Citadel games are almost fun again

Citadel coach Chuck Driesell talks with Jake Wright during their game against Furman Saturday, Jan. 17, 2015 at the McAlister Field House. Paul Zoeller/Staff

Chuck Driesell kept his team in their suddenly sad McAlister Field House locker room longer than usual Saturday following a 74-62 loss to Furman. The Citadel head coach emphasized the pratfalls of new-found Southern Conference glory.

The lesson came less than 48 hours after the Bulldogs pulled off the best win in Driesell’s five years as head coach, a 69-66 upset of first-place Wofford.

“Our guys have a lot to learn in terms of how to handle brief success and being able to turn it around and handle a quality opponent,” Drisell said.

As good as the Wofford win was, allowing Furman (5-12, 3-4 in the SoCon) its first road victory since the Paladins won at McAlister 363 days before “was just as bad,” senior leader Ashton Moore said.

But what a stretch for The Citadel, where college basketball is just a little more consistency away from being authentically fun.

An 8-10 record is nothing to tweet Dick Vitale about. But the Bulldogs are 3-4 in the SoCon with three victories in their last five games. It’s high cotton for a program that went 2-14 in conference play last season.

The Wofford win offers hope from here to the SoCon Tournament in Asheville.

The McAlister scene is much more positive than a year ago, when The Citadel didn’t have cheerleaders and only four cadets showed up for a loss to Wofford. The crowd wasn’t overflowing Saturday – 1,426 attendance – but there were bleachers full of cadets behind one baseline and a dozen cheerleaders behind the other.

Rome, Ga., wasn’t built in a day.

“The fan base here this year is the best I’ve seen in four years,” redshirt junior forward C.J. Bray (James Island High School) said. “It’s incredible. My thanks go out to the cadets. Hopefully, we can keep winning for them.”

In the new-look SoCon, rapid advancement is possible. Davidson, the College of Charleston, Elon, Appalachian State and Georgia Southern are gone. The Citadel already has a road win at UNC-Greensboro.

Surprises are lurking throughout the 10-team conference featuring a double-round robin schedule format.

“Every game is open,” Bray said. “It’s whatever team comes and wants to win the most.”

Fragility was on display Saturday. The Bulldogs, last in the SoCon in scoring, seek to maximize efficiency over their extended possessions. They are a throwback team in a fast-pace world. These are players with no names on the backs of their jerseys, just a Citadel “C” stamped on a tiny map of South Carolina above the jersey numbers.

Bray hit a 3-point shot at one end of the floor and senior guard Marshall Harris III stole the ball as the clock was running out on Furman’s next possession. Later, Bray scrambled to come up with a loose ball under the basket and fired to freshman Jake Wright, who dropped a 3-pointer from the right corner.

But Driesell, 39-104 at The Citadel and with only several weeks left on his contract, was unable to keep Furman from outscoring his team by 15 points in the second half.

“We didn’t come as mentally prepared,” Moore said.

Part of that had to do with the schedule timing. The Citadel, as a scrappy bunch, thrives on practice preparation. The quick-turnaround didn’t allow for that going into the Furman game.

Now comes a week between games, and the start of a three-game road stretch.

The Bulldogs stumbled Saturday while trying to handle success. The fresh goal: Build up to a chance to correct Saturday’s mistake.

Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff