COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - Things seem mighty familiar at the top of the Southern Conference this season with longtime league powers Chattanooga and Davidson picked to win their division. Heck, even former Wildcats star Stephen Curry is hanging around the gym this fall.
Curry was Davidson's star point guard who took his team to the NCAA tournament's final eight three years ago and is currently awaiting the NBA lockout to end. When he can, Curry's joined in Wildcats workouts, said coach Bob McKillop.
"Let me tell you, when Stephen speaks, the players listen," McKillop said Wednesday.
Curry, the Golden State Warriors' guard, is likely filling their ears with plenty of stories of Davidson's basketball success - and ways to continue it this season.
Chattanooga and Davidson have been the SoCon's bell cows for most of the past two decade. The two programs have combined to finish first in their divisions - Chattanooga in the North, Davidson in the South - 17 times since 1996. The Mocs and Wildcats have won 11 league tournament titles since 1993, including five straight from 2005-09 until upstart Wofford took the last two championships and the automatic NCAA berth that goes with it.
However, both the league's coaches and media anticipate things returning to normal this season with deep, talented teams at Chattanooga and Davidson picked to win their SoCon divisions.
Chattanooga coach John Shulman said it's way too soon for any team to focus on expectations.
"You always think you're moving along pretty good and then you play an exhibition or a scrimmage and you're in panic mode again," Shulman said. "You don't know where you are unitl you've played outside competition."
For Davidson and most other conference programs, that begins Nov. 11. The Wildcats open at home against Guildford. Chattanooga starts its season Nov. 13 against Indiana as part of the Hoosier Classic tournament.
"It's still early," Chattanooga's Shulman said. "We've got a lot of work to do."
The Mocs, though, will do it with plenty of returning veterans.
They bring back their top four scorers from a year ago, led by 6-foot-5 swingman Omar Wattad, who averaged 14.3 points a game last season. Point guard Keegan Bell, a Vanderbilt transfer, also returns for his third season at Chattanooga after finishing second in the SoCon at nearly six assists per game in 2011.
The Mocs were last in the NCAA tournament in 2009, losing to Connecticut in the first round.
Davidson, like Chattanooga, has four starters back for a team that hasn't gone to the NCAA tournament since Curry was a fresh-faced sophomore in the exhilarating NCAA run back in 2008 when the Wildcats stunned Gonzaga, Georgetown and Wisconsin before falling to Kansas, 59-57, in the regional finals. The Wildcats haven't played poorly since then, but they haven't had the extra oomph, McKillop said, to earn another NCAA berth.
That could change this season.
Davidson will be led by its top two scorers from a season ago, preseason all-SoCon selections in JP Kuhlman and Jake Cohen. The pair combined for 25 points and almost 10 rebounds a game in 2010-11. In all, McKillop has 11 players returning from last year.
"It's actually become a dilemma because we've got eight or nine guys that could start for us," McKillop said. "The separation between player one and player eight or player nine is not that significant."
Both Chattanooga and Davidson will face challenges for the top.
In the North, Appalachian State and its preseason conference player of the year Omar Carter are most likely to pressure the Mocs. In the South, the College of Charleston led by coach Bobby Cremins was picked right behind Davidson.
Cremins must replace last year's SoCon player of the year in guard Andrew Goudelock, who was the nation's fifth highest scorer at 23.4 points a game last season.
Also looking for replacements is Wofford coach Mike Young, who lost four starters, including 2009 SoCon player of the year Noah Dahlman, who were the core of a team that won the past two straight league tournament championships.
"They are aware of what has occurred here, transpired here, the expectations here," Young said. "I don't think that's looked upon by anybody as a burden. There's a mindset in place: Must carry on."
Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.