Bulldog hoops: time to go on a winning streak

I haven’t written about The Citadel’s hoops team in a while (then again, I haven’t had a blog post about anything in some time; I need to start cranking stuff out again). Honestly, though, there hasn’t been a good reason to write about Bulldog basketball, at least a good positive reason.

At least The Citadel won on Monday night, beating Samford 61-50 for the Bulldogs’ first road victory of the season.  A sign of things to come?  To be honest, I doubt it.

The Citadel is 6-13 overall, 2-5 in the Southern Conference, with home games against Appalachian State on Thursday and Western Carolina on Saturday.  Prior to the Samford win, the Bulldogs had lost five straight SoCon contests.

What is the difference between this year’s edition of the basketball Bulldogs and, say, last year’s squad?  I won’t compare them to the 2008-09 team that won 20 games, which included Demetrius Nelson and John Brown.  However, I think it is fair to compare the 2009-10 and 2010-11 outfits.

Last season’s team featured a rotation mainstay who is no longer in school, Harrison Dupont.  Dupont had a nice debut campaign (alas, there would be no followup season, at least in Charleston), averaging 14 points per 40 minutes of play and finishing with an eFG of 48.2%, highest of all the regulars and highest on the team overall, with one exception.

That one exception was Mike Groselle, who saw limited action due to injury/illness, but showed signs of being a very effective player when he saw action.  It really shouldn’t be a surprise that Groselle has had a fine sophomore season.  So far this year Groselle is averaging 19 points per 40 minutes of play with an eFG of 58.9%, leading the team (again).  That is good for 11th among Southern Conference players.

He is also averaging almost six rebounds per contest (Dupont was good for four boards per game).  Groselle’s FG% of 58.9 is good for sixth in the SoCon.

Groselle’s development has basically replaced the lost production of Dupont, if not surpassed it.  They aren’t really similar players, so it’s not a true like vs. like comparison (particularly from a defensive perspective), but I think it does make it easier to look at the rest of the team numbers and see where the differences lie.

One difference is the reduced contributions from Cosmo Morabbi, who played in all 33 games last season and averaged over 18 minutes per game.  Morabbi has been injured and has missed several games, but even when he was playing, his minutes had been cut in half.

Morabbi has struggled with his jumper this season.  Actually, struggle doesn’t really describe it; he hasn’t made a three-pointer yet this year (0-8) after shooting 37.9% (25-66) from beyond the arc in 2009-10.  In his previous two seasons for the Bulldogs, Morabbi was a dependable member of the rotation who wasn’t afraid to take big shots; not having his typical production has been a problem.

Then there is post play.  Last season Joe Wolfinger was the transfer hopeful who never quite fit into The Citadel’s offense.   However, Wolfinger’s offensive production compares favorably to that of “Big Mike Squared”, the duo of Williams and Dejworek.

Morakinyo Williams has missed time with injury (he has played fewer minutes than Morabbi), and Mike Dejworek hasn’t been a major factor, either.  The two have combined to score 47 points in 219 minutes of play, which per game is about half of the scoring output by Wolfinger last season.  Neither has been a force on the boards.

A few other odds and ends:

— Last season, 36.5% of The Citadel’s total points came via the three-point shot.  So far this year, that number is 23.2%.

— The Citadel’s eFG of 44.5% is in the bottom 50 nationally; last season, the Bulldogs had an eFG of 48.4% (middle of the pack nationally).

— The Bulldogs are not forcing turnovers this season.  Opponents have a turnover rate of 16%.  That puts The Citadel in the bottom 25 nationally. Last season’s opponent turnover rate was 19%. That’s a significant difference.

—  Defensively, The Citadel ranks in the bottom 50 nationally in defensive FG% and defensive 2FG%.  The Bulldogs have a defensive 3FG of 34.4%, which isn’t that bad, but not nearly as good as last season’s 32.4%, which was 80th-best in the country.

— In SoCon play, the Bulldogs currently rank last or next-to-last in defensive 2FG%, defensive turnover rate, and points allowed per possession.  The sample size is a little small, admittedly.

As noted by Jeff Hartsell, Zach Urbanus and Cameron Wells have been logging some serious minutes lately, thanks to a slender bench (Morabbi being unavailable really hurts there).

After a loss to Coastal Carolina earlier in the season, Chuck Driesell mentioned on his postgame radio show that he was worried about fatigue affecting the Bulldogs’ play.

In the SoCon teleconference this week, however, Driesell sang a slightly different tune.  He noted that the loss of Morabbi had impacted his ability to substitute players who had experience, and he also mentioned that a way to address concerns about too much game action for individual players would be to monitor (and presumably lessen) their work during practice.

However, Driesell stated during the teleconference that he saw “no signs of fatigue” and that Wells and Urbanus are “young guys [who] should be able to handle” increased minutes.

We’ll see.

— Six weeks ago, I wrote that the Bulldogs seem to lack an offensive identity.  Here is, to my mind at least, one example of that:

Last season, Zach Urbanus and Austin Dahn each averaged about one three-point attempt every five and a half minutes of playing time (5.7 for Urbanus, 5.6 for Dahn). This season, with an increased number of possessions per game (about five more), Dahn is averaging a three-point attempt every 5.1 minutes he is on the court.  And Urbanus?

He’s only averaging one three-point try every 7.5 minutes of play.

With the increase in tempo, Urbanus is averaging more total shots per contest this season than last year on a per-minute basis, as is Dahn.  Dahn, however, is taking more three-pointers than Urbanus (25 more, even while playing almost 100 minutes fewer than Zach).  Neither is shooting as well from beyond the arc as they did last season (Urbanus is at 36.7% after shooting 41.1% from three last year; Dahn is down from 34.7% to 28.6%).

That may be reflective of how other teams are playing them defensively, or it may be due to a lack of offensive cohesion, or perhaps it’s a combination of both. Regardless, it seems to me that the leading three-point shooter in The Citadel’s history needs to be leading the team in three-point attempts.

This has been a tough year so far for Chuck Driesell.  He’s learned that being the coach of The Citadel’s basketball team is not easy.  He knew that going in, obviously, but there is still a lot of on-the-job training at the military college.  He has to know that a lot of fans are disappointed in the way the season has gone.  There were high expectations for this team, and to date they haven’t been met.

It probably doesn’t help matters that his predecessor, Ed Conroy, is having a nice start to his tenure at Tulane, and recently was featured in a local article describing his salesmanship of the program.  Conroy has benefited from a relatively soft early schedule, but it’s also true that he’s already won two conference games in C-USA, only one fewer than the Green Wave won all of last season.

Tangent: in that article, the writer describes how Conroy somehow talked 80 Marquette students (in New Orleans as part of a volunteer group) into attending a weeknight game between Tulane and UTEP.  How many cadets will attend the Saturday game at McAlister Field House against Western Carolina?

There is still time, of course.  Maybe the win over Samford will be the start of something special.  The two upcoming home games are both winnable.

If Wells and Urbanus are going to play 38-40 minutes every night, it might be best for The Citadel to revert to its slow, slower, slowest style of play from the last two seasons.  Lowering the amount of possessions might serve to reduce the chances of either getting in foul trouble, and also could keep them from running out of gas, either in individual games or over the course of the season.

It also would have the potential of settling down the offense.  I don’t think it would hurt Groselle and Urbanus, in particular, if the tempo were decreased.  Wells (who had a “Cameron Wells game” against Samford, taking over the last 10 minutes of that contest) is capable of thriving in any offensive system.

Slowing the game down also increases the value of offensive rebounds and other possession-changing plays, which is to the advantage of players like Bryan Streeter and Daniel Eykyn.

I’m ready to see a long Bulldog winning streak.  How about eleven straight?  It’s happened before…

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.

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.

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.

A tradition that needs to stop

This season, The Citadel’s basketball team successfully broke a long cycle of losing, and did so in spectacular fashion, with an unprecedented number of league victories, the longest winning streak in over 80 years, and a record-tying 20 victories.  The team broke long road losing streaks at Appalachian State, Davidson, and the College of Charleston.  It got over the hump in every conceivable way except one.  Oh, but that one…

The conference tournament bugaboo struck again.

Samford became the 21st different team to beat The Citadel in the SoCon tourney (I think it’s safe to assume that’s a record), a little more than a month after The Citadel beat the Birmingham bulldogs by 25 points in a game at Samford.  It was, to say the least, a frustrating performance.  The Citadel’s defense was atrocious, as Samford scored 76 points on only 55 possessions.  The Citadel also got outrebounded by Samford, which is both terrible and amazing, given that Samford is one of the nation’s worst rebounding teams.  It was just a miserable night.

I don’t know why, no matter how good or bad the Bulldogs are in any season (and they’ve usually been bad), The Citadel comes up all thumbs every single time when the SoCon tournament gets underway.  You would think that in all those years that on occasion even one of the Bulldogs’ lesser teams would have done something to win a couple of games, even if it were just by accident.  Nope.  The Citadel is now 10-56 in the Southern Conference tournament.

Ed Conroy did a lot of things right this season, but I suspect he’s going to take a hard look at the performance of the team on Saturday night and try to figure out how to change the mindset of the squad entering tourney play.  The team has to play with purpose while remaining loose, something that never seems to happen, regardless of the year.

I don’t know if The Citadel has finished playing basketball this season.  It is possible that the Bulldogs will be invited to a post-season event, as college basketball appears to be going the way of college football, and eventually all 343 Division I teams will get to play in a post-season tournament.   Well, maybe not NJIT.  We’ll see what develops on that front.

If it does turn out to be the end of the season, I feel badly for the players that it ended so rudely, particularly the two seniors.  However, Demetrius Nelson and Jon Brick will depart knowing that in their senior year, they played on a basketball team at The Citadel that won 20 games.  That makes them members of a very, very small club.  Also, if the Bulldogs are able to maintain the positive momentum built up during this season, and parlay it into even more success, Nelson and Brick will know that they were major contributors to the building of that foundation. 

I’ve been asked by friends about two recent articles concerning The Citadel, a long and evocative piece in ESPN The Magazine (and ESPN.com) by the talented Wright Thompson, and a shorter feature in The New York Times, the latter of which could have used some editing.  However, as I have pointed out to people who have brought it up, the truth is that other than Ed Conroy, the basketball team didn’t get much publicity from either article, as both were about Pat Conroy.  The two pieces combined were over 5700 words in length, but despite all that verbiage no member of the current edition of the Bulldog basketball team was mentioned, not even once.

I was disappointed in that, because I’ve heard the Pat Conroy tale before.  While I mean no disrespect, I felt the focus should be on the current players and what they had accomplished, not just Nelson and Brick, but Zach Urbanus, Bryan Streeter, and Austin Dahn.  I wanted to read more about the terror of Beverly Hills, Cosmo Morabbi.  I was hoping someone would come up with a nickname for John Brown (besides just “JB”).

Instead, the national media turned to Pat Conroy as the story.  It’s always about Pat.

(Actually, contained within the Pat-and-Ed storyline was something that I thought was potentially much more interesting, the relationship between Ed and Don “The Great Santini” Conroy.  However, that angle would only have tangentially involved Pat Conroy, and the elder Conroy is dead, so it was just used as a way for the preferred narrative to connect Pat and Ed.  Oh well.)

Perhaps it’s just as well none of the players were mentioned, at least in the Times article.  Since that story referred to General Grinalds as the former commandant of the school, it’s possible that Urbanus would have been described as a 6’10” post player…

Finally, you have to hand it to the Southern Conference brass.  After taking the guaranteed money from Chattanooga to move the tournament to UTC’s home court, the conference leadership got exactly what it deserved.  The Mocs had the fifth-best record in the SoCon this season, but despite 20 conference games the league continued with its two-division format.  With the four best teams all in the South division, this enabled UT-Chattanooga (playing in the North division) to garner a bye in the first round while two other teams with better records had to play on Friday night. 

Then everything fell into place for the Mocs.  Not only did they survive a one-point victory over Elon in the quarterfinals (you think the home court was probably worth a few points there?), they only had to beat one of the four teams that finished ahead of UTC in the standings — and that was the third-place team, which had to play an extra game just to get to the final.

There is a good chance (better than 50%, at least) that Chattanooga becomes the first SoCon school to land in the dreaded play-in game, just one year after Davidson reached the Elite Eight.  That will do wonders for the league’s image.  However, it should have come as no surprise to anyone that Chattanooga won the tournament on its home court, since that’s exactly what happened in 2005, the last time the tournament was held at McKenzie Arena.

When the tournament was awarded to Chattanooga, SoCon commissioner John Iamarino noted that the arena would provide plenty of seating.  That’s great, except much of it wasn’t used, as even in the final, with its home team playing and a bid to the NCAA tournament on the line, the official attendance was only 5,042 (and who knows what the actual attendance was).   

It’s not surprising that a lot of the fans from other schools in the league didn’t show up, since Chattanooga isn’t a geographically ideal location to have the tournament (unless you root for UTC or Samford).  It doesn’t say much for the promotion of the event, though, when even the home team can’t put people in the stands.

Naturally, the tournament will return to Chattanooga next season…

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…

Time to start a new streak

Well, it wasn’t going to last forever, but it would have been nice for the winning streak to have lasted for at least one more game…

What was the difference between Saturday’s game and the previous eleven?

It was really a lot of little things.  Some of them were aberrations (like Demetrius Nelson struggling from the foul line), but some were not, and what is important is that the Bulldogs must learn from the loss and make the necessary adjustments, because other teams will study tape of this game and try to emulate Wofford.

Of course, emulating Wofford first means having a player capable of a good Noah Dahlman imitation, and that won’t be easy.  Dahlman showed why he is a serious candidate for first team All-Southern Conference with an excellent night, rarely forcing anything but taking advantage of any and every opportunity.  Dahlman scored 17 points on only 9 field goal attempts (exactly the same numbers he had against the Bulldogs in Spartanburg) and also contributed 7 rebounds to the Terriers’ cause.

Wofford’s strategy on defense was to double-team Nelson whenever possible, which they did more successfully than most SoCon outfits (the College of Charleston could learn a thing or two about how they did it), and they did this in part by leaving John Brown open on the wing throughout the game, knowing he wasn’t an offensive threat.  Brown had a frustrating evening.  For one of the few times since he burst onto the scene at the beginning of January, he seemed a half-step behind or a split second late to a number of loose balls and rebound opportunities.  His trademark frenetic style never seemed to have an impact on the game.

Ed Conroy tried a couple of different things to counter the way Wofford was playing defensively (including playing Daniel Eykyn for Brown for a brief period during the second half), but the Bulldogs never really got into an offensive rhythm.  The Citadel did not get many open looks from outside, and as a consequence went 3-15 (20%) from three-point land.

Dahlman’s going to get his points, but at least he didn’t burn The Citadel for 36, like he did Thursday night at the CofC.  The shot to break the 55-all tie was a tough one converted by a player (Brad Loesing) who came into the game shooting only 29.7% from beyond the arc (and who had missed his previous nine three-point attempts).  He made the shot, though, and you just have to give him credit for it.  The Bulldogs did force thirteen turnovers, but on the whole Wofford had an efficient night on offense.  The Bulldogs were also outrebounded by the Terriers (28-22).

Now the Bulldogs have to regroup and focus on their immediate goal, which will be to regain the momentum gathered during the eleven-game winning streak and clinch a first-round bye for the Southern Conference tournament.  The action moves to Statesboro, Georgia, where on Monday night The Citadel tangles for a second time this season with Georgia Southern.

A win in that game would be the Bulldogs’ 15th of the season in SoCon play (and 20th overall, of course) and would tie the College of Charleston for second place in the South Division, with The Citadel holding the tiebreaker by virtue of its sweep of the Cougars.  A loss would mean the Bulldogs would have to play in the opening round against UNC-Greensboro, the sixth-place team from the North Division.  The difference between having to win three or four games in order to claim the tournament title is huge.

Injuries and suspensions have left Georgia Southern ripe for the picking for most Southern Conference teams, and as a result the Eagles have lost ten of their last eleven games, with the only win a non-conference victory over Jacksonville State.  Georgia Southern’s last conference win came against Furman on January 24.

Georgia Southern is the league’s worst defensive team, and against Davidson on Saturday the Eagles allowed 99 points on only 81 possessions, as the Wildcats shot 55% from the floor.  Davidson raced to a 16-0 lead in the game, and in that stretch GSU only attempted two shots while committing seven turnovers.  The Eagles committed 25 turnovers during the game, while Stephen Curry was scoring 34 points (on only 19 FG attempts).

The Bulldogs won’t have Curry, but they should have enough to defeat a depleted and possibly demoralized Georgia Southern team.  In the first game between the two teams, The Citadel won at McAlister Field House 84-75 as Demetrius Nelson and Bryan Streeter combined for 38 points and 12 rebounds, with John Brown adding 11 boards.

Willie Powers and Julian Allen teamed up for 34 points, 15 rebounds, and 6 assists for Georgia Southern in that game, which is noteworthy because neither will play for the Eagles on Monday.  Powers was lost for the season after that game with a knee injury, while Allen was suspended at the beginning of February (along with Trumaine Pearson and Antoine Johnson, both of whom also played against The Citadel).  The Eagles are down to seven scholarship players.

Incidentally, The Citadel has not swept the Eagles in the regular season since 1998.  The Bulldogs’ last victory in Hanner Fieldhouse came in 2003.

The loss to Wofford on Saturday won’t by itself cost The Citadel a chance at achieving any of the season-long goals it would have had before the game.  However, the Bulldogs have now taken their mulligan.  The Citadel has to win on Monday night, and must do so on the road, with all the pressure associated with trying to produce a successful finish for what has been to this point a remarkable regular season.

In a way, things are now simplified for the Bulldogs.  If The Citadel is to live the big dream, a trip to the NCAA tournament for the first time, it has to start a new winning streak, and that streak must be four games in duration.  The Bulldogs can either win on Monday and then win three games in the SoCon tourney, or they will have to win four times in four days in the SoCon tourney.  The first option is by far the more manageable of the two.  Let’s hope the new streak starts on Monday night.