When you turn off I-95 in South Carolina and head east on I-26 towards Charleston, you find yourself in a part of the country where you cannot tell if you are isolated or insulated, going back in time or finding land that will stand the test of time as is, with no intrusions or distractions or trappings of modernity. Tall pines, flat road. The picture of humidity, even in February.
I left North Carolina this morning with every intention of an easy drive to Charleston. From the Foothills, through the Sandhills, down into the Low Country, I was not pressed for time. But despite my friend Zeke's warnings -- "watch for cops in Summerville" -- a certain draw kept the right foot pushing hard on the accelerator.
When Zeke and I decided on Charleston for our annual basketball-and-booze-immersion-sans-wives-and-kids this year, the thought process was as follows: a better destination than Winston-Salem, which was a really good starting point.
Spending a Saturday afternoon watching our alma mater, Davidson, take on the College of Charleston seemed the perfect fit, especially when seen as an opportunity to see Bobby Cremins working the sidelines.
For two guys whose basketball consciousness begins with the ACC in the 1980s, Cremins holds a coveted spot right beside Lefty, Jimmy V, Dean, and K. You absolutely did not want to play those Georgia Tech squads, but you absolutely tuned in to watch the guy work.
Alas, Cremins wasn't coaching today. A little over two weeks ago, he took leave on account of exhaustion. While on the one hand it was better than hearing "cancer," for me, a guy heading into so-called "middle age," it's no real comfort to hear Cremins, at 64, is "exhausted."
Maybe because I'm one of these suckers that hold on to that notion of eternal youth, I'd like to think 64 is not that old. Hell, my dad will be 62 in a few months. That's not old. It pains me to think my old man is, well, an old man, and that he too might be "exhausted." Or more to the point, I'd rather not think about what he could be exhausted by (or with).
Having said that, a large part of Cremins' exhaustion is due to his being a college basketball coach. He coached 946 games before his announcement last month, and won just over 60 percent of them. But today's win or loss would not be part of his legacy, per the record books at least.
The game was chippy from start to finish, and the day belonged to an energetic home team. The Cougars broke free from a back-and-forth affair and worked their way to a 32-20 lead before Davidson showed its first signs of life, closing to within five points by the break.
Whether it was interim coach Mark Byington's strategy to put all the pressure on Davidson's perimeter is a point for discussion, but whatever his specific direction to the Cougars may have been, it was working. Davidson got inside easy enough, and close to the basket, and yet consistently missed its opportunities, shooting less than 30% in the first half.
This was Byington's sixth game as Division I head coach. On the other end of the court was Bob McKillop, who has coached well over 600 games in 23 years at Davidson and is the winningest coach in the Southern Conference history. I don't know how much of that mattered after tip-off, when the game was in the players' hands.
Formed in 1921, the SoCon birthed both the SEC (1933) and the ACC (1953), in both instances saying goodbye to collectives of behemoth public universities making power plays that portended where things stand today. But these fissions are superficial. Moving from one conference to another does not necessitate a geographical move for a school, just a philosophical one.
In simple terms, Bobby Cremins' story is of the lasting connection between what would become the major conference, the ACC, and the so-called mid-major SoCon.
In 1966, he came south from the Bronx to play in the ACC for Frank McGuire's South Carolina squad. Cremins led the Gamecocks to their only regular-season ACC title in 1970, and their lone ACC tourney title the following year.
In 1975, he took his first head coaching job, leading an Appalachian State team that had wallowed at the bottom of the Southern Conference under Press Maravich, a former player and coach in the ACC at NC State. (I'm told his son, Pete, could ball.) Appy had won just 14 games in the three previous seasons, but Cremins nearly matched that total in his first, going 13-14, and two seasons later claimed the first of three SoCon regular season titles.
Then Georgia Tech came calling. Again, Cremins inherited a woeful bunch that had been DFL its first two years in the ACC. By his fourth season, the Yellow Jackets, led by Mark Price and John Salley, were ACC champs -- regular season and tourney -- and won 27 games before falling to Georgetown in the 1985 East Regional.
Charleston got the lead to 17 early in the second, on a three ball from leading scorer Antwaine Wiggins that made it 54-37. Wiggins was everywhere the Wildcats weren't. And since the visitors were either on their heels, or on their knees chasing the ball, Wiggins and his Charleston mates could keep them at arms length all afternoon.
Fair or not, the pressure Charleston put on the Davidson guards in particular made it very hard to tell this was the same backcourt that had beaten Kansas earlier in the season.
Despite a late push by Davidson, a stretch of about seven minutes when shots actually found a home in the Wildcat basket, Charleston took home that which they unequivocally earned, an 86-78 win over the North division leaders.
It was a packed house, a real barn burner as the old timers used to say, entertaining and intense to the end. The intensity was there in Byington and McKillop, both of whom had to be restrained by their staff at various points. It was there in elbow to the chest in the final minute of the game.
It was there two rows in front of us in the form of three Charleston fans, in their mid-20s, who did not hesitate to loud-talk a 75-year old Davidson alum that asked them to kindly sit down (and who found it necessary to keep it up throughout the afternoon). The exuberance of youth never felt more uncomfortable.
When all was said and done, Byington was now 4-2, and McKillop moved to 383-248.
Cremins has taken a breather before. He stepped down from Georgia Tech in 2000 after the Jackets suffered their third losing season in four years, and didn't return to coaching until 2006. And though this time around he inherited a program accustomed to recent success, he has kept Charleston in the upper tier of the Southern Conference.
We asked around about his status and no one seemed to know anything more than what he said in his press conference earlier in the week. By his own admission, Cremins has stayed in touch with the team, but also well away from the public eye.
That evening, in the comfort of our friend Hugh's house, we talked about the game, about Cremins, about our families and our dads, and a whole lot of other stuff that just comes up these days. And when we had got that out of our systems, we turned up the music, turned up our bottles, and tried whatever else we knew that might insulate us against the cold Charleston night, or becoming old men, or both.
I was pretty well spent when I crawled into bed that night, a little left of sober, but not exhausted. Not yet.
at CHARLESTON 86, DAVIDSON 78 02/11/2012
DAVIDSON 19-6 (13-2) -- J. Kuhlman 1-5 2-4 4; D. Brooks 9-19 5-7 25; N. Cochran 2-8 6-6 12; C. Czerapowicz 5-11 2-2 15; J. Cohen 2-8 9-11 13; T. Droney 2-4 0-0 4; C. Mann 2-3 1-2 5; T. Kalinoski 0-1 0-0 0; F. Ben-Eze 0-0 0-0 0; C. Tormey 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 23-59 25-32 78. CHARLESTON 16-10 (8-7) -- A. Wiggins 6-14 9-13 25; A. Baru 1-4 3-7 5; N. Johnson 5-10 4-5 17; J. Scott 2-6 0-0 5; A. Lawrence 3-8 3-4 11; J. Carlton 1-2 1-3 3; T. Wiedeman 8-11 0-0 16; T. Dixon 1-1 2-4 4. Totals 27-56 22-36 86.
Three-point goals: DAV 7-25 (J. Kuhlman 0-3; N. Cochran 2-5; J. Cohen 0-3; D. Brooks 2-6; C. Czerapowicz 3-7; T. Droney 0-1), COFC 10-20 (A. Wiggins 4-7; A. Lawrence 2-4; N. Johnson 3-5; J. Scott 1-4); Rebounds: DAV 33 (D. Brooks 9), COFC 32 (A. Wiggins 10); Assists: DAV 13 (J. Kuhlman 5), COFC 11 (A. Lawrence 5); Total Fouls -- DAV 27, COFC 25; Fouled Out: DAV-C. Czerapowicz; COFC-A. Baru.