Kyle Whelliston from espnu on the SoCon

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Kyle Whelliston from espnu on the SoCon

Postby BestOfBreed on Wed Oct 18, 2006 11:03 pm

This came out over the summer but I finally got around to posting it since the hoops season is just around the corner.

Cremins is back, and C of C could be, too
By Kyle Whelliston
Special to

Cremins' craving

This spring, having been out of coaching for six long years, 59-year-old Bobby Cremins was overcome by strange symptoms. An itch, if you will.

"I don't know what it was," said the white-haired gent who coached Georgia Tech for two decades, leading the Rambling Wreck to nine NCAA Tournament appearances and the 1990 Final Four. "My body was telling me things it wasn't telling me in the past. I was getting ready to do my TV stuff, but I knew something was missing. I could feel it in my body. But I had no control over it because there were no openings available."

The College of Charleston was experiencing some odd health issues of its own. The school was racking up plenty of victories under Tom Herrion (80 wins from 2002 to 2006), but it wasn't as much winning as the school was used to, so four years into the Herrion era, the school engineered an expensive contract buyout and began searching for a cure to what ailed it.

Back in the '90s, before "mid-major" became a mainstream term, John Kresse's C of C squads routinely ripped through the Trans America Athletic Conference (now the Atlantic Sun) and gave big-time programs all sorts of headaches. In 1994, in only its third year in Division I, it received an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament with a 24-4 record and shock wins over Alabama and Penn State.

The rest of the decade would be more of the same. The Cougars took down ranked teams such as Stanford and Tennessee and Arizona State, earned midteen national rankings for themselves, and reached a zenith when they eliminated Maryland in the first round of the 1997 NCAAs. When C of C graduated to the SoCon in 1998, it posted 47 league wins and eight losses in its first three seasons and ended up on many high-major "do not call" lists. If it hadn't been for the better-timed upsets by a certain school from the Northwest, Charleston might have been what Gonzaga is today.

Since Kresse retired from coaching after four straight SoCon South division titles, hoops fans in South Carolina's coastal region have been in serious withdrawal mode. The RPIs of the Herrion teams fell from 69 (a 25-win season in 2002-03) to 109 to 125 to an abysmal 188 this past season. Charleston's glory years seem like a distant memory, perhaps even a dim hallucination.

But before Cremins and Charleston could begin exploring their compatible disorders, Charleston focused its efforts on wresting former Kresse right-hand man Gregg Marshall away from Winthrop, where he has won six Big South titles in eight years. Marshall was introduced as the new C of C coach on June 28, but before he signed a contract, he reconsidered and returned to Rock Hill. It was a move that mirrored one from Cremins' own past: He had accepted, then reneged on an offer from his alma mater, South Carolina, back in summer 1993.

A lot of folks in the Palmetto State have never forgiven Cremins, and some even remember the circumstances that led to the second-most famous waffle in the South (the first being the pecan variety down at the Waffle House). Tech won the ACC Tournament that year, but it did it the hard way -- out of the No. 6 seed -- before slinking to a sad loss to Southern of the SWAC in the NCAA Tournament's first round. The signature moment of that disappointing season, however, was an embarrassing 84-67 home loss as the No. 8 team in the nation to a Charleston team that was just two years removed from the NAIA.

"I guess you could say I've put this program on the map once already," Cremins laughed.

Marshall was on the Cougars bench that January day as an assistant coach, and their fates were intertwined again when Marshall's own version of the Cremins Shuffle opened the door to the Charleston job. Cremins jumped at the chance and was named C of C coach less than a week later.

"I ran into Gregg at the Nike Shootout in Augusta," Cremins said. "We had a really good conversation -- serious at first, and then we laughed a lot about the flip-flop. He started to explain to me what he went through. I just stopped him and I said, 'You're singing to the chorus here.' I could obviously feel his pain, and I said, 'Magnify your pain about five or 10 times, that's what I went through.' He asked me how I did it, and I told him it wasn't easy."

"Everything worked out for a reason. In my situation, Eddie Fogler took over at South Carolina, and when he took over, I knew they were in good hands, and that started my recovery. Hopefully, Charleston is in good hands now, and I hope that will help Gregg."

Charleston and Winthrop will play a home-and-home "Cremins Bowl" starting in 2007-08, but first Cremins has to renew acquaintances with day-to-day SoCon life. He's certainly no stranger to the conference, as his first head coaching job was at Appalachian State. The 1978-79 Mountaineers team gained the first NCAA berth in school history, exposure that helped pave the way for Cremins' move to Georgia Tech two years later. Since he left the Thriller Dome in 2000, he has been a mainstay on regional SoCon telecasts as an analyst.

"I feel like I know the Southern Conference fairly well," Cremins said. "I know all the coaches. Every school in the league, I've done a game for. TV's been great to me, the exposure ... I think that without TV, I would have never gotten this job."

Cremins said his first recruiting job was to recruit the current players, but he's sure to have a solid returning nucleus carried over from last year's talented yet underachieving squad. And with a new building that's scheduled for groundbreaking this fall and a new legendary coach, the future in Charleston might look a lot like its past: lots of wins and lots of fallen giants.

"It's just amazing, the timing, the way it all worked out, the irony of it," Cremins said. "I'm really happy. At times, it's like I'm going through an out-of-body experience."

And if C of C starts striking fear into college basketball's elite once again, those good feelings will become mighty contagious.

Summer indicators

Good signs: Following the lead of the Ohio Valley Conference, the SoCon has increased its league schedule from 14 games (15 for the schools in the six-team South division) to 18. In some ways, this could end up helping the league save itself from itself.

At first glance, the SoCon's 78-75 record against nonconference opponents last season might seem decent enough -- until you take into account the league's perfect 31-0 mark against opponents from D-II and D-III, leaving a paltry .385 win percentage against outsiders from the top flight. Every SoCon squad played at least two of these gimme games; Wofford and The Citadel were the worst offenders with four apiece.

These 31 tilts didn't count for the conference's sagging RPI (No. 24 last year, after hovering near 20 for the early part of the decade), but most outlets count them when tallying overall win totals. So The Citadel was able to claim a 10-win season rather than the 6-21 it deserved. And these mismatched blowouts can be good for some temporary shock and awe on the ESPN ticker (most notably, Wofford's wicked 81-15 whomping of tiny Toccoa Falls on Nov. 21).

But for a proud 85-year-old conference that once counted Duke and North Carolina as members, relying on the NCAA's bantamweights to puff up overall records is an embarrassment. With fewer dates to fill, coaches might be more compelled to use the schedule slots for better tests to prepare for the 18-game SoCon grind, whether they be even matches against the Big South and Atlantic Sun teams in the area, or guarantee games against the titans of the SEC and ACC. In turn, the league's champion would be much tougher and more battle-tested when Tournament time comes.

And with three or four more games accounted for, SoCon schools might finally be compelled to cancel their agreements with schools such as Florida Christian, Webber International and Montreat ... or at the very least label these matchups what they really are: exhibitions.

Red flag: In the Southern Conference of the 21st century, you can throw out the record book -- and while you're at it, toss out the standings, stats and common sense as well. These days, the SoCon can be so cuckoo.

Take Elon, for example. Ernie Nestor's Phoenix came into the league season with a 4-9 nonconference record (padded by three non-D-I wins) but proceeded to rise -- not unlike that mystical firebird -- to the top of the North Division standings, which they clinched with a 10-4 league mark. They did so without the benefit of finishing in the top four of any meaningful team stat and, on aggregate, outscored league opponents by only a mere fraction of a point (67.8 to 67.1). They just won a lot of very close ball games before their luck ran out against eventual league champion Davidson in the conference tournament semis.

Also consider Furman, which has finished within a game of .500 in the SoCon each of the past four seasons. Last year, the Paladins led the circuit in field goal shooting (45.4 percent) and featured decent defense (second with 66.6 points against in conference games) but finished a flat 8-7. Then they were unceremoniously dumped, 65-53, in the first round of the conference tournament by league doormat The Citadel -- a game in which the RPI's No. 320 team held Furman to 30 percent shooting.

Paladins coach Larry Davis was somehow able to parlay all of this into a bench job at Cincinnati, and Vanderbilt assistant Jeff Jackson stepped in to take the reins. The shock victory would be the last for The Citadel sideline-pacer Pat Dennis, who was replaced by former Bulldogs star Ed Conroy in early April.

Safe bet: Davidson loses seven seniors and 76 percent of its scoring from last season -- this after two consecutive 20-win campaigns (including a perfect conference record in 2004-05) and a valiant effort as a 15-seed in an eight-point loss to Ohio State in the NCAAs. So, it's fair to assume it's a rebuilding year.

"We lose leadership, chemistry, incredible work ethic, superb basketball IQs," coach Bob McKillop said. "We lose a lot, no doubt about it. I'm sure a lot of people are going to suspect that we're in a process of rebuilding ... when you look at us on paper, that's certainly the sense. But I think the mantle has been passed, and it's up to our returning players to carry it forward, to keep up the winning ways that have been part of the program since 1994."

Three players who averaged more than 15 minutes per game as sophomores in 2005-06 will step to the forefront: 6-1 Jason Richards (4.5 ppg/3.0 apg), Boris Meno and Thomas Sander.

"Richards will pick up the point guard position quite well," McKillop said. "He's ready to step into a leadership role, and I'm confident that he will. Meno can make plays with his size, length and athleticism. Thomas Sander is the the heart and soul of this team with his great work ethic. We'll build our team around those three juniors."

Given McKillop's run of success, it's within the realm of possibility that the large incoming class could jell and contribute quickly, but the real safe bet is that Davidson will re-emerge as a conference favorite in 2007-08.

Worth watching: The SoCon might, in time, rise again, but the race for player of the year likely will play out close to the floor. Last year, Georgia Southern's 5-8 Elton Nesbitt (21.7 ppg) took the honor as he led the Eagles to 20 victories, a regular-season SoCon championship and an NIT berth.

Six of the SoCon's 11 returning team-leading scorers stand 6-1 or shorter. The list includes small-ball seniors such as 6-0 dynamo Keddric Mays from Chattanooga (11.0 ppg in 2005-06), Wofford's Shane Nichols (13.8 ppg) and Montell Watson of Elon at 6-1 (9.7 ppg). Junior Antonio Russell of Western Carolina (6-0, 13.3 ppg) is also the team's second-leading returning rebounder, with 3.3 per game.

But the most explosive talent on the list is one of last year's POY runner-ups, Charleston's Dontaye Draper. The 5-11 flash poured in 18.5 ppg last season and led the Cougars in scoring 18 times, including a 32-point outburst on 12-of-18 shooting in a December win against eventual CAA co-champion UNC Wilmington. New coach Cremins, who had a hand in developing the high-scoring, high-distribution point guard prototype at Tech (with future NBA talent such as Mark Price, Kenny Anderson and Stephon Marbury), will turn the keys to the Maroon Machine over to Draper.

"Dontaye played a lot of two-guard last year," Cremins said. "He'll be moving back to the point. While we certainly want him to score, his No. 1 job will be to run the team."

Things to watch

Appalachian State: Speaking of little people, the Mountaineers are led by the tiniest of them all. D.J. Thompson is a 5-8 senior point guard who led a 14-16 (6-8 SoCon) squad with 19.1 ppg and 4.4 apg last season, and took twice as many shots (458) as anyone else on the team. If Thompson can find players to distribute to, App. State might escape the middle of the SoCon's NorDiv pack.

Chattanooga: Last season's tourney runner-up loses three double-figure scorers and four regular starters from a class that won 80 games and played in four straight title games. Then the Mocs were dealt another blow when highly touted 6-8 juco transfer B.J. Benning was declared academically ineligible. Put it all together, and the 10th anniversary of UTC's Sweet 16 run might be bittersweet for a lot of reasons.

College of Charleston: Last year's 17-win Cougars weren't bad by any stretch, they were just frustratingly inconsistent. Take Herrion's final two games last season, lost by identical 65-63 scores: C of C roared back from 14 down in the regular-season finale at Davidson only to falter in the final minute, then outrebounded Chattanooga by 16 in its quarterfinal exit. If Cremins can coax solid all-around efforts from his returning core, this might not be a close league race at all.

Davidson: The most recognizable name in coach McKillop's large incoming class is 6-1 guard Stephen Curry, son of former Charlotte Hornets sharpshooter Dell, whose 40 percent mark from 3 range ranks him in the NBA's all-time top 10. But you know what they say about apples not falling far from the 3-point line. Curry the younger averaged better than 48 percent shooting from behind the arc in his senior season for Charlotte Christian.

Elon: The Phoenix's unexpected North Division title will be difficult to defend, as only 42 percent of their scoring and 46 percent of their rebounding return from a team that fought hard for every inch it got. Le'Vonn Jordan, a 6-6 swingman (7.4 ppg/6.4 rpg) will have to step up big this season. A double-double (12 points, 10 boards) in Elon's tourney quarterfinal win over UNC Greensboro shows he might have the right stuff.

Furman: The Paladins went outside for their head coaching hire, but ex-Vandy man Jackson brought in one of Furman's best-loved recent graduates as an assistant. Nicholas Sanders scored only five points a game at FU from 2002 to 2005, but his wild hair and goofy smile made him a fan favorite. No word yet on whether Sanders will resume his old student job as P.A. announcer for volleyball and softball games.

Georgia Southern: League POY Nesbitt is gone, but the odds-on favorite for SoCon impact newcomer of the year is incoming Eagle Marcus Hubbard, a 6-9, 225-pound juco transfer who turned down overtures from Cincinnati's Andy Kennedy and Kansas State's Bob Huggins. Hubbard wanted to play in a small-town atmosphere, and Statesboro will be most welcoming.

UNC Greensboro: Returning almost all scoring and rebounding from a 12-19 (5-11 SoCon) squad might be dubious joy, but UNCG features the best inside (Kyle Hines, 19.3 ppg/8.2 rpg)-outside (Ricky Hickman, 18.7 ppg) combo in the league. The Spartans will go only as far as their defense will take them, and the lack thereof left them in the North Division cellar last season.

The Citadel: It's hard to find bright spots on a team that finished in the nation's bottom 50 in nearly every team stat, but the 2005-06 Bulldogs did finish 54th in the country in steals per game (8.2). More bad news, however: 4.3 of those steals, as well as their entire starting backcourt, just graduated.

Western Carolina: Folks in Cullowhee have a lot to celebrate with the burgeoning NBA career of Sacramento King Kevin Martin, but today's Catamounts are a different story. The 2005-06 version set a school record for 3-pointers attempted (625) on its way to a lackluster 13-17 overall mark (7-9 SoCon). With the loss of the frontcourt to graduation, the long bombing likely will continue in the house where WCU's Ronnie Carr hit the first-ever collegiate 3 26 years ago.

Wofford: Maybe there's something to this lower-division scheduling policy. After preparing for Clemson by viciously whupping Virginia-Wise 91-46, the Terriers barely lost to the Tigers, 62-60. Two weeks later, after upending Union by 30, Wofford fell by a mere three at Notre Dame. But then, after a 60-40 lashing of King College (Tenn.), they proceeded to lose four of their first five SoCon games. OK, so maybe there isn't.


Can Cremins be the difference? Joe Lunardi thinks so. In his very early look at the 2007 NCAA Tournament, our resident Bracketologist has the College of Charleston winning the SoCon's auto bid and landing a 14-seed.
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Postby ShortHairedDog on Tue Oct 31, 2006 10:21 pm

Looks like Cremins will be to SoCon basketball as Steve Spurrier is to SEC football...a major media love fest that annoys me to no end.
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