Greg Pryor was as surprised as anyone when he learned that he was voted Most Outstanding Player of the Southern Conference tournament. Postseason MOPs rarely go scoreless in an entire game or log relatively modest numbers.
Straying from convention, voters apparently weighed intangibles and results, as well as statistics. By those criteria, Chattanooga’s junior point guard was a worthy recipient.
“I don’t focus on trying to score all the points or focus on my stats,” Pryor said. “I just try to focus on leading my team and winning games, and that’s what we did.”
Pryor led Chattanooga (29-5) impeccably all season, as the Mocs won their first Southern Conference championship since 2009 and set a school record for victories. The Mocs are the No. 12 seed in the East Region and open against Big Ten regular-season champ Indiana Thursday in Des Moines, Iowa.
“He’ll fight, scratch, claw, do whatever it takes to win,” Mocs’ head coach Matt McCall said. “If he has to score 20, great. If he has to take a charge, he’s good with that, too. I wouldn’t trade him for any point guard in the country.”
Pryor, a 6-2 native of Memphis, may be the one indispensable player on a remarkably balanced and resilient team. Eight players average between six and 13 points per game. That doesn’t count dynamic forward Casey Jones, the preseason SoCon Player of the Year who missed the final 23 games with an injury.
Thirty hours after Jones’ injury, Chattanooga won at Dayton, snapping the Flyers’ 26-game home win streak. The Mocs also defeated Georgia and Illinois, the program’s first wins against Power Five conference teams since 2004.
Chattanooga adjusted without Jones, thanks to its depth and experience. The Mocs’ rotation is junior-senior heavy, with both length and bulk. Junior wing Tre McLean is the leading scorer and rebounder (12.3 ppg, 6.4 rpg). Six-nine Justin Tuoyo (11.1 ppg, 5 rpg, 75 blocks) was the SoCon Defensive Player of the Year.
Wings Eric Robertson and Chuck Ester are 40% 3-point shooters. The Mocs bring two seniors off the bench, Dee Oldham and Duke Ethridge, who could start at many schools. And there’s Pryor, who averages 9.9 points and 3.5 assists per game and has started 96 of 97 games since he arrived.
“We’re like one big body,” Pryor said, “and when one part of the body breaks down, you try to find different ways to keep your body going. You make other parts of your body stronger and hope that it comes through for you and keeps your body going. That’s what we did. We built ourselves up through everybody, and we got a lot of contributions from our bench.”
Pryor injured his ankle at VMI on Feb. 29, the week before the conference tournament, and wasn’t close to 100 percent, physically. In the quarterfinal against Samford, foul trouble limited him to just 15 minutes, and he went scoreless in the Mocs’ 59-54 win.
The next night, against Western Carolina in the semifinals, he played 36 minutes and led Chattanooga with 16 points and five assists in a 73-69 win. In the title game against No. 2 seed East Tennessee State, Pryor scored 13 points and pulled down a season-high six rebounds in 32 gritty minutes as the Mocs prevailed, 73-67.
“He’s one of the toughest kids I’ve ever coached,” said McCall, who spent a decade with Billy Donovan at Florida before he took over for Will Wade last spring. “I’m not saying there aren’t other good point guards, but Greg’s toughness separates him from a lot of players. He’s consumed with the team and doing whatever he can to help the team. If he doesn’t play well, he feels like he let the team down.”
Pryor’s injury was just one more hurdle for a player who had only one Division I scholarship offer coming out of high school. He was set to attend junior college, but Wade learned of him through connections and recruited him late in the process.
“As a person, I’m always going to be under the radar,” Pryor said. “I’ve never been an ESPN top-ranked player or whatever, but I know that I’m just as good as anybody. I put in the work to be a good player and the player that I am. Nothing’s going to be given to you because of your name. You’ve got to go out and work for it. That’s what I’ve been doing all my life. Even though I haven’t been given anything, I put in a lot of work to become the player that I am and try to get better every day.”
Pryor and his mates aren’t satisfied simply getting to the NCAA Tournament. They believe that they are equipped to advance. Recent history bears that out. Forty-four 12 seeds have defeated No. 5 seeds — six in 2013 and ’14 alone.
“I definitely feel like we can beat anybody that we’re going to face,” Pryor said. “I have confidence in my brothers and my coaches, that we’re prepared to play against anybody. We’ve put in a lot of work and we’ll be ready.”