Citadel prepares for SoCon stretch run with first-round bye in sight

Chuck Driesell's Citadel basketball team still has a shot at earning a first-round bye in the Southern Conference tournament. The Bulldogs play UNC Greensboro at 1 p.m. Saturday at The Citadel. (Wade Spees/postandcourier.com/File)

With seven games left in the Southern Conference regular season, The Citadel Bulldogs sit in ninth place with an 8-14 overall mark and a 3-8 clip in league play.

Ordinarily, you wouldn’t look twice at that.

But this season, The Citadel has a realistic shot at accomplishing something it has done just once in the last 15 seasons — receive a first-round bye in the SoCon basketball tournament

Heading into Saturday’s 1 p.m. matchup with UNC Greensboro (7-17, 3-8), the Bulldogs are only one game out of sixth place, which is worth the final first-round bye for this year’s tournament from March 6-9 at the U.S. Cellular Center in Asheville, N.C.

Since each of the conference’s 10 teams will participate, the top six seeds receive a first-round bye, while the bottom four seeds play each other for the two open spots in the quarterfinals.

In order to keep pace, The Citadel will have to snap a five-game skid after Thursday’s 76-53 loss to Mercer in which the Bears shot 58 percent from the field and permitted just two offensive rebounds.

While The Citadel has proven to be one of the league’s top shooting teams this season, much of the last three weeks has seen the Bulldogs squander the momentum created from a highly memorable victory over Wofford on Jan. 15.

“I think we’re a team that’s trying to get better and clean up mistakes that won’t put us in such a hole,” Citadel coach Chuck Driesell said. “I blame a lot of that on turnovers and decisions that we’ve looked at and realized that we should be beyond those types of mistakes.”

Over the last four games, The Citadel is averaging 16 turnovers per contest. Opponents are averaging 22 points per game off those turnovers.

“We still have to allow ourselves to get set up in the half court and not be sped up by (defensive) pressure,” Driesell said. “In the end, we just have to be more fundamentally sound and not let that beat us.”

Due to the abundance of points off turnovers, the Bulldogs’ defensive numbers have suffered, ranking last in league play in field goal percentage defense. Much of this also has to do with an inability to protect the rim on possessions with multiple opportunities.

“If you look at the last few games, it’s not the first shot that’s hurt us but the second shot and sometimes the third shot,” Driesell said. “I think our guys have done an outstanding job at the defending the opposition’s initial action, but we’ve had critical breakdowns and mostly those extra shots are right around the basket.”

The Bulldogs play four of their final seven games at McAlister Field House, where the team is 7-3 this season. Of those last seven games, three will be against teams that the Bulldogs have already beaten, including UNCG, which The Citadel beat 85-83 on Jan. 5 at Greensboro Coliseum to halt a 22-game road losing streak.

“Our goal is to win the conference tournament. It always has been since I’ve been here,” Driesell said. “To get out of that first round gives you a much better chance. It would be a huge plus for our program if we could avoid that scenario.”