Meriting the madness

High expectations in the Lowcountry

It may not be sexy, but the College of Charleston men’s basketball team is playing the best basketball in the era of head coach Earl Grant. With the Colonial Athletic Association Men’s Basketball Championship set to take place in the North Charleston Coliseum on March 3-6, the Cougars will have a shot to break the program’s 17 season streak without an NCAA Tournament appearance.

The city has proved to be a successful destination for college basketball as Charleston has hosted ESPN’s non-conference tournament, the Charleston Classic, at the TD Arena every November since 2008.

Grant Riller has excelled in conference play, averaging 17.1 points per game against CAA opponents after averaging 10.2 against non-conference opponents. (Photo by Michael Wiser)

Though spectators enjoy the historic downtown, the College of Charleston’s opponents have not. Since the College first competed at the Division I level in the 1991-92 season, the men’s basketball team boast a 552-248 record. Such success ranks Charleston seventh highest in the country in terms of all-time team winning percentage, behind the University of Kentucky, University of North Carolina, University of Kansas, Duke University, University of Nevada, Las Vegas and University of California, Los Angeles.

“To end the year with the CAA Tournament here in North Charleston, that’s fantastic,” Grant said. “I’m so excited about our fans having a chance to identify with the CAA members. It’s a 10 member league and it goes up and down the Eastern seaboard.”

Members of the CAA include the College of Charleston, the University of Delaware, Drexel University, Elon University, Hofstra University, James Madison University, the University of North Carolina Wilmington, Northeastern University, Towson University and the College of William and Mary. Though Charleston is the Southernmost school in the conference, the bid to move the tournament to Charleston was supported unanimously.

Last season, the CAA finished with its highest end of the year conference RPI ranking ever, finishing ninth out of 32 in Division I men’s basketball. Considering CAA teams have combined to win 14 games in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship since 2006, with two teams reaching the NCAA Final Four (George Mason in 2006, VCU in 2011), the tournament will bring high level basketball to the Lowcountry.

In such highly contested competition, any advantage helps. The Cougars have a 92-43 record in TD Arena since its opening in 2008, including a 10-4 mark this season. Of the 27 conference tournaments that were settled on neutral courts last season, six were won by in state schools.

“I think we can’t win without our students,” Grant said. “I think any great program; it’s the student’s program, it’s the community’s program, it’s the alumni. I think they’ve made a huge difference and that’s why we’ve been so successful at home, and we couldn’t do that without the support of the fans and students.”

The Cougars are closing in on a 20-win regular season this year, thanks to the development of the talented young roster.

“We’ve got a long way to go to catch up to the history of this program,” Grant said. “We’re trying to rebuild it and I think we’re making some progress but we’ve got a lot of work to do to get back. But I do see the momentum building.”

Building a winner

Bearing no resemblance to the last place finisher in the 2014-15 CAA standings, things have coalesced for the Cougars to climb the conference ranks. The rebuild over Grant’s first three seasons has been rooted in recruiting and player development.

“I’ve said this to a lot of people, I think [coach Grant] is the best thing that’s happened to this program,” said redshirt junior guard Joe Chealey. “He’s from Charleston originally. The energy and love he brings to our team is second to none. It’s a joy playing for him.”

Grant’s energy has manifested itself in the Cougars play on the defensive end. For the second season in a row, Charleston is the top defensive team in the CAA, with the best marks in points allowed, defensive field goal percentage and three point percentage.

Defending CAA Rookie of the Year Jarrell Brantley has seven double-doubles on the season. (Photo by Michael Wiser)

“I think this is the most talented bunch I’ve been with,” Chealey said. “Coach Grant brought a lot of good guys in. That’s what he said he was going to do. This year specifically, we have a lot of talented freshmen and all of the other guys coming back from last year so I think this is the most talented group since I’ve been here.”

The Cougars depth has manifested itself defensively, as three players rank in the top 20 in the CAA in steals (Grant Riller No. 11, Jarrell Brantley No. 16 and Chealey No. 20) and blocks (Nick Harris No. 6, Chevez Goodwin No. 15 and Brantley No. 15 ).

On the offensive end, the trio of Chealey (16.7 points per game), Riller (13.8) and Brantley (13.2) provide a significant portion of the team’s 67 points per game.

Riller’s play has been honored with CAA Rookie of the Week four times, surpassing the mark set last season by CAA Rookie of the Year, Brantley.

As the Feb. 25 regular season finale approaches, the Cougars could finish seeded anywhere from first to sixth in the North Charleston based tournament. For the top defensive team in the conference, successfully defending the home court would punch the program’s first ticket to the big dance since 1999.

All stats are relevant as of 2/15/17. This article originally appeared in the February 2017 issue of The Yard. 

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On a cold January evening in the winter of 2004, Sam Oleksak realized his dream. As a mere fourth grader, he had the chance to announce a high school basketball game for his hometown television station. In the hopes of one day becoming a sports pundit, Sam began at Cisternyard News in Fall 2014. He now serves as the Sports Editor on staff and also makes frequent appearances on Cisternyard Radio.

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