Game #9-544: Liberty Flames vs. Coastal Carolina ChanticleersMarch 5, 2013 8:00 pm
Myrtle Beach, SC
A month ago, the challenge was to write about a team that could unexpectedly "shock the world" and win the conference tournament. Coastal Carolina had won homecourt advantage throughout the conference tournament because of its partnership with the website of the Myrtle Beach Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, proving that money is extremely important even on our side of the Red Line. I decided to write about Coastal, since I considered them not good enough to win a tournament on the road, but good enough to potentially win a tournament at home. And it was not preseason expectations that Coastal was failing to meet, it was that they just seemed to be lurking behind the South Division leaders and ready to strike. So I wrote about Coastal, thinking I had to midnight to complete the challenge. But apparently The Robot had a different definition of when the end of the day is. So here is what I had to say a month ago, and it looks kind of silly now.
"It is hard to think of a good school that would be considered a huge shock to win the Big South Tournament. Presbyterian and Longwood would certainly qualify as a big shock to win the conference tournament. But while those teams have shown improvement over the course of the tournament, I do not see them pulling off the big upset. Most likely one would consider the biggest surprise of the season to be Gardner-Webb. Gardner-Webb is 9-5 in the Big South South Division, good for second right now after being picked fifth out of six in the division. And Gardner-Webb still has a shot at winning the division if they beat Charleston Southern at home next Wednesday. The Runnin' Bulldogs also went 8-6 out of conference, the best record of any Big South team. And this all comes from a team that was expected to be hit hard by players transferring from off of last year's team. But yet Gardner-Webb, even with a great player in Tashan Newsome, does not scare me the most as a High Point fan going into this tournament. The team as a HPU fan I am worried about the most is Coastal Carolina.
Coastal Carolina entered the season picked second of six in the Big South South. But the Chants have not quite met expectations. They are behind UNC Asheville, the two-time defending tournament champion who was expected to be hit hard by graduation. The Chanticleers are also behind surprising Gardner-Webb as well as preseason favorite Charleston Southern. High Point from the North Division has also been better than Coastal Carolina. Coastal has struggled to win on the road, has inexperienced forwards, and inconsistent play from their backcourt. But the way the tournament is structured this year, which likely will not mean much. All of the tools Coastal had going their way at the beginning of the season are still there. As a result, the team I feel has the biggest chance to surprise the conference is not a team that had low preseason expectations, but one with low mid-season expectations. In a conference without a clear front-runner, Coastal has what it takes to make it all the way to Dayton.
Let's look at who the Chanticleers have, and why they are a dangerous team. At the mid-major level and particularly the Big South, the backcourt matters the most. And Coastal has two veteran leaders who play two different key roles in the CCU backcourt. The team's leading scorer is shooting guard Anthony Raffa. Raffa has been inconsistent at times, and last season mostly shined against weaker opponents. But Raffa is now a senior who shoots 37 percent from behind the arc. While Raffa is small and not especially quick, he is not completely undersized and has athletic spurts as well that makes him a potent playmaker. A senior playmaker like Raffa is someone you need to make a big tournament run, and something most teams in the conference do not have. It is also important that you have a good senior point guard as well to lead the offense and command the team when needed. That player may not be Raffa, but Coastal does indeed have Kierre Greenwood who plays that role. Greenwood is a bit thin and not as aggressive a scorer as Raffa, but Greenwood can shoot the ball just as well and can distribute the ball to Raffa or one of the forwards pretty well. Greenwood is not as good as he could be in driving the ball to the hoop, but he did do so in a clutch play this week against UNC Asheville to get Coastal to big a home win. The Chanticleer starting backcourt is rounded out by sophomore Warren Gillis. Gillis is not as good as Greenwood or Raffa, but can make an opponent pay if the guards pay too much attention to Raffa or Greenwood. The frontcourt is the weak link however for the Chanticleers, but should hold their own against the rest of the Big South which with the exception of High Point is fairly weak near the basket. The Chanticleer's main forwards are all first-year imports from Africa; El Hadji Ndieguene and Badou Diagne from Senegal and Michel Enanga of Cameroon. The most effective of these players is the 6-10 Ndieguene, who played JUCO ball in Illinois. In the game at Presbyterian a week ago, PC fans complained about how much holding Ndieguene was getting away with. Ndieguene likely will get away with more holding when he is at home in the tournament. These three forwards have all gotten better after struggling on the road. Going into the Big South Tournament, they will be more experienced now. And most importantly, they will not be playing on the road!
That's right, Coastal Carolina will play all conference tournament games at home this season! Since 2004, the Big South has always awarded homecourt advantage to the regular season champion. But perhaps foreseeing that Charleston Southern would win the regular season title this year and potentially host at an 881 seat venue with little space for television crews, the Big South decided to hold the tournament at a "neutral" site. After considering Winston-Salem, the Big South decided it would be cheaper to just let Coastal host the whole tournament for both the men and the women this year. So as a result, they decided to put the tournament at a 3200 seat venue with mostly bleacher seating because it was nine miles through dense traffic from a beach. And this will be very big for Coastal Carolina. Part of their coming up short this season has been a woeful road record. Coastal Carolina is 2-9 on the road this season, but 11-3 at home! That 2-9 record on the road no longer matters! All Coastal has to do is beat Gardner-Webb (the only Big South team to beat CCU in Conway so far) and other conference contenders at home and they are Big South champions! Four of the 11 other teams in the conference have better conference records than Coastal. But they will not be hosting, and thus CCU has a big edge.
Of course, playing at home is not a guarantee of success. Mercer has had a similar hosting deal with the Atlantic Sun since they opened their new arena, and have yet to pull through to the NCAA Tournament. High Point got a similar deal the last four years in women's basketball, and was never able to take advantage. The Chanticleers themselves hosted through winning the regular season title back in 2010 and 2011, but lost to Winthrop and UNC Asheville at Kimbel Arena in the finals. But UNC Asheville did in women's basketball back in 2007, as did Chattanooga in men's basketball back in 2009 in the Southern Conference. That is what Coastal will be going for here in March. High Point will be the 1 seed out of the North Division, and will face either the 4 team in the South or the 5 team in the North. And currently the 4 team in the South is Coastal. That concerns me as a HPU fan, as High Point could come off a division title by having to play their first conference tournament game on the road. And if the Panthers lose, they are out. That said, I do not think Coastal Carolina will most likely win the Big South Tournament. My leaning is towards two-time defending champion UNC Asheville, as the Bulldogs will not be nervous in going for a conference title even though the players are largely different from their last two teams. I also think VMI has a chance as an even bigger surprise than Coastal, as Duggar Baucom knows how to pull a few tricks on unsuspecting teams come March. The conference title race will be close in the Big South, and it helps Coastal to be playing in Conway come March."
So here we were now in March. Matt Cayuela
thought the notion of Coastal getting a homecourt boost was ridiculous, mainly because he believed that CCU's enthusiasm for basketball was fairly weak. And while that may be true, the record still shows Coastal is a much better team at home than on the road. The Chanticleers also lead the Big South in attendance at over 2400 fans per game. And with the time switch that angered Longwood favoring the host here
, CCU was able to come close to selling out the HTC Center for the nightcap. All that Coastal really needed to keep their edge at home was to have enough of the fans yell at the refs when calls did not go their way, and the breaks of the game would then favor Coastal. Liberty also brought a decent crowd, but this was Coastal's game. After all, Coastal would be the favorite in this game even on a truly neutral floor.
And it seemed at the start that this was not the game Coastal should worry about. Raffa and Greenwood looked dominant as CCU led 16-5 at the under 12 media timeout of the first half. But as the game went on, what cost Coastal earlier this year against Liberty in Lynchburg
would hurt them here as well. Tomasz Gielo, who does not even start for the Flames, could not be stopped by Coastal effectively. And Coastal could not handle Andrew Smith that well either. While Coastal has an experience backcourt, its frontcourt as mentioned before is shaky. And Liberty is the one team in the conference where that matters. For whatever reason, it seems that Dale Layer does not have as hard a time recruiting big men as other Big South coaches do. And as Coastal tried to adjust their zone to contain Gielo and Smith, the Flames shot the ball well from outside to get a spark going. Gielo could shoot well for a big guy, and Davon Marshall got hot as well as Liberty battled back to take the lead late in the half. Liberty led 38-35 at halftime, and Coastal could not take this game for granted.
But Coastal could not adjust well enough in the second half. If Coastal could win, they were practically guaranteed to make the semifinals by playing against a hobbled High Point team. But the Chants had to win here first. And when it became clear that Marshall and Gielo were not slowing down, it was increasingly evident that Coastal's big roadblock would be this game. Coastal kept Liberty close most of the half. But Greenwood started to look sloppy, and Raffa was off his game as well. The seniors did not seem to have it in for them for Coastal as Liberty pulled away late. And once Liberty began to pull away, things really got ugly. CCU seemed to practically give up as Liberty increased their lead to over 20 before winning 78-61. The advantage of hosting for Coastal did not go very far for Coastal. And the start times would only work to favor the Big South in attendance for one night only.
Matt turned out to be right. I have no idea why I was worried about Coastal. As soon as I saw the brackets, I was extremely worried about being a lone High Point fan watching a raucous home crowd celebrate beating a higher seeded team. But that did not happen. I knew that I should have been more worried about Liberty going in. When we talk about schools in the conference with financial advantages, Coastal is way behind Liberty as is the rest of the conference. Liberty is the school we have to worry about in all sports regardless of which sport it is in the Big South. And at the beginning of the season I did think Liberty was a threat with their size that nobody else in the conference could match. If I had seen the Flames play earlier in the season, perhaps I would have written about them instead for the challenge. I was right about the school shocking the conference being a preseason favorite that did not meet regular season expectations. It just came from some place I was not looking at.