Last season was filled with ups and downs for the Coastal Carolina men’s basketball team.
The downside:the Chanticleers saw an early exit from the Sun Belt Conference tournament. Making matters worse was the fact that they were eliminated by a team they had beaten twice in the regular season.
The upside: Despite the blowout loss to Louisiana-Monroe, the Chants were able to make a run in the 2019 Roman College Basketball Invitational (CBI), stunning West Virginia in Morgantown by 28 points before falling to DePaul in the CBI semifinal.
Of course, that was last season and head coach Cliff Ellis says that the team “has a lot to look forward to” this year.
“We’re extremely excited to be back,” Ellis said. “Anytime you start bouncing the ball in here, you know the season is right around the corner. We have so many great teams coming here.”
Coastal will play host to Northern Kentucky (Nov. 12), Middle Tennessee State (Nov. 18), Utah (Nov. 21) and North Carolina Central (Dec. 14). All four of those teams have been in the NCAA Tournament at least once since 2016.
The Chanticleers will also be a part of the Myrtle Beach Invitational. Coastal, which can only participate in the tournament every four years, has the opportunity to play big Power 5 competition in Baylor, Mississippi State and Villanova.
“It’s going to be fun and it is going to be interesting,” Ellis said. “Last season, we played some Power 5 schools such as taking South Carolina to the wire and then going down to West Virginia and beating them. These Power 5 games are games that excite your players and I know our guys will be looking forward to that. We definitely have our hands full and that is before we even get into Sun Belt Conference play.”
Ellis hopes the experience from last year’s postseason run in the CBI will play a role in the returning players’ efforts to help adjust the new players.
The Chanticleers now enter into their fourth season of being in the Sun Belt. Since they entered the conference in 2016, CCU has gone an even 27-27 in conference games, but they have only gone as far as the quarterfinals in the conference tournament.
“When we went into the Sun Belt, we had really taken ourselves from the bottom of the Big South to the top,” Ellis said. “I said it was going to be a five-year plan, we are in year four now, and I felt that it was going to take five years to the top of the Sun Belt. Every sport is going through the same thing here. When we reach that goal though, we will see what to do from there, but we have to get there first.”
Coastal lost eight players from last season, including Zac Cuthbertson. In just two seasons, Cuthbertson had become a prolific scorer and rebounder. Cuthbertson finished his career with 1,074 points and 488 rebounds.
“It’s a big loss,” Ellis said. “Zac was a great player for us. Leadership this year though is going to come from our seniors in Tommy Burton and Tyrell Gumbs-Frater as well as Ebrima Dibba and Devante Jones who are sophomores. I don’t think we can replace Zac, but we have a lot of new guys that are looking to make an impact.”
One of the highlights of last season for the Chanticleers was Devante Jones winning the 2018-2019 Sun Belt Freshman of the Year award. Jones averaged 14.6 points per game, despite only playing in the 22 of the 34 games. Jones scored 15 or more points in 12 of the 22 games he played in, including scoring 32 on the road against West Virginia in the CBI.
Jones is out for a few weeks after breaking his foot during Hurricane Dorian evacuations.
“I was playing pick-up with some of my friends up in Chattanooga because I wanted to just keep on working on my game,” Jones said. “It’s a bad injury, but it’s going to get better. I’ve been working on slowing down my game. I was too fast on certain possessions, which led to a lot of my turnovers, so I’ve been working on that. I also have been working on having a more consistent shot.”
With 19 home games this season at the HTC Center, including the Myrtle Beach Invitational matchups, Ellis hopes that fans and Coastal Carolina students will pack the HTC Center and give the support that his players deserve.
“We are a university that is young and the alumni base is not what it is at Clemson or South Carolina, but this team here is a community team,” said Ellis. “Us playing in the Myrtle Beach Invitational is good for the economy. But if you are a basketball fan, you’re not going to find better basketball where you don’t have to drive two hours to Columbia or four hours to Clemson. You can come right here to the HTC Center and see some great basketball.”
Coastal finished last season with a record of 17-17 and 9-9 in conference play. Ellis, who started coaching in 1972 at Cumberland, is in his 14thseason as the head coach and needs only eight wins to reach 850 career wins as a head coach.
The Chanticleers open the season with Campbell at home on Nov. 5. Last season, Campbell was led by Chris Clemons, who rose to third on the NCAA all-time scorers list and is now on the Houston Rockets.
Tip-off for the season opener is set for 7 p.m.