CHARLESTON, S.C. – Last Thursday in Asheville, North Carolina's Kimmel Arena, Charleston Southern's season came to an end. In many ways, though, the Bucs' exciting final month may very well be just the beginning of a bright future for Barclay Radebaugh's young team.
CSU won eight of its final 11 games, staging a remarkable turnaround from a 2-7 start to league play behind a lineup featuring five first-year players and six underclassmen, including four true freshmen. The Bucs beat eventual Big South Tournament champion Radford on the road, knocked off defending tourney champion and perennial league power Winthrop in Rock Hill, and twice pushed Asheville, this year's regular season champion, to the brink.
Radebaugh, a two-time Big South Coach of the Year and the fifth winningest coach in conference history, believes greater success is on the immediate horizon. CSU returns its top three scorers and all but two of its rotation players in 2018-19, as Radebaugh enters his 14th year piloting the program he's poured his heart and soul into.
"I can't tell you how many texts, calls and emails I got about this group over the last month," Radebaugh said. "The way these guys loved each other and stayed invested in what we want to be as a program was so rewarding for us as a coaching staff."
"We won two regular season titles with a great core and we feel what we have in place right now has that potential," Radebaugh continued. "CK and Phlan and Ty and Jordan, Travis, DD, Sean – go down the list – are all guys that made us one of the best teams in the league down the stretch. With what we have coming back and what we've recruited, we have a chance to be special. We've got a shot to be really, really good and I'm excited about where we're headed."
Investment & strong culture provide optimism for future
Being good requires investment. From coaches. From current players. From former players. CSU has that, as evidenced by the raw emotion senior guard Cortez Mitchell displayed following his final game in Buccaneer blue and gold.
"All I could think about was when I first got here and how they treated me like family," said Mitchell, fighting back tears. "I love my team. I just wanted them to play hard and that's what they did so I'm satisfied. It ain't about wins and losses as long as they played hard."
Playing hard has rarely been a question for Radebaugh's teams at CSU. The former South Carolina assistant has carved out a home and a program in Charleston, delivering some of the most memorable moments in the school's athletic history. Back-to-back city championships in his first two years at the helm, a victory at Ole Miss, numerous close calls against other Power 5 programs, two regular season championships and two NIT bids have helped energize a still burgeoning Division I program.
Radebaugh, who has adapted and revamped his coaching style through the years, is looking forward to making more memories at CSU.
"I've always been a real Type-A guy with an incredible passion to win," Radebaugh said. "I am still that guy, 100 percent, but I've really come to understand how vital it is to speak positivity into our players. Sometimes you just need to tell them how good they are, how much you appreciate them and how hard you see them working. We did that this year and it paid off. Our guys started to relax and perform at a high level because they feel love and they're experiencing joy in playing the game. I want to win at CSU because I love this school."
Gaining a taste of winning during the back half of conference play makes the Bucs' current star, rising junior Christian Keeling, hungry for more. Keeling earned Second Team All-Big South honors after becoming just the fifth player in league history to surpass 1,000 career points as a sophomore.
"The energy and positive vibes around our program really allowed us to create chemistry and get things going offensively and defensively," said Keeling of CSU's late-season surge. "I've been blessed to have my teammates and these coaches and I think we saw the kind of team we can be."
Keeling, Phlandrous Fleming Jr., Ty Jones and others are hoping to form the type of nucleus that drove CSU's best teams under Radebaugh. Powered by Saah Nimley and Arlon Harper, the fourth highest scoring four-year classmate combination in Big South history, the Bucs won the regular season conference crown in 2013 and 2015 en route to a pair of NIT bids. Both look back on their days on the CSU campus fondly.
"I'm three years out and still talk to the guys I played with and the guys that coached me on a regular basis," said Nimley, the 2015 Big South Player of the Year and a current member of the British Basketball League's Newcastle Eagles. "Over my years at CSU, I felt like the coaching staff really pushed me and wanted to see me be successful in everything I did. They helped me become the player and person I am today."
Harper, a versatile threat who is one of just six players in Big South history with 1,000 points, 400 rebounds, 200 assists and 200 steals, concurs with his former backcourt mate.
"I think the coaches do a great job of pouring into the guys and trying to instill confidence in each player," Harper said. "I still follow pretty closely and the games I'm not able to watch, I follow the scores and updates. I hope those guys, in the near future, get to the dance and do something we weren't able to."