Monday, February 8, 2016

CofC Thumps Towson & Drexel in Convincing Homecoming Victories

Final Score (Thursday):
College of Charleston 65, Towson 47 (Jarrell Brantley 16 pts, 11 rebs, 1 ast, 2 stls)
Final Score (Saturday): 
College of Charleston 60, Drexel 38 (Cam Johnson 16 pts, 5 rebs, 2 asts, 4 stls, 39 mins)

Playing in their final home-and-home series this season, the College of Charleston men put together their two most dominant league performances over Homecoming weekend. The 18 and 22 point margins of victory were the largest for the Cougars in CAA play this season, as the league's top defense took it to yet another level. 

As has been the case most weeks, we had one more injured scholarship player announced. Terrance O'Donohue - who was a big part of that 40-37 slugfest in Baltimore - would not be participating in the rematch as he nurses a shoulder injury. He is projected to return in late February. 

An announcement like that can no longer faze these guys. 

As Andrew Miller put it, Towson's offense They don't really have shooters, so they're gameplan is to out-tough and out-hustle their opponent for every second-chance rebound and free throw opportunity. Like the first time these teams met, the results can often get a bit shady - especially with TV Teddy Valentine in the building. Yet once again, the young Cougars refused to be bullied.

What made that demeanor impressive was that it was freshmen Marquise Pointer and Jarrell Brantley who led the charge. The former, reigning CAA Rookie of the Week, led the team with 19 points while the latter turned in a double-double. CofC was having a much easier day offensively, hitting early and often from three (8-17 on the night). The Cougars jumped out to an early lead and rarely let the Tigers get within two or three possessions the rest of the way en route to a wire to wire win. Once again, Towson's William Adala Moto had a difficult time contributing - 4 points, 6 rebounds, 6 turnovers and one made field goal. 

The marquee event this weekend was the Saturday matinee rematch vs Drexel. The Dragons, who have not won a game since picking up their sole conference victory over the Cougars in Philadelphia, would not have the same fortune in Chucktown.

You've probably seen Drexel's numbers by now - 10 first half points, 1 made field goal in the first half, no player with double-digit scoring, 4 assists to 23 turnovers, 23% shooting for the game including 2 of 12 shooting from deep. The Cougars aggressively doubled Rodney Williams in the paint (the big man who forced Harris and Brantley to sit significant minutes with foul trouble in Philly) and closed off nearly every passing lane whether they were in man or zone. 

It really was a perfect (depending on who you root for) storm - a team struggling on offense facing off against a defense playing at it's best. If you watched the Super Bowl last night, you know which team will be the one imposing its will in those cases. 

Offensively for the Cougars, it was another by-committee effort. Nick Harris had a second-straight solid performance, flirting with a double-double with a team-leading 9 boards. Evan Bailey kept up his hot shooting off the bench and Cam once again very efficiently flirted with a career-high points total. Even Harrison Bowne, who came in to spell the big men for 3 minutes in the first half, got on the board with a free throw. 

The Cougars needed to win these two games in order to stay in the upper half of the standings - especially should some fortuitous losing by the top teams take place over the final handful of games. The fact that CofC put their foot on the necks of both opponents and did not let up is another strong indicator of the surprising maturity of this young team. 

Next up is a rematch with JMU followed by a big game at Elon. The Dukes have vaunted themselves into that three team tie for 3rd in the CAA ever since their league-opening home loss to the Cougars. You have to anticipate they'll want revenge, and their depth will create problems even in TD Arena. Elon is coming off a tough home loss to Towson, and is one of those teams (along with Northeastern) who could push CofC into the CAA Tournament play-in game with a late season run. 

There's just three more pairs of CAA games this year. Charleston is playing their best, is it enough to peak at the right time and separate themselves from the pack? 

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Homecoming '16: Cougars to Grapple with Tigers, Dragons

Ah...Homecoming. Easily a Top-10 excuse for CofC students to get intoxicated at a school-sanctioned event. Right up there with A Charleston Affair, graduation, the season-opening Block Party, Cougarpalooza and the esteemed Bully Pulpit series. As much as I'd love to venture down to Chucktown to partake in the festivities, those Southwest Airlines dollars are reserved for ACA and the 2017 CAA Tournament.

While students and alums take advantage of the newly booze-filled TD Arena, the action on the court may very well lack some aesthetically-pleasing polish. Towson (16-7, 7-3) and Drexel (3-18, 1-9) are two of the beefiest, toughest, stingiest teams in the league - as CofC fans will remember from this year's road games against both squads.

Towson and Charleston set basketball back several generations with the regionally-televised 40-37 (that's FINAL score) victory for the Cougars. That game featured more personal fouls than made field goals and just one player in double figures (Big Game Cam). Drexel picked up their only conference victory and one third of their season total by grinding out a win over the offensively-challenged Cougars last month.

In order to seize another home-and-home opportunity and go 2-0 this week, the Cougars will need to bring their usual defensive intensity alongside the offense we have seen in spurts. During that epic 20-point comeback last week and the beginning of the UNCW game, the Cougars were converting stops and steals into points on the other end. Right now defense is fueling offense and CofC needs to milk every last drop of gas to keep the points-per-possession humming. They'll have a rowdy crowd encouraging them the whole time.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Chopping Wood with Earl and The Boys

Final Score (Thursday):
College of Charleston 68, Northeastern 61 (OT) (Cam Johnson 21 pts, 3 asts, 4 stls)
Final Score (Saturday): 
UNCW 65, College of Charleston 55 (Jarrell Brantley 15 pts, 7 rebs, 4 asts, 4 stls, 6-6 FT)

The Cougars had a tough CAA swing this past weekend, facing off against reigning league champs Northeastern on Thursday and then traveling to Wilmington to take on the squad currently on top of the standings.

With 14 minutes left in the first game against the Huskies, it looked like CofC was going to start this leg off with a less than ideal performance. That was when freshman forward Jeremy Miller, doing his best to keep the team afloat without Quincy Ford, nailed a trey that put the visiting team up 20.

We've talked a lot about the team adopting Coach Grant's toughness and resolve, and the directions he gave the young Cougar team at halftime were indicative of that mentality. From his postgame comments:

"You gotta pull out your ax and keep swinging. You've got 15 minutes, if you swing hard enough maybe you can cut it to nine. Swing again and maybe you can get it to five."

That's exactly what the team did over the closing stretch to crawl back and send this game to overtime. But pure mental toughness can only get you so far. X's and O's coaching played a big part in the comeback and the coaching staff deserves credit for throwing their seldom-used zone defense at Northeastern in the final half. The Huskies have struggled to hold leads this season, and they were clearly flustered by the sudden change in pace and look of the floor game. 

As the Cougars took swing after swing from three, from the line and on the offensive glass, Northeastern crumbled. The Huskies were held scoreless from the 12:14 mark to the 2:44 mark in the second half. That was when Charleston was hacking away to make this a single possession game.

With all the momentum on their side, CofC dominated overtime by a score of 10-3 and handed NU their fifth loss in six games.

Now if CofC was the ax on Thursday, they ran into a buzz saw on Saturday. Facing the team with the best CAA record was one thing, but there were three early signs that this would be an even tougher task.

1) With James Bourne expected to finally return from surgery, it was announced that Terrance O'Donohue would be out of this game with a shoulder injury. Bourne was on a strict minutes limit that would basically leave the Cougars with seven available scholarship players. 
2) This game was the marquee Homecoming event for UNC Wilmington, meaning a near sellout of enthusiastic students and alumni. Are we rivals with this team?
3) Chris Flemings, in the running for CAA Player of the Year, started red hot from the field.

Contrary to their habits, the Cougars actually started the game in Wilmington very strong - going tit for tat with the Seahawks for every three, steal and dunk. 

Be it the fatigue of travel, a short rotation and tired legs playing two days after the miracle comeback, or be it regression to the mean for this young team, CofC fell into another scoring drought in the second half. 

Turnovers (a problem earlier this season that had since receded) reared their ugly head against this Louisville-inspired Seahawk defense. Each Charleston starter had at least three giveaways. Wilmington turned those into 30 points on the other end, including nine points in transition. 

Another late comeback was enough to flirt with a single digit loss, but another surging takeover was not in the cards. Still, the team gave the top-ranked Hawks fits on both sides of the ball for much of the game.  Next up is Charleston's own homecoming - highlighted by two home contests against Towson and Drexel. 

Monday, January 25, 2016

No Points for Style: Defense Fuels 2-0 Weekend

Final Score (Thursday):
College of Charleston 40, Towson 37 (Cam Johnson 10 pts, 5-14 FG, 4 rebs, 3 asts)
Final Score (Saturday): 
College of Charleston 59, Delaware 58 (Marquise Pointer 16 pts, 4-12 3pt, 3 rebs, 2 asts, 38 mins)

Last week the Cougars of Charleston went 0-2 in their games, losing by a combined 3 points to William & Mary and Elon. Both losses were defined by one ill-fated play that would determine the ultimate outcome - an offensive foul in the waning seconds on Thursday, a blown rebounding opportunity on Saturday. We ended this week's preview hoping for a different fate, one more in favor of the undermanned CofC team. With their defense playing to its potential, the Cougars did just that as they defeated both opponents on #Snowmageddon weekend.

The Towson game on Thursday was a good ol' fashioned Wojcik-era rock fight between the two best defensive teams in the league. Neither team ever looked comfortable running their offense, but the Cougars did an especially good job of taking Towson's leading scorer and rebounder William Adala Moto completely out of the game. The Wake Forest transfer was in early foul trouble and struggled from the line in the closing minutes to finish the night with just 6 points (1 field goal) and 7 turnovers.

In a game this devoid of offense you need to find new ways to put the ball in the hoop. The Cougars received an unexpected contribution from Terrance O'Donohue, who showed that raaange with two important three balls and a clutch effort by Cam Johnson, who became the only player to crack double digits when he scored off a broken inbounds play with 4 seconds to go.

There is no reward for style points. In this league a win is a win and the Cougars grabbed an important one on the road in Baltimore.

After flying back to the warm(ish) Palmetto state, the Cougs faced a struggling Delaware team in one of the few on-schedule games this weekend. The Blue Hens were the only winless team in CAA play - a label that Drexel would share had they not gotten their only victory at home against Charleston.

As has been the case in many conference games this season (especially on Saturdays), the Cougars fell into an early double-digit lead to a hot-shooting Blue Hens team. Delaware threw a zone at Charleston for much of the first half and without a legit inside or outside threat, CofC was all too happy to take bad jump shots. 

After being held scoreless for much of the opening period, Cam Johnson picked up his second foul. Rather than pulling him before he picked up a third, Coach Grant left Cam out there and was quickly rewarded. Johnson went on a three-shot tear where he outscored Delaware on his own 8-0. Then he found Pointer (pictured above) for a buzzer beating three that sliced the UD lead to just two at the break.

In the second half, Delaware's shooting fell back to earth and the Cougars limited them to one shot attempt per possession. Still, this wouldn't be a #CAAHoops contest or a #CardiacCougs matinee without some drama. The Cougars were forced to make their free throws as Delaware hit a pair of threes late in the game to keep things way too close. After Brantley missed his final attempt with seconds to go, Delaware's last ditch heave was just inches off target. CofC held on for a one point victory.

Now at 4-4 in the CAA standings, Charleston is tied with Northeastern, 1 game back of William & Mary / Towson and 2 games back of JMU / Hofstra / Wilmington. Elon is alone at 3-5 while Drexel and Delaware are at the bottom of the dog pile.

Next week is a big one for the Cougars. First they host Northeastern on Thursday. The Huskies still have the league's marquee win on their resume (over Miami), but have lost 4 of their last 5 games. A win over that team would put some distance between two squads that are currently locked together in the standings.

Then the Cougs make the short road trip up to Wilmington to face the first place Seahawks. Coach Keatts' team has won 5 in a row and will be coming off a marquee game against JMU in Harrisonburg two days prior. A pair of wins would propel Charleston into the upper half of the conference and leave the chances of playing in the suicide Friday CAA Tournament game in the dust. A split or 0-2 finish is just as likely, but would leave CofC with some work to do. Anything goes in this crazy conference, so tune in to see how the cards fall. 

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Cougars Look to End Skid Against Towson, Delaware

Towson (13-6, 4-2)
Delaware (5-12, 0-6)

Looking to end a three-game losing streak, the Cougars have another tough test ahead of them as they face off against two teams they have yet to defeat in two seasons as conference opponents. Also, CofC is facing another quick road-to-home turnaround between the Thursday game in Baltimore and the Saturday game in Charleston.

Pat Skerry's Tigers are one of the overachieving teams in the CAA this year. Built off their longtime prowess in defense and rebounding (remember Jerrelle Benimon from CofC's first year in the league?), the Tigers are one of the "haves" in the CAA this season with a 4-2 league record - good for a six-way tie atop the standings. Wake Forest transfer William Adala Moto leads the team in both scoring (14.8) and rebounding (8.2). The Tigers are not a great shooting team, but they get to the line, and limit opponents to bad shots and single chance possessions.

If you're a depressed CofC fan (you shouldn't be, we're awesome), just look at Delaware for real despair. They have multiple contributors down with injuries, a short bench, zero wins in the conference so far and a head coach with one foot out the door. Playing at home, the Cougars should be able to put together a strong enough effort to pick up their first Saturday CAA victory, but this could be another Drexel-like scenario. The Blue Hens play at Wilmington tonight, and may have Charleston in their sights as wounded prey.

I love the team's next-man-up attitude with the almost comical injury luck this year. The guys are still fun to watch every night and have the talent to compete in every game. I'd love to see a few things bounce their way this weekend to put them right back in the thick of the league race. It's certainly doable.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Barry Goes Under the Knife, Cougars Go Under .500

Final Score (Thursday):
William & Mary 63, College of Charleston 61 (Cam Johnson 19 pts, 6-12 FG, 6 rebs, 4 asts)
Final Score (Saturday): 
Elon 65, College of Charleston 64 (Jarrell Brantley 15 pts, 6-13 FG, 7 rebs, 3 asts, 1 blk)

Shortly before Thursday's game against Elon, rumors began circulating on the interwebs that Canyon Barry, the Colonial Athletic Association's leading scorer and oldest starter for the Cougars, was electing to have season-ending surgery on his separated shoulder. The loss of Barry (who had already missed 2.5 games) would give the Cougars just eight scholarship players for the foreseeable future; nine when senior forward James Bourne returns from surgery of his own.

Indeed, the rumors were confirmed and the already-shorthanded Cougars were dealt another blow to their net experience level and depth. Canyon's emergence as one of the country's best scorers was a big reason why the Cougars were overachieving this year. 

We've talked about the team's injuries a lot on this blog, so hopefully this is the last of it. Joe Chealey was the projected starting point guard for this team and was expected to shoulder much of the scoring and distributing work. He was lost in the preseason. Grant Riller, who led the Cougars with 20 points in their not-so-secret exhibition game against Clemson, was competing for the starting 2 spot and may have beat out sophomore Cam Johnson. He has joined Chealey in street clothes all season. Bourne is the team's lone senior and capable of scoring and defending in one-on-one situations. He has not played a CAA game yet, but may be back next week.

With these four contributors out, the young guys have been forced to step up - and they have done an outstanding job. The team is now starting three freshman, one sophomore and one junior with extremely limited depth behind them. As Coach Grant said after the Elon game - guys who were expected to be the 4th or 5th option are now expected to lead and produce each game. The team will benefit in the long run (man the future is bright right now), but Charleston will have to deal with the mistakes of a freshman or sophomore playing 37 minutes per game the rest of the year.

With the said, the difference between wins and losses in a conference as flat as the CAA is paper thin. The Cougars lost two games at home this week by a combined 3 points. 

Against William & Mary, the Cougs found themselves in familiar territory. Just like the first time these teams met, Charleston struggled against the Tribe zone and fell into a 20-point hole. Yet again, they put together an honorable effort behind the shooting of Cam Johnson and Evan Bailey to take a slim lead in the final minutes. Unfortunately, a Cam Johnson go-ahead basket in the waning seconds was waived off as a charge. Cougars drop to 2-3 in the CAA.

Hosting Elon two days later, the Cougars found themselves as the team being chased in the second half. The Phoenix got hot from outside late, and one play would prove to be the difference yet again. With 14 seconds left, Elon corralled an offensive board off a missed free throw and kicked it out for a three to take the lead. Johnson's potential game winner was just long. Cougars drop to 2-4 in the CAA.

Those two plays were the difference between 2-4 and 4-2. With just one of the injured players above on the floor - maybe things turn out differently. Such is life. Such is college basketball.

Next year is oozing with potential for CofC. Everyone but Bourne returns, plus three potential starters and a lauded freshman big man. But this team is good now and deserves your attention and support through March. The underclassmen are talented enough to all land on the league's All-Rookie Team. They have learned on the fly and give it their all for 40 minutes every game. They can erase big deficits and beat teams in a variety of ways. 

We'll live with the bad because there have been, and will be, some very good moments. So enjoy the ride and know that the future is looking real nice.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Tribe Rematch Highlights Rare Home-and-Home Week

William & Mary (11-4, 3-1)
Elon (11-6, 2-2)
TD Arena, January 14 and 16

After starting conference play with three of their first four games on the road, the Cougars have a chance to rest in their own beds and play within the friendly confines of TD Arena for this week's game pairing. The William & Mary Tribe make the trip to Charleston after defeating the Cougars earlier this year (the game where Canyon injured his shoulder) on Thursday. Saturday afternoon sees former SoCon opponent and mass student brochure distributor Elon travel one state south for their first crack at Charleston.

The Tribe are coming off a thorough butt kicking of a strong Northeastern team in Williamsburg, 78-60. The win separated Tony Shaver's squad from the CAA quagmire and put them in a tie with Hofstra and the Huskies for first place in the league.

The last time these two teams met, CofC was coming off a big CAA-opening victory over JMU...and promptly got jumped on by a hungry W&M team playing at home. Behind the efforts of Omar Prewitt, the Tribe built an early double digit lead. Then Canyon Barry got hurt, the Cougars rallied for an encouraging comeback but ultimately came up short.

That game was also a Saturday road game, similar to the most recent scenario in which the Cougs lost to Drexel. The quick turnaround and lack of prep is damaging to the visiting team, and it's something the Cougars need to remedy quickly, fortunately they have an opportunity this week to right the ship with both games in Chucktown.

Saturday's contest is against a familiar opponent, but one the Cougars have not yet faced this season. Elon University was a longtime Southern Conference rival before following CofC to the Colonial Athletic Association last season. The Phoenix were picked alongside their Southern brethren as bottom-feeders in the division this year, but just like Charleston they have looked better than expected. They are tied with most of the teams at 2-2.

The Phoenix have been in every CAA game so far, defeating Drexel and JMU and falling to Northeastern and Hofstra. Tanner Sampson is the guy most CofC fans will recognize, as the senior guard has been a familiar face dating back to the SoCon days. He leads Elon in scoring with 15.6 points per game and is hitting 44% from long range. 

This game will very much have a SoCon type of vibe, as Matheny's team is centered around scoring and guard play. Don't expect it to look much like the big and bruising rock fight that Charleston got into with Drexel last weekend. Elon has one of the weaker defenses in the league, and Charleston should be able to deter them from getting open shots behind the arc.

This pair of games is a prime opportunity to get back on track and keep pace with the CAA front-runners. The big question mark is Canyon Barry's availability (still day-to-day as of this posting). If he's a go, the Cougars could have the offensive spark that they desperately needed their past two road games. A 2-0 week would have the Cougars sitting pretty at 4-2, another split keeps them stuck in the middle. So let's use that home court to our advantage!