Cancun Challenge matchups (that are actually in Cancun!)

It’s time for the Cancun Challenge to reach its highly anticipated climax.  All the excitement moves to Mexico, where The Citadel will play two games in two days this weekend in pre-determined, non-televised matchups.  On Saturday the Bulldogs play Central Arkansas.  On Sunday, the opponent will be Grambling State.  The games will be played at the Moon Palace Resort in Cancun.  Incidentally, this tournament is run by Triple Crown Sports, the same outfit responsible for the women’s NIT (pre-season and post-season).

Central Arkansas is a school with an enrollment of about 13,000 students.  It’s located in Conway, a city with a population of around 55,000, about 25 miles north of Little Rock.  UCA was an NAIA school for many years, then moved to NCAA Division II, and four years ago began its transition to NCAA Division I.  It’s in year three of that transition, and has a year to go before becoming a full-fledged D-1 member.  Thus, it isn’t eligible for its conference tournament until next season.

That conference would be the Southland.  UCA just completed a football season in which it went 10-2, 7-1 in the league, but it wasn’t recognized as conference champion because the league feared it would lose its automatic bid to the FCS playoffs if its champion was ineligible to compete in the postseason.

There are two other facts about Central Arkansas worth mentioning.  One is that Scottie Pippen went to UCA, where he was a two-time NAIA All-American before winning six NBA titles with Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.  Pippen actually started his career at UCA as a 6’1″ walk-on (with team manager responsibilities), but then he grew to 6’7″ and the rest is history.  The other thing you need to know about Central Arkansas is that while its men’s teams are called the Bears, the women’s teams are known as the Sugar Bears.

The Citadel and Central Arkansas have never met in hoops.  So far this season UCA is 2-2, with home wins over Bacone (an NAIA school in Muskogee, Oklahoma) and UNC-Greensboro, and road losses to Northwestern and Vanderbilt.  The loss to Northwestern was just horrendous (81-39).  On the other hand, beating UNCG should be more than enough to impress The Citadel, which was swept by the Spartans last season.

UCA returns three starters from last year’s 14-16 squad (which went 4-12 in the Southland) and adds a couple of key players to that mix.  6’6″ Mitch Reuter missed most of last season for the Bears with an injury.  He’s off to a nice start this season, as is Chris Brown, a 6’8″ transfer from Wichita State.  Other players of note for UCA include Marcus Pillow, a 6’0″ guard who leads the team in scoring and minutes played, and Mike Pouncy, a 6’1″ guard who exploded for 26 points against UNC-Greensboro.  Also part of the Bears eight-man regular rotation are a pair of centers, 6’9″, 260 lb. Brian Marks (leading the team in rebounding) and 6’8″ Landrell Brewer.

There is one player from South Carolina on UCA’s roster, the wonderfully named King Cannon, a 6’5″ forward and graduate of York High School who is averaging 13 minutes per game.  Not seeing much action but worth mentioning is 6’1″ sophomore guard Imad Qahwash, who went to high school in Canada but played this summer for the Jordanian national team.  That’s not Michael Jordan’s house team, by the way.

So far this year UCA has not shot the ball particularly well, a carryover from last season when the Bears were among the poorer shooting teams in the country.  Central Arkansas is currently shooting less than 40% from the field and less than 30% from beyond the arc.  UCA shoots only 65.3% from the foul line.  So far this season, UCA’s defensive FG% stats are rather hideous in four games (opponents are shooting better than 50% from the field), but that’s obviously a small sample size.  Last year the Bears were okay defensively.

After its game against The Citadel, the Bears will play on Sunday against South Dakota State.

Grambling State is famous for its football.  Basketball, not so much (although the school does have one famous hoops alum, Willis Reed).  Grambling has been in Division I since 1978 and has never qualified for the NCAA tournament.  Only eleven schools can claim a longer (continuous) drought without an initial tourney appearance.  One of those schools, of course, is The Citadel.  The game on Sunday will be the first between the Tigers and Bulldogs.

In the last 15 years, Grambling has only enjoyed two winning seasons (14-12 in 2005 and 16-12 in 1998).  The Tigers followed up that 1997-98 season with a six-win season and a three-win campaign.  Maybe even more disappointing for a Grambling fan is that over that same time period, only three times have the Tigers had a winning conference record.  Considering that the SWAC annually ranks near or at the bottom of conference RPI ratings, that doesn’t say much for GSU.  Last year Grambling finished with a 7-19 record and an RPI of 328.  In other words, when it comes to hoops, Grambling State and The Citadel are peers.

Grambling’s new coach is Rick Duckett, who has been around.  He’s a UNC grad who had successful stretches as a head coach at the Division II level, and was most recently an assistant to Dave Odom at South Carolina.  He’s probably a good get for the school, but he has his work cut out for him.  In three games so far this season Grambling has lost a close home game to Louisiana Tech and has been blown out in two road games against New Mexico (96-50) and Oklahoma State (91-60).  Duckett wants to employ an up-tempo style, but he may not have the players to do that yet (in the three games the Tigers are averaging a slightly-above-average 72.5 possessions).

Grambling lost three starters from last season and two other key contributors.  Duckett does have Andrew Prestley, a 6’5″ forward who in three games so far this season is putting up a 17-8 line, and JC transfer Ibrahim Kpaka, a 6’4″ guard who is averaging 13 points per game.  Grambling has very little size; the biggest player in its seven-man rotation is 6’7″, 240 lb. Jamal Breaux.  Breaux is the SWAC’s leading returning rebounder and came into this season averaging 52% from the field for his career, but in three games so far this season he is shooting 36% and only collecting 4.3 boards per game.  Grambling as a team is shooting just 33% from the field and an abysmal 55% from the foul line.  Conversely, its opponents are shooting 50% from the field (43% from 3-land).

The day before playing The Citadel, Grambling State takes on Morehead State, another winless team (0-5).

It will be interesting to see how the Bulldogs fare in neutral-site games against teams with at least similar talent levels.  Playing two games in two days will be a good warmup for the Southern Conference tournament (although assuming the Bulldogs might play more than one game in that tourney is always dangerous).  I will be disappointed if The Citadel doesn’t win at least one of these two games.  Central Arkansas is probably a slight favorite, but the Bulldogs likely would get the edge over Grambling.

It’s nice to be road warriors instead of road kill

On January 6, 2007, The Citadel won at Wofford, 74-71.  That was actually the Bulldogs’ second straight road win, having defeated Elon 53-50 three days before.  It would be the last time The Citadel won a road game…until last night.

The Bulldogs had lost 20 consecutive road games, but Tuesday night at the North Charleston Coliseum, The Citadel led throughout the entire second half and eventually outlasted Charleston Southern, 84-80.  The Bulldogs had a strong offensive showing, scoring those 84 points on 71 possessions, led by a superb game from Cameron Wells  (26 points, 11 rebounds, and only one turnover in 38 minutes).  The Citadel generally took good care of the basketball (with one area of exception – I’ll mention that later) and did a reasonable job of controlling the pace of the game. 

Shot selection was a major part of that, as the Bulldogs did not rely quite as heavily on the three-pointers as they have had a tendency to do (although the percentage of made threes was excellent).  The longer the offensive possession for the Bulldogs, the better off they were.  The Citadel also got to the foul line with regularity and converted those opportunities (84% FT).

Defensively, The Citadel did just enough to win, although there are still issues to address.  Down the stretch the Bulldogs committed a few silly fouls, allowing CSU to score points while the clock was stopped.  The three-point defense was actually pretty good.  With the way Jamarco Warren has been shooting so far this season, holding him to 4-9 shooting from beyond the arc isn’t that bad, and his teammates combined to go 3-11.  In general the Bucs didn’t shoot well, but almost made up for it with all those free throws (both teams did a great job shooting foul shots).    

The Citadel also struggled a bit with inbounding the basketball.  CSU put its 6’10” center, Billy Blackmon, on the baseline to guard the inbounds passer on made free throws and other dead-ball situations, and the Bulldogs seemed to have a hard time dealing with his size.  That’s something that is correctable, though, with instruction.  

I’ll say this (as I look around for a handy piece of balsa or oak):  it’s not a bad thing at all to root for a team that can actually make free throws, particularly down the stretch of a tight game.  I could get used to that.

Last year The Citadel beat Charleston Southern on November 26.  Its next (and final) win against a Division I opponent came on February 14, against Western Carolina.  Let’s hope that doesn’t happen again.  The Bulldogs’ next opportunity to win a game will be Saturday in the Cancun Challenge, with the game actually in Cancun this time.  The opponent is Central Arkansas.  No word on whether Scottie Pippen will be cheering on his old school.

Live from Charleston, the Cancun Challenge

I’m still amused (or perhaps bemused) by the format of the Cancun Challenge.  Basically, it’s a four-team tournament with guests…

Vanderbilt, Virginia Commonwealth, New Mexico, and Drake are in the actual bracketing for the tournament.  Drake-Vandy and VCU-New Mexico are the first round matchups, with the winners and losers playing each other the next day.  All of that makes sense.

What doesn’t make a lot of sense is that six other teams are part of the Challenge, but won’t compete in the mini-tourney outlined above.  Those six schools are The Citadel, Grambling State, Central Arkansas, South Dakota State, Central Florida, and Morehead State.

Basically, what happens in this “tournament” is that the Vandy-VCU-UNM-Drake group each host two games in the U.S. against two opponents from the six-pack mentioned in the previous paragraph.  It doesn’t really matter which two, because they don’t impact the tournament brackets for any team.  Then all ten teams will go to Cancun, with the four host schools playing an actual tournament while the remaining squads play two pre-determined matchups against other members of the “lesser six”.  The Citadel, for example, will play Central Arkansas and Grambling State in Cancun.

Further confusing things is that there were only eight available spots for the six-pack against the “fab four” in those U.S.-based matchups, so a couple of teams had to play “filler” schools for their second game.  The Citadel thus needed another opponent as part of the Challenge, and Cincinnati Christian is it.

All of this is an effort to cram as many games into an official tournament as possible, because they all count as two games (instead of four) for scheduling purposes.

At any rate, the bottom line is that The Citadel plays Cincinnati Christian tonight.  This will be the first time the two schools have met in hoops.  Cincinnati Christian is an NCCAA school (like Grace Bible College, the opponent in The Citadel’s season opener) and is also a member of NAIA Division II.  CCU, which has about 1100 students, is a member of the Kentucky Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, which includes schools such as Asbury, Berea, Alice Lloyd, and the St. Louis College of Pharmacy.  (The Citadel has played Asbury twice in recent years, winning those two games by scores of 75-48 and 81-60.)  I am not sure, but I think this is Cincinnati Christian’s first year in the KIAC.  In a preseason poll listed on the KIAC website, the Eagles are picked to finish next-to-last in the league, just ahead of SLCOP.

The Bulldogs will be the first of two Division I opponents for Cincinnati Christian this season.  The Eagles will also play Liberty in late December.  The Flames were the opponent the last time CCU played a D-1 team, which was two years ago, Liberty winning 101-65.  Liberty and Cincinnati Christian also met the year before that, an 81-51 triumph for the Flames.

Cincinnati Christian was 23-14 last season.  CCU had been the top seed in the NCCAA national tournament, but lost in the quarterfinals.  Two games later, the Eagles finished their season by winning a consolation game against none other than Grace Bible College, 104-87.  That was the 40th time the two schools had met on the court, with CCU winning 33 of those contests.

This season Cincinnati Christian is 4-1, with victories over Ohio Chillocothe, Kuyper College, Boyce College, and Kentucky Christian, the last two wins coming after the lone loss, 104-67 to Mount Vernon (OH) Nazarene.  Mount Vernon Nazarene was the preseason #3 team in NAIA Division II.

It’s hard to get a read on CCU when you examine the box scores from its first five games.  The Eagles’ first three games were played at a breakneck pace (82, 91, and 92 possessions).  That included an easy win, a close win, and a blowout loss (the 92-possession game).  Then either the Eagles or their opponents lowered the throttle, as the last two games have been played at a more normal pace (71 and 73 possessions).  CCU has occasionally been turnover-prone, but has also forced its fair share of TOs.

The best player for the Eagles is probably Trenton Calloway, a 6’6″, 260 lb. center averaging 15.6 points (on 71% shooting) and 9.8 rebounds per game.  Calloway is not a good free throw shooter (38%).  Chris Scott, a 6’0″ guard, is averaging 11.2 points per game and 4.4 assists per game.  Scott also averages over 3 turnovers per game, as opposed to Tommy McGuire, a 5’10” guard who has almost as many assists as Scott (22 to 18) but has a solid 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio.  The Eagles don’t have much of a rebounding presence aside from Calloway.  Their other frontcourt players include Drew Ellis, a slender (215 lbs.) 6’7″ forward, and 6’9″, 265 lb. center Luke Mace.  CCU has played at least 12 guys in each game, incidentally.

That’s about all I have on Cincinnati Christian.  The Bulldogs should win this game, and I believe they will.  I expect a more coherent performance than in The Citadel’s win over Grace Bible College.  I think if the Bulldogs stay within themselves and avoid turnovers, victory should be assured.