CAA Preview: Charleston Cougars

charlestonHead Coach: Earl Grant (5th season)

Last Season: 26-8 (14-4, 1st in CAA); defeated Northeastern in CAA finals

Projected Finish: 2nd

Key Departures: G Joe Chealey, G Cam Johnson

Key Returnees: F Jarrell Brantley, G Grant Riller

by Matthew MacCormack

While only five of the 40 polled media members chose Charleston as the favorite to repeat as CAA champions, head coach Earl Grant and the Cougars have to think they have the means to repeat as conference kings and make their second straight appearance in the NCAA Tournament. Two Preseason All-Conference selections (senior forward Jarrell Brantley and junior guard Grant Riller) anchor an experienced team fresh off a CAA title.

2018 was the year of the Cougars in the CAA; Charleston narrowly edged Northeastern for the regular season title (thanks to a 2-0 sweep of the Huskies during the regular season), and then rode the energy of a home crowd at the North Charleston Coliseum to complete a thrilling 17-point comeback and win the conference tournament championship in overtime in early March. That 83-78 overtime victory gave Charleston an automatic bid to the Big Dance — their first such appearance since 1999. The Cougars even fought 4-seeded Auburn hard in the first round, falling 62-58.

While Northeastern (35 votes) was widely seen as the CAA favorite, it’s hard to ignore Charleston. The main reason for the lack of love, though, likely stems from the graduation of senior Joe Chealey (18 ppg, 3.7 apg). The First-Team All-CAA point guard held the keys to the Charleston offense, and his combined 10-10 free throw mark in the second half and overtime of the CAA Final victory over Northeastern show off his clutch knack for closing games.

With Chealey and All-CAA Defensive team swingman Cam Johnson out of the fold, the 2018-19 Cougars will look slightly different. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing for Coach Grant — a rising star in the college ranks who just might find himself at the helm of a big-time program in the next few years.

One thing that should stay the same is defense. Grant’s team led the CAA in defensive efficiency in 2017-18, and also topped the conference with a 2.15 average turnover margin. Good defense and smart basketball have become a staple for Charleston.

Then comes the star tandem of Riller and Brantley.

Riller broke out as a sophomore, leading the Cougars in scoring (18.6 ppg) and three-point percentage (39.4%). With Chealey gone, Riller will be unleashed as a go-to-scorer, and should continue to develop his bucket-getting habits from all three levels. A four game stretch towards the end of conference play last year — in which Riller topped 28 points in each game — could foreshadow what’s to come.

Brantley is a 6’7, 255 pound matchup nightmare. The big man averaged 17.3 points and 7.1 rebounds last season, all while posting 50/39/82 shooting splits — ridiculous numbers for a power forward. He can create from the low post and the high post, and could possibly be the most talented player in the whole conference.

Outside of those two, Charleston will lean on senior guard Marquise Pointer, a 6’0 bulldog defender who provides secondary ball-handling duties. The 6’10 senior Nick Harris and 6’7 junior Jaylen McManus should feature heavily in the rotation, as well.

Bottom Line: Make no mistake about it; Charleston has the ammo to return to the NCAA Tournament. The losses of Chealey and Johnson should be eased by another year of development for All-CAA talents Grant Riller and Jarrell Brantley. While Northeastern has a deeper team on paper, it’s likely that the Cougars will give them everything they can handle come March.

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