The Citadel hoops it up in Las Vegas…and a couple other places

What happens in Vegas…stays in Vegas.

On Friday, The Citadel plays the first of four basketball games in the western half of the United States, with one game in Boulder, Colorado, another in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and two games in Las Vegas.  If you have to play four games in the week before Christmas, you could do worse in terms of locales.

The four games are all part of the IBN Las Vegas Classic, which is an in-season tournament that really isn’t a tournament.  Well, I suppose it’s a tournament for Colorado, New Mexico, Indiana, and Northern Iowa.  Those four schools host two games, then play in a four-team bracket in Las Vegas for the “tournament” title. Meanwhile, four other schools (The Citadel, South Carolina State, Longwood, and SIU Edwardsville) play two games at the “bigger” schools and then two games against each other in Vegas.

It doesn’t matter if The Citadel beats Colorado and/or New Mexico before playing in Las Vegas.  It’s still paired off with the Longwood-SIUE-SCSU group.

This kind of in-season event is a growing trend that can be blamed mostly on Gardner-Webb, which a couple of years ago upset Kentucky and replaced the Wildcats in a made-for-ESPN tournament at Madison Square Garden.  That didn’t sit well with event organizers, which missed out on the hordes of UK fans (and also presumably annoyed ESPN, which lost a big TV draw).

After that, the folks who run these types of events started the “guaranteed four” setup, so as to ensure that the four “name” teams in the tournament advance to play at the main site.  Of course, both sets of teams in the LVC are playing at Orleans Arena anyway, but I’m guessing CBS College Sports (which is televising each game of the Colorado-New Mexico-Northern Iowa-Indiana group) didn’t want to be faced with the possibility of televising Longwood-South Carolina State instead of Northern Iowa-Indiana.

In addition, the organizers want to sell as many tickets, advanced or otherwise, as possible, and it’s not as easy to do that without “heavyweight” matchups (although there is nothing particularly heavy about any of the heavies in this tourney).  If you click on the “IBN Las Vegas Classic” link above, you will notice that ticket prices for the event range from $44 to $110, and single-game tickets are not available.  (If you listen to the announcer on the streaming video advertisement, you will also notice him promoting South Carolina as playing in this event; undoubtedly the folks who put the video together got South Carolina confused with South Carolina State.)

The Citadel also played in a “tournament” with pre-determined matchups a couple of years ago, in Cancun, an event that also featured New Mexico, and which was most notable for having its games played in a ballroom (complete with chandeliers).

Just some thoughts on The Citadel’s upcoming opponents, nothing too substantial…let’s start with Chris Fowler’s alma mater:

Colorado is 5-3.  The Buffaloes are 5-0 at home and 0-3 on the road.  Luckily for Colorado, it will play The Citadel at home.

This appears to be enough of an edge for The Denver Post, and possibly Buffs coach Tad Boyle, to take the Bulldogs for granted.  Boyle plans to “substitute freely” against The Citadel, in an effort to give his benchwarmers some playing time. According to the Post, “it will be a disappointment if Colorado can’t empty its bench” against the Bulldogs.

I think that qualifies as bulletin board material…

You can understand Colorado’s confidence, what with its impressive wins over national powers Idaho State and Texas-Pan American, and its near-upset of Harvard, which only beat the Buffaloes by 16 points.

Alec Burks (20.5 PPG this season and last year’s Big XII freshman of the year) and Cory Higgins (16.9 PPG) are good players, and need to be saved for other games, like those against top-100 RPI teams.  Colorado needs to beat some of those teams to finish the year in the top 100 itself, something it hasn’t done in the past four seasons. Part of the reason for that has been its less-than-stellar defensive play; among other things, Colorado finished last in the Big XII in 2009-10 in FG% defense.

Boyle won 25 games last year at Northern Colorado, and then moved to Boulder to replace Jeff Bzdelik (currently losing games to low-major squads at an alarming rate for Wake Forest).  He wants to improve Colorado’s defense and rebounding, which is a good idea, but through eight games the Buffs are still struggling to defend (including allowing opponents to shoot 40% from three-land; Zach Urbanus, take note).

The Citadel, by my count, has now lost 51 straight games to schools currently in BCS conferences.  Its last victory over a major-conference foe came in 1989, at South Carolina.  Before that you have to go back to 1979 and a win over Clemson.  The Bulldogs have only one victory over a current Big XII school, a 62-61 decision against Texas A&M in 1971.

While beating Colorado might be considered unlikely, given that history, it’s not out of the realm of possibility, particularly since the Buffaloes are not exactly on the same level as Duke or Kansas.  I’m a bit bemused by the Post story, which appears to be assuming a walkover.

Going into this season, Steve Alford had won 76 games in three years at New Mexico, including 30 last season (a school record).  One of those 30 victories came in the NCAA tournament, which matched Alford’s total number of NCAA tourney triumphs in eight years at Iowa.  It appears Albuquerque is a better fit for Alford than Iowa City, somewhat surprising for a Big 10 legend…or a Big 10 leader…whatever.

(We’ll be mocking the new Big 10 division names for years to come.)

Alford should have a good team this year, too, although it could have been even better had MWC player of the year Darington Hobson returned.  He elected to go pro and bypass his senior season, however.  Hobson and Ramon Martinez (also departed) combined to average 30 points and 15 rebounds per game last season; now Alford has to replace that production.

The Lobos are 7-1, including back-to-back wins over New Mexico State (a scheduling oddity; the victory in Las Cruces came in OT) and victories over Arizona State and Detroit.  The one loss was a 25-point beatdown at California.

New Mexico has a lot of depth, and Alford is still in the process of figuring out how to use it, evidenced by the fact ten different players have seen action in all eight of the Lobos’ games, and that doesn’t include Phillip McDonald, who missed three early games with an elbow injury.  When Alford does get a handle on his rotation, New Mexico should be an upper-echelon Mountain West Conference outfit, albeit probably a rung below San Diego State (Steve Fisher appears to have his best team in 12 years at the helm of the Aztecs’ program).

New Mexico plays its home games in one of college basketball’s great venues, The Pit, which has undergone a $60 million renovation.  The Pit is probably best known as the site of North Carolina State’s famous victory over Houston’s “Phi Slama Jama” squad in the 1983 NCAA title game.

It’s too bad Final Fours aren’t played in true basketball arenas any more, because The Pit was a classic host site.  CBS has been using “The Road to…” tagline for years to hype the NCAA tournament, and nothing ever sounded better than “The Road to Albuquerque”.

Once The Citadel arrives in Las Vegas, it will face South Carolina State.  This is, in a word, dumb.  Two schools 77 miles apart (believe me, I am more than familiar with the distance between Orangeburg and Charleston) will travel across the country to play each other.  I don’t see why the event organizers didn’t have SCSU and The Citadel play Longwood and/or SIU Edwardsville in the first round, to lessen the chance they would play each other.

South Carolina State is 4-4, with all four victories coming against non-D1 opposition. (The Orangeburg Bulldogs will play Indiana and Northern Iowa prior to matching up with The Citadel.)  The losses include setbacks at Clemson and at Charlotte; SCSU has also lost to Furman and, perhaps most disappointingly for its fans, North Carolina Central.

Carrio Bennett, a senior who was the MEAC freshman of the year three seasons ago, scored a combined 35 points against Furman and NC-Central, but averaged just six points against Charlotte and Clemson.  Darnell Porter lit it up against the Bulldogs’ non-D1 competition, but hasn’t yet produced against the better teams on SCSU’s schedule.

All of South Carolina State’s scholarship newcomers this season are junior college players; one of them, Brandon Riley, scored 23 points against Charlotte and 12 against Furman.

Through four games against D-1 teams, SCSU has done a good job forcing turnovers and rebounding, and a poor job defending in the paint (allowing 54.1% on 2-point FG attempts).  The Bulldogs are a mixed bag when it comes to offensive efficiency; they’re a good 2-point shooting team but terrible beyond the arc (26.6%).

This will be the first meeting between The Citadel and South Carolina State since 2004.  Charleston’s Bulldogs hold a 7-3 advantage in the series.

After playing South Carolina State, The Citadel will play either Longwood or SIU Edwardsville.

Longwood is 3-8, with its lone D-1 victory over Columbia.  The Lancers share one common opponent with The Citadel, James Madison, losing at home to the Dukes 88-78 (the Bulldogs lost to JMU 74-67 at McAlister Field House).

The globetrotting Lancers have also lost at Kansas, Seton Hall, Marquette, and VMI (losing 114-82 to the run-and-gun Keydets).  When The Citadel is playing Colorado, Longwood will be playing New Mexico (and vice versa).

Longwood is a small school (a little over 4000 undergraduates) in Farmville, Virginia that has been a D-1 member since 2007.  It’s an independent in hoops, which largely explains its all-over-the-map schedule.  Its most famous hoops alum is Jerome Kersey, who was a longtime NBA player for the Portland Trail Blazers.

SIU Edwardsville started institutional life as an extension of SIU Carbondale (the school commonly referred to as Southern Illinois or SIU).  SIUE now has almost 14,000 undergraduate students.

Like Longwood, SIUE is a recent debutant in D-1.  The Cougars ply their trade in the Ohio Valley Conference, although they won’t compete in league play as a member until next season. SIUE is still transitioning to Division I.

SIUE is 2-9, with only one victory over a D-1 squad.  That win came last Saturday against Kennesaw State in 2OT.  Kennesaw State had beaten Georgia Tech earlier in the season, so beating KSU was a nice scalp for the Cougars.  Actually, any win would be a nice scalp for SIUE, which prior to the Kennesaw State win had only defeated MacMurray (the college, not the dad from ‘My Three Sons’).  Last season the Cougars were 5-23, which included two non-D1 victories.

SIUE has several notable alums from the world of sports, including the great tennis doubles team of Ken Flach and Robert Seguso, the respected baseball broadcaster Dewayne Staats, and pro wrestler Paul Wight (“The Big Show”).  Sportswriter Bill Plaschke also attended SIUE.  However, the most notable SIUE basketball alum is longtime referee Ed Hightower.

When I last wrote about the hoops team, The Citadel was about to play its first two Southern Conference games of the season, along with a game against D-3 St. Mary’s of Maryland.  I had expected the Bulldogs to go 2-1 in those three games, and that’s exactly what happened.

As for the four upcoming “tournament” games, I believe The Citadel should be 2-2 at worst.  I don’t really expect an upset on the road in Boulder or Albuquerque (although it would be nice, obviously), but I think The Citadel has a better squad than South Carolina State (and a more cohesive and experienced one as well).  The Bulldogs should be favorites against either Longwood or SIUE.

Jeff Hartsell did a nice job in a recent “Bulldog Bites” post of breaking down how the season has gone so far, although I think the Bulldogs are a little better than that current Pomeroy projection.  I certainly hope so, anyway.  The Citadel needs to continue to work out its problems on the defensive end; the Bulldogs are a bottom 50 team nationally in 2-point FG% defense and aren’t much better in defensive turnover rate.  The Citadel does have good numbers defensively against the three-point shot, however, as opponents are only shooting 31% from beyond the arc.

The Citadel is only shooting 62.9% from the line, which is actually better than I would have expected, given that the player who has shot the most free throws so far this season is Bryan Streeter.  If good foul shooters like Cameron Wells and Mike Groselle get more opportunities from the charity stripe, the FT% will go up.

One way for Groselle to get more chances is for his minutes to increase, which I think is going to happen, particularly if he can hold his own defensively.  On the offensive side of the court, he has been very impressive.

I’ve been trying to decide who Groselle reminds me of in terms of his offensive game. Maybe this is a reach, and it certainly is a blast from the past, but I’m going to say he has a game not unlike John Pinone, who was a star for Rollie Massimino at Villanova in the early 1980s.

Streeter may be a total liability at the foul line (33.3%), but he is an offensive rebounding machine, with 29 in eight games.  That is getting it done.   Even with his struggles with free throws, he has still been arguably the Bulldogs’ second-best player so far this year when you combine all the elements of the game.

Zach Urbanus appears to have located his missing outside shot, and the team has solid numbers in terms of assist/turnover ratio and assist/made basket ratio (the A/B of 64% is 20th-best in the country).  Where the Bulldogs are hurting offensively is inside.  I noted The Citadel’s poor 2-point FG% defense earlier; it’s matched by an equally poor 2-point offensive percentage.  Between that, the team’s early struggles from three-land and the free throw issues, The Citadel’s eFG% is 314th out of 345 Division I teams.

I hope the players have a good time on the trip, and come back with an extra Christmas present or two, like a win in Boulder or Albuquerque.

The Iowa Hawkeyes come to town

On Thursday night, the Iowa Hawkeyes will become the first Big 10 team to ever play a game at McAlister Field House.  I’m sure people will be telling their grandchildren some day about the time big bad Todd Lickliter came to town with his band of marauding hoopsters, intent on destruction.  Then again, maybe not.

Let’s delve into some of the history (or lack thereof) between the two schools…

I first want to mention Whitey Piro.  Who is Whitey Piro?  Well, he was once the head basketball coach at The Citadel.  In 1947, Piro’s Bulldogs were 5-11.  That doesn’t seem like much of a record, but keep in mind the four coaches who followed Piro all had worse overall records.  Never has a .313 winning percentage looked so good.  Piro, who was born in Germany, went to high school in New York and graduated from Syracuse in 1941.  At Syracuse he was a star wide receiver and also played one year on the basketball team as a reserve.  He did not score a point that season, which arguably made him an ideal candidate to later coach hoops at The Citadel.

Piro played one year in the NFL, for the Philadelphia Eagles, before joining the Army Air Corps during World War II.  He would eventually have a long career as an assistant coach at Iowa (and was later a pro scout).  His son is Iowa’s executive director of development for intercollegiate athletics.

Piro is still alive and resides in Iowa City.  He is 90 years old.

After that, connections between the two schools dry up a bit.  Ed Conroy, of course, is a native of Davenport, Iowa, as is his assistant Andy Fox.  Assistant Doug Novak was once the head coach at a JC in Council Bluffs.

This will only be the fifth time The Citadel has ever played a Big 10 school in basketball.  Two years ago the Bulldogs played both Iowa and Michigan State (which will be the case this season as well).  In 1974 The Citadel played Indiana in Bloomington, and in 1970 the Bulldogs faced Northwestern in a Christmas tournament in Greenville.  The Citadel lost all of those games.

The last time The Citadel defeated a school currently in a BCS conference was 1989, when the Bulldogs upset South Carolina 88-87 in Columbia.  (At the time, the Gamecocks were members of the Metro Conference.)  Since then The Citadel’s record against current BCS schools is 0-45.  Prior to that 1989 game the Bulldogs had last defeated a major conference opponent in 1979, when they beat Clemson 58-56 in Charleston.  Thus, The Citadel has lost 70 of its last 71 games against schools currently in BCS conferences.

The Big 10 is not the only major conference The Citadel is 0-for-history against; the same is true of the Pac-10.  However, there have been very few games between The Citadel and teams from those two leagues.  That is also the case with the schools making up the Big XII.  The Bulldogs do have a win against a current Big XII school, though, having defeated Texas A&M (then of the Southwest Conference) 62-61 in 1971.

Okay, enough of that.  Let’s talk about this game.  First, a little background on Iowa’s recent hoops history.  It’s not what Iowa fans would like it to be.

Iowa had made three NCAA tournament appearances before 1979.  In 1955, Iowa reached the Final Four (in a 16-team tournament) before losing to Tom Gola and La Salle.  In 1956, the Hawkeyes made it to the title game (playing the regionals in Iowa City; the national semis were in Evanston, Illinois) before running into Bill Russell, K.C. Jones, and San Francisco.  The coach for those two teams was Bucky O’Connor.  Ralph Miller was the coach of the 1970 Iowa team that won the Big 10, the next time the Hawkeyes made an NCAA tournament appearance.

Iowa hoops in the “modern” era (when the tourney began to take on bigger-than-life dimensions) started with Lute Olson and a series of appearances beginning in 1979.  After stubbing its toe a bit that year (Iowa lost in the first round to Toledo in a game, interestingly enough, played in Bloomington), the Hawkeyes made their third (and to date, last) appearance in the Final Four in 1980.  As a five seed, Iowa had to play a first-round game against Virginia Commonwealth (the tourney had 48 teams back then) and then faced fourth-seeded N.C. State, which had received a bye, in Greensboro.  The Hawkeyes won that game, and then crushed the nascent Big East conference by winning back-to-back games in Philadelphia against top-seeded Syracuse and third-seeded Georgetown.  In the national semifinals, Iowa lost to eventual national champion Louisville, and then also lost to fellow Big 10’er Purdue in the consolation game (the next-to-last time the consolation game was played).

After that season, you better believe expectations were raised in Iowa City.  Olson continued to put teams into the field, but without the success he had in 1980.  Iowa lost in the first round in 1981 and the second round in 1982.  In 1983, as a seven seed, Olson’s charges rolled Norm Stewart and Missouri in round two before getting upended by Rollie Massimino and Villanova 55-54 in the Sweet 16.

Olson moved on, and was replaced by George Raveling, who was still one coaching move away from his inevitable job at Nike.  Raveling went to the tournament twice but was one-and-done both times.  His successor, Tom Davis, brought Iowa to the brink of another Final Four in 1987, but the Hawkeyes blew an 18-point lead to UNLV in the West regional final.  The next year, Davis guided Iowa to the Sweet 16, but the Hawkeyes were thumped by old coach Olson and his new team, Arizona.  That established a pattern for Davis, whose teams always won their first round matchup, but seldom their second.  Davis took Iowa to eight NCAA tournaments in twelve seasons.

He was succeeded by Steve Alford, who was the hot name in coaching (besides being an Indiana high school and IU legend).  Alford, though, had a bit of a disappointing run in Iowa City, only making the NCAAs three times in eight seasons.  He also only had three winning seasons in conference play over his tenure as coach.  Alford won one NCAA tournament game as head coach at Iowa, which is one fewer than he had while coaching (Southwest) Missouri State.  Alford jumped at the New Mexico job two years ago in a classic “jump or be pushed” situation.

Now the coach at Iowa is Todd Lickliter, in his second year with the Hawkeyes after a great run at Butler that included two Sweet 16 appearances in six seasons.  He’s a good coach, but he has work to do.  Iowa was 13-19 in his first season (6-12 Big 10).  Iowa lost its share of close games (seven by six points or less), but also played a lot of fairly close games, which can happen when you average just over 60 possessions per game.  Iowa scored 56 points per game, low by even Big 10 standards.  The Hawkeyes scored under 50 points seven times, including once in a game Iowa actually won (a 43-36 victory over Michigan State that drew guffaws from around the country).  Iowa was not a good rebounding team and struggled to force turnovers, while committing a bunch themselves (bottom 15 nationally in turnover rate on offense).  The Hawkeyes had mediocre offensive shooting stats across the board and were not good from the foul line (64.9%).

This season Iowa is 2-0 with home wins over Charleston Southern (by 20 points) and UT-San Antonio (by 6).  One player almost certain to give The Citadel problems is Cyrus Tate, a 6’8″, 255 lb. senior who in two games is averaging 13.5 points and 8.5 rebounds.  He has also blocked five shots in two games.  He’s the type of post player The Citadel could not compete successfully against last season, and so far this season.  Tate is one of seven Hawkeyes who have played significant minutes so far this year.  Another guy to watch is 6’5″ freshman guard Matt Gatens, who was the high school player of the year in Iowa last season.

Iowa is continuing the deliberate pace it employed last season, averaging 61 possessions in the two games it has played to date.

One more thing — according to Iowa’s game notes, the game against The Citadel will probably be the only Iowa game this season that will not be televised.  All but one of the rest of the Hawkeyes’ games are guaranteed to be on TV.  (Conversely, The Citadel will only be on television three times this season.)

Iowa is picked to finish near the bottom of the Big 10, along with Northwestern and Indiana.  Due to Iowa’s rebuilding, youth (five of its top seven rotation players are freshmen or sophomores), and style of play, if you were going to pick a Big 10 team that could be beaten in McAlister, this might be the one.  However, I don’t see it happening, at least not tomorrow night.

The best chance The Citadel has is to make more than its fair share of three-pointers while somehow holding its own in the paint.  If Demetrius Nelson and company could neutralize Tate and his friends, and The Citadel could shoot well (while not repeating the somewhat out of character 21-turnover performance against VCU), maybe the Bulldogs have a shot.  The Citadel has yet to prove it can successfully defend inside (or outside, really) against a team at the Division I level, though.

Still, there is a reason they play the games…