By Madi Lynch
College basketball is a sport watched by millions and played by few.
The pressure of being one of the five men on the floor representing a school's name on his chest must be a feeling unlike anything else.
A feeling the nation watches closely.
These NCAA teams occupy millions of viewers because of the unpredictability and ever changing leaders within the sport, especially in Mid-Major conferences like the Colonial Athletic Association.
The CAA emerged nearly four decades ago as a collegiate conference in the NCAA, featuring mid-sized colleges and sports programs. Based in Richmond, Virginia, the 13-team conference formed from the Eastern College Athletic Conference in 1985.
Member schools have fluctuated, but basketball has always been one of its most prominent sports as the universities have often had basketball as their primary sports team.
The College of Charleston has been part of this mid-major conference since 2013, maintaining a friendly rivalry with the University of North Carolina Wilmington for 10 years now.
The heart of this rivalry comes in hoops.
Challenge in rebuilding college hoops programs
These schools' men's basketball programs have each won the CAA conference championship at least once since 2017, with CofC having won it two times since that year.
But both of these schools have spent time at the lower half of the CAA rankings in those years as well.
The Cougars finished the 2023 regular season tied with Hofstra for the No. 1 spot, then ended up conference champions after defeating University of North Carolina Wilmington in the CAA conference tournament to close out the season.
But last year, they were a disappointing sixth in the conference as the then-new head coach Pat Kelsey started rebuilding the program.
There are always multiple reasons a college can't maintain its dominance year after year in college sports.
And it's a good thing to some extent as it often means general parity within a conference.
But it also takes a toll on the team, the coach, the players, and the fans.
In his sophomore season with the Cougars, he has found his groove achieving accomplishments such as reaching number 18 on the AP Poll.
Head coach at UNCW is Tokyo Siddle. He knows what it takes to grow programs as he was the interim coach at UNCW for three seasons prior to the pandemic and saw the before, after, and during and what this did to collegiate basketball programs.
These programs have used the abundance of eligibility and the transfer portal to maintain their competitive presence in the CAA in recent years.
Transfer portal helps players, hurts consistency
Nick Farrar transferred from the ACC to the CAA to Charleston for his second year of basketball. Following his time at CofC Farrar went to UNCW.
“The Transfer Portal is an incredible tool to talk to other coaches about what you’re looking for as a player and what they are looking for in their players to keep pushing their programs forward and towards the goals they have. Being able to enter the portal and play this past season for Tokyo Siddle was the best decision that I could have made.”
The difference between Charleston's success in the 22-23 season is the recruits Kelsey found in the transfer portal.
Charleston gained graduate transfers Dalton Bolon, Pat Robinson III, and Ryan Larson among others.
Dalton Bolon was CofC’s leading scorer named to CAA’s First-Team following the 22-23 regular season. Bolon is a graduate student who came from West Liberty’s D2 program as a walk-on and used his seventh year of eligibility this season.
“We have some older guys on our team that have been through it and played a lot of college basketball games, so having those guys really helps.” Bolon stated
These players were each All-CAA award winners and absent from the starting five at Charleston the year before. Their expertise changed the culture of the team and the level of success of the program.
Kelsey explained to sports analyst Jeff Goodman why a certain team dynamic plays a part in creating something special on the court.
“What we do have is grown men," Kelsey said. "What we do have is unbelievable locker room leadership. I think with this group we always go back to being great at the next thing, whether that’s the next film session, the next strength training session, the next practice, those guys are just locked in to excellence and the process.”
Each year is unique and the players have such a big role in what the team is locked in to.
The College of Charleston dance team is present at every home basketball game. Third year member Lydia Zeltmann notes how this team created a different culture in the city.
“The group of players this year created an energy unlike anything I’d experienced in TD Arena before," she said. "The experience of certain players and how deep the team was made it feel like we were supposed to win 17 home games, you know? I think it will be interesting to see if there’s longevity to the success with a new team next year.”
The Covid Effect
Two years after the pandemic you are still able to see how it affected everyone and everything and collegiate sports was no exception.
The NCAA allowed for super seniors to have another year of eligibility.
“It has allowed for extra years of eligibility and therefore there’s more experienced players who truly understand the game on the court. During that time a lot of teams shifted dynamics and ours did as well, dealing with the adversaries that came with it, to prove us stronger in the end,” sophomore Ben Burnham said about his experience on the College of Charleston basketball team post-Covid.
Burnham added that there was a clear determination especially among the seniors after the pandemic.
“They’ve been at it for so long and are hungry so it’s my job as their teammate to help them deliver," he added, "and I think we did this season.”
Charleston will turn to the portal to find recruits to replace these floor veterans. Will their replacements reach similar heights with the Cougars? Only time will tell.