College basketball: Chattanooga poised to strike again in SoCon
The crispness of the fall air, the orange hues that overtake the treetops, and the squeak of basketball sneakers in gymnasiums across the country. These are just some of the telltale signs that basketball is back. More importantly, the annual countdown to March Madness can begin anew.
As much fun as Midnight Madness can be, the culmination of a long offseason is the tipoff of a team's first game. With the start of the 2016-17 season quickly approaching, NCAA.com is cracking the books and breaking things down in each of college basketball's 32 conferences.
Here’s our look at the Southern:
Tabbed as the favorite last preseason, Chattanooga won its 11th SoCon regular season and tournament championships and set a school record with 29 victories in 2015-16 under rookie coach Matt McCall, a former Florida assistant.
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They finished the regular season 15-3, one game ahead of East Tennessee State, then nipped the Bucs 73-67 in the tournament finals in Asheville, N.C.
Chattanooga earned a 12 seed in the NCAA tournament but lost to Indiana 99-74. East Tennessee State split two games in the inaugural Vegas 16 postseason tournament.
There isn’t a clear-cut pick. East Tennessee State guard T.J. Cromer (14.9 ppg) returns to pilot coach Steve Forbes’ high-octane attack that produced 78 points per game last season. Chattanooga welcomes back 6-5 forward Casey Jones, who was leading his squad in scoring, rebounding and assists when an ankle injury ended his season after eight games. Mercer forward Stephon Jelks registered a 114.5 offensive rating in 2015-16.
But the edge here goes to Chattanooga’s Tre’ McLean, who earned the nod from coaches and media in the SoCon’s official preseason poll. McLean (12.1 ppg, 6.3 rpg) is another versatile 6-5 piece in the Mocs’ arsenal. He logged minutes at every position but center last season, shot 48 percent from the field, 37 percent on 3-pointers and 79 percent at the line.
Chattanooga returns three of the best players in the league in McLean, Jones and Justin Tuoyo, a 6-10 forward. He was the SoCon’s Defensive Player of the Year and is the school’s career leader in blocked shots, swatting 77 in 2015-16.
With four starters returning from a championship team, Chattanooga coach McCall understands why his team received preseason accolades. But he’s not impressed.
“What was accomplished last year has no effect on what’s going to happen in between the lines this year,” McCall said. “It’s a completely new team with a bunch of new faces. There are some familiar faces, but there are some guys we’re going to have to rely on who have never played in a college game.”
The Mocs welcome five newcomers into action. Each should have an opportunity to earn playing time. Freshman point guard Rodney Chatman and 6-4 swingman Nat Dixon - who played one season of football at Boston College before switching sports and schools - appear ready to contribute right away, McCall said.
Chattanooga suffered a blow in the preseason when returning starter Chuck Ester, a 6-7 senior, injured his knee. It will require surgery and he’s out indefinitely.
An opening weekend trip to Tennessee and No. 6 North Carolina should reveal plenty, but on the heels of last year’s success McCall knows the Mocs won’t sneak up on any opponent — especially a power conference foe.
“Coaches can harp on this being a new season, but until players face adversity against opposing players, you don’t realize that,” he said. “They have to play even harder than they did last year. You’re really going to find out a lot about your team, both positives and negatives.”
Mercer has played in the postseason five consecutive years and, of course, shocked Duke in the first round of the 2014 NCAA tournament.
On Feb. 7th of last season, the Bears were 18-6 overall and 8-3 in the SoCon. Then they lost the next seven games, fell to East Tennessee State in the tournament semifinals and dropped their opener to Coastal Carolina in the CollegeInsider.com Postseason tournament.
With Jelks and two other starters returning (including guard Jordan Strawberry, the son of former baseball All-Star Darryl Strawberry), expect the Bears to rinse away that nasty taste from last season.
Improving on defense is imperative. Mercer ranked seventh in adjusted efficiency (109.0) against SoCon foes.
Freshman to Watch
Tre Clark, a 6-5 forward, posted impressive stats as a senior at Palmetto (Fla.) HS. He led the area with 24.5 points per game, while also chipping in 6.2 rebounds and 5.0 assists per game. He has a rugged college-ready frame to complement his scorer’s touch and also possesses strong athletic genes. His father, Willie Clark, starred at Notre Dame in the early 1990s and played five seasons in the NFL for the San Diego Chargers and Philadelphia Eagles.
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