Their losing season

College of Charleston's first-year head coach Earl Grant during the Cougars' upset victory over William & Mary on Thursday at TD Arena. Paul Zoeller/Staff

With seven regular-season games remaining, plus at least one conference tournament game, the College of Charleston basketball team is perilously close to setting a school record for most losses in a season.

It’s been nearly half a century since the College of Charleston suffered 19 losses in a single season (1966-67). The Cougars have never lost 20 games in one season. Going into Saturday’s game against Drexel, the Cougars are 7-17 overall and 2-9 in the Colonial Athletic Association. The only teams to lose more games were the 0-19 squad, the 1969-70 team (9-18), and last year’s team (14-18).

It’s not a scenario that first-year head coach Earl Grant envisioned when he took over the program in September.

“Losing gets old pretty quickly because I’m used to winning and I love to win,” said Grant, who was an assistant coach at Winthrop, Wichita State, The Citadel and Clemson. “I’m a competitor and I want to win every time we step on the floor, but I’m looking at the big picture. The way I look at it, we’re not where we need to be. We’re losing so many close game and there are so many plays like we’d like to have back. Whether it’s a missed free throw, a missed box-out or a turnover, we’re not where we need to be. We’ve got to be tougher.”

The Cougars have won just twice in the CAA this season, but they’ve lost five conference games by a combined 13 points. William & Mary is the only CAA team to blow out the Cougars this season with a 30-point victory back in January. The Cougars avenged that loss Thursday night at TD Arena with an 80-72 win over the Tribe, the top team in the CAA standings.

“We’re so close to being a good team,” said senior guard Anthony Stitt. “It seems like every game we have these four- or five-minute stretches where we just lose our minds. We give up easy baskets in transition or we take bad shots. Once we eliminate those lapses, I know we can beat anyone in this league.”

So why have the Cougars struggled so much this season?

It has now become painfully obvious that the Cougars were not ready to make the transition from the Southern Conference to the CAA.

While the Cougars were contenders in the SoCon for years, they had not won a league title since they first joined the conference during the 1998-99 season. That was also the last year the Cougars made it to the NCAA Tournament.

After going 24-11 and advancing to the SoCon tournament final in coach Doug Wojcik’s first season in 2012-13, the foundation for the jump to the CAA wasn’t in place. Over the last two seasons, the Cougars are 8-20 in the CAA, but 5-0 against teams in the SoCon.

A year ago, few would argue that the Cougars would have been among the elite in the SoCon, instead of finishing in the bottom half of the CAA. The Cougars went to Davidson and beat the Wildcats by 12 points on their home floor. The Cougars led by as many as 20 points in the second half.

A year ago, the CAA was ranked No. 15 out of the 33 Division I basketball leagues in the RPI rankings. The SoCon was No. 30. This year, the SoCon is 25th, while the CAA is 19th overall.

“The SoCon was a top-heavy league,” Stitt said. “You might have had two or three pretty good teams in the SoCon. The other six or seven teams were not as good. You knew that you could play an average game against some of those teams and still come out with a win. There’s not that much difference between the No. 1 team and the No. 10 team in the CAA. Anybody can beat anybody on any night. You’ve got to be a much more consistent team and be on your game every night.”

Not only are the teams better in the CAA, but so are the players.

“The CAA has better athletes, bigger and stronger and more skilled,” Stitt said. “It seems like every team has that one go-to guy that can get his shot on any possession. You might see two or three of those guys over the course of an entire season in the SoCon.”

When the first day of classes started at the College of Charleston this past August, the school was still searching for a basketball coach.

That’s the kind of summer it was for the basketball program.

It took the school nearly a month to hire Grant after Wojcik was fired in early August after two investigations and allegations of verbal abuse. The team closed ranks and remained a tight unit, but the turmoil took its toll on the players.

Grant was hired less than two months before the Cougars first practice and less than three months before the season opener against Furman.

It was a recipe for disaster.

“I don’t see how anyone can judge Earl Grant as a head coach on what he does this season from a win-and-loss standpoint,” said ESPN basketball analyst Jeff Goodman earlier in the season. “It’s not fair to him or those kids. I don’t think you can make a judgment on Earl for another couple of seasons.”

The Cougars have had four coaches in the last four years — Bobby Cremins, Mark Byington, Wojcik and now Grant.

With so many coaching changes, there’s bound to be some attrition. Players don’t always see eye-to-eye with the new coach or a player’s skill set might not match up with a new system and coach.

While every program goes through some personnel movement, even without coaching changes, the Cougars lost six players over the last three seasons. That’s too many bodies even for an established mid-major like the College of Charleston to replace.

“Our margin of error is so small,” Grant said. “I’d like to do some different things, get after people more and extend the defense, but it’s hard to do when you can’t take your point guard out of the lineup because he has to play 40 minutes a game. You need a lot of guys to get after people and pick your defense up. Right now, we can’t do that. An identity takes time.”

Not only is Grant in his first season as a head coach, but the Cougars are a young team. Charleston has the second-youngest roster in the CAA with eight freshmen or sophomores on scholarship.

The last eight games, the Cougars have started two freshmen — Donovan Gilmore and Cameron Johnson — and two sophomores — Canyon Barry and Joe Chealey.

The Cougars have just one scholarship junior in the program — David Wishon — and seniors Stitt, Baru and Pat Branin. Stitt, who missed seven games after undergoing knee surgery, and Baru have battled through injuries all season.

“For a lot of our guys, this is the first or second season they’ve been playing at the college level,” Grant said. “They don’t know what it takes to win at this level and that’s something that they have to learn. A lot of times those freshmen are going up against a junior or senior and they know how to get their shot or create contact and get to the foul line. They’ve been through the wars. Some of our breakdowns are because of our youth, but I’ve got to do a better job of teaching them the small details of defense.”

It’s not all doom and gloom for the Cougars. There is reason to believe the future looks bright.

Charleston will have five players that started at least 10 games returning for next season, including six of their top eight scorers. The Cougars’ top 3-point shooters — Barry, Chealey, Johnson and Evan Bailey – will be back.

Nick Harris, a 6-10 freshman, redshirted this season and has already shown soft hands and a nice shooting touch around the basket during practices.

The addition of new blood into the program will help. High School shooting guard Grant Riller and point guard Marquise Pointer next season will add some much-needed depth to the Cougars’ backcourt. Pointer had offers from Clemson and Wichita State before signing with the Cougars, while Riller is averaging nearly 30 points a game.

Grant will have at least one more scholarship to give, which will most likely go to a post player from the junior college ranks or someone from a Power 5 conference who can play right away.

“We’ve got help on the way,” Grant said.

In the meantime, the Cougars hope to have more games like Thursday’s upset of William & Mary, and avoid setting a program record that no team wants to own.