’s best-case scenario involves sweeping those contests, clinching the #1 seed early and using its two games in the last week of the regular season as tournament tune-ups. The Bulldogs, with the league’s #1 defense, have a game that travels well.
The worst-case scenario involves their middle-of-the-pack offense struggling, getting swept by the other three and falling into the tournament’s 4-5 game – perhaps as the #5 seed.
MERCER (vs Samford, February 13; at ETSU, February 18; at Chattanooga, February 20)
The Bears sent shockwaves through the SoCon with their decisive 67-44 victory over Chattanooga on January 21. They were shocked themselves less than 48 hours later when ETSU rallied for a 55-53 win at Hawkins Arena.
Like rival Samford, Mercer plays its intra-contender games in a row. They host the Bulldogs February 13th; with a win, the Bears could conceivably drop both ends of the daunting ETSU-Chattanooga two-step in the penultimate weekend of the regular season and still get the #1 seed.
The numbers show Mercer might be the SoCon’s most complete team. They’re #1 in scoring margin and assists, 2nd in scoring, shooting percentage, opponents’ shooting percentage and rebounding margin, and 3rd in three-point shooting and points allowed. Taking two out of three from the other members of the top four would cap a rebuilding process under head coach Susie Gardner that started with a 2-27 record just five years ago.
The Southern Conference 2016 Women’s Basketball Tournament is March 3-6 in Asheville, North Carolina.