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…

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.

Searching the sky for locusts

Last year around this time, The Citadel lost a game at Appalachian State, 75-71 in overtime.  With the loss the Bulldogs dropped to 0-13 in the Southern Conference (5-17 overall, with just one of those victories coming against a Division I team).  It was the 17th consecutive loss to Appalachian State, a school that The Citadel had not defeated in basketball since 1996 (and had not beaten in Boone since 1993).

What a difference a year makes.

On Thursday night, The Citadel defeated the Mountaineers in Boone 74-72, ending that long losing skid to Appy, and moved to 9-4 in the SoCon.  With the College of Charleston losing to Western Carolina, The Citadel currently sits in second place in the South Division.  If the season ended today (my understanding is it won’t), the Bulldogs would have a bye for the first round of the conference tournament.

There is also the small matter of last night’s win being the sixth straight conference victory for The Citadel, notable because, almost unbelievably (unless you follow Bulldog basketball), it’s the first time that the school has ever won six consecutive games in league play.  Ever.  In case you were wondering, The Citadel has been playing basketball in the Southern Conference since the 1936-37 season.

It almost didn’t happen this year, either.  The Bulldogs led 61-59 when Ed Conroy called a 30-second timeout with 5:49 left in the game.  The Citadel scored at least one point on each of its next seven possessions (including a big three-pointer by Zach Urbanus), yet with 43 seconds left the Bulldogs found themselves leading by only that same two-point margin.  With 14 seconds left, The Citadel turned it over (on what looked like a bad call, but Mountaineer fans could make a good argument that a similar call had gone The Citadel’s way three minutes earlier).  Appalachian State had a chance to tie or win the game, but good defense led to an off-balance three that never had a chance.

It was a fairly well-played game, particularly offensively.   The difference was Appalachian State’s three-point shooting, not as much the poor percentage, but the fact the Mountaineers attempted 17 shots beyond the arc when they were converting two-point attempts at a 60% clip, and also getting it done from the foul line (16-18).  I know the three-point shooting is part of their game, but when you’re having success inside and not shooting well from distance, jacking up threes just strikes me as not the way to go (although Appy did get its fair share of offensive rebounds from the missed three-pointers).

The Citadel only attempted ten three-pointers, making four of them.  I think all ten came within the “natural” flow of the offense — in other words, none of them were forced.  The Citadel did a good job of keeping things relatively simple offensively, feeding the ball to Demetrius Nelson on  a regular basis.  In the second half, Cameron Wells began creating shots for himself and taking advantage of driving opportunities.  Cosmo Morabbi added a three and also had the distinction of being identified twice by the App State radio announcer as Jonathan Brick, which I thought was amusing, although not as funny as when the announcer got Brick confused with Bryan Streeter.  (In all fairness, the announcer wasn’t bad at all; he just had a tough time with Brick for some reason.)

On Saturday, The Citadel travels to Cullowhee to take on Western Carolina, the team it beat to start this six-game streak, in what was arguably the Bulldogs’ best performance of the season (other than the free throw shooting).  It will take another good effort to complete a sweep, particularly since the Catamounts are undefeated at home.  WCU is currently tied atop the SoCon North with UT-Chattanooga, both at 7-5 in the league.

Speaking of conference standings, I’m glad that The Citadel (at least for the moment) has pushed ahead of the CofC into the #2 spot in the SoCon South.  On Saturday night the College plays at Davidson in a game televised by ESPN2, with none other than Dick Vitale as the analyst.  My guess is that he will talk about Stephen Curry for 60% of the game, Bobby Cremins for 30% of the time, and Duke when not talking about Curry or Cremins, but I am hoping that since the game features not the current first- and second-place teams in the division, but the first- and third-place teams, that he might briefly mention the team actually sitting in second place at the moment.  I’m fairly confident he has never mentioned The Citadel during a broadcast, unless it was calling us a cupcake on somebody’s schedule.

Brief non-basketball note:  The Citadel and VMI are going to resume their series in football, beginning in 2011.  I’m still annoyed the teams will go three seasons between meetings in the first place.  At least The Coveted Silver Shako remains in Charleston, where it belongs.

Speaking of non-basketball notes and VMI, congrats to the Bulldog wrestlers for beating their counterparts from Lexington.  I don’t claim to follow wrestling too much (despite having once announced a wrestling match — Jim Ross would have been impressed), but 21-9 is a good solid whuppin’.

I could get used to rooting for a winning hoops team

The Citadel 72, College of Charleston 63.  Whoa.

Even better, it was broadcast to a regional audience by SportSouth, with the legendary Whit Watson on play-by-play (plus shiny-domed analyst Nate Ross — I remember when Nate actually had some hair).  The Citadel doesn’t play too many televised basketball games (this was the last of three such appearances this season, not counting any potential SoCon tourney games).  Playing well and actually winning a TV game — well, that’s even more unusual.

First, the atmosphere.  From my vantage point in front of my TV (and by the way, it’s time for SportSouth to go all-HD all the time; I want to see my team play in crystal-clear high definition when it’s on the tube), the crowd seemed reasonably energetic, but a little cautious.  The corps looked okay, but I think it needed to be a bit more raucous.  (I do want a “McAlister Maniacs” t-shirt, though.  They didn’t have those back in the Dark Ages when I was in school.)  5107 is about the number of people I expected at the game.

In the game story in The Post and Courier, you’re going to read a lot of good things said about John Brown.  If you watched the game on TV, you listened to Nate Ross extol Brown’s virtues throughout the broadcast.  All of the accolades are completely justified.

Now, Brown does not appear to have any go-to offensive moves other than layups and dunks.  He’s only 6’4″.  He desperately needs a nickname.  However, he demonstrates that it’s possible for a player to have a huge effect on a game without being a scorer or what the late, great Al McGuire called an “aircraft carrier”.

Brown may not be that tall (although he has long arms), and he may not be that polished an offensive player, but he is an instinctive rebounder and defender, and an all-around hustler extraordinaire.  He finished with nine points (layups, dunks, a free throw), three steals (and numerous deflections), and twelve rebounds, with a lot of his boardwork coming during the critical stretch in the first half  when The Citadel built its lead (a 12-0 run).  I guess you could say it was a Rodmanesque performance, but that’s a description that doesn’t really work at The Citadel (and it’s hard to imagine Brown with dyed hair or wearing a dress).

Brown wasn’t the only Bulldog to have a good game.  Cosmo Morabbi continued his good run at three-point marksmanship.  Zach Urbanus had another solid day distributing the ball and making open shots from beyond the arc.  Five different Bulldogs made three-pointers, including two that I thought were bigger than “normal” made threes — Cameron Wells’ shot to tie the game at 10 when The Citadel was struggling to put the ball in the basket (despite getting good looks), and Austin Dahn’s second-half three under pressure from his defender and the shot clock, which effectively stopped a would-be College of Charleston rally.

Basically, it was a well-played game for The Citadel from about every vantage point.  When you shoot 8-15 from three and commit only eight turnovers against a pressing team, you’re probably going to have a good night.  The Bulldogs kept the possession total where they wanted it (63) and did a very good job of defending, leading to the Cougars’ poor shooting night (preventing transition baskets by avoiding turnovers and forced shots on the offensive end contributed to the College of Charleston’s offensive woes).

The negatives?  Free throw shooting (only 12-19; in particular, Bryan Streeter is struggling right now from the charity stripe) and (to a lesser extent) rebounding, for despite Brown’s prowess on the glass (which included five offensive boards), The Citadel was decisively outrebounded, although part of that is reflected by the CofC having more opportunities at offensive boards because it missed so many shots.  (It also reflects a fine effort in a losing cause by the Cougars’ Jermaine Johnson.)

I’m glad to see Demetrius Nelson finally get a win against the Cougars.  His coach can relate to waiting until his last season to beat the College of Charleston…

Speaking of Ed Conroy, the team looked well-prepared for the Cougar press.  The Citadel again had success with inbounds plays under the basket (this time Brown actually made the dunk).  I thought Conroy did a good job calling timeouts when appropriate.  I also noticed that for this game he shortened his rotation.  In past games he hasn’t hesitated to play eleven or twelve guys in a game (that’s not counting the standard clear-the-bench routine at the end of blowouts; fourteen players actually saw action against Western Carolina).  I think this game’s eight-man rotation tells you all you need to know about who he thinks is ready for big games against good, athletic teams.  Some of the underclassmen who didn’t play yesterday are going to be major contributors down the road, but aren’t quite ready yet for these types of games.

Against the College of Charleston, Conroy played three guys at two frontcourt spots (Nelson, Streeter, and Brown), rotating them accordingly, and played five guys in a three-guard setup, with Urbanus and Wells playing most of the game, and Morabbi and Dahn essentially splitting time at the other spot.  Jonathan Brick got a few minutes as well, long enough to sink a why-are-you-shooting-oh-that’s-why three-pointer.

The players don’t have much time to celebrate, though.  Monday night, the Bulldogs will play at Samford.  This is Samford’s first season in the SoCon, and the Birmingham Bulldogs have been very competitive, perhaps more competitive than expected.  Jimmy Tillette’s squad is, like The Citadel, 5-4 in the league, and has won four straight games.  Samford runs a “Princeton-style” offense and as such averages less than 60 possessions per game, which worries me a little, because the only time this season the Bulldogs faced an opponent that played an offensive style that was demonstrably “slower” than that of The Citadel was against Iowa.  In that game, the Bulldogs seemed to force the action too much and paid for it.  Samford spreads the wealth (no player averages more than 12.4 points per game, nor does any player average 30 minutes per game of playing time) and is a fairly good shooting team.  Samford has improved its turnover rate in conference play (the difference in turnovers in and out of conference is marked).

Defensively, Samford  employs a matchup zone.  This brings up the Birmingham Bulldogs’ greatest weakness, namely that they are a poor rebounding team without much in the way of a post presence.  The Citadel needs to be patient on offense, work to establish an inside game, and then hit open three-pointers.  Of course, you could say that about a lot of games.  The Citadel needs to emphasize (even more than usual) crashing the boards in this game.

On defense The Citadel must watch for backdoor cuts, of course, and be prepared to play defense for 35 seconds at a time.  How well is Samford’s offense working right now?  In three of its last four games Samford has recorded at least 17 assists, especially impressive when you consider that in those four games Samford averaged less than 25 made field goals per game.

We’ll see which team maintains its momentum on Monday night.

The last TV appearance of the hoops season, unless…

It’s not often I get to post about a 14-point victory in SoCon play, but last night The Citadel pummelled Western Carolina in the second half en route to a 66-52 victory.  It’s easy to win games by double digits when you shoot 70% from the field in a half. 

I thought the key to the run, though, was John Brown’s spirited play.  He seemed to get every rebound and loose ball during the second half.  He also just missed on what would have been a SportsCenter-worthy jam; I suspect he’ll get teased by his teammates (and Ed Conroy) for that.  Good effort all around, though.  17 assists on 26 made baskets is a very good ratio.  The pace was solid (62 possessions), and the Bulldogs outrebounded WCU, which was a bit of a surprise.  Jonathan Brick made two three-pointers; that’s as many as he had made all season.

Congrats to Demetrius Nelson for being the 25th member of the 1000-point club at The Citadel, which is a testament to his perseverance as much as it is to his talent. 

With the win The Citadel moved to 4-4 in league play.  It’s been six years since the Bulldogs had a .500 record or better in the conference after eight games.  (It’s also been six years since The Citadel won more than four conference games in a season.) 

The one negative was the large number of turnovers (18).  Most of them came in the first half and, in retrospect, kept the Catamounts in the game.  The Bulldogs have to avoid committing turnovers.  They aren’t going to shoot that well every night.  At least in this game they avoided the first half blues that had plagued them recently.

Speaking of that, The Citadel was coming off a tough loss at Wofford where the Bulldogs had trailed by as many as 16 points in the first half before mounting a furious comeback, actually taking the lead briefly.  The Citadel could not maintain the momentum, however, and eventually lost by three.   That was another 62-possession game, which I was glad to see (although Wofford doesn’t run-and-gun at all, so it was also an expected total).  The Citadel had struggled in the first half against Furman too, but recovered to win that game in OT (it helps that the Paladins are horrendous).

Wofford’s not a bad club at all, but last night Georgia Southern clubbed them in Statesboro.  I’m not sure what to make of that, other than Junior Salters must have done too much celebrating against The Citadel, because he went 3-14 from the field against GSU.  That means that third place in the SoCon South Division is a three-way tie, with The Citadel and Georgia Southern both 4-4 in league play and Wofford at 3-3.  Davidson leads the division, of course; sitting in second place is Bobby Cremins’ crew from the College of Charleston, which is 7-1 in the league (losing only to Davidson) and 15-3 overall, including a win over South Carolina. 

As it happens, The Citadel will host the CofC at McAlister Field House on Saturday afternoon.  It’s going to be televised by SportSouth, the third and final time the Bulldogs will be featured on TV this season, unless the Bulldogs were to advance to the Southern Conference tournament semi-finals for only the second time in the last 24 seasons.  That would be…different.

The Cougars are one of the country’s better offensive squads, averaging 1.113 points per possession (17th nationally).  They shoot well from the field, whether inside or outside (38% from three-land), and take good care of the basketball.  The only thing offensively that qualifies as a weakness is their free throw shooting (65.9%).  Currently five College of Charleston players are averaging double-figure scoring, led by guard Andrew Goudelock (who is shooting 48.5% from beyond the arc).

Defensively the Cougars aren’t nearly as impressive.  CofC opponents are shooting 46% from the field.  Also, the Cougars are not a good rebounding team.  The College of Charleston is averaging over four blocked shots per game, however, and leads the SoCon in that category.

I would guess that at least 5000 people will be in attendance at McAlister on Saturday, including a goodly number of cadets.  It should be a great atmosphere.  I just hope the game is as good.