Friday's SoCon Season Openers
The Citadel at VMI
Covenant at Chattanooga
Appalachian State at NC State
Davidson at Duke
Wofford at Georgia
High Point at UNCG
Wittenberg at Western Carolina
Sewanee at Furman
Washington & Lee at Elon
Columbia International at Georgia Southern
Martin Methodist at Samford
COLUMBIA, S.C. — Elon coach Matt Matheny hopes to make his final season in the Southern Conference a memorable one.
Matheny's team was picked earlier this month to finish ahead of his old boss Bob McKillop and Davidson atop the changing, 11-team league. The College of Charleston left this season for the Colonial Athletic Association, and Elon will join the Cougars in the CAA next year fall. Appalachian State and Georgia Southern are off to the Sun Belt Conference next year. Two-time defending SoCon champion Davidson moves to the Atlantic 10 Conference next year.
The league will add three members next year in East Tennessee, Mercer and VMI to the seven remaining schools.
"The times, they are a changing," Wofford coach Mike Young said Wednesday.
Matheny has been part of the nearly century-old league since 1991, when he played football and basketball at Davidson. He stuck around when McKillop hired him as an assistant at Davidson and Matheny has been coaching ever since, the last four leading the Phoenix.
Matheny has not, nor will he, discuss Elon's swan-song season with his players, He did say, however, that he'll to deal with his emotions as the Phoenix make their way through the league one last time.
"It's very bittersweet for me because I joined the Southern Conference in 1991 as a player," Matheny said. "This is all I've known for 22 years. This is what I'm used to, this is what I'm happy to be a part of."
Matheny's team has increased its win total each of his four previous seasons, going 21-12 last winter — the best mark since Elon moved to Division I in the 1999-2000 academic season. Both league coaches and media expect that to continue, selecting the Phoenix ahead of Davidson for the league title.
Elon is the only school with three members on the 10-man all-conference preseason team with forwards Ryley Beaumont and Lucas Troutman and guard Jack Isenbarger.
McKillop's club, as usual, is also close to the top. He's won seven conference tournament championships in 24 previous seasons, including the past two. The Wildcats have won 10 regular-season titles and 13 divisional crowns since they joined the league before the 1992-93 season.
Few college fans will forget Davidson's run to the NCAA tournament's final eight behind star guard Stephen Curry in 2008.
McKillop said he's enjoyed the time in the league and he, too, will miss the friends he's made. Still, he's got to prepare a team to defend the conference tournament titles the Wildcats have won the past two years.
"I don't address it all. I think it's an investment of energy that's wasted," McKillop said. "We are fully two feet in the door in the Southern Conference and that's the only thing that's looking at us right now."
Davidson returns senior forward De'Mon Brooks, selected the preseason Southern Conference player of the year. Brook, 6-7, led the Wildcats in rebounds, steals and shooting percentage and was the SoCon tournament's MVP.
While Matheny and McKillop hope to keep their teams focused on this year, it's hard not to think ahead. This summer, the league's usual football powers in Appalachian State and Georgia Southern — the school have won or shared the league football title 22 times since 1986 — said they would not be looking beyond their final SoCon season. Yet, the two have struggled, each at 2-3 in league play.
Appalachian State basketball coach Jason Capel isn't worried about similar problems on the court. He and his players see the chance to leave on a high note with a championship.
"Everyone understands this will be our last time in the Southern Conference," Capel said. "We look at that as an opportunity to finish what is known as the Southern Conference now as the last champion."