No hard feelings (copy)

Mike Young has been at Wofford for 17 years and won four SoCon tournament titles as the Terriers' head coach. File/Staff 

Shortly after he was hired at The Citadel in March 2015, coach Duggar Baucom attended a meeting with Southern Conference commissioner John Iamarino.

The subject — the state of SoCon basketball, and what to do about it.

"He was dejected," Baucom said of the commissioner. "He said, 'Our league is ranked 28th in the country. It's got to be better.'"

Four years later — and five years after the league bottomed out at 30th out of 32 NCAA Division I conferences in 2013-14 — the SoCon is riding high as the league tournament opens Friday in Asheville, N.C.

Led by regular-season champion Wofford, the SoCon is ranked as high as 10th out of 32 Division I leagues in the country in RPI. And the SoCon is positioned to earn its first ever at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.

Wofford, ranked No. 14 in the latest NCAA NET ranking, is now viewed as a near-lock to make the NCAA Tournament if the Terriers don't win the SoCon Tournament and an automatic bid. And bracketologist Jerry Palm has both Wofford and Furman (No. 43 in the NET) in the field in his latest 68-team bracket.

It's been a fun season for Iamarino, who heard a lot about the SoCon's impending demise after Davidson, College of Charleston, Georgia Southern, Appalachian State and Elon left the league in 2012-13.

"It's been very gratifying, and the credit goes to the coaches and players," he said Thursday. "But I also think the things we talked about four or five years ago, about how we needed to make basketball better ... I think we're starting to see the fruits from that planning."

$1 million investment

Ironically, the exit fees paid by College of Charleston and the other departing schools helped fuel the SoCon's rebound. Those fees totaled $600,000, and Iamarino convinced the league's presidents to devote that money toward a $1 million fund dedicated to improving men's basketball.

That money went toward helping the 10 member schools (Mercer, ETSU and VMI joined) develop the resources to produce their games on ESPN platforms; to an "enhancement pool" that rewarded programs for hitting benchmarks in scheduling, winning and RPI improvement; and a line of credit to help teams buy guarantee games at home, take international trips and host multi-team events.

SoCon football ready for new era (copy)

SoCon commissioner John Iamarino. (File photo)

"Combine the line of credit, the enhancement pool and getting our schools up and running on ESPN, all of that has contributed to our success this year," Iamarino said. 

"Some of the schools that left us were roadblocks to the league setting up its own digital network, and they ended up funding it," he said. "That always gives me a chuckle."

High-paid coaches

Another factor, Iamarino said, is that the SoCon has been able to hold on to rising star coaches such as Wofford's Mike Young, ETSU's Steve Forbes and UNCG's Wes Miller.

Young has been at Wofford for 17 years despite interest from other schools (including College of Charleston). Forbes recently earned a contract that pays him a base salary of $400,000 per year, plus a $50,000 stipend and an annual $200,000 retention bonus, making him the highest paid coach in the league. UNCG's Miller recently signed an extension that runs through the 2028-29 season, with a base salary of $301,150 per year plus bonuses and incentives.

"There's been no conference mandate on scheduling or anything like that," Iamarino said. "It's happened organically, with schools saying, 'We're not waiting on anybody else, we're going to devote our resources, hire good coaches and try to keep them.'"

Another factor in SoCon success has been an increase of productive big men in the league. The SoCon has been known as a guard's league in recent years, best exemplified by NBA superstar Stephen Curry, who led Davidson to the brink of the Final Four in 2008.

Matt Rafferty Zane Najdawi (copy) (copy)

Furman's Matt Rafferty (left) and The Citadel's Zane Najdawi (right) are two of the talented big men that have helped fuel the Southern Conference's rise in basketball this season. Photo provided/The Citadel 

This season, nearly every SoCon team has a productive big man, led by Wofford's 6-8, 250-pound Cam Jackson and Furman's 6-9 Matt Rafferty, both named first-team all-SoCon this week. An influx of transfers has brought post players from Arizona State (Ramon Vila, Chattanooga), Oklahoma State (7-footer Lucas N'Guessan, ETSU) and South Florida (7-footer Ruben Guerrero, Samford).

And one of the most talented big men in the league, UNCG's 6-10 James Dickey, missed six games this season and didn't make the all-SoCon team. Players like that are what The Citadel's undersized all-SoCon post man, 6-7 Zane Najdawi, has to deal with game after game.

"The league was guard-dominated back in the day, but now we have transfers and more size in the league," said Baucom, whose 10th-seeded Bulldogs take on No. 7 Samford in the tournament's first round at 7:30 p.m. Friday. "The league has gotten better, bigger players, and then you combine that with guards like Fletcher Magee (Wofford). It's tough being an opposing coach night in and night out."

More bids, more money

A second bid to the NCAA Tournament could mean another financial windfall for the SoCon.

The winner of the SoCon's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament earns one "unit," which is worth $265,000 to the league (and about $1.6 million over a six-year period), Iamarino said.

All of that money currently goes to the league's operating costs, Iamarino said.

But if the SoCon were to earn its first-ever at-large bid — say, if Wofford loses to UNCG in Monday's SoCon championship game, and both teams make the 68-team NCAA field — the league would earn a second NCAA "unit."

That surplus unit, also worth $1.6 million over six years, would be split up, with half going toward the SoCon's enhancement pool and half to league members, with the school that earns the at-large bid getting a double share.

The SoCon could also earn extra "units" if member teams win NCAA Tournament games. Davidson's run to the Elite Eight in 2008 was worth $4.5 million to the league over six years.

"Monetarily, a second bid would be awesome for everybody," Baucom said. "And then the notoriety is great for the league. You hear Joe Lunardi and Jerry Palm, all the bracket experts, talking about how good the league is, and it's fun to be a part of that."

And for Iamarino, there would be an added benefit.

"I'd never have to hear again," he said, "that the SoCon has never gotten two teams into the tournament."

SoCon Tournament Schedule

Friday (ESPN+)

Game 1 - (8) VMI vs. (9) Western Carolina, 5 p.m.

Game 2 - (7) Samford vs. (10) The Citadel, 7:30 p.m.

Saturday (ESPN+/Nexstar)

Game 3 - (1) Wofford vs. Game 1 winner, 12 p.m.

Game 4 - (4) ETSU vs. (5) Chattanooga, 2:30 p.m.

Game 5 - (2) UNCG vs. Game 2 winner, 6 p.m.

Game 6 - (3) Furman vs. (6) Mercer, 8:30 p.m.

Sunday (ESPN+/Nexstar)

Game 7 - Game 3 winner vs. Game 4 winner, 4 p.m.

Game 8 - Game 5 winner vs. Game 6 winner, 6:30 p.m.

Monday (ESPN)

Championship game, 7 p.m.

Reach Jeff Hartsell at 843-937-5596. Follow on Twitter @Jeff_fromthePC

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