|Furman coach Bob Richey|
Photo courtesy of Furman
If the regular season ended Tuesday, Furman would have the No. 1 seed thanks to its head-to-head win against ETSU at Timmons Arena. This season, that top seed could prove to be as valuable an asset as ever before.
A look at the standings indicates the "big four" are still the big four. Furman (18-5) and ETSU (19-4) are tied for first place at 8-2, while UNC Greensboro (17-6) and Wofford (15-8) are tied for third at 7-3. These are the only four who have each won at least 10 games at home this season and Wofford is the only SoCon team who hasn't suffered a home loss in league play (5-0). Meanwhile, Furman and UNCG are two of 19 Division I teams that have won at least seven true road games.
Last season, those four teams went a combined 47-1 against the rest of the league. This season, it's a different story as the middle of the pack have proved to be quite formidable. Western Carolina (14-7) and Mercer (12-11) are tied for fifth at 6-4 in the SoCon, while Chattanooga (14-9) is seventh at 5-5. After quite a few injuries early on, Mercer is currently the hottest team in the league. The Bears will come to Furman on Wednesday riding a six-game winning streak.
While the Paladins will have had a week off to prepare, it remains to be seen whether that will be a good thing or a bad thing. Coach Bob Richey said he would've preferred to keep playing this past weekend, but it did provide a final long break before the final stretch of the season.
"It's the grind of the season and everybody's tired right now," Richey said after Furman's win over VMI last Wednesday. "We've got to rest our bodies and take advantage of the time (off), but we've also got to stay sharp. It's a fine line.
"This is the first gap of the schedule since Christmas and we've got to use it to improve. It's an opportunity for us to get better, if we have the right attitude at practice. ... There are some bolts that need to be tightened."
While Samford (8-16, 2-8), VMI (6-17, 1-9) and The Citadel (6-17, 0-10) are the only SoCon teams with losing records, that haven't exactly rolled over in league play. Samford has a five-point loss to Wofford and seven-point loss to UNCG. VMI lost by six at ETSU and gave Furman all it could handle last week in Greenville before falling 74-72 in overtime. The Citadel had a two-point loss at Wofford, a four-point loss to Western Carolina and a five-point loss at Mercer this past Saturday.
"I don't know if the league is better than it was last year, but I know it's way more balanced," Richey said. "There are dang good coaches in this league and there's a lot of good players.
"The trick in February is going to be who shows up every single night to play as hard as they can play and play to their identity. And then who can get teams out of their identity and catch somebody slipping."
While it seems any team can challenge any other in the SoCon, there's does seem to be a clear line in the sand between the top seven and bottom three teams this year, making that No. 1 seed even more important than usual. That top seed will face either the eighth or ninth seed in the quarterfinal round in Asheville.
For the Paladins to maintain its current position as that top seed, they will probably have to win all the games they should be favored in - all four remaining home games and their game at Samford. Furman will also likely have to win at least one on the road against either ETSU, UNCG or Western Carolina. If it can be only one of those three, UNCG might be the one to get as a Spartans' win would give them the season sweep and a tiebreaker advantage over the Paladins.
Now matter how it all shakes out, it should be an entertaining ride through February to what should be a whale of a tournament in Asheville.
"We've got to get better. We're in the hunt and we're going to be in the hunt. This is a championship-level group. I love this team, but it's going to hard. There's going to be battles," Richey said. "You can't sit there and try to figure out 'what game do we have to be our best.' When you've got to play a game in the Southern Conference, you'd better show up and be ready to be your best because if you don't, you're going to get beat. ... It doesn't matter who you're playing.
"I don't think the league gets the credit it deserves This is big time ball, every single night."