Evaluating The Citadel’s basketball team after six SoCon games

The Citadel split its most recent four games, all in league play, which wasn’t so bad when you consider three of them were on the road, but it could have been much better — and it could have been much worse.  All four games were close, with two coming down to the final possession.  The Bulldogs were burned on a last-ditch three-pointer by UT-Chattanooga on Thursday, but recovered to outlast Samford on Saturday by one solitary point.

That Samford game, by the way, was not exactly a track meet.  The final score (51-50) reflected a game in which The Citadel had 51 possessions, while Samford had 52.  This was not a surprise, as the two teams are among the four slowest-paced outfits in Division I, both preferring an ultra-patient approach.  It’s particularly the case with Samford, which for the season is averaging just 57 possessions per game, easily the lowest number in the country.  The Citadel, at barely 60 possessions per contest, is fourth-lowest.

The slower pace definitely helps The Citadel, which is much more competitive in games in which it can control the tempo.  The importance of each possession in these types of games is something to which the Bulldogs have become accustomed, and is something not all opponents have grasped.  This has sometimes given The Citadel an advantage when playing teams that are perhaps more athletic but not as disciplined.

I know what some people are wondering about, though.  Right now The Citadel is 9-9 overall, 3-3 in the league.  This is after last season’s 20-win campaign (which included 15 SoCon victories).  What is not going right this year that went right last year?

Well, first it should be noted that the Bulldogs are almost exactly where they were last year at this time in terms of record.  Last season after 18 games The Citadel was 8-10, 3-4 in the league, coming off a loss at Wofford.  The Bulldogs then proceeded to win 11 games in a row.

I’m going to make a not-so-bold prediction now, which is that The Citadel is not about to embark on a 11-game winning streak.  Not this year, anyway.  That isn’t to say the team can’t put together a good midseason run, but there are issues that may not be easily solvable.

When looking at the team statistics, the first thing that jumps out at you is the three-point shooting, both offensively and defensively.  At first I was concerned with the defensive stats, but upon further review (stealing an NFL term) they aren’t all that bad.  Offensive output from beyond the arc, though, is another story.  The Citadel is struggling shooting the three-pointer, and I think a lot of that has to do with…interior play.

Last season in conference play, the Bulldogs only allowed opponents to shoot 28.9% from three-point land, which led the league.  This season that number has risen significantly, to 36.8%.  However, almost all of that increase  is attributable to one game, Davidson’s flukish (well, I think it was flukish) 15-27 night from beyond the arc.  If you take that game out of the equation, in five other SoCon matchups The Citadel’s defensive 3FG% is 31.1%, still a little higher than last season but acceptable.

Then there are the offensive numbers from behind the three-point line.  Last season The Citadel shot 36.7% from three-land in SoCon play; this year after six games that number is 28.5%, which is next-to-last in the league.  That includes a 10-22 shooting performance against Georgia Southern, which is the poorest team in the conference at defending the three.   The Bulldogs were solid from beyond the arc against Appalachian State (9-22) but otherwise have been mostly dreadful from deep, including 3-18 against the College of Charleston and 5-34 against UTC.

Almost as disturbing as the number of misses against the Mocs were the number of attempts, which points up another curious statistic.  The Citadel is actually averaging more points scored per game via three-pointers this season (38.7% of total points scored) than it did last year (31.1%) despite not shooting as well from outside.

Last year the Bulldogs only had four conference games (out of 20) in which they shot worse than 31% from three-point land.  This year they’ve been below that mark three times in six games.  Despite the lack of success, the Bulldogs are averaging 3 more three-point attempts per game this season than last.  So why is the three-point scoring more prominent?

The answer, I would suggest, lies in the Bulldogs’ lack of productivity inside.  The easiest way to illustrate this is The Citadel’s below-average 47.5% shooting from inside the arc (last year in league play that number was over 50%).  However, I think the real issue is the lack of made free throws.  This is where the Bulldogs really miss Demetrius Nelson.

Last season 21.2% of The Citadel’s points came at the charity stripe, which was excellent (the national average is 18%).  This year, though, the Bulldogs are only getting 13.94% of their points from the line.  That’s a big difference, especially for a team that has a limited number of possessions per game.

The Citadel averages 60.4 points per game.  13.94% of 60.4 is 8.4, so the Bulldogs are picking up a little over 8 points per game from the foul line.  Now, let’s say they were getting 21.2% of their points from free throw shooting.  That would be about 13 points per game.  Those extra 5 points make a big difference.  Last season The Citadel was 6-3 in games decided by 5 points or less.  Three of those games came during the 11-game win streak.

This year the Bulldogs are 1-2 in such games, and that doesn’t count the six-point loss to the CofC.  In that game, The Citadel shot only 8 total free throws.  In the Bulldogs’ two victories over the Cougars last season, the Citadel shot a combined 40 free throws.

The problem is that I don’t know if The Citadel can increase its free throw productivity.  Nelson averaged over 5 made free throws per game last season, which was more than every other player on the roster combined, save Cameron Wells.  This season Wells is averaging almost exactly the same number of made FTs per game as he did last year (3.3), but no one else is drawing fouls and shooting free throws.

The two primary inside players for The Citadel, Joe Wolfinger and Bryan Streeter, each are averaging one made free throw per game.  When compared to Nelson, that’s a big differential to overcome.  The essential dilemma for The Citadel is that unlike Nelson, neither is a true post threat.

Wolfinger has the size but not the strength or intuitiveness for the role.  Streeter has strength and verve, but lacks size and is not the most offensively skilled of players; he is also a poor free throw shooter.  He has made some strides this season in FT%, though, and has also improved his turnover rate by over 50%.

I’ve mentioned before that I have been impressed with Mike Groselle in his brief appearances for The Citadel, and he may be the future in the paint.  However, his development has been affected by an ankle injury, and at any rate it is probably a bit much to ask a true freshman to play major minutes in the post.

My guess is that as the season goes along Ed Conroy and his coaching staff will try to devise more ways to get players to the foul line.  Whether that means Cameron Wells (or another guard/swingman type) posting up more, I have no idea.

Without the “free” points, The Citadel is going to have to just be that much better at everything else it does offensively.  So far the Bulldogs have done a good job avoiding turnovers (the turnover rate is actually better right now than it was last season), and the rebounding, while not great, hasn’t been a major problem.  The Citadel has to continue to improve on the offensive boards, especially if it continues to struggle from outside.

There will be more missed shots, and thus more chances to grab offensive boards.  Those chances need to be taken; as I noted earlier, every possession is important.  Someone who is providing value in that respect is Harrison DuPont, who has 11 offensive rebounds in his last three games, which is outstanding.

The lack of offensive game on the interior is probably a factor in the less-than-stellar outside shooting.  Without the threat on the inside, opponents can concentrate on stopping the Bulldogs’ marksmen.

Zach Urbanus is currently in a bit of a slump from outside, shooting only 9-39 in his last seven games, including 3-19 in a two-game stretch against the CofC and UTC.  He was 1-2 against Samford, though, so perhaps becoming more selective (which is his general mode anyway) will get him back in the groove.

I’m hoping that both Urbanus and Cosmo Morabbi start shooting better from beyond the arc.  Morabbi went four straight games without a made three-pointer before hitting one against Samford.  The Bulldogs really need him to start making that 3-ball from the corner.  Conversely, Austin Dahn appears to be back on track from outside.  Dahn needs to improve his decision-making on offense just a bit, though, as of late he has been a touch turnover-prone.

Also getting time in the rotation is Daniel Eykyn, who seems to be a “glue guy” of sorts for Conroy; passes the ball, plays defense, hustles, lets other players rest, etc.  He averages one turnover every 35 minutes of play, best on the team for players with over 100 total minutes played (also taking care of the ball in limited time:  Groselle and Ben Cherry, who has no turnovers in 66 minutes of action).

As for Wells, he continues his impressive campaign, which looks a lot like last year’s impressive campaign.  He’s currently averaging almost 18 points per game, to go along with about 5 rebounds and 4 assists per contest.  He’s on the floor for 34+ minutes per game (just behind Urbanus for the team lead; both are among the national leaders in minutes played) and has close to a 2-1 assist/turnover ratio.

Wells has pilfered almost two steals per game and even leads the team in blocked shots (albeit with only five; The Citadel is tied for last in the country in blocked shots per game, sharing that less-than-ideal distinction with Nicholls State).

Next up for the Bulldogs are two home games, one on Thursday against Wofford and the second on Saturday against Furman.  After those two contests, The Citadel will have played every one of its divisional opponents at home, so the stretch run will include a lot of tough road games.  Holding serve at home is important, particularly in what I believe to be an improved Southern Conference.  The Citadel has already lost two home SoCon games and can’t afford to drop many more at McAlister Field House.

It’s not going to be easy.  First up on Thursday, as mentioned, is Wofford.  I believe Wofford may be the best team in the league, although the Terriers started 0-2 in conference play.  The loss at Western Carolina was understandable, but Wofford followed that up by losing at home to Appalachian State.  Since then, though, the Terriers have reeled off four straight SoCon victories, the most impressive of which probably being a 68-62 home win over Davidson.

It’s out of conference where Wofford has made its best impression.  The Terriers have wins over Georgia and South Carolina, not to mention a 3-point loss at Pittsburgh which looks better ever day.

The Terriers are a deep team (10 players get 10+ minutes per game; 7 of them get 17+ mpg) led by 6’6″ junior Noah Dahlman, one of the league’s best players.  Dahlman is averaging 17.7 points per game (the only Terrier averaging double figures in scoring), and shoots better than 60% from the field.  He had 20 against Pitt and 19 against South Carolina.

He’s not the only guy to watch, though, as evidenced by the win over Georgia.  Dahlman had 11 points (in only 21 minutes) in that game, but three other Terriers chipped in 10+ points to enable the Terriers to win, led by 6’8″ senior Corey Godzinski, who had 13.

Godzinski scored 12 points in last year’s game at McAlister, one of two games Wofford won over The Citadel last season (Dahlman had 17 in both contests).  The Terriers proved to be a tough matchup for the Bulldogs in 2008-09.  I suspect the same will be true this year.

Wofford isn’t a big three-point shooting team, although it is an efficient squad from closer range.  Wofford is a good passing team, leading the conference in assists per game.  The Terriers do a good job defending the outside shot, and also force more than their fair share of turnovers.  Wofford does turn the ball over itself a bit more than the norm.  The Terriers average 71.3 possessions per game in league play.

Furman looks to be much more competitive this season; after only winning 4 of 20 league games last year, the Paladins are 3-3 in the conference play entering this week’s play.  Like The Citadel, Furman has a road win against Appalachian State and a home victory over Georgia Southern.  The Paladins also have a win at Elon.

Furman is a junior-dominated team with two double-figure scorers, Amu Saaka (16.7 ppg) and Jordan Miller (15.2 ppg).  The 6’6″ Saaka, who started his career at South Florida, scored 34 points in a loss to Davidson and is also averaging 6.8 rebounds per contest.  Miller is a 6’2″ guard who had 15 points and 6 assists in the Paladins’ recent win over Georgia Southern.

Furman has been good defending the three-point shot in league play, which might trouble The Citadel.  On the other hand, the Paladins are both turnover-prone and not particularly adept at creating turnovers.  Furman averages 72+ possessions per game, so the battle to control tempo will be key.

One more thing:  at halftime of the Furman game on Saturday, The Citadel will honor the jersey of Regan Truesdale, two-time Southern Conference player of the year and the school’s all-time leading scorer.  The Citadel honored Art Musselman in similar fashion last year.  This is part of Ed Conroy’s  long-range plan for developing a hoops tradition at The Citadel, and I think it’s a really good idea.  Congratulations to Regan Truesdale, who absolutely deserves the honor.

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