Note: The following piece was prepared by Dean Keener, who provides commentary on Southern Conference men's basketball broadcasts.
Keener played collegiately at Davidson before embarking on a successful 20-year coaching career. He served as head coach at James Madison from 2004-08. You can follow him on Twitter: @DeanKeener1The
Feb. 7, 2018
I. Inside the SoCon
We're just over three weeks from the 98th annual Southern Conference Men's Basketball Championship presented by General Shale in Asheville, North Carolina! While many have mentioned the league being top-heavy, I think just the opposite as just about anyone can win on a given day. Really, the only thing that has been consistent has been ETSU's dominance. The Bucs are riding a 15-game winning streak and are trying to run the table in league play. I don't think anyone saw this coming, but Steve Forbes and staff have done a terrific job blending old with new.
Make no mistake, everyone wants to win the tournament and punch their ticket to March Madness. But the first goal is to receive a first-round bye as no team has won four consecutive games to win the SoCon tournament since 1939 (Clemson). There has been some separation among the top five teams, but the race to land in one of the top six slots is still very much open.
II. Did You Know
• ETSU's current 15-game winning streak is the second-longest in the SoCon in the last 10 seasons, trailing only Davidson's 17-game streak in 2012-13
• With a victory over Samford last Saturday, Western Carolina coach Larry Hunter became one of just 40 NCAA men's basketball coaches with 700 career wins
• In its 97th season of intercollegiate competition, there have been 44 members of the Southern Conference, including the current 10. Eight are current ACC members and 11 are current SEC schools
• Through Saturday, Feb. 3, the home team is 36-20 in league games
• There have been four overtime games in league play and Chattanooga has been involved in three of them, going 1-2
• VMI's Bubba Parham is the league's highest scoring freshman this season. He is currently averaging 15 points per game. No other freshman is averaging double figures
III. Most Improved
“Rough diamonds may sometimes be mistaken for worthless pebbles." Thomas Browne, English author
Sometimes it takes guys longer to adjust to the speed and physicality of the college game. There are other instances where a player is simply stuck behind an older/more talented player and needs to wait his time. So it's always fun to see players grow and improve throughout their career, especially in a league like the Southern Conference where there aren't one-and-done players going to the NBA.
Coaches talk about “player development” in recruiting, but not all of them invest the time and energy that's necessary to help players improve on their strengths and weaknesses. Player development comes in many different forms. It's time spent on the court, in the weight room and in the film room. It's also learning about proper nutrition and diet as well as maturing as a young person while on a college campus.
Let's take a quick look at those players that have shown a jump in their game this year:
• Ross Cummings (Mercer) – With injuries to Ria'n Holland and Ethan Stair, Cummings has been thrust into a starting role. And, boy, has he responded. After scoring a career-high 16 points against Furman on Feb. 1, he responded with 22 points on Feb. 3 in a victory over Wofford. This after scoring just 23 all of last season as a freshman!
• Matt Frierson (The Citadel) – The shooting guard has just gotten better every year in the Bulldog program. As a freshman, he averaged 4.7 ppg, then 6.3 as a sophomore. Currently he is averaging 13.5 ppg and 16.4 in league play. You have to find him as soon as he crosses half court!
• Peter Jurkin (ETSU) – The sixth-year center is finally healthy and playing at a very high level. Compare his numbers year-over-year:o Junior – 1.7 ppg, 1.5 rpg, 39% FG, 0.35 bpgo Senior – 8.2 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 57.6% FG, 1.3 bpg
• Trevor Stumpe (Wofford) – Much like Jurkin, he's been healthy, and that's made all the difference. He played behind some really good players as a freshman and then was injured last season, so maybe it's simply his time to show what he's always been capable of doing. In fact, in his last outing, he recorded his first career double-double
IV. Role Players
Not every player can be a starter, but the really good teams have guys that understand their roles off the bench and embrace them. In fact, every great team has role players that understand their jobs. They keep the music going when entering the game. It's the coach's responsibility to put players in the right roles and it's the player's responsibility to accept those roles.
Here are some key attributes to being a great bench/role player:
• Provide great energy to his team
• Totally into the game at all times, even before entering the game
• Always pay strict attention to the scouting report of each opponent, even though he may not be as involved during practice sessions
• He takes his role very seriously
• Loves to compete and have an edge, but not in a way that disrupts team chemistry
• Stays in great physical condition because he plays variable minutes in each game
• He has the ability to play and/or guard multiple positions, thus adding to his value
• Finally, great role players don't think in terms of what “they can't do” but rather “what they can do”- and they know this can change game-to-game
At the end of a game, it doesn't matter who started. If a player can fulfill many of the attributes listed above, he can be a valuable addition to his team – and be in the game when it matters most.
V. The Importance of a Good Assistant
While head coaches are the face of a college basketball team, many times it's the assistants that can determine the success (or failure) of a program.
All conversation regarding an assistant coach begins with recruiting. It's understood by just about everyone in the business that the lifeblood of any program is the recruitment of talented student-athletes. The most critical responsibility of any assistant is evaluating prospects, sustaining a workable database and successfully recruiting players to a program. But recruiting today is far more than just the identification of a prospect and judging the fit between talent and program – it's also about establishing and building relationships with those around the prospect – and much of that work must be done by the assistant coach.
While recruiting is the top priority of every assistant coach, today's assistants are required to be well-rounded if they are going to help the program be successful. An assistant is asked to deal with a wide variety of issues – on and off the court – in order to help manage a program.
In no particular order, the following areas are of vital importance for a college basketball assistant. I also believe these traits are deemed critical to master if an assistant aspires to run his own program some day:
- Recruiting: Make no mistake, recruiting is at the heart of an assistant's job. An assistant coach must have a level of seriousness during all evaluation opportunities and then during the entire recruiting process
- Dealing with players: It's critical for assistants to keep a pulse on the team. I have found that the best assistant coaches learn from their players – so watching what they do, listening to what they do and understanding why they do it can only help make for a better coach/player relationship
- Player Development: Player development/skill development is also important for assistant coaches. Assistants need to be capable in their abilities to help develop players both in season and out of season
- Time Management: Time management and handling crisis are keys to success in college athletics. An assistant coach must understand that multiple things will come up in a day that were NOT planned or accounted for. How a person reacts to these situations will, in many instances, determine his success
- Scouting Opponents / Watching Film: During the season an assistant must find time to watch film of the next opponent even if it's not his scout. This will help develop a better understanding of the upcoming game – and he just might pick something up
The importance of a good staff cannot be overstated. If an assistant coach is solid in the areas mentioned above, I believe the odds of success for the program greatly increase.
VI. The SoCon Ladder
The Ladder suggests that only one thing is for sure. ETSU is good, really good! The next four positions should remain that way in some form, but the battle for sixth place is still very much WIDE open:
- ETSU – The Bucs are riding a 15-game winning streak (and have won 19 of last 20). They are clearly the class of the SoCon. Is it possible they could run the table?
- UNCG – Currently, the Spartans are the second-best team in the league. Think the Greensboro Coliseum will be rocking next Monday when the Bucs come to town? But first, the Spartans need to take care of business against Furman and Western Carolina, which is no easy task
- Wofford – The Terriers have lost three of four, but don't fret, this is a good team with star power
- Furman – The Paladins blew a 17-point lead (with just over 9 minutes to go) at The Citadel last Saturday, but they can right the ship with a three-game home stand at Timmons Arena, where they are 10-2 this season
- Western Carolina – Larry Hunter picked up career win No. 700 last weekend against Samford. More importantly, the Catamounts are solidly in fifth place. This team is getting better, and that's dangerous for the rest of the league
- The Citadel – Other than ETSU, the Bulldogs are the hottest (and possibly most confident) team in the league right now. They have won three of their last four and are quickly embracing the pace!
- Mercer – The Bears finally got a much-needed win against a pesky Wofford team on Saturday. I still believe this group can make some real noise. They simply need to keep believing in the end goal
- Samford – The Bulldogs have hit a tough stretch, having lost eight of nine. But even without Wyatt Walker and Christen Cunningham, they can compete (and beat) most anyone in the SoCon
- VMI – The Keydets have played some good ball the past two weeks. Now can they knock off Western Carolina or ETSU at home before another three-game road swing?
- Chattanooga – A limited roster and injuries have decimated the Mocs. But they have been a very difficult out for most in league play. Maybe the most immediate goal is having a winning season in McKenzie Arena. In its 36th season, the Mocs have never had a losing home record at the Roundhouse. They currently sit at 7-6 with three remaining home games
Until the next “Dean's List” on Feb. 21, follow me on twitter: @DeanKeener1