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CAA newcomers College of Charleston playing through challenges

January 13, 2014 Columns No Comments
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If CAA newcomer College of Charleston contends for the top spot in their first year in the conference, it shouldn’t surprise anyone. What also shouldn’t surprise anyone is if the journey to that is not a success-only one.

The Cougars are finishing up a trip to the northeast with a visit to Northeastern on Monday night. Two days earlier, a four-game winning streak ended with a 75-71 loss at Hofstra, one where they blew a double-digit lead in part from a bad day at the free throw line as they were 14-27 from there and in part from their own foul trouble as four players fouled out.

Prior to that, the Cougars had won four in a row. The offense has started to really click lately, as they have scored 70 or more points in four of the last five games after only topping that mark twice in the first 12 games. They’ve already established themselves as a team that can win at the defensive end, something second-year head coach Doug Wojcik tried to instill as soon as he took over last year. Opponents shoot below 41 percent against them and they out-rebound opponents by more than five per game.

How to view the loss after the winning streak? Wojcik knows they weren’t invincible, but he’s not seeing red flags or a blip on the radar screen. Rather, it’s indicative of what this team has in front of them this season.

“Every team is a new team for us, and every location is a new location,” Wojick said. “It is a new league, and there are better players in this league.”

The Cougars, who were previously in the Southern Conference, aren’t lacking in the talent department, but the newness factor is not to be underestimated. They are the only new team in the CAA this year, so the other eight teams have one new team to learn about while the Cougars have eight to learn about. Conference play is what it is largely because of familiarity; teams play each other every year and pick up on styles of play, and many teams also recruit some of the same players. That’s a big part of why there are always top teams getting knocked off by teams in the bottom half of a conference. College of Charleston played three Southern Conference schools and beat them by an average of 23 points per game.

Put another way: there are no secrets in conference play, unless perhaps you’re a newcomer.

The Cougars have a lot to like about them. They have a good mix of experience and young talent, and part of their challenge has been to integrate the young talent into the mix with a challenging non-conference schedule. They are a well-tested team both in terms of who they have played against and the adversity they have had to overcome. They haven’t just played big names like Louisville and San Diego State; they have also played the likes of Charlotte (win), Miami (loss), Arizona State (loss), Kent State (loss) and Davidson (win).

Among the newcomers have been two guards, Joe Chealey and Canyon Barry. Chealey has shown a lot of promise thus far, though he’s struggled with foul trouble at times because he lacks strength. Barry, the youngest son of NBA Hall of Famer Rick Barry, struggled shooting early and is now out with a broken finger, but figures to be a key piece when he returns. Fellow freshman Jonathan Burroughs-Cook is now getting a chance at an expanded role, making it three freshmen guards in a game dominated by them.

Their depth gets better with the recent emergence of senior Nori Johnson, who hadn’t earned his way into rotation minutes early on. In the last five games, he is averaging 15 points per game and shooting nearly 57 percent. That gives them one more body they can count on.

“He stretches the defense and helps us tremendously with driving lanes and postings,” Wojcik said of Johnson.

With young guards often come growing pains for a team. The leadership has been solid with the likes of graduate student Willis Hall and junior point guard Anthony Stitt. Stitt hasn’t shot the ball well yet but has led the young guards, while Hall was on a tear at the beginning of the winning streak. Hall posted three straight double-doubles, including a 26-point, 21-rebound outing at Davidson. He became the first player in CAA history to be named National Player of the Week by the U.S. Basketball Writers Association, and along the way this year he’s become more of a focal point after being a complementary player earlier in his career.

“He’s an unbelievable fifth-year guy, he’s like a coach, leading us in stretching every day,” said Wojcik. “He’s a guy you want on your team.”

Wojcik has been around the game a long time and is very thoughtful and personable. He’s a guy you could talk about the game and related subjects for hours if given the chance. From that standpoint, he’s a good man to lead a team transitioning, as he’s been able to keep this team level-headed through a lot of challenges and growing pains thus far. There are more of those to come for the conference newcomers, but they appear to be benefiting from the challenges they have already played through and ready for the ones still to come.

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