By Pete Iacobelli
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — These days, several Southern Conference schools have pulled off attention getting upsets — crashing the party once hosted by Davidson and Stephen Curry.
The mid-major league has had its share of surprises wins this season: Western Carolina won at Louisville, Wofford has a pair victories over Southeastern Conference foes Georgia and South Carolina, and the College of Charleston knocked off No. 9 North Carolina earlier this month.
“I think the success that other teams in the conference have had against, whether its an SEC team or a Big East team, that gets everybody’s attention,” said Davidson coach Bob McKillop.
The SoCon’s success has raised the league’s profile, not to mention faint hopes of one day getting more than the league champion into the NCAA tournament.
Southern Conference commissioner John Iamarino recently talked with two members of the tournament selection committee and both gave credit to the league and what it’s accomplished.
“These do give us a window of opportunity,” Iamarino said Tuesday. “Victories like the College of Charleston’s can only help.”
Davidson’s Curry had carried the conference on his slim shoulders the previous three seasons. The highlight was the Wildcats amazing run to the NCAA tournament’s final eight two seasons ago. Curry put on show for a national audience, leading Davidson to tournament wins over Gonzaga, Georgetown and Wisconsin. They came within a basket of defeating eventual NCAA champion Kansas in the round of eight.
The success made Curry and Davidson a hot TV commodity and a singular, SoCon sensation.
College of Charleston coach Bobby Cremins says it got so that he wouldn’t mention the Southern Conference, just that “we played in the that league with Davidson and Stephen Curry.”
What changed? Maybe, Iamarino says, the rest of the league’s desire to match the Wildcats.
“I don’t think any of the coaches, athletic directors or league presidents for that matter wanted to say, ‘OK, let’s let Davidson carry the banner,’” the commissioner said.
The first hint of a Southern Conference surge came with Wofford’s 60-57 win at Georgia before Thanksgiving.
The rise took steam in December when Western Carolina stunned a near-capacity crowd at storied Freedom Hall with its 91-83 win over the Cardinals. Wofford kept things rolling a week later with its second SEC victory, 68-61, over South Carolina.
Nothing, though, made more of a SoCon splash than College of Charleston’s comeback victory over the Tar Heels in Charleston on Jan. 4. The College of Charleston fell behind by 11 points with four minutes left, rallied to tie on Andrew Goudelock’s high, floating 3-pointer in the last seconds and pull away in overtime for the 82-79 victory.
The win was Charleston’s first against a ranked opponent since its stellar decade of the 1990s, when the Cougars made four NCAA tournament appearances and posted a Davidson-style upset against Maryland in the 1997 NCAAs.
Every day, Cougar guard Donavan Monroe passes reminders of that success — and endures questions about how soon the program will get back there.
“With a win like this, that puts us up there,” Monroe said. “It puts us at the top of College of Charleston basketball.”
Apparently so, since even the chair Cremins sat in during the upset is now up for auction to interested, rabid fans.
Cremins is hopeful his team can live up to that success during league play, although Southern Conference teams have demonstrated with their out-of-league play that each game will be well contested. So far, the Cougars
“With Davidson, we were a one-horse race,” Cremins said. “Now with Curry gone, I see a lot more balance.”
Wofford coach Mike Young thinks play throughout the league has risen for several years, enough that any of these wins should surprise anyone.
“We’re not going to try and convince you that this is the SEC or the ACC,” Young said. “But this is a terrific mid-level league.”
All that success might turn back around on Southern Conference coaches who expect future trouble luring teams from power conferences to their campuses.
“I can assure you that North Carolina is never, ever going to go to a Southern Conference opponent’s gym,” Davidson’s McKillop said.
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.