It’s happening. The Citadel is becoming a relevant basketball program in one of the toughest seasons in SoCon history. The Bulldogs are starting to build a foundation and culture in and around Charleston, thanks to fourth-year head coach Duggar Baucom.
This summer, I had a chance to catch up with Baucom and talk about the upcoming season, and we told you at Mid-Major Madness that The Citadel would be a dark horse, and the Bulldogs have proven to be just that early on through non-conference play and now into league action.
Creating a winning culture at any program that hasn’t won on a regular basis is not easy, however, and to do it at a military school is even tougher.
Thanks to The Citadel basketball media relations director Milledge Austin, I was able to take in a few minutes of the Bulldogs’ shoot-around and practice ahead of their big SoCon clash with Furman lasts Saturday afternoon at Timmons Arena. I left even more impressed with Baucom, his staff, and how they are helping build on to an already solid foundation for The Citadel hoops program.
”We were 9-2 before Christmas and that certainly exceeded expectations, playing three guarantee games like you have to and I think that’s the best start since ‘80 I think,” Baucom said. “I’m not been pleased with our last two game, but to be 9-4 at The Citadel...that’s pretty good.”
Indeed, though the Bulldogs have lost back-to-back games to Longwood and at Wofford, their 9-2 start was their best since the 1979-80 team, which also started the season. The Citadel’s 8-3 record against non-conference foes is the best since the the 2001-02 season also went 8-3 before starting league play. The nine victories prior to Christmas were the most in program history.
It also must be noted that the Bulldogs got an important 79-69 win over Mercer back on Dec. 2 to open Southern Conference play. It broke a 91-year streak for the Bulldogs, who had not beaten the Bears in Charleston since 1927.
And it’s not like the Bulldogs are playing a bunch of cupcakes this season. In fact, the Bulldogs have one of the SoCon’s best wins, having defeated South Florida from the American Athletic Conference back on Nov. 24.
The Bulldogs also claimed impressive wins over Campbell and James Madison, and shot a blistering 62.3 percent in a 112-87 thrashing of High Point.
A loss to Longwood last Saturday in the final non-conference game ended a seven-game winning streak for Baucom’s Bulldogs, which had been the SoCon’s longest winning streak.
A List of Impressive Accomplishments and Milestones
We all know that the type of offense The Citadel runs lends itself to an exciting brand to watch. After all, the Bulldogs lead the nation in scoring and lead the nation in three-pointers made over the previous three seasons, with 1,146 combined triples. But it’s more than hype or gimmick. This type of basketball can work with the right players.
The Citadel and Baucom’s style have enabled both teams and individuals to post some great numbers in his tenure. Even more, seniors like Matt Frierson and Zane Najdawi have been tremendous key elements to this culture-building project by The Citadel coaching staff.
“Matt and Zane have been great and we expected both of them to have good years and both had good junior years,” Baucom said.
Frierson entered the week ranking first nationally in three-pointers made per game (5.08) and ranks second on the team in scoring average, posting 16.5 PPG and 2.2 RPG.
Frierson has scored in double figures in 12 of 13 games this season for the Bulldogs and leads the SoCon with 62 made three-point field goals.
An argument could be made for Zane Najdawi is being one of the best big men to ever play at The Citadel. Najdawi hear his name bantered about for years to come, being to compared to some other Citadel big men like Matt Newman (1994-98), Cliff Washburn (1998-2002), Demetrius Nelson (2004-09) and Kirill Misyuchenko (1995-98).
The senior from Midlothian, VA has been among the league’s elite big men for the better part of the past three seasons. Maybe the one thing he does better than any other big man in the SoCon is shoot from the perimeter, where he is connecting at nearly a 40 percent rate.
Najdawi currently has a streak of eight-straight double-figure scoring games this season for the Bulldogs.
The senior forward currently ranks eighth in school history in scoring (1,400 pts), 11th in career field goals made (478), second in career blocks (168), sixth in free throws made (354) and ninth in career rebounds (620).
As good as both Frierson and Najdawi have been this season, it’s UTRGV transfer Lew Stallworth who currently leads the Bulldogs in scoring and assists this season.
Stallworth ranks 11th nationally in assists (6.7 APG) and has already been named Southern Conference Player of the Week twice this season. He averages a team-leading 18.0 points and 5.9 rebounds per game.
“He’s been a great addition to our team. He works hard and practices hard and he knows this is his last season of competition and he’s really been outstanding,” Baucom said.
Baucom points out that Stallworth is a game-changer for the Bulldogs and their potential to factor into the SoCon race. More than that, he compares him to some of the point guards he has coached in the past at both The Citadel and VMI.
“I had good point guards at VMI and we had little Frankie Johnson here [The Citadel] and he was good but just diminutive, and Lew’s much stronger and can finish around the rim and can just go by people and go through people, where Frankie didn’t have that capability and Lew also shoots it decently from three,” he added.
The Citadel is indeed exceeding expectations, and the Bulldogs will continue to be a team to be reckoned with in the SoCon race as the season progresses. They will perhaps become just the third 20-win team in program history, and though the Bulldogs have never made the NCAA Tournament, Baucom is putting the building blocks in place to make that a much more feasible reality than it might have been five years ago.