By David Coulson
College Sports Journal
ASHEVILLE, N.C. — It is interesting what hindsight does with one’s opinion.
Back in 1996, I was the sports editor of the Watauga Democrat in Boone, N.C. when the Southern Conference decided it needed to look at expansion in the wake of Marshall’s move to what was then I-AA football and the Thundering Herd’s departure for the Mid-American Conference.
I wrote a whimsical column on the three candidates for Southern Conference expansion called “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” of course taking liberties with the title of the famous Clint Eastwood Spaghetti Western from 30 years earlier.
In my mind at the time, College of Charleston was the good, UNC-Greenboro was the bad and Wofford was the ugly.
College of Charleston seemed like a pretty big pickup for a league that was trying to improve its men’s basketball RPI and looked like a good bet to improve the conference in baseball and several women’s programs.
UNC-Greensboro brought a handful of things to the table with some of its minor sports like soccer and baseball and women’s programs, but like COC didn’t sponsor football and lacked a lot in facilities for sports like basketball.
No one could have envisioned how that little train that could, Wofford, would carve out a niche in the SoCon when its overall program came to the league from such a humble place.
I couldn’t help but think about my assessments on Monday night when the College of Charleston played its final men’s basketball game in the SoCon, losing 74-55 to Davidson at the Asheville Civic Center (sorry folks, but I’ll forgo this ancient arena’s fancy corporate name, it will always be the Civic to me).
I was on hand in 1999 at the Greensboro Coliseum when the Cougars had won their one and only title in college basketball’s oldest tournament, beating Appalachian State the first year Charleston was in the league.
With personable coach John Kresse at the controls of a budding mid-major power, it seemed like the first of many NCAA tournament appearances for College of Charleston.
College of Charleston made its share of finals in the years that proceeded, but never could get over the hump again, even when several of the tournaments were played in its own backyard at the North Charleston Coliseum.
Davidson used a 24-point, eight-rebound effort from junior frontman De’Mon Brooks to send the Cougars off into the SoCon sunset — something that I’m sure tickled the heart of veteran Wildcat coach Bob McKillop, who properly defended some league honor.
Just as Tennessee-Chattanooga had dispatched Marshall in a memorable, double-overtime championship game in 1997, Davidson didn’t want the Cougars cutting down any nets on their way out the door.
At least not on McKillop’s watch.
The Cougars (24-11) will now wait to see if they will continue their season in the National Invitation Tournament, or one of those other postseason college basketball events.
When College of Charleston joined the SoCon for men’s basketball, it was expected to be a tremendous positive for a league that had never received an at-large berth in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.
Now 15 years later, the Southern Conference is still waiting for that first extra bid in a national tournament that has been expanded from 64 to 68 teams.
Even an Appalachian State club that won a school-record 26 games with a strong RPI and several marquee wins was snubbed in 2006 and Davidson have been overlooked several times with 25, or more wins — even coming off a regional final appearance the year before with dynamic Stephen Curry playing his final year with the Wildcats in 2009.
That might be one of the major reasons that College of Charleston will now try its fate in an obviously stronger league, the Colonial Athletic Association.
The CAA has vaulted teams from George Mason and Virginia Commonwealth to Final Fours in recent NCAA tournaments and routinely receives multiple bids to the Big Dance.
The SoCon, meanwhile, has taken an obviously step backwards in basketball talent in the past 15 years.
McKillop is to be commended for keeping the Davidson program as the bellwether program in the league. With the win on Monday night, the Wildcats are making back-to-back trips to the NCAAs and their seventh appearance in the past 16 years.
But the Southern Conference only has two teams, Davidson and College of Charleston, ranked in the top 150 of the RPI and a number of teams that are closer to the bottom than the top of major college basketball.
Elon, which finished 21-11 to win the North Division and suffered a 68-60 setback to College of Charleston in the tournament semifinals, was the only other team in the league to manage a winning record.
One of the signs for me this season of how bad the SoCon was is the fact that a mediocre squad from Appalachian State that dropped eight of its first 10 games and nearly LOST an exhibition game to Division II Carson-Newman — holding on for a 65-62 win — at the beginning of the season rebounded in conference play to finish second in its division, earned a first-round tournament bye and advanced to the tournament semifinals.
Davidson ended ASU’s season with a 65-62 decision when Nathan Healy’s potential-overtime-forcing three-pointer on the final shot rimmed out to end the Mountaineers’ season at 15-16.
The success of Appalachian State in league play doesn’t speak well for the Southern Conference’s strength and College of Charleston’s departure doesn’t help with the loss of prestige either.
All which left the Cougars to say “Why would I leave thee, let me count the ways.”
I won’t venture to guess how this move to the CAA will work out for College of Charleston. I already missed the mark on my first prognostication all of those many years ago.