Bulldog hoops: the most disappointing season

The Citadel’s last victory on the hardwood came at Davidson, on January 26.  As this post is going up on February 20, that is a problem.  The Bulldogs have lost seven straight games, with two regular season road games remaining before the Southern Conference tournament.

It is not out of the question that The Citadel could finish the season on a ten-game losing streak.  The last time the Bulldogs ended a season with a double-digit losing streak was 2005, when Pat Dennis’ team started 12-5 before losing its last eleven contests.

This is not what most people were expecting when the season began.  The Citadel returned many experienced players, including three mainstays (Cameron Wells, Zach Urbanus, and Austin Dahn) in its rotation.  While picked to finish fourth in the South Division of the SoCon in the preseason, many people expected at the very least a winning campaign, and possibly something more than that.

I was one of those people, as I thought The Citadel could win 17 or 18 games.  The Pomeroy Ratings also projected the Bulldogs to win 18 games.

It has been a tough season for new coach Chuck Driesell.  After a four-game winning streak pushed the Bulldogs to a still-not-great 9-13 record, the bottom seemed to fall out of the campaign.  Five of the seven losses in the recent run were at home.  Two of the defeats were particularly awful (Savannah State and the recent loss at Georgia Southern).

Driesell hasn’t had a lot go his way, but I think his decision to shorten his rotation to just seven players, which initially resulted in some impressive victories, ultimately torpedoed the season.

The Citadel has traditionally struggled at the end of basketball seasons, a phenomenon Jeff Hartsell of The Post and Courier recently called “getting heavy-legged” while speaking on the ‘Citadel Grayline’ radio program.  These end-of-year collapses are generally ascribed to the difficulties of competing in a long sport season while fulfilling the duties associated with being a cadet.

The historical numbers for the Bulldogs bear out the fact that it has been a problem. Just look at the last six years before this one, for example:

— 2010:  finished 16-16 after losing four of their last five games

— 2009:  finished 20-13 after losing three of their last four games (following an 11-game winning streak)

— 2008:  lost 18 of their last 19 games (of course, that team only won six games all year)

— 2007:  lost 12 of their last 13 games (a seven-win team)

— 2006:   lost 18 of their last 22 games (a ten-win team)

— 2005:  as mentioned above, lost 11 straight to finish 12-16

You can find more years like those, even when concentrating on some of the more respectable teams (like 1998, when the Bulldogs lost six of eight to finish 15-13).  The best evidence of “tired legs”, of course, is The Citadel’s stupefying lack of success in the Southern Conference tournament; even though the Bulldogs haven’t had that many good teams over the years, you would have thought The Citadel would have gotten lucky in the league tourney once or twice.  Nope.

Wells, Urbanus, and Dahn have combined to play over 82% of the minutes available to them over the last four years, which is amazing.  What’s not amazing is the rough finishes the team has had, perhaps as a consequence of that.  The trend has continued this season.

In conference play Urbanus has averaged over 38.5 minutes per game, tied for first in the league.  Wells is fourth in the league in minutes, with 36.5 per contest, while Dahn is 14th (32 mpg).  Early foul trouble in a couple of games is the only reason Wells and Dahn haven’t played even more (Urbanus, on the other hand, is one of two players in the entire country averaging less than one foul per forty minutes of play).

Driesell has tried expanding his rotation as the losing streak has continued, although he’s been hamstrung by Cosmo Morabbi’s injury and the general ineffectiveness of the two transfers he brought in for this season (Morakinyo Williams and Mike Dejworek).

I wish that Driesell had decided to wait a year before fully implementing his system. The current roster is obviously built for Ed Conroy’s slower-tempo style of play.  It has been frustrating to watch a team struggle so when it features seniors like the school’s alltime leading scorer and assist man (Wells), career three-point shooting leader (Urbanus), along with a versatile four-year starter (Dahn) and a handy post defender/offensive garbageman (Bryan Streeter).

Then you have the emergence of sophomore Mike Groselle, who has been a revelation in terms of offensive efficiency.  Yet with all that, the team is 9-20, and not by a fluke, either.  No, this is a team that has never put it together on either side of the court, save for that one four-game run in the middle of the season.

For most of the year, The Citadel has lacked an offensive identity and has been poor defensively.  I suspect the offensive problems have contributed to the defensive woes; that is the nature of the game.

I feel badly for the team’s seniors, who I think deserved to go out on a much better note, but at least they will always have memories of the 2009 season, one of the finest in school history.  I am glad they chose to come to The Citadel; it’s one of the best hoops classes the military college has ever had, if not the best.

As for Chuck Driesell, I certainly haven’t given up on him.  He’s got some work to do, however.  Next year’s recruiting class is supposed to be quite good, and Driesell has a well-deserved reputation as a solid talent evaluator.  Now he has to put that talent together (and keep it, never an easy thing at The Citadel).

Driesell seems to prefer outstanding athletes, which is fine, but he must also find room in his system for players like Groselle, whose eFG% in conference games is currently second in the league.  Groselle has a 66.9 FG% in SoCon play and a 3.7 GPA in Civil Engineering;  The Citadel needs as many players like that as it can get, whether they can jump or not.

Regardless, this season has to go down as the most disappointing season in the modern history of The Citadel’s basketball program.  Admittedly, that’s in part because it was the rare season where expectations were fairly high.  That doesn’t make it any less deflating, though.

Open letter to Chuck Driesell

Dear Coach Driesell (mind if I call you Chuck?) —

Congrats on being named head coach at The Citadel.  I liked your choice of tie at the press conference.  You and your family will enjoy Charleston.  Whether or not you enjoy your new job will depend on how you approach it.  Here are some tips:

—  Know your history.  I assume Larry Leckonby told you all about The Citadel’s hoops past.  If not, here is a primer:  Link

I hope you’re not having second thoughts…

Now, that post in the link covers everything up to Ed Conroy’s last two years at The Citadel, which were really good by Bulldog standards.  Conroy won 20 games in 2009 and went 16-16 this past season; he parlayed that into a nice gig at Tulane.  This is good news for you, Chuck, if you have designs on moving up the D-1 coaching ladder. Imagine if you actually won the Southern Conference.  That might be worth an ACC job.

(Who am I kidding.  That would be worth an NBA job.)

—  If you want to make the NCAAs from The Citadel, you will have to win the Southern Conference tournament.  The Southern Conference is a one-bid league; there hasn’t been an at-large bid out of the SoCon since 1950.

Winning the SoCon tourney while at The Citadel will be a tall order, however.  The school’s postseason tournament history?  Ugly.

Now, you remember your father’s struggles in the ACC tournament, so you can appreciate a tourney hex — maybe not one quite on the scale of The Citadel’s foibles at the SoCon tourney, but you probably understand the frustration.  Of course, you also were on the team the year Lefty finally won the ACC tourney, so you know it’s possible to climb the mountain. Admittedly, you aren’t going to have the services of anyone as talented as Len Bias while at The Citadel.

—  Speaking of the left-hander, feel free to invite your father to show up at McAlister Field House whenever he wants.  We’re used to celebrities with connections to the program showing up at basketball games now, since Pat Conroy jumped on the bandwagon the last two seasons.  All I ask is that whenever there is an article in The New York Times about the team’s success, or if Wright Thompson writes a long, thoughtful piece on ESPN.com about the basketball program, that maybe the stories might actually mention a current player.  Just once?

It’s like the program got overshadowed by an ancillary figure.  5700 combined words, no mention of any player.  Sigh.

(By the way, there has to be a great photo op involving General (the bulldog, not Rosa) and Lefty Driesell.  Russ Pace, be ready.)

—  Learn as much as you can about The Citadel, but don’t sweat it if you don’t understand everything about the school. I’m a graduate, and I do not understand everything about the place, and never will.  If you really understand everything about The Citadel, you are certifiably insane.

One thing I will say is that you can’t quite lean on your time in the Navy, or at NAPS. There are some similarities but also some major differences.

You’re going to have to get a crash course in a new culture from somebody who was recently in your situation (Leckonby), and you should seriously consider having at least one guy on your staff with connections to the school. It’s kind of like having an interpreter.

—  You have a reputation as a solid talent evaluator.  I’m glad to hear that is the case, because I think that skill is critical to having success at The Citadel, much more so than just being a “getter” of players.  You’re going to have to look for under-the-radar types.

I’ll give you an example, Chuck.  Remember when Maryland was recruiting Jai Lucas? Of course you do, you were front and center on that recruitment.  Maryland didn’t get him, though, which must have been very disappointing, especially with his father (the great John Lucas) having played for your father at Maryland.

Jai Lucas wound up going to Florida, and then later transferred to Texas.  He was a big-time recruit.  Big-time recruits don’t go to The Citadel.

When you were watching his high school games, though, did you happen to notice the other guard for Bellaire?  Skinny kid, but a solid player.  Wasn’t getting offers from any of the high-majors, or any of the mid-majors for that matter.  I’m guessing you noticed him, at least enough to recognize him…even if you saw him now, in his cadet uniform.

His name was and is Cameron Wells, and he’s currently on pace to be the all-time leading scorer at The Citadel.  I would argue that he has had a much better college career than Jai Lucas, and that’s even taking the level of competition into consideration.  That’s the type of player you are seeking.  Wells wasn’t a McDonald’s All-American, but it’s not inconceivable he could eventually become the first alum from The Citadel to play in the NBA.

—  Besides finding “hidden” talent, Chuck, there is something else you need to keep in mind, something very important, and something quite a few coaches at The Citadel have found out the hard way.  When you recruit, you have to recruit cadets and make them players.  You can’t recruit players and make them cadets.

You have to bring in guys who are willing to embrace the challenge that is The Citadel. That’s what you’re selling, basically — a unique challenge, one that will stay with you all your life, along with a scholarship and the opportunity to play D-1 basketball.

It isn’t easy. No matter how good a salesman you are, The Citadel is never going to become the UCLA of the East.

The key to long-term success for any coach of any sport at The Citadel is to keep attrition low.  I can’t emphasize that enough.  You have to develop players over a four-year period.  It doesn’t do you any good to recruit some on-court stud if he’s only around for a year or two because he can’t handle the military system.

Also, remember to work with the system, not against it.  Don’t enable your players at the expense of the military side of things, as it will do you no good and will turn the corps of cadets (and a significant number of alumni) against you.  You need to have the corps on your side.

That line you had at the presser about players “taking that experience [of The Citadel’s military system] to the court” — that was solid, Chuck.  You at least talked a good game there.

—  Speaking of the corps of cadets, you need to confer with Leckonby and General Rosa and some of the cadet leadership to figure out how to make McAlister Field House a decided homecourt advantage again.  It wasn’t last season, and that’s a concern, because in the SoCon, you need to defend your homecourt.

The big problem is that league games are usually played on Thursdays and Saturdays.  On Saturday, the corps is generally on leave, and a leave that is both much-anticipated and much-needed.  On Thursday nights, you have a combination of things working against you, but I think you can work with the corps on that night.

See if you can arrange it so that a minimum of one-fourth (or at least one-fifth) of the corps is in attendance on Thursday nights, at least for SoCon games.  Saturday is a tough nut to crack; at the very least, make sure cadets stuck on campus are at the games.  Try to get cadets some rewards for supporting the team.

You have to understand, Chuck, that by and large cadets at The Citadel are not sports fans.  At Maryland, you could count on a large student body with a healthy number of hoops nuts.  You had a built-in student fan base.  That isn’t the case at The Citadel, with just over 2000 members of the corps of cadets, only a very small percentage of whom grew up following college basketball on any level.

—  That’s why, Chuck, you also need to reach out to the community.  In terms of selling the program to outsiders, you’re going to have to be a little bit more like your father, I think.  You’re competing with a lot of entertainment options, and Charleston is not really a sports town. However, it’s something you have to do.  The Citadel has one of the oldest fan bases in the league, if not the country.  You need to find some fresh blood.

— This is sort of an aside, Chuck, but I wanted to warn you in advance about Southern Conference officiating.  It can be, uh, inconsistent.  This is particularly true on Saturdays, when all the high-profile officials are working major-conference games.

Weekday games usually aren’t so bad, because there is sometimes a quality ref or two available for SoCon games. Saturdays, though, are often just short of an officiating debacle (actually, last season’s Davidson-Wofford game in Spartanburg was a debacle).

It’s just another reason why you need to have a good, boisterous crowd at McAlister for Saturday night games.

— Also, if you don’t mind, I would like for you to fix the uniforms.  The next time we break out new duds, please be sure that the lettering on them reads “The Citadel” and not “Citadel”.  It’s a pet peeve of mine, but still.  Get the name of the school right.  I bet General Grimsley would shake your hand if you made a point of correcting that, and it’s always good to be on the right side of the Grimmer.

—  Your predecessor, Ed Conroy, made a point of scheduling quality non-conference opposition, with occasional home games against the likes of Michigan State and Southern California.  I really liked this approach, and hope that you keep doing it.  You probably are going to have to play two or three “guarantee” games at a minimum every year, anyway.

With that in mind, Chuck, see if you can schedule games against Big 10 and/or SEC opponents.  Every Big 10 home game is televised on the Big Ten Network (BTN), and many of the SEC games are on one of the various ESPN platforms.  Even a game on ESPN3.com is worth it for The Citadel.

Last season the Bulldogs were on television a grand total of three times, once on ESPNU and twice on SportSouth.  To raise the profile of the program, and for recruiting purposes, I think it’s important to get on TV as much as possible. Besides, if we’re going to play elite teams to pay the bills, we might as well get something else out of it other than cash.

—  You are going to be in an unusual situation at The Citadel for a new coach, in that you will be inheriting a team that has the potential to be good next season.  I already mentioned Cameron Wells, but you have several other excellent players with whom to work.

At the press conference you mentioned that next season’s team could be “very special”.  I was interested in the way you described the number of returning starters. Instead of saying that “all five starters will be back,” you noted that (I’m paraphrasing slightly) “at the end of the season all five starters were coming back.”

There have been some rumblings that at least a couple of players are considering leaving the school, including two regulars in the rotation, so your first recruiting job is going to be trying to keep them from bolting.  It appears you are well aware of this, which is good.  I hope they stay, as if everyone comes back next season really could be special.

Despite the expectations for next year, you won’t really be under any pressure to win immediately, and can think long-term.  Ed Conroy left for a better job after four seasons.  The three coaches before him had a combined winning percentage of 41.2%, but despite that coached for 11 (Les Robinson), 7 (Randy Nesbit), and 14 (Pat Dennis) seasons at The Citadel.

The job isn’t a career-killer like it’s occasionally been made out to be.  Four of the last eight coaches, in fact, left to coach other Division I schools; one of them, Norm Sloan, would later win the national title.  Sloan and Robinson would actually coach two other D-1 schools after leaving The Citadel (counting Sloan’s two stops at Florida just once).

Congrats again for getting your first shot as a D-1 head coach, Coach Driesell.  Your opportunity comes at a place that is unusual and not for the faint of heart, but very special nonetheless.  Cherish the experience.

We’ll be rooting for you.



Southern Conference tourney time

Last year, I wrote about The Citadel’s abysmal record in the Southern Conference tournament.  The next few paragraphs are an updated version of that piece.  Feel free to ignore them if you have a weak stomach.  The preview for this year’s tournament (from The Citadel’s perspective) follows the history lesson.

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 (later a member of the SEC  — seriously!), 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 (for those unfamiliar with Newberry, it’s a tiny school located in central South Carolina).  The tournament featured teams from the new Southern Conference, the old SIAA, and squads like Newberry, which wasn’t in either league (it would join the SIAA in 1923).

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

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

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

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 several 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 10-56 or 10-57.  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-56 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 10-56 alltime in the SoCon tournament.  That’s just unbelievably bad.  It comes out to a 15% winning percentage, which is more than twice as bad as even The Citadel’s lousy alltime conference regular season winning percentage (35%).  The Citadel lost 17 straight tourney games from 1961-78, and then from 1985-97 lost 13 more in a row.

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

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

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

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

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

The Citadel would win single games in 1982 and 1985 before going winless until 1998, when it finally broke a 13-game tourney losing streak by beating VMI.  The Keydets would be the next victim as well, in 2002, and were apparently so embarrassed they left the league.  The Citadel’s latest win in conference tournament action came in 2006 against Furman.

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

Ed Conroy is 0-3 in the SoCon tourney as head coach of The Citadel (he was also 0-4 as a player).  If The Citadel were to win its conference tournament opener against Samford, and then lose the next day to Appalachian State, Conroy’s record would improve to 1-4.  That would be the second-highest winning percentage in the tournament for a Bulldog coach since the days of Norm Sloan.

Sloan was 2-4 in the tourney; his successor, Mel Thompson, won his first tournament game as head coach.  He would never win another, finishing with a record of 1-6.  Dick Campbell was 0-4.  George Hill was 0-3.  Les Robinson was 3-10 (a record which by winning percentage leads all of the post-Sloan coaches).  Randy Nesbit was 0-7.  Pat Dennis was 3-14.

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

The Citadel’s record against current SoCon teams in the tournament:  Furman 2-5, UT-Chattanooga 0-1, Elon 0-1, Samford 0-1, College of Charleston 0-1, Georgia Southern 0-2, Western Carolina 1-1, Appalachian State 1-6, Davidson 1-8.  (The Citadel has never played Wofford or UNC-Greensboro in the tournament.)

Last season The Citadel was flying high, having won 20 games for only the second time ever, and had high hopes entering the tournament.  Those hopes came crashing down against Samford, a team The Citadel had defeated by 25 points during the regular season.  Samford’s patient, Princeton-style offense scored 76 points on only 55 possessions, as the Birmingham Bulldogs got off to a great start and never really let The Citadel into the game.  It was a very disappointing finish to an otherwise outstanding season.

This season The Citadel appeared on the verge of making a nice run into the SoCon tourney, having reeled off five straight victories, and needing just one more to clinch a winning season, both overall and in  league play.  It didn’t happen, though, as the Bulldogs lost their last three games. The loss at Furman, in particular, was very poor.  The Citadel is now 15-15 for this year’s campaign, and would have to win at least two games in the tourney to garner its first back-to-back winning campaigns since 1980.

Instead of a bye into the quarterfinals, The Citadel finds itself playing in the first round on Friday, finishing as the 4th seed in the South division.  Friday’s opponent, Samford, struggled to an 11-19 record (5-13 SoCon) and is the 5th seed from the North division.  The winner will play Appalachian State, which finished first in the North, on Saturday night.

The two teams met twice during the regular season, with The Citadel winning both games.  The first game, played in Birmingham on January 16, was the definition of slow tempo, with The Citadel’s patient motion offense (61.4 possessions per game, 8th slowest nationally) outlasting Samford’s Princeton-style attack (58.1 possessions per game, slowest in the country).

The cadets had but 51 possessions in the contest, and made just enough of them count to prevail 51-50.  Cameron Wells had 19 points, while Austin Dahn had 17 (making 4 three-pointers).  For Samford, Bryan Friday and Andy King combined for 28 points.  The Citadel’s edge on the boards (26-20) proved critical.

In the rematch in Charleston, Samford led by 10 points with less than 10 minutes to play but was unable to hold on, thanks to a fine outside shooting performance in the second half by The Citadel.  Freshman Ben Cherry had his best game of the season with 3 three-pointers, including two big shots late in the game.

Austin Dahn, who had made 4 three-pointers in the first meeting, hit four more in the second game to finish with 15 points and offset a poor shooting night for Wells (2-10 FG).  Harrison DuPont added 13 points and 7 rebounds, good enough to survive an excellent game by Samford’s Josh Davis (24 points on only 11 FG attempts).  The Citadel had 54 possessions in that game.

For The Citadel, the key to beating Samford for a third time this season is confidence. Last year in the tournament game, Samford ran out to an early lead.  I think The Citadel’s players got a little nervous, especially because trying to play from behind against a team as patient as Samford can be very frustrating (just like it can be for teams playing The Citadel).  The fact that the game was an elimination game in tournament play just exacerbated the tension.

It cannot help that The Citadel has no history of success in the SoCon tourney on which to build.  That is why I think it is important for the Bulldogs to win this game. Even if The Citadel does not go on to win the tournament (winning four games in four days is extremely unlikely), enjoying just a taste of victory in the tourney may go a long way next season, when The Citadel figures to field a squad capable of contending for the SoCon title.  This current crop of players needs to know it can win games in the tournament.

One thing working in The Citadel’s favor is that while it has lost three straight games, so has Samford.  Also, while Cameron Wells did not shoot well in the latter part of the season, he was 10-16 from the field in the season finale against Wofford.  That bodes well for the Bulldogs, which will need point production from Wells in the tournament.

The Citadel needs to start well, maintain its confidence, and not spend the whole night in “here we go again” mode.

If the Bulldogs advance, the next opponent would be Appalachian State, a team The Citadel defeated 62-58 in Boone early in the season.  Appy star Donald Sims scored 22 points, but got no help from his teammates, none of whom scored more than 7 points, while Wells had 21 and Dahn 14 for the Bulldogs.  Since then, the Mountaineers have fashioned an excellent season, and if not for the draw would be my pick to win the league tournament.

Wofford won the regular season and has the best draw, and I suppose should be the favorite, but for some reason I’m not quite convinced the Terriers have what it takes to win three straight games in three days.

It should be an interesting four days in Charlotte.  It would be nice if The Citadel added to the interest.

Charlie Brown’s favorite college basketball program

Edit (8/10/09):  I originally wrote what follows in November 2008.  The 2008-09 basketball Bulldogs then went out and won 20 games for only the second time in school history, resulting in the first appearance by The Citadel in a post-season hoops tourney (okay, so it was the CollegeInsider.com Tournament, but that still counts).  Based on this turn of events, I am hopeful that if I write another essay prior to next season detailing the program’s less-than-stellar history, the 2009-10 edition of the Bulldogs will win the SoCon NCAA tournament.

There are only five schools that have been in NCAA Division I continuously since the classification’s formation in 1948 that have never participated in the NCAA basketball tournament.  Those five schools are Northwestern, Army, William&Mary, St. Francis of New York, and The Citadel.  Of those five, only one has never participated in the NIT.  Army has played in the NIT eight times (and according to Bob Knight, actually turned down an invitation to the NCAAs in the late 1960s).  Northwestern and St. Francis have three NIT invites each.  William&Mary has made one appearance in the NIT, in 1983.

The Citadel has made no such appearances.  It has never played in a game following its conference tournament.  No NCAA trips, no NIT bids, nothing.

This is not a fluke.

The history of basketball at The Citadel can be likened to the long-running Peanuts bit where Charlie Brown tries to kick the football, only to have Lucy jerk it away from him time and time again, except in this case the ball is jerked away from him about 10 seconds before he can even swing his leg to kick it…but he keeps trying to kick it anyway.

(Yes, I know that’s an analogy based on a football play, and this is a post about basketball.  There will be a motocross analogy later, too.  Just stay with me.)

Here are some quick facts about The Citadel’s basketball program:

— NCAA bids:  0
— NIT bids:  0
— Southern Conference tournament titles:  0
— Southern Conference regular season titles (undisputed or shared):  0
— Southern Conference regular season division titles (undisputed or shared):  0
— Southern Conference tournament MVPs:  0
— NBA players, past or present, who attended The Citadel:  0
— Appearances in the Southern Conference tournament final:  1 (1959)
— Number of times winning more than one game in the Southern Conference tournament:  1 (1959)
— Southern Conference tournament semifinal appearances since 1985:  1
— 20-win seasons:  1 (1979)
— Coaches with a winning record at The Citadel since World War II:  1 (Norm Sloan)
— Best-sellers about playing basketball at The Citadel titled My Losing Season 1
— Seasons with 20 or more losses:  11 (including the last three and five of the last six)
— Seasons finishing 10 or more games under .500:  20 (19 of them since World War II)
— Winning seasons since 1962:  10
— Winning seasons since 1962 in which The Citadel finished 3 or more games over .500:  5
— Consecutive losses in the Southern Conference tournament, 1985-1997:  13
— Consecutive losses in the Southern Conference tournament, 1961-1978:  17
— Overall record in the Southern Conference tournament:  11-55
— Coaches since 1975:  4 (nobody ever said The Citadel didn’t give its coaches a chance)

Brief Digression Number OneEvery season The Citadel loses in the SoCon tourney and sets a new NCAA record for most consecutive conference tournament appearances without winning a title – and every season, the following week Clemson ties the record (which is currently 55) when the Tigers lose in the ACC tournament.  Of course, Clemson came close to breaking its string of futility last year.  Incidentally, The Citadel’s 58-56 win over Clemson in 1979 is the last victory for the Bulldogs over a current member of the Atlantic Coast Conference.  The Citadel is 24-55 against Clemson, alltime.  Seven of those wins came after the Tigers joined the ACC.  Those are the only victories The Citadel has against a school that was a member of the ACC at the time.

The Citadel actually won a few more games than it lost in the seasons leading up to World War II.  Of course, the competition in those not-so-organized times wasn’t always the best.  In 1917, for example, The Citadel defeated the Charleston Navy Yard Machinist Mates 48-11.  In 1925 the Bulldogs beat Standard Oil 46-18, and in 1932 The Citadel recorded a 42-23 victory over the Jewish Alliance.  Alas, the Bulldogs’ 62-51 loss to the Savannah Ice Service in 1941 was a sign of things to come, because after the war things turned south in a hurry.

Brief Digression Number Two:  In 1927, coach Benny Blatt’s Bulldogs finished 17-2 and actually won a postseason tourney, the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association tournament, the only postseason event ever won by The Citadel.  The SIAA was the ancestor of the Southern Conference.  However, by 1927 all of the current SEC/ACC schools that would eventually make up the original Southern Conference had left the SIAA, and had been replaced by mostly smaller schools, with some holdovers (like The Citadel) still remaining in the old league.  In that 1927 tournament, The Citadel beat Mercer in the final.  It was the fourth time The Citadel had played Mercer that season, with the Bulldogs winning all four games.  All nineteen games The Citadel played that season were contested in the Carolinas or Georgia.

There is an old Peanuts TV special, “You’re a Good Sport, Charlie Brown,” in which Charlie Brown (with help from Linus) competes in a motocross race, with the winner to receive tickets to the NFL Pro Bowl.  Eventually, all of the other racers (including Snoopy) drop out of the event, and Charlie Brown wins it by default.  However, he finds out after the race that the organizers were unable to get the Pro Bowl tickets; instead, he receives coupons for five free haircuts at a barbershop in Denver, Colorado.  Keep in mind that Charlie Brown is bald, doesn’t live in Denver, and his father is a barber.

The Citadel’s victory in the ’27 SIAA tournament has always struck me as comparable to Charlie Brown’s motocross triumph.

Bernard O’Neil’s first year as coach, in 1948, resulted in a respectable 8-9 record, but his 1949 squad lost its first 17 games before winning the season finale.  He coached three more seasons, finishing with a career record of 28-72.

His replacement, the immortal Leo Zack, was 5-32 in two seasons, the latter season ending with 16 straight losses.  Three of his five career victories came against Newberry.  He also lost a game to Newberry, the school that during this time was better known for being the victim of Frank Selvy’s 100-point game.

Jim Browning was a respected professor at The Citadel, and also assisted the department of athletics whenever and wherever he was needed.  In his later years he helped compile statistics at home football games.  In the fall of 1954, he agreed to serve as coach for the basketball team.  I wish I knew more about how he wound up with the job; there has to be a good story there.  I vaguely recall a writeup about that season, but I don’t remember the source, and I haven’t been able to find it, at least not yet.  Incidentally, Col. Browning would have been a young man in 1954, probably not much older than the players.  I think his main job was to avoid forfeits, to be honest.  He succeeded in that, but that was about all the success the 1954-55 squad would have, finishing with a 1-21 record.  The only win was against the Jacksonville Naval Air Station.

Brief Digression Number Three:  Some sources incorrectly don’t count that as an official victory, including the Southern Conference record book, with the league still listing The Citadel as having lost a conference record 37 straight games during this time period (the record is for consecutive losses against all opponents, not consecutive conference losses).  However, during that era schools were allowed to count games against military bases (and AAU teams) as part of their overall record.  The NCAA actually changed its record book a few years ago to take out references to the “37-game losing streak”; the mistake had been made long ago, and wasn’t fixed until 2004.  (The actual losing streak was 30 games.)  Besides, it’s not like The Citadel was catching a break playing service teams – the Bulldogs also lost that year to that same N.A.S., and dropped two lopsided games to the Parris Island Marines as well.  The Citadel also lists a loss to Gibbs AAU for that season by a score of 121-65.

That loss to Gibbs AAU wasn’t the worst loss of the season, though.  Neither was the 125-54 drubbing in the first game against the P.I. Marines.  The worst defeat would be an 87-point loss at Furman, 154-67.  That game would become part of an unusual record, for in the second meeting that year between the two teams, The Citadel elected to play stall-ball (why the Bulldogs didn’t try that strategy more often during the season, I don’t know).  I was once told by someone that at one point during the game most of the players on both teams were sitting down on the court, a few of them amiably chatting with one another.  Furman eventually won the game, 26-24.  The 85-point differential from one game to the next between the same teams is an NCAA record.  Normally, a record like that would occur when a team lost by a large margin and then came back and posted a dominant victory.  In this case, however, The Citadel (naturally) managed to lose both games.

The next year another coach, Hank Witt, who doubled as an assistant coach for the football team, led The Citadel to a 2-19 record.  Some of the losses that season were just staggering (Presbyterian beat The Citadel by 50 points – twice).  After that season, somebody at The Citadel got serious about hoops.  That somebody was presumably Mark Clark, scourge of Italy (and Texas).  The famous World War II general had become the new president of the school in 1954 and had no use for inept varsity athletic teams, or anything else inept for that matter.  The military college decided to hire a young coach named Norm Sloan.  You may have heard of him.

Sloan did a fantastic job, winning 57 games in four seasons.  In his third season, The Citadel would finish 15-5, losing to Jerry West and West Virginia in the SoCon tourney final, the only appearance The Citadel has ever made in the title game.  (West Virginia would go all the way to the NCAA championship game that year, losing 71-70 to California.)  Sloan left after the following season to coach Florida (the first of two stints with the Gators; of course, in between he would win the national title at North Carolina State).

Brief Digression Number Four:  Sloan recruited the midwest exclusively while at The Citadel.  He seemingly had no interest in local players.  In the fall following his first season as coach, he held an open practice for cadets interested in trying out for the basketball team.  Well, maybe not so open.  Sloan walked into the gym and greeted all the candidates, and then asked them to line up single-file, facing him.  He then said, “Everyone from Ohio, Indiana, or Kentucky, take one step forward.”  A few of the cadets stepped forward.  Sloan then barked, “The rest of you are cut,”  and walked out of the gym.

Sloan’s replacement, Mel Thompson, had one good year, and then the program went downhill, including a 3-20 debacle in 1963.  Thompson did manage to put together two consecutive winning campaigns after that season (with records of 11-10 and 13-11).  However, Thompson and the program then suffered two more losing years with a combined win-loss total of 15-33.  His final season eventually spawned a best-selling book in which the coach was portrayed as something less than human, or all too human, depending on your point of view.

After Thompson’s departure, the program went through a seven-year period of .445 ball under two different coaches.  Dick Campbell coached for four seasons.  Campbell came to The Citadel after an enormously successful run at Carson-Newman, where he had averaged 25 wins per season in his last seven years as coach.  At The Citadel, however, Campbell would finish with a record of 45-54.  He left the military college to take the head coaching job at Xavier.  His career as a college coach would end two years later, after a 3-23 campaign for the Cincinnati school.

George Hill took over from Campbell.  Hill had been the head coach at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, where in two years he had won 11 games, all 11 victories coming in his second season (the USCGA was 0-21 in his first year as coach there).  He couldn’t provide any forward momentum at The Citadel, though, going 33-42 in three seasons, all losing campaigns.  Hill would later become a sportswriter and an author.

Les Robinson, who had already been an assistant coach for several years, was then promoted.  Robinson, one of three North Carolina State graduates to coach The Citadel (Sloan and Thompson had also played for the great Everett Case), would start off the first season of his eleven-year head coaching career at The Citadel by winning four of his first five games.  Three games later, his squad was still in good shape at 5-3, but it would then lose its last twelve games.  Robinson would follow that up with a 17-loss campaign and two 19-loss seasons before finally finding success, with his 1978-79 team finishing with a 20-7 record and actually winning a SoCon tourney game, the school’s first postseason victory since 1961.  After a few middling-to-bad seasons, Robinson’s final Bulldog team would win 18 games.  He then left to become head coach and AD at East Tennessee State.  Four years later, Les Robinson would finally take a team to the NCAA tournament.  He would later become famous enough to have an invitational named after him.

His replacement, Randy Nesbit, had played for Robinson, and was only 26 years old when he got the top job.  In seven years, Nesbit had more 20-loss seasons (two) then winning seasons (one).  In all fairness to Nesbit, he didn’t have a lot of luck, even by the meager karma standards of basketball at The Citadel.  Among other problems, The Citadel’s ancient basketball arena, McAlister Field House, underwent a renovation that left it unusable for two seasons during his tenure.  McAlister could occasionally be a surprisingly difficult place to play for opposing teams (it was often described in its original incarnation as resembling an airport hangar).  In Nesbit’s third season as coach, however, his squad played no games on campus, with the designated home games played at a local high school or at the College of Charleston’s gymnasium.

The following year, The Citadel elected to play its home games at its physical education building, Deas Hall, one of the more bizarre places to serve as a home court for a Division I basketball team in the modern era of college basketball.  McAlister would eventually reopen, but Nesbit’s final two teams would lose a combined 40 games anyway.  Nesbit is now the head basketball coach at Roane State Community College in Tennessee (he also teaches in the business school there).  One of the players on his current squad is 73 years old.

Brief Digression Number Five:  Nesbit did have one great moment while coaching The Citadel.  In 1989, Nesbit’s Bulldogs shocked South Carolina in Columbia, 88-87, breaking a 36-game losing streak to the Gamecocks that had dated back to 1943.  The key basket in the game was a clutch three-pointer made by Nesbit’s younger brother, Ryan (if he had missed it, the adjective “clutch” would have been changed to “reckless”).  The Gamecocks were marching to their first NCAA bid in many years when they were stunned in the late-season matchup, but George Felton’s best team actually recovered from the loss and won enough games to make the dance anyway (losing to North Carolina State in the first round).  The victory in Columbia was The Citadel’s 16th of the season, and, as it turned out, its last.  Thus it was the final win in the career of one Ed Conroy, a senior guard on that team, and now the head coach of the Bulldogs.

Nesbit was followed by Pat Dennis (also known as “the long-suffering Pat Dennis”), who had been an assistant for Dick Tarrant at Richmond.  Dennis would last for fourteen years, the longest tenure of any of The Citadel’s basketball coaches.  His sixth squad finished 15-13, the first winning season at The Citadel in a decade, and actually won a SoCon tourney game, the first in 13 years for the school.  After a few more losing years, Dennis would have consecutive winning seasons in 2001-02 and 2002-03, one of only two times The Citadel has had consecutive winning seasons in the last 42 years.  The perpetually frustrated Dennis would lose 20+ games in three of his final four seasons, however.  Dennis finished with a career record at The Citadel of 156-235.

On the bright side, Dennis had a winning record against each military school he faced while coaching The Citadel (11-7 against VMI, 2-1 against Navy, 3-0 against Army, and 1-0 against Air Force).  So he had that going for him, which was nice.

The current coach of the Bulldogs, Ed Conroy, is 13-47 in two seasons at the helm.  Conroy was hired by none other than Les Robinson, who had returned to The Citadel as AD.  Conroy had actually been recruited by Robinson when he was a high school senior, although Robinson would leave for ETSU before ever getting a chance to coach Conroy at The Citadel.  Ed Conroy is a cousin of Pat Conroy, a relationship that was well documented when Ed took over the program.

Last year, Conroy made news by playing a squad almost entirely made up of freshmen.  Some of them actually showed promise (albeit while only winning two games against Division I competition), so perhaps he can be the coach to lead the Bulldogs to the promised land – the NCAA tournament.  I’m rooting hard for him – he’s a nice guy – but it’s going to be very, very tough.  When The Citadel beat South Carolina that cold night in 1989, Conroy was quoted as saying the victory would be “the one we’ll remember all our lives.”  Winning the Southern Conference title as head coach of The Citadel would be a much more memorable moment.

I always tell people that if The Citadel were to ever advance to the NCAAs in basketball, that would probably be a sure sign of an imminent Apocalypse…

It can be difficult to be a fan of college hoops — and I really enjoy college hoops — when your school is always terrible in basketball.  Not just occasionally terrible, mind you, not just those inevitable slumps of a year or two or even a bad decade, but always.  It’s like there’s a really cool party going on, and the party never really stops, but it doesn’t matter that the party lasts forever, because you still don’t have a ticket and you may never get one, and what really irks you is that practically every other person in the free world has been to the party, even some out-and-out losers who don’t even realize how great the party really is, and you are still left out in the cold.

It would be great to even consider the possibility of turning on the tournament selection show, and watching James Brown announce something like, “in the South regional, with these games being played in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, the #2 seed is Georgetown, and the mighty Hoyas will take on the #15 seed, the Southern Conference champion, The Citadel [brief pause, as Brown shakes his head in disbelief], making its first NCAA tournament appearance in school history.”  This would be followed by a live shot of cheering cadets, possibly with no hazing involved.

It would be absolutely surreal.

It hasn’t come close to happening, though, and really, if it were to happen (and this is important), I would like it to be in a year in which The Citadel was actually good.  I don’t want it to be a year where the Bulldogs go 11-18, and then get lucky and win the SoCon tourney because all the other teams’ players came down with food poisoning or something.

Besides, in that case, The Citadel would almost certainly land in the utterly reprehensible, completely despicable play-in game.  If The Citadel were to ever make the NCAAs, and the tournament selection committee then put the team in the play-in game, I would immediately drive up to Indianapolis and just start assaulting people.

That scenario isn’t likely to happen, though (which is just as well, as the drive to Indy would probably be really boring).  The Citadel has only won two games in the conference tourney once in its history.  It’s hard to conceive of it actually winning three times in one weekend.

I fully expect more hard times on the hardwood.  I hope for the best, but you have to be realistic.  After all, it’s a small military school with no hoops tradition whatsoever.  If Charlie Brown were to have a favorite college basketball program, this would be it.

Still my team, though.