By Keith Jarrett

ASHEVILLE – The Southern Conference has been playing college basketball since 1921, but this year’s postseason tournament at U.S. Cellular Center offers an unprecedented event.

For the first time in its 98 years, the 2019 Ingles Southern Conference Men’s Basketball Championship presented by General Shale features four teams that have combined for 99 wins.

The men’s and women’s tournaments will play Thursday through Monday at the U.S. Cellular Center, marking the 20th year the event has been held in Asheville, which has hosted the nation’s oldest collegiate tournament more than any another city.

And it could be the most competitive and exciting ever before one man’s and one woman’s team emerges with an automatic bid to the NCAA tournaments.

The top four men’s seeds – No. 1 Wofford (26-4), No. 2 UNC Greensboro (26-5), No. 3 Furman (24-6) and No. 4 East Tennessee State (23-8) – are all ranked in the top 16 of the College Insider.com Mid-Major Top 25.

This marks the third straight season the league has featured four teams with 20 or more wins, but the 99 total wins by the top four schools is the most ever heading into the tournament.

The Wofford Terriers, coming off an undefeated (18-0) regular season in league play, are ranked No. 2 among mid-majors, 24th in the AP Top 25 Poll and 25th in the USA Today Coaches Poll. The favorite to win the SoCon tourney for the fifth time in the past 10 seasons, Wofford, under veteran coach Mike Young, enters the tournament on an 18-game winning streak.

Greensboro, the defending tourney champion under coach Wes Miller, is ranked eighth in the Mid-Major Poll and is looking to become the first repeat champion since Wofford in 2014 and ’15. The Spartans come to Asheville winners of four straight and 12 of their last 14 outings.

Furman, ranked in the AP Top 25 earlier this season, had wins over defending national champion Villanova and fellow Final Four participant Loyola Chicago in a 12-0 start.
The Paladins are 12th in the Mid-Major rankings and begin tournament play on a run of eight wins in the last nine games.

ETSU has always enjoyed playing in Asheville, winning five SoCon tourney titles on the U.S. Cellular Center floor since 1989, including the ’17 championship. The Bucs have won 15 of their last 19 games.

“This is the best I’ve ever seen the league,” said Young, who has coached the Terriers for 17 seasons. “You have four outstanding teams who have had great seasons, and while we had some great teams back when Davidson and College of Charleston were in the league, this is the best I’ve been a part of.”

In fact, the league is ranked as the 10th best conference in the country by KenPom.com, ahead of such traditional top 10 leagues like the A-10.

The SoCon has sent a team to the NCAA tournament for 68 straight seasons, but the league has never received a second bid for an at-large berth. That could change this season. Wofford is 15th in the country in the NCAA Evaluation Tool (NET), which replaces the old RPI system for ranking teams.

The Terriers’ four losses are to Power Five Conference teams (Oklahoma, North Carolina, Kansas and Mississippi State), and three of those teams were ranked in the AP’s Top 25 when they beat Wofford.

“I don’t want to rely on that,” Young said when asked about the possibility of getting an at-large bid if his team doesn’t win the SoCon tourney. “I want Wofford to decide if Wofford gets in, not a committee. We’ve had a great season and we have some really good players, and we want to finish this off the right way by playing our way into the NCAA tournament.”

Furman (44th in the NET) could also get consideration for an at-large bid, while Greensboro (61) and ETSU (65) would likely need to win the tourney to get invited to the Big Dance.

The men’s event begins with a pair of games on Friday – No. 8 Virginia Military (10-20) vs. No. 9 Western Carolina (7-24) at 5 p.m., followed by No. 7 Samford (16-15) playing No. 10 The Citadel (12-17) at 7:30.

Quarterfinal play Saturday includes the top four seeds. Top seed Wofford plays the VMI-WCU winner at noon, followed by No. 4 ETSU vs. No. 5 Chattanooga (12-19). The evening season begins with No. 2 Greensboro playing the Samford-The Citadel winner at 6 p.m., with No. 3 Furman squaring off against No. 6 Mercer (11-19) at 8:30.
Saturday’s winners plays in Sunday’s semifinals at 4 p.m. and 6:30.

The championship game, televised nationally on ESPN, is 7 p.m. Monday.

Women’s tournament

In women’s play, seven teams will be looking to end the dominance of Mercer (22-7), which just finished an undefeated regular season in conference play for a second straight season.
Coach Susie Gardner’s Bears come to Asheville winners of 34 straight regular-season games against SoCon opponents.

This year’s squad, looking to claim the tournament title for a second straight year, have won 14 straight games and shown to be tough in the clutch, winning eight league games by eight points or less, including two overtime victories.

Among those who can contend are a tightly bunch set of schools that battled for second place down to the last day of the regular season – No. 2 Furman, No. 3 Chattanooga, No. 4 ETSU and No. 5 Wofford.

Mercer opens to women’s tournament at 11 a.m. Thursday against No. 8 Western Carolina (4-25). No. 4 ETSU (10-20) plays No. 5 Wofford (15-14) at 1:15 p.m., No. 2 Furman (17-12) meets No. 7 Samford (10-19) at 3:30 and No. 3 Chattanooga (13-16) battles No. 6 Greensboro (11-18) at 5:45.

Friday’s semifinals are at 11 a.m. and 1:15, with Sunday’s final at noon.

Tickets for the event, expected to draw up to 30,000 fans, are available. For general admission tournament books ($120), single session ($20) and youth and group sales, contact Ticketmaster.com or the U.S. Cellular Box Office (828-259-5736).

For VIP packages ($250), which includes seats, food and beverages, contact Laura Weston at lweston@ashevilenc.gov or call the box office.

More than just basketball

In addition to 16 games over five days, the 2019 Ingles Southern Conference Basketball Championships presented by General Shale offers so much more.

The inaugural Ingles SoCon Fan Experience will take place Friday through Sunday.  Admission to all events is free. The Ingles SoCon Fan Experience will be highlighted by four concerts during its three-day run and will feature other family friendly activities. In addition to the concerts, there will be basketball-themed interactives, face painting, a TapSnap booth, an Ingles SoCon Mascot Challenge voting area with large mascot cutouts, and a chalk drawing area for kids.

Also on site will be a large Jumbotron showing live tournament action, live radio remotes, a concessions area and a SoCon merchandise booth.

The Ingles SoCon Fan Experience will be open from 3-7:30 p.m. on Friday, March 8, 10 a.m.-7 p.m. on Saturday, March 9, and 1-4 p.m. on Sunday, March 10.

Concerts will be performed by Joe Lasher on Friday at 6:15 p.m., Ryan “RnB” Barber – Boogie Therapi on Saturday at 11 a.m., The Carolina Lowdown Band at 4:30 p.m. Saturday and Lyric on Sunday at 2 p.m.

The Ingles SoCon Fan Experience will also benefit Eblen Charities and its Hoops Against Hunger program. Hoops Against Hunger helps provide snacks and meals to school-age children without enough food at home.

Fans are encouraged to bring donations of ready-to-eat or easy-to-serve food items. People donating food items can receive a voucher for $5 off a general admission session ticket.

The always popular Downtown Dribble & KidsFest presented by Champion Credit Union starts Saturday at 9 a.m. at Pack Square.

Monday night’s championship game features Hometown Heroes Night, when members of the military, fire, police, emergency and medical services, charitable organizations, government and civil service will be afforded the opportunity to witness the game.
Sunday at 4 p.m., the SoCon Teddy Bear Toss will benefit Mission Health and the Mountain Child Advocacy Center. For a donation, more than 1,000 bears will be tossed on the floor before being donated to Mission Children’s Hospital, the N.C. Highway Patrol and other law enforcement agencies.

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