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NCAA Tournament Profile: Get to know the Charleston Cougars

The Cougars are dancing for the first time in nearly 20 years.

Rafael Suanes/CAA Sports

For the first time this century, the College of Charleston Cougars are in the NCAA Tournament. Earl Grant’s team captured their first Colonial Athletic Association trophy in a dramatic fashion, and will head into the Big Dance with a real chance at pulling an upset.

How They Got Here

Charleston finished the regular season as co-champs in the CAA by tying for the best conference record with Northeastern. Due to a 2-0 sweep of the Huskies during the year, CofC nabbed the top seed in the CAA Tournament — hosted just 10 miles from campus at North Charleston Coliseum.

The Cougars came back from down nine against Drexel to pick up a quarterfinal win, then defeated a talented William & Mary team by ten in the semifinals. The Tribe were the last team to beat the Cougars, who upset Charleston in an 114-104 overtime win.

In the championship game against No. 2 Northeastern, Charleston came back from a 17-point second half deficit to take the game to overtime. In the extra period, the Cougars pulled away for an 83-76 win and were mobbed by the hometown crowd.

Players to Know

The Cougars have a three-headed monster of all-league talent that could find minutes on any team in the country.

Fifth year senior point guard Joe Chealey is the coach on the floor. He has good size for a mid-major guard at 6’4, got to the line 245 times this season (where he shoots 86%) and is the designated closer for Charleston. He’s hit countless big shots for the team over his career, and ranks fifth all-time on the school’s career scoring list.

Joining Chealey in the backcourt is CAA Tournament MVP and fellow all-league guard Grant Riller. The sophomore has been on an absolute tear since February, averaging 24.6 points per game over the past 11 games while shooting 51% from three. He has one of the quickest first steps you’ll see in college hoops, which accounts for his 62% field goal percentage inside the arc.

Big man Jarrell Brantley is the classic matchup nightmare. He’s got high-major size at 6’7 and 250 lbs, leads the team with 7.1 rebounds per game and shoots 38% from deep. He’s got the footwork and strength to battle opposing big men under the basket, but will also leak out to the arc when Riller and Chealey penetrate. If Charleston plays a zone defense, Brantley will make a lot of plays out of the high post.

Why They Will Make Noise

The Cougars were wire-to-wire favorites in the CAA this year because they have the makings of a team built for postseason play. They rank first in the country in minutes continuity — thanks to returning their top seven contributors from last season — and have tons of experience in the starting lineup. Gregg Marshall disciple Earl Grant is a rising star in the coaching world, taking the Cougars from cellar dweller to champions in his four seasons.

Guard play, defense and momentum are usually indicators of a dangerous team; the Cougars have all three. Chealey is the steadying veteran presence that keeps Charleston to just 10 turnovers per game. Riller is the flashy scorer who can get hot and score 30 or more. The team took a step back from the grinding defense they had last season, but still finished first in the league this season in scoring defense. When Charleston needed it most, they were able to lock in defensively: The Cougars forced 20 turnovers by the Huskies during their title game comeback.

As for momentum, the Cougars have won 14 of their last 15 games. Since Brantley returned from injury after missing nearly all of non-conference play, CofC has looked like the dangerous team that was a league favorite back in September.

They’ll get a chance to prove it in a few days.