SOCON TOURNAMENT

When: Friday-Monday

Where: U.S. Cellular Center, Asheville

Title game: 7 p.m. Monday on ESPN2

Tickets: Ticketmaster.com (1-800-745-3000)

Wildcats enter men’s SoCon tournament as heavy favorite

BY JEFF HARTSELL

jhartsell@postandcourier.com

After Georgia Southern’s upset of Davidson on Jan. 14, Eagles coach Charlton Young thanked “the entire city of Statesboro” for inspiring the otherwise inexplicable victory.

Importing entire Southern towns to Asheville for this weekend’s Southern Conference basketball tournament is probably not a feasible game plan.

But such an effort might be what it takes for any of the 11 SoCon squads hoping to unseat Davidson, as heavy a favorite as the league tournament has seen in years.

“Aside from Davidson,” Citadel coach Chuck Driesell says with a chuckle, “it’s wide open.”

The 23-7 Wildcats have won 14 games in a row heading into the tourney, where they are the top seed and enjoy a bye into Saturday’s quarterfinals.

At 17-1 in league play, they’ve outscored their SoCon rivals by an average of 17.7 points per game, including whippings of 37, 35 (twice) and 32 points.

No. 2 seed Elon (20-10, 13-5) and No. 3 College of Charleston (22-9, 14-4) are the only other league teams with fewer than 15 losses. Elon played Davidson only once and lost by six points, while the Cougars lost twice by an average of 12.5 points.

It’s not been a banner year for the SoCon; the league is No. 27 out of 32 in the RPI at warrennolan.com, and eight league teams have 18 or more losses.

But in recent years, perhaps only the Stephen Curry-led Elite Eight Davidson team of 2007-08 (which went 20-0 in the league) and the 16-0 College of Charleston club of 1999-2000 entered the tournament as bigger favorites.

“They don’t have many holes,” said Cougars coach Doug Wojcik. “They are battle-tested, well-coached and their system’s been in place for 24 years.”

Still, if anyone knows that being the favorite means little, it’s Davidson’s coach Bob McKillop. He’s taken two teams that went undefeated in SoCon play — a 16-0 squad in 2004-05 and a 14-0 team in 1995-96 — to the tournament and come home empty-handed.

“As soon as you start taking things for granted,” McKillop said, “you write your own obituary.”

The Wildcats were without senior guard JP Kuhlman in that loss to Georgia Southern, and have played without key reserve Clint Mann, a 6-7 senior, since he suffered a concussion against The Citadel on Jan. 17.

But with 6-10 Jake Cohen, the league’s player of the year, and 6-8 De’Mon Brooks surrounded by savvy, experienced guards, these Wildcats shape up as team no high seed wants to see in the NCAA tournament.

“Davidson as a 14 seed? That’s a dangerous, dangerous game,” Wojcik said.

Can Davidson be beat? Wojcik says the formula is a complicated one.

“You’ve got to shoot it well,” he said. “You’ve got to defend Jake Cohen at the 3-point line. You can’t turn it over, you’ve got to get back in transition, you’ve got to defend the 3-point line, you have to defend the post without a whole lot of help. You’ve got to play a solid game.”

And then there’s the March Madness factor, which Chattanooga coach John Shulman equates to those crazy shooting games at the county fair.

“When you are one and done, that rim goes from being really huge to being like a rim at the fair,” he said. “Those rims are really tight and they are bent and that ball won’t go through the rim. Every possession could be the one to send you home. That’s playing with an awful lot of pressure.”