A month ago, all manner of glory seemed possible for The Citadel's basketball team.
The Bulldogs were off to the best pre-Christmas start in school history, and their 9-2 record was not a mirage.
It included seven straight victories and quality Division I wins over a James Madison team that's beaten College of Charleston; a South Florida team that won its next seven games and is now 13-6 after thumping Gregg Marshall and Wichita State on Tuesday; and High Point and Campbell, tied for third in the Big South Conference.
The questions all were hopeful: Would Duggar Baucom's fourth Citadel team become just the third in school history to win 20 games? Could the Bulldogs at long last compete for a Southern Conference title?
Might they even end The Citadel's membership in the exclusive club of the "original four" Division I teams never to make the NCAA Tournament? (Army, William & Mary and St. Francis are the others).
After seven straight losses put a damper on the happy talk, and put the Bulldogs back to even at 9-9 overall (and 1-6 in the SoCon), the questions are: What happened? And what's next?
No surprises in SoCon
High Point coach Tubby Smith, who led Kentucky to a national title in 1998, has seen it all in basketball. But he'd never seen anything quite like the shooting performance The Citadel laid on his Panthers in a 112-87 victory on Nov. 27, when the Bulldogs hit 23 of 40 from 3-point range.
"You can't simulate it in practice, you can't duplicate it," Smith said of Baucom's up-tempo, 3-point attack. "To be honest, it's the first time I've seen it. We had some things in place we thought would work defensively, but it didn't. Our guys are so used to help-and-recover, but you can't help off your man at all against these guys."
Smith's colleagues in the SoCon, on the other hand, have had three years to observe and plan for Baucom's system, and it shows.
The Bulldogs averaged 99.5 points and shot 38.2 percent from 3-point range over their 9-2 start, which included just one SoCon game. During their current 0-7 skid, including six SoCon losses, those numbers are 80 points per game and 29.6 percent from 3-point range.
After a 73-71 loss at Chattanooga on Saturday, Mocs coach Lamont Paris explained a strategy familiar to SoCon coaches: Focus on Citadel seniors Matt Frierson and Zane Najdawi, both 1,000-point career scorers, and make the other Bulldogs beat you.
"On Frierson and Najdawi, I thought we did a good job of not letting them get the ball in their typical situations and shoot with comfort," said Paris. "I thought that was the biggest part. There were some other guys that got some open looks. They missed some.
"They had some open looks I am sure they would like to have had back. Those mainly were not from Frierson and Najdawi. They were from some other guys who are typically not counted on to perform that same way."
Point guard Lew Stallworth has been the Bulldogs' most consistent scorer, averaging 18.6 points and scoring in double figures in every game. But The Citadel's secondary 3-point threats behind Frierson — Connor Kern and Kaiden Rice — have been streaky at best. The pair shot 42.5 percent from 3-point range during the 9-2 start; over the last seven games, they are a combined 20 of 81 (24.7 percent).
Injuries have played a part, as well. Forwards Hayden Brown and Kaelon Harris, two of the most athletic players on the team, have missed a combined 14 games.
One key to the Bulldogs' 9-2 start was actually improved defense. Baucom's mix of pressing, zone and junk defenses — dismissed by many as an effort just to get the ball back as quickly as possible — held foes to 41 percent shooting and 30.5 percent from 3-point range over that span. Only Clemson was able to break the 100-point mark against the Bulldogs, despite The Citadel's rapid pace of play.
"Our communication and our energy has been great," Baucom said during the 9-2 start. "When we've needed a stop, we've been able to get one. We've literally been able to lock down."
But a 110-94 loss to Longwood on Dec. 29 showed how the Bulldogs' pressing style could be exploited. The Lancers attacked the rim relentlessly after breaking the press, shooting 62.5 percent from inside the 3-point arc and 50 percent beyond it.
“You have to attack The Citadel,” first-year Longwood coach Griff Aidrich said after the game. “They come at you in waves, and if you can beat that first wave, you are much better off to go ahead and attack and try to score. If you beat that first wave and wait, they will come at you again.”
SoCon foes Wofford, Furman, ETSU and Western Carolina quickly followed suit, averaging 101 points while shooting 55.6 percent in handing the Bulldogs' four straight losses.
The Citadel has slowed the pace a bit over the last two games, with 68 possessions at Samford and 70 at Chattanooga after averaging more than 77 for the season. The Bulldogs had a chance to tie both games in the final seconds.
At 1-6 in the SoCon with 11 league games left to play, starting Thursday night at defending champion UNC Greensboro, the Bulldogs are currently tied for last place in a 10-team league that's as good as it's been in years.
The SoCon has four teams already with 15 wins each, and stands No. 12 in RPI rankings out of 32 conferences. Four teams — Wofford, Furman, UNCG and ETSU — are in the top 82 in the NCAA NET ranking.
What goals are left for The Citadel to reach?
• 20 wins: At 9-9, the Bulldogs would have to go 11-0 down the stretch to finish the regular season with 20 wins and become just the third Citadel team to reach that mark. That seems unlikely, to say the least.
• A winning record: To finish the regular season at 15-14, The Citadel will have to go at least 6-5 down the stretch. The Bulldogs have six home games left, including Saturday's 1 p.m. "Pack the Mac" game against VMI, and five games left against teams in the bottom half of the SoCon (VMI, Samford, Mercer and Western Carolina. The Citadel has six games left against the top half of the league, including Furman, Wofford, Chattanooga and UNCG at home.
• First-round bye: The top six seeds in the SoCon receive first-round byes for the tournament in Asheville, set for March 7-11. Samford and Mercer are currently tied for that sixth seed with 2-5 league records, so that's certainly not out of reach. Western Carolina took the sixth seed last year with an 8-10 record, which would require a 7-4 finish from the Bulldogs.
How important is the bye? The last team to win four SoCon tournament games in four days to take the title was Clemson in 1938-39.
The Citadel at UNC Greensboro
When: Thursday, 7 p.m.
Where: Greensboro Coliseum, Greensboro, N.C.
Records: The Citadel 9-9, 1-6; UNCG 17-3, 6-1
Radio: 92.1-FM, 102.1-FM, 1450-AM
Notes: After a 9-2 start, The Citadel has fallen to 9-9 overall and 1-6 in the SoCon with seven straight losses ... Lew Stallworth missed a short jumper at the buzzer in a 73-71 loss at Chattanooga on Saturday ... He scored 22 points in that game, and Hayden Brown was the only other Bulldog in double figures with 10 points ... UNCG has lost only three games, to LSU, Kentucky and Wofford ... The defending SoCon champs have won 10 of their last 11 ... 6-3 guard Francis Alonso, a senior at last, is averaging 17.7 points and shooting 37.6 percent from 3-point range ... Isaiah Miller, a quick 6-0 sophomore, is at 14.2 ppg, and 6-8 junior Kyrin Galloway is shooting 46.5 pecent from 3-point range to average 10.2 points ... In a 75-68 win over ETSU on Saturday, Galloway and 6-10 junior James Dickey were a combined 11 of 12 from the floor, and Angelo Allegri, a 6-7 freshman, came off the bench to hit 5 of 6 from 3-point range for 15 points in 16 minutes.