Hoops update: the SoCon tourney moves back to Asheville

Every year about this time I post about the upcoming SoCon tourney, and The Citadel’s less-than-stellar history in the event. Actually, I didn’t last year, for reasons neither here nor there, so perhaps it would be worthwhile to simply revisit my last piece on the subject. (Besides, not that much has changed.)

Thus, the first section of this post is an updated version of what I wrote previously on the origins of the tournament, and The Citadel’s particularly poor performance in it over the years. I’ll write more specifically about the SoCon’s return to Asheville (along with the current edition of the Bulldogs, of course) afterwards.

One of the more curious things about The Citadel’s horrid history in the SoCon tourney is that there is no firm answer to just how many times the school has lost in the event.  That’s because the league has mutated so many times there is confusion as to what year the first “official” conference tournament was held.

Before 1920, The Citadel was one of many schools in a rather loose confederation known as the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association.  (The Citadel initially joined in 1909.)  There were about 30 colleges in the SIAA by 1920, including almost every member of the current SEC and about half of the current ACC, along with schools such as Centre, Sewanee (which was actually a founding member of the SEC), Chattanooga, Wofford, Howard (not the school in D.C., but the university now called Samford), and Millsaps, just to name a few.  As you might imagine, the large and disparate membership had some disagreements, and was just plain hard to manage, so a number of the schools left to form the Southern Conference in late 1920.

In the spring of 1921, the SIAA sponsored a basketball tournament, which would be the forerunner to all the conference hoops tourneys to follow.  Any southern college or university could travel to Atlanta to play, and fifteen schools did just that.  Kentucky beat Georgia in the final.  The Citadel did not enter the event, but several other small colleges did, including Newberry (for those unfamiliar with Newberry, it’s a small school located in central South Carolina).  The tournament featured teams from the new Southern Conference, the old SIAA, and squads like Newberry, which wasn’t in either league (it would join the SIAA in 1923).

In 1922 the SIAA held another tournament in Atlanta, this one won by North Carolina, which beat Mercer in the final.  The Citadel entered this time, losing in the first round to Vanderbilt.  The SIAA tournament remained all-comers until 1924, when it was restricted to Southern Conference members.

Some sources suggest that the 1921 tournament is the first “official” Southern Conference tournament, some go with the 1922 event, and others argue for 1924.  From what I can tell, the league itself is a bit wishy-washy on the issue.  On the conference website, it states:

The first Southern Conference Championship was the league basketball tournament held in Atlanta in 1922. The North Carolina Tar Heels won the tournament to become the first recognized league champion in any sport. The Southern Conference Tournament remains the oldest of its kind in college basketball.

However, the conference’s own media guide lists Kentucky as having won the first tournament title in 1921.  The guide doesn’t include league standings from that year, starting those for the 1921-22 season (which is appropriate, given play in the new conference didn’t begin until the fall of 1921). It specifies that the 1921, 1922, and 1923 tournament results are for the “Southern Intercollegiate Basketball Tournament” but doesn’t distinguish those tourneys in any way when it lists the year-by-year champions (and includes the all-tournament team from 1923 in the listing of SoCon all-tourney squads).

Personally, I think that the idea of having a conference tournament is to determine a league champion, and it stands to reason that such a tournament would only include league members.  So the first “real” Southern Conference tournament, in my opinion, was held in 1924.

There is a point to this, trust me.  The difference between counting the Vanderbilt loss as a SoCon tourney loss and not counting it is the difference between The Citadel’s alltime record in the event being 11-58 or 11-59.  Not that they both aren’t hideous totals, but as of now The Citadel shares the NCAA record for “most consecutive conference tournament appearances without a title” with Clemson, which is 0-for-58 in trying to win the ACC tournament.  Counting the Vanderbilt game would mean The Citadel is alone in its conference tourney infamy.  No offense to the Tigers, but I don’t believe the 1922 game should count, because it wasn’t really a Southern Conference tournament game.

Incidentally, you read that correctly.  The Citadel is 11-58 alltime in the SoCon tournament.  That’s just unbelievably bad.  It comes out to a 16% winning percentage, which is more than twice as bad as even The Citadel’s lousy alltime conference regular season winning percentage (35%).  The Citadel lost 17 straight tourney games from 1961-78, and then from 1985-97 lost 13 more in a row.

Tangent:  The single-game scoring record in the tournament is held by Marshall’s Skip Henderson, who put up 55 on The Citadel in 1988 in a game Marshall won by 43 points.  The next night the Thundering Herd, which had won the regular season title that year, lost to UT-Chattanooga by one point.  Karma.

Those long losing streaks didn’t occur in consecutive years, as The Citadel didn’t always qualify for the tournament, particularly in the years before 1953, when there were up to 17 teams in the league at any given time, and only the top squads played in the tourney.  The Citadel’s first “real” appearance, in 1938, resulted in a 42-38 loss to Maryland.

The Citadel would lose two more tourney openers before winning its first game in 1943, against South Carolina.  That would be the only time the Bulldogs and Gamecocks faced each other in the tournament, and so South Carolina is one of two teams The Citadel has a winning record against in SoCon tourney play (the Bulldogs are 2-0 against VMI).

The next time The Citadel would win a game in the tournament?  1959, when the Bulldogs actually won two games, against Furman and George Washington, and found themselves in the tourney final.  Unfortunately, the opponent in the title game was West Virginia, led by Jerry West.  West scored 27 points and the Mountaineers pulled away late for an 85-66 victory.  This would be the only time The Citadel ever made the championship game; it’s also the only time the Bulldogs won two games in the tournament.

After a 1961 quarterfinal victory over Richmond, The Citadel would not win another tournament game until 1979, when the Bulldogs defeated Davidson before losing to Furman.  The game against Davidson was played at McAlister Field House and was the final victory of a 20-win campaign, the school’s first.

The Citadel would win single games in 1982 and 1985 before going winless until 1998, when it finally broke a 13-game tourney losing streak by beating VMI.  The Keydets would be the next victim as well, in 2002, and were apparently so embarrassed they left the league.  The Citadel’s last two wins in tourney play occurred in 2006 (against Furman) and 2010 (versus Samford).

Twenty-one different schools have defeated The Citadel in tournament play, with Davidson’s eight victories leading the way (against one loss to the Bulldogs).  East Tennessee State went 6-0 against The Citadel while in the league.

Norm Sloan, who had the best record as a head coach of The Citadel since World War II, was 2-4 in the tourney; his successor, Mel Thompson, was 1-6.  Dick Campbell did not win a tourney game (0-4).  Neither did George Hill (0-3).  Les Robinson was 3-10 (a record which by winning percentage leads all of the post-Sloan coaches).  Randy Nesbit was 0-7.  Pat Dennis was 3-14. Ed Conroy was 1-4. Current coach Chuck Driesell is 0-1.

The best record for a Bulldog coach in SoCon tourney play is that of Bo Sherman, who went 1-1 in 1943, his lone season in charge.  Sherman’s Bulldogs defeated South Carolina before losing to Duke.

The Citadel’s record against current SoCon teams in the tournament:  Furman 2-5, UT-Chattanooga 0-1, Elon 0-1, Samford 1-1, College of Charleston 0-1, Georgia Southern 0-2, Western Carolina 1-1, Appalachian State 1-7, Davidson 1-8.  (The Citadel has never played Wofford or UNC-Greensboro in the tournament.)

Asheville hosted the Southern Conference tournament from 1984 to 1995. It was a generally successful venue for the league, in part because of its relatively central location. As this article states, the league was mostly dominated by UT-Chattanooga, East Tennessee State, and Marshall during that period, and their fans came out in force, leading to good attendance for the majority of the tournaments held in Asheville. Those three schools won all but one of the title games held in Asheville (Davidson won the 1986 tournament).

However, the Civic Center (now called the U.S. Cellular Arena) was starting to show its age, and other cities offered the SoCon a better financial package, so the tournament left the city. Now it is back, for both the men’s and women’s tourneys. It has a new roof, which is good, since a few years ago the old roof began leaking during an Alison Krauss concert. By law, that should have resulted in the facility being burned to the ground and a ritual stoning of its maintenance supervisor, but compassion was shown.

The Citadel does not have fond memories of Asheville. The Bulldogs were 1-12 in tourney play during that era, with the lone win a 68-62 victory over Appalachian State in 1985. That came one year after The Citadel’s first Asheville tourney, when it lost to Appy. The Citadel also lost a second tournament game in Asheville to Appalachian State, to go with losses to Marshall (twice), Furman (twice), East Tennessee State (four times), Chattanooga, and Georgia Southern.

Having said that, I think it would be all right if Asheville becomes the regular home for the Southern Conference tournament. The league probably needs a permanent location to build local interest in the tourney on a year-by-year basis, and Asheville is a reasonable trip for fans of most of the current league schools. It was once the home base for the league itself, of course, until league offices moved to Spartanburg.

Tangent: Asheville also hosted the league’s baseball tournament for a time, until the debacle that was the 1989 SoCon baseball tournament directly led to that tourney moving to Charleston. Moral of that story: when it starts raining at a baseball park, it would be really handy if a tarp were available.

It’s going to be a busy week of hoops in Asheville, that’s for sure. Not only is the city hosting both the SoCon men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, but the Big South men’s tourney is being hosted by that league’s regular season champion — which happens to be UNC-Asheville. UNCA will host the quarterfinals and semifinals, and also the Big South title game if it advances that far.

Some of you might be wondering why I am rehashing The Citadel’s tournament foibles, and I can understand that. There are two reasons. First of all, there is no reason to hide from the truth. More importantly, however, I think a large part of the program’s problem with the SoCon tourney over the years is that it has never had anything resembling sustained success, or any kind of success for that matter.

No one who has played for The Citadel has any really good memories of the tournament, with the possible exception of some of the players from the late 1950s, and I’m afraid that positive vibe has long since evaporated. I think it is hard to expect success when all anyone surrounding the program has ever known at the SoCon tourney is failure.

In 2009, when the Bulldogs had one of their best seasons ever, winning 20 games and finishing second in the conference, they had a quarterfinal matchup with Samford, a team that The Citadel had beaten easily during the regular season. As soon as Samford took an early lead, though, The Citadel’s players started pressing. It was as if the tortured history of the program started preying on everyone’s minds. Naturally, the result was a loss.

This year’s team has not had one of the school’s best seasons ever. The Bulldogs are 6-23 and finished with the worst record in the league. They did win two of their last three games, however, and because of that I think they may have the ability to accomplish something important.

The Citadel is not going to win the Southern Conference tournament this year. However, what this team can do is lay a foundation for a future squad to do so, just by winning a game or two. That could give the current players confidence that they can do well in the tourney in the next two or three seasons, and make some (positive) history.

That’s why this tournament can be important for The Citadel. Win a game or two, and set the stage for something wonderful to happen in the 2013 or 2014 tournaments.

I’m hoping the team begins play on Friday with a little “edge” to them, for a couple of reasons. The opponent in the opening game, Western Carolina, basically manhandled the Bulldogs in their regular season matchup, dominating the glass so thoroughly that the Catamounts had more offensive boards than The Citadel had total rebounds.

Chuck Driesell used that as a motivational tool over the remaining three games of the season, and it seems to have had an effect, as has his slow-the-pace tactics. While WCU is arguably the worst matchup for The Citadel among SoCon North teams, maybe it’s good that the first game is against a team with which the Bulldogs should be able to compete, but which recently embarrassed them.

Also possibly out to prove a point could be Mike Groselle, who earned first-team All-SoCon honors for his outstanding play this season, but didn’t receive those deserved honors from the SoCon media writers. This was patently absurd. Clearly a number of voters didn’t actually watch many games or pay any attention to statistics, both basic and advanced. Groselle was also probably a victim of his team’s record.

The goal this week for The Citadel’s hoops squad is to prove something to itself, and to set the table for success down the road. Let’s hope it’s a good week.

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