Hoops update: the SoCon tourney moves back to Asheville

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Erk Russell and Howard Schnellenberger aren’t in the College Football Hall of Fame. Why not?

The ballot for the 2012 College Football Hall of Fame was released on Tuesday. There are 76 players and eight coaches on the ballot. The players’ list includes the likes of Tommie Frazier and Danny Wuerffel, both of whom probably ought to have been elected already, but at least they are on the ballot.

I’m going to post briefly about two men who aren’t on the ballot, Erk Russell and Howard Schnellenberger. Why aren’t they on the ballot, you ask?

Because, incredibly, neither is eligible to be nominated.

From the above link:

To be eligible for the ballot…Coaches must have coached a minimum of 10 years and 100 games as a head coach; won at least 60% of their games; and be retired from coaching for at least three years. If a coach is retired and over the age of 70, there is no waiting period. If he is over the age of 75, he is eligible as an active coach. In both cases, the candidate’s post-football record as a citizen may also be weighed.

The late Erk Russell was a longtime defensive coordinator at Georgia under Vince Dooley. Russell was a significant contributor to numerous outstanding teams in Athens, culminating in the 1980 national title. He was then hired at Georgia Southern to re-start its long-dormant football program.

Russell took the GSU program from club status to I-AA (now called FCS), fashioning an eight-year record of 83-22-1 (two of those years came before GSU joined I-AA), with three national titles. The last of those championships came during his final season as coach, when the Eagles were 15-0, the first time in the 20th century a college football team played 15 games in a season without a loss or tie.

Those numbers, while remarkable enough, don’t fully describe his impact on the school.  Stories about him (including the marvelous tale about how ‘Beautiful Eagle Creek’ became so beautiful) will be told for generations.  He was already something of a legend before he even took the job, as this 1981 article from Sports Illustrated suggests.  Tony Barnhart once wrote that “with the possible exception of Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant in Tuscaloosa, no college campus in America still feels a stronger presence of one man than that of Erk Russell in Statesboro.”

Alas, Russell is not in the College Football Hall of Fame, because he was only a head coach for eight seasons, and as you can see, that makes him ineligible.  Why the National Football Foundation thinks a ten-year requirement is necessary in the first place is open to question.

What really rankles supporters of Russell is the fact that coaches like former Marshall head man Jim Donnan can be inducted into the Hall. Donnan coached six seasons at Marshall (winning one national title), but was also the head coach of Georgia for five years, and was thus deemed eligible to be enshrined as a member of the Hall’s “divisional” class, for non I-A schools, even though he didn’t last for ten years at the I-AA level (or the I-A level, for that matter).

I’m sure UGA fans are happy to know that Donnan’s tenure at their school contributed to his selection, while Russell’s history with the “Dawgs” does not matter to the Hall.

Howard Schnellenberger, who retired after last season, falls afoul of the other major eligibility requirement, that of needing to win at least 60% of one’s games to be considered. Schnellenberger was “only” 158-151-3 as a college head coach, so he doesn’t qualify.

Obviously, it’s ridiculous to judge Schnellenberger purely on wins and losses, because he is most famous for rescuing programs in dire straits (like Miami and Louisville) or starting a brand-new operation (Florida Atlantic). His records at both Louisville (54-56-2) and FAU (58-74) are actually very good, given the circumstances, and of course, he won a national title while coaching the Hurricanes.

It doesn’t seem particularly necessary to restrict eligible candidates based on their winning percentage as head coaches. The current ballot includes Darryl Rogers (.602 winning percentage) and Jim Carlen (.604), both of whom barely qualify for eligibility. With all due respect to them, no one can claim that Schnellenberger is less deserving of consideration than they are.

Like Russell, Schnellenberger was a colorful figure (so much so that he was occasionally the subject of parody) and a program builder. Both were assistant coaches for championship teams (Russell at UGA; Schnellenberger at Alabama under Bear Bryant, and under Don Shula with the Miami Dolphins).

The fact these two men aren’t eligible for the College Football Hall of Fame isn’t a reflection on their status as legends of the sport, for that was secured long ago. It’s an indictment of the institution itself, enough to make one question its relevance.

The Citadel successfully combines community relations with siege warfare

Well, it’s been a tough year for The Citadel in basketball…and it was a tough year in football…and things aren’t looking so great in baseball right now, either (although it’s still early — patience, grasshoppers). However, it’s not all gloom and doom at the military college. For one thing, The Citadel again has demonstrated its dominance in trebuchet building!

Yes, the cadet chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers won its second straight title in the Storm The Citadel! Trebuchet Competition. It probably didn’t hurt that The Citadel hosted and co-sponsored the event.

I’m not really writing about winning as much as I am the event itself. It’s the second year The Citadel STEM Center of Excellence has teamed up with Google to sponsor the competition, which is really more about highlighting the importance of mathematics and science:

STEM Director Carolyn Kelley said the contest grew from 15 teams and 150 total participants last year to 36 teams and 350 people this year.

“In a very fun way, it engages kids in learning math and technology and science and engineering. It tricks them into enjoying STEM,” said Kelley.

While the kids had little, desktop-sized trebuchets, the big kids had big ones.

The star of Saturday’s show was Google’s giant “floating arm” trebuchet, a steel contraption that launched milk jugs filled with sand and water with amazing accuracy at a target about 75 yards away.

I was on campus last weekend, and in between watching football practice (which included some shotgun formations!) and a baseball game (The Citadel defeated Richmond, 10-7), I wandered around the parade ground, taking in the scene. The organizers were lucky, as the expected bad weather held off until late in the afternoon.

Instead, it was nice and sunny, and scores of kids and grownups watched and plotted and ate and generally had a good time. Some of them were dressed for the occasion, too, including a group of Sherwood Forest fans and a futuristic team wearing HAZMAT gear.

It’s always good when The Citadel can pull off an event like this (especially when it involves kids), one that brings the school a bit closer to the greater community, and exhibits another side to the college besides the military component, which can be intimidating to some people. The intent of this post, really, is just to say “job well done” to the folks who came up with this idea and made it work, which includes ’91 grad Jeff Stevenson, a program manager at Google.

I should add the trebuchet competition was just part of Engineering Week at The Citadel, which featured some other activities for math-inclined youngsters.

I took a few pictures. As usual, they aren’t so great (because I’m the photographer), but I’ve posted them below anyway. You can also see a slide show of photos taken by actual professionals at The Citadel’s YouTube channel.

Schools that have never made the NCAA Tournament — the 2012 edition

Updated: The 2016 edition

Now updated: the 2015 edition

The 2013 edition

Previous entries on this subject:  The 2011 edition   The 2010 edition

It’s that time of year again, as in late February teams can see the end of the regular season finish line, and the anticipation of the conference tourneys begins. It’s also that time when we see if any of the schools with many years in Division I but no NCAA tournament appearances will finally get to become debutants in the Big Dance.

I want to start this post, however, by acknowledging that there have been a few schools which have an NCAA history but  have not appeared in the tournament for a very long time (in some cases, forty years or more). Of this group, the longest drought is that of Harvard, which made its first and only tourney trip in 1946. Harvard currently leads the Ivy League, however, and is favored to win the conference and make a long-overdue return to the NCAAs this season.

Other schools not so favored: Rice (tourney-free since 1970), Bowling Green (1968), Columbia (1968), Tennessee Tech (1963), Yale (1962), and Dartmouth (1959).

I wouldn’t mind seeing any of those schools get back into the NCAAs someday, to be sure, but the focus of this post is on the twenty schools to have been in Division I the longest without making even one appearance in the NCAA tournament. Each of these schools has been in D-1 for at least 25 seasons (counting the 2011-12 campaign) with no appearances on any bracket.

Will any of these 20 schools finally break through this season? Last season, none of them did. The season before that…none of them did. The list of 20 has changed this year, however, because Centenary completed its 50-year run in D-1 last season with no tournament appearances. Since Robert Parish’s alma mater has dropped out of the division, it no longer appears on our list. Replacing Centenary this season (and #20 in terms of “seniority”) is UMKC.

Tangent: if you’re wondering how Centenary never made the NCAA tournament despite having Robert Parish in its lineup for four years, it’s because the Gents were on probation all four seasons he played for the school, thanks to the recruitment of…Robert Parish. Reading the link, it becomes clear that the NCAA hasn’t changed much over the years. This is not a good thing.

Now for this year’s review of our hopeful little group of perennial non-contenders. Please note that there are other schools in Division I that have yet to make an NCAA trip, but all of those schools are “newbies” — they all became members of D-1 after 1990. They haven’t suffered enough to be listed here.

[Note: all records listed below are for games through February 22]

The NCAA Tournament began in 1939. In 1948, the NCAA was re-classified into separate divisions (university and college). There are five schools which have continuously been in what we now call Division I since 1948 that have never made the tournament field. (That doesn’t include the aforementioned Harvard, which made its solitary appearance in 1946.) All five of those schools theoretically could have been in the tournament beginning in 1939, so for them the wait is actually longer than their history as official D-1 programs.

The five schools are known as the “Forgotten Five”. The class  of 1948 (or 1939, if you will):

— Northwestern: NU is easily the cause célèbre of the Forgotten Five, as the only school in a BCS league never to have made the tournament. The Wildcats (16-11) have had a frustrating “so close, but so far away” kind of season, including Tuesday night’s overtime loss to Michigan. To break through this year and finally bring joy to the likes of Michael Wilbon or Darren Rovell, Northwestern needs to win its last three regular season games or make a big run in the Big 10 tourney. Neither is likely, particularly the former, as one of those three games is against Ohio State and the other two are on the road.

— Army: The Bulldogs of the Hudson are 12-16 overall and currently in sixth place in the eight-team Patriot League. Army would probably have to beat all three of the league heavyweights (Bucknell, Lehigh, and American) to win the conference tournament. Don’t bet on it.

— St. Francis (NY): The Terriers sport a modest 15-12 record, but are one of the better teams in the Northeast Conference, having won seven of their last nine games. SFC has to be considered a dark-horse threat to win the NEC tourney. When it comes to making the NCAAs, St. Francis is one of the more promising possibles among our group of 20.

— William and Mary: There has been some hot-and-heavy “bubble talk” about whether the CAA deserves to be a two-bid league, but none of that discussion has revolved around the Tribe (624). It’s been a long year for Jon Stewart’s alma mater.

— The Citadel: At 622,  it’s been a long year for my alma mater too (despite the recent two-game winning streak). Of course, this isn’t the first time the Bulldogs have had a long year…

Okay, that’s the Forgotten Five. What about the other schools?

— New Hampshire (which began Division I play in 1962): The Wildcats are 12-15, which is actually a better mark than their historical norm; UNH’s basketball program has a “lifetime” winning percentage of under 40%. That’s good enough for sixth in the America East. That’s not good enough to garner an NCAA bid.

— Maine (also from the class of 1962): This season Maine is matching New Hampshire win for win (12-15; both teams are also 7-9 in America East play). When you match New Hampshire win for win in basketball, that’s generally a sign that you aren’t headed for postseason glory.

— Denver (D-1 from 1948 to 1980, then back to the division in 1999): Unlike most of the teams on this list, the Pioneers are actually good. Denver already has 20 victories this season, including wins over St. Mary’s and Southern Mississippi. Another of the Pioneers’ victories came against Sun Belt rival Middle Tennessee State, but the Blue Raiders will still be solidly favored to capture the Sun Belt tourney crown. That’s important, because Denver has no realistic shot at getting an at-large bid. It must win the league tournament.

— UT-Pan American (class of 1969): It’s not like UTPA is completely devoid of hoops history; Lucious “Luke” Jackson played for the Broncs, and he later won both an Olympic gold medal in basketball and an NBA title. Abe Lemons and Lon Kruger both coached at UTPA. However, the school has not been rolling up victories in recent years. This season’s 11-17 campaign to date is a big improvement over the last two years, both 6-win debacles. Ultimately, though, that improvement doesn’t matter much; as a member of the Great West conference, a league without an automatic bid, UTPA has no shot at an NCAA berth.

— Stetson (class of 1972): The most famous hoopster in Hatters history is probably Ted Cassidy, the actor who played Lurch on The Addams Family. Alas, no amount of bell-ringing will bring an NCAA bid to Stetson this season, as the Hatters are 9-18 and in danger of not qualifying for the Atlantic Sun tournament.

— UC Irvine (class of 1978): The Anteaters are 10-17, seventh place in the Big West, and a million miles behind league leader Long Beach State in terms of basketball prowess this season. It’s too bad UCI has never made the NCAAs, as “Zot, Zot, Zot” is surely a much better chant than “Rock, Chalk, Jayhawk”.

— Grambling State (class of 1978): The Tigers are 3-21 overall and in last place in the SWAC, which makes them a strong contender for being considered the worst team in Division I. Indeed, Grambling is ranked 345th and last in the Pomeroy Ratings.

— Maryland-Eastern Shore (D-1 in 1974-1975, then back to the division in 1982):  The Hawks are 6-20 and in next-to-last place in the MEAC. I’m not forecasting a deep league tourney run this year for UMES.

— Youngstown State (D-1 in 1948, returning in 1982): The Penguins are a respectable 14-13 and a middle-of-the-pack team in the always solid Horizon League. It’s hard to see YSU getting past Valparaiso, Butler, and Cleveland State in the league tournament, however.

— Bethune-Cookman (class of 1981): B-C missed a great opportunity last season after winning the MEAC regular season title, as the Wildcats lost in the conference tourney semifinals. Bethune-Cookman isn’t as good this year (13-14) but is one of six or seven teams with a reasonable shot at winning the MEAC tournament. If it were to do so, it would probably land in one of the dreaded 16-seed play-in games.

— Western Illinois (class of 1982): The Leathernecks are 14-12 and comfortably situated in the middle of the Summit League standings, a vast improvement over last year’s seven-win squad, which lost its last 13 games (including one to Centenary, the Gents’ only win in their farewell D-1 season). It’s been a nice bounceback year for WIU, but it’s unlikely Western Illinois can get past Oral Roberts and South Dakota State in the league tournament.

— Chicago State (class of 1985): Like Texas-Pan American, Chicago State competes in the Great West conference and thus has no opportunity at snagging an automatic bid to the NCAAs. Unlike UTPA, however, the Cougars haven’t been competitive, with a record of 4-23.

— Hartford (class of 1985): The Hawks are the third America East team on our list. Hartford is ahead of UNH and Maine in the league standings but has a much worse overall record (8-20). Hartford can count singer Dionne Warwick among its alums, but you don’t need a psychic to know that the Hawks are not making their first NCAA appearance this season. You don’t even need a friend.

— Buffalo (class of 1985):  The Bulls have come closer than most of these schools to finally grabbing the brass ring. This season, Buffalo is 16-9 overall and in second place in the MAC East, the superior of that league’s two divisions. While Akron is probably the favorite to win the conference tournament, Buffalo is a team to watch, having recently gone on an eight-game winning streak (before dropping its last two contests).

— UMKC (class of 1988): The newest member of the countdown, the Kangaroos are only 10-19 overall and tied for last place in the Summit League. It’s quite possible UMKC may not qualify for the league tournament, much less the NCAAs, which would definitely upset all the sportos, motorheads, geeks, sluts, bloods, and wastoids at the school, not to mention UMKC alum Edie McClurg.

Well, that’s this year’s rundown. St. Francis (NY), Denver, Buffalo, and possibly Northwestern have not-improbable chances of finally getting the call on Selection Sunday. However, it’s more likely that once again, none of the never-beens will realize the dream. It’s too bad. However, it won’t stop fans of those programs from continuing to support them, hoping that one day they will get that moment in the sun.

For this season, though, the skies appear to be cloudy.

CUSA, MWC, NATO, etc.: Creating a monster of a mega-conference

Just a quick post on the latest conference realignment nuttiness. I couldn’t resist…

On Monday a bunch of schools in Conference USA and the Mountain West Conference (along with three schools about to join the Mountain West) announced plans to form a new, bigger league, essentially combining the membership of the two existing conferences. They also seemed interested in adding between 2-8 more schools, which would result in a league of between 18-24 members.

I’ve written before on the potential for a conference this large, back when the possibility was first raised in September of last year. Now, though, it appears it’s going to actually happen.

Some reasons for the de facto merger between C-USA and the MWC include:

1) If/when the BCS schools break away from the NCAA and form their own confederation, the CUSAMWC group (which henceforth in this post I will call the “Big Country”) wants to be in the running to crash the party. I don’t think it has much of a shot, to be honest, but it’s probably worth a try.

Being members of the Big Country also differentiates those institutions from the “leftover” FBS schools in the MAC, WAC, and Sun Belt (and any wannabe FCS schools trying to get in the action, like Appalachian State or Georgia Southern). Essentially, Big Country universities would become the middle class.

2) Big Country may have an opportunity to compete for a big-money television contract against the Big East, which when last seen was busy reinventing itself after Pittsburgh and Syracuse (and subsequently West Virginia) decided to leave the league for greener ($$$) pastures.

3) Scheduling could be a problem for some Big Country schools as the BCS leagues continue to expand. By combining forces, it may be easier for each individual school to create its yearly slate of games.

One key to making Big Country workable is noted in the above-linked release:

— Championship football game format that includes semifinal match-ups

Actually, I don’t see how the new league could function without semifinal games. Basically, we’re talking about one conference with four divisions. Without semifinal games, the league would have to split into two divisions for football instead of four, and that’s not going to work for any grouping larger than 16 (and 16 is a stretch). Those two semifinal games are also important when taking any potential TV deal into consideration.

So what would Big Country look like? Well, I’m not sure, but since this is just a blog, I’ll wildly speculate and create some imaginary divisions. There are 16 members schools already in the fold (Hawai’i is going to be a football-only member), but I think there will be at least 18 schools when the dust settles, and probably 20-22. There won’t be more than 24, and that’s the number I’m going to use for this discussion.

Teams in bold are not in the “Original 16”. They are the schools I’m adding, based on early reports and a few theories of my own. Are a couple of them a little dubious? Sure. That just makes it more fun.

— Big Country West: Hawai’i, New Mexico, Fresno State, San Jose State, UNLV, Nevada

— Big Country Mountain: Air Force, Colorado State, Wyoming, Utah State, UTEP, Tulsa

— Big Country Southwest: Rice, North Texas, UT-San Antonio, Tulane, Louisiana Tech, Southern Mississippi

— Big Country Atlantic: UAB, FIU, East Carolina, Marshall, Temple, Massachusetts

Yes, UTSA is in the Big Country despite having started its program just last year. I think the new league is going to want to tap into the Texas TV market, and grabbing large schools in big cities like UTSA and UNT might not be a bad idea. I’m not saying that either school dominates the news, or even creates that big a stir, in their respective communities, but when presenting a potential TV package to a cable/TV network, it could be a plus to have schools in big markets.

That’s also partly why I included San Jose State, Temple, FIU, and UMass.

Louisiana Tech and Utah State are both more “natural rivalry” fits for the new league. Of the eight schools listed in bold, Utah State is arguably the most likely one to get the Big Country nod. The AD at UTEP was reportedly quoted as stating that USU and FIU would be expansion candidates.

I’m just glad we have more conference realignment discussion. It helps the college football offseason go by that much faster.

Riley Report: The Citadel begins its 2012 baseball campaign

The Citadel will open its 2012 baseball season on Friday, February 17 at 4 pm ET, with a game against Towson, to be played at Joe Riley Park in Charleston. The contest is part of The Citadel Memorial Challenge, an event which also includes Richmond and Liberty.

So far, winter has been unexpectedly mild in the Palmetto State. February debuted with high temperatures in the 70s. Soon, however, there will be a decided chill in the air, the wind will begin to howl, and local TV meteorologists will begin to discuss the potential threat of freezing rain or possibly even snow. How do I know this will happen?

I know because college baseball season is almost here. When it comes to wintry weather, early-season college baseball is the equivalent of the White Witch from The Chronicles of Narnia.

Despite that near-inevitability, I am looking forward to the upcoming season. Before that glance forward, though, I think it might be a good idea to revisit the recent past, to see just what this season may bring in terms of success for The Citadel.

With that in mind, what follows is a somewhat statistical review of last season’s diamond debacle. It includes comparisons between the 2010 and 2011 campaigns, which were as different as night and day. To briefly recap:

2010: 43-22 overall, 24-6 SoCon (first). That included a road/neutral record of 16-12.

2011: 20-36 overall, 8-22 SoCon (11th and last). That included a road/neutral record of 3-18.

Yikes. The Bulldogs went from winning both the regular season and tournament titles in the Southern Conference to finishing last in the league for the first time ever, not even qualifying for the conference tournament. What happened?

One thing that happened, of course, was some natural turnover in personnel, but that happens every year. Maybe it’s not every season that you lose a dominant #1 starter like Asher Wojciechowski or an outstanding infield mainstay like Bryan Altman, but The Citadel has had to replace good players before.

A decline in team pitching was a major problem, which in and of itself would have made the Bulldogs also-rans in the league, but then was combined with (and affected by) a horrific drop in the quality of team defense, resulting in the horror show that was Bulldog baseball in 2011.

I’m going to start mentioning stats now, some more dorky than others, so don’t say you haven’t been warned. Unless stated otherwise, all of these statistics reflect conference play only. This makes it easier to compare schedules, teams, and home/away considerations. You don’t get anomalies, either good (Logan Cribb’s masterpiece against South Carolina) or bad (losing 9-0 at Winthrop). Besides, a season is usually judged on how the team fares in league play.

Before I go too far with this, I do want to briefly mention park effects. Players are going to put up different numbers at Riley Park than they would at Clements Stadium, just to name two of the league’s more distinctive parks, and when half their games are played at their respective home fields, that will affect team statistics accordingly. Of course, when you compare things on a year-by-year basis it’s easier to see how those statistics translate.

Incidentally, Boyd Nation’s Park Factors data for the 2008-2011 time period indicates what most observers would probably suspect: The Citadel plays in the SoCon’s most pitcher-friendly facility, by far. Most of the league parks favor hitters, particularly those at Georgia Southern, Appalachian State, and UNC-Greensboro.

Every scheduled league game save one (Furman-Davidson Game 3) was played in 2011, so every school other than the Paladins and Wildcats played 30 SoCon contests, 15 at home and 15 on the road. As it happens, the same thing occurred in 2010 (just one cancelled game in the league). There were 164 conference games played in each season. That works out well for comparative purposes.

There was one huge on-field difference that changed things in the SoCon, and in college baseball in general. That would be the new bat regulations. The easiest way to statistically demonstrate the difference in the bats from 2010 to 2011 is this: in 2010, SoCon teams averaged 7.1 runs per game in league play. In 2011, that number dropped to 5.7 runs per game. The league no longer featured hitters with slow-pitch softball numbers, with the notable exception of Georgia Southern’s Victor Roache (who had one of the more remarkable campaigns in recent conference history).

The Citadel’s batting statistics declined markedly in 2011. That can partly (not completely) be attributed to the bats. The Bulldogs had an OPS of .901 in 2010; that number dropped to .741 in 2011. However, the league as a whole also saw a decrease in OPS. In 2010, the league OPS was .855; in the 2011 campaign, .768 was the mean. The Citadel finished fourth in OPS in conference play in 2010, but tied for seventh in the same category last season.

Most of the decline in OPS for the Bulldogs was a result of batting average. After a team batting average of .321 in 2010, The Citadel only batted .280 as a club in 2011. The Bulldogs also didn’t draw as many walks in 2011 (119 vs. 96). Basically, The Citadel drew one fewer walk per league game in 2011, and had 1.4 fewer hits per contest. For comparison, the conference as a whole in 2011 had about the same number of walks per contest as in 2010, but teams averaged about a hit per game less.

The difference in the bats really showed in the league’s power numbers. In 2010, there were 1131 extra-base hits in SoCon action. That number fell to 873 last season. Even with Roache’s heroics, the total number of homers in conference play dropped from 374 to 219.

The Citadel’s extra-base hits declined at a rate similar to that of the rest of the league, although instead of hitting slightly more homers than league average, as it did in 2010, the Bulldogs’ 18 home runs in league play during the 2011 season lagged slightly behind the conference average (20). The trend held true for doubles as well.

In a recent radio interview, head coach Fred Jordan suggested that the company which makes The Citadel’s bats may have been a bit behind the curve in terms of adjusting to the new NCAA bat standards, and didn’t produce mondo-mashing metal quite as successfully as other bat manufacturers used by Bulldog opponents. That may have affected the team’s hitting (at least, in relation to other teams’ hitting). Jordan seemed to believe that any problems in that respect had been worked out for the upcoming season.

The Bulldogs’ pitching wasn’t nearly as good in 2011 as it was in 2010. After finishing first in league play in a variety of pitching categories (including ERA and strikeouts) during its championship season, The Citadel’s hurlers suffered through a disappointing 2011 campaign, one in which team ERA increased dramatically (from 4.26 to 5.44) despite the new bats generally holding down offense. The conference as a whole saw a decline in ERA from 6.15 to 4.69 (to reiterate, all these statistics reflect results from league games only).

Interestingly, Bulldog pitchers still maintained a solid K rate (7.8 per game). That isn’t quite as good as the 8.7 strikeouts per nine innings from the 2010 staff, but it was still enough to put The Citadel near the top of the league in the category. On the other hand, walks allowed increased from 3.2  to just over 4 per 9IP in conference play.

The Bulldog pitching staff gave up 9.4 hits per nine innings in 2010; in 2011, that number rose to almost 12 per 9IP. Included in that total was an increase in extra-base hits allowed, despite the nerf-like war clubs being used around the league. The Citadel allowed 28 homers in 30 SoCon games, up from 19 in 2010.

Curiously, the Bulldogs hit only 15 batters in those 30 conference games, tied with Davidson for the league low. That is something which can be interpreted in different ways — good control, lack of aggression/pitching inside, opponents getting out of the way because they want to hit, etc.

It’s hard to fully judge pitching without taking defense into consideration, and that is particularly the case with the 2011 Bulldogs, probably one of the worst fielding teams The Citadel has had in quite a while. One way to measure that pitching BABIP (batting average on balls in play).

In other words, forget about homers, strikeouts, walks, HBPs, or anything the pitcher (at least nominally) controls. What was the batting average for balls hit into the field of play? That should give one a decent idea of a team’s fielding prowess, or lack thereof.

— In 2010, The Citadel’s pitching staff had a BABIP of .345, better than the league average (.353) and fourth in the conference in that category.

— In 2011, The Citadel’s pitching staff had a BABIP of .391, much worse than the league average (.338, thanks to those new bat regs) and dead last in the conference in that category.

It’s no secret the Bulldogs struggled defensively last season. The Citadel committed the most errors in league play (58 in 30 games) and had the worst fielding percentage (by far). The reality was actually worse than the error totals, though, because (as BABIP tends to highlight) the defensive woes were as much about the plays not made as they were about errors on plays attempted. The Bulldogs also finished last in the league in total chances and double plays.

In 2010, The Citadel’s defensive efficiency (how many balls in play were turned into outs) was solid at 66.8%, a little better than the conference average. That was fourth-best in the league, more than good enough for a team with strikeout pitching and dependable hitting. Incidentally, that season South Carolina and Texas each had a DER of 72.6% to lead the country (that obviously included every game played by those two teams, not just SEC/Big XII contests).

Nationally, DER increased in 2011 (again, the bats were the key factor). However, the Bulldogs’ defensive efficiency nosedived to 63.2%, by some distance the worst in the conference. Western Carolina was the only other league team with a DER  lower than 67%.

Simply put, the Bulldogs failed to make two or three defensive plays per game in 2011 that they were able to make in 2010. Those two or three plays are extra outs for the opposition, and when you combine that with a more homer-prone pitching staff already allowing a couple more baserunners per nine innings, all in a lower-scoring environment — well, you’re just asking for trouble.

Tangent: in researching defensive efficiency, I came across a table stating that the Big 10 had a league DER of only 61.3% in 2011. If that’s the case, maybe it’s another example of why northern/midwestern baseball as a rule isn’t as good as that played by schools in the Sun Belt. 

The Citadel will play a three-game series at Minnesota this year. The Golden Gophers did lead the Big 10 in defensive efficiency (64.6%).

There were some changes made in the coaching staff, as Fred Jordan shook up things a bit after the disappointing 2011 campaign. He might have done so anyway, but going 8-22 in the SoCon one year removed from a title may have provided more incentive for trying a different approach.

Jordan hired a pitching coach, a first for The Citadel during the Port/Jordan era, and a move that was welcomed by a number of longtime observers of the baseball program. Both Chal Port and Jordan acted as their own pitching coaches, but this year the pitching coach for the Bulldogs will be Britt Reames.

Reames is extremely well qualified to be The Citadel’s pitching coach, to say the least. Reames is an alum, a former outstanding pitcher/catcher (under Jordan) who made it all the way to the major leagues and hung around for a while. Being a native of South Carolina (Seneca) won’t hurt him when he is on the recruiting trail, either.

Reames also has experience as a college coach, and in the Southern Conference, as he spent the past three years coaching at Furman. I like to think this makes The Citadel the SoCon’s version of the 1950s New York Yankees, with Furman in the role as the Kansas City Athletics.

I hope Reames helps The Citadel’s pitchers and catchers do a better job controlling the running game this season. Bulldog opponents stole 50 bases in 62 attempts during league play, the second-most stolen bases allowed by a team. The Citadel picked off six baserunners, slightly lower than average (there were 92 pickoffs in conference action).

The Bulldogs themselves stole 46 bases in 59 attempts in the SoCon, a respectable percentage (78%) marred by the nine times the Dogs were picked off (by my count). That was in keeping with what seemed to me a poor year on the basepaths for The Citadel.

It’s one thing to be aggressive. I’m not talking about stealing second on the first pitch with two outs and nobody else on base. I’m talking about things like the trail runner getting caught off second base because he didn’t know where the lead runner was going. I don’t have stats to illustrate that, only anecdotal memories (always questionable), but there is no doubt The Citadel needs to improve its baserunning.

Of course, SoCon teams in general have traditionally had a bit of a kamikaze approach when it comes to players running the bases. I am sure if Carter Blackburn called a league game, he would refer to the conference as the “Go-Go SoCo”.

The 2012 team will feature several players who were key contributors for both the 2010 and 2011 teams. Nick Orvin will be the centerfielder once again. Justin Mackert, per the aforementioned radio interview of Jordan, is moving from first base to left field. Jordan also mentioned that Grant Richards would return at catcher (and I’m guessing, perhaps wrongly, he will occasionally be a DH).

These are guys who have SoCon championship rings, and earned them. Orvin in particular has been a wonderfully consistent player for The Citadel for three seasons; he was first-team all-conference last season, despite the Bulldogs’ struggles as a team in 2011.

Richards and Mackert will perhaps be forever tied together in Bulldogs baseball lore thanks to a hit by Richards that scored Mackert in the ninth inning of the 2010 SoCon tourney against Elon. Of course, what is perhaps most remembered about that moment is how much Elon’s Scott Riddle enjoyed Mackert’s baserunning.

Two freshmen from last season were impressive in their rookie campaigns and will be expected to continue an upward track as sophomores in 2012. Drew DeKerlegand brought a solid bat to third base, and will man the hot corner again this season. Joe Jackson also knows what to do with the stick. He’ll likely split time at catcher/DH with Richards.

All of the above-mentioned players can get better. I would like to see the walk rate for each of them increase. Jackson needs to develop more power; I suspect that will come in time. DeKerlegand has to get better in the field. Richards must rebound from a tough year at the plate in 2011.

Jordan stated that there was competition for spots at right field and first base. There are freshman candidates at both positions, as well as returning players. I wouldn’t be surprised to see some platooning in those spots, at least early in the season.

The middle infield is evidently going to be made up of freshmen; there are apparently three of them who can or will see time. That shortstop-second base combo is going to be critical for The Citadel. Those players need to be able to hit, but more importantly, the middle infield has to stabilize the defense.

Austin Pritcher returns as a weekend starter for The Citadel. Pritcher had generally good peripheral statistics for the Bulldogs last season, although he did allow 107 hits in 84 innings. Again, he’s going to need help from the defense converting some of those hits into outs.

The other two spots in the weekend rotation are open to question, although Jordan seemed to indicate that freshman lefthander Kevin Connell would get one of them. Also in the mix is senior T.J. Clarkson, who pitched exclusively out of the bullpen last year.

In the running for weekday starts and/or key roles in the bullpen: sophomore Bryce Hines (battling shoulder stiffness) and his brother Ryan Hines, along with redshirt freshman Zach Brownlee. Jordan also referred to a “good lefty frosh” when discussing the bullpen. Then there is Logan Cribb, not mentioned by Fred Jordan in that radio spot, probably because Jordan did not want to upset the former Gamecock cheerleader who was conducting the interview.

I am sure that several other pitchers (and position players) will pop up as the season progresses, and surprise us all, faster than you can say “Steve Basch”.

I think one thing the 2011 season demonstrated is that there is a very fine line between success and failure when it comes to sports at The Citadel, and that includes baseball. The military college has very little margin for error on the field of play, and it doesn’t take much of a slip for a championship squad to become a cellar-dweller.

That said, I am hopeful that the program will rebound this season. It may be a bit of a transitional year, but I don’t believe the outlook is nearly as dire as some preseason prognosticators suggest. On the contrary, I think this could be a fun season. There are known quantities already in place, and then there is the chance for some younger players to emerge as regulars.

I am worried about the pitching depth, particularly in the starting rotation, and obviously I think it is critical that the defense dramatically improves. Both of those areas are probably going to need some time to develop into strengths, just one reason why it’s nice to see the Bulldogs begin their schedule with a bunch of home games against non-league opposition.

I will definitely be at some of those home games, cheering on the Bulldogs. I will probably be freezing, but I will be there…