Coastal Carolina

What gives the CCU men and women optimism in their Sun Belt Conference hoops tournaments

Zac Cuthbertson has led Coastal Carolina basketball as senior

Coastal Carolina senior Zac Cuthbertson has added weight through weightlifting and has become one of the top double-double producers in the Sun Belt Conference with points and rebounds.
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Coastal Carolina senior Zac Cuthbertson has added weight through weightlifting and has become one of the top double-double producers in the Sun Belt Conference with points and rebounds.

To earn invitations to their respective NCAA tournaments, the Coastal Carolina men will have to win four games and the CCU women will have to win five games in their Sun Belt Conference tournaments this week.

Considering both teams have had five-game winning streaks in conference play this season, it’s conceivable for both teams to advance from the tournaments at Lakefront Arena in New Orleans.

As the sixth seed in the conference tournament, the Coastal men (15-15, 9-9) have one bye and will face the winner of Tuesday’s first round game between No. 10 seed Appalachian State and No. 7 Louisiana-Monroe at 7:30 p.m. Thursday. “That bye is critical because it’s like a win,” CCU men’s basketball coach Cliff Ellis said.

The Sun Belt rewards its top regular season teams with additional byes in the tournament.

Texas State and Georgia Southern are already in Friday’s quarterfinals – Coastal would play No. 3 Georgia Southern with a win – and top seeds Texas-Arlington and Georgia State await Saturday’s semifinals.

There was no dominant men’s team this year in the conference, which was very balanced.

Georgia State (22-9), which Coastal defeated in the teams’ only meeting this season, won the conference with a 13-5 record, and every team in the league lost a game to a team in the bottom half of the conference standings.

“It’s wide open,” Ellis said. “The teams with the double byes, Texas-Arlington and Georgia State are already in the semifinals, so that is huge. I think they have an advantage, but it is a wide open tournament. I think anything could happen and I would not be surprised with what happens.”

Senior forward Zac Cuthbertson, who is Coastal’s leading scorer and rebounder by significant amounts and was named to the All-Sun Belt Conference Second Team, sprained a knee in CCU’s regular season-ending loss to Troy on Saturday and is expected to be hampered by the injury Thursday.

Cuthbertson averages 32 minutes per game but was limited to 23 minutes Saturday. He has been unable to practice this week but is expected to play. “He should be ready to go by Thursday, but he won’t be 100 percent,” Ellis said.

When Coastal has been full strength this season, it has been good.

The Chants’ starting backcourt of freshman Ebrima Dibba of Sweden and redshirt freshman DeVante Jones, who was named the conference’s freshman of the year after averaging 14.2 points, 3.8 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 1.4 steals per game, have missed a total of 20 games with injuries.

Ellis said the team is 10-6 with those two in the lineup and Cuthbertson available.

The Chants, who are in their third season in the Sun Belt after moving up from the Big South Conference, have been essentially full strength since starting conference play 1-3.

“The fact we finished in the upper half after making the transition from the Big South is a big step for our program because these teams are very, very good,” Ellis said. “We started slow but we came back.”

Ellis said he hopes the Chants will garner a postseason bid to another tournament – likely the College Basketball Invitational or Postseason Tournament – if they lose in the conference tournament.

“There’s the NIT, the CBI and CIT, and we want to go in and win and get to the NCAA but we want to get to a postseason just like a football team wants to get to a bowl,” Ellis said. “Our finish was strong and we’re in consideration, but we certainly don’t know at this point.

“You see these Power Fives just capture the NCAA tournament [at-large bids]. When I was at Clemson and Auburn I was all for it. But you get a lot of very good basketball teams that get left out. There are some great tournaments especially for the mid-majors.”

The Sun Belt championship game at 2 p.m. [Eastern] Sunday will be broadcast on ESPN2 and all other games will be broadcast online on ESPN+.

CCU women

As the Sun Belt’s eighth seed, the CCU women (17-13, 8-10) had to play an opening-round game and defeated No. 9 Arkansas State 63-49 Monday at the HTC Center behind the second triple-double in program history by 6-4 junior center Naheria Hamilton.

Coastal will face No. 5 Appalachian State at 12:30 p.m. (Eastern) Wednesday in the second round. The teams split their regular season series. CCU lost 67-53 on Jan. 19 in Boone, N.C., and won 74-66 on Feb. 16 in Conway.

Hamilton recorded 10 points, a game-high 12 rebounds and a career-best 10 blocks Monday. The only other triple-double in program history was recorded by Angelica Henry in 2014.

Coastal used a 19-2 run over the final eight minutes of the third quarter to take a 14-point advantage into the fourth. Junior guard D.J. Williams had a game-high 16 points while junior guard Caitlin Roche and freshman forward Aja Blount had 15 points each.

The women’s championship game will be played at noon (Eastern) Saturday and will be broadcast online on ESPN3. All other tournament games will be on ESPN+.

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Alan Blondin covers golf, Coastal Carolina athletics and numerous other sports-related topics that warrant coverage. Well-versed in all things Myrtle Beach, Horry County and the Grand Strand, the Northeastern University journalism school valedictorian has been a sports reporter at The Sun News since 1993, earning eight top-10 Associated Press Sports Editors national writing awards and 18 top-three S.C. Press Association writing awards since 2007.