Lose two, win three: the pattern changes for The Citadel’s hoops squad

I was starting to think the season was going to take a serious turn for the worse after the Bulldogs went 0-2 on the Georgia Southern/Davidson road swing, blowing sizable leads in both games.  The loss in Statesboro was the nadir of the 2009-10 campaign, with the number 21 figuring prominently — a 21-point lead blown, thanks mostly to 21 turnovers (on only 66 possessions — yikes) and 21 fouls.  GSU took advantage of all the fouling, hitting a staggering 27 of its 28 free throw attempts.

(The Bulldogs also had 21 rebounds in that game.  Really, after the game somebody from The Citadel should have caught a plane to Vegas and started playing blackjack.)

If that loss didn’t all but eliminate any chance of The Citadel garnering a first-round bye in the Southern Conference tournament, the tough OT setback to the Wildcats almost surely did.  Despite blowing another early lead, this wasn’t as bad an effort by the Bulldogs.  Ultimately, The Citadel didn’t shoot well enough to win the game (39% from the field, including 27% from beyond the arc).  The Bulldogs did a much better job protecting the basketball (nine turnovers) but could not overcome Davidson’s rebounding advantage (including 11 offensive boards).  To beat a good team on the road, The Citadel needed a few more good things to happen.

The team could have folded at that point.  It didn’t, though.  The day after the Davidson game, Ed Conroy made a series of Tweets.  Tying them together, they read like this:

Tough trip home. Our guys really take losses hard which is why they always bounce back. Love this group. We really competed – great game.


Our job as coaches is to get prepared for practice because these guys will be focused on getting better tomorrow. They are determined and resilient. I can’t wait to get back and clip this film so we can show our guys what we need to improve on. Wells and Urbanus will have everyone ready to focus tomorrow. That’s all you can ask! Really thankful I don’t have to worry about that. Go Dogs!

Well, they were as good as his word when it came to being resilient.  In the next game, against Samford, The Citadel trailed by 11 points with a little over 10 minutes remaining.  11 points is a lot to make up for a team like The Citadel, especially when playing Samford, a team that likes to operate at an even slower pace than the cadets.

Samford, like all SoCon teams, was determined to stop Cameron Wells, and it succeeded in holding him to 8 points.  However, for the first time in a while, Wells’ teammates picked up the scoring slack.  Austin Dahn and Harrison DuPont combined for 28 points, and freshman Ben Cherry hit three big three-pointers.  The Citadel came back and won.

For the first time all season the Bulldogs claimed victory in a game despite committing more turnovers than the opposition.  I think that can be at least partly attributed to the more balanced scoring (and better shooting).  With more than one player able to contribute offensively, it could be argued that the team’s margin of error is not quite so small.

The Citadel followed that up with another home victory, a deserved triumph over UT-Chattanooga, the first time the Bulldogs had beaten the Mocs on the hardwood since 2002.  Of course, The Citadel would have won the earlier matchup in Chattanooga if not for a miracle shot by Keegan Bell.  Bell had no magic on demand in this game, however, putting up a goose egg in the scoring column despite playing 31 minutes.

On the other hand, Mocs forward Ridge McKeither, who had missed the first game against the Bulldogs, finished with 13 points and 18 rebounds, and probably should have been the focus of the UTC offense more often.  Instead the Mocs hoisted up 35 three-pointers, making just 8 of them.  UTC also struggled from the charity stripe (10-20) and committed five more turnovers than the Bulldogs.

UTC did outrebound The Citadel 41-31, but the poor outside shooting (for which The Citadel’s perimeter defense should take a great deal of credit) doomed the Mocs. Meanwhile, Zach Urbanus, who has historically enjoyed shooting three-pointers against UTC — he had 7 threes in a game against the Mocs as a freshman — scored 24 points, thanks mostly to, yes, 7 made three-pointers.

Austin Dahn also had a good game, making three shots from beyond the arc, dishing out four assists, and not committing a turnover in 32 minutes of action.  Then there was the emergence of a new force for the Bulldogs…The Bo Holston Experience.

Holston, a 6’4″ sophomore from Olney, Maryland, had his career game (so far) against UT-Chattanooga, grabbing nine rebounds, including five critical offensive boards, to go along with 7 points and one memorable steal.  Late in the game, with The Citadel unaccountably struggling to hold onto the ball, Holston turned the ball over on a bad pass in the paint.  UTC raced up the court with the basketball, looking to break for an easy hoop — only to have Holston run down the ballhandler and take it right back.  That was basically the game-ending play.

Before that game Holston had appeared in 13 games for the Bulldogs, scoring a total of 18 points.  Against UTC, though, he suddenly morphed into The Bo Holston Experience, an unexpected natural phenomenon not easily explained.  His hustle and spirited play helped offset (along with the efforts of Dahn and Urbanus) another tough shooting night for Wells, who was 1-10 from the floor.  For a second consecutive game, the Bulldogs survived a less-than-stellar offensive outing from their best player.

(They also survived some sketchy officiating, as it was another Saturday night in the SoCon.  For a while, Cosmo Morabbi looked more like Vito Anterfuermo than a basketball player, but no autopsy, no foul.)

The Citadel hadn’t won three straight games all season until Monday night’s satisfying win over the College of Charleston.  With that win, the Bulldogs remain undefeated at Carolina First Arena.  The Citadel is 2-0 in the building, as opposed to, say, UNC, which is winless in the facility (after losing in OT to the CofC earlier this season).

Incidentally, next year The Citadel is scheduled to play four games at Carolina First Arena, one against the Cougars and three others as part of the Charleston Classic.  It’s nice to know the Bulldogs are comfortable playing there.

As for the game on Monday night, The Citadel against took advantage of a team having a cold shooting night from three-point land, as the Cougars were 6-23 from beyond the arc.  The Bulldogs’ excellent perimeter D harassed CofC star Andrew Goudelock into a 1-8 shooting night from outside.  The Cougars, like UTC, seemed unwilling to pound the ball inside as often as might have been expected, although Bryan Streeter probably deserves credit for solid post defense (notably his positioning).

Wells scored 15 points in this game, not quite at his scoring average, but he did have five assists.  Urbanus’ two huge three-pointers in crunch time provided the Bulldogs with a little breathing room, and DuPont and Holston had a combined line of 39 minutes, 23 points (on 10-18 shooting), 10 rebounds and only 2 turnovers.  That works.

One thing about Cameron Wells:  maybe he hasn’t been putting as many points on the board as usual, but he’s still a major offensive force, as other teams focus on him at the risk of letting other Bulldogs get good looks.  In the last three games, the other players for The Citadel have taken advantage of those opportunities, many of them directly provided by Wells, who in those three outings has 19 assists (against only 5 turnovers).

As I noted earlier, I think the losses to GSU and Davidson probably mean that The Citadel has little to no chance of a first-round SoCon tourney bye.  However, the last three games have given hope that perhaps the team could arrive in Charlotte with a good deal of momentum.  Besides, the bye last year didn’t exactly help the Bulldogs much.  (I would still want it, of course.  It’s easier to win three games in three nights than four games in four nights.)

The Citadel has a chance of having a winning season, both overall and in SoCon play, both of which would be fine accomplishments, given the history of the program.  Only twice in the last 45 years has The Citadel enjoyed consecutive winning seasons.

Also, over the last two years the Bulldogs have won 33 games (with a number of games remaining this season, obviously).  Only once in school history has The Citadel won more games over a two year-span — 1979-80, when the Bulldogs won 34 games.

After playing three games in five days, The Citadel has some time off, playing just one game in the next ten days.  That will come Saturday at Elon.  The Phoenix are only 6-17 but are improving as the season goes along, and have two straight league wins as proof, having won on the road at Furman and at home against Western Carolina. Elon also has a win over UT-Chattanooga.  Last season The Citadel lost a tough game at Elon, 56-54, before gaining a season split at McAlister Field House (60-58).

As for this season’s Phoenix squad, it’s not a good shooting team (10th in the league in FG%, next-to-last in 3FG% and FT%).  Elon plays a slightly more uptempo game than does The Citadel, although that’s true of every team in the SoCon except Samford.  The Phoenix do a reasonable job of protecting the basketball, but are not a particularly strong defensive outfit (and like the Bulldogs, do not have good rebounding stats).

In the win over Furman, 6’2″ guard T.J. Douglas had 21 points and 13 (!) rebounds. Douglas likes to shoot from outside, as he has 123 three-point attempts this season, but only 10 trips to the free throw line.  Another guy not afraid to shoot from beyond the arc is Drew Spradlin, who had 14 points against the Paladins, and led the Phoenix with 16 against WCU.  In that game, five Elon players scored in double figures.

The Citadel should have the confidence to go on the road and get a win, but it won’t be easy.  Then again, it never is.

Win one, lose one: The Citadel’s hoops team marches on

The Citadel is now 10-10 overall, 4-4 in the Southern Conference.  It’s been a .500 kind of year from the start; the Bulldogs have been 1-1, 2-2, 3-3, 6-6, 7-7, 8-8, 9-9, and the current 10-10 mark — and in league play the cadets have been 1-1, 2-2, 3-3, and now 4-4.  The Citadel hasn’t won more than two games in a row, and has lost more than two in a row just once (the three-game stretch against Michigan State, Texas A&M, and Houston).

Last week was more of the same, as the Bulldogs lost at home to Wofford on a last-second tip-in on Thursday before recovering to beat Furman on Saturday at McAlister Field House, a game in which Regan Truesdale’s jersey was honored at halftime.  The win over the Paladins (final score:  70-60) broke a six-game streak of Bulldog games decided by seven or fewer points, with three of those matchups decided by two points or less.

Brief thoughts on the two games:

– When the final score is 44-42, as it was in the game against Wofford, it’s an indication that neither team’s offense had a good day, and that was certainly the case, tempo-related adjustments aside.  Wofford won despite shooting 30% from the field (just 2-12 from 3-land).  The Citadel did not shoot much better and was outrebounded by the Terriers (including allowing 14 offensive boards).

The Bulldogs also lost the turnover battle 12-11; they are now 0-6 in games in which they commit more turnovers than the opposition.  Joe Wolfinger, in particular, struggled holding on to the ball, committing four turnovers in only twelve minutes of action.  Wasted was a fine defensive effort by The Citadel that included a surprising six blocked shots, four of them courtesy of Harrison DuPont, who is beginning to assert himself in league play.

– The win over the Paladins was a nice bounce-back game, although it took a while for the offense to get into gear.  With the Bulldogs trailing 40-32 in the second half, Ed Conroy called time.  The Citadel would proceed to score on eleven of its next twelve possessions, resulting in a 15-0 run that completely turned the game around.

That is what is known by basketball experts as a “good timeout”.

One interesting aspect of the game against Furman was Conroy’s reliance on his starting lineup (Harrison DuPont, Bryan Streeter, Cameron Wells, Zach Urbanus, and Austin Dahn).  Those five players each played over 30 minutes in the contest, which struck me as a bit unusual.  The Bulldogs committed just eight turnovers, won the rebound battle and actually shot well from beyond the arc (8-20).  It was The Citadel’s third consecutive win over Furman.

Next up is a road trip within the division, with The Citadel playing Georgia Southern in Statesboro on Thursday and traveling to Davidson on Saturday.  Like Furman, Georgia Southern has lost three games in a row against The Citadel, including earlier this season at McAlister (68-43).  The two games before that streak were Eagle victories until last week, when the wins were vacated.  GSU is now on NCAA-imposed probation for two years, thanks to serious academic irregularities.

In the game in Charleston, The Citadel shot 14-22 from 3-land, outrebounded the Eagles, and won the turnover battle 20-8.  I don’t expect all of that to happen again; Georgia Southern has been playing a little better since that December 5 matchup, and can claim home victories over Appalachian State and Western Carolina, along with a close loss to Davidson.

GSU still isn’t a good offensive team, ranking last in the conference in shooting percentage and assist/turnover ratio, and also struggles defending the three (allowing a league-worst 43.4% to its opponents).  The Eagles play a higher-tempo game than any team in the league (75.5 possessions per game in SoCon action), and it will be important for The Citadel to keep the game at its preferred slower pace.  Patience, and good work on the offensive glass, will carry the day.

Davidson beat The Citadel at McAlister in the conference opener on December 3, 74-63.  In that game, the Wildcats were an absurd 15-27 from beyond the arc.  William Archambault had a career night from outside, making 6 of 9 three-pointers.  J.P. Kuhlman was 3-4, and Jake Cohen was 4-8.  Ben Allison made his first three-pointer of the season in that game (he now has four).

The Wildcats are certainly a capable outside shooting club, but it’s hard to imagine them shooting as well as they did that night.  The Citadel needs to contain that part of Davidson’s game, and take advantage of what the Wildcats don’t do well.  So far this SoCon season, that would be playing defense, as Davidson current ranks last in league play in points allowed per possession and FG% defense.  The Wildcats are also next-to-last in 3FG% defense and tend to commit a lot of fouls (10th in that category out of 12 SoCon teams).

I would imagine that last statistic might particularly trouble a Davidson fan when considering the game against The Citadel will be played on a Saturday night, and all SoCon fans are aware of the vast disparity in officiating quality between weekday and weekend games in the conference.  Of course, that doesn’t necessarily bode well for The Citadel, either, as it has seen its own fair share of SoCon ref “issues” (including a rare technical for Ed Conroy in a Saturday matchup against Samford two weeks ago).

One final note:  for The Citadel to have a realistic chance of garnering a first-round bye in the Southern Conference tournament, it probably needs to win both games this week, in part because both are divisional games.  Davidson, of course, is also competing for a top-2 finish in the South division, which makes that game even more important.  Winning two league road games, while an achievable goal, will be a tall order.

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.

New year, new hoops post

Conference play goes into high gear starting on Wednesday with the Bulldogs’ trip to Boone to face Appalachian State, followed by a matchup at McAlister with the College of Charleston on Saturday.  The next week will feature more road action as the Bulldogs make the western swing through the league, taking on UT-Chattanooga on the 14th and Samford on the 16th.

The Citadel is .500 right now no matter how you look at it, at 7-7 overall, 1-1 in the SoCon.  Last year at this time The Citadel was 6-7 overall, 1-1 in the league.

Facts, observations, etc.:

– The Citadel’s starting lineup against Savannah State included no players hailing from east of the Mississippi River, which is decidedly unusual (if not unprecedented).

– Zach Urbanus is averaging 35. 7 minutes per game, which is in the top 25 nationally.  I worry a little about him and Cameron Wells (34.1 mpg) wearing down over the course of the season, but they logged major minutes last season too, and it didn’t seem to bother them.

– Bulldog opponents have shot better from 40% from three-point land on four occasions.  The Citadel has lost all four of those games.

– The Citadel’s game notes for the Appalachian State game include the statistic that the Bulldogs are 14th nationally in fouls committed per game, at 15.0 per contest.  However, the flip side to that is The Citadel’s opponents have only committed two more fouls than the Bulldogs (212-210).

– The fouling statistics are really just a function of The Citadel’s pace of play.  At 62.3 possessions per game, the Bulldogs are among the ten slowest-playing teams in Division I.

– So while The Citadel is 22nd nationally in fewest turnovers per game, it is actually 103rd in D-1 in terms of turnover rate (which is still not bad; it’s about where the Bulldogs were last season).

– Let’s talk about offensive rebounding for a moment.  The Citadel has struggled at times on the boards this season, and it’s mainly attributable to the Bulldogs not getting their fair share of offensive rebounds.

Joe Wolfinger has 25 offensive boards this season.  Now, that leads the team, but on the other hand, Wolfinger has played 339 minutes so far; he’s averaging one offensive board every 13.5 minutes on the floor.  Bryan Streeter has 18 offensive rebounds in 255 minutes (one every 14.2 minutes).

Those are the guys you would expect to get the majority of the offensive caroms, and they have — but on a per-minute basis, they haven’t been as effective as Ed Conroy might like.  Nobody on the team is actually bringing in an exceptional percentage of offensive rebounds (the best per-minute performer in the category is Mike Groselle, who in limited time has grabbed one every 9.1 minutes).

This is where the Bulldogs really miss John Brown.  Last season Brown had an excellent offensive rebounding campaign, averaging one such board every 9.9 minutes (and he played 537 minutes).  At least one member of the current edition of the Bulldogs needs to repeat (or at least approach repeating) that effort — either that or The Citadel has to significantly increase its shooting percentage, which is unlikely.

– Wolfinger is shooting 44.2% from the floor, but he’s under 40% against Division I competition.  He has only had four games this season in which he has shot better than 50% from the field — against Kenyon, UVA-Wise, Missouri State, and Maryland-Eastern Shore.

Wolfinger has struggled in the two SoCon games.  Here is hoping that he gets better as the second half of the season begins, both offensively and defensively.  He could still be a key cog in the rotation, but perhaps not as an offensive focal point.

– Although Wolfinger is a 7-footer, the Bulldog who appears most comfortable as an offensive post player is Groselle, who suffered an ankle injury that limited his time on the court the last few weeks.  If healthy, I would not be surprised if Groselle’s minutes increase markedly as the season progresses.

– Another freshman, Harrison DuPont, got his first career start against Savannah State (as part of the all-Western starting lineup) and shows potential to be an impact player.  He has played 30+ minutes in each of the last two games, scoring 14 points against Houston and 11 against Savannah State.  He had six turnovers against Houston, but other than that did well in both games, shooting better than 50% from the field and picking up a few rebounds along the way.

– In nine games as a starter, Austin Dahn shot 15.6% from three-point land.  In five games coming off the bench, he is shooting 47.8% from beyond the arc.  Advantage, Ed Conroy.

– Bryan Streeter also has some improved statistics after being switched from the starting lineup.  His rebounding rates have almost doubled.  His free throw shooting has even improved (albeit that’s a very small sample size).

Streeter is shooting 58.8% from the line so far this season (and was 5-6 against Savannah State).  That may not seem impressive, but it’s a big change for the better when compared to last season, when Streeter only made 16 free throws in 44 attempts (36.4%).

The upcoming league games will be tough, considering three are on the road and the one home game is against the College of Charleston, which beat North Carolina on Monday night. Last season The Citadel was a combined 5-2 against the four teams.

The Bulldogs swept Appalachian State in two tight games (one in OT, the other by two points).  The Citadel also swept the College of Charleston in two contests, neither of which was particularly close, something the Cougars will surely remember.

The Citadel lost at home to UT-Chattanooga, and had a disappointing split with Samford — disappointing in the sense that while Charleston’s Bulldogs dominated the Birmingham Bulldogs in the regular-season matchup at Samford, in the conference tourney quarterfinals Samford put a quick end to The Citadel’s championship hopes.

The SoCon looks to be very competitive this season, with a lot of evenly-matched teams.  The Citadel’s 7-7 overall record is in line with the records of its next four opponents, which have current records of 7-6 (Appy), 8-6 (UTC), 8-6 (CofC), and 6-8 (Samford).  Other conference teams with similar records:  Davidson (7-8), Furman (7-6), and Wofford (8-7).  On the other hand,  Western Carolina  is 11-2 (with a win at Louisville) while Elon, Georgia Southern, and UNC-Greensboro are a combined 8-33.

I’m hoping for an entertaining conference race.  My definition of entertaining is one in which The Citadel is in or near the lead…

Highlights from five games at McAlister

I’m going to discuss the actual basketball played by The Citadel over the past week and a half, including some statistics.  Before I do that, though, I’m going to mention some other statistics…about officials.

On Monday night The Citadel hosted Michigan State at McAlister Field House.  It was good of Tom Izzo to honor a commitment to play the game in Charleston (West Virginia decided to buy its way out of a trip), but I’m guessing he did ask for some big-time officials to work the game, just to make sure that the lead referee wasn’t General Rosa’s brother or something.  That’s fine, and as a result the game was officiated by Karl Hess, Jamie Luckie, and Mike Wood.

If you follow college basketball at all, you probably recognize those names, because they are on television all the time, working games from coast to coast.  They’re certainly on TV more than The Citadel (the MSU game will be the only nationally televised game this season to feature the Bulldogs). 

Mike Wood has actually worked five games in Charleston so far this season, a bit of an oddity.  He called three games at the Charleston Classic, and then worked the Thursday night game between Davidson and The Citadel.  Wood has called two games involving Davidson and two involving Penn State, and all four games were played in Charleston.  He probably did a lot of Christmas shopping on King Street, but he didn’t do any the weekend between the Davidson and MSU games. 

No, on the Saturday after the Davidson game Wood worked the Arkansas Pine Bluff-Michigan game in Ann Arbor; he then flew to Tallahassee to call the Florida International-Florida State game on Sunday before venturing back to Charleston.  The game between the Spartans and Bulldogs was Wood’s 19th of the season.

Wood actually hasn’t worked as many games as either of his Monday night colleagues.  Both Karl Hess and Jamie Luckie were working their 21st game of the season that night.  Hess had been in Washington, DC, on Sunday, calling Villanova-Maryland; the game in Charleston was his fourth in four days and his seventh in eight days.  However, Luckie had actually been a touch busier, as he was calling his tenth game in eleven days.  Luckie had been in Blacksburg on Sunday to call Georgia-Virginia Tech.

In terms of number of games officiated, the contrast between those three officials and the trio who worked the game on Saturday between Georgia Southern and The Citadel is stark.  Bill Cheek, John Corio, and Robert Robinson combined have worked only eleven games, just more than half of the total worked by Luckie (and Hess) alone.

This leads me to mention the difference in officiating in lower-echelon conferences between games played on weekdays and those on weekends.  During the week, there aren’t as many games played every night, because there are five days in which most schools will play just once.  However, on weekends there are obviously just two days, and most schools play on either Saturday or Sunday.  

The big-time officials follow the money, naturally, and the BCS leagues have the most money, so guys like Hess and Wood will work ACC or Big East games during the weekend, leaving lower-profile officials for leagues like the SoCon or the Big South.  On weeknights, it’s different; you might see one of those guys or some other TV-star ref working in the smaller conferences, because there aren’t as many games in the larger conferences on that particular night.

The quality of officiating in leagues like the Southern Conference is thus wildly variable, depending on what day a game is played.  I think this is a problem.  I don’t believe it’s a good idea for some of these guys to work so many games, either, although I can’t really fault them for doing so — they’re independent contractors, trying to make a living. 

What I would like to see is a system where a league like the SoCon can count on at least one quality veteran ref for all of its games.  This would probably mean the NCAA would have to get involved, which I realize wouldn’t necessarily be a good thing, but ultimately I think there needs to be an adjustment made in the way officials are assigned to contests. 

The first game in the recent five-game homestand for The Citadel was a 69-37 pummeling of UVA-Wise, an NAIA school that was no match for the Bulldogs.  The game didn’t really do much for The Citadel, although it’s a win, and every win counts.  The defense was excellent throughout; the offense was okay but not great.  Not much else to say about that game, really.

The next night, The Citadel defeated Central Connecticut State 67-53, pulling away late in the contest.  This was a slowly-paced game (CCSU had only 53 possessions) in which the Blue Devils played zone and dared the Bulldogs to beat them from outside.  CCSU actually led at halftime, but the strategy couldn’t hold up for 40 minutes. 

Zach Urbanus was 7-13 from beyond the arc, and Cosmo Morabbi added four three-pointers of his own.  Cameron Wells had nine assists against only one turnover.  Statistically, the defense for the Bulldogs was average; perhaps playing the second game of a back-to-backer was an issue.  The Citadel also got lucky (or rather, CCSU was unlucky) in that Devil starting guard Shemik Thompson was injured and unable to play.

On Saturday, The Citadel got blitzed by a barrage of three-pointers by Davidson and lost, 74-61.  The Wildcats scored 74 points in only 61 possessions, which isn’t easy to do, but then again converting 15 three-pointers during a game isn’t easy to do either.  Six of those shots from beyond the arc came from William Archambault, who two nights later against the College of Charleston would go 0-5 from three-point land.  Against The Citadel, Davidson shot 56% from outside the line; against the Cougars the Wildcats were 4-24. 

I thought The Citadel didn’t defend that badly along the perimeter, but Davidson made its shots anyway.  That kind of thing happens sometimes, and you just hope that if it happens to your team, that the squad is good enough to hang on against the onslaught and survive.  Michigan State faced something similar in the early going against the Bulldogs (when five different players hit three-pointers before the first TV timeout), but MSU’s clear physical superiority eventually won out.  The Citadel doesn’t have the luxury of a margin for error, though.

Georgia Southern is rebuilding under new coach Charlton Young, and he’s got a bit of a job to do.  GSU has little size (at least, among its regulars in the rotation) and doesn’t shoot well from outside.  Thus, Young and the Eagles try to scramble the game.  However, against The Citadel all that scrambling resulted in only eight turnovers by the Bulldogs.  The Citadel ran its offense well, got plenty of open looks from outside and was 10-22 from three-land.  The Eagles, on the other hand, committed twenty turnovers and made only three shots from beyond the arc.

None of those made three-pointers for The Citadel came from Joe Wolfinger, as the 7-footer seemed out of place in the game and only played eleven minutes.  Another interesting move in the game was to bring Austin Dahn and Bryan Streeter off the bench.  This decision seemed to work, particularly for Dahn, who played fewer minutes than his norm but was more effective offensively.  Both players against came off the bench against Michigan State, too (with Cosmo Morabbi and Matt Clark starting).

As a starter, Dahn is 5-32 from 3-point land.  In two games as a sub, he is 4-9.  Sample size and all that, but if Dahn comes out of long shooting slump, The Citadel is a much better team, one that will be very hard for SoCon opponents to handle from an offensive perspective.

The final game of the homestand (not counting the exhibition game against Allen on Dec. 16) was the much-anticipated clash with Michigan State, live and in color on ESPNU (and in HD, unless you have DirecTV).  I was glad to see the crowd in full voice for the game, with a healthy contingent of the corps present and creating havoc.  I think most of the MSU players got a kick out of the atmosphere (Izzo certainly did).  The TV announcers seemed to enjoy working the game, too (Mark Gottfried referred to people “hanging from the rafters” at least three times).

Tangent:  I wish that type of atmosphere was the norm, or at least close to the norm, at McAlister.  The key to it being so, of course, is the corps of cadets.  There is always a hardy group of cadets at home games, often patrolling one of the baselines, but there aren’t enough of them.  As someone who regularly attended basketball games while a cadet, I find this somewhat frustrating. 

When I was in school, the cadets usually at the games were either A) football/baseball players, B) all-around sports fans (not many of those at The Citadel), and C) native New Yorkers.   Okay, that last one is a semi-exaggeration, but there were several guys from points north who had grown up on college basketball (rooting for the likes of Iona or Seton Hall) and enjoyed getting a “fix” at McAlister.  They were world-class hecklers, too.  No opponent was ever safe at a shootaround, that’s for sure.

One cool thing that happened at the Davidson game was that one of the trainers gave away some old warmups to the cadets assembled along the baseline.  I thought that was a nice gesture. 

I would like for someone (administration, leadership within the corps, whoever) to come up with a way to ensure that at least one-fourth of the cadets attend every home game.  Really, it should be more than that, but I’ll settle for one-fourth right now.

The Citadel got off to the aforementioned hot start against the Spartans and finished 12-20 from beyond the arc.  Unfortunately, the Bulldogs were only 7-29 inside the arc, which tells you which team dominated the paint (and the glass; MSU outrebounded The Citadel 35-16).  The Spartans also took 19 more free throws than the Bulldogs (two of those were by Derrick Nix, who went 0-2 and is now an almost impossible 1-19 from the free throw line for the season).

A few odds and ends, observations, etc.:

— Number of possessions for the five games, in order:  67, 55, 66, 61, 57.  Considering that the UVA-Wise game (67 possessions) was a blowout, and that the Davidson game (66) was one in which The Citadel had to increase the number of possessions because it was trailing, I think the team’s pace of play is just about where it needs to be.  Fewer than ten teams nationally play at a slower tempo. 

— After 11 games, The Citadel is 6-5.  After 11 games last season, The Citadel was 5-6.  Incidentally, Michigan State was the eleventh game in both seasons.

— I think it’s fairly clear after eleven games that Joe Wolfinger isn’t going to be a “like for like” substitute for Demetrius Nelson.  Just some raw stats from the first nine games against Division I opponents:  Wolfinger has 84 shot attempts, with 33 coming from beyond the arc, and 18 free throw attempts, while Nelson had 62 shot attempts, none of them from 3-land, and 33 free throw attempts.  Wolfinger has 52 rebounds (15 offensive) and 13 turnovers, while Nelson had 42 rebounds (16 offensive) and 19 turnovers.

Nelson got better as the season progressed (and also started taking more shots), and Wolfinger certainly has the potential to do so as well.  I think the above stats show that he needs to do a slightly better job grabbing offensive boards, and part of that has to do with shot selection — namely, his. 

When Wolfinger is shooting the three, The Citadel’s tallest player isn’t under the basket to grab an offensive rebound.  He’s obviously an excellent shooter for his size, but he probably needs to be a bit more judicious about when to shoot.  He also is going to have lots of chances to pass out of the post and pick up assists as the season goes on; he only has two assists so far. 

There is definitely something to be said, however, about having a big man who is capable of having a big night from three-land.  It’s disorienting (and sometimes disheartening) for an opponent when he converts those jumpers, and also opens up a lot of things for the other offensive players. 

— Twelve different players have seen significant time in at least one game this season.  Bo Holston followed up a DNP against Davidson with 20+ minute performances against both Georgia Southern and Michigan State.  Mike Groselle has looked very good in spot duty, but is currently struggling with a bad ankle, which just means he could play quarterback for The Citadel.  Ben Cherry and Daniel Eykyn have both had their moments, as has the Midwest City Masked Man, Harrison Dupont.

Basically, if you’re in uniform, be ready for action, because you never know when Ed Conroy is going to wave you into the game.  I guess there is a reason the Bulldogs have so many players on the roster…

— The Citadel is shooting 37.9% from 3-point land, currently second-best in the conference and in the top 70 nationally.  The Bulldogs average only 10.8 turnovers per game, 11th-best in the country, although part of that is due to a lack of possessions.  However, The Citadel’s turnover rate is still solid, as is its assist-to-turnover ratio and assist-to-made-basket ratio (top 75 overall in all three statistics). 

The Citadel commits just 14.4 fouls per game, which is in the top 10 nationally (and was even better before being called for 18 fouls against Michigan State; in that game Cosmo Morabbi was a very unlucky foul magnet).

What are things that need improvement?  Three point defense, for one.  Davidson wasn’t the only team to make more than its fair share of three-pointers against the Bulldogs; at 39.5% against, The Citadel is in the bottom 50 nationally in that category.  The Bulldogs also need to improve their rebounding (particularly on the offensive glass) and force a few more turnovers, as opponents are averaging only 12.1 per game (although part of that, again, is a function of tempo).

Now it’s time for the players to win the game called Exam Week.

Post-turkey hoops, live from McAlister

The Citadel went 2-2 on its recent road trip, just about as expected, losing to Missouri State and West Virginia, and winning neutral-site games against Eastern Michigan and Maryland-Eastern Shore.  A few comments on the four games:

  • Against Maryland-Eastern Shore, Mike Groselle had a very active 13 minutes, scoring 14 points (4-4 FG and 6-6 FT) while pulling down 4 rebounds, and also committing 4 fouls.  Talk about an all-action player.
  • UMES reserve frontcourt player Lyvann Obame Obame grabbed 10 rebounds in only 9 minutes of play but didn’t attempt a shot from the field…kind of a strange line.  Obame Obame is a 6’6″ native of Gabon, by the way.
  • Austin Dahn was 3-5 from 3-point land in the UMES game.  Alas, in the other three games he was a combined 0-10 from beyond the arc.
  • Conversely, Zach Urbanus made 12 of 21 three-pointers over the four-game span.  Joe Wolfinger was actually even better from outside (13-21), including a 5-5 night against UMES (The Citadel made 13 three-pointers in that game).
  • Fifteen different Bulldogs played against UMES.  All of them played at least three minutes.
  • The Citadel’s win over Eastern Michigan came down to winning the rebounding battle (33-24) while committing five fewer turnovers.  Cameron Wells’ 10-12 night from the line came in handy, too (he finished with 24 points).
  • The Citadel led for much of the EMU game, but actually trailed by 2 with less than 5 minutes to play before rallying for a victory in what was in effect the “swing” game of the road trip.
  • The Bulldogs lost by 17 points to Missouri State, but it was a three-point game (55-52) at the 4:32 mark of the second half before the Bears pulled away.  That game was more competitive than the final score suggests.
  • Missouri State had a very efficient offensive game against Bulldogs, scoring 72 points in only 63 possessions, which is what happens when you shoot well from the field (including 9-18 from 3-land), the foul line, and only commit 8 turnovers.  The Citadel’s defensive stats took a hit in that game.
  • West Virginia only committed four turnovers against The Citadel (the Bulldogs suffered 19 of their own).  Three of the four WVU turnovers were steals by Cameron Wells.
  • The Citadel had 56 possessions against the Mountaineers, a very slow pace, even by the Bulldogs’ normal standards.  The 19 turnovers are an even bigger black mark in a game that with that few possessions, of course; without them, The Citadel fared well, shooting well from outside (9-16 from 3) and holding its own on the boards (30 rebounds for each school).  It’s just almost impossible to win, or even be in the game, when you turn the ball more than one of every three possessions.
  • Incidentally, the Bulldogs’ pace of play for each of the four games was as follows:  EMU (60 possessions), Mizzou State (62), UMES (65), WVU (56).  That’s a little low for the WVU game, but generally those numbers indicate the tempo that favors The Citadel’s style of play.

Before anyone gets too disappointed with the Bulldogs’ 3-3 record, a little perspective.  By the time the turkey was being carved this year, The Citadel already had two Division I victories.  Two years ago, the Bulldogs had two D-1 wins all season…

Now it’s time for the CollegeInsider.com Skip Prosser Invitational, named for the late Wake Forest coach.  The Citadel will host Savannah State (although the Bulldogs will not play the Tigers), UVA-Wise (an NAIA Division II school) and Central Connecticut State (of the Northeast Conference).  There will be two games on Saturday and two on Sunday, all held at McAlister Field House.

The Citadel is hosting the event, I gather, primarily because head coach Ed Conroy was named the 2009 Skip Prosser Man of the Year.  I suspect that attendance will not be very high, given the field, and also because it’s the weekend after Thanksgiving.  Still, it’s two more games for the Bulldogs before beginning conference play, which probably counts for something.

As I noted above, The Citadel will not play Savannah State in the event — it’s an “invitational” as opposed to a true tournament.  The Bulldogs open with UVA-Wise on Saturday and face Central Connecticut State on Sunday.

UVA-Wise (officially “The University of Virginia’s College at Wise”) has been a four-year school since 1970; it was initially a junior college, founded in 1954.  Until 1999 the school was called Clinch Valley College, so if you aren’t familiar with UVA-Wise, perhaps you have heard of it under that name.  Of course, odds are you’ve never heard of Clinch Valley College either.

UVA-Wise has a little under 2,000 students and is located in the southwestern corner of Virginia, not too far away from Big Stone Gap.  Its most notable alum, according to Wikipedia, is Holly Kiser, who appeared (and was the first-season winner) on a reality TV show called Make Me A Supermodel.  I will admit I don’t know anything about this show, which evidently airs on Bravo.  At any rate, I suppose congratulations are in order to Ms. Kiser.

As for the basketball team, the Highland Cavaliers play in the Appalachian Athletic Conference, a league that includes schools like Milligan, Montreat, and Virginia Intermont.  UVA-Wise was 8-21 last season, and has averaged 18.5 losses per season over the last four years.

The Citadel is UVA-Wise’s first NCAA Division I opponent this season, but in past years the Highland Cavaliers have played (and lost to) schools such as VMI, Wofford, and Charleston Southern.  Last season UVA-Wise dropped games to Elon (92-65), Longwood (87-44), Gardner-Webb (74-47), and Coastal Carolina (90-51).

UVA-Wise comes into Saturday’s game with a record of 3-4, having lost on Tuesday in Pippa Passes, Kentucky, to Alice Lloyd College.  The Highland Cavaliers like an up-tempo game, averaging 81.6 possessions per contest.  This has led to some high-scoring games.  UVA-Wise shoots the ball fairly well (other than free throw shooting — the H-Cavs were an atrocious 9-31 from the charity stripe in a loss to Emory & Henry), but turns the ball over a lot and is not a particularly good defensive squad.

The Highland Cavaliers employ a 9- or 10-man rotation.  No player on the squad is taller than 6’6″, which may make guarding Joe Wolfinger a bit of a problem.

Central Connecticut State will be The Citadel’s opponent on Sunday.  CCSU is located in New Britain and has slightly under 10,000 students.  It has been around in various forms since 1849, attaining university status in 1983.  Notable alums of the school include two former NFL head coaches, Dave Campo and Mike Sherman, as well as the legendary Richard Grieco.

Howie Dickenman, a former assistant to Jim Calhoun, has been at Central Connecticut State since 1996.  Dickenman has had a good run at CCSU, which is also his alma mater.  The Blue Devils have made three NCAA appearances under Dickenman, most recently in 2007.  However, CCSU has had two straight losing seasons (going 13-17 last year).  The Devils were 8-10 in NEC play; CCSU hasn’t had a record in conference worst than that since joining the league in 1998.

Dickenman has a young team this season.  Only one senior has seen playing time thus far, and that player (Joe Seymore) has only played fourteen minutes in two games.  Of the six players who are averaging more than twenty minutes per game, two are freshmen, two are sophomores, and two are juniors, including hard-nosed point guard Shemik Thompson, who was the rookie of the year in the NEC in 2008 despite having a plate put into his head following a concussion.

In contrast to UVA-Wise, the Blue Devils like to play at a slower pace.  In the past two seasons, CCSU has averaged 65.9 and 67.2 possessions per game, but this season in two games Central Connecticut State is averaging just 59.5 possessions per contest.  Of course, two games is a decidedly small sample size.

The bigger issue for CCSU is that is has lost both games, against Fairfield (in a game played in Bridgeport) and at Savannah State.  Yes, Central Connecticut State is going to play consecutive games against Savannah State, which is a little odd.  The Tigers have actually played three games since the initial meeting with the Devils, while CCSU hasn’t played a game since the 16th of November.

CCSU simply hasn’t shot well from the field in either of the two games, shooting less than 38% from the field while its opponents have shot almost 46% from the field.  The Devils have also been crushed on the glass, to the tune of a -12 rebounding margin, particularly getting whipped on the offensive boards.  It’s hard to win games when you don’t shoot well and can’t rebound effectively.

Like UVA-Wise, CCSU has a 9- or 10-man rotation, and also like UVA-Wise, the Devils lack size.  The tallest player on the roster, freshman Joe Efese, is only 6’6″.

The Bulldogs should handle UVA-Wise fairly easily and will be a slight favorite against Central Connecticut State.  It would be nice to be over .500 when Davidson comes to town on December 3.

Hoops season is upon us, ready or not

Note:  when I refer to a basketball season as “2009” I mean the 2008-09 season; “2010” is the 2009-10 season, etc.

As I did last season, I waited for The Citadel to play a couple of games before writing a season preview.  I like to see the team play a game or two just to get an idea of who is actually going to play, get minutes, that kind of thing (just glancing at the team roster isn’t enough; after all, Ed Conroy seems to have almost as many guys on his squad as the football team does).

Also, even though I love college hoops, it’s still a little early for basketball, at least for me — and that’s despite a poor year on the gridiron for The Citadel, part of the lamest college football season I can remember.

The Bulldogs have now played two regular season games, a 64-45 victory over Kenyon College and a disappointing 61-60 loss against Charleston Southern, both taking place at McAlister Field House.

Before examining this season’s team, I would like to take a brief look back at last year’s edition of the basketball Bulldogs…

Prior to last season, I wrote a long (probably too long) post detailing the incredible lack of success the basketball program at The Citadel has had over its long history.  I followed that up with a season preview which I titled “Room for Improvement”.  I think it’s safe to say The Citadel improved last year.  Just some examples:

  • 2008:  RPI of 334;  2009:  RPI of 175
  • 2008:  1 SoCon win; 2009:  15 SoCon wins (most ever by The Citadel)
  • 2008:  6 wins overall (only 2 over D-1 opponents); 2009:  20 wins (only the second team in school history to win 20)
  • 2008:  Points allowed per possession:  1.145 (last nationally); 2009:  0.999 (middle of the pack nationally)
  • 2008:  Opponents’ effective FG%:  51.3% (last nationally); 2009:  43.0% (upper half of national rankings)

The Citadel also improved significantly in offensive effective FG%, offensive points per possession, rebound percentage, and defense against the three-pointer.

Why were the two seasons so different?  Well, Demetrius Nelson, lost early in the 2008 season to injury, returned for a full season in 2009 and had an All-SoCon campaign; his presence in the post was a key factor in the offensive improvement, and also had an impact defensively.  Also, the freshmen who had been thrown into the mix in 2008 (principally Cameron Wells, Zach Urbanus, and Austin Dahn) were stronger, smarter sophomores in 2009.

They were helped out by rotation newcomers John Brown (a redshirt freshman) and Cosmo Morabbi (a true freshman) and the return of Bryan Streeter.  Those seven players got the bulk of the minutes for The Citadel in conference play, with some solid work also done on occasion by reserves Jonathan Brick, Matt Clark, Daniel Eykyn, and Tyrell McDowell.

This season, The Citadel will have to replace Nelson, Brown, Brick, and McDowell, with the contributions of Nelson and Brown obviously being the most difficult to replicate.  Nelson averaged over 16 points per game, added 6.5 rebounds per contest, and was an efficient force on offense (shooting almost 60% from the field, and often camping out at the foul line, where he shot 77%).

Brown also averaged 6.5 boards per game, along with 1.2 steals per game, not to mention numerous deflections and countless hustle plays.  His insertion into the starting lineup against Bethune-Cookman on January 3 (after only playing 14 minutes total to that point of the season) helped key the Bulldogs’ remarkable run of success in league play.  His oncourt presence will be greatly missed.

To replace that production, The Citadel has to turn to new players and hope for improvement from returning team members.  Nelson’s departure left a void in the paint that needed to be filled, and to fill it Ed Conroy is counting on 7-footer Joe Wolfinger, a graduate student who previously played at Washington.

Wolfinger, based on what I’ve seen of him so far, is more of a finesse player than Nelson was.  He can shoot the three, but needs to be more physical to succeed in SoCon play, where he will face post men not as big as he is, but generally more athletic and just as strong.  Against Charleston Southern he struggled, going 4-16 from the floor with three turnovers (although he did have nine rebounds).

He took a lot of shots against CSU, and even if he hadn’t had such a poor night shooting I would suggest that he shot too many and (more importantly) too quickly, at least in the framework of The Citadel’s offense, which relies on a moderate pace of play (fewer than 65 possessions per game last season) to create open looks and frustrate the opposition.  I’m not going to crush him for that after one game, though; he has to get accustomed to playing with his new teammates, and he also has to get used to playing a lot of minutes after being mostly a bench player for the Huskies.

Tangent:  he’s also going to have to get used to the officiating at this level of Division I, a good example of which was on display last night, as all three officials somehow missed a blatant traveling violation committed just before CSU’s game-winning basket.  However, the Bulldogs should not have been in a position to be victimized by a bad (non) call in the first place.

Incorporating Wolfinger into the offense is going to take time.  It may cost The Citadel a game or two in the early going (it could be argued that it was a key reason the Bulldogs lost to the Buccaneers).  Then again, it took The Citadel a few games last year to figure things out (which is how a 20-win team could lose  a home contest to 19-loss UC Davis by 18 points).  As long as things are running smoothly by the time league play rolls around, it’s all good.

Admittedly, that gives the Bulldogs just two weeks, as Davidson comes to town on December 3…

The task of providing the same type of energy that Brown brought to the team will likely fall to several players, including the 6’6″ Streeter (who in many respects is a bigger version of Brown, all the way down to the horrific free throw shooting) and 6’5″ Harrison Dupont, the only one of the incoming freshmen to have played in both games so far for The Citadel.

Streeter averaged a little over 14 minutes per game for the Bulldogs last year; he will probably come close to doubling his time on the hardwood this season.  He brings a lot of strength and grit to the table on both ends of the court, and is a good finisher, provided he isn’t fouled (36.4% from the line in ’09).  His problems from the charity stripe can make him a liability in late-game situations, just another reason he needs to improve in that area.

Another player to watch in the “gets the dirty work done” department is Morabbi, who appears to be stronger this year (and definitely has more hair).  Morabbi’s play in the latter stages of the contest nearly won the CSU game for the Bulldogs, both defensively and with his outside shooting (as he told Rafu Shimpo, “My specialty is shooting”).

Morabbi will occasionally freelance offensively.  This is not necessarily a bad thing, even in Ed Conroy’s disciplined attack, as it keeps opponents honest.  He can also make the corner 3, the thinking man’s favorite three-point shot.  He had a tough night from the field against Kenyon, but was back in form in the CSU game.

Someone who The Citadel would like to see return to good shooting form is Dahn, who struggled from the field last season after enjoying a solid freshman campaign, falling from a 39.7% 3-point shooter to 32.7% beyond the arc.  Now, 32.7% isn’t terrible, but most of Dahn’s shots are from 3-point land, so overall he shot just 32.6% from the field in 2009.  The 6’4″ Dahn is a good defender and a mainstay in the rotation, but his value increases markedly if he can knock down shots.

Zach Urbanus is the epitome of dependability, always in the right place, usually making the right decision, and capable of making big shots.  A comparison of his freshman and sophomore seasons shows just how consistent he is, as in both years he shot 44% from beyond the arc, had 3.3 rebounds per game, and 2.9 assists per contest.  He did improve last season, as his overall shooting percentage increased substantially, and he also cut down on his turnovers.

Cameron Wells is getting some pre-season recognition as a potential MVP candidate in the Southern Conference.  He certainly didn’t hurt his cause against CSU, scoring 23 points on 10-16 shooting and being an all-around defensive pest (including 3 steals).

The 6’1″ Wells is a vital cog in the offense.  He can bring the ball up the court against pressure, penetrate into the lane and finish.  Wells is a good free throw shooter, is able to make the occasional three-pointer, and is an outstanding perimeter defender.  He’s a very smooth performer with a complete game, and he’s still getting better.

Other returners from last season who will see action include Clark, a slender 6’8″ junior forward who is a career 35% three-point shooter, and Eykyn, a 6’4″ native of Charleston who logged double-digit minutes in 11 games last season.  While neither was a rotation regular, both had their moments last year and will be counted on again in 2010 (indeed, Clark has played at least 11 minutes in both games so far).

Some of the newcomers who may see the court include the well-regarded Dupont (a native of Oklahoma who has played 19 combined minutes in the first two games) and 6’8″ forward/center Mike Groselle, a Texan who impressed in a brief appearance against Kenyon.  Also making his debut against Kenyon was 6’2″ guard Ben Cherry, a freshman from Charlotte.

I would guess that all three of those players will be contributors to The Citadel’s cause this season.  I also wouldn’t be surprised if a couple of other players on the Bulldogs’ sizable roster eventually get a chance, as 16 different players participated in The Citadel’s exhibition game against Georgia Southwestern.

Whether Bulldog fans are ready for the season to begin, the Bulldog players and coaches have to be ready, because The Citadel is about to embark on a stretch where it will play nine games in eighteen days, including three on consecutive days this weekend.  The Bulldogs will play in the Hispanic College Fund Challenge, hosted by Missouri State (which beat Auburn on Tuesday).  The Citadel will also play Eastern Michigan and Maryland-Eastern Shore in that event.

The Bulldogs will then venture up to the “other” Charleston in a matchup with West Virginia, formerly of the Southern Conference and currently in the AP Top 10.  After tangling with the Mountaineers, The Citadel will host an in-season tournament of its own at McAlister Field House, playing UVA-Wise (an NAIA school) and Central Connecticut State (of the Northeast Conference).  That tournament honors the late Skip Prosser.

After that, The Citadel begins Southern Conference play, with the aforementioned game against Davidson followed two days later by a game against Georgia Southern.  The last game of the “nine in eighteen” run is arguably the biggest, as The Citadel will host Tom Izzo and his Michigan State Spartans on December 7.

MSU is currently ranked #2 in the nation and, of course, played in last season’s NCAA title game, losing to North Carolina.  It will be the second year in a row a Big 10 school has come to McAlister, although I suspect there will be more “juice” in the arena than there was for Iowa last year.

That’s quite a way to start a season.  It will be a challenge for the players and coaches (heck, it’s going to be a challenge for me just to keep up with it).  After the fun of last year’s campaign, I just hope that this year The Citadel doesn’t revert back to its old, lots-of-losing ways.  I don’t think it will, though, as (barring injury) the core of the team is too solid for that to happen.

Trying to rise above a history of misery

Yes, it’s Southern Conference tourney time.  If you’re a fan of The Citadel, you may want to cover your eyes while reading some of this.  If you’re not, you may want to cover them anyway…

First, the good news.  The Bulldogs rebounded nicely (literally and figuratively) from their loss to Wofford by beating a ragtag Georgia Southern squad 74-53 on Monday night.  The Eagles hung around a little too long for my liking, making two good runs in each half, and were down by just six points with over 13 minutes left in regulation.  In the next seven minutes of the game, however, Georgia Southern had more technical fouls (2) than made field goals (1).  It’s hard to complete a comeback when that happens.

The Citadel thus got a much-needed bye into the quarterfinals of the Southern Conference tournament.  Besides not having to play four games in four days in order to win the tourney, the extra day may also help the Bulldogs in their preparation for the event, as there are some on-court adjustments that need to be made.  Among other things, The Citadel committed 18 turnovers on Monday night, many of them unforced.

Demetrius Nelson and Cameron Wells each had five turnovers, which is too many, but they also combined for 42 points (Nelson had 11 rebounds as well).  John Brown had four, and that’s a bit more worrisome, as he isn’t in a position to handle the ball nearly as often in a scoring or closely guarded position (and thus shouldn’t have as many turnovers).  Brown forced things a bit on offense, particularly in the first half, which was a carryover from the Wofford game on Saturday.

In the Southern Conference tournament, teams are almost certainly going to employ Wofford’s strategy of doubling Nelson repeatedly while giving Brown space on the wing, because Brown is not yet an offensive threat unless he’s making layups or dunks.  How Ed Conroy and company adjust to this will go a long way to determining The Citadel’s tournament fate.

Having said that, it should be noted that despite those 18 turnovers and decent-but-not-great outside shooting, the Bulldogs went on the road and under a good deal of pressure (given the importance of winning the game) defeated a conference opponent by 21 points.  The fact it’s actually possible to be disappointed in some aspects of The Citadel’s play after a result like that speaks volumes about how good this team has been, and the expectations it now has.

Those expectations include making a serious bid at a first-ever Southern Conference tournament title.  Before casting a forward glance towards Chattanooga, however, perhaps it’s best to realize just how arduous a task the Bulldogs face.  When it comes to The Citadel and its history in the Southern Conference tourney, a few paragraphs are in order, because just a few words cannot begin to adequately describe the horror…

One of the more curious things about The Citadel’s wretched 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 a dispute 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 (somewhat amusingly, later a member of the SEC), Chattanooga, Wofford, Howard (now called Samford, of course), 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.  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.

That’s great, but the conference’s own record book lists Kentucky as having won the first tournament title in 1921 (on page 113; oddly, that year is excluded from the game-by-game tournament results that begin on page 114).  Of course, the edition of the record book on the conference website is three years old and lists The Citadel as having once lost 37 straight games, which is incorrect, so take it for what you will.

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 10-55 or 10-56.  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-55 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.

By the way, you read that right.  The Citadel is 10-55 alltime in the SoCon tournament.  That’s just unbelievably bad.  It comes out to a 14% 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.  Incidentally, 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; karma is a you-know-what, as the next night the Thundering Herd, which had won the regular season title that year, lost to UT-Chattanooga by one point).

Those losses aren’t all 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 20th victory of the season, which until Monday was the most games ever won by a Bulldog squad (now tied, of course, by the current edition of the Bulldogs).

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 latest win in conference tournament action came in 2006 against Furman.

Twenty 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.

At least ETSU won’t be around this season.  The Citadel’s first game in this year’s tournament will come against either first-year league member Samford or Furman.  The Paladins are 5-2 alltime in tourney play against The Citadel, with the Bulldogs having won the first and most recent meetings.  Records against other tourney teams:  Chattanooga 0-1, Elon 0-1, College of Charleston 0-1, Georgia Southern 0-2, Western Carolina 1-1, Appalachian State 1-6, and Davidson 1-8.  (The Citadel has never played Wofford or UNC-Greensboro in the tournament.)

The very first game worries me.  If it’s Samford, don’t look for another 25-point win.  The Citadel caught that team on a bad night.  Samford is well-coached and its slow-slower-slowest offense can give even a patient team like The Citadel fits.  I am concerned about how the team will react when the bright lights come on for the first time and suddenly everything is on the line, especially when in the unfamiliar role of favorite.  If the opponent is Furman, it would be a much more confident Paladin squad (after coming off a victory) than the one which recently lost to The Citadel, and one that would be more than happy to end a rival’s dream season.

If The Citadel survives the opener and moves to the semifinals for only the second time in 24 years, the opponent could be one of three teams, a trio against which the Bulldogs had a combined regular season record of 1-4, with the one win coming at home by two points.  Of course, one of those potential opponents, Chattanooga, is also the host school for the tournament.

It has been fifty years since The Citadel made its first and only trip to the title game, and if the Bulldogs somehow win two games (for only the second time ever), the opponent will likely either be Davidson, with a healthy Stephen Curry in tow, or a red-hot College of Charleston squad ready to avenge two regular-season defeats at the hands of the Bulldogs.

It’s easy to see that winning the tournament will be a very tall order.  Combine that difficulty with the sordid history of The Citadel in the SoCon tournament, and it’s really hard to imagine the Bulldogs cutting down the nets on Monday night.  That’s a scenario that seems unlikely to unfold.

However, there is another way to look at things.  This isn’t your typical Bulldog squad.  This is a team that has the league’s second-best record, that has won 12 of its last 13 games, that has proven it can win away from home, and has demonstrated it can win even on nights when its key players aren’t at their best.  It has won close games and blowouts, is led by the newly minted coach of the year in the conference, and features an all-conference post player along with an outstanding, versatile group of guards.  If there ever was a team from The Citadel capable of overcoming all that negative history, and making some positive history of its own, this is the one.

Saturday night can’t get here soon enough…

19 could lead to 20, and 20 means a lot

The Citadel 75, Furman 54.  This would be called “taking care of business”, except that it took the Bulldogs a half to get appropriately businesslike…

In the first half, The Citadel shot 11-34 from the field, including 0-7 from three-point land.  Clearly the eight-day layoff had left the Bulldogs’ shooters rusty, at least from the outside (and maybe from the inside too — John Brown missed not one but two dunk attempts).  The Citadel’s play was a touch sloppy, and there were several missed rebounding opportunities.  The only Bulldog seemingly unaffected by the malaise was Demetrius Nelson.  Luckily for The Citadel, he was more than up to the task of carrying the team.  Nelson scored 17 points in the half, including the last 11 for the Bulldogs, and The Citadel sneaked away with a three-point halftime lead.

The second half was a tour de force, as almost everything you would want to see as a Bulldog fan came to pass.  Nelson continued dominating in the post, Brown resumed his get-every-loose-ball-in-Charleston-County routine (and made all three of his dunk attempts), Zach Urbanus started making threes, Austin Dahn grabbed some tough rebounds and did a good job passing the ball (including a great assist to Brown out of the post), Cameron Wells drove, dished, and finished, Cosmo Morabbi knocked down a corner three on yet another well-conceived inbounds play, and Bryan Streeter contributed solid post defense, boarded with abandon and even made a free throw (now he needs to show Brown how it’s done).

The Bulldogs shot 75% from the field in the second half, including 4-7 from beyond the arc.  The defense was outstanding throughout the game, as Furman never got comfortable on offense (the Paladins had only 3 assists on 19 made baskets and were victimized by 11 Bulldog steals).  Nelson finished with 28 points on only 12 field goal attempts.  He also had 8 rebounds, a pair of assists, two steals, and did not commit a turnover.  After the game he leaped over a tall building in a single bound.  Brown had a career-high 16 points to go along with his usual disruptive ways.

With the win, the Bulldogs swept the Paladins in the regular season for the first time since 2001, and the margin of victory on Thursday was the biggest for The Citadel in a game against Furman since the 1939 team beat the Paladins 56-34 (incidentally, that game was part of a six-game winning streak for the Bulldogs against Furman, the longest winning streak The Citadel has ever had against the Paladins).  The Bulldogs also broke a five-game losing streak to Furman at McAlister Field House.

The victory also established a new standard for biggest turnaround for a Bulldog team from one season to the next (in terms of wins), as The Citadel has now gone from 6 wins last season to at least 19 victories this year.  The previous record was 12, as the 1978-79 team won 20 games following an 8-win campaign in 1977-78.  The Bulldogs continue to add to the school record for conference victories, the school record for consecutive conference victories, and the conference record for turnaround in league play (by wins).

A crowd of 4,219 enjoyed the action, with a vocal contingent of cadets leading the way (I particularly liked the giant cutouts of the heads of Nelson and Jonathan Brick).  Attendance will presumably be even better for the Saturday night game against Wofford.  The last time the home finale had this much meaning was…well, I’m not sure there has been a home finale with as much on the line:

  • A win would tie the school record for victories in a season (20).  The aforementioned 1978-79 squad is the only Bulldog team to win 20 games in a season.  As it happens, the ’79 team will be honored on Saturday, as it’s the 30th anniversary of that season.  That strikes me as poetic (well, it’s poetic if the Bulldogs win the game).
  • A win would also clinch no worse than a tie for second in the SoCon South Division, and as The Citadel swept the College of Charleston this season, the Bulldogs would be guaranteed a bye in the Southern Conference tournament.  That’s obviously critical to The Citadel’s chances of winning the SoCon tourney.  Three wins in three days will be very difficult.  Four wins in four days would be almost impossible.

Let’s examine that second-place possibility for a moment.  Obviously everyone is concentrating on the bye, and that’s understandable, but in a historic context it’s the placement that deserves notice.  Second place may not mean that much to some schools, but for The Citadel, it’s a big deal.  Why, you ask?  (I’m assuming you asked — if you didn’t, just go with the flow.)

This is The Citadel’s 73rd season as a member of the Southern Conference.  As you might have heard or read, The Citadel has never finished first in the league’s regular season standings.  It has never had the conference’s best record.  What you may not have heard or read is that The Citadel has also never finished second.

That’s right.  In its first 58 years of SoCon membership, The Citadel never finished higher than third.  For the past 14 years, league standings have been broken into two divisions, and it’s true that twice the Bulldogs have tied for second place in the South Division.  However, on neither of those occasions did The Citadel tie for second in overall record in the league.  In 1998 the Bulldogs were 6-8 in the SoCon South, tying for second in a five-team division with Wofford.  The Citadel tied for the 5th-best record in the conference that season.  In 2001, The Citadel was in a three-way tie for second in the division, which was good enough to tie for the 4th-best record in the league.

For the record, The Citadel has only enjoyed 15 seasons in its history (before this season) when it finished the year in the upper half of the conference (that includes the 1989 team that tied for 4th in an eight-team league).  There have also been 15 seasons in which the Bulldogs finished last in the conference (overall, regardless of divisional or non-divisional format), 10 campaigns when the Bulldogs finished next-to-last, and 11 seasons in which the Bulldogs wound up third-from-last in the conference.  In exactly half of the 72 Southern Conference campaigns prior to this season, The Citadel finished in the bottom three in the league.

Getting the bye is the immediate concern for The Citadel, because of what it means in terms of the SoCon tournament.  (I’ll save the stats on the Bulldogs’ tourney history for another post; there is only so much “misery history” I can write, as The Citadel’s record in the tourney is actually worse than its SoCon regular season record.)  The chance to finish second, though, is something that would have lasting meaning.  No team in the North Division can match The Citadel’s league win total, so it’s down to The Citadel and the College of Charleston for second overall.  (The Citadel also still has a mathematical chance of tying Davidson for first, but that is very unlikely to happen.)

It’s not going to be easy on Saturday (not that it should be), because Wofford will be a very tough out.  The Terriers fought back from a 15-point halftime deficit at the College of Charleston on Thursday night, and the Cougars barely survived the onslaught, hanging on for an 86-84 victory.

Of course, Wofford is also the last team to beat The Citadel, having won 66-63 in Spartanburg in January.  In that game, the Bulldogs trailed by 16 points late in the first half before making a furious comeback, taking the lead with nine minutes to play.  However, the Terriers regained the lead and held on for the victory.  This game came during a stretch of contests where The Citadel would struggle in the first half before pouring it on in the second.  The Citadel has mostly avoided first-half pitfalls since the game against Wofford, and needs to continue playing well from the opening tip if it is to win its twelth straight.

The Bulldogs also need to do a better job defending the erratic but dangerous Junior Salters (four for six behind the arc in the first game) and must somehow control Noah Dahlman, an all-conference candidate who scored 36 points last night for the Terriers against the CofC.  Dahlman has scored at least 18 points in nine of Wofford’s last ten games.  He scored 17 points against The Citadel in Spartanburg (on just nine FG attempts).  Corey Godzinski will also be a factor on Saturday after missing the first meeting between the two teams with a broken hand.  He’s 6’8″ and can shoot from outside (he made three 3-pointers against the College).

The game against Wofford isn’t a must-win for the Bulldogs in terms of getting the bye.  The backup plan would be the regular season tail-ender, a game in Statesboro on Monday night against a decimated Georgia Southern squad.  However, given the spotlight that will be on the Saturday night contest, and with all the pomp and circumstance associated with it (Senior Night, the ’79 team being honored, etc.), there will be considerable pressure on the Bulldog players to keep all the streaks going and to treat the home fans to a game to remember.

It will be interesting to see how the team performs.  In a way, it’s a warmup for what The Citadel will encounter at the Southern Conference tournament.  It’s one more challenge for Ed Conroy and company.  With the way this year is going, you wouldn’t want to bet against them.

A big win, but don’t get carried away just yet

Let’s start this column with the newest installment of the “Milestone Report”, chronicling just a few of the latest firsts, streaks, and records set by this season’s edition of the basketball Bulldogs:

  • The Citadel’s 18th win on the season tied the 1985 squad for second-most in school history, with only the 1979 team winning more games (20)
  • The Citadel continues to set a new school standard for Southern Conference victories with its 13th league win of the season, and extends its record run of SoCon road wins (the Bulldogs are now 7-2 on the road in conference play)
  • With that 13th win, the Bulldogs shattered an 82-year-old SoCon record, the mark for biggest league turnaround in consecutive seasons, which had been established by Auburn in 1927; the Tigers went from one conference victory to twelve that season, while The Citadel has gone from one win to thirteen (and counting)
  • The Citadel broke a 14-game losing streak to Davidson
  • The Citadel won for the first time at Davidson since a 1990 contest, a game played during a brief four-year period (1989-1993) when the Wildcats were not in the Southern Conference; as a result, Wednesday night’s victory was the first time The Citadel had won a league game at Davidson since 1961

Davidson entered the game with an RPI of 49.  The Wildcats have dropped out of the top 50 of the RPI following the loss to The Citadel (as of Thursday the Wildcats are at 56), but will almost certainly finish the season in the top 100.  To be honest, I am not completely sure when the Bulldogs last recorded a victory over a “Top 100 RPI” team.  I believe that it has not happened since 1989, when The Citadel beat South Carolina.

Incidentally, The Citadel’s RPI has jumped up to 148 (I’m using ESPN’s RPI numbers).  The Bulldogs are one spot ahead of none other than VMI. 

Of course, Davidson didn’t have Stephen Curry last night, and that certainly made a difference.  Whether it made enough of a difference to have changed the outcome of the game is debatable.  In the first game between the two teams, Curry put up 32 points (with only 16 FG attempts) and added five assists  — one assist more than Davidson had as a team last night.  Even if you didn’t count Curry’s shooting numbers, though, Davidson still had a good FG% as a team in the game at McAlister Field House (although obviously with teams having to concentrate on Curry, his teammates have better opportunities).

The Citadel and Davidson are 1-2 in the league in FG% defense (the Wildcats lead that category) and in 3FG% defense (with the Bulldogs ranked first).  Given that, it’s not surprising that the game featured poor shooting by both teams, and without its star, Davidson never got into a shooting rhythm.  The Wildcats could not even make free throws (9-17 for a team that averages 71% from the line).

What should concern Davidson more than the bad shooting, though, was the fact that the Wildcats were not able to contain the Bulldogs on the boards.  The Citadel had a season-high 48 rebounds last night to Davidson’s 31 (after Davidson won the rebounding battle 35-25 in the first matchup).  Demetrius Nelson had a big night scoring inside, but he had scored 18 points in the first game, so that wasn’t a major surprise.  The difference was that he also added 14 rebounds (after only having 4 against Davidson at McAlister) to the Bulldogs’ cause. 

Davidson did have 13 offensive rebounds, but when you miss 73% of your shots from the field, you’re going to get more opportunities for boards on the offensive end of the floor. 

John Brown had 12 rebounds in 22 minutes of action.  That’s the fifth time this season he’s had 12 boards in a game (he’s now hit that mark three times in a row).  Brown has played more than 20 minutes in ten games this season.  He has had double digit rebound totals in seven of them (and nine boards in of one of the others).  That’s not even counting his 12-boards-in-15-minutes performance against Samford.  Brown is averaging 13.47 rebounds per 40 minutes of play (14.75 per 40 over his last four games).  When he stays out of early foul trouble, he is a force. 

Davidson leads the league in turnovers forced, and The Citadel committed a few too many last night (13).  The Bulldogs had 19 turnovers in the first matchup, so they improved a little, but again Curry’s absence has to be considered (he had five steals in the January game).  On the flip side, despite missing its point guard, Davidson only committed seven turnovers.

Nelson missed five free throws, the only blip in an outstanding effort.  Cameron Wells was 8-8 from the charity stripe, though, which alleviated an off-shooting night for him from the field.

Everyone who has been following the Bulldogs is excited right now, and deservedly so, but I want to sound a note of caution.  I mentioned earlier in this post that the last time The Citadel won a road game against a top-100 opponent was against South Carolina in 1989.  That year had some parallels to this season. 

In 1989, The Citadel was trying to rebound from an 8-20 campaign.  The team started the year slowly, but gradually improved.  The win over the Gamecocks was the exclamation point on a run during which the Bulldogs won six out of seven games, including a beatdown of longtime hoops bully Marshall (the final game ever played at Deas Hall, the most fantastic Division I basketball arena in human history).  Earlier in the year The Citadel had also beaten the College of Charleston on the road, which would be the last win at the CofC for the Bulldogs until this season.  With two games remaining in the regular season, the Bulldogs were in a position to claim second place in the SoCon regular season, with an outside shot at first.

The Citadel wouldn’t win another game.  The Bulldogs lost a tight game on the road to Western Carolina, then lost at UT-Chattanooga, and then lost in the first round of the Southern Conference tournament to East Tennessee State (which would then proceed to win the tourney).

I’m not saying we’re in for a repeat of 1989.  For one thing, this year’s team is simply better.  You can ask Ed Conroy — after all, he played on the 1989 team.  It’s just that there is still work to be done this season, and to consolidate all the gains made on the court this year, the team needs to finish strong.  Also, while I don’t want to be perceived as being overly pessimistic, I think it’s important to acknowledge that the margin of error for the program is still small.  It’s not as small as it has been, though, and that’s a credit to Conroy and the players. 

The Southern Conference tournament is going to be tough for everybody.  If you’re The Citadel, you have to worry about Davidson (with Curry), UT-Chattanooga (a good team, and the tourney host), the College of Charleston (can the Bulldogs really beat that team three times in a row?), and a bunch of other squads that could pose matchup problems.  Drawing Elon or Appalachian State in the tourney would not be fun. 

Of course, those teams have to worry about drawing The Citadel…

That’s why getting the bye is so important.  Speaking of that, the “magic number” for The Citadel to clinch a bye in the tournament is now 2.  For those unfamiliar with the “magic number” concept (it’s a baseball expression), what that means is any combination of two Bulldog victories or College of Charleston losses will guarantee a bye for The Citadel.  Two Bulldog wins would do it, as would two CofC losses.  One Bulldog win and one Cougar loss would be enough.  The CofC has four games remaining, and The Citadel has three.

The Citadel now has eight days before its next game.  I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.  I’m inclined to think it’s a good thing, because the Bulldogs probably need a bit of a break.  There is always the fear that the team will lose momentum, but I believe it helps that when they play again, it will be at home before what should be a very good crowd.  I can’t wait.

Quick note:  I’ve had a few more visitors to the blog than normal; I’m glad some of you have enjoyed it.  To answer a couple of questions that have been asked:

  • The photos at the top are of General, Anthony Jenkins, and Jack Douglas, as most fans of The Citadel know.  I don’t really have a lot of pictures from sporting events involving The Citadel; the shots of Jenkins and Douglas are scanned newspaper photos, and I struggled to get a decent scan of them (as you can probably tell)
  • The blog is intended to be a general sports blog with an emphasis on the mighty Bulldogs; I’ve actually focused a little more on The Citadel’s athletic teams than I had originally anticipated (mainly because of the hoopsters, although I am more than ready for Fred Jordan’s crew to take the field)