- Kyle Whelliston, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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ExpectationsDavid Duprey/APYoung superstar Stephen Curry was not the SoCon Player of the Year last season.
The Southern Conference made a lot of new friends last season. Even casual hoops fans made the acquaintance of Davidson's freshman phenom, Stephen Curry, as the young Wildcats won 28 games and nearly beat Maryland at the Big Dance. Appalachian State and flashy guard D.J. Thompson made for bubbly chatter deep into February, after notching giant December wins over Virginia and Vanderbilt.
But it's more than likely you haven't been properly introduced to the conference's best player, so let's remedy that.
Meet Kyle Hines. Kyle likes music, fixing old Cadillacs and playing for the UNC Greensboro Spartans. The 6-foot-6, 230-pound senior forward with a pterodactyl-like wingspan was named the 2006-07 SoCon Player of the Year -- over Curry and over Thompson -- by both the league's coaches and media.
"A lot of the people who see me play, I don't think they'd say I have a real exciting game," Hines said recently. "I'm not much of an 'out there' player, like a LeBron James or anything. I'm more of a low-key type. You don't notice my stats until you see the box score."
Hines' box scores in 2006-07 were plenty noticeable, adding up to 20.9 points and nine rebounds per contest. He had 10 double-doubles last season, cracked the 30-point barrier five times and built a double-digit scoring streak that now stands at 50 games. While he has gained plenty of attention from basketball insiders -- he was one of 50 players given an honorable mention by AP All-America voters -- the Spartans' recent lack of NCAA bids and TV airtime mean he hasn't yet had his chance in front of a nationwide audience.
"The national fans might not know Kyle Hines right now," UNCG coach Mike DeMent said. "But the NBA personnel know about him, that's for sure. There are always scouts at our games, and we've already had a lot of people come through for our practices. If he continues to do what he's been doing, he'll get his shot. There's no question the next level knows about him."
As do the coaches in the SoCon, who have had considerable issues finding ways to stop Hines.
"As everyone will tell you, he gets double-teams and triple-teams on every touch," DeMent said. "It's almost sad. Last year, we started out the season at Marshall. … They played him one-on-one, and he had 38. After that game, we said 'Crap, that'll never happen again.' Because the videotapes go out, you know. And sure enough, that's the last time he wasn't doubled."
"Kyle is as good as there is in our league down low," said Appalachian State coach Houston Fancher, whose double-teams Hines sidestepped for 33 points on 14-for-19 shooting in an 80-76 UNCG win on Jan. 16. "If he's got limitations, I can't tell you what they are."
One known limitation is Hines' height. DeMent said he hears the standard "If he were 2 inches taller ..." comment from scouts all the time. While this particular power forward relies on nimble footwork, east-west movement and long arms to compensate for his lack of vertical size, it doesn't stop folks from drawing the inevitable parallel to another unconventional and undersized forward.
"I hear a lot of the Charles Barkley comparisons, because I'm an undersized forward," Hines said. "But I don't know about that. I'm the type of player who tries to be the offensive bruiser. I go into the post and I battle. I do whatever it takes. I block shots, I rebound, I can do all the little things, but I can go in and score, too."
If Hines stays healthy in 2007-08, he certainly will do plenty of scoring. Whether or not UNCG can overcome Davidson and App State for the conference crown will depend on Hines' supporting cast, which needs to find a way to replace second leading scorer and foul magnet Ricky Hickman and his 14.3 ppg.
"Aside from Kyle and Ricky, we were a pretty young team last year," DeMent said. "And we'll have seven new guys this year. Two or three of them will have to step in and help us right away. Our keys are to continue to improve defensively and in rebounding, and be a more consistent perimeter team from an offensive standpoint."
No matter how the season plays out, the nation at large will get a peek at the Spartans and their star on Feb. 19 when UNCG goes up against overwhelming SoCon favorite Davidson on ESPN2. But while Hines is sure to make plenty of new admirers around the country on that day, Hines is more interested in keeping the conversation going well into March.
"My main motivation right now is to win the conference," Hines said. "I've been here for three years, and we haven't won. I feel that my career is incomplete without that SoCon championship."
One of the more intriguing players in the conference last year was Appalachian State's 6-8, 245-pound Donte Minter. Minter initially committed to play for the Mountaineers in 2003 but opted for Cavalier orange when Virginia showed interest. After a hyperextended knee claimed his sophomore season, he transferred to App State and turned a lot of heads in 2006-07 once becoming eligible in December.
Minter's impact was immediate. He had two 20-point games during the Mountaineers' upset-filled San Juan Shootout championship run. He averaged 11.5 ppg and 5.0 rpg, and he shot 64 percent from the floor.
But he wasn't anywhere near 100 percent. Minter had trouble getting back into shape after his knee injury and rarely played more than half a game due to mobility problems. But thanks to a rigorous offseason workout regimen with 6-10, 290-pound freshman frontcourt-mate Isaac Butts, his coach has declared him ready to go.
"He lost 15 pounds," coach Houston Fancher said. "Donte's got a great skill set great moves right or left, or can face up and shoot it. If there's a dark horse for player of the year in our league, it's got to be Donte Minter."
An exercise in futility
It's an event that recedes deeper into the murk of history with every passing year, but the ACC was founded and seeded by members of the SoCon. In 1953, citing concerns related to excessive travel, Clemson, Duke, Maryland, North Carolina, North Carolina State, South Carolina and Wake Forest walked out of the Southern Conference's spring meeting and started their own conference.
Among those defectors were the only schools that had represented the SoCon in the NCAA and NIT tournaments. The programs that ruled this league in the 1950s, George Washington and West Virginia, also left for new homes in the Atlantic 10 and Big East, respectively. Among the current members, Davidson was the earliest to claim an NCAA bid, when Lefty Drisell's Wildcats scored a regional third-place spot in 1966.
Two of the 11 current schools never have earned a postseason bid. Elon's absence is understandable: The Phoenix joined the conference in 2003 after five years in the Big South and toiled away as independents as recently as 1997-98. The other, The Citadel, has had a much longer run of national futility. The Citadel joined the conference in the 1937-38 season but has neither an NCAA nor NIT appearance to its credit. The Bulldogs also own a 9-54 (.143) record in the SoCon tournament, easily the worst mark of any past or present SoCon member.
The split-division SoCon played a 14-game conference schedule two years ago, an 18-game slate last season and will play a 20-game schedule in the upcoming season. Each of the 11 schools will play each other home and home.
The increase in league games might squeeze programs looking for quality nonconference dates against the NCAA-mandated 28-game cap (although it hasn't stopped Davidson, which will play UCLA and three ACC schools), but it certainly has helped limit the number of glorified exhibitions the conference teams play against the lower divisions.
App State, Chattanooga and The Citadel all played three non-D-1s last year. In The Citadel's case, the trio of cheap victories over Ohio Valley, Asbury and Atlanta Christian stood as the academy's only nonconference wins in a 7-23 season. But the longer conference season meant less gimme nonconference games: There were 18 contests scheduled against D-2s and D-3s conference-wide in 2006-07, down from 31 in 2005-06. The 18-0 collective record didn't count in the RPI, so it amounted to 18 wasted opportunities for a conference on the rise.
With the increase to 20 conference games, the number of non-D-1 games will decrease even further. Among the schedules released so far, Georgia Southern, Chattanooga and Elon will play a pair, and App State will play one versus Virginia-Wise. Furman -- long a perpetrator of pounding defenseless lower-division squads by 70 points or more -- will play an all-D-1 schedule.
* NCAA Tournament
# NIT participant
Fast break Appalachian State
There is no question that the 2006-07 season from the team based at 3,333 feet in the rarified air of Boone, N.C., was magical. App State notched a BracketBusters win at Wichita State, collected a school-record 25 victories and mounted a strong candidacy for the first true at-large NCAA invite in SoCon history. Three key seniors are gone from that team, including 5-8 mighty mite D.J. Thompson, but a junior frontcourt trio of Jeremy Clayton, Davis Bowne and Doug McLaughlin-Williams received significant PT last season and should step up to complement Donte Minter. Whether coach Houston Fancher's squad can push Davidson for the title again will depend heavily on its ability to find good guard play.
There is a brand-new yellow-centric identity in the Scenic City: Gone is the mockingbird, as the school has choo-choo-chosen to play up the train imagery. Chattanooga will host Tennessee on Dec. 4 at its Roundhouse. The Mocs also will participate in the Anaheim Classic, an eight-team tournament in which each team advanced to at least the semifinals of their postseason conference tournaments last year. And leading rebounder Nicchaeus Doaks (5.8 rpg) returns, one of the finest blood-and-guts guys in mid-majorland. So there's plenty of excitement Moc fans can get on board for, but a turnover-prone backcourt (SoCon-worst 23.2 percent turnover rate in 2006-07) was thinned by three key graduations, which might temper enthusiasm a bit as the season progresses.
College of Charleston
Bobby Cremins was a late hire last summer, arriving in July, but he wasted no time installing what would become the toughest and smartest defense in the SoCon. The Cougars, made up primarily of former coach Tom Herrion's recruits, won 22 times and gave NCAA-bound Davidson everything it wanted in the title game. Now here comes Cremins' first real recruiting class, highlighted by the highly regarded Antwaine Wiggins, a dynamic 6-7, 180-pounder who plays like a guard. There's frontcourt beef on the way in juco transfer Dustin Scott and Georgian prep PF Jeremy Simmons.
The Wildcats are back for their run at history with five returning starters and an intact supporting cast, but two roster spots opened up thanks to little-used outgoing seniors. So in comes Aaron Bond, a 6-5 Virginia product who was a McDonald's All-America nominee. Bob McKillop also will add son Brendan to the squad, but this is no case of blind nepotism: Brendan turned down overtures from NC State and Virginia Tech to play for his dad. Brendan averaged 26 points and five assists as a senior at Charlotte Catholic.
A phoenix is, of course, a mythical bird that flames out in a fiery death, then triumphantly rises from its own ashes. So a pair of 23-loss seasons in 2004-05 and 2006-07, broken up by a North Division championship in 2005-06, might suggest that the Elon Phoenix have taken to repeating the embers-to-rebirth pattern in even-numbered years. But that's highly unlikely to continue. Two of Elon's top three scorers are gone, and most of the season should be spent finding roles for an underclassman core. Brett James, a 6-5 junior guard with a sweet jumper, will have to have a great follow-up to his 12.2 ppg season if the Phoenix are to regenerate in 2007-08.
Davidson had the Paladins' number last season, administering three solid beatings. But to the rest of the league, Jeff Jackson's squad was a tough, grinding team that developed a reputation for luring SoCon opponents into tight contests and leaving them with bruises afterward. The personality of the 2007-08 version is anybody's guess. The top four scorers from a 15-16 (8-10 SoCon) year have moved into the next chapters of their lives, and the roster will be stocked with untested sophomores and comeback redshirts. No returning player averaged more than 20.5 minutes per game last season.
Guard Donte Gennie, the conference's fourth leading scorer last season at 16.2 ppg, is off ripping up Germany's second division. But the league's ninth leading scorer returns: Louis Graham is a 6-8 senior who tallied 14.2 ppg and finished second in SoCon rebounding with 8.2 rpg. After an underachieving 15-16 season that bottomed out with nine losses in 11 games during conference play, Graham will lead an Eagles team with definite room from improvement. Georgia Southern finished dead-last in the league in free-throw shooting and turnovers.
The Spartans have more than a certain Mr. Hines in their campaign to unseat Appalachian State at the top of the North Division. Last season served as an incubation period for a trio of talented freshmen: 6-5 forward Ben Stywall and versatile guards Kendall Toney and Mikko Koivisto. Stywall hit the double-digit mark in rebounds in six games. Toney led last season's squad with a 43.5 percent 3-point rate. And Kovisto proved to be a reliable free-throw shooter, hitting 80 percent of his attempts.
"The losing teams of the world disband without fanfare or any sense of regret," wrote former Citadel PG and accomplished author Pat Conroy in his basketball memoir, "My Losing Season." That means cousin Ed Conroy's initial season as "The Great Santini" at The Citadel likely won't be remembered at all, unless outgoing point Kevin Hammack (team-leading 13.0 ppg, 3.3 apg) has a little author in him. Will Conroy's squad make any "Beach Music" in 2007-08? With only 27.5 points of returning scoring from a 7-23 squad (nine ppg belonging to 6-8 senior Demetrius Nelson), the water is wide.
Nick Aldridge is a bullet-headed, barrel-chested 6-8 forward who loves to absorb abuse under the basket; the Catamounts scored a real coup last summer when he opted out of a verbal commitment to Cincinnati to come to remote Cullowhee, N.C. All he did as a freshman was average 18.3 points with seven rebounds per contest and lead WCU to its first SoCon tourney victory in six years. With three other freshmen who logged big minutes in 2006-07, this is a program on the rise.
The 2006-07 Terriers used up every last bit of stored karma in a 91-90 shocker in Cincinnati. Then they lost the instigator of that upset, Eric Marshall, halfway through the season to a career-ending knee injury and dropped all their SoCon road games against non-Citadel teams. Is there a glimmer of future hope after a 20-loss season? A decent senior backcourt of Shane Nichols and Drew Gibson (28.4 combined ppg), and SoCon-leading ball control (12.0 turnovers per contest) say yes.
Last year, Appalachian State got left out in the cold despite having 25 wins. Davidson, the SoCon tournament winner, got to make the impression on the national stage instead. Which team will go dancing this year?
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Kyle Whelliston is the founder of midmajority.com and is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
As the SoCon gets more national attention, Stephen Curry and D.J. Thompson are becoming more recognizable. But the SoCon's best-kept secret -- Kyle Hines -- might just be its best player.