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Colonial contender Charleston heads to Ireland in search of offense

The Cougs are going abroad for an early start to the season

College of Charleston v Villanova Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images

When Earl Grant took the College of Charleston head coaching job in 2014, he had dreams of one day leading his team on an international trip.

That day will soon come, as the Cougars will depart on Sunday for a 10-day jaunt through Ireland. Grant’s patience has resulted in ideal timing. Charleston returns every starter from last year’s 25-win team, and hopes to use the trip as a launching pad to its first-ever CAA championship.

“I was fortunate enough at Winthrop and Clemson to see our teams use the trip as a springboard,” Grant said. “We didn’t want to go on a trip like this in the early stages of rebuilding the program, but we have so many returners now… the trip will almost be a continuation of last season that will propel us into next year.”

The team that will play two pro clubs and the Irish National team this month is a far cry from the one Grant inherited in 2014. Charleston set a record for losses in his first season, going 9-24, but has steadily improved under his tutelage each year since.

Last year, the Cougars took a giant leap forward before losing to UNC Wilmington in March and finishing their campaign in the NIT. The reigning champion Seahawks have since reloaded with a new head coach, and other question marks abound across the Colonial. Charleston will look to strike while the iron is hot, and it has the talent and continuity to justify being a preseason favorite.

With full speed and full contact exhibition games interrupting the usual summer schedule, the Cougars are focused on fundamentals during the 10 bonus team practices allowed before the trip.

“June and July were all about shooting,” Grant said. “With the practices we’ve had so far, the majority of our time has been spent simplifying the offense, moving the ball and getting the kind of shots that will bring our shooting percentages up.”

The Cougs will again lean heavily on three all-conference players: senior point man Joe Chealey, versatile forward Jarrell Brantley and combo guard Grant Riller. Last year the trio combined for 65 percent of Charleston’s points. They’re balanced in the starting lineup by a pair of defensive stoppers -– center Nick Harris and wing Cam Johnson.

Grant believes Ireland will provide an early opportunity to see who is rising up the depth chart. Three sparingly used freshman last year (including two redshirts) figure to compete with this year’s class for the chance to join reliable backups Marquise Pointer and Evan Bailey in the rotation.

“Even guys who didn’t play a lot of minutes last year, they’re a year older, they’ve improved physically and they’re familiar enough with the system to help us win games,” Grant said.

Whether by depth or by efficiency, the Charleston offense could use refinement. The Cougar defense stifled opponents last year, but the team’s scoring average (69.0 points per game) and field goal percentage (42.3 percent) were closer to the bottom of the CAA. Two other potent contenders –- Elon and Hofstra -– will try to outgun the Cougs this season. Hence the coaching staff prioritizing offensive improvement this summer.

Charleston will get an opportunity to run sets and experiment with lineup combinations in a competitive setting well before most of its CAA peers. As Grant mentioned, that often pays dividends in the fall and winter. Teams returning from foreign tours have a healthy mid-summer checkpoint that they can build upon heading into preseason and non-conference play.

Few teams get to the opportunity to play abroad, and even fewer get to do so with such a strong foundation in place. That’s a credit to the program that Grant has rebuilt in short order.

Grant added:

“We just want to play smart, share the ball, execute what we’re trying to do defensively, and have some fun while we’re at it.”