Riley Report: midway through the SoCon campaign

The Citadel has now played fifteen Southern Conference baseball games so far this season, with fifteen more still to come. It’s a good time to take stock in where the team stands at this point. I’m going to discuss the team’s play as it relates to the league as a whole, and also some peripheral statistics associated with the action on the field.

First, though, let’s revisit Game 15 of the league campaign, which is almost certainly the most absurd comeback victory by any team this season in the entire country. For those who have been living under a rock for the past few days, the situation was as follows:

UNC- Greensboro 7, The Citadel 2. Bottom of the ninth inning at Riley Park, Bulldogs down to their last out. No one on base.

With two outs, Fred Jordan elected to give Ryne Hardwick a pinch-hit appearance. The native of Conway entered the game with only one base hit as a Bulldog, but he promptly doubled down the left field line off of UNCG pitcher Dylan Hathcock. This probably didn’t cause much concern for UNCG, although perhaps the Spartans should have been worried, as Hardwick had actually played a role in last year’s wild 17-14 victory over the College of Charleston, scoring a run in that contest.

It seems extreme baseball craziness can happen when Ryne Hardwick enters the fray…

After Nick Orvin legged out an infield single, Mason Davis doubled down the left field line, scoring Hardwick. At this point in the contest, UNCG coach Mike Gaski summoned Brennen James from the bullpen to replace Hathcock. James then proceeded to walk Justin Mackert on five pitches, loading the bases.

Joe Jackson came to the plate, representing the tying run. Jackson grounded to first, but UNCG first baseman Lloyd Enzor’s throw to a covering James was low and wide, and the pitcher couldn’t handle it.

Grant Richards was the next Bulldog to stride to the plate, and like Mackert he would walk on five pitches. Then Drew DeKerlegand would also walk on five pitches. That was it for UNCG’s James, who was replaced by Zach Furl.

After DeKerlegand reached, The Citadel trailed 7-6 and had the tying run at third base and the winning run on second. Hayden Hendry entered the game to pinch-run for Grant Richards. The batter was Calvin Orth, who had started the inning by grounding out to shortstop. Orth would again ground to shortstop — but this time UNCG shortstop Kris Richards bobbled the ball while moving to the second base bag. All hands were safe, and the game was tied.

Johnathan Stokes’ first at bat in the inning had resulted in a fly ball to left field. So would his second. Instead of being caught, though, the ball sailed over left fielder Zach Leach’s head. Hendry scored, and the Bulldogs had somehow won the game.

“You have got to be kidding me!” screamed Danny Reed over the radio.

I couldn’t believe it either. It was a great comeback for the Bulldogs, helped by UNCG’s decidedly unclutch pitching and defense. The Spartans could have ended the game several times, but were unable to make routine plays or consistently throw strikes. Credit The Citadel’s players for not giving in or giving up, though. Three other thoughts:

1) Why was the UNCG outfield playing so far in for Stokes? A left fielder at normal depth probably would have caught the eventual game-winning hit. It’s as if the Spartans thought there were less than two outs. I haven’t seen an outfielder as close to the infield in that situation since the days of Rafael Belliard.

2) The odds of winning a game when down five runs with two outs in the bottom of the ninth are…not good. You can get an idea of the mathematics involved using a win probability calculator. Of course, something designed for MLB isn’t ideal for analyzing college baseball, but it’s probably a reasonable approximation. A 0.0006 win probability for The Citadel sounds about right.

3) You can bet that Mike Gaski will support an offer from Yemen to host the Southern Conference Baseball Tournament before he does a bid from the City of Charleston.

The three-game sweep of UNC-Greensboro improved the Bulldogs’ record in SoCon play to 7-8, which is currently good enough for seventh place in the league standings. The top eight teams in the conference will advance to the league tournament, which this year (and next) is being played at Fluor Field in Greenville instead of Charleston. (Actually, the tournament may not return to Charleston, but that’s a subject for another post.)

Longtime observers of The Citadel’s baseball program may be disappointed in being in seventh place, but to be honest I think a reasonable goal for this year’s team is to simply qualify for the league tournament. My reasoning for this is as follows:

– Last year The Citadel finished last in the conference for the first time. This happened the year after a championship season, so it came as a bit of a shock. It may be almost as shocking to realize that this last-place finish came in a year in which the league was down.

In 2010, the SoCon had a conference RPI that ranked as 9th-best nationally among all leagues. In 2011, though, that ranking dropped to 15th overall. This season, the league has had a good deal of success in non-conference play, and as a result the SoCon is currently ranked 8th in RPI.

In other words, The Citadel is trying to move up in the standings from one year to the next while the league as a whole is much improved from last year. The seventh-best team this year is probably considerably better than the seventh-best team from last season — and of course, the Bulldogs weren’t seventh last year. They were eleventh.

– Jeff Hartsell wrote recently about the team’s struggles (this came prior to the sweep of UNCG). I think the key point he made was about attrition. For any varsity sport at The Citadel, keeping attrition low is critical. The baseball program has had a tough run over the last couple of years when it comes to losing players, particularly pitchers, and it was a factor (though not the only factor) in last season’s collapse.

This year’s team is quite young, with three true freshmen manning the middle infield spots and a host of frosh hurlers making contributions. There are actually more freshmen (redshirt and “true”) listed on the roster in The Citadel’s game notes (18) than sophomores, juniors, and seniors combined (17).

Everyone associated with The Citadel knows the difficulty freshmen face in adjusting to life at the military college, both on the field and off. They are not likely to be consistently excellent on the diamond.

The one thing that has to happen, though, is that this year’s crop of freshmen needs to return in force next season. When a program at The Citadel starts turning over freshmen year after year, that’s when it gets in trouble. Retention is all-important, not just for the school’s mission, but for the success of its varsity teams.

– There is one other issue that might have an impact on The Citadel’s overall record (not necessarily its record in league play). The relatively recent compression of the college baseball schedule puts The Citadel at a bit of a disadvantage, even in good years for the Bulldogs. Having to play 56 games in a 13-week period means that more midweek games are being played, and that can test a team’s overall depth, particularly in regards to pitching.

The Citadel has never really been known as a team with a great deal of pitching depth. The Bulldogs have generally had good pitching staffs, but those staffs were built for conference games played on the weekends.

In 2010, The Citadel won the Southern Conference with a league record of 24-6. The Bulldogs wound up losing fewer conference games that year than they did games played on Tuesday. The Citadel was 1-7 on Tuesday.

I remember arguing a little that season with Baseball America college baseball writer Aaron Fitt about The Citadel’s viability as an at-large candidate. He pointed to the Bulldogs’ less-than-stellar non-league record as a reason for doubt. My argument in response was that The Citadel was winning a top-10 league. I could have also noted that regional matchups are not played on Tuesdays.

Basically, what I’m saying is that given the “tighter” college baseball schedule of today, The Citadel may drop an occasional midweek game that it shouldn’t. That won’t be a problem for conference play, and will only matter in years when the team is a legitimate at-large candidate for an NCAA bid.

I think the league can be broken into two distinct groupings this season. There are six teams that will be in the league tournament unless something strange happens (Appalachian State, Elon, Western Carolina, Georgia Southern, Samford, and the College of Charleston). Then there is another group of five teams, with likely two of them making the tourney. Right now The Citadel leads that group, which also includes Furman, Davidson, UNC-Greensboro, and Wofford.

The Citadel has already played UNCG and Wofford, both at home. The Bulldogs won five of those six games, which is important. The Citadel will play Furman later in the season at Riley Park, and will play Davidson on the road.

The Bulldogs’ only other home conference series remaining is against Georgia Southern. The Citadel faces a short trip to Patriots Point for a series against the College of Charleston, and a longer trip to Elon.

In my baseball preview a couple of months ago, I noted that The Citadel’s team defense was awful last season, regressing from a respectable defensive efficiency of 66.8% in league play in 2010 (slightly better than average) to 63.2% in 2011 (worst in the league by far). That differential is even worse when you consider that the new bat standards that went into effect for the 2011 season resulted in generally higher DER across the board.

The Citadel’s defensive efficiency in 2012 stands at 67.2% through 15 conference games, a significant improvement from 2011. It is probably not quite as good as the 2010 number once the changed bat standards are taken into account, but is still respectable.

There isn’t enough readily available statistical information yet to compare The Citadel’s DER to that of its conference brethren this year, but I will hazard a guess that the Bulldogs have been an average defensive team in league action. The fielding percentage stats would indicate The Citadel is actually nearer the bottom of the pack than the top, but I think that’s slightly misleading. There is definitely still room for improvement in this area, however.

Comparing pitching ERA from 2010, 2011, and 2012 (league play only):

Year    Dogs  SoCon avg.
2010    4.26       6.15
2011    5.44       4.69
2012    5.70       4.72

As you can see, the development of the mound staff by new pitching coach Britt Reames is still a work in progress. (The conference ERA over the last two seasons reflects the impact the new bat standards have had on the formerly hitter-friendly league.)

You have to be careful with sample sizes, of course. For 2012, keep in mind that nine of The Citadel’s fifteen games have been at home, at a “pitcher’s park”. On the other hand, three of the six road games took place at Smith Stadium in Boone, which per Boyd Nation had a park factor rating of 124 for the previous four seasons.

Freshmen are responsible for more than 42% of the innings pitched by Bulldog hurlers (that’s for all games, not just league contests), so there is a reasonable likelihood of improvement as the season continues. Reames has not been afraid to use a quick hook, but he has also not hesitated to give pitchers multiple opportunities (five of the frosh pitchers have appeared in at least twelve games so far).

My own sense of Reames’ approach, which may be completely off base, is that he is being careful with the young pitchers, not just from a physical standpoint, but a psychological one. He isn’t inclined to let someone hang around on the hill too long and get absolutely crushed.

I do have one concern with the pitching going forward, and that is the K rate. The Citadel’s pitching staff averaged 8.7 strikeouts per nine innings in 2010, and had a still solid 7.8 K/9 ratio in 2011. This season, however, that number has dropped to 5.5/9 in SoCon play. That’s too low.

The Citadel’s pitching staff has traditionally had strong strikeout rates, though it is also true that one pitcher (i.e., Asher Wojciechowski) can make a big difference in the overall numbers. Ultimately, the Bulldogs’ pitchers are going to have to miss more bats in order to reach their desired level of success.

I do want to highlight two pitchers who are getting the job done this year, but neither is a freshman. Friday starter Austin Pritcher has thrown at least 5 1/3 innings in each of his nine starts, with a solid 3.42 ERA. He has been a much-needed constant in the starting rotation.

Senior sidearmer Ryan Hines has appeared in 25 of The Citadel’s 37 games, all out of the bullpen, and has proven to be the kind of reliable setup man/closer type that any good team needs. If the Bulldogs qualify for the SoCon tourney, though, Hines is going to need some help in the ‘pen if The Citadel hopes to do more than its fair share of post-season damage.

The Bulldogs are still waiting for their bats to awaken, particularly in conference action. In 2011, the team batting average of .280 was a tad subpar, but it looks great when compared to the current .250 BA that The Citadel is sporting in SoCon play. The Bulldogs had an OPS of 741 last season in league games, which tied for 7th-best in the conference. This season, that number has fallen to 701, which is somehow still better than three other league teams (UNCG, Davidson, and Wofford, with the Terriers having an anemic 600 OPS).

I think the hitting will improve, which may be an optimistic viewpoint, but one that I believe is grounded in reality. Nick Orvin is not a .266 hitter; he’s better than that, and there is still plenty of time this season to prove it.

It may be that he has been the victim of some excellent pitching. Earlier in the season, Orvin was getting in some tough counts while at the plate. I took a lot at his plate appearances through March 11, and found that he was batting .500 when the first pitch of the AB was a ball but only .063 when it was a strike (or if he put the first pitch into play). At that time, he was seeing a lot of first-pitch strikes.

Orvin is going to get his hits, eventually. So will Joe Jackson, who I am hoping will also develop some more power. Another guy who should be about ready to break out is Drew DeKerlegand, who is only batting .250 after hitting .317 in his freshman campaign.

Those players are all proven commodities with a bat in their hands. It may be that opposing pitchers are working around them, not giving them good pitches to hit, and taking their chances with the bottom of the order. One of those batters in the lower part of the lineup needs to get hot. If so, it could prove contagious (to borrow one of Fred Jordan’s pet expressions).

It’s been a bumpy road at times this season for the baseball team. There are signs, however, that the path ahead may be a bit smoother. Don’t be surprised if there are still a few potholes to navigate, though. After all, we’re talking about The Citadel.

Hoops update: a league victory, SoCon vs. CAA, and TV

This post is going to be split into three different topics. Before reviewing and previewing the current on-court antics, I wanted to focus on a couple of recent articles in The Post and Courier. They touch on subjects that impact The Citadel’s department of athletics in general and its basketball program in particular.

With CAA as model, SoCon bids to climb ladder

[College of Charleston] basketball coach Bobby Cremins said he was jealous of George Mason’s league, the Colonial Athletic Association.

“I’d love to see the Southern Conference become something like that,” Cremins said. “That should be the goal of our conference. We use them as a model.”

The source of Cremins’ envy? The three teams the CAA sent to the NCAA tournament last season, and the four at-large bids the Colonial has landed in the last six seasons. That’s four more at-large bids than the SoCon has earned it its entire history dating back to 1939, when the NCAA tournament started.

The SoCon has never sent more than one team — the tournament champion, who earns an automatic bid — to the Big Dance, which expanded to a field of 68 teams last year.

Tangent to make an overly nerdy comment: technically, the SoCon has actually received three at-large bids in its history. From 1939 to 1950, the field for the NCAA tournament was made up of only eight teams. Three times, teams from the SoCon played in the event; on all three occasions, those bids were invitations and not automatic selections. In 1951, the NCAA tournament expanded to 16 teams, and the SoCon champion (North Carolina State) got an automatic bid into the event. Not that it really matters.

Bobby Cremins has yet to take the College of Charleston to the NCAAs, and knows the only way to do so (at least right now) is to win the league tournament. Cremins actually had a solid record as a league tournament coach when he was at Georgia Tech (winning the ACC tourney twice), but hasn’t yet grabbed the brass ring while at the CofC.

I think the information presented in the article underscores how tough a task the SoCon has in trying to emulate the CAA. Besides having larger schools that play in bigger arenas (for the most part), most of the CAA schools don’t have to worry about football. The CAA probably also benefits to a degree from having more of its schools located in larger metro areas, although that can be a double-edged sword.

It’s good that the SoCon is trying to be more strict about its non-conference scheduling, but it’s a difficult balancing act. It should be noted that playing a non-D1 doesn’t have any impact on the RPI. What the league doesn’t want is schools overloading their schedules with gimme games against non-D1s and guarantee games against BCS schools. The SoCon needs its members to play more “in-between” schools. Otherwise, instead of competing with the CAA it risks sliding down into SWAC territory.

Having said that, John Iamarino knows that some of his schools have fewer options than others. That’s the nature of the SoCon and its disparate membership. It would be interesting to know which school drew the commissioner’s wrath for its less-than-acceptable scheduling. If I had to bet, I would put my money on Chattanooga.

Let’s talk about TV

I’ve been meaning to write more about the linked article, which was originally published in early December.

The College of Charleston Sports Network will produce 11 games this season that will be broadcast locally on WMMP or WTAT. Those games also will be available on ESPN3, a streaming Internet service that reaches more than 70 million households worldwide and is available in 85 percent of U.S. homes. Some games also might be carried on ESPN FullCourt, a pay-per-view service available on cable systems.

By season’s end, at least 23 of the team’s 30 regular-season games will be televised.

Does The Citadel need to do something like this? Absolutely.

The startup costs would not be insignificant, but I believe it would be a worthwhile investment. The potential exposure for the varsity sports teams, not to mention the school in general, makes it a no-brainer.

That includes televising home football games in a format that can be used by ESPN3.com or one of the myriad sports TV networks, many of which seem desperate for programming.

It would likely give The Citadel an edge in recruiting — and if the school doesn’t do something like this, it will probably fall behind a host of other schools. Just look at FCS football.

Some of the FCS schools that had the majority (if not all) of their football games televised in 2011: Lafayette, Lehigh, Liberty, Maine, Montana, Montana State, Murray State, Northern Arizona, and seemingly all of the Dakota schools (including, not so coincidentally, national champion North Dakota State).

That’s not even counting schools that have home games televised on public television (like Eastern Illinois) or schools with a two- or three-game deal with a local TV station/cable carrier (like Cal Poly, Colgate, Georgetown, and Holy Cross). Not all of those games wind up on a Fox sports net or ESPN3.com, but plenty of them do.

The opportunities in basketball, baseball, and perhaps soccer and wrestling are there, too.

I’ve long advocated that The Citadel’s coaches schedule non-conference games with an eye to getting on television as much as possible. Now I think it is time for the school to be even more proactive.

The Citadel finally won a league game last week, beating Samford 73-62 at McAlister Field House. It was also the first league home game for the Bulldogs, and I am hopeful that the team can add to the victory total this week. Prior to the win over Samford, it had been very tough sledding, as The Citadel had lost its previous ten games against D-1 competition, all but one by double digits.

The worst of those was a 77-45 drubbing by Furman two days before the Samford matchup, so at least the Bulldogs showed some resiliency in bouncing back from that loss. However, the fact remains that it’s been a struggle all year for Chuck Driesell’s troops, particularly on defense.

The Citadel ranks in the bottom 50 nationally in the following defensive categories: effective field goal percentage, turnover percentage, block percentage, and two-point field goal percentage. The Bulldogs are actually dead last (59.3%) in 2-point FG%, 345th out of 345 D-1 teams. The Citadel’s overall defensive efficiency rating (per Pomeroy) is 8th-worst in the country.

Driesell has focused on his team’s defensive issues each and every time he’s discussed the squad’s performances, notably on the post-game radio show. I’ll say this, he’s not one to sugarcoat things, as anyone who has listened to the show can attest.

The win against Samford was a decent (not great) defensive performance. The Citadel has proven to be a tough matchup on the hardwood for the Birmingham Bulldogs over the years, and Saturday night was no exception. Samford shoots a lot of threes by design, but you have to make a decent percentage of them for that strategy to work, and Samford was only 7-29. Some of that was good defense by The Citadel, and some of it was just really bad shooting.

The chief negative for The Citadel was that Samford dominated the offensive glass, particularly in the first half, when it had an offensive rebound rate of almost 60%. The cadets should have led at halftime by about fifteen points, but had to settle for a seven-point edge.

On the positive side of things (after all, it was a victory), Mike Groselle was outstanding (10-10 FG, 25 points) and Cosmo Morabbi had a career night, with 20 points and six assists. The Bulldogs as a whole were solid on offense.

Next up for The Citadel: two more home SoCon games, against Elon and UNC-Greensboro. Elon has been a mild surprise this season, playing about as well as any team in the muddled SoCon North. The Phoenix won at home over South Carolina earlier in the campaign, but recently has hit a slump, losing five straight games.

Losing to North Carolina and San Diego State is not exactly embarrassing, but the streak also includes losses to Dartmouth (a traditional cellar-dweller in the Ivy League), Georgia Southern, and Columbia (another Ivy opponent). Elon has struggled putting the ball in the basket in those five games, as it has not shot better than 36% from the field in any of them. The Citadel needs to make sure that trend continues.

Tough matchup alert: Elon’s Lucas Troutman is a 6’10” native of Belton, SC, who was on the SoCon’s all-freshman team last year. He scored 22 points against NC State earlier this season and will be a difficult player for the Bulldogs to handle.

On Saturday the Bulldogs host UNC-Greensboro, which is 2-14 and only has one D-1 victory, that over winless Towson. The Spartans are on their second coach of the campaign, as longtime boss Mike Dement resigned in December. It was inevitable, especially after UNCG’s 22-point loss to North Carolina A&T two weeks before.

Wes Miller is the interim coach. Miller is only 28 years old, and may have a chance to keep the job, depending on how the rest of the season plays out for the Spartans. So far he has yet to record a victory as head honcho, although UNCG played well in a 10-point loss at Miami.

As you might expect, UNCG has some really bad stats, particularly on defense. What is unique about the Spartans D is that opponents shoot well from everywhere — three-point range (bottom 15 nationally), inside the paint (ditto), even at the foul line.

UNCG’s best player is Trevis Simpson, a 6’4″ guard. Like Elon’s Troutman, he was on last year’s league all-frosh team. Simpson is a volume shooter who blows hot and cold, but when he’s hot he can get very hot (at Miami, he hit 7 of 11 three-pointers as part of a 36-point explosion). The Citadel must work hard, especially early in the game, to make sure he doesn’t get on a roll.

The Citadel will be a slight underdog in both games this week. However, it will be disappointing if the Bulldogs don’t win at least one of the two contests. That’s the short-term view. As for what these games mean for the season as a whole, I’m hoping to see some improvement on the defensive side of things for The Citadel. If that happens, more wins will follow.

Larry Leckonby’s Lament: The Citadel in 2010-11

The first thing I want to note is that none of what follows is intended to be a negative reflection on any of the individuals who compete for The Citadel in varsity athletics.  I am greatly appreciative of all the young men and women who represent the school on the field of play.

This is about the “big picture”, and the truth is that the big picture for the school year 2010-11 at The Citadel featured a lot of losing.  Just how much losing?

Well, let’s take a look at all the varsity programs under the military college’s banner. The Citadel has fifteen varsity sports, by my reckoning.  I count rifle (listed as both a men’s and women’s sport on the school’s website) as just one sport, because it is co-ed.  I consider indoor track and outdoor track to be separate entities, because the Southern Conference awards championships in both of them (and for both men and women).  The school competes in the SoCon in fourteen of the fifteen sports (the exception is rifle).

The Citadel’s most successful sport in 2010-2011 was, in fact, rifle.  The rifle team won its first conference title since 2001, the conference title in question being the Southeastern Air Rifle Conference championship.  I don’t know a whole lot about this, but it sounds good to me.  The previous four SEARC titles had been won by North Carolina State.  Those four titles had been won by NCSU prior to Debbie Yow being named director of athletics at that school, but there was no indication that sabotage was involved in The Citadel’s triumph.

It seems appropriate that The Citadel has an outstanding rifle program.

The women’s soccer team finished 12-8-1, 7-4 in the Southern Conference (good for 3rd place), and was easily the second-most successful sport at The Citadel this school year.  It was #1 in the “feel good” category by miles and miles, however, since the program had only won three league games in its entire history prior to the 2010 campaign.

In addition, the soccer team was the only squad this year to win a postseason game of any kind for The Citadel, defeating Furman 2-1 in 2OT in the first round of the SoCon tourney.

The wrestling team finished fourth in the SoCon (out of six teams) in what probably could be considered a mildly disappointing season.  On the bright side, at least The Citadel still has a wrestling program, which is more than can be said for second-place UNC-Greensboro or NCAA Division II champion Nebraska-Omaha.

The Citadel finished 5th in the SoCon (out of nine teams) in both men’s indoor and outdoor track, while the women were 9th (out of twelve teams) in both.  This strikes me as perfectly respectable.  Ninth is not as good as first or second, obviously, but perspective has to maintained, especially considering that as of September there were only 142 female cadets overall at The Citadel.  The coaches just need to find another Stephanie McNeill or two in order to vault a few spots in the standings.

The Citadel finished next-to-last in both men’s and women’s cross country in the SoCon (10th/11 men, 11th/12 women).  In this case, though, it may be fair to grade on a curve. I suspect that it is not easy (if even possible) to develop a serious league contender in cross country at a military school located in Charleston, South Carolina. The City of Charleston has a number of charms, but it is certainly not conducive to ideal cross country training.

I noticed when reviewing the league’s history and records that the College of Charleston (since becoming a league member) has generally joined The Citadel in the lower part of the standings.  That’s probably not a coincidence, and neither is the fact that Appalachian State and Chattanooga have dominated the sport in the league over the years.  Incidentally, The Citadel’s 3rd-place result in the 1972 SoCon meet is the best finish in school history.

You know it’s been a bad school year in Bulldog athletics when there are six varsity sports that arguably had worse seasons than a pair of cross country teams that each finished next-to-last in the league…

The volleyball team finished 7-25, 1-15 in the SoCon.  Perhaps not surprisingly, The Citadel made a coaching change.  You have to wonder if the success of the women’s soccer team this year cast a less-than-favorable light on the volleyball program, which has an alltime record in league play of 10-192.  (No, that’s not a typo.)

One of the downsides when a “non-revenue” sport is on the short end of the wins-and-losses ledger is that alums and other interested observers are less likely to read or hear about the players, and some of those cadets are rather accomplished student-athletes.  That’s just another reason why it’s important to maintain competitive teams in all of The Citadel’s varsity programs.

Another program that will be helmed by a new coach next season is the tennis team, which finished 3-21, and failed to win a single Southern Conference match (0-10). The Bulldogs were winless against Division I competition, with the three victories coming against Case Western and Reserve, Johnson C. Smith, and Lenoir-Rhyne.

Then there is the women’s golf team, which was possibly even less competitive in the conference in 2011 than the tennis team.

At this year’s SoCon championships, there was a 79-shot difference between the first-place team (Chattanooga, which won the title by 30 strokes) and the ninth-place team (Appalachian State).  The Citadel finished 10th and last, 70 shots behind App State.

For a lot of graduates, football, baseball, and basketball are the sports that matter. They tend to get the lions’ share of attention and resources, and are thus held to a higher standard by most alums, who are more inclined to follow them and compare the successes and failures of the programs to other schools.  If you are reading this, you undoubtedly know how their seasons went, but a quick recap:

Football:  3-8, 1-7 (tied for last) in the SoCon.  The first year of Triple O’Higgins was often a cover-your-eyes situation, with the nadir being the nine-turnover debacle at home against Georgia Southern.

Basketball:  10-22, 6-12 in the Socon (next-to-last in South Division).  Chuck Driesell’s first year as head coach was not a success, as a senior-laden team and wannabe league contender struggled all season.

Baseball:  20-36, 8-22 in the SoCon (last).  The baseball team missed the SoCon tournament for the first time since 1987 (and back then, only four teams made the tourney).  A twelve-game losing streak to close the season resulted in the Bulldogs finishing last in the league for the first time ever.  The collapse came as a shock, despite expectations being relatively modest following the team’s championship season of a year ago.

The combined 66 losses by the “Big 3” is a record, as you might have guessed.  It’s not often all three programs have a losing season in the same school year.  The last time it happened was in 1993-94, but that year the baseball team got on a serious roll at the end of the season and won the league tournament, making the NCAAs.  The football team was a not-so-terrible 5-6.  The worst record for the three sports that year was the hoops squad’s 11-16 mark.

When it comes to “best year” or “worst year” in Bulldog athletics, of course, it’s really just a matter of opinion.  To me, an especially difficult year would include poor results by the “Big 3” combined with less-than-stellar records for a lot of the other programs.  I want The Citadel to be good at everything, or at least decent at everything.

I went back and looked at some of the records for the past five decades.  I was particularly interested in the 1966-67 and 1986-87 school years, the most recent campaigns (prior to 1993-94) where the “Big 3” programs all finished with losing records.  Exact comparisons could not be made, of course, as The Citadel has sponsored sports in which it no longer fields varsity teams (like men’s golf and men’s soccer) and now has other sports which didn’t exist in previous years (all the women’s teams).

In 1966-67, the baseball team lost 12 in a row (just like this season) and finished 9-16.  That losing streak included losses to Taylor and Pfeiffer.  The basketball team was 8-16, a season that has been well chronicled.  The football team was 4-6, although that campaign did include end-of-season victories over VMI and Furman.

The 1966-67 basketball and baseball teams were not good, and comparable to this year’s editions of those teams, but the football team was probably better than 2010’s squad.  In addition, 1966-67 featured a solid tennis team (3rd in the SoCon) and, most notably, a championship outfit — the wrestling team, which won the Southern Conference title that year and featured Ed Steers, who was named Most Outstanding Wrestler after winning the second of his three league titles in the 145-lb. division.

When comparing 2010-11 to 1986-87, it’s a closer call.  The football team was arguably worse (that was Tom Moore’s final season; the Bulldogs finished 3-8 with some dreadful performances, particularly at home against VMI and Chattanooga), but the hoops squad was better (13-15, 6-10 in the SoCon) and the baseball team was too.  In addition, the other sports were slightly more successful across the board in 1986-87 (with tennis being significantly better).

I did not find another school year in the 1961-2001 era where the varsity sports teams struggled as much as in those two years.  I think a persuasive argument can be made that 2010-11 was the worst school year for varsity athletics at The Citadel in at least 50 years.

What does it mean?  Well, in the short term it probably means that Jerry Baker, Caleb Davis and company will have that much more difficult a time raising money for the Brigadier Foundation. Contributors want to see a winner, and you had to search far and wide to find a winner in The Citadel’s athletics department this year.

For Larry Leckonby, it means that 2011-12 will be an important year, one in which he will have to make key decisions.  His biggest call will be on Kevin Higgins’ future.  The department of athletics pivots off the success of the football team; it’s the most high-profile sport at the school, it’s where the money is made, and I also think that it sometimes establishes momentum for the other sports.

Speaking of coaches, Leckonby also needs to find the right one for the tennis team, which should be better than 3-21 (and yes, I know that NCAA tennis is a different animal than it was two and three decades ago).  I don’t have any good advice on that front, other than if he gets an applicant who drives a Jaguar (with a baby bulldog in the front seat) and appears regularly on television, he should hire him.  It worked fairly well the first time.

While last year was mostly grim, there is hope, and that hope can be found by considering what happened following the 1986-87 school year.  In May of 1987, it would have been easy to be pessimistic about sports at The Citadel, but in the next six years:

— The baseball team won two regular season SoCon titles, one league tourney, and advanced to the College World Series in 1990.

— The football team won at South Carolina, at Army, beat Navy twice (at home and on the road), made three playoff appearances, and won the Southern Conference title for only the second time in school history.

— The basketball team won at South Carolina (the first win over the Gamecocks since the 1943 Southern Conference tournament) and had a 16-win season.

— The tennis team had two top-3 finishes in the SoCon tourney; the golf team had a top-4 finish; and the soccer team had a tie for first place (in 1990).

After the struggles of 1986-87, the department had its best run of success since the early 1960s.  Maybe history can repeat itself.

I hope so.  Losing isn’t any fun…

The bandwagon makes a stop at WLI Field

Last spring my youngest niece began playing soccer in a local league.  I went to a few of her games (after all, I am the sports dork in the family).

The games were for the most part conducted in a congenial atmosphere, with families watching their charges at play.  Her team was, to be honest, not the most skilled of squads.  This wasn’t exactly surprising, as they were all first-graders, and most of them were new to the game.

The basic plan of attack went like this:  if the ball rolled in the general vicinity of a player, that player would attempt to kick it, hopefully in the right direction.  There was no guarantee that significant contact with the ball would be made.

A goal-scoring opportunity would occur if a player managed to kick the ball hard enough to get it close to the other team’s net; then there would be a meeting at the ball of a number of players on each team, and if the right kick happened at the right time, and the keeper wasn’t up to the task, then a goal might be scored.

Well, maybe the squad was a little better than that.  The girls did practice every week, and were instructed in the fundamentals.  During the games, the team’s coach would organize his troops.  “Stay in position!  Stay in position!” he would yell, somewhat mournfully.  Staying in position (or perhaps just staying focused) was seemingly a hard thing for them to do.

I watched the team play three times.  It won once and lost twice.  One of the teams it played had much better players and won 4-0.  Clearly that outfit had brought in ringers. The other two opponents were more on their level; the girls lost 2-1 to one team, and beat the other one 2-0.  During the spring season, they were basically a .500 outfit.

After the summer break, the team started play again for the fall campaign.  I didn’t realize there was a fall season, so I wasn’t prepared for the telephone call I got a few weeks ago from my brother.  First he told me that the team had played two games already; then the conversation went something like this:

Him:  “They won 8-0 last night.”

Me:  “8-0?  Did the other team have more than two players?”

Him:  “Yeah, they just…well, I can’t explain it.  But…our team is real good now.”

Me:  “Did they get some ringers like that other team did?”

Him:  “No, it’s the same girls as in the spring.  It’s just they got good all of a sudden.”

Me:  “What was the score in the other game they played?”

Him:  “10-0.”

Me:  “Did she score?”

Him (and I could see him grinning, even over the telephone):  “She scored a goal in the last game.”

They later won a game in which they scored twelve goals, and apparently there is now talk that they are too good for their league and might have to move up an age level, which seems a little unfair to me, kind of like asking Oregon to play in the NFC West (although maybe that’s not such a stretch, come to think of it).

I was thinking about my niece’s team as I contemplated the rise of another soccer team, that of my alma mater, which has made an even more improbable leap.  I wondered if comparing the two outfits might be instructive, but I thought better of it. Maybe someone could have seen the improvement in my niece’s team coming, but there is no way anyone was expecting the season The Citadel has had in soccer.  No one, that is, except perhaps head coach Bob Winch:

[Question] Did you see this coming?

“Yeah, a little bit. Last year, we were successful defensively and we always had a chance in our games. This year, we’ve been able to score some goals and that’s helped us win some games.”

Let’s go over some stats…

Through early October of 2008, The Citadel’s women’s soccer team had an alltime record in Southern Conference play of 0-74-2.  No, that’s not a typo.  On October 10 of that year, the squad finally won a game in the league, beating Georgia Southern 2-1. The Bulldogs would drop their final six SoCon games that year and finish 1-10 in the conference.

That was two years ago.  Last season The Citadel finished with a record of 2-7-2 in SoCon play, beating GSU again (the program’s first league road victory) and also knocking off Chattanooga.  The two ties were both scoreless matches played over the same weekend in games at Appalachian State and at Western Carolina.

The team’s noticeable improvement in competitiveness garnered Winch the league’s coach of the year award.  It’s not often a COY award is given to someone whose team had a winning percentage of just 27% in league play, but it’s not often a coach doubles his program’s alltime conference win total in one season, either.

This season, of course, has gone beyond that, and then some.  The Citadel won 7 of its 11 conference games, including first-ever wins over Wofford, Davidson, Elon, Appalachian State, and Western Carolina.  In league action, The Bulldogs were 4-2 on the road and 3-2 at WLI Field (in the regular season).

I don’t know if you can give Winch another coach of the year award for that.  Coach of the century, maybe.

When I was researching the league-only SoCon stats for women’s soccer, I was struck by how The Citadel had managed to finish third in the league despite not leading, or even being that close to leading, any significant statistical category.  There are twelve teams in the conference.  The Bulldogs’s rank in official statistical categories is as follows:

Goals – 6th

Assists – 9th

Shots – 7th

Goals allowed – 10th

Saves – 5th

Shutouts – 10th (tie)

Fouls – 5th (tie)

Corner kicks – 6th

Offsides – 11th

Yellow Cards – 5th

You could argue, I suppose, that The Citadel being 11th in offsides calls against is a good thing, although it could also suggest a lack of aggression and/or possession. At any rate, it would appear to be a statistic that has no bearing on a team’s win-loss record, at least in the SoCon.

The Citadel is only in the top 4 in one statistical category (besides wins, of course). The Bulldogs finished in first place in the league…in red cards.

There were two red cards shown in conference play this season, and they were both given to Bulldog players. (In addition, Bob Winch, given a red card in the league tournament game against Furman on Sunday, was apparently the first and only coach to be dismissed from any SoCon game this season.)

The red card stat surprised me.  It would be hard to conclude the Bulldogs are a particularly rough outfit, either statistically (a middle-of-the-pack team in fouls and yellow cards) or from watching them play.

Of course, the fact we’re just talking about two cards, and thus two situations, indicates a small sample size, and possibly a fluke.  Further investigation was required.

I first viewed the videotape for the second of the two red cards, given to Shanna Couch during the Samford match, easily the team’s worst performance of the season (losing at home 7-0).  At the 63-minute mark, the Bulldog keeper came out of the goal during a Samford mini-breakaway.  Samford wound up with a shot on goal that would have gone in, except Crouch palmed it away on the goal line.

That was a problem, since Crouch wasn’t the keeper, and she thus got a straight red. Honesty compels me to admit it was deserved.  Sorry, Shanna.

The other red card was given to defender (and erstwhile diarist) Leah Hawkins during the Chattanooga match.  Hawkins had picked up a yellow card at the 60-minute mark for an overly aggressive tackle.  At the 83-minute mark, with The Citadel leading 2-0, she collided with a UTC player while going for the ball, received a second yellow, and was sent off.

When the collision happened, the UTC coach immediately began yelling for the yellow card, which wasn’t the first time he had complained about various calls or non-calls during the game.  (He was rather vocal.)  I don’t think I would have booked Hawkins if I had been the official — it was clearly neither a “professional” foul nor a dangerous play — but maybe the referee decided to throw the Mocs coach a bone.

Tangent:  in all fairness to the UTC coach, he was probably stressed out by that point with his team’s play and with an injury that occurred to one of his players in the first half.  Shortly after a rather innocuous clash with a Bulldog player, a Moc midfielder dropped to the ground, right on the sideline next to the UTC bench, and began shrieking in apparent pain.  She continued to cry out for several minutes while receiving attention from a Moc trainer.

I have no idea how she had been hurt, or the specifics of the injury, and I suspect I don’t really want to know.  She was eventually able to leave the field of play, more or less under her own power.

While that was going on the two teams retreated to the center of the pitch, with each holding an impromptu meeting, seemingly oblivious to what was happening on the sideline.  I got the impression the Moc players were talking about how nice the weather was and how lousy the bus trip back to Chattanooga was going to be, while the Bulldogs were comparing notes on an SMI and discussing how their uniforms were so much better than the football team’s duds.

My conclusion is that the two red cards do not necessarily indicate a leaguewide conspiracy.  However, I am certain that fans of the Bulldogs will continue to be vigilant in ensuring that the school’s players are fairly treated.

Red cards aside, how have the Bulldogs managed an upper-echelon league finish while not placing that highly in the conference statistics?  How does a team go 7-4 while being outscored 20-15?  The Citadel’s goals for/goals against number of -5 is equal to that of Appalachian State and Western Carolina, two teams that didn’t even make the SoCon tournament, yet the Bulldogs won enough games to host a tourney match.

Well, it helps to limit most of your poor play to just a couple of matches.  As mentioned above, The Citadel lost 7-0 to Samford.  It also lost two 3-0 games, to league regular season champion UNC-Greensboro and to Furman.

In the other eight regular-season SoCon games it played, though, The Citadel allowed only seven goals.  It won seven of those eight contests.

In six of those seven wins (and in a loss to the College of Charleston), The Citadel allowed one goal.  The Bulldogs recorded just one shutout, the aforementioned game against Chattanooga, but won five games by a 2-1 scoreline and another 3-1.

That is the type of defense that can keep a team in the game.  It’s also the kind of defense that The Citadel played last season, as Winch mentioned in that quote from the link.  In fact, last year the Bulldogs only allowed 14 goals in 11 SoCon matches. The problem was that The Citadel only scored five goals in those matches.

The Bulldogs have been able to put a bulge in the auld onion bag this year on a number of occasions, though (as I channel Tommy Smyth, and if you’re still reading this I know you’re groaning).  It is the main difference between last year and this year, and what has propelled the program to unprecedented heights.  This season the Bulldogs have scored fifteen goals in league play, which while not an overwhelming amount has been just enough.

The Citadel scored two goals in six of its conference wins, and three in the other victory.  Give up one, get two — that has been the basic formula, and it has worked.

There are just two seniors on this year’s team, Nicole Martinoli (one of five Floridians on the roster) and Dominic Snyder (one of five players hailing from outside the United States).  Martinoli stated earlier this season that:

“The program has grown tremendously, and it’s not just because of this year’s team.  It’s because of all the effort of the girls on past teams.”

She’s right, of course, and I am sure there are a lot of very proud former players hanging on every kick of this year’s team.  Some of the best kicking going on, though, is coming from the boots of some precocious freshmen.

The core of the defense-minded players is primarily made up of upperclassmen like Hawkins, Couch, Hannah Warne, and Angela Foyt, plus the goalkeeping duo of Whitney Nave and Laura Serafino, but the offensive punch has come mostly from first-year players like Mariana Garcia, Nicole Levermann, Jillian Meyer, and Vanessa Aponte.  The freshmen have combined to score 13 of The Citadel’s 15 goals in SoCon play (Martinoli, repping the old guard, has the other two) and have all but one of the assists in league games (Lexington High School alum Miranda Johnson has the other).

What do they bring to the table?  Well, in the opinion of this non-expert, collectively the freshmen have a nice combination of pace and skill.  All of them have good speed, and not just mighty mites like Garcia, Taylor Viana, and Ruth Leiva.  The 5’10” Levermann can pick ’em up and put ’em down, too, when she gets going, and when she does she’s hard to stop.

Garcia and Levermann have nine of the fifteen SoCon goals.  The opener against Davidson was fairly typical.  Garcia ran two Wildcat defenders ragged as she led them on a merry chase to the corner flag.  She started to move away from the flag and down the sideline, and then passed the ball to Johnson at the top right corner of the 18-yard box.

Johnson quickly dinked a pass to Levermann, who slipped between two defenders six yards from goal and almost casually flicked the ball past the keeper with her left foot.  She would finish the afternoon with a hat trick.

Another impressive thing about the Bulldogs is that they have accomplished all this despite losing one of their best players, junior Amy Loughran, after just ten games. Loughran had already scored five goals this season (after an eight-goal outburst last year that included game-winners against Coastal Carolina and Georgia Southern) when she broke two bones in her leg against Appalachian State.

When I wrote about the soccer team last year, one of the things that concerned me was the small roster size.  Last season, there were no freshmen on the team, which struck me as unusual, and not optimal.  (One freshman who was supposed to be on the squad last year but was injured prior to enrolling at The Citadel, goalkeeper Cassie Palmacci, is on the team this season.)

This year the Bulldogs have eighteen players on their roster, four more than last season, which perhaps makes the loss of Loughran a little more manageable, although still not easy.

One thing I worried about was how the team would finish the season.  After clinching a tourney home game with its seventh league victory, The Citadel lost its last two games, 3-0 to Furman and 1-0 at the College of Charleston.  I was afraid that the outstanding campaign would end with a bit of a whimper, which wouldn’t have been the first time that happened to a team from The Citadel having an unexpectedly great year (examples include the 1989 and 2009 basketball teams, just to name two).

That made the tournament opener (the first conference tournament game in the program’s history) more important, in my view.  Making the storyline even more interesting was the opponent, Furman, which had just beaten the Bulldogs at WLI the week before and which had never lost to The Citadel.

For a while, it looked like that streak might continue.  The two teams traded goals in regulation, with the Bulldogs missing a great chance to go up 2-0, only to see the Paladins equalize only two minutes later.  Then it went to overtime and a “golden goal” scenario, where the first team to score would immediately win the game.

The first OT was scoreless.  The two teams were to play up to ten more minutes in a second overtime; if the score remained 1-1 after that, then penalty kicks would decide things.  Nobody wants to see a match go to PKs, and fortunately for The Citadel, this one didn’t.

A Furman defender was called for handball, which I thought happened in the box (which would have given The Citadel a penalty kick to win the game).  However, a free kick was the call, just outside the box.  The Paladins set up their wall, but Aponte curled a kick around the right side of it, past the diving keeper, and into the bottom of the net for the game-winner.

I have noticed that most of the Bulldogs’ goal celebrations are a bit muted (perhaps it’s a league or NCAA rule), but this one was certainly not.  It was spontaneous and wild.  The good feelings lasted for quite a while after the game; at one point, long after the match’s end, Jaslene Thiara momentarily stopped hugging Levermann long enough to wag a “We’re Number 1!” finger to the camera, whooping it up in style.

That might be the team’s last chance to relish a big win this year, and if it is, that would be understandable.  Progressing much further in the league tournament will be a tall order.  On Friday in the SoCon semifinals, The Citadel will face Samford, which handed the Bulldogs that 7-0 shellacking at WLI referenced earlier in this post, and waiting on the other side of the bracket is UNC-Greensboro, which is currently ranked in the Top 25 and has won twelve straight games.  (The Spartans beat The Citadel 3-0 in Greensboro in the regular season.)

The odds aren’t really in the Bulldogs’ favor.  On the other hand, Samford needed penalty kicks to get past Davidson in the first round of the league tourney, and UNCG struggled before finally outlasting Wofford, 1-0, in its tourney opener.  Now all four teams left will move to a neutral site in Cullowhee (the fourth school remaining, Elon, won at the College of Charleston on Sunday).  Maybe there will be a surprise champion, preferably one with a military bent.

I hope this is the start of a long, successful run for the women’s soccer program.  I think it would be fun to tell my niece that if she were good enough, maybe someday she could go to The Citadel and play soccer on the hallowed grounds of WLI Field, following the great champions of the past.  If that happened, she would immediately become the most successful athlete in the history of her family, which admittedly would be faint praise (her eldest uncle in particular being one of the least athletic individuals to ever spend four years at the military college).

It has to be very difficult for a women’s team sport to compete and win at the Division I level at The Citadel.  As of this September there were 142 women in the corps of cadets.  Eighteen of them are playing soccer.  That’s almost 13% of the total number of female cadets.  The comparison between other schools is jarring.  Georgia Southern has over 9,000 female students; Appalachian State, almost 8,000.  Those are just a couple of schools in the Southern Conference.

Technically, though, The Citadel is also competing in Division I with schools like Ohio State, UCLA, and Texas.  Think about the enormous difference in total resources, both human and otherwise, between The Citadel and those universities when competing in NCAA athletics.  (That’s true for the men’s teams as well, of course; it’s just the difference when comparing the women’s sports is exponentially greater.)

Then you have the military component, which is, to say the least, of some consequence…

Another concern I have, which may or may not be material, is the support (of the non-financial variety) the program gets from the alumni.  I’m not talking about people being unaware of the program or simply ignoring it; that goes with the territory of being a “non-revenue” sport at a school where most graduates are not born-and-bred sports fans anyway, and if they are their interest is often exclusively devoted to football, basketball, and/or baseball.

I wonder a little, though, about how it being a women’s sport plays in Peoria (or Pelion).  I think it goes without saying that a significant percentage of alums are still uncomfortable with the idea of women attending The Citadel.  Some of them are going to be less than crazy about casting their lot with a women’s team (and soccer still has a “foreign” connotation for some, although I think that notion is beginning to disappear).

My personal opinion, which is possibly a touch cynical, is that most alumni will gladly jump on any bandwagon provided by The Citadel, whenever one becomes available. If you’ve got a winner, you’ve got a lot of friends.  That makes Bob Winch a popular fellow these days, other than with Southern Conference officials.

Good luck to the team on Friday.

The SoCon baseball race goes to the final weekend

Just a quick breakdown of the different combinations, possibilities, and some observations…

There are four teams in the SoCon that still have NCAA regional at-large aspirations (in other words, schools that could potentially receive a bid even without winning the league tournament).  The Citadel, College of Charleston, Georgia Southern, and Elon are the squads in the mix (5th-place Samford, 29-21 overall with an RPI of 68, is not a serious candidate for an at-large bid at this point).  RPI numbers per Boyd Nation (as of 5/18):

The Citadel — 34-20 overall, 21-6 SoCon, RPI of 42
College of Charleston — 39-14 overall, 22-8 SoCon, RPI of 29
Georgia Southern — 33-19 overall, 19-8 SoCon, RPI of 53
Elon — 34-19 overall, 17-10 SoCon, RPI of 48

Realistically, two of these teams are likely to make it.  It’s possible that three get in the field of 64, although I tend to doubt that will happen.

The Citadel’s profile has slipped a bit, thanks in part to its own struggles (particularly in midweek games) and partly because of results elsewhere.  For example, the Bulldogs are currently only 1-8 against top 50 teams; thanks to Appalachian State and Western Carolina falling out of the top 50, The Citadel “lost” six top 50 wins.  Conversely, CofC is 5-5 against Top 50 opposition while Elon is 6-7.  GSU is 0-9.

With an excellent overall record, the College of Charleston would be a lock for the tourney by now if it had not dropped more than its fair share of league games, including losing a series at Furman.  Georgia Southern has won 11 straight games to get back on the at-large radar, but has been swept at CofC and lost a home series to Western Carolina.  Elon has some nice wins (including two at Clemson, one at NC State, and a home victory over UNC) but has been swept at home by The Citadel and also lost a home series to Georgia Southern.

Those league series losses at home hurt.  The Citadel is the only team in the SoCon that has avoided losing a home series this season.  The Bulldogs also have a better overall strength of schedule than the other three contenders.

Then there is this little nugget:  with the meeting this weekend at Georgia Southern, The Citadel will have played the 2nd-, 3rd-, 4th-, and 5th-place teams in the SoCon all on the road.  The Bulldogs have drawn what is easily the toughest slate of road league games, and held their own in them so far.

That’s why I believe that if The Citadel were to win the series in Statesboro and claim the regular season title in a top 10 league (the SoCon is currently rated 9th in RPI), it will be completely deserving of an NCAA bid, regardless of what happens in the Southern Conference tournament (and despite the Bulldogs’ foibles in midweek play).  If The Citadel does not win at least two games at GSU, however, then the at-large prospects for the Bulldogs become a lot dicier.

The College of Charleston is in fairly good shape for a second bid for the league.  I believe the other contenders likely have to win the league tournament, although Elon could make a case for an at-large with a strong tourney run.  What Elon would not want in that situation is for a team other than the CofC or The Citadel to win the tournament. 

(Note:  the seeding possibilities outlined below assume there are no rainouts this weekend.)

As far as SoCon tournament seeding goes, the CofC is going to be either the 1 or 2 seed.  The Cougars have completed their league schedule.

The Citadel can be the 1 seed (with two wins in Statesboro), the 2 seed (with one win), or the 3 seed (if it is swept). 

GSU is the 2 seed with a sweep and the 3 seed with 1 or 2 victories this weekend; if the Eagles are swept they could wind up as the 4 seed, but only if either Elon or Samford sweep their series against each other.

Elon and Samford will be the 4 and 5 seeds (and play each other for a fourth consecutive time in the first round of the tournament) unless the dual-sweep scenario outlined above occurs.

Western Carolina would be the 6 seed if the tournament started today, and will stay in that spot with a combination of two WCU wins/Appalachian State losses.  The Mountaineers will be the 7 seed unless they can make up ground on the Catamounts. 

There are three teams still alive for the 8th and final spot in the tournament (Davidson has been eliminated).  Wofford holds a one-game lead over Furman, but the Paladins hold the tiebreaker.  UNC-Greensboro is two games back of the Terriers, but does host Furman this weekend (Wofford has a series against Appy in Spartanburg).  UNCG would need to sweep the Paladins and hope Appalachian State sweeps Wofford; otherwise, it’s out of the running.

One more thing with regards to the SoCon tourney to keep in mind:  the teams are basically divided into two four-team pods, with the winner of each pod meeting in the title game.  One pod will have the 1, 4, 5, and 8 seeds, while the other will feature the 2, 3, 6, and 7 seeds.  That second group, in particular, will be a bloodbath (not that the first will be a walk in the park).

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.

The Citadel needs to win at least one more regular season game

The loss to UNC-Greensboro on Saturday was very disappointing, but oddly Ed Conroy wasn’t too worried about it.  At least, that’s what he told Jeff Hartsell of The Post and Courier:

“I thought we did some really good things,” said Conroy. “We shared the ball well, only had six turnovers, shot the ball well from 3-point range. We just didn’t convert a lot of shots on the interior. We got some good looks there, but they didn’t go.”

There was also a reference earlier in the article to “a touch of fatigue and illness,” so perhaps the team’s energy level wasn’t as high as it normally was.  Also less than energetic was a largely absent corps of cadets.  The corps’ apathy and/or lack of presence this season during games at McAlister Field House (not to mention the homecoming game in football) has been noticeable.  It’s an issue General Rosa and company must address.

Back to the court, The Citadel was outrebounded 41-24  by UNCG, which was basically the difference in the game, as it’s hard to overcome such a discrepancy without a huge edge in turnovers or shooting percentage, and the Bulldogs did not shoot particularly well (36%).  The loss means that to clinch an overall winning season, as well as a winning season in Southern Conference play, The Citadel needs to win one of its two final regular season games.

That won’t be easy, as they are both road contests.  Thursday the Bulldogs travel to Greenville to play an improving Furman club, followed by a Saturday game in Spartanburg against Wofford.

The Citadel beat Furman 70-60 in Charleston on January 23.  In that game, Cameron Wells had 22 points and 12 rebounds.  He was only 6-17 from the field, but went to the foul line repeatedly and converted (8-8).  Bryan Streeter also had a double-double in the contest.  The Bulldogs were a solid 8-20 from 3-point land and also won the turnover battle against the Paladins (11-8).

Furman’s Amu Saaka scored 19 points (on only 12 shots) and figures to be a problem again for the Bulldogs this time around.  The Paladins will also have Jordan Miller available for this game after he missed the first meeting.  Miller scored 31 points against UT-Chattanooga, but has followed up that great performance with two games in which he shot a combined 4-14 from the field.

Getting a win against Furman at Timmons Arena would be nice for several reasons. Assuming the two teams don’t meet in the Southern Conference tournament, it would be the first time The Citadel had swept the Paladins in consecutive seasons since the 2000-2001 campaigns.  Of course, there were only three games played in those years, as Furman screwed up in 2000 and scheduled too many games, leading to a penalty that resulted in only one game on the hardwood between the two schools that year.

The Citadel also won the second game played in the 1999 season, so it did win four straight against Furman from 1999-2001.  That was the last time the Bulldogs won four straight in the series.  The last time the Bulldogs won both home-and-away in consecutive seasons against the Paladins?  1939-1940 (part of a six-game win streak against Furman, the longest for The Citadel in the series’ history).  The Citadel hasn’t won consecutive games in Greenville since 1992-1993.

The Citadel had a late lead against Wofford in the game played on January 21, but couldn’t hold on and lost 44-42.  As the score indicates, it wasn’t an offensive masterpiece.  The Bulldogs shot 32% from the field.  Wofford shot no better (30%), but outrebounded The Citadel 38-33 and committed one fewer turnover.  The Terriers’ stated strategy of stopping Cameron Wells worked, as the rest of the Bulldog squad (save Zach Urbanus) combined for more turnovers (10) than made field goals (6).

You can bet Wofford will try to hold down Wells’ production again to win its sixth straight game over the cadets, but it may not be so easy this time, as the other Bulldogs have done a better job in recent games of shouldering the offensive load.  Of course, the Terriers are likely to be better at putting the ball in the hoop on Saturday as well.

Noah Dahlman was his usual solid self in the first meeting (15 points, 6-12 FG, five rebounds).  Odds are at least one of his teammates will provide offensive support.  I anticipate a higher-scoring game this time (but not much higher — we’re not talking about a pair of run-and-gun teams here).

Just a few stats to finish off this post…

— With one more regular season victory, The Citadel will clinch its second consecutive winning season.  The last time the Bulldogs had two straight winning campaigns? 1979-1980.  Before that, you have to go back to 1964-1965.  The Citadel had four straight winning seasons from 1958-1961.  Speaking of the 1958-61 era…

— If The Citadel beats Furman and/or Wofford, it will enjoy a second consecutive winning season in Southern Conference play.  The last time the Bulldogs had two straight winning SoCon campaigns?  1960-1961.

You read that correctly.  Actually, from 1958-1961 The Citadel had four straight winning seasons in conference play.  The first three came under the direction of Norm Sloan, who then became the head coach at Florida.  His successor at The Citadel, Mel Thompson (best known as Pat Conroy’s head coach at The Citadel, I suppose) would go 10-3 in SoCon action in his first season in charge.

Sloan took over a program that had not had a winning SoCon season since 1945. Actually, that doesn’t really tell the story.  Let’s put it this way:  from 1946 to 1956, The Citadel was 12-102 in league play.  The five years preceding Sloan’s arrival in Charleston featured a combined conference record of 2-49.

Sloan was 5-9 in the SoCon in his first season, and then had league records of 9-6, 7-4, and 8-4.

Sloan won the national championship in 1974 while coaching North Carolina State. He had proved his worth as a coach many years earlier, though, at a small military college.

Incidentally, the only other time The Citadel had back-to-back winning years in the Southern Conference came in the 1938-1939-1940 seasons, when the Bulldogs had three straight winning SoCon campaigns, mostly under head coach Rock Norman (who coached the team in 1938 and 1939, and for the first eight games in 1940 before being replaced by Ben Parker).

There is definitely potential for The Citadel to make a little history with a win in either of its two games this week.  I wouldn’t mind if instead of winning one of them, it won both.

Make it five in a row; The Citadel’s basketball team rolls along

This is going to be one of my shorter posts.  Apologies to anyone who actually follows the blog on a semi-regular basis, but it’s hard to write when under the effects of anesthesia.  I was barely able to follow Thursday night’s game against Western Carolina, in which the Bulldogs played as good a half (the second) as they have all season.  I wish I had been at full speed for that one, but I’ll take a 17-point win while groggy any day.

Anyway, Ed Conroy and company have won 5 straight games.  Ed has figured out this February basketball thing, as the Bulldogs are 11-1 in the shortest month over the last two seasons.  Last year, they lost their final game in February after winning six straight in the month (the final six games of last season’s 11-game winning streak).  This year, the Bulldogs are 5-0 in the month with three games to go — UNC-Greensboro on Saturday in the home finale at McAlister Field House, followed by road games against Furman and Wofford.

Quick hits on the Western Carolina game:

  • It’s great to see Cosmo Morabbi getting his shot back.  He made three-pointers from all over the court, setting a career high for makes (5).  Zach Urbanus has been consistent most of the year, but if Morabbi and Austin Dahn (who had a tough night, but made a three near the game’s end) are also shooting well from outside, the Bulldogs can present some serious problems for opposing defenses along the perimeter.
  • Morabbi wasn’t just shooting from outside; he had three steals in the game as well.
  • The stat line doesn’t really show it, but Bryan Streeter had a very solid game last night, particularly defensively.  He outplayed WCU’s post players all night, in my opinion.  Some of his rebounds came in heavy traffic.  He just needs to watch those elbows, especially on SoCon Saturdays when the officiating is, uh, interesting.
  • Harrison DuPont had another good game after a slow start.  I kind of like combining his numbers with those of Bo Holston.  If you do that, you get this line:  40 minutes, 17 points (5-11 FG, 6-8 FT; DuPont also made a 3), 14 rebounds (6 offensive), 2 assists, 3 turnovers.  [Also 6 fouls, so pretend the combo player is in the NBA.]  That’s very good production over the course of a game, obviously.  DuPont should be a serious candidate for the All-SoCon freshman team.
  • It wasn’t Cameron Wells’ best night, as it took him 14 FG attempts to score 13 points.  He also had four turnovers (he did have 5 assists, though).  Despite that, The Citadel won by 17.  That’s a very good sign going forward, especially after being down 11 points at one point in the first half.  Wells isn’t going to be “off” too often.
  • The Bulldogs trailed 25-14 with 5:34 remaining in the half.  For the rest of the game, The Citadel outscored WCU 59-31.  Remember, WCU has a win this season over Louisville at Freedom Hall.  It’s a team that has some talent.
  • The Bulldogs were 7-10 from beyond the arc in the second half.  You can win a lot of games shooting 70% from three-land in the second half.
  • Western Carolina’s leading scorer this season, Brandon Giles, was 0-6 from the field, committed four turnovers, and did not score against The Citadel.

Last season, UNC-Greensboro won only five games all season, four in Southern Conference play.  So far this season, UNCG has won five games, four in Southern Conference play.  The Spartans actually started their conference campaign with a 33-point win at Samford, but that was definitely an outlier.  UNCG is now 4-11 in the league and has lost five straight SoCon outings, although they’ve only been blown out in one of those five, so it’s not like the Spartans haven’t been competitive lately. They just haven’t been winning.

UNC has a fine player in 6’5″ senior Ben Stywall, who averages 14.4 points per game and 10.3 rebounds per contest.  That’s right, he averages a double-double.  Stywall scored 22 points and grabbed 11 boards in UNCG’s most recent game, a 70-65 loss to Elon.  He has had some monster games this year, most of them in losses, including 26/19 against Samford, 21/14 against the College of Charleston, and 24/14 against Western Carolina.  In that CofC game, 11 of Stywall’s rebounds came on the offensive end.

One reason Stywall gets a lot of offensive boards is because he gets a lot of chances. UNCG is the poorest shooting team in the conference in league play, shooting just 38.9% from the field.  Stywall is the only Spartan getting significant minutes who is shooting better than 41%.  Kyle Randall is a 6’2″ freshman who has taken only one fewer shot than Stywall, but he’s only shooting 33%.  The Spartans have two three-point gunners (Mikko Koivisto and Kendall Toney); neither is shooting better than 37% from the field (or better than 34% from beyond the arc).

The Citadel should win this game.  Not because it’s the last home game of the season (which the Bulldogs actually lost last year), but because it’s a much better team that is playing its best basketball of the season.  The Bulldogs need to maintain their excellent perimeter defense and control Stywall on the glass (they aren’t going to completely stop him). UNCG likes to play at a higher tempo (averaging over 70 possessions per game in league play), so as usual The Citadel must control the pace.

The game is on SportSouth, the second Saturday in a row the Bulldogs will be featured on television.  The start time is 1 pm ET; if you can’t be at the game (like me, unfortunately), you should be watching on TV.  This team has now set the all-time school record for most victories over a two-year span with 35 (breaking a record set in 1979-80).  I’m hoping they add at least seven more games to that mark…

New year, new hoops post

Conference play goes into high gear starting on Wednesday with the Bulldogs’ trip to Boone to face Appalachian State, followed by a matchup at McAlister with the College of Charleston on Saturday.  The next week will feature more road action as the Bulldogs make the western swing through the league, taking on UT-Chattanooga on the 14th and Samford on the 16th.

The Citadel is .500 right now no matter how you look at it, at 7-7 overall, 1-1 in the SoCon.  Last year at this time The Citadel was 6-7 overall, 1-1 in the league.

Facts, observations, etc.:

– The Citadel’s starting lineup against Savannah State included no players hailing from east of the Mississippi River, which is decidedly unusual (if not unprecedented).

– Zach Urbanus is averaging 35. 7 minutes per game, which is in the top 25 nationally.  I worry a little about him and Cameron Wells (34.1 mpg) wearing down over the course of the season, but they logged major minutes last season too, and it didn’t seem to bother them.

– Bulldog opponents have shot better from 40% from three-point land on four occasions.  The Citadel has lost all four of those games.

– The Citadel’s game notes for the Appalachian State game include the statistic that the Bulldogs are 14th nationally in fouls committed per game, at 15.0 per contest.  However, the flip side to that is The Citadel’s opponents have only committed two more fouls than the Bulldogs (212-210).

– The fouling statistics are really just a function of The Citadel’s pace of play.  At 62.3 possessions per game, the Bulldogs are among the ten slowest-playing teams in Division I.

– So while The Citadel is 22nd nationally in fewest turnovers per game, it is actually 103rd in D-1 in terms of turnover rate (which is still not bad; it’s about where the Bulldogs were last season).

– Let’s talk about offensive rebounding for a moment.  The Citadel has struggled at times on the boards this season, and it’s mainly attributable to the Bulldogs not getting their fair share of offensive rebounds.

Joe Wolfinger has 25 offensive boards this season.  Now, that leads the team, but on the other hand, Wolfinger has played 339 minutes so far; he’s averaging one offensive board every 13.5 minutes on the floor.  Bryan Streeter has 18 offensive rebounds in 255 minutes (one every 14.2 minutes).

Those are the guys you would expect to get the majority of the offensive caroms, and they have — but on a per-minute basis, they haven’t been as effective as Ed Conroy might like.  Nobody on the team is actually bringing in an exceptional percentage of offensive rebounds (the best per-minute performer in the category is Mike Groselle, who in limited time has grabbed one every 9.1 minutes).

This is where the Bulldogs really miss John Brown.  Last season Brown had an excellent offensive rebounding campaign, averaging one such board every 9.9 minutes (and he played 537 minutes).  At least one member of the current edition of the Bulldogs needs to repeat (or at least approach repeating) that effort — either that or The Citadel has to significantly increase its shooting percentage, which is unlikely.

– Wolfinger is shooting 44.2% from the floor, but he’s under 40% against Division I competition.  He has only had four games this season in which he has shot better than 50% from the field — against Kenyon, UVA-Wise, Missouri State, and Maryland-Eastern Shore.

Wolfinger has struggled in the two SoCon games.  Here is hoping that he gets better as the second half of the season begins, both offensively and defensively.  He could still be a key cog in the rotation, but perhaps not as an offensive focal point.

– Although Wolfinger is a 7-footer, the Bulldog who appears most comfortable as an offensive post player is Groselle, who suffered an ankle injury that limited his time on the court the last few weeks.  If healthy, I would not be surprised if Groselle’s minutes increase markedly as the season progresses.

– Another freshman, Harrison DuPont, got his first career start against Savannah State (as part of the all-Western starting lineup) and shows potential to be an impact player.  He has played 30+ minutes in each of the last two games, scoring 14 points against Houston and 11 against Savannah State.  He had six turnovers against Houston, but other than that did well in both games, shooting better than 50% from the field and picking up a few rebounds along the way.

– In nine games as a starter, Austin Dahn shot 15.6% from three-point land.  In five games coming off the bench, he is shooting 47.8% from beyond the arc.  Advantage, Ed Conroy.

– Bryan Streeter also has some improved statistics after being switched from the starting lineup.  His rebounding rates have almost doubled.  His free throw shooting has even improved (albeit that’s a very small sample size).

Streeter is shooting 58.8% from the line so far this season (and was 5-6 against Savannah State).  That may not seem impressive, but it’s a big change for the better when compared to last season, when Streeter only made 16 free throws in 44 attempts (36.4%).

The upcoming league games will be tough, considering three are on the road and the one home game is against the College of Charleston, which beat North Carolina on Monday night. Last season The Citadel was a combined 5-2 against the four teams.

The Bulldogs swept Appalachian State in two tight games (one in OT, the other by two points).  The Citadel also swept the College of Charleston in two contests, neither of which was particularly close, something the Cougars will surely remember.

The Citadel lost at home to UT-Chattanooga, and had a disappointing split with Samford — disappointing in the sense that while Charleston’s Bulldogs dominated the Birmingham Bulldogs in the regular-season matchup at Samford, in the conference tourney quarterfinals Samford put a quick end to The Citadel’s championship hopes.

The SoCon looks to be very competitive this season, with a lot of evenly-matched teams.  The Citadel’s 7-7 overall record is in line with the records of its next four opponents, which have current records of 7-6 (Appy), 8-6 (UTC), 8-6 (CofC), and 6-8 (Samford).  Other conference teams with similar records:  Davidson (7-8), Furman (7-6), and Wofford (8-7).  On the other hand,  Western Carolina  is 11-2 (with a win at Louisville) while Elon, Georgia Southern, and UNC-Greensboro are a combined 8-33.

I’m hoping for an entertaining conference race.  My definition of entertaining is one in which The Citadel is in or near the lead…

Football, Game 5: The Citadel vs. Elon

In the 1880s a train depot was built at what would eventually become the town of Elon College (yes, the town was called “Elon College”).  By 1888 there was a post office, and once you’ve got a post office, well obviously the next thing you need is a college, so some local assemblymen from the United Church of Christ founded Elon College (the actual school, not the town) in 1889.  The first year there were 76 students enrolled.

By 1931, Elon had dramatically increased its enrollment, and had 87 students.

Okay, that’s a little unfair.  Elon’s enrollment was affected by the Great Depression, and there was also a fire in 1923 that devastated the school, but by the mid-1930s, Elon was in trouble, having briefly lost its accreditation and barely keeping its financial ship afloat.  Elon was barely hanging on, but then caught a break when Army Air Corps pilots trained on campus during World War II, which helped the school survive (shades of the relationship between the U.S. Navy and Notre Dame, with one difference being that Elon didn’t have a famous football team).  After the war, veterans and the G.I. Bill pushed enrollment past 700.

It was still a sleepy little college, geared towards local students commuting from their homes, until the early 1970s.  Its most notable graduate may well have been Doug Moe.  Since 1973, however, Elon has made an amazing transformation into a respected regional university under the leadership of two presidents.  Fred Young, who led the school for 25 years, made the decision on behalf of the institution to buy a lot of nearby land, which in hindsight was an excellent decision.  It increased the campus size threefold, and thus enabled the school to expand dramatically.

Young also appears to have been a pro when it came to fundraising, a tradition carried on by his successor, Leo Lambert, who developed a plan for Elon’s future even more ambitious than Young’s.  A list of all the buildings and programs added at the school in just the last 10 years (and it’s a long list) can be found in this article about Lambert:  Link

Elon has done a good (if not great job) of setting big goals and meeting those goals by raising a ton of money and having a coherent master plan.  The speed in which all of this has been done is truly remarkable.  How was it done so quickly?  In the linked article, Lambert says:

“Private schools can act quickly and can pursue their own destiny without having to deal with a state bureaucracy.  We can build architecturally cheaper, lovelier and more on time than any state university.”

Well, then.

Of course, there are limits, and Elon may be reaching them.  Lambert suggests the goals contained in the next strategic plan will cost at least $500 million, which is a lot of money, especially when you consider that 46% of Elon’s 24,000 living alums have graduated within the past 10 years.  The school has tapped a lot of old money already, but the new money won’t be coming in for quite a while, at least from alumni.

On the other hand, Elon can continue to raise money from other sources, as it is situated in the largest population area (50-mile radius) in the Southern Conference, a region that also has the highest average household income in the league.  It will be interesting to see how the school continues to progress.

Elon had two sustained periods of excellence in small-college (NAIA) football.  The first of these occurred in the 1930s, under the direction of head coach D.C. “Peahead” Walker.  In 10 seasons Walker would win four North State League championships in football, and several other titles in baseball and basketball, as he coached all three sports at the school (during the summers he played minor league baseball).

Walker was an Alabama native who was a popular speaker on the rubber chicken circuit (occasionally teaming up with his buddy Frank Howard).  He would leave Elon to coach at Wake Forest, leading that school to two bowl games (including the first Gator Bowl in 1946; the Demon Deacons defeated South Carolina 26-14).  Walker is still the alltime winningest coach at Wake Forest.  He also coached the Canadian Football League’s Montreal Alouettes.

Elon’s greatest run of success came during the 1970s and early 1980s under head coaches Shirley “Red” Wilson and Jerry Tolley.  Wilson had been a veteran North Carolina high school coach before taking the Elon job.  He would coach there for ten seasons, winning five league titles and making the NAIA playoffs in three of those years.  Wilson then left to become head coach at Duke and was replaced by Tolley, who had been his top assistant at Elon.

Tolley would only lead Elon for five seasons; he had already decided that he did not want to coach past the age of 40.  In his final two years, Elon would win consecutive NAIA national championships.  Tolley’s career record as a head coach:  49-11-2.

After winning the second title (3-0 against Pittsburg State; Elon had seven turnovers, but the Gorillas missed five field goals) Tolley walked away from coaching, but not from Elon, where he briefly became a fundraiser before taking a job at LabCorp (whose CEO was on the Elon board of trustees).

Tolley has also written several books on football drills and served two terms as mayor of Elon College (the town).  He is now the director of annual giving at the school.  One gets the sense that Tolley is one of the influential figures in Elon’s rise as an institution over the past quarter-century.

In 2001 Elon College (the school) became Elon University; Elon College (the town) became Elon; and the football program got a new stadium.  The year before, Elon had changed the nickname of its athletic teams from the “Fightin’ Christians” to the “Phoenix”.  (Kind of a boring nickname, if you ask me.)  Elon had completed its transition from the NAIA to NCAA Division I in 1999.

The coach who led the Phoenix into its new era of football was Al Seagraves, who had been a longtime assistant to Charlie Taaffe at The Citadel.  Seagraves would coach Elon for eight seasons, with his last year being Elon’s first as a Southern Conference school.

After that season (in which Elon was 2-10) Seagraves was replaced by Paul Hamilton, who would coach the Phoenix for two years.  After consecutive 3-8 seasons, Hamilton would be succeeded by current Elon coach Pete Lembo, who is now in his fourth year at the school.

Lembo had been the coach at Lehigh before taking the Elon job.  The previous coach at Lehigh?  Kevin Higgins.  Lembo replaced Higgins when the current head coach of The Citadel took a job as an assistant with the Detroit Lions.  Lembo had been an assistant under Higgins at Lehigh.

Elon has improved its record in each of Lembo’s three seasons, going 5-6, 7-4, and 8-4, narrowly missing the playoffs last season after losing its last two games of the year.  A 24-16 loss at Appalachian State probably didn’t hurt the Phoenix’s cause, but the season-ended 26-3 drubbing handed out by Liberty certainly did.  If Elon had won that game, it likely would have advanced to postseason play.  It wouldn’t have deserved to do so, however.

I normally want SoCon teams to succeed in out of conference play, and don’t like ceding potential playoff berths to other leagues (one of these years the selection committee will give every team in the CAA a bid), but I wasn’t too upset to see Elon fold in Lynchburg.  That’s because the Phoenix had won a game earlier in the season that it should have lost…to The Citadel.

Last year’s 27-23 Elon “victory” in Charleston was an end-to-end officiating debacle.  It featured (among other things) a timing mistake that led to an Elon field goal, a reversed call on a turnover that should not have been reversed (that led to another Phoenix field goal), and an unbelievably poor spot on a fourth down play that gave the ball (and the game) to Elon.

I hope the officials for Saturday’s game are better.  They could not be worse.

Note:  The referee for last year’s contest worked the game between Appalachian State and The Citadel last week without incident (not counting microphone follies), and has also called an Elon game already this year.  I’m assuming he won’t get the assignment for The Citadel-Elon, but this is the Southern Conference we’re talking about, so you never know.

Elon is 4-1 entering Saturday’s game, with wins over Davidson, Presbyterian, Georgia Southern, and Furman, and a loss to Wake Forest.

The Phoenix beat the Presbyterian 41-7 at PC, in a game in which the Blue Hose finished with just two yards net rushing.  Conversely, PC rushed for 204 yards at The Citadel two weeks ago.  Elon has held all four of its FCS opponents to 88 yards net rushing or less.

Elon needed a last-second field goal to get past Furman in Greenville, a game in which the Phoenix struggled to run the ball (49 total yards) but made up for it with passing yardage (374).  That was the 15th time in Scott Riddle’s career that he had thrown for 300+ yards in a game, a league record.

The junior had earlier established a Socon mark with 218 consecutive passes without an interception before throwing a pick against Georgia Southern.  Interestingly, Riddle is also serving as Elon’s punter this season.

Riddle has thrown for 618 yards and 5 touchdowns against The Citadel in two previous meetings.  321 of those yards and 4 of the TDs were to Terrell Hudgins (who also scored a TD against the Bulldogs the year before Riddle arrived at Elon).

Hudgins set the all-Division I record for career receptions against Furman.  He now has 330 catches after pulling in 16 of Riddle’s throws last Saturday.  He is two or three games away from breaking Jerry Rice’s FCS record for receiving yardage in a career.

Riddle and Hudgins make for a tough combo.  Last season the Phoenix also ran the ball well against The Citadel (187 yards), the kind of balance that Pete Lembo wants in his offense.  Brandon Newsome, now the third-string tailback for Elon, had 134 of those yards; he is one of three Phoenix running backs with at least one career 100-yard rushing game.

Elon’s defense has 19 sacks so far in just five games and held Georgia Southern and Furman to 14 and 12 points, respectively.  While Elon’s offense is averaging almost 460 yards total offense per game, Phoenix opponents are only averaging 216 yards per contest.  The Elon D has forced eight turnovers so far this season, with six of those being interceptions.

Elon’s defense is holding opponents to a 24% rate on third down conversions, one reason why the Phoenix have a five-minute per game time of possession advantage.

Elon placekicker Adam Shreiner is 6-8 on field goals, including the game-winner against Furman with 4 seconds to play last week.  He has missed one extra point.  The Phoenix do not have particularly impressive kick or punt return statistics so far this season.

This game is being billed in some quarters as a matchup of Andre Roberts vs. Terrell Hudgins, but I think the key to the game will be the Bulldogs’ defensive front seven versus the Elon offensive line.  The Citadel must get pressure on Riddle, which won’t be easy (in 208 pass attempts, Elon quarterbacks have been sacked 11 times).  In last year’s game Riddle was sacked once, for a two-yard loss.

The Bulldogs also must force turnovers.  Appalachian State did not turn the ball over against The Citadel.  Just one turnover may have made the difference in that game, and the matchup with Elon will be no different.  Bulldog defenders are going to have to make plays on the ball.

If The Citadel plays as well overall as it did last Saturday against the Mountaineers, then I believe the Bulldogs will win the game (SoCon officiating caveats aside).  The question, then, is whether or not The Citadel is capable of putting together two good games in a row against quality opposition.  We’ll find out on Saturday.