It doesn’t carry the same history or stature of the NIT – let alone the NCAA tournament, obviously – but the CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament represents an opportunity nonetheless for the Coastal Carolina men’s basketball team.
The Chanticleers, who played in the NCAA tournament the last two seasons, accepted an invite into the CIT and will host Mercer on Tuesday night at The HTC Center.
It marks the first-ever postseason home game for the program, and the Chants (18-11) will be vying for their first official postseason victory (although Coastal Carolina’s 1991 team won an NCAA tournament play-in game before losing in the opening round).
Chants coach Cliff Ellis emphasized those points while reiterating his hope that the fans will come out in support.
“This is history for Coastal Carolina,” Ellis said. “No. 1, there’s never been a postseason tournament here. We need to win, but No. 2 we need to have people in these seats because that’s how these tournaments work. ... We’ve got to take another step and find a way to win postseason games, so that’s a step. We’re going into the Sun Belt [next season], you’ve got three Sun Belt teams in this thing and we’re trying to take another step. I think showing that we’re ready for that, I think this is kind of the next step toward the Sun Belt. You’re looking at the best mid-major teams that are available.
“But we need to show that we’re going to be there when the Sun Belt comes along. We didn’t have the Big South tournament here so I’m hoping our fans [show up], and I’m confident they will.”
The CIT, which debuted in 2009 and has expanded over the years, was supposed to feature a 32-team field, but it couldn’t fill out the bracket and will instead play with 26 teams this year – all from mid-major conferences with all games played on campus sites.
As Ellis mentioned, future Sun Belt foes Louisiana-Lafayette, Louisiana-Monroe and Texas-Arlington are in the tournament, along with fellow in-state programs Furman and South Carolina State.
After the 13 first-round games, the top three-ranked teams according to the Pomeroy College Basketball Ratings will receive a bye into the quarterfinals. The Chants are the 11th-rated team among the CIT field.
Coastal Carolina also paid a financial guarantee of $38,500 for the right to host this game Tuesday, with the Big South picking up half the tab. Future round matchups and locations will be determined after the opening round, and athletic director Matt Hogue said the Chants will continue to look to host if they advance ... and if there is enough support to do so.
“Obviously we’ve got to assess all the factors that go into it, but we’d like to be able to host the next stage,” Hogue said.
This is Coastal Carolina’s sixth postseason appearance in the last seven years (and eighth overall), including NIT berths in 2010 and 2011, a previous CIT appearance in 2012 and NCAA tournament appearances in 2014 and 2015.
This is history for Coastal Carolina. No. 1, there’s never been a postseason tournament here. We need to win, but No. 2 we need to have people in these seats because that’s how these tournaments work.
CCU basketball coach Cliff Ellis
The hope for this season was a third-straight NCAA tournament berth, but a 69-65 loss to Gardner-Webb in the quarterfinals of the Big South tournament ended that pursuit.
Even though it’s a tertiary postseason event, Hogue reiterated Ellis’ sentiments that the CIT offers value to Coastal Carolina.
“No. 1, anytime you have a chance to play in the postseason it’s something that you want to do for your players’ sake,” he said. “We’ve had a good season and these opportunities now exist to reward them along with a lot of other teams around the country, to reward our team for having a good year. It gives us an opportunity for a great player like Badou, who has been injured and wasn’t able to play in the Big South tournament, to end his career on a good note as well.
“There’s a lot of intangibles to it, and from a tangible standpoint it allows us to continue to receive exposure and promote our program as a postseason program at a time of year when people are paying a lot of attention to postseason basketball.”
As Hogue mentioned, the Chants are expecting senior forward Badou Diagne to make his return to the court after missing the last three games with a foot injury.
“He’s going to try to play. He’s about 65 percent. We’re going to see what he can do,” Ellis said. “He’s not 100 percent, but we’re going to put him out there and I’m glad that he’s getting an opportunity to play here with the Senior Night the way it was. I just felt for him, so the fact that he can just go a little bit – 65 percent of Badou Diagne is better than a lot of things.”
Diagne averaged 11.2 points and 7.0 rebounds this season and had made 75 consecutive starts before this injury.
As for the opponent, Mercer won the CIT championship in 2012 and could become the first school to win the tournament twice, but the Chants have a more recent postseason impression of the Bears.
Mercer and Coastal Carolina were at the same NCAA regional in Raleigh two seasons ago when the Bears upset Duke in the opening round, and the Chants put a scare into No. 1-seed Virginia before losing 70-59.
“They’re a very good basketball team, a team that kind of has risen [at the mid-major level] in the last few years,” Ellis said. “[Coach] Bob Hoffman has done a great job, and of course we got to see it eyeball to eyeball in Raleigh two years ago when they beat Duke because we were all in Raleigh together.”
It’s been a tough 2015-16 season for the Bears in a number of ways, though, as senior guard Jibri Bryan was shot and killed outside of a Macon, Ga., convenience store in early February and sophomore forward Desmond Ringer (7.8 points and 4.6 rebounds per game) and senior guard Jestin Lewis (team-high 14.0 points per game) were suspended that same month and have not played since.
Since then, the Bears have been led by sophomore forward Stephon Jelks (11.7 points and 8.4 rebounds per game), senior guard Phillip Leonard (10.8 points and 4.8 assists per game) and sophomore guard Demetre Rivers (9.5 points per game).
Mercer comes in with a 19-14 record – including an overtime win at Arkansas in December – but the Bears lost eight of their final nine games during that tumultuous second half the season, including a quarterfinal exit in the Southern Conference tournament.
“They have a point guard that is just tremendous at getting the ball to the rack. It’s going to be a tremendous matchup with he and Shivaughn. And then Rivers is a tremendous shooter and Jelks, what a rebounder that guy is. They’ve got weapons,” Ellis said.
So do the Chants, who won 10 of their final 13 games and will lean on their balanced backcourt of junior guards Shivaughn Wiggins (13.3 points per game) and Elijah Wilson (13.6), sophomore guard Jaylen Shaw (11.2) and junior guard Colton Ray-St Cyr (8.5).
Along with Diagne, the tournament also gives extra opportunity to fellow senior forwards Tristian Curtis and Marcus Freeman and senior guard Aaron Law.
“It’s a special opportunity,” Curtis said. “We have something to play for now so it gives us something to look forward to, and for those of us who are trying to play beyond college it gives us another opportunity to better improve our skills and show the scouts what we have.”
CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament
Who | Mercer at Coastal Carolina
Where | The HTC Center, Conway
When | 7 p.m. Tuesday
Radio | WSEA-FM 100.3
Tickets | Tickets range in price from $8 (youth 18 and under), $10 (general admission), $12 (Bronze section) and $15 (Teal section). Coastal Carolina students get in free.