SoCon hoops season begins for The Citadel

On Thursday, The Citadel begins play in the Southern Conference with a home game against Georgia Southern.  Before discussing that game and the two matchups that follow, I want to take a look back at the first five games of the season.

I figured that at worst The Citadel would be 2-3 after five games.  There was only one game (Richmond) that I did not think The Citadel had a good chance of winning, and even there I thought the senior-laden Bulldogs would be competitive.

As it happens, The Citadel was blown out by Richmond in an embarrassing fashion (79-37).  The Bulldogs then lost at Charleston Southern (a very disappointing result) and dropped their home opener to James Madison (which I would have rated as a tossup game).  Chuck Driesell finally got his first career win against High Point, an “expected” win, but then The Citadel blew a second-half lead and lost at Coastal Carolina.

The Bulldogs have had serious issues on the defensive end, especially in the second half.  The Citadel led at the half against Charleston Southern, James Madison, and Coastal Carolina, and lost all three games.  The Bulldogs are allowing opponents to shoot exactly 50% from the field, which is the bottom 20 nationally.

Breaking it down a little further, The Citadel’s opponents are shooting 54.4% from 2-point range (bottom 40 nationally).  That suggests a lack of presence on the inside, which is borne out by below-average rebounding numbers and the fact the Bulldogs have blocked a grand total of two shots in five games.

In the second half, the defensive FG% numbers are beyond terrible. In The Citadel’s four losses, opponents are shooting 62% from the field after the halftime break, which is a good reason why the Bulldogs lost those leads.  For example, a five-point halftime lead over JMU dissolved when the Dukes shot 71% in the second half.  The three-point shooting numbers for opponents haven’t been that bad (not great, but reasonable), but The Citadel has just been abused in the paint.

On offense, the Bulldogs are also struggling, with an eFG of 42.1%, which is 306th out of 347 Division I teams.  Zach Urbanus, a mainstay for The Citadel for four years, is shooting just 30.9% from the field and 29.6% from 3-land (last year those numbers for Urbanus were 38.9% and 40.0%, respectively).  Cameron Wells and Austin Dahn are near their 2009-10 numbers, with Wells starting to get going (enough to be the latest SoCon Player of the Week).

Those three have scored 204 of The Citadel’s 300 points, which is 68% of the Bulldogs’ scoring offense.  Last season, they accounted for 57% of The Citadel’s points, so a little extra offensive help for them would be nice.  However, getting the defensive deficiencies straightened out has to come first.

One issue is that the “big three” are playing a lot of minutes.  They always have, but it’s even more pronounced this season.  Urbanus is averaging 38.6 mpg, an increase over his workload of 36.1 mpg last season.  Wells is averaging 35.2 mpg (34.9 in 2009-10), and Dahn 32 mpg (26.1 last season).

I believe that for The Citadel to have a successful season, those numbers have to go down a bit.  I was hoping, actually, that they wouldn’t be so high so early in the season, but Driesell’s rotation has been fairly tight so far.  Only eight players have seen action in all five games.  Going forward, the Bulldogs need to get quality minutes out of some other backcourt performers.

The Citadel also needs to get increased productivity from its big men, on both ends of the court.  So far the only frontcourt player getting the job done is Bryan Streeter, who has been basically all you could ask of an undersized “4”, except for the fact he can’t shoot free throws at all.  Being so foul from the foul line has been problematic at times, and obviously down the stretch of close games is a real liability, but aside from that he has been solid — arguably the second-best player on the team after Wells.

Streeter has had to be solid, because he hasn’t had a lot of help down low.  In particular, the much-discussed 7-foot transfers, Morakinyo Williams and Mike Dejworek, have yet to make an impact.

Dejworek did not play in the last two games, and in the games he has appeared has averaged fewer than two rebounds per contest.  He has scored two points in 32 minutes of play.  Williams is shooting only 26.3% from the field, which is remarkably poor for someone who plays so close to the basket.  He is a decent defensive rebounder, but has not shown an affinity for the offensive glass (a Streeter specialty). Williams also has more turnovers in 68 minutes of play than Wells does in 176 minutes of action.

Chuck Driesell promised a more up-tempo style this season.  The Citadel is averaging 7.6 more possessions per game so far, but seems to still be searching for an offensive identity.  The defense would be a problem regardless of the game’s pace.

While being interviewed postgame on the radio after the loss to Coastal Carolina, Driesell openly wondered if fatigue was affecting the team’s defensive play.  He may have a point, and it’s just another reason to watch individual players’ minutes, but I think post play is a bigger factor (although that doesn’t completely explain opponents’ second-half success).  I’m not watching the practices, so I’m not going to advocate for individual players to get more time, but I have to admit there are two or three players who I would like to see on the court more often.

I am a little worried this is going to turn into a true “transition” season, one in which a new coach establishes his style of play at the expense of wins and losses.  I hope that doesn’t happen, for two reasons.  The first is that this is as good a senior class as The Citadel has had in many, many years, and I want to see them succeed.  I think they have a chance to build upon the previous two seasons and win a lot of games.

The other reason is that I believe, based on what has happened so far this season, that the SoCon is there to be had.  This is not going to be a vintage year for the league (not that any year ever is).  The league has gone 21-44 in non-conference action (through November play).

That includes a 3-20 mark against major conference opponents, with the three wins coming against BCS bottom-feeders Auburn, DePaul, and Nebraska.  The league’s best OOC victory is probably Appalachian State’s 89-86 win over Tulsa.  It could be argued the SoCon’s best performance came in a loss — Wofford’s 3OT defeat at Xavier.

There is an opportunity for The Citadel to make some noise in the league.  That needs to start on Thursday.

Georgia Southern is struggling.  The Eagles’ record is 2-5, and the two wins are both over non-Division I teams.  GSU has lost consecutive neutral-site games to Chicago State and Mississippi Valley State; the other losses were drubbings by Notre Dame, South Florida, and Texas Tech.

It should be pointed out that none of GSU’s five losses came at home, but the statistics indicate that the Eagles greatly resemble last season’s squad, one that went 9-23 and played terrible defense.  That 9-23 mark included a split with The Citadel, with the Bulldogs hammering the Eagles at McAlister Field House in the first game, and then blowing a 21-point second half lead and losing the second.

Willie Powers scored 19 points to lead GSU in that matchup, but unfortunately won’t be playing this season.  The star-crossed Powers has been a fine player when healthy, but he suffered his second major knee injury in August and is out for the year.

Without him, the Eagles appear to be a similar outfit to last year’s edition.  GSU averages 77.6 possessions per game, has a turnover rate among the bottom 40 nationally and shoots poorly from beyond the arc (28.1%).  It’s hard to play racehorse basketball without the horses.

Davidson was 16-15 last year in Year 1 A.C. (After Curry).  I think the Wildcats could be a sleeper pick to win the league this year, assuming Davidson can ever be a sleeper pick in the SoCon.  I’m not sure the Wildcats were completely prepared to play without Stephen Curry last season, but this year should be a different story.

Davidson is 3-3.  None of the losses are bad, and the Wildcats do have a win over a major conference team (Big XII caboose Nebraska). Davidson has four players averaging double figures in scoring, including center Jake Cohen, who as a freshman scored 39 combined points in two games against The Citadel last season.  Cohen will again be a difficult matchup for the Bulldogs.

The Wildcats are not yet locked in from beyond the arc (28.8%), but that was true last year as well until Davidson made 15 three-pointers at McAlister Field House.  The Wildcats are holding opponents to 40.4% shooting from the field, which includes excellent interior defense (at least statistically).  Davidson does foul a lot, averaging 23 per contest.

Before playing The Citadel, Davidson will travel to the College of Charleston.  It’s the second year in a row the Wildcats have opened SoCon play by making the Low Country swing.

The Citadel’s third game in five days (and last before an 11-day break for exams) is a non-conference matchup with St. Mary’s.  That’s not the St. Mary’s in California that made last year’s Sweet 16; no, this St. Mary’s is a Division III school in Maryland.

Some fast facts about the school, for those unfamiliar with St. Mary’s:

— Like The Citadel, St. Mary’s has about 2000 undergraduates, was founded in the 1840s (1840 for St. Mary’s, 1842 for The Citadel), is a public school that is often mistaken for a private institution, and is big on history.

— The “big on history” thing is a little different, though.  St. Mary’s is located in St. Mary’s City (hence the name of the school), which was once the capital of Maryland. There is a significant archaeological site in the area; actually, the town is basically the school and that site.

St. Mary’s City was the fourth British settlement in North America, and founded as something of a test case for religious tolerance.

— St. Mary’s was a junior college for most of its existence; it has been a four-year college since 1966.

— Notable alums include professional wrestler Scott Hall (also known as Razor Ramon, and an original member of the New World Order!) and trailblazing female baseball player Julie Croteau.

— The Seahawks play in Division III and are members of the Capital Athletic Conference.

One of St. Mary’s fellow CAC schools is Marymount, which was once coached by…Chuck Driesell.  That may go a long way towards explaining how this game with St. Mary’s came to be.  Of course, it may have nothing to do with it, for all I know.

One thing Driesell will be sure to tell his players is that they can’t take St. Mary’s lightly. This is a solid Division III program.  The Seahawks were 26-4 last season and made the D-3 Sweet 16.  They are a cut above The Citadel’s normal non-Division I fare and should be respected as such.

St. Mary’s has won four of its first five games this season to date (and will play another game, against Stevenson, before facing The Citadel).  The Seahawks are led by 6’1″ guard Alex Franz, a two-time All-CAC selection who is averaging 15.5 points per game.  Statistically, St. Mary’s doesn’t have any extraordinary numbers, although the three-point differential is curious — the Seahawks are shooting 38.4% from beyond the arc, while their opponents are shooting just 22.9% from 3-land.

To get off to a good start in the league, The Citadel must improve defensively and needs contributions from a wider variety of players on its roster.  I will be disappointed if the Bulldogs do not win at least two of the three upcoming games.  Winning all three would make up for the slow start.

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