Following a solid first regular season in the Sun Belt Conference, the Coastal Carolina men’s basketball team looks to prolong its season in the 12-team conference tournament.
The Chanticleers (15-16) finished the regular season 10-8 in the conference and enter the tournament beginning Wednesday at Lakefront Arena in New Orleans as the eighth seed.
“We’ve got to be our best, be who we are and let’s just go in and see what happens,” CCU coach Cliff Ellis said.
The Chants had an opportunity to tie for third in the conference with a win in the season finale Saturday but fell 77-73 at Appalachian State, which finished 11th in the conference.
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So instead, the Chants finished in a three-way tie for sixth in the conference standings and were dropped to the eighth seed for the tournament because they had a combined 0-2 record against the other two teams, Troy and Louisiana-Lafayette.
“To go above .500, I’m pleased with that,” Ellis said. “Overall for the first year I think it was a good year. It’s been impressive to me to see how good the league is from top to bottom.
“It’s been a long regular season. It’s been a lot of travel.”
The Chants will play ninth-seeded South Alabama (14-17, 7-11 Sun Belt) at 11:30 a.m. Wednesday in the first round. The teams just met in Mobile, Ala., on Feb. 20 and CCU came from 16 points down to pull out an 81-77 overtime win.
The Jaguars are led by senior guard Ken Williams, who averages 13.7 points and 3.3 assists per game this season, and 6-foot-7 redshirt freshman forward Josh Ajayi, who averages 10.7 points and 5.6 rebounds.
“They’re a team that has inside and outside presence,” Ellis said. “They’ll change defenses on you. They are a team that is going to be physical. I think it will be a tough game.”
The Jaguars lost four of their final five games, winning the season finale at home against Arkansas State on a buzzer-beating 3-pointer by Williams. “We were reeling a little bit,” South Alabama coach Matthew Graves said. “Hopefully we can put it all together heading into a tough matchup Wednesday. … Offensively they really scare me with their versatility. They can beat you in a number of different ways.”
The Chants are led by 6-1 junior guard Jaylen Shaw, who averages a team-high 14.1 poitns per game, 6-4 senior guard Elijah Wilson, who averages 13.3 points, and 6-8 junior forward Demario Beck, who averages 9.3 points and a team-high 8.1 rebounds per game. Wilson is finishing up a prolific career at CCU, in which he has approximately 1,800 career points.
South Alabama has won a first round game in each of the past two conference tournaments.
If the Chants win Wednesday, they will face top-seeded Texas-Arlington, which went 14-4 in conference play, in the second round Friday.
CCU split a pair of games with UT Arlington (24-7) this season, losing by 21 on the road on New Year’s Eve and earning a 72-70 win at the HTC Center in Conway on Jan. 30.
“UT Arlington as the No. 1 seed certainly deserved it,” Ellis said. “They were without question a tremendous basketball team, well coached, had a star player and a lot of things to go with him.”
Had the Chants not lost the tiebreaker for sixth they would have faced Appalachian State (4-14 conference) or Arkansas-Little Rock (6-12 conference) in the first round and had either Georgia State or Georgia Southern awaiting in the second round.
Shaw enters the tournament as CCU’s lone All-Sun Belt Team selection.
The Hartsville native was named to the Third Team by a vote of the media and head coaches of the conference.
Shaw is shooting 84 percent from the free throw line to lead the Sun Belt and is listed among the conference leaders in a few other statistics.
He is 11th in the conference in scoring, seventh with both 3.6 assists per game and a better than 39 percent shooting percentage from beyond the three-point line, and seventh with a 1.7 turnover/assist ratio despite not being CCU’s primary point guard.
“I think Jaylen is a guy who really loves the game,” Ellis said. “His father was a coach. He has a good basketball IQ. There’s not a phase of the game that he doesn’t understand and he’s not somewhat consistent at. He’s just a good team player that understands the game and works hard.”
The Sun Belt Conference tournament is being broadcast on the ESPN3 online streaming network through the semifinals, and the championship game will be televised live on ESPN at 2 p.m. Sunday.