Following a 2019-20 season that saw The Citadel end the campaign on a 19-game losing streak and with only seven players healthy enough to suit up, the only place for head coach Duggar Baucom’s program to go was up.
It was fitting that the first conference game of 2021 for the least-decorated team in SoCon basketball lore would come against Chattanooga, the program that has to regularly dust off its cabinet full of regular-season and tournament titles.
That didn’t matter to the current crop of Bulldogs, as The Citadel caused a few around mid-major basketball take a second look at the score ticker Saturday evening, following a 92-87 win over the 11-time SoCon Tournament champion Mocs.
Making that win even more impressive is the fact that it was the first time The Citadel had taken the basketball hardwood since Dec. 22. The win marked just the Bulldogs’ 19th in 86 meetings between the two.
The win also marked The Citadel’s first win against a Southern Conference foe since Feb. 23, 2019, end a span of 685 days without a victory.
A mature nucleus starts with “Brown Rice”
While NC State used to have Rodney Monroe and Chris Corchiani, who were affectionately known as “Fire” and “Ice” in the early 1990s for the Wolfpack, the Bulldogs have “Brown Rice.” Former The Citadel and NC State legendary coach Les Robinson probably has to appreciate that creativity, or he might not, but there’s no denying how big Hayden Brown and Kaiden Rice have been offensively.
Though the Bulldogs played just their fourth game against Division I competition in Saturday’s win over the Chattanooga, it didn’t matter to Brown as he posted 37 points and 13 rebounds to help lead the Bulldogs to their SoCon opening win.
His 37-point performance in Saturday’s win were a career-high, and also a season-high for a player in the SoCon this season. His 23.4 PPG scoring average leads the SoCon, while his 10.7 RPG also lead the conference.
Kaiden Rice has been the other piece to the Bulldogs’ scoring tandem, which accounts for two of the league’s top two scoring threats. The 6’7” senior guard combined with Brown to contribute 58 of the Bulldogs’ 92 points in the win over Chattanooga on Saturday. Rice went 7-of-16 from the field, including 5-of-12 from three-point land in the win.
So far this season, Rice is shooting a scorching 42% (38-of-90) from beyond the arc this season. His 18.9 PPG rank second in the SoCon, while his 38 triples also rank second.
But as good as Brown and Rice have been for the Bulldogs, there is another dynamic that makes this whole up-tempo thing work: the point guard.
The reason the Bulldogs have been clicking the way Baucom would have envisioned is because of the job the Bulldog staff has done on the recruiting trail the past couple of years.
It’s become a new trend for Baucom to bring in an experienced grad transfer at the point, and since the arrival of Lew Stallworth a couple of years ago and Tyson Batiste last season, that has proven to be an effective method to try and get the Bulldogs at the pace they want to dictate all facets of the game.
With so many injuries plaguing the Bulldogs last year, Batiste, who transferred into the program from Central Connecticut State, probably wasn’t given the freedom to go at the pace which would have been to Baucom’s liking.
With more bodies this season, the Bulldogs are back to playing at their breakneck pace, and Baucom has once again brought in an experienced guard with an excellent feel for the game.
Grad transfer Tyler Moffe has been more of a combo of Lew Stallworth and Tyson Batiste, with a little bit of his own flavor that he brings to the table for the Bulldogs. He’s a solid scoring point guard, averaging 10.6 PPG and 4.2 RPG, while also leading the club with 31 assists and only 14 turnovers.
While his role has shifted to one of maturity and being a pace-setter for the Bulldogs as opposed to his role at Division III Mansfield University, it could be argued Moffe’s role in this 8-0 start has been equally as important as Brown and Rice’s offensive production.
Coast to coast after the steal by Tyler! Still a one-possession game but we've pushed the lead to 88-85 with just over a minute left! pic.twitter.com/LmZ9N2UuES— The Citadel Basketball (@CitadelHoops) January 9, 2021
After all, it’s Moffe that sets the pace for a unit that once again finds itself among the highest scoring teams in college hoops, averaging 92.9 PPG. His key steal and bucket in the final minute against Chattanooga was enough to allow the Bulldogs to seal the win.
While it’s important to note the veteran trio of leaders above, the Bulldogs’ fast start in 2020-21 also has much to do with the development of a talented sophomore trio, which includes guard Fletcher Abee, and big men Stephen Clark and Brady Spence.
When talking to Baucom this summer talking about the upcoming season, there was noticeable excitement in his voice when talking about Spence and Clark.
Clark is athletic and has the chance to finish out his career as one of the great shot-blockers in Bulldog basketball history. The key for Clark will be continuing to get stronger, but there’s no question that he gives the Bulldogs an element as a rim protector that they haven’t had.
He was an intimidating force for the Mocs to contend with in Saturday’s win, setting a sophomore record for blocks in a game, turning away five shots in the contest. With his five blocks on Saturday, Clark increased his total to 16 swats in eight games this season and the 6’8” sophomore center. In addition to his defensive performance, he also scored eight points, dished out four assists and ripped down four rebounds in the win.
According to Baucom, Spence played much of the 2019-20 season on one leg, playing through immense pain the entire season. This season, Spence has been 100% and hasn’t had to shoulder so much of the load with much more depth around him and players like Hayden Brown now fully healthy.
Fletcher Abee could have been in the mix for SoCon Freshman of the Year last year. Although he didn’t win the award, he’s picked up right where he left off last season and ranks third on the team in scoring, at 14.4 PPG, and is one of three Bulldogs connecting on better than 40% from three-point range this season, hitting at a 46% (28-of-61) clip.
When Wednesday arrives, it will have been 1,070 days since the Bulldogs took down the preseason league favorite Furman Paladins. Will we see the Bulldogs continue unbeaten while ending another streak?