'Remarkable' Cougars stuck at 1 for 14

John Kresse

You never get a second chance at a first impression. That the College of Charleston basketball program nailed that part only lends to their legacy of Southern Conference basketball futility.

The Cougars won the SoCon tournament in 1999 after a 16-0 run through the standings in their first year in the league.

And haven't won since.

The College of Charleston, bound for the Colonial Athletic Association next season, gets one last chance at a lasting impression this weekend. The whole losing streak isn't on this particular team and first-year head coach Doug Wojcik, but anything less than the automatic NCAA tournament bid puts an exclamation point on a legacy of freaky failure.

Though rival SoCon coaches remain impressed.

“The College of Charleston has been remarkable in the consistency of their success,” Davidson coach Bob McKillop said Tuesday. “Getting to the NCAA tournament is such a hard, hard thing to do.”

McKillop would know. Davidson has won four of the last seven SoCon tournament titles.

The Cougars have made it to the SoCon championship game four times since 1999 and routinely show up with a high seed.

Only to watch others celebrate, live or on TV.

Maybe you were there at the Greensboro Coliseum. So much has happened around the SoCon since Danny Johnson, Jermel President and Jody Lumpkin led College of Charleston past Appalachian State in the 1999 championship game:

• Stephen Curry enrolled at Davidson, led the Wildcats to the Elite Eight of the 2008 NCAA tournament and blossomed into an NBA star.

• Coach Mike Young's scrappy Wofford Terriers made it to the NCAA tournament. Twice.

• East Tennessee State won two SoCon championships and left the league.

• Buzz Peterson led Appalachian State to a SoCon crown, bolted for Tulsa, left for Tennessee, got fired, took over at Coastal Carolina, went back to Appalachian State and is now struggling at UNC Wilmington.

Oh, and Al Gore ran for president.

“Sometimes you're a victim of your circumstances,” Furman coach Jeff Jackson said Tuesday. “The dominance of Davidson, especially them getting Stephen and Bob (McKillop) being able to extend that legacy to the senior class that he has right now, I just think that makes it more challenging for all of us. Then you had Wofford for two years and Mike just having a tremendous team. Sometimes you're subject to the environment around you.”

Yes, but so were UNC Greensboro and Chattanooga, and they have won SoCon tournament titles since 1999.

It's a Cougars skid that includes four head coaches and their quests for a SoCon tournament title.

John Kresse: 1 for 4.

Tom Herrion: 0 for 4 (only two SoCon tournament victories).

Bobby Cremins: 0 for 5 (but three SoCon tournament championship game appearances).

Mark Byington: 0 for 1 (as interim head coach last year).

Your turn, Mr. Wojcik — with a team that enters the tournament with 14 SoCon wins, second only to Davidson's 17.

It's never cushy. McKillop pointed to Lefty Driesell's nationally ranked Davidson teams of the 1960s led by All-Americans Fred Hetzel and Dick Snyder.

But a 24-1 Davidson team lost to 12-14 West Virginia in the 1965 SoCon semifinals.

Then and now, the SoCon was a “one-bid league” with all NCAA tournament chips riding on the conference tournament.

“Can you imagine if the ACC and the SEC and the Big East had to go through the one-and-done scenario of only one team getting to the (NCAA) tournament?” McKillop said. “That's a pretty tough challenge to face.”

The Cougars have made it to the SoCon tournament final in each of the last three odd-numbered years:

• 2007 — Lost to Davidson in North Charleston.

• 2009 — Lost to Chattanooga on its home court.

• 2011 — Lost to Wofford in Chattanooga.

Maybe this is the season, lucky '13.

If not, the well-worn “Party like it's 1999” signs that have been dragged to Greenville, Charlotte, North Charleston, Chattanooga and Asheville will make their CAA tournament debut next March in Baltimore.

Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff.