McAlister Musings: Forget about being close, just win

Statistics are through January 13, 2014

- The Citadel’s record: 4-14, 0-3 SoCon
– SoCon rank in offensive efficiency (through three games): 3rd
– SoCon rank in defensive efficiency (through three games): last
– SoCon rank in free throw shooting (through three games): last
– SoCon rank in 3-point shooting percentage (through three games) 1st

Yes, the offensive statistics through three league games aren’t bad at all. The Citadel has shot the ball well in its last three games, and fared well on the offensive glass. The Bulldogs also committed fewer turnovers in those three games (though still too many).

However, The Citadel still managed to lose all three of those games, blowing double-digit second-half leads in two of them. For a team that desperately needs a win (or two, or three, or four), it was rather dispiriting.

In those two losses (at home against Chattanooga and on the road versus Wofford), the Bulldogs basically let one player on each team dominate them inside and on the boards. Both UTC’s Z. Mason and Wofford’s Lee Skinner had what amounted to career nights against The Citadel, combining for 17 offensive rebounds and 19 made 2-point field goals (on 31 attempts).

Because of that, the Bulldogs are currently last in league play in defensive rebounding percentage. The Citadel is also last in the SoCon in forcing turnovers. The Bulldogs have given their opponents so many “extra” chances to score that even solid perimeter defending hasn’t been enough.

In the “bad luck” category: The Citadel has done a good job keeping its SoCon opponents off the foul line (ranking 4th in the league in that category). However, those opponents are shooting 77.1% from the charity stripe, the highest percentage against any team in the league.

In the “not bad luck” category: The Bulldogs picked a bad time to go into a free throw shooting slump. No team has shot worse from the foul line than the Bulldogs in league action.

This comes after The Citadel did a fine job shooting free throws during the non-conference slate. However, the Bulldogs have not gone to the foul line enough all season as it is.

The Citadel is shooting slightly less than one free throw attempt for every field goal try (33%). The national average for FTA/FGA is 41%.

Of course, three games don’t reflect the entirety of the season, and the Bulldogs struggled mightily out of conference. The Citadel has as many losses to non-D1s as it does victories over D-1s, having lost to West Alabama and beaten Presbyterian.

For the season, The Citadel is in the bottom 50 nationally in offensive turnover rate, FTA/FGA, two-point field goal percentage, steals rate (offense), defensive rebounding percentage, steals rate (defense), and defensive turnover rate. Thanks to all those issues, the Bulldogs also rank in the bottom 50 in both offensive and defensive efficiency.

In the Kenpom ratings, The Citadel is currently ranked 339th out of 351 Division I teams.

On the plus side, The Citadel has done a good job beyond the arc, both on offense and defense.

The Bulldogs’ tendency to throw the ball away on a semi-regular basis has been a problem for the past three seasons, as has the defensive issues. I will say that the defending has improved this season, at least on opponents’ initial shots. However, the inability to control the defensive glass has crushed The Citadel.

On his postgame radio show after the loss to Wofford, Chuck Driesell said of his team that “we’re getting close”.

With all due respect to Driesell, I don’t think he can say that. Not right now, anyway.

The goal for this season can’t be to have a record like last year (8-22) or the year before (6-24). This isn’t about trying to eke out a couple of victories or break a losing streak.

Getting close, in the context of this season, is putting together consecutive wins, and building on that — winning four out of six, seven out of ten, etc. Falling short in SoCon games isn’t getting the program to where it needs to be.

Because make no mistake, the Southern Conference is not good this year. It wasn’t very good last year either, but in 2013-14 the league has been dreadful.

There is no reason The Citadel can’t win a bunch of SoCon games, and the next couple of weeks will present the Bulldogs multiple opportunities to bounce back from their bad start in conference play.

On Thursday, The Citadel travels to Greensboro to face the Spartans. UNCG isn’t that bad, relative to the rest of the league, but this is a chance for the Bulldogs to win a road game.

UNCG actually has a turnover rate that is worse than The Citadel’s. Now, the Bulldogs haven’t proven capable of forcing many TOs all season, but this will be one game in which they have a shot at improving on that statistical category. If they can do so, they can win the game.

On Saturday, The Citadel hosts Furman, and then plays Appalachian State at McAlister Field House the following Thursday. I think the Bulldogs should win both contests. Not “can win”, but “should win”. Furman isn’t any better than The Citadel, and Appalachian State has arguably been worse so far this season.

In other words, the Bulldogs ought to win at least two of their next three games. If they don’t, it will be a disappointment.

After the loss to Elon, the sixth straight for the Bulldogs, Chuck Driesell had this to say:

You look at the stats and you think we could have won this game. But we were playing a good team on their home court. We kept our composure, but a couple of breaks didn’t go our way. But more guys are stepping up; everybody’s starting to come around.

I hope so. There would be nothing better than some positive news from the hardwood. Good basketball makes for a shorter winter.

Otherwise, Punxsutawney Phil will see his shadow at McAlister Field House once again.

A brief look at the Knight Commission’s NCAA Division I athletic and academic spending database

On December 4, the Knight Commission unveiled a database comparing spending on academics and athletics at NCAA Division I institutions. You can access the database here: Link

The database covers the years 2005 through 2011 (and adjusts for inflation).

I wouldn’t want to make a definitive statement based on these numbers, in part because…well, I’ll let the Commission explain:

Comparisons between institutions are possible, but some institutions interpret the NCAA financial reporting rules slightly differently despite efforts by the NCAA staff working with the National Association of College and University Business Officers to standardize the definitions and reporting. NCAA legislation requires that the financial reports be subject to agreed-upon procedures conducted by a “qualified independent accountant who is not a staff member of the institution.” Each institution’s president or chancellor is required to certify the financial report before it is submitted to the NCAA.

It’s good to have this kind of information available, however.

(Note: all the schools in the database are public colleges and universities. Private school numbers are, uh, private.)

I put together a couple of spreadsheets of my own, based on this data. The first is a listing of state-supported schools that play football at the FCS level, and includes academic spending per student, athletic spending on a per-athlete basis, and coaching salaries. Link

The other spreadsheet lists state-supported D-1 schools that don’t play varsity football. Link

Some observations, mostly from The Citadel’s perspective…

- Among FCS public schools, The Citadel was one of only two schools to have had spending on a per-athlete basis decline from 2005 to 2011, falling 11%. The only other one of the 80 schools listed to have shown a decline in spending on a per-athlete basis was Morgan State (-6%). FCS schools collectively increased per-athlete spending by 47% from 2005-11.

Note: two other schools (Missouri State and Idaho State) also had declines in this category, but those numbers were clearly based on certain accounting irregularities — for instance, Missouri State’s listed spending per athlete in 2005 was over $3.5 million. Thus, I am not counting them as schools with reduced per-athlete spending.

(Other categories also had occasional obvious outliers, and there are also schools for which the database has incomplete information.)

Other schools of interest in the category of per-athlete spending include (all percentages are increases):

South Carolina State (125%)
Georgia State (116%)
James Madison (109%)
Appalachian State (90%)
North Dakota State (88%)
William and Mary (82%)
Coastal Carolina (71%)
Old Dominion (59%)
UT-Chattanooga (56%)
Georgia Southern (31%)
VMI (26%)
Western Carolina (21%)

- Among non-football Division I schools, VCU leads in increased per-athlete spending (up 178% from 2005 to 2011). Also worth mentioning (all increases):

UNC-Greensboro (63%)
College of Charleston (62%)
UNC-Wilmington (56%)
Charlotte (53%)
UNC-Asheville (44%)
Winthrop (41%)
East Tennessee State (39%)

There are a couple of things worth pointing out here. One is that because the most recent update is from 2011, obviously the move of some schools from FCS to FBS football doesn’t show in these numbers (not to mention Charlotte, which started playing football in 2013).

Also, increased spending doesn’t indicate the amount of total spending. Old Dominion spent over $67,000 per athlete in FY 2011, while Mississippi Valley State spent about $50K less on average.

The Citadel spent $31K per athlete in 2011, just behind Appalachian State ($33K) and Georgia Southern ($32K), and ahead of VMI ($26K). Coastal Carolina spent $47K per athlete; Morgan State, $36K; and South Carolina State, also $36K.

Among non-football schools, College of Charleston spent $35K per athlete in 2011; UNC-Greensboro, $51K; East Tennessee State, $54K; and Winthrop, $42K.

- SEC schools spent on average $160K per athlete in 2011 (up 65%).

The amount of money expended for coach’s salaries at The Citadel increased 68% from 2005 to 2011 (total for 2011: $2.4 million).

- Other FCS schools of interest (total amount expended on coach’s salaries in 2011, percentage increase from 2005-11):

Old Dominion ($5.1 million, 114.34%)
Delaware ($4.6 million, 58.18%)
James Madison ($4.5 million, 31.57%)
William and Mary ($3.7 million, 50.83%)
Georgia State ($3.6 million, 203.56%)
Coastal Carolina ($3.5 million, 93.51%)
Appalachian State ($3.3 million, 78.47%)
North Dakota State ($3.3 million, 88.19%)
UT-Chattanooga ($2.7 million, 26.75%)
Georgia Southern ($2.6 million, 45.42%)
South Carolina State ($2.4 million, 148.21%)
Western Carolina ($2.4 million, 148.21%)
VMI ($2.4 million, 148.21%)
Mississippi Valley State ($942K, 101.23%)

- Some of the non-football schools (total amount expended on coach’s salaries in 2011, percentage increase from 2005-11):

Charlotte ($3.8 million, 57.02%)
George Mason ($3.5 million, 71.26%)
VCU ($3.4 million, 97.46%)
UNC-Wilmington ($2.6 million, 47.77%)
College of Charleston ($2.5 million, 37.64%)
East Tennessee State ($2.3 million, 82.04%)
Winthrop ($2.0 million, 56.24%)
UNC-Greensboro ($2.0 million, 46.77%)
UNC-Asheville ($1.0 million, 36.79%)
Maryland-Eastern Shore ($695K, 5.98%)

However, The Citadel’s increase in coach’s salaries per athlete over the 2005-11 time period was only 1%, despite the jump in overall allocated funds for coaches. In contrast, the FCS average for coach’s salaries per athlete was 51%.

To address football specifically, The Citadel has increased its football spending on a per-athlete basis by 22.5% from 2007 to 2011 (the database did not have 2005-06 numbers for the school). That is in line with the FCS median average over the same time frame (20.9%). In terms of raw numbers, The Citadel spent more money per athlete in 2011 ($53,807) than the FCS median ($36,134).

If you take out scholarship expense considerations, however, The Citadel’s increase in football spending on a per-athlete basis from 2007-11 was only 2%; the FCS median was 14%. That may be telling, though the difference if you only account for scholarship players is not quite as large (7% to 16%, with The Citadel spending more than the FCS median by almost $5K per player).

Football coaching salaries on a per-scholarship player basis were higher for The Citadel than the FCS median. In 2011, the school averaged $13,243 in coach’s salary per scholly player, an increase of 68% from 2005. The FCS average over the same time period was an increase of 42%, with a median per scholarship player of $10,366 in coaching salaries.

Debt service numbers:

In 2011, The Citadel paid $2.2 million in principal/interest on athletic facilities. This was, to say the least, a whole lot more than the FCS median (which was just over $200K).

The total outstanding debt for athletic facilities in 2011 at The Citadel was $17.7 million. That is ten times the FCS median.

$17.7 million seems like a lot (actually, it is a lot). On the other hand, it pales in comparison to Appalachian State’s $49.4 million in athletic facilities debt. A few other schools in this category:

Coastal Carolina ($7.8 million)
William and Mary ($12.0 million)
Jacksonville State ($27.8 million)
James Madison ($48.6 million)
South Carolina State ($455K)
UT-Chattanooga ($1.9 million)
Old Dominion ($49.6 million)
Delaware ($17.0 million)
VMI ($0)
Western Carolina ($7.6 million)

The total outstanding debt for all facilities at The Citadel in 2011 (presumably including those designated for athletics) was $48.8 million, which was actually a decline of over $8 million from 2009.

What do all these stats mean? That’s hard to say. There are caveats on top of caveats.

I’ve written about expenses before in various contexts, but I’m still not sure how to evaluate some of these numbers. What can I say, I’m an unfrozen caveman blogger. All of these statistics frighten and confuse me.

I think that perhaps the takeaway from The Citadel’s point of view may be comparing the numbers of fellow public schools with what isn’t listed in the database — namely, the spending by private institutions. It is increasingly clear that the military college has to act as a private school does in terms of fundraising and recruiting.

The Citadel is always going to be much smaller than most other public universities (in terms of undergraduate enrollment, etc.). While I think that is a good thing, it provides unique challenges for the school as a whole and the department of athletics in particular.

Duty, honor, and respect are priceless concepts — but there are still bills to pay.

Social media and the SoCon: the age of Twitter and Facebook

Last week, I saw a ranking of college sports twitter feeds posted at Tennessee’s athletics website. I thought it was interesting, though I wouldn’t want to draw any immediate conclusions from the data.

I decided to see how the SoCon schools compared to each other when it comes to Twitter and Facebook presence. This proved to be difficult, because schools don’t necessarily approach Twitter and/or Facebook in similar ways.

The league is almost evenly split between schools that have football-specific twitter feeds and those that do not. Samford has nine different sports with dedicated twitter feeds; meanwhile, Wofford doesn’t have any. There is significant variance in the number of Facebook pages created by the individual schools. Those are just a few of the differences.

Part of the reason for the contrasting approaches is probably manpower, and part of it is likely philosophical. Not everyone thinks having multiple Twitter feeds and Facebook pages is such a great idea for smaller schools. Says one social media consultant:

In college sports, unlike professional sports, fans usually have an allegiance to a school, not a team. To say that fans would be annoyed by news from other school sports in their Twitter feed might be an error…

We found that the majority of…fans appreciated news from other sports, and wanted one main feed where they could get all the news. Most of the sports communicators I’ve talked with at non-BCS schools say their fans feel the same way. Their allegiance is to the school, not a particular team.

The opportunity to showcase the team across multiple channels is much more important to a school than having a sport-specific Twitter feed or Facebook page…smaller schools (non-BCS schools) need to think about scale, not volume…Their fans bases are simply too small.

Another consideration is the percentage of people who use the different social media elements. A survey taken at the end of last year suggested that usage among internet users breaks down this way: 67%, Facebook; 16%, Twitter; 15%, Pinterest; 13%, Instagram; and 6%, Tumblr.

I would say that if your school decides to have a dedicated feed for a sport on Twitter, then it should have a Facebook page for that sport as well — and vice versa. I also am of the opinion that Instagram is on the rise, and that not using YouTube to promote your school and its teams is a major mistake.

Included in my mini-survey are all current SoCon schools, the school that just left (College of Charleston), and the three schools that will enter the league next year (East Tennessee State, Mercer, and VMI). The numbers listed (“follows” and “likes”) are as of the weekend of July 13-14.

What follows are a few observations, and then some tables, with two caveats:

1) I may have missed a couple of school feeds/pages. If I did, it’s not my fault. It’s the fault of the school(s), for not making it simple for an easily confused person like myself to find their feeds/pages.

2) Twitter and Facebook are far from the only things happening in social media, of course. For example, The Citadel has done an excellent job in recent months using YouTube, and it is not alone on that front. A few schools have taken a spin with Pinterest.  Instagram has been embraced by several of the league members (as well as the SoCon office itself). However, Twitter and Facebook are the focus of this post.

- The league website has a “Social Media Directory” that needs to be updated. For one thing, CofC isn’t in the conference any more [Edit 8/16: the CofC links have now been removed from the directory]. The feeds themselves also need to be checked; some are not valid, and there are also a number of omissions.

I don’t really blame the SoCon office for this as much as I do the individual schools. It’s probably very difficult, if not impossible, for the league office to keep up with team-specific feeds.

On the other hand, someone at the conference probably ought to know that @CoachMikeDement shouldn’t be the listing next to UNCG’s “Head MBB Coach” line, since he hasn’t been the Spartans’ coach for over a year and a half. Wes Miller is clearly upset about this.

- Speaking of UNCG, its AD, Kim Record, is on Twitter, and she is listed as such in the SoCon directory…but her feed is protected.

- Furman’s most-followed feed is its general athletics feed, which is not a surprise. The second-most followed Furman feed, however, is for a coach of a program that has yet to win a game. The Paladins will start playing men’s lacrosse in 2014, and head coach Richie Meade (formerly the longtime lacrosse coach at Navy) has 1024 followers.

- The twitter feed for Furman’s baseball program is run by players.

- Davidson, a basketball-first (if not only) school if there ever was one, doesn’t have a dedicated feed for men’s hoops, and head coach Bob McKillop isn’t on Twitter.

- At least one SoCon head football coach follows two different Jenn Brown accounts.

- Chattanooga’s wrestling feed has 2574 followers, which stacks up fairly well when compared to other programs across the country. The most I found for a collegiate wrestling feed was for Oklahoma State (11857). Defending national champion Penn State has 5750.

The other two SoCon schools with wrestling feeds are Appalachian State and The Citadel, though I should mention that UNC-Greensboro has a dormant feed as well (one that became inactive when the school dropped its wrestling program).

- Several SoCon schools have twitter feeds for their equipment room/staff. They tend to be fairly well-followed, too, partly because equipment room staffs from across the country all follow each other. Equipment guys circle the wagons.

- The new head football coach at East Tennessee State, Carl Torbush, isn’t on Twitter. However, there are two different parody Carl Torbush accounts, though both are inactive. ETSU’s athletics twitter feed is following one of them.

- I only found one other fake twitter feed for a conference football coach. Western Carolina’s Mark Speir has been so honored. Also parodied: SoCon commissioner John Iamarino.

- As of this weekend, Samford only had 44 followers for its men’s hoops feed, but that’s because it only established the feed on July 2.

- VMI seems to have two different official university (non-athletic) twitter feeds. Neither has many followers; perhaps I’m just missing the “real” feed.

- Of the six SoCon schools that have dedicated twitter feeds for both baseball and men’s basketball, five of them have more baseball feed followers, which may say something about the league’s status in each sport. I didn’t include College of Charleston in that group of six since it is no longer in the league, but it also has slightly more baseball feed than hoops feed follows.

- East Tennessee State doesn’t have a football twitter feed yet, or a pigskin Facebook page, but it does have a notable fan “bring/brought back football” presence for Twitter and Facebook.

- Wofford athletics only follows one feed, that of PGA pro (and Wofford alum) William McGirt. Similarly, the Facebook page for Wofford athletics only “likes” one entity — the 2012 Southern Conference basketball tournament.

- GSU head football coach Jeff Monken takes it one step further than Wofford, however. Just like Jay Bilas, Monken doesn’t follow anybody.

- With VMI being admitted to the league, the Southern Conference facebook page made sure it “liked” VMI’s university facebook site. Unfortunately, it appears the actual “active” VMI school facebook page is this one.

- UNCG is the league school with the most sport-specific Facebook pages, having one for eleven different varsity sports.

- I found a few sport-specific facebook pages that are essentially dormant. However, they are still “official”, and since they have not been deleted I included them in the tables.

- Of the lower-profile SoCon sports, volleyball may be the most active in terms of social media. Seven conference schools feature Facebook pages for volleyball, and that doesn’t include CofC or ETSU, both of which also have pages for their volleyball teams. CofC and ETSU join six SoCon schools that also have twitter feeds for volleyball.

Some of the Twitter and Facebook statistics for follows/likes are grouped in tables below. I didn’t list all the sports feeds/pages that are on Twitter/Facebook, just some of the ones that tend to draw the most interest.

Twitter

Athletics
Appalachian State 10644
The Citadel 2292
Davidson 3970
Elon 4300
Furman 2951
Georgia Southern 8493
Samford 3131
UNC-Greensboro 3466
UT-Chattanooga 4144
Western Carolina 3773
Wofford 3171
College of Charleston 4726
East Tennessee State 2651
Mercer 1578
Virginia Military Institute 1521

Football
Appalachian State 1133
The Citadel 692
Furman 759
Samford 939
UT-Chattanooga 900
Mercer 1270
Virginia Military Institute 261

Head Football Coach
Appalachian State 2585
The Citadel 555
Furman 236
Georgia Southern 4515
Samford 1005
UT-Chattanooga 571
Western Carolina 1301
Mercer 679
Virginia Military Institute 382

Men’s Basketball
Appalachian State 700
The Citadel 190
Elon 956
Furman 149
Samford 44
UNC-Greensboro 866
UT-Chattanooga 637
College of Charleston 2135

Head Men’s Basketball Coach
The Citadel 335
Furman 675
Georgia Southern 730
Samford 370
UNC-Greensboro 7572
UT-Chattanooga 2438
Western Carolina 1418
East Tennessee State 412
Virginia Military Institute 584

Women’s Basketball
Appalachian State 1338
Davidson 102
Elon 341
Furman 416
Georgia Southern 347
Samford 398
UNC-Greensboro 505
UT-Chattanooga 827
College of Charleston 590
East Tennessee State 374

Baseball
Appalachian State 2141
The Citadel 1263
Davidson 444
Elon 1015
Furman 427
Georgia Southern 1030
Samford 1206
UNC-Greensboro 332
College of Charleston 2413
East Tennessee State 579
Mercer 561

Facebook

Athletics
Appalachian State 5946
The Citadel 2301
Davidson 4771
Elon 4426
Furman 2629
Georgia Southern 12302
Samford 3590
UNC-Greensboro 6276
UT-Chattanooga 6459
Western Carolina 13546
Wofford 4586
College of Charleston 2405
East Tennessee State 3951
Mercer 1865
Virginia Military Institute 3632

Football
Appalachian State 45948
The Citadel 2117
Elon 867
Georgia Southern 3482
Samford 256
Western Carolina 235
Mercer 2244

Men’s Basketball
Appalachian State 2474
The Citadel 74
Davidson 554
Elon 982
UNC-Greensboro 1491

Women’s Basketball
Appalachian State 61
Davidson 187
Elon 648
Furman 612
Georgia Southern 241
UNC-Greensboro 476
UT-Chattanooga 731
College of Charleston 221
East Tennessee State 552

Baseball
Appalachian State 1659
The Citadel 408
Elon 307
Furman 177
Georgia Southern 745
Samford 1282
UNC-Greensboro 170
East Tennessee State 274

Conference realignment, SoCon style: history repeats itself

Everyone knows that the Southern Conference has been through a lot of membership changes over the years, with two splits of particular note leading to the formation of the SEC (in 1932) and ACC (1953). However, there have been other moves of consequence since then, and a few of those are instructive when looking at the current SoCon landscape.

This post is just an overview of some of those machinations. Not all of them, though. That would take up way too much bandwidth…

Tangent: linked above is a 1953 article on the newly formed ACC, which noted that Virginia and West Virginia were “running a neck and neck race” for the eighth spot in the league. UVA won that contest, much to the displeasure of certain WVU bloggers who had been confidently tweeting about WVU’s inevitable invite, despite the fact that Twitter had not yet been created and they had not yet been born.

When it comes to movement among SoCon schools over the last four decades, there have been two major themes:

- Davidson’s skittishness

- Longtime CAA commissioner Tom Yeager’s occasional, grandiose attempts to break up the SoCon

First up, the Wildcats.

The league lost four more members in the seventeen years after the ACC schools made their exit. Washington and Lee departed in 1958, Virginia Tech left in 1965, and West Virginia finally moved out of the conference in 1968.  George Washington dropped out in 1970.

Once the Colonials had left the league, that meant Davidson and VMI were the only two schools remaining in the SoCon that had ever won the conference’s men’s basketball tournament, then and now the nation’s oldest. Perhaps Davidson took this as a sign to start making moves of its own, or maybe those moves would have happened anyway.

At any rate, from that point forward Davidson has been the league’s femme fatale, always a doubt, sometimes leaving, sometimes staying, once actually gone, then suddenly back.

In 1969, Davidson’s football team, led by the estimable Homer Smith, went 7-4 and won the Southern Conference. The Wildcats played in the Tangerine Bowl.

By February 1970, Smith was gone, resigning after the school’s board of trustees decided to cut his budget by almost half. Then in 1973, Davidson decided to de-emphasize football by eliminating football scholarships.  In a move that reporter John Kilgo described as “bush league style”, the school administration notified the press before telling the AD, football coach, or the players. (Kilgo would later become the Wildcats’ radio play-by-play announcer for basketball.)

Davidson’s decision to get out of the scholarship football business didn’t go over very well with some of the other league members, but by then there were other issues too. The looming I-A/I-AA split was one of them. It was a key factor in East Carolina and Richmond leaving the SoCon, and Richmond’s departure also led to William & Mary and VMI leaving — but then the folks in Lexington changed their minds, and VMI stayed.

Both Richmond and ECU wanted to remain at the I-A level, as did William & Mary, and those schools were concerned that the SoCon’s recent or inevitable additions of Appalachian State, Western Carolina, UT-Chattanooga, and Marshall would result in the league becoming a I-AA conference. (Another school that had been interested in joining the league, James Madison, was not seriously considered.)

The departing schools tried to form a new “Big Conference“, which would have included Richmond, East Carolina, William & Mary, VMI, Southern Mississippi, and South Carolina. They were hoping to add two or more of Virginia Tech, West Virginia, and Florida State. It didn’t work out (FSU soon wound up in another new league, the Metro).

Of those schools that left the Southern Conference, only ECU would remain in the subdivision now called FBS.

Then Davidson decided to leave the SoCon, effective July 1, 1977. The school stated that it wanted “to associate with an athletic conference offering national-level competition in basketball.” Sound familiar?

However, the school changed its mind in February of 1977 and decided to stay.

By now the league had two “established” schools (The Citadel and Furman), one recent entrant (Appalachian State), three other new schools (WCU, UTC, and Marshall), and two other schools that had been in the league for a long time but had considered leaving (Davidson and VMI).

It didn’t take that long for Davidson to shake things up again in the SoCon. In 1985, the school decided to join the new Colonial League (later renamed the Patriot League) for football. The rest of the Southern Conference schools, however, turned down Davidson’s request to remain in the SoCon for its other sports. Davidson then left the league in 1988.

Tangent: in another article around that time, it was mentioned that the Southern Conference’s constitution “limits membership to 12 institutions”. I thought that was interesting.

By the following year, though, there were Davidson-back-to-the-SoCon rumblings. That was because Marshall was already making noises about leaving the league (though that didn’t happen until 1997). Among the schools reportedly in the mix at that time: Richmond, James Madison, and William & Mary (all as football-only members, a concept the conference ultimately rejected), Eastern Kentucky (which was still on the SoCon radar six years later), and Liberty.

Eventually, Davidson would be brought back into the league (sans football) in 1992.

Now in the space of two years, Davidson has turned down the CAA and is seriously considering the Atlantic 10. There is nothing new under the sun.

Tom Yeager’s first known attempt to punch a gaping hole in the SoCon came in 1996. At the time, the CAA did not sponsor football. Yeager was intent on changing that, and in a big way. The CAA apparently tried to entice The Citadel, Furman, VMI, and Davidson (yes, despite its football situation) to join a league that would have also included Richmond, William & Mary, and James Madison.

That didn’t happen. Neither did a potential 12-team SoCon football league.

Not on the CAA wish list in 1996: Georgia Southern, which had joined the Southern Conference in 1992. Five years earlier, a SoCon spokesman had suggested that GSU was “a little bit beyond the fringe geographically” to become a league member. However, a little-known shift in a continental tectonic plate moved Statesboro significantly closer to conference headquarters, and Georgia Southern was eventually invited.

Yeager came back with a vengeance in 2000, and this time he had an even bigger idea. The CAA went after no fewer than seven Southern Conference schools: VMI, Furman, The Citadel, Davidson, Wofford (which had joined the SoCon in 1997), UNC-Greensboro (which had also joined the conference in 1997), and the College of Charleston (a SoCon member since 1998). The CAA would have been a fourteen-member league, with eight of those schools playing football.

The gambit failed when Richmond stunned the CAA in May by moving to the Atlantic 10. In the wake of UR’s departure, the SoCon invited JMU and William & Mary to join. However, those schools elected to stay in the Atlantic 10 for football. Eventually, the Atlantic 10 football schools would all fall under the CAA umbrella (though that didn’t officially happen until 2007).

At the same time the SoCon was extending invites to JMU and William & Mary, the CAA offered VMI a spot in its league. VMI (second only to Davidson in its league identity issues) decided to stay, but was out of the SoCon three years later. Now, of course, it is a leading candidate to return to the league.

Last year, Yeager and the CAA attempted to grab three SoCon members: Appalachian State (which obviously had FBS aspirations instead), the College of Charleston (which jumped) and Davidson (which said thanks but no thanks). In 2013, internet rumors continue to swirl about various SoCon-to-CAA transfers, from the prosaic (Elon and only Elon) to the fanciful (the fabled “expanded CAA southern division”).

We’ll see what happens — or doesn’t happen. With the SoCon, something usually happens.

McAlister Musings: If you don’t let them see the 3, then they can’t be the 3

Previous editions of McAlister Musings, in reverse chronological order:

Possession is nine-tenths of a win

SoCon voting issues, preseason ratings, and corps attendance

Well, there is no other way to put this: the last three games for The Citadel have been ugly. Very ugly.

The Bulldogs were 3-1 after splitting a pair of games at the All-Military Classic and winning two glorified exhibitions against non-D1 opposition. As far as the latter two games are concerned, there isn’t a whole lot to say, other than The Citadel played much better in the second game, which gave hope that the Bulldogs would perform well in the final game of the initial five-game homestand.

The first half against Radford, however, was a complete debacle, complete with 15 turnovers, which came during the first 15 minutes of play. The Bulldogs were literally turning the ball over every minute.

Following that game, Chuck Driesell had a segment on his show (see Part 2) that included a primer on turnover prevention, which probably also served as a de facto teaser for his basketball camp. Triple threat position, indeed.

I will say that the turnover rate declined in the next game against UNCG, to an excellent 10.1%. It would slip to 17.1% when the Bulldogs played Charleston Southern, although that is still an acceptable rate. The Citadel currently has a turnover rate for the season of 22.9% (D-1 games only); that is 255th out of 347 teams. The Bulldogs need to get that number under 20%.

The problem in the games against UNCG and CSU, then, was not too many turnovers. No, it was too many three-pointers allowed — not just made, but attempted.

Ken Pomeroy had a really good blog post last week in which he noted that the key to three-point defense isn’t as much the percentage made against the D, but the number of shots beyond the arc allowed. As he pointed out:

Nobody with any knowledge of the game would talk about free throw defense using opponents’ FT% as if it was a real thing, yet we’ll hear plenty of references to three-point defense in that way from famous and respected people…With few exceptions, the best measure of three-point defense is a team’s ability to keep the opponents from taking 3’s.

Yes, The Citadel’s opponents are shooting the ball well from three-land — 42.6%, which is the 11th-worst figure in the country for defensive 3PT%. However, some of that (not all of it) is luck. Opponents are not likely to shoot that high a percentage over the course of the season.

If anything, they will revert to a success rate in the 32%-33% range (last year The Citadel’s 3PT% defense was 33.3%). There are no guarantees the percentage will decline to that level, of course (in the 24-loss season of 2007-08, the Bulldogs allowed opponents to shoot 40% from three-land).

The real problem is the number of three-pointers Bulldog opponents are attempting. Almost half (47.6%) of all shots allowed by The Citadel’s defense have been three-point tries; that is a higher percentage than any school in D-1 except for one (Southern Mississippi).

Good defensive teams stop their opponents from attempting three-point shots. Pomeroy mentions the success that the late Rick Majerus’ teams had in this respect.

There is one semi-caveat to all this: sample size. The Citadel has played only five games so far against D-1 teams. Three of those five opponents (VMI, Air Force, and Charleston Southern) rank in the top 20 nationally in percentage of three-pointers attempted per game. Now, do they rank that highly in the category because their offenses tend to take a lot of three-pointers? Or is it because one of their (relatively few) games was against The Citadel?

It’s too early to tell. Over the course of the season, VMI will certainly take more than its fair share of three-pointers, and Air Force might as well. On the other hand, UNCG’s 26 three-point attempts against the Bulldogs may have been an outlier (one that featured six different Spartans making at least one 3, including two players whose only made outside shots all season came against The Citadel).

My general impression, though, is that UNCG and Charleston Southern both purposely set up offensive game plans around hoisting as many shots from beyond the arc as possible. If that is the case, it’s even more important for Chuck Driesell and company to solve the problem.

One suggestion that I’ve seen tossed around is to get out of the 2-3 zone when teams start lighting it up from outside. That is easier said that done, obviously, and possibly not in the best interests of the Bulldogs.

This year’s squad is generally believed to be among the more athletic teams in recent history at The Citadel, which has led some to wonder why they are playing zone instead of man-to-man. That observation, while understandable, doesn’t take into account the fact that a player can be a good overall athlete and yet not equipped to handle the responsibilities inherent in a man-to-man defense. I remember reading about one particular example.

Delray Brooks was a huge high school basketball star in Indiana in the mid-1980s; he eventually signed to play for Bob Knight and IU. However, after a year and a half in Bloomington, Brooks transferred. He wasn’t getting a lot of playing time, mainly because he was a liability in Knight’s man-to-man defensive system. From John Feinstein’s famous book, A Season On The Brink:

Brooks had announced on Monday that he would transfer to Providence College. Knight was pleased about that; Providence was rebuilding and played a lot of zone. Brooks would have a chance there.

It worked out for Brooks. Providence would advance to the 1987 Final Four after upsetting Georgetown in the Elite 8, with Brooks playing a key role alongside Billy Donovan. The Friars would fall in the national semifinals to Syracuse, which would then lose in a scintillating championship game to…Indiana. I guess it worked out for everybody.

Oh, and the coach of that Providence squad, who “played a lot of zone”? His name was Rick Pitino. His teams can play some defense, zone or no zone. I’m sure fans of the College of Charleston would agree.

What I’m saying (in a long-winded way) is that a zone defense doesn’t have to be passive, or susceptible to allowing long-range shots. I mentioned Syracuse above; Jim Boeheim’s teams are famous for playing a 2-3 zone, though Boeheim says it’s not really a zone, but a “trapping, moving defense”. Whatever Boeheim’s defense is called, it has finished in the top 50 in defensive percentage of three-point attempts allowed in seven of the last eight seasons.

In the postgame presser following the CSU loss, Chuck Driesell mentioned that regardless of whether The Citadel played “zone or man, we’ve got to find a way to stay in front, get out to the shooters a little better…we’ve got to play better defense…that’s the bottom line…if we have to throw a few other things in there, we will. We can change a few things.”

Taking a brief look at The Citadel’s offensive numbers:

The Citadel is shooting the ball fairly well, and is doing a solid job of getting to the foul line. However, the offense has been blunted by the turnover rate and the Bulldogs’ inability to grab offensive rebounds. Against UNCG, The Citadel missed 38 shots, but only had 3 offensive rebounds. Games like that are why the Bulldogs are in the bottom 25 nationally in offensive rebounding percentage.

I am also a bit unsure how to evaluate the Bulldogs’ offense given the lopsided nature of the recent games. As the season progresses and there are more games to factor into the statistical record, separating “garbage” time from competitive play shouldn’t be an issue. At least, I hope not.

It may get worse for the Bulldogs before it gets better. The Citadel has four road games following exams, and all of those contests will be challenging. First up is a game at Gardner-Webb on Saturday. G-W is a respectable 6-5, a record that includes a victory at DePaul and a one-point setback to red-hot Illinois. Gardner-Webb also has a win over Austin Peay and a loss to Wofford.

After that game, the Bulldogs make a long trek to just outside Olean, New York. The Citadel will play St. Bonaventure in one of the more curious matchups on the schedule. Andrew Nicholson is now in the NBA, but the Bonnies should still be a tough opponent. To date St. Bonaventure hasn’t ventured too far outside its region. Four of its five victories are against fellow upstate New York schools Canisius, Buffalo, Siena, and Niagara.

The Citadel then plays two ACC schools, Georgia Tech (which has had a promising start to its season, featuring a victory over St. Mary’s) and Clemson (which has a 5-3 record that includes two losses to top-10 teams).

The Bulldogs could easily be 3-8 by the time they play again at McAlister Field House (against Western Carolina, on January 5). That’s the reality. What will be more important than the record is The Citadel figuring out its defensive issues by that time, and continuing to improve in other areas (like rebounding and ball security).

The season hasn’t started in quite the way Bulldog fans hoped it would. There is still time for The Citadel to recover. It’s not going to be easy, though. It never has been.

Conference realignment, SoCon style: the College of Charleston is (probably) heading to the CAA

Update: Conference realignment, SoCon style: Is it nitty-gritty time?

I wrote about potential changes in Southern Conference membership over the summer. Now, something has actually happened…

After a somewhat contentious meeting, the College of Charleston’s Board of Trustees voted 12-5 “to begin negotiations with the Colonial Athletic Association”:

The board met for 90 minutes before passing a resolution to open official talks with the CAA. The resolution, which passed by a 12-5 vote, does not guarantee the Cougars will join the nine-member league. The College of Charleston has been in the Southern Conference since 1998.

The final vote is expected to come at the board’s next scheduled meeting in January, although a vote on the school’s athletic conference affiliation could come before the start of the new year, according to board members.

While it’s not guaranteed that the CofC is moving to the CAA, it’s all but assured, barring some unexpected problems in the negotiations.

The biggest immediate issue for those negotiations, it appears, is travel expenses. While some observers thought the estimate put forward by the school was too high, others within the college weren’t sure it was high enough.

I think the CofC’s move was “sold” to some of the BOT members as part of a larger migration from the SoCon to the CAA, a shift that would have created a “CAA South” division with Davidson and one or more of Appalachian State, Elon, and Furman.

When Davidson decided to stay in the Southern Conference, that scenario essentially ceased to be a possibility. As a result, the CofC had to recalibrate its travel expenses.

The move by the CofC, assuming it comes to pass, is being made almost exclusively for the benefit of the men’s basketball program, platitudes by the school’s president notwithstanding. For the school’s other varsity sports programs, it is basically a wash, with the notable exception of baseball, which will suffer greatly from the transition.

However, while none of those other programs really mattered in the decision, they did provide good drama. At the occasionally confusing BOT meeting, board member and baseball supporter Jeff Schilz had this to say:

This move is made assuming there’s more money in the CAA. This is a men’s basketball decision and they would have to reach goals they haven’t reached in a while.

Schilz wasn’t finished. He also opined that “our athletic programs have been ignored by the [CofC] administration” and questioned the stability of the CAA, at least as compared to the SoCon.

All of the above quotes came in the BOT meeting. The proceedings were “live-tweeted” by several different media members, a very 21st-century (and cool) development. One of the more interesting tweets came from WCIV-TV sportscaster Scott Eisberg:

Schilz says he knows 1 sport that will lose 4 recruits if they go. Audible to me,Natasha Adair says,’what abt teams that will gain recruits’

Adair is the new women’s basketball coach at the College of Charleston. I wouldn’t advise inviting her and Schilz to the same party.

I don’t know if the move will be a good one for the CofC. I tend to doubt it, but I could be wrong. At any rate, the school has every right to make a mistake. It’s the American way.

When you shake out all the pluses and minuses (exposure, travel, recruiting, etc.), it comes down to this: is the CAA really a multi-bid league? Because if it isn’t, the CofC leaving for basketball reasons but staying in a one-bid league is very hard to justify. I suspect that Davidson passed on joining the CAA at least partly because it wasn’t sure the CAA would regularly put two and three teams into the NCAA tournament.

Since 1987, there have only been three years in which the CAA received at-large bids: 2006, 2007, and 2011 (when it got two at-large bids). While that recent run does suggest upward mobility for the conference, two of the three schools largely responsible for that success have left (Virginia Commonwealth) or are leaving (Old Dominion) the league.

The other school that has carried most of the league’s water in hoops, George Mason, could easily bolt for the Atlantic 10 if that conference made an offer. (There have also been football-fueled rumors about James Madison and/or Delaware eventually leaving the CAA.)

Last season Drexel won the CAA regular season title (with a 16-2 conference record) and advanced to the league tourney final, but did not get an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, thanks in large part to an unbalanced league schedule and a poor non-conference slate. If a 16-2 CAA team can’t get an at-large berth in the NCAAs (and that was with VCU and ODU in the conference), then it seems unlikely the Colonial will be a multi-bid nirvana going forward.

 —

Okay, so the CofC is (probably) gone. It’s just as well, too, given Joe Hull’s comments about the Southern Conference earlier last month. As soon as the diplomacy-averse Hull made his remarks, I believe every fan and journalist affiliated in some way with the league pointed out that the school hasn’t won the “invisible” SoCon in hoops this century.

What does the College of Charleston leaving mean for the SoCon…and what does it mean for The Citadel?

The league has three options: A) do nothing, B) add one school to replace the CofC, or C) add three more schools to get to 14.

Moving to 14 schools would be a way to solidify the SoCon in the short-term while protecting the league from the eventual departures of Appalachian State and Georgia Southern, assuming those schools get an invite from an FBS league in the near future.

I want what is best for The Citadel. Is what is best for The Citadel also what is best for the league? Maybe.

At this time, I don’t see why the league has to expand to 14 schools, although there are indications that is a possibility. I also don’t think it’s absolutely vital to immediately find a twelfth member. The league can afford to wait.

Appalachian State and Georgia Southern don’t have their FBS tickets punched yet, and may still have to wait a while (particularly GSU). I think league decisions should be made based on the general idea that both schools will be around for at least another year, but will leave in the next five years or so.

The SoCon’s biggest membership issue is that it is made up of several different groups of schools which have competing interests — from the smaller schools, to the larger ones, to the universities west of the Carolinas, to the institutions that don’t have scholarship football programs.

The league has historically always been a mishmash of schools, of course. However, trying to get everyone to agree on potential “adds” for the conference could prove especially problematic right now.

It has been suggested in various places around the internet that a “compromise” could be in the works, one that would be agreeable to the smaller school bloc (most of the private schools, plus The Citadel) and the larger schools (App State, GSU, etc.). This would result in the league moving to 14 schools by adding one private and possibly two larger public schools, in an effort to appease the bigger schools and also the institutions west of the Carolinas (which want company on their side of the league).

I don’t think that would be in the best interests of The Citadel. Depending on the schools involved, it also would be close to anathema for Furman and Davidson. I find it hard to believe Davidson would have elected to remain in the SoCon knowing there was a good chance the conference would be adding multiple schools with significantly different institutional profiles.

As for the other schools in the league, I am less certain. For example, take the North Carolina universities. Elon is a bit of a wild card; I’m not going to even try to guess what its decision-makers may be thinking. UNCG is a non-football school with limited history in the league. Western Carolina is a smaller public school (as compared to Appalachian State and Georgia Southern) in a relatively remote location.

I’ve seen all kinds of schools mentioned as possible new SoCon members. Some of them may have little to no interest in joining the league; some of them would name all their incoming freshmen after John Iamarino in order to get in the club. Below are my comments, opinions, etc., about a few of these schools. Remember, I’m doing this with a bias. I want what is best for The Citadel.

Do I have insider knowledge on any of this? Nope. If you read something on the internet from someone who claims to have insider knowledge on any of this, should you believe that person? Nope.

Let’s start with the favorite to be the next school to join the SoCon.

- Mercer: mentioned by an actual media person, Adam Smith, who seems to have a decent handle on SoCon info. Would make sense on a lot of levels. Mercer is just starting its football program, which will begin as a non-scholarship entity. Still, a natural replacement for the football-free CofC.

Negatives: no scholarship football (yet). Could be blocked by larger schools that want the aforementioned compromise so as to jam two or three big public universities into the league.

After Mercer, there are no obvious picks.

- Virginia Military Institute: left the league a decade ago. Would probably like to come back. I could see all the privates plus The Citadel favoring VMI’s return.

Negatives: league currently has nine football schools, and a nine-game SoCon schedule could be tough to implement. The alternative is to not have a round-robin.

Another consideration is that VMI has been terrible in football for 30 years. That counts (and is why it left the league in the first place). I could see VMI making a return to the SoCon when App State and/or Georgia Southern depart. If the league went to 14, I am not sure VMI would be one of the three additions.

- Coastal Carolina: ah, here comes controversy…

This is the school many of the larger state schools want in the league (at least, their fans do). So which schools are not so crazy about CCU joining the SoCon? That would be Furman, The Citadel, and Davidson. I am not as sure about Wofford, although I would think it would be in the same group.

From the perspective of The Citadel and Furman, adding another, larger South Carolina school with a different mission and budget is a complete non-starter (and another Palmetto State school also may not sit well with Samford and Chattanooga). It doesn’t benefit either S.C. school. I also suspect longtime SoCon types look at Coastal Carolina and think “Marshall II”, and one Marshall was enough for a lot of people.  That may be unfair to CCU, but it’s reality.

Also, I don’t think Appalachian State’s and Georgia Southern’s wishes (in terms of new members) should even be considered by the other schools. App and GSU have stated they want to leave, and they eventually will, which is fine. However, why should the schools remaining in the conference make a decision on league membership for the benefit of schools that aren’t going to be in the SoCon much longer? That would be stupid.

- Kennesaw State: reportedly discussed in the league’s meeting in June. From an April article in the Marietta Daily Journal:

One of the big challenges for Kennesaw State’s athletic programs will be to find a conference before the football team kicks off its inaugural season since the Owls’ current conference, the Atlantic Sun, does not sponsor football. [New Kennesaw State AD Vaughn] Williams said he has had some preliminary conversations with representatives from the Southern Conference and the Ohio Valley Conference about joining their leagues in the future.

I could see Chattanooga and the other state schools in favor of Kennesaw State, which I suppose would be part of a three-school add-on, with Mercer and some other institution. KSU won’t start its football program until 2014. It would basically be like adding UNC Charlotte to the league.

Would adding such a school to the SoCon be in the best interests of The Citadel? Not really. Could it happen? Sure. Trying to get into the Atlanta market would be the major justification for inviting Kennesaw State.

- South Carolina State: allegedly was also discussed at the (surely infamous) June league meeting. It is hard to imagine the league seriously considering SCSU, which has a host of institutional problems, including serious financial issues. SC State has had more school presidents in the last five years than Western Carolina has had league victories in football.

I also have my doubts that it would be in South Carolina State’s best interests to leave the MEAC in the first place.

- Tennessee Tech: located in Cookeville, Tennessee. Public, but on the small side (around 10,000 undergraduate students). Would appeal to Western Carolina, Chattanooga, and probably Samford. Whether or not the conference wants to venture any further from its current geographic footprint is open to question.

As far as The Citadel is concerned, it is probably a more palatable option than any of the above-mentioned schools save Mercer and VMI. Tennessee Tech is in the OVC and I am not sure why it would want to leave that league.

- William & Mary: would be a great get, but is not happening unless the CAA implodes, and even then W&M’s first choice would likely be the Patriot League.

- Richmond: would only join the SoCon as a football-only member if the CAA dropped football sponsorship, as UR is happy to have its hoops program in the A-10.

I don’t see any school joining the SoCon as a football-only member. I saw a report suggesting Kennesaw State might be interested in this option. That should not happen, and I don’t think it will.

- Presbyterian: another Palmetto State school, which is PC’s biggest problem. Furman and Wofford aren’t interested in “elevating” the Blue Hose.

- Jacksonville: I wrote about JU in September of 2011, when I previewed The Citadel’s football season opener against the Dolphins that year. JU has potential (and a good market), but it’s another non-scholarship football program.

- Jacksonville State: wants to go FBS, like App and GSU. I don’t see the point of adding a member school like that. I doubt JSU does either.

- Liberty: see the entry for Jacksonville State.

- East Tennessee State: dropped football, dropped out of the SoCon. Now may want back in, though it still doesn’t have football. I’m not sure how serious a possibility ETSU is as things currently stand. Would not be the first choice for any of the current league members with the possible exception of Chattanooga.

A few other schools have been mentioned in passing, including Gardner-Webb, High Point, Murray State, Winthrop, Eastern Kentucky, North Alabama, and West Georgia. I don’t see any of them as realistic options for the SoCon (though I could be wrong).

A slightly different question: is the College of Charleston leaving the SoCon good or bad for The Citadel?

The real answer to that question is “to be determined”. Ultimately, though, it will depend on two things:

1) Which (if any) schools replace the CofC in the league

2) What (if anything) The Citadel does to take advantage of the CofC leaving

The Citadel has something to say about the first item, and everything to say about the second.

If the school(s) that replace the College of Charleston in the SoCon are from The Citadel’s perspective “like” institutions (smaller schools, good academics, etc.), then the CofC leaving will present the military college with an opportunity. That opportunity is greatly lessened if the new member schools do not fit that profile.

With the College of Charleston’s departure, The Citadel takes complete control of the Charleston market for the SoCon, and that’s a good thing. The Charleston area will, in my opinion, more easily identify with a football conference that has a long history, and that has “familiar” schools (like Furman and Wofford). The Palmetto State is, ultimately, a football state.

The Charleston market has also already proven over time to be supportive of SoCon baseball (with its long tenure as the league tourney host). That reminds me: it’s time for John Iamarino to step up and give the Low Country a long-term contract to host the tourney again.

Speaking of baseball, it’s possible that Monte Lee’s loss will be Fred Jordan’s gain in terms of recruiting for their respective programs.  I think Coastal Carolina may also benefit from the CofC joining a lower-tier baseball conference (and Charleston Southern will have something to say about it as well), but it won’t hurt The Citadel at all to pick up impact local recruits who want to play against quality opposition closer to home.

I also wouldn’t be surprised if a few other varsity sports at The Citadel benefit from the “only local school in the local league” phenomenon.

What The Citadel needs to do is get the message out to the local populace that the Bulldogs are the hometown team of choice, especially in a football-crazy state that also loves its baseball. It should be, to steal a term from college basketball officiating, a “point of emphasis”. I know that is already happening, but now more than ever it is a strategy that needs to be pushed.

I just named three sports in consecutive sentences. That means it is time to wrap this up…

The next few months are going to be very interesting for fans of the Southern Conference. Few other leagues have the potential for divisiveness quite like the SoCon, thanks to its disparate membership. For The Citadel, it is important that the school’s administration looks out for the school’s best interests, even if they are not in line with what league officials may propose.

This is not the time to “go along to get along”. Earlier, I mentioned three SoCon options. One of them was to do nothing and stay at eleven schools. There is nothing bad about that option right now. If the alternative is something that is not optimal for The Citadel, then the school should not be afraid to be intransigent.

We’re good at that.

Riley Report: midway through the SoCon campaign

The Citadel has now played fifteen Southern Conference baseball games so far this season, with fifteen more still to come. It’s a good time to take stock in where the team stands at this point. I’m going to discuss the team’s play as it relates to the league as a whole, and also some peripheral statistics associated with the action on the field.

First, though, let’s revisit Game 15 of the league campaign, which is almost certainly the most absurd comeback victory by any team this season in the entire country. For those who have been living under a rock for the past few days, the situation was as follows:

UNC- Greensboro 7, The Citadel 2. Bottom of the ninth inning at Riley Park, Bulldogs down to their last out. No one on base.

With two outs, Fred Jordan elected to give Ryne Hardwick a pinch-hit appearance. The native of Conway entered the game with only one base hit as a Bulldog, but he promptly doubled down the left field line off of UNCG pitcher Dylan Hathcock. This probably didn’t cause much concern for UNCG, although perhaps the Spartans should have been worried, as Hardwick had actually played a role in last year’s wild 17-14 victory over the College of Charleston, scoring a run in that contest.

It seems extreme baseball craziness can happen when Ryne Hardwick enters the fray…

After Nick Orvin legged out an infield single, Mason Davis doubled down the left field line, scoring Hardwick. At this point in the contest, UNCG coach Mike Gaski summoned Brennen James from the bullpen to replace Hathcock. James then proceeded to walk Justin Mackert on five pitches, loading the bases.

Joe Jackson came to the plate, representing the tying run. Jackson grounded to first, but UNCG first baseman Lloyd Enzor’s throw to a covering James was low and wide, and the pitcher couldn’t handle it.

Grant Richards was the next Bulldog to stride to the plate, and like Mackert he would walk on five pitches. Then Drew DeKerlegand would also walk on five pitches. That was it for UNCG’s James, who was replaced by Zach Furl.

After DeKerlegand reached, The Citadel trailed 7-6 and had the tying run at third base and the winning run on second. Hayden Hendry entered the game to pinch-run for Grant Richards. The batter was Calvin Orth, who had started the inning by grounding out to shortstop. Orth would again ground to shortstop — but this time UNCG shortstop Kris Richards bobbled the ball while moving to the second base bag. All hands were safe, and the game was tied.

Johnathan Stokes’ first at bat in the inning had resulted in a fly ball to left field. So would his second. Instead of being caught, though, the ball sailed over left fielder Zach Leach’s head. Hendry scored, and the Bulldogs had somehow won the game.

“You have got to be kidding me!” screamed Danny Reed over the radio.

I couldn’t believe it either. It was a great comeback for the Bulldogs, helped by UNCG’s decidedly unclutch pitching and defense. The Spartans could have ended the game several times, but were unable to make routine plays or consistently throw strikes. Credit The Citadel’s players for not giving in or giving up, though. Three other thoughts:

1) Why was the UNCG outfield playing so far in for Stokes? A left fielder at normal depth probably would have caught the eventual game-winning hit. It’s as if the Spartans thought there were less than two outs. I haven’t seen an outfielder as close to the infield in that situation since the days of Rafael Belliard.

2) The odds of winning a game when down five runs with two outs in the bottom of the ninth are…not good. You can get an idea of the mathematics involved using a win probability calculator. Of course, something designed for MLB isn’t ideal for analyzing college baseball, but it’s probably a reasonable approximation. A 0.0006 win probability for The Citadel sounds about right.

3) You can bet that Mike Gaski will support an offer from Yemen to host the Southern Conference Baseball Tournament before he does a bid from the City of Charleston.

The three-game sweep of UNC-Greensboro improved the Bulldogs’ record in SoCon play to 7-8, which is currently good enough for seventh place in the league standings. The top eight teams in the conference will advance to the league tournament, which this year (and next) is being played at Fluor Field in Greenville instead of Charleston. (Actually, the tournament may not return to Charleston, but that’s a subject for another post.)

Longtime observers of The Citadel’s baseball program may be disappointed in being in seventh place, but to be honest I think a reasonable goal for this year’s team is to simply qualify for the league tournament. My reasoning for this is as follows:

- Last year The Citadel finished last in the conference for the first time. This happened the year after a championship season, so it came as a bit of a shock. It may be almost as shocking to realize that this last-place finish came in a year in which the league was down.

In 2010, the SoCon had a conference RPI that ranked as 9th-best nationally among all leagues. In 2011, though, that ranking dropped to 15th overall. This season, the league has had a good deal of success in non-conference play, and as a result the SoCon is currently ranked 8th in RPI.

In other words, The Citadel is trying to move up in the standings from one year to the next while the league as a whole is much improved from last year. The seventh-best team this year is probably considerably better than the seventh-best team from last season — and of course, the Bulldogs weren’t seventh last year. They were eleventh.

- Jeff Hartsell wrote recently about the team’s struggles (this came prior to the sweep of UNCG). I think the key point he made was about attrition. For any varsity sport at The Citadel, keeping attrition low is critical. The baseball program has had a tough run over the last couple of years when it comes to losing players, particularly pitchers, and it was a factor (though not the only factor) in last season’s collapse.

This year’s team is quite young, with three true freshmen manning the middle infield spots and a host of frosh hurlers making contributions. There are actually more freshmen (redshirt and “true”) listed on the roster in The Citadel’s game notes (18) than sophomores, juniors, and seniors combined (17).

Everyone associated with The Citadel knows the difficulty freshmen face in adjusting to life at the military college, both on the field and off. They are not likely to be consistently excellent on the diamond.

The one thing that has to happen, though, is that this year’s crop of freshmen needs to return in force next season. When a program at The Citadel starts turning over freshmen year after year, that’s when it gets in trouble. Retention is all-important, not just for the school’s mission, but for the success of its varsity teams.

- There is one other issue that might have an impact on The Citadel’s overall record (not necessarily its record in league play). The relatively recent compression of the college baseball schedule puts The Citadel at a bit of a disadvantage, even in good years for the Bulldogs. Having to play 56 games in a 13-week period means that more midweek games are being played, and that can test a team’s overall depth, particularly in regards to pitching.

The Citadel has never really been known as a team with a great deal of pitching depth. The Bulldogs have generally had good pitching staffs, but those staffs were built for conference games played on the weekends.

In 2010, The Citadel won the Southern Conference with a league record of 24-6. The Bulldogs wound up losing fewer conference games that year than they did games played on Tuesday. The Citadel was 1-7 on Tuesday.

I remember arguing a little that season with Baseball America college baseball writer Aaron Fitt about The Citadel’s viability as an at-large candidate. He pointed to the Bulldogs’ less-than-stellar non-league record as a reason for doubt. My argument in response was that The Citadel was winning a top-10 league. I could have also noted that regional matchups are not played on Tuesdays.

Basically, what I’m saying is that given the “tighter” college baseball schedule of today, The Citadel may drop an occasional midweek game that it shouldn’t. That won’t be a problem for conference play, and will only matter in years when the team is a legitimate at-large candidate for an NCAA bid.

I think the league can be broken into two distinct groupings this season. There are six teams that will be in the league tournament unless something strange happens (Appalachian State, Elon, Western Carolina, Georgia Southern, Samford, and the College of Charleston). Then there is another group of five teams, with likely two of them making the tourney. Right now The Citadel leads that group, which also includes Furman, Davidson, UNC-Greensboro, and Wofford.

The Citadel has already played UNCG and Wofford, both at home. The Bulldogs won five of those six games, which is important. The Citadel will play Furman later in the season at Riley Park, and will play Davidson on the road.

The Bulldogs’ only other home conference series remaining is against Georgia Southern. The Citadel faces a short trip to Patriots Point for a series against the College of Charleston, and a longer trip to Elon.

In my baseball preview a couple of months ago, I noted that The Citadel’s team defense was awful last season, regressing from a respectable defensive efficiency of 66.8% in league play in 2010 (slightly better than average) to 63.2% in 2011 (worst in the league by far). That differential is even worse when you consider that the new bat standards that went into effect for the 2011 season resulted in generally higher DER across the board.

The Citadel’s defensive efficiency in 2012 stands at 67.2% through 15 conference games, a significant improvement from 2011. It is probably not quite as good as the 2010 number once the changed bat standards are taken into account, but is still respectable.

There isn’t enough readily available statistical information yet to compare The Citadel’s DER to that of its conference brethren this year, but I will hazard a guess that the Bulldogs have been an average defensive team in league action. The fielding percentage stats would indicate The Citadel is actually nearer the bottom of the pack than the top, but I think that’s slightly misleading. There is definitely still room for improvement in this area, however.

Comparing pitching ERA from 2010, 2011, and 2012 (league play only):

Year    Dogs  SoCon avg.
2010    4.26       6.15
2011    5.44       4.69
2012    5.70       4.72

As you can see, the development of the mound staff by new pitching coach Britt Reames is still a work in progress. (The conference ERA over the last two seasons reflects the impact the new bat standards have had on the formerly hitter-friendly league.)

You have to be careful with sample sizes, of course. For 2012, keep in mind that nine of The Citadel’s fifteen games have been at home, at a “pitcher’s park”. On the other hand, three of the six road games took place at Smith Stadium in Boone, which per Boyd Nation had a park factor rating of 124 for the previous four seasons.

Freshmen are responsible for more than 42% of the innings pitched by Bulldog hurlers (that’s for all games, not just league contests), so there is a reasonable likelihood of improvement as the season continues. Reames has not been afraid to use a quick hook, but he has also not hesitated to give pitchers multiple opportunities (five of the frosh pitchers have appeared in at least twelve games so far).

My own sense of Reames’ approach, which may be completely off base, is that he is being careful with the young pitchers, not just from a physical standpoint, but a psychological one. He isn’t inclined to let someone hang around on the hill too long and get absolutely crushed.

I do have one concern with the pitching going forward, and that is the K rate. The Citadel’s pitching staff averaged 8.7 strikeouts per nine innings in 2010, and had a still solid 7.8 K/9 ratio in 2011. This season, however, that number has dropped to 5.5/9 in SoCon play. That’s too low.

The Citadel’s pitching staff has traditionally had strong strikeout rates, though it is also true that one pitcher (i.e., Asher Wojciechowski) can make a big difference in the overall numbers. Ultimately, the Bulldogs’ pitchers are going to have to miss more bats in order to reach their desired level of success.

I do want to highlight two pitchers who are getting the job done this year, but neither is a freshman. Friday starter Austin Pritcher has thrown at least 5 1/3 innings in each of his nine starts, with a solid 3.42 ERA. He has been a much-needed constant in the starting rotation.

Senior sidearmer Ryan Hines has appeared in 25 of The Citadel’s 37 games, all out of the bullpen, and has proven to be the kind of reliable setup man/closer type that any good team needs. If the Bulldogs qualify for the SoCon tourney, though, Hines is going to need some help in the ‘pen if The Citadel hopes to do more than its fair share of post-season damage.

The Bulldogs are still waiting for their bats to awaken, particularly in conference action. In 2011, the team batting average of .280 was a tad subpar, but it looks great when compared to the current .250 BA that The Citadel is sporting in SoCon play. The Bulldogs had an OPS of 741 last season in league games, which tied for 7th-best in the conference. This season, that number has fallen to 701, which is somehow still better than three other league teams (UNCG, Davidson, and Wofford, with the Terriers having an anemic 600 OPS).

I think the hitting will improve, which may be an optimistic viewpoint, but one that I believe is grounded in reality. Nick Orvin is not a .266 hitter; he’s better than that, and there is still plenty of time this season to prove it.

It may be that he has been the victim of some excellent pitching. Earlier in the season, Orvin was getting in some tough counts while at the plate. I took a lot at his plate appearances through March 11, and found that he was batting .500 when the first pitch of the AB was a ball but only .063 when it was a strike (or if he put the first pitch into play). At that time, he was seeing a lot of first-pitch strikes.

Orvin is going to get his hits, eventually. So will Joe Jackson, who I am hoping will also develop some more power. Another guy who should be about ready to break out is Drew DeKerlegand, who is only batting .250 after hitting .317 in his freshman campaign.

Those players are all proven commodities with a bat in their hands. It may be that opposing pitchers are working around them, not giving them good pitches to hit, and taking their chances with the bottom of the order. One of those batters in the lower part of the lineup needs to get hot. If so, it could prove contagious (to borrow one of Fred Jordan’s pet expressions).

It’s been a bumpy road at times this season for the baseball team. There are signs, however, that the path ahead may be a bit smoother. Don’t be surprised if there are still a few potholes to navigate, though. After all, we’re talking about The Citadel.

Hoops update: a league victory, SoCon vs. CAA, and TV

This post is going to be split into three different topics. Before reviewing and previewing the current on-court antics, I wanted to focus on a couple of recent articles in The Post and Courier. They touch on subjects that impact The Citadel’s department of athletics in general and its basketball program in particular.

With CAA as model, SoCon bids to climb ladder

[College of Charleston] basketball coach Bobby Cremins said he was jealous of George Mason’s league, the Colonial Athletic Association.

“I’d love to see the Southern Conference become something like that,” Cremins said. “That should be the goal of our conference. We use them as a model.”

The source of Cremins’ envy? The three teams the CAA sent to the NCAA tournament last season, and the four at-large bids the Colonial has landed in the last six seasons. That’s four more at-large bids than the SoCon has earned it its entire history dating back to 1939, when the NCAA tournament started.

The SoCon has never sent more than one team — the tournament champion, who earns an automatic bid — to the Big Dance, which expanded to a field of 68 teams last year.

Tangent to make an overly nerdy comment: technically, the SoCon has actually received three at-large bids in its history. From 1939 to 1950, the field for the NCAA tournament was made up of only eight teams. Three times, teams from the SoCon played in the event; on all three occasions, those bids were invitations and not automatic selections. In 1951, the NCAA tournament expanded to 16 teams, and the SoCon champion (North Carolina State) got an automatic bid into the event. Not that it really matters.

Bobby Cremins has yet to take the College of Charleston to the NCAAs, and knows the only way to do so (at least right now) is to win the league tournament. Cremins actually had a solid record as a league tournament coach when he was at Georgia Tech (winning the ACC tourney twice), but hasn’t yet grabbed the brass ring while at the CofC.

I think the information presented in the article underscores how tough a task the SoCon has in trying to emulate the CAA. Besides having larger schools that play in bigger arenas (for the most part), most of the CAA schools don’t have to worry about football. The CAA probably also benefits to a degree from having more of its schools located in larger metro areas, although that can be a double-edged sword.

It’s good that the SoCon is trying to be more strict about its non-conference scheduling, but it’s a difficult balancing act. It should be noted that playing a non-D1 doesn’t have any impact on the RPI. What the league doesn’t want is schools overloading their schedules with gimme games against non-D1s and guarantee games against BCS schools. The SoCon needs its members to play more “in-between” schools. Otherwise, instead of competing with the CAA it risks sliding down into SWAC territory.

Having said that, John Iamarino knows that some of his schools have fewer options than others. That’s the nature of the SoCon and its disparate membership. It would be interesting to know which school drew the commissioner’s wrath for its less-than-acceptable scheduling. If I had to bet, I would put my money on Chattanooga.

Let’s talk about TV

I’ve been meaning to write more about the linked article, which was originally published in early December.

The College of Charleston Sports Network will produce 11 games this season that will be broadcast locally on WMMP or WTAT. Those games also will be available on ESPN3, a streaming Internet service that reaches more than 70 million households worldwide and is available in 85 percent of U.S. homes. Some games also might be carried on ESPN FullCourt, a pay-per-view service available on cable systems.

By season’s end, at least 23 of the team’s 30 regular-season games will be televised.

Does The Citadel need to do something like this? Absolutely.

The startup costs would not be insignificant, but I believe it would be a worthwhile investment. The potential exposure for the varsity sports teams, not to mention the school in general, makes it a no-brainer.

That includes televising home football games in a format that can be used by ESPN3.com or one of the myriad sports TV networks, many of which seem desperate for programming.

It would likely give The Citadel an edge in recruiting — and if the school doesn’t do something like this, it will probably fall behind a host of other schools. Just look at FCS football.

Some of the FCS schools that had the majority (if not all) of their football games televised in 2011: Lafayette, Lehigh, Liberty, Maine, Montana, Montana State, Murray State, Northern Arizona, and seemingly all of the Dakota schools (including, not so coincidentally, national champion North Dakota State).

That’s not even counting schools that have home games televised on public television (like Eastern Illinois) or schools with a two- or three-game deal with a local TV station/cable carrier (like Cal Poly, Colgate, Georgetown, and Holy Cross). Not all of those games wind up on a Fox sports net or ESPN3.com, but plenty of them do.

The opportunities in basketball, baseball, and perhaps soccer and wrestling are there, too.

I’ve long advocated that The Citadel’s coaches schedule non-conference games with an eye to getting on television as much as possible. Now I think it is time for the school to be even more proactive.

The Citadel finally won a league game last week, beating Samford 73-62 at McAlister Field House. It was also the first league home game for the Bulldogs, and I am hopeful that the team can add to the victory total this week. Prior to the win over Samford, it had been very tough sledding, as The Citadel had lost its previous ten games against D-1 competition, all but one by double digits.

The worst of those was a 77-45 drubbing by Furman two days before the Samford matchup, so at least the Bulldogs showed some resiliency in bouncing back from that loss. However, the fact remains that it’s been a struggle all year for Chuck Driesell’s troops, particularly on defense.

The Citadel ranks in the bottom 50 nationally in the following defensive categories: effective field goal percentage, turnover percentage, block percentage, and two-point field goal percentage. The Bulldogs are actually dead last (59.3%) in 2-point FG%, 345th out of 345 D-1 teams. The Citadel’s overall defensive efficiency rating (per Pomeroy) is 8th-worst in the country.

Driesell has focused on his team’s defensive issues each and every time he’s discussed the squad’s performances, notably on the post-game radio show. I’ll say this, he’s not one to sugarcoat things, as anyone who has listened to the show can attest.

The win against Samford was a decent (not great) defensive performance. The Citadel has proven to be a tough matchup on the hardwood for the Birmingham Bulldogs over the years, and Saturday night was no exception. Samford shoots a lot of threes by design, but you have to make a decent percentage of them for that strategy to work, and Samford was only 7-29. Some of that was good defense by The Citadel, and some of it was just really bad shooting.

The chief negative for The Citadel was that Samford dominated the offensive glass, particularly in the first half, when it had an offensive rebound rate of almost 60%. The cadets should have led at halftime by about fifteen points, but had to settle for a seven-point edge.

On the positive side of things (after all, it was a victory), Mike Groselle was outstanding (10-10 FG, 25 points) and Cosmo Morabbi had a career night, with 20 points and six assists. The Bulldogs as a whole were solid on offense.

Next up for The Citadel: two more home SoCon games, against Elon and UNC-Greensboro. Elon has been a mild surprise this season, playing about as well as any team in the muddled SoCon North. The Phoenix won at home over South Carolina earlier in the campaign, but recently has hit a slump, losing five straight games.

Losing to North Carolina and San Diego State is not exactly embarrassing, but the streak also includes losses to Dartmouth (a traditional cellar-dweller in the Ivy League), Georgia Southern, and Columbia (another Ivy opponent). Elon has struggled putting the ball in the basket in those five games, as it has not shot better than 36% from the field in any of them. The Citadel needs to make sure that trend continues.

Tough matchup alert: Elon’s Lucas Troutman is a 6’10” native of Belton, SC, who was on the SoCon’s all-freshman team last year. He scored 22 points against NC State earlier this season and will be a difficult player for the Bulldogs to handle.

On Saturday the Bulldogs host UNC-Greensboro, which is 2-14 and only has one D-1 victory, that over winless Towson. The Spartans are on their second coach of the campaign, as longtime boss Mike Dement resigned in December. It was inevitable, especially after UNCG’s 22-point loss to North Carolina A&T two weeks before.

Wes Miller is the interim coach. Miller is only 28 years old, and may have a chance to keep the job, depending on how the rest of the season plays out for the Spartans. So far he has yet to record a victory as head honcho, although UNCG played well in a 10-point loss at Miami.

As you might expect, UNCG has some really bad stats, particularly on defense. What is unique about the Spartans D is that opponents shoot well from everywhere — three-point range (bottom 15 nationally), inside the paint (ditto), even at the foul line.

UNCG’s best player is Trevis Simpson, a 6’4″ guard. Like Elon’s Troutman, he was on last year’s league all-frosh team. Simpson is a volume shooter who blows hot and cold, but when he’s hot he can get very hot (at Miami, he hit 7 of 11 three-pointers as part of a 36-point explosion). The Citadel must work hard, especially early in the game, to make sure he doesn’t get on a roll.

The Citadel will be a slight underdog in both games this week. However, it will be disappointing if the Bulldogs don’t win at least one of the two contests. That’s the short-term view. As for what these games mean for the season as a whole, I’m hoping to see some improvement on the defensive side of things for The Citadel. If that happens, more wins will follow.

Larry Leckonby’s Lament: The Citadel in 2010-11

The first thing I want to note is that none of what follows is intended to be a negative reflection on any of the individuals who compete for The Citadel in varsity athletics.  I am greatly appreciative of all the young men and women who represent the school on the field of play.

This is about the “big picture”, and the truth is that the big picture for the school year 2010-11 at The Citadel featured a lot of losing.  Just how much losing?

Well, let’s take a look at all the varsity programs under the military college’s banner. The Citadel has fifteen varsity sports, by my reckoning.  I count rifle (listed as both a men’s and women’s sport on the school’s website) as just one sport, because it is co-ed.  I consider indoor track and outdoor track to be separate entities, because the Southern Conference awards championships in both of them (and for both men and women).  The school competes in the SoCon in fourteen of the fifteen sports (the exception is rifle).

The Citadel’s most successful sport in 2010-2011 was, in fact, rifle.  The rifle team won its first conference title since 2001, the conference title in question being the Southeastern Air Rifle Conference championship.  I don’t know a whole lot about this, but it sounds good to me.  The previous four SEARC titles had been won by North Carolina State.  Those four titles had been won by NCSU prior to Debbie Yow being named director of athletics at that school, but there was no indication that sabotage was involved in The Citadel’s triumph.

It seems appropriate that The Citadel has an outstanding rifle program.

The women’s soccer team finished 12-8-1, 7-4 in the Southern Conference (good for 3rd place), and was easily the second-most successful sport at The Citadel this school year.  It was #1 in the “feel good” category by miles and miles, however, since the program had only won three league games in its entire history prior to the 2010 campaign.

In addition, the soccer team was the only squad this year to win a postseason game of any kind for The Citadel, defeating Furman 2-1 in 2OT in the first round of the SoCon tourney.

The wrestling team finished fourth in the SoCon (out of six teams) in what probably could be considered a mildly disappointing season.  On the bright side, at least The Citadel still has a wrestling program, which is more than can be said for second-place UNC-Greensboro or NCAA Division II champion Nebraska-Omaha.

The Citadel finished 5th in the SoCon (out of nine teams) in both men’s indoor and outdoor track, while the women were 9th (out of twelve teams) in both.  This strikes me as perfectly respectable.  Ninth is not as good as first or second, obviously, but perspective has to maintained, especially considering that as of September there were only 142 female cadets overall at The Citadel.  The coaches just need to find another Stephanie McNeill or two in order to vault a few spots in the standings.

The Citadel finished next-to-last in both men’s and women’s cross country in the SoCon (10th/11 men, 11th/12 women).  In this case, though, it may be fair to grade on a curve. I suspect that it is not easy (if even possible) to develop a serious league contender in cross country at a military school located in Charleston, South Carolina. The City of Charleston has a number of charms, but it is certainly not conducive to ideal cross country training.

I noticed when reviewing the league’s history and records that the College of Charleston (since becoming a league member) has generally joined The Citadel in the lower part of the standings.  That’s probably not a coincidence, and neither is the fact that Appalachian State and Chattanooga have dominated the sport in the league over the years.  Incidentally, The Citadel’s 3rd-place result in the 1972 SoCon meet is the best finish in school history.

You know it’s been a bad school year in Bulldog athletics when there are six varsity sports that arguably had worse seasons than a pair of cross country teams that each finished next-to-last in the league…

The volleyball team finished 7-25, 1-15 in the SoCon.  Perhaps not surprisingly, The Citadel made a coaching change.  You have to wonder if the success of the women’s soccer team this year cast a less-than-favorable light on the volleyball program, which has an alltime record in league play of 10-192.  (No, that’s not a typo.)

One of the downsides when a “non-revenue” sport is on the short end of the wins-and-losses ledger is that alums and other interested observers are less likely to read or hear about the players, and some of those cadets are rather accomplished student-athletes.  That’s just another reason why it’s important to maintain competitive teams in all of The Citadel’s varsity programs.

Another program that will be helmed by a new coach next season is the tennis team, which finished 3-21, and failed to win a single Southern Conference match (0-10). The Bulldogs were winless against Division I competition, with the three victories coming against Case Western and Reserve, Johnson C. Smith, and Lenoir-Rhyne.

Then there is the women’s golf team, which was possibly even less competitive in the conference in 2011 than the tennis team.

At this year’s SoCon championships, there was a 79-shot difference between the first-place team (Chattanooga, which won the title by 30 strokes) and the ninth-place team (Appalachian State).  The Citadel finished 10th and last, 70 shots behind App State.

For a lot of graduates, football, baseball, and basketball are the sports that matter. They tend to get the lions’ share of attention and resources, and are thus held to a higher standard by most alums, who are more inclined to follow them and compare the successes and failures of the programs to other schools.  If you are reading this, you undoubtedly know how their seasons went, but a quick recap:

Football:  3-8, 1-7 (tied for last) in the SoCon.  The first year of Triple O’Higgins was often a cover-your-eyes situation, with the nadir being the nine-turnover debacle at home against Georgia Southern.

Basketball:  10-22, 6-12 in the Socon (next-to-last in South Division).  Chuck Driesell’s first year as head coach was not a success, as a senior-laden team and wannabe league contender struggled all season.

Baseball:  20-36, 8-22 in the SoCon (last).  The baseball team missed the SoCon tournament for the first time since 1987 (and back then, only four teams made the tourney).  A twelve-game losing streak to close the season resulted in the Bulldogs finishing last in the league for the first time ever.  The collapse came as a shock, despite expectations being relatively modest following the team’s championship season of a year ago.

The combined 66 losses by the “Big 3″ is a record, as you might have guessed.  It’s not often all three programs have a losing season in the same school year.  The last time it happened was in 1993-94, but that year the baseball team got on a serious roll at the end of the season and won the league tournament, making the NCAAs.  The football team was a not-so-terrible 5-6.  The worst record for the three sports that year was the hoops squad’s 11-16 mark.

When it comes to “best year” or “worst year” in Bulldog athletics, of course, it’s really just a matter of opinion.  To me, an especially difficult year would include poor results by the “Big 3″ combined with less-than-stellar records for a lot of the other programs.  I want The Citadel to be good at everything, or at least decent at everything.

I went back and looked at some of the records for the past five decades.  I was particularly interested in the 1966-67 and 1986-87 school years, the most recent campaigns (prior to 1993-94) where the “Big 3″ programs all finished with losing records.  Exact comparisons could not be made, of course, as The Citadel has sponsored sports in which it no longer fields varsity teams (like men’s golf and men’s soccer) and now has other sports which didn’t exist in previous years (all the women’s teams).

In 1966-67, the baseball team lost 12 in a row (just like this season) and finished 9-16.  That losing streak included losses to Taylor and Pfeiffer.  The basketball team was 8-16, a season that has been well chronicled.  The football team was 4-6, although that campaign did include end-of-season victories over VMI and Furman.

The 1966-67 basketball and baseball teams were not good, and comparable to this year’s editions of those teams, but the football team was probably better than 2010’s squad.  In addition, 1966-67 featured a solid tennis team (3rd in the SoCon) and, most notably, a championship outfit — the wrestling team, which won the Southern Conference title that year and featured Ed Steers, who was named Most Outstanding Wrestler after winning the second of his three league titles in the 145-lb. division.

When comparing 2010-11 to 1986-87, it’s a closer call.  The football team was arguably worse (that was Tom Moore’s final season; the Bulldogs finished 3-8 with some dreadful performances, particularly at home against VMI and Chattanooga), but the hoops squad was better (13-15, 6-10 in the SoCon) and the baseball team was too.  In addition, the other sports were slightly more successful across the board in 1986-87 (with tennis being significantly better).

I did not find another school year in the 1961-2001 era where the varsity sports teams struggled as much as in those two years.  I think a persuasive argument can be made that 2010-11 was the worst school year for varsity athletics at The Citadel in at least 50 years.

What does it mean?  Well, in the short term it probably means that Jerry Baker, Caleb Davis and company will have that much more difficult a time raising money for the Brigadier Foundation. Contributors want to see a winner, and you had to search far and wide to find a winner in The Citadel’s athletics department this year.

For Larry Leckonby, it means that 2011-12 will be an important year, one in which he will have to make key decisions.  His biggest call will be on Kevin Higgins’ future.  The department of athletics pivots off the success of the football team; it’s the most high-profile sport at the school, it’s where the money is made, and I also think that it sometimes establishes momentum for the other sports.

Speaking of coaches, Leckonby also needs to find the right one for the tennis team, which should be better than 3-21 (and yes, I know that NCAA tennis is a different animal than it was two and three decades ago).  I don’t have any good advice on that front, other than if he gets an applicant who drives a Jaguar (with a baby bulldog in the front seat) and appears regularly on television, he should hire him.  It worked fairly well the first time.

While last year was mostly grim, there is hope, and that hope can be found by considering what happened following the 1986-87 school year.  In May of 1987, it would have been easy to be pessimistic about sports at The Citadel, but in the next six years:

– The baseball team won two regular season SoCon titles, one league tourney, and advanced to the College World Series in 1990.

– The football team won at South Carolina, at Army, beat Navy twice (at home and on the road), made three playoff appearances, and won the Southern Conference title for only the second time in school history.

– The basketball team won at South Carolina (the first win over the Gamecocks since the 1943 Southern Conference tournament) and had a 16-win season.

– The tennis team had two top-3 finishes in the SoCon tourney; the golf team had a top-4 finish; and the soccer team had a tie for first place (in 1990).

After the struggles of 1986-87, the department had its best run of success since the early 1960s.  Maybe history can repeat itself.

I hope so.  Losing isn’t any fun…

The bandwagon makes a stop at WLI Field

Last spring my youngest niece began playing soccer in a local league.  I went to a few of her games (after all, I am the sports dork in the family).

The games were for the most part conducted in a congenial atmosphere, with families watching their charges at play.  Her team was, to be honest, not the most skilled of squads.  This wasn’t exactly surprising, as they were all first-graders, and most of them were new to the game.

The basic plan of attack went like this:  if the ball rolled in the general vicinity of a player, that player would attempt to kick it, hopefully in the right direction.  There was no guarantee that significant contact with the ball would be made.

A goal-scoring opportunity would occur if a player managed to kick the ball hard enough to get it close to the other team’s net; then there would be a meeting at the ball of a number of players on each team, and if the right kick happened at the right time, and the keeper wasn’t up to the task, then a goal might be scored.

Well, maybe the squad was a little better than that.  The girls did practice every week, and were instructed in the fundamentals.  During the games, the team’s coach would organize his troops.  “Stay in position!  Stay in position!” he would yell, somewhat mournfully.  Staying in position (or perhaps just staying focused) was seemingly a hard thing for them to do.

I watched the team play three times.  It won once and lost twice.  One of the teams it played had much better players and won 4-0.  Clearly that outfit had brought in ringers. The other two opponents were more on their level; the girls lost 2-1 to one team, and beat the other one 2-0.  During the spring season, they were basically a .500 outfit.

After the summer break, the team started play again for the fall campaign.  I didn’t realize there was a fall season, so I wasn’t prepared for the telephone call I got a few weeks ago from my brother.  First he told me that the team had played two games already; then the conversation went something like this:

Him:  “They won 8-0 last night.”

Me:  “8-0?  Did the other team have more than two players?”

Him:  “Yeah, they just…well, I can’t explain it.  But…our team is real good now.”

Me:  “Did they get some ringers like that other team did?”

Him:  “No, it’s the same girls as in the spring.  It’s just they got good all of a sudden.”

Me:  “What was the score in the other game they played?”

Him:  “10-0.”

Me:  “Did she score?”

Him (and I could see him grinning, even over the telephone):  “She scored a goal in the last game.”

They later won a game in which they scored twelve goals, and apparently there is now talk that they are too good for their league and might have to move up an age level, which seems a little unfair to me, kind of like asking Oregon to play in the NFC West (although maybe that’s not such a stretch, come to think of it).

I was thinking about my niece’s team as I contemplated the rise of another soccer team, that of my alma mater, which has made an even more improbable leap.  I wondered if comparing the two outfits might be instructive, but I thought better of it. Maybe someone could have seen the improvement in my niece’s team coming, but there is no way anyone was expecting the season The Citadel has had in soccer.  No one, that is, except perhaps head coach Bob Winch:

[Question] Did you see this coming?

“Yeah, a little bit. Last year, we were successful defensively and we always had a chance in our games. This year, we’ve been able to score some goals and that’s helped us win some games.”

Let’s go over some stats…

Through early October of 2008, The Citadel’s women’s soccer team had an alltime record in Southern Conference play of 0-74-2.  No, that’s not a typo.  On October 10 of that year, the squad finally won a game in the league, beating Georgia Southern 2-1. The Bulldogs would drop their final six SoCon games that year and finish 1-10 in the conference.

That was two years ago.  Last season The Citadel finished with a record of 2-7-2 in SoCon play, beating GSU again (the program’s first league road victory) and also knocking off Chattanooga.  The two ties were both scoreless matches played over the same weekend in games at Appalachian State and at Western Carolina.

The team’s noticeable improvement in competitiveness garnered Winch the league’s coach of the year award.  It’s not often a COY award is given to someone whose team had a winning percentage of just 27% in league play, but it’s not often a coach doubles his program’s alltime conference win total in one season, either.

This season, of course, has gone beyond that, and then some.  The Citadel won 7 of its 11 conference games, including first-ever wins over Wofford, Davidson, Elon, Appalachian State, and Western Carolina.  In league action, The Bulldogs were 4-2 on the road and 3-2 at WLI Field (in the regular season).

I don’t know if you can give Winch another coach of the year award for that.  Coach of the century, maybe.

When I was researching the league-only SoCon stats for women’s soccer, I was struck by how The Citadel had managed to finish third in the league despite not leading, or even being that close to leading, any significant statistical category.  There are twelve teams in the conference.  The Bulldogs’s rank in official statistical categories is as follows:

Goals – 6th

Assists – 9th

Shots – 7th

Goals allowed – 10th

Saves – 5th

Shutouts – 10th (tie)

Fouls – 5th (tie)

Corner kicks – 6th

Offsides – 11th

Yellow Cards – 5th

You could argue, I suppose, that The Citadel being 11th in offsides calls against is a good thing, although it could also suggest a lack of aggression and/or possession. At any rate, it would appear to be a statistic that has no bearing on a team’s win-loss record, at least in the SoCon.

The Citadel is only in the top 4 in one statistical category (besides wins, of course). The Bulldogs finished in first place in the league…in red cards.

There were two red cards shown in conference play this season, and they were both given to Bulldog players. (In addition, Bob Winch, given a red card in the league tournament game against Furman on Sunday, was apparently the first and only coach to be dismissed from any SoCon game this season.)

The red card stat surprised me.  It would be hard to conclude the Bulldogs are a particularly rough outfit, either statistically (a middle-of-the-pack team in fouls and yellow cards) or from watching them play.

Of course, the fact we’re just talking about two cards, and thus two situations, indicates a small sample size, and possibly a fluke.  Further investigation was required.

I first viewed the videotape for the second of the two red cards, given to Shanna Couch during the Samford match, easily the team’s worst performance of the season (losing at home 7-0).  At the 63-minute mark, the Bulldog keeper came out of the goal during a Samford mini-breakaway.  Samford wound up with a shot on goal that would have gone in, except Crouch palmed it away on the goal line.

That was a problem, since Crouch wasn’t the keeper, and she thus got a straight red. Honesty compels me to admit it was deserved.  Sorry, Shanna.

The other red card was given to defender (and erstwhile diarist) Leah Hawkins during the Chattanooga match.  Hawkins had picked up a yellow card at the 60-minute mark for an overly aggressive tackle.  At the 83-minute mark, with The Citadel leading 2-0, she collided with a UTC player while going for the ball, received a second yellow, and was sent off.

When the collision happened, the UTC coach immediately began yelling for the yellow card, which wasn’t the first time he had complained about various calls or non-calls during the game.  (He was rather vocal.)  I don’t think I would have booked Hawkins if I had been the official — it was clearly neither a “professional” foul nor a dangerous play — but maybe the referee decided to throw the Mocs coach a bone.

Tangent:  in all fairness to the UTC coach, he was probably stressed out by that point with his team’s play and with an injury that occurred to one of his players in the first half.  Shortly after a rather innocuous clash with a Bulldog player, a Moc midfielder dropped to the ground, right on the sideline next to the UTC bench, and began shrieking in apparent pain.  She continued to cry out for several minutes while receiving attention from a Moc trainer.

I have no idea how she had been hurt, or the specifics of the injury, and I suspect I don’t really want to know.  She was eventually able to leave the field of play, more or less under her own power.

While that was going on the two teams retreated to the center of the pitch, with each holding an impromptu meeting, seemingly oblivious to what was happening on the sideline.  I got the impression the Moc players were talking about how nice the weather was and how lousy the bus trip back to Chattanooga was going to be, while the Bulldogs were comparing notes on an SMI and discussing how their uniforms were so much better than the football team’s duds.

My conclusion is that the two red cards do not necessarily indicate a leaguewide conspiracy.  However, I am certain that fans of the Bulldogs will continue to be vigilant in ensuring that the school’s players are fairly treated.

Red cards aside, how have the Bulldogs managed an upper-echelon league finish while not placing that highly in the conference statistics?  How does a team go 7-4 while being outscored 20-15?  The Citadel’s goals for/goals against number of -5 is equal to that of Appalachian State and Western Carolina, two teams that didn’t even make the SoCon tournament, yet the Bulldogs won enough games to host a tourney match.

Well, it helps to limit most of your poor play to just a couple of matches.  As mentioned above, The Citadel lost 7-0 to Samford.  It also lost two 3-0 games, to league regular season champion UNC-Greensboro and to Furman.

In the other eight regular-season SoCon games it played, though, The Citadel allowed only seven goals.  It won seven of those eight contests.

In six of those seven wins (and in a loss to the College of Charleston), The Citadel allowed one goal.  The Bulldogs recorded just one shutout, the aforementioned game against Chattanooga, but won five games by a 2-1 scoreline and another 3-1.

That is the type of defense that can keep a team in the game.  It’s also the kind of defense that The Citadel played last season, as Winch mentioned in that quote from the link.  In fact, last year the Bulldogs only allowed 14 goals in 11 SoCon matches. The problem was that The Citadel only scored five goals in those matches.

The Bulldogs have been able to put a bulge in the auld onion bag this year on a number of occasions, though (as I channel Tommy Smyth, and if you’re still reading this I know you’re groaning).  It is the main difference between last year and this year, and what has propelled the program to unprecedented heights.  This season the Bulldogs have scored fifteen goals in league play, which while not an overwhelming amount has been just enough.

The Citadel scored two goals in six of its conference wins, and three in the other victory.  Give up one, get two — that has been the basic formula, and it has worked.

There are just two seniors on this year’s team, Nicole Martinoli (one of five Floridians on the roster) and Dominic Snyder (one of five players hailing from outside the United States).  Martinoli stated earlier this season that:

“The program has grown tremendously, and it’s not just because of this year’s team.  It’s because of all the effort of the girls on past teams.”

She’s right, of course, and I am sure there are a lot of very proud former players hanging on every kick of this year’s team.  Some of the best kicking going on, though, is coming from the boots of some precocious freshmen.

The core of the defense-minded players is primarily made up of upperclassmen like Hawkins, Couch, Hannah Warne, and Angela Foyt, plus the goalkeeping duo of Whitney Nave and Laura Serafino, but the offensive punch has come mostly from first-year players like Mariana Garcia, Nicole Levermann, Jillian Meyer, and Vanessa Aponte.  The freshmen have combined to score 13 of The Citadel’s 15 goals in SoCon play (Martinoli, repping the old guard, has the other two) and have all but one of the assists in league games (Lexington High School alum Miranda Johnson has the other).

What do they bring to the table?  Well, in the opinion of this non-expert, collectively the freshmen have a nice combination of pace and skill.  All of them have good speed, and not just mighty mites like Garcia, Taylor Viana, and Ruth Leiva.  The 5’10” Levermann can pick ‘em up and put ‘em down, too, when she gets going, and when she does she’s hard to stop.

Garcia and Levermann have nine of the fifteen SoCon goals.  The opener against Davidson was fairly typical.  Garcia ran two Wildcat defenders ragged as she led them on a merry chase to the corner flag.  She started to move away from the flag and down the sideline, and then passed the ball to Johnson at the top right corner of the 18-yard box.

Johnson quickly dinked a pass to Levermann, who slipped between two defenders six yards from goal and almost casually flicked the ball past the keeper with her left foot.  She would finish the afternoon with a hat trick.

Another impressive thing about the Bulldogs is that they have accomplished all this despite losing one of their best players, junior Amy Loughran, after just ten games. Loughran had already scored five goals this season (after an eight-goal outburst last year that included game-winners against Coastal Carolina and Georgia Southern) when she broke two bones in her leg against Appalachian State.

When I wrote about the soccer team last year, one of the things that concerned me was the small roster size.  Last season, there were no freshmen on the team, which struck me as unusual, and not optimal.  (One freshman who was supposed to be on the squad last year but was injured prior to enrolling at The Citadel, goalkeeper Cassie Palmacci, is on the team this season.)

This year the Bulldogs have eighteen players on their roster, four more than last season, which perhaps makes the loss of Loughran a little more manageable, although still not easy.

One thing I worried about was how the team would finish the season.  After clinching a tourney home game with its seventh league victory, The Citadel lost its last two games, 3-0 to Furman and 1-0 at the College of Charleston.  I was afraid that the outstanding campaign would end with a bit of a whimper, which wouldn’t have been the first time that happened to a team from The Citadel having an unexpectedly great year (examples include the 1989 and 2009 basketball teams, just to name two).

That made the tournament opener (the first conference tournament game in the program’s history) more important, in my view.  Making the storyline even more interesting was the opponent, Furman, which had just beaten the Bulldogs at WLI the week before and which had never lost to The Citadel.

For a while, it looked like that streak might continue.  The two teams traded goals in regulation, with the Bulldogs missing a great chance to go up 2-0, only to see the Paladins equalize only two minutes later.  Then it went to overtime and a “golden goal” scenario, where the first team to score would immediately win the game.

The first OT was scoreless.  The two teams were to play up to ten more minutes in a second overtime; if the score remained 1-1 after that, then penalty kicks would decide things.  Nobody wants to see a match go to PKs, and fortunately for The Citadel, this one didn’t.

A Furman defender was called for handball, which I thought happened in the box (which would have given The Citadel a penalty kick to win the game).  However, a free kick was the call, just outside the box.  The Paladins set up their wall, but Aponte curled a kick around the right side of it, past the diving keeper, and into the bottom of the net for the game-winner.

I have noticed that most of the Bulldogs’ goal celebrations are a bit muted (perhaps it’s a league or NCAA rule), but this one was certainly not.  It was spontaneous and wild.  The good feelings lasted for quite a while after the game; at one point, long after the match’s end, Jaslene Thiara momentarily stopped hugging Levermann long enough to wag a “We’re Number 1!” finger to the camera, whooping it up in style.

That might be the team’s last chance to relish a big win this year, and if it is, that would be understandable.  Progressing much further in the league tournament will be a tall order.  On Friday in the SoCon semifinals, The Citadel will face Samford, which handed the Bulldogs that 7-0 shellacking at WLI referenced earlier in this post, and waiting on the other side of the bracket is UNC-Greensboro, which is currently ranked in the Top 25 and has won twelve straight games.  (The Spartans beat The Citadel 3-0 in Greensboro in the regular season.)

The odds aren’t really in the Bulldogs’ favor.  On the other hand, Samford needed penalty kicks to get past Davidson in the first round of the league tourney, and UNCG struggled before finally outlasting Wofford, 1-0, in its tourney opener.  Now all four teams left will move to a neutral site in Cullowhee (the fourth school remaining, Elon, won at the College of Charleston on Sunday).  Maybe there will be a surprise champion, preferably one with a military bent.

I hope this is the start of a long, successful run for the women’s soccer program.  I think it would be fun to tell my niece that if she were good enough, maybe someday she could go to The Citadel and play soccer on the hallowed grounds of WLI Field, following the great champions of the past.  If that happened, she would immediately become the most successful athlete in the history of her family, which admittedly would be faint praise (her eldest uncle in particular being one of the least athletic individuals to ever spend four years at the military college).

It has to be very difficult for a women’s team sport to compete and win at the Division I level at The Citadel.  As of this September there were 142 women in the corps of cadets.  Eighteen of them are playing soccer.  That’s almost 13% of the total number of female cadets.  The comparison between other schools is jarring.  Georgia Southern has over 9,000 female students; Appalachian State, almost 8,000.  Those are just a couple of schools in the Southern Conference.

Technically, though, The Citadel is also competing in Division I with schools like Ohio State, UCLA, and Texas.  Think about the enormous difference in total resources, both human and otherwise, between The Citadel and those universities when competing in NCAA athletics.  (That’s true for the men’s teams as well, of course; it’s just the difference when comparing the women’s sports is exponentially greater.)

Then you have the military component, which is, to say the least, of some consequence…

Another concern I have, which may or may not be material, is the support (of the non-financial variety) the program gets from the alumni.  I’m not talking about people being unaware of the program or simply ignoring it; that goes with the territory of being a “non-revenue” sport at a school where most graduates are not born-and-bred sports fans anyway, and if they are their interest is often exclusively devoted to football, basketball, and/or baseball.

I wonder a little, though, about how it being a women’s sport plays in Peoria (or Pelion).  I think it goes without saying that a significant percentage of alums are still uncomfortable with the idea of women attending The Citadel.  Some of them are going to be less than crazy about casting their lot with a women’s team (and soccer still has a “foreign” connotation for some, although I think that notion is beginning to disappear).

My personal opinion, which is possibly a touch cynical, is that most alumni will gladly jump on any bandwagon provided by The Citadel, whenever one becomes available. If you’ve got a winner, you’ve got a lot of friends.  That makes Bob Winch a popular fellow these days, other than with Southern Conference officials.

Good luck to the team on Friday.

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