Duggar Baucom's timing could have been better.
Just as The Citadel's basketball coach appears to have his best team in four years with the Bulldogs — they are off to a 5-2 start with three straight wins over Division I teams — the rest of the Southern Conference is peaking, as well.
"When I took the job at The Citadel, I knew I had my work cut out for me because of the history here," laughed Baucom, who coached for 10 seasons at another military school, VMI, and is 38-66 in his fourth year at The Citadel. "But I didn't know I was taking it at a time when the SoCon has been the best its ever been."
There's not enough data yet to make that judgement this season, but results from the early sample size so far are promising for the league.
As conference play begins Saturday with three games, including Mercer at The Citadel (1 p.m., McAlister Field House), the SoCon is off to a remarkable start:
• Furman is one of 17 undefeated teams remaining in the country, and at 7-0 already has knocked off two of last year's Final Four teams — Loyola Chicago and Villanova.
• Six teams have two or fewer losses, including 5-2 Wofford, which waxed South Carolina, 81-61, last week.
• Eight teams have winning records in the early going, and the league has three teams ranked in the top seven of the mid-major top 25 at collegeinsider.com (No. 4 Furman, No. 5 UNC Greensboro and No. 7 Wofford).
• The SoCon is currently ranked No. 8 in conference RPI at warrenolan.com, ahead of the Missouri Valley, American Athletic, Conference USA, Atlantic 10 and Colonial Athletic Association, among others.
"We're beating SEC teams, two Final Four teams, and last year we beat three ACC teams," said Baucom, whose club has beaten James Madison of the CAA and South Florida of the AAC. "It's just crazy how good the league is. We're making steps and progress, but we'd better, because everybody else is good."
With seniors Zane Najdawi, Matt Frierson and Quayson Williams back for their fourth season in Baucom's fast-paced system, this season figured to be Baucom's best so far at The Citadel. But two other factors have given the Bulldogs a boost.
The addition of grad-student transfers Lew Stallworth and Connor Kern have made up for the departure of four transfers after last season. Stallworth, a 6-1 point guard, has been a revelation, averaging 17.4 points, 6.9 assists and 5.9 rebounds through seven games.
"He's probably the best point guard I've played with in my life," said sophomore Kaiden Rice. "When he passes you the ball ... he's getting great looks for everybody, and you can see it in the scores."
Kern, a 6-4 guard, is settling into his role as a 3-point shooter across from Frierson, and hit 5 of 6 from deep for 17 points in a 112-87 victory over High Point on Thursday.
And then there's the development of Rice, the 6-6 sophomore from Columbia. He made 8 of 13 from 3-point range and scored 26 points against High Point, and is averaging 13.1 points and shooting 46 percent from deep while coming off the bench.
"Before the season started, the coaches said we had something special with this team," Rice said. "I believe it, everybody in the locker room believes it, and we believe we can do some real damage in the SoCon."