Besides a brief three-year stretch, the last November Cliff Ellis wasn’t preparing to lead a college basketball program was 1974. 811 wins later, the Coastal Carolina coach isn’t thinking about stopping.
“Anytime you compete, that competition motivates you,” he said as he enters his eleventh season at CCU. “And I love teaching and watching young people have success. That’s my purpose. You health is obviously important, but if you’ve got your health, I don’t see why you wouldn’t keep doing it.”
Ellis’ young people had success a season ago. The Chanticleers, in their debut season in the Sun Belt, went 10-8 in league play and picked up wins over UT-Arlington, Georgia State, Georgia Southern, Arkansas State and Texas State, all teams that finished above them in the standings.
A run to the CBI finals, where they lost a three-game series to Wyoming, nudged CCU to 20 wins, just barely extending a streak of four-straight years of 20 wins or more. The bulk of that damage was done in the Big South, which the Chants dominated from 2009 to 2016. Despite that solid initial showing in the Sun Belt, Ellis recognized that there needs to be a recruiting uptick to continue to compete in the new league.
The change in conferences was also a homecoming.
Ellis coached South Alabama from 1975 to 1984, and helped usher the Sun Belt into existence. USA joined the newly-formed league with Ellis at the helm in 1978, and he was instrumental in its early stages.
“South Alabama was my baby,” he said. “I took over that program when it was just an infant, and I remember sitting at a table in Tampa, Florida with nine or ten great people all trying to make the Sun Belt go. To have come full circle has been a treat. It’s like seeing your child all grown up.”
The nostalgia, which Ellis couldn’t deny, was laid on thick when he returned to Mobile on Feb. 20. He was honored at mid-court before a game his team would eventually win in overtime. They would also pick up a 13-point opening round win over the Jaguars in the league tournament.
CCU would fall to UTA — a team Ellis said he was shocked didn’t get an NCAA Tournament bid, in the next round — sending the Chants to the CBI, where they’d keep the 20-win streak alive. If that run gets extended in 2017-18, it won’t be because of Ellis’ original plan.
He appeared to have a pair of talented graduate transfers set to join the program in guard Donte Clark (UMass) and forward Chas Brown (Coppin State). Neither were able to gain admission to CCU and, as a result, the Chants must move forward without what Ellis says might have been their two best players.
But the cupboard isn’t bare.
Ellis did lose three of his top-five scorers to graduation in Elijah Wilson, Shivaughn Wiggins and Colton Ray-St Cyr. But he does return an all-league caliber point guard in Jaylen Shaw, who has blossomed in his two years at CCU after transferring from South Carolina. Last season, the senior finished in the top-10 in the Sun Belt in both points (14.3) and assists (3.8) per game.
He’s joined by fellow senior Demario Beck, a low-post presence that fueled the Chants’ run to the CBI finals. Over that six-game stretch, Beck averaged 15.3 points and 7.6 rebounds per game. If he can translate that type of efficient, interior scoring over a whole season, CCU has a potent inside-outside duo.
With the grad transfer reinforcements not in the picture, Ellis said he is looking for even more from sophomores Art Labinowicz (6.5 PPG, 39.6 3P%) and Amiduo Bamba (4.6 PPG, 3.9 RPG). Labinowicz fits well in the three-point heavy offense Ellis ran last season, while Bamba has the athletic tools to be a special rim protector in the Sun Belt.
The Chants will need all the improvement they can get to keep that streak alive.
The Sun Belt, which finished 13th in RPI last season, seems on the verge of a revival with a daunting group at the top of the league. UTA has become a recent force under Scott Cross, Louisiana may have the league’s most raw talent and Georgia Southern returns everyone — including two all-league guards. That doesn’t even mention Troy, which got the league’s bid to the NCAA Tournament last season, or a quality Georgia State team.
It won’t be easy for the Chants in 2017-18. But their coach — whose next win will be his 200th at CCU — has been figuring it out for 42 seasons. With a star lead guard and solid overall roster, why wouldn’t that be the case yet again this year?