Trying to rise above a history of misery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One of the more curious things about The Citadel’s wretched history in the SoCon tourney is that there is no firm answer to just how many times the school has lost in the event.  That’s because the league has mutated so many times there is a dispute as to what year the first “official” conference tournament was held.

Before 1920, The Citadel was one of many schools in a rather loose confederation known as the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association.  (The Citadel initially joined in 1909.)  There were about 30 colleges in the SIAA by 1920, including almost every member of the current SEC and about half of the current ACC, along with schools such as Centre, Sewanee (somewhat amusingly, later a member of the SEC), Chattanooga, Wofford, Howard (now called Samford, of course), and Millsaps, just to name a few.  As you might imagine, the large and disparate membership had some disagreements, and was just plain hard to manage, so a number of the schools left to form the Southern Conference in late 1920.

In the spring of 1921, the SIAA sponsored a basketball tournament, which would be the forerunner to all the conference hoops tourneys to follow.  Any southern college or university could travel to Atlanta to play, and fifteen schools did just that.  Kentucky beat Georgia in the final.  The Citadel did not enter the event, but several other small colleges did, including Newberry.  The tournament featured teams from the new Southern Conference, the old SIAA, and squads like Newberry, which wasn’t in either league (it would join the SIAA in 1923).

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

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

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

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

Personally, I think that the idea of having a conference tournament is to determine a league champion, and it stands to reason that such a tournament would only include league members.  So the first “real” Southern Conference tournament, in my opinion, was held in 1924.

There is a point to this, trust me.  The difference between counting the Vanderbilt loss as a SoCon tourney loss and not counting it is the difference between The Citadel’s alltime record in the event being 10-55 or 10-56.  Not that they both aren’t hideous totals, but as of now The Citadel shares the NCAA record for “most consecutive conference tournament appearances without a title” with Clemson, which is 0-for-55 in trying to win the ACC tournament.  Counting the Vanderbilt game would mean The Citadel is alone in its conference tourney infamy.  No offense to the Tigers, but I don’t believe the 1922 game should count, because it wasn’t really a Southern Conference tournament game.

By the way, you read that right.  The Citadel is 10-55 alltime in the SoCon tournament.  That’s just unbelievably bad.  It comes out to a 14% winning percentage, which is more than twice as bad as even The Citadel’s lousy alltime conference regular season winning percentage (35%).  The Citadel lost 17 straight tourney games from 1961-78, and then from 1985-97 lost 13 more in a row.  Incidentally, the single-game scoring record in the tournament is held by Marshall’s Skip Henderson, who put up 55 on The Citadel in 1988 (in a game Marshall won by 43 points; karma is a you-know-what, as the next night the Thundering Herd, which had won the regular season title that year, lost to UT-Chattanooga by one point).

Those losses aren’t all in consecutive years, as The Citadel didn’t always qualify for the tournament, particularly in the years before 1953, when there were up to 17 teams in the league at any given time, and only the top squads played in the tourney.  The Citadel’s first “real” appearance, in 1938, resulted in a 42-38 loss to Maryland.  The Citadel would lose two more tourney openers before winning its first game in 1943, against South Carolina.  That would be the only time the Bulldogs and Gamecocks faced each other in the tournament, and so South Carolina is one of two teams The Citadel has a winning record against in SoCon tourney play (the Bulldogs are 2-0 against VMI).

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

After a 1961 quarterfinal victory over Richmond, The Citadel would not win another tournament game until 1979, when the Bulldogs defeated Davidson before losing to Furman.  The game against Davidson was played at McAlister Field House, and was the 20th victory of the season, which until Monday was the most games ever won by a Bulldog squad (now tied, of course, by the current edition of the Bulldogs).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday night can’t get here soon enough…

Time to start a new streak

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

19 could lead to 20, and 20 means a lot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Valentine’s Day present: nine straight wins

Now that’s a Valentine’s Day to remember:  The Citadel 72, College of Charleston 58, in the Bulldogs’ first game ever at Carolina First Arena (with 5,168 spectators in attendance).

I have to admit that I wasn’t so sure about The Citadel’s chances of winning this game, despite the solid victory at McAlister three weeks ago.  I felt the Bulldogs were perhaps due for a bad game, and that the College was on a roll after its comeback victory at Davidson and subsequent thumping of Western Carolina.

After watching the first half, though, I realized that my fears  were misguided.  The Citadel had committed nine turnovers in only twenty-seven possessions, meaning that the Bulldogs had turned the ball over every third time down the court (a terrible percentage, to say the least).  Normally that would be a recipe for disaster, but instead The Citadel only trailed by one point (29-28).

The Bulldogs were shooting the ball well, and when not committing turnovers were doing a good job running their offense, using the shotclock, making the Cougars work on defense  (which some of the CofC players did not appear to enjoy), and controlling the pace of play.  The Citadel had handled the College’s press with relative ease (which had also happened in the first meeting), and I figured that as long as the Bulldogs took care of the basketball in their normal fashion in the second half, they would be in good shape.  That is exactly what happened.  The Citadel turned over the ball over on its first possession of the second half, but then committed only two more turnovers the rest of the game.

Then there was the rebounding.

The Citadel outrebounded the CofC 13-8 in the first half, which was a marked departure from the first contest between the two teams, when for the game the Cougars had 38 rebounds to the Bulldogs’ 25.  The reason The Citadel didn’t just win on Saturday, but won going away, was that the Bulldogs completely dominated the glass in the second half, essentially reversing the board differential from the first game, and finished +17 (38 rebounds to the CofC’s 21).  The most impressive statistic in the game, to me, was that the Bulldogs got more offensive rebounds (13) than the College got defensive boards (12).

That had to have frustrated Bobby Cremins and the CofC fans, especially since the Cougars started three frontcourt players in the 6’7″-6’8″ range and brought another 6’8″ forward off the bench, and none of those guys were stringbeans, either.  Meanwhile, The Citadel countered with a starting lineup featuring one 6’8″ post player (Demetrius Nelson) and a bunch of guards, including John Brown, who is 6’4″ but essentially fills the power forward role for the Bulldogs — and it was Brown who proved to be the primary nemesis for the Cougars’ big men, gathering 12 rebounds (5 offensive), scoring 14 points on 7-10 shooting (I think every made basket was a layup), and generally being a nuisance on the defensive end of the floor.   Interestingly, Brown had the same rebounding totals (12/5 offensive) in the first matchup.

In this game, though, he had help on the boards from Nelson (7/3 offensive) and, somewhat surprisingly, Zach Urbanus (who had the same 7/3 ratio).

I would like to riff a little about an aspect of Ed Conroy’s coaching that I have gradually come to appreciate.  The Citadel runs a very disciplined offense, one that usually involves working the clock and controlling the pace of play.  The Bulldogs are generally at their best when the number of possessions in a game hovers around 60 or so.  Whenever I am watching, and things start to get a bit frenetic, or someone takes a shot with 25 seconds or more remaining on the shotclock, I’m inclined to start mumbling things like, “Slow it down!  Slow it down!  You’re playing too fast!  Work the clock!”  You get the idea.  I’m particularly prone to think this way late in games when The Citadel has a lead.

The key is, though, that while a Bulldog will occasionally force a shot, it doesn’t really happen too often — and more importantly, the players maintain a sense of aggressiveness.  There is a distinction to be made between a disciplined offense and a conservative offense.  It doesn’t do you any good to run the shotclock down to 5 on each possession if you regularly wind up hoisting a 30-foot jumper.

So while I may have wished that Cosmo Morabbi had not attempted a contested three-pointer with the Bulldogs up 14 and just over 4 minutes to play, and with 26 seconds still remaining on the shotclock, I can understand that the freedom he has in being “allowed” to attempt that shot is critical.  Maybe that time he made a mistake, but by being aggressive and not timid, he also was in a position to make two other three-pointers during the game, including the shot that signalled the game was The Citadel’s to lose, a three-pointer at the 10:20 mark that stretched the Bulldogs’ lead to nine — and a shot taken with 25 seconds still remaining on the shotclock.

That’s good coaching.

There has been some discussion about yesterday’s victory by The Citadel being “historic”, with references to “The Citadel’s first two-game series sweep since the 1932-33 season” in this column by Gene Sapakoff in The Post and Courier, as well as Jeff Hartsell’s game story (“an event that comes around every 76 years or so”).  This angle pops up in other press reports, too.

Now, with all due respect to the above chroniclers, I think the whole “first sweep since the 1930s” thing is overblown and a bit misleading. Before Saturday, the Bulldogs had not swept the Cougars in a two-game set since 1933, but following the 1937 season (a year during which the schools met three times, with The Citadel winning the latter two matchups), The Citadel and the College of Charleston did not play again until 1956.  After that one game, the series again went into hibernation, and did not resume until 1977. In addition, The Citadel and the CofC only began playing twice per year again in 1997 (except for a two-game set in 1983, which was split).  The truth is there was a 60-year period in the series during which The Citadel (or the College of Charleston, for that matter) had only one opportunity for a “sweep”.

Also, of course, technically The Citadel has not “swept” the College of Charleston this season — yet.  The two schools could meet for a third time in the Southern Conference tournament, although as things currently stand that potential matchup could only happen if both teams advanced to the championship game.  With yesterday’s win, the chances of The Citadel getting to the final improved slightly, because the Bulldogs are now in position to get a first-round bye (as a top-2 finisher in the South Division).

That would be critical, particular for The Citadel.  It would be much easier to win three straight games than have to win four games in four days in Chattanooga (no team has ever gone the “four in four” route to win the SoCon tourney).  Also, given The Citadel’s putrid history in the Southern Conference tournament, having to play one fewer game to actually win the thing would surely come as a relief.  Three tournament wins would be more victories than The Citadel has had in the last 22 tournaments combined.

To guarantee getting that bye, The Citadel has to win at least three of its remaining four games.  The win over the Cougars gave the Bulldogs a little cushion, as the game at Davidson on Wednesday is not a must-win for bye hopes.  However, there is still work to do.  The Citadel also has home games remaining against Furman, a team the Bulldogs had to go to overtime to beat in Greenville (and the Paladins appear to be improving), and Wofford, which beat The Citadel in Spartanburg — the last time the Bulldogs lost a game.  The Citadel finishes the season at Georgia Southern, which has been decimated by injuries and suspensions.  It’s still a road game, though.

The Citadel would get an additional mulligan (or more) if the College of Charleston is unable to win out.  The College has three straight road games up next on its schedule; a slip-up by the Cougars at any of those games would greatly help the Bulldogs’ cause.

As I write this the status of Stephen Curry for Wednesday’s game is uncertain, as Davidson’s all-everything player injured his ankle on Saturday night against Furman.  Even without him, though, the Wildcats would be a formidable opponent, particularly at Belk Arena.  Obviously Davidson is a much better team with him.

While awaiting updates on Curry, it’s worth taking stock in what the Bulldogs have accomplished already.  17 victories clinches a winning season for the first time in seven seasons.  The Citadel has only won more games than that in a season twice in its history (18 in 1985 and 20 in 1979).  The 12 conference victories is a school record, although past teams didn’t have a 20-game league schedule.  Still, no Bulldog squad has ever finished a season with a .750 winning percentage in conference play, which the current group is on pace to do.  The Citadel continues to add to its record for consecutive conference wins.

It’s been a great run so far, but there is still (hopefully) more fun on the horizon.

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 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.