In a way, this is all a bonus at this point for Coastal Carolina men’s basketball coach Cliff Ellis is concerned.
Nothing has gone as planned this season for the Chanticleers, and yet here they are, in the semifinals of a postseason tournament with a legitimate chance to win the whole thing.
The Chants host UC Irvine on Sunday night as one of four teams remaining from a 26-team field in the CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament.
“I would have been pleased if we hadn’t played another game [after the Big South tournament] because of what our team accomplished under the circumstances,” Ellis said. “Having said that, this has been just a tremendous accomplishment.”
The Chants (21-11) started this season with hopes of earning a third-straight NCAA tournament appearance, but a disproportionate slew of injuries undermined the team throughout the campaign. Eventually those setbacks were too much, Coastal Carolina being knocked out in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament.
When Coastal Carolina accepted an invite to play in the CIT, a tertiary postseason event behind the NCAA tourney and NIT, it didn’t move the needle much for the fanbase.
But the Chants have continued to win, knocking off Mercer, New Hampshire and Grand Canyon to progress through the tournament and into this semifinals matchup.
Coastal Carolina has managed to play every CIT game at home so far while meeting the $38,500-per-round hosting fee. After crowds of 940 and 847 for the first two games, the Chants had 1,302 people come out Wednesday night for the quarterfinal round against Grand Canyon.
They won that game in dramatic fashion, scoring the final eight points – all from junior guard Elijah Wilson – to eek out a 60-58 win.
We’re very fortunate. I know the seniors appreciate it as well. They get a chance to keep playing on our home court, so we’re doing it for them, we’re trying to make the season last as long as we can for them. And we’re doing a good job of it so far.
Coastal Carolina junior guard Elijah Wilson
Ellis is hopeful and confident the interest continues to build as the Chants try to do it again Sunday night.
“I’ve been in these situations before, I kind of knew what would happen as you gain momentum because I’ve been involved with the NIT and postseason tournaments,” he said. “Momentum builds with every game you get. There gets to be more energy. ... So having played three extra games, I think we’ve been able to get a lot out of it.”
In other words, the CIT may have been a consolation prize, but the Chants are making the most of it and the players seem to sincerely be enjoying the ride.
“We’re very fortunate,” Wilson said . “I know the seniors appreciate it as well. They get a chance to keep playing on our home court, so we’re doing it for them, we’re trying to make the season last as long as we can for them. And we’re doing a good job of it so far.”
Next up is a UC Irvine team out of the Big West Conference that comes in with a 21-13 record, and one of the more interesting players in college basketball in 7-foot-6 junior center Mamadou Ndiaye.
Ndiaye, the tallest player in Division I college basketball, averages 12.2 points and 7.1 rebounds while totaling 84 blocks this season.
He didn’t play in the Anteaters' 67-66 win over Louisiana-Lafayette on Wednesday night and played just eight minutes in the previous game due to injury, but is expected to be on the court Sunday night.
“He just gives them a dimension that you don't see,” Ellis said.
It isn’t just Ndiaye who will be a matchup problem for the Chants, though. UC Irvine, which was also in the NCAA tournament last season, features 7-foot-2 junior Ioannis Dimakopoulos (5.3 points per game, 2.7 rebounds per game off the bench), 6-foot-10 senior Mike Best (9.6 ppg, 5.1 rpg) and 6-foot-10 redshirt freshman Jonathan Galloway (2.8 ppg, 3.8 rpg).
The game will be broadcast live on CBS Sports Network, and if the Chants can get past the Anteaters they will play either Columbia (23-10) or New Jersey Institute of Technology (20-14) on Tuesday in the CIT championship game.
Columbia is expected to host if they advance; it’s unclear who would host if it loses.
Whatever happens, Ellis feels the investment and experience has paid dividends already for the program.
“It started out with 140 teams [in postseason play of some kind]. Now it’s down to 16 so your exposure is heightened and now you get a lot of mileage out of it,” he said. “I’ve always said you probably get more out of your team if you can advance to the final four of a postseason tournament than if you lose in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
“However, we were very fortunate the two years we played in the NCAA tournament to draw an opponent that brought national exposure in prime time. That's hard to beat.”
For the players, the motivation is simpler – they are now just two games away from a postseason championship.
“At this point of the year there’s not many teams left and all the teams that are left are really good so every game you have to bring your ‘A’ game,” Wilson said. “And I think we have a good shot to pull it out because we're really starting to gel at the right point in time.”