Fresh off their first CAA title since 2017-18, the College of Charleston Cougars are looking to run it back.
As is tradition, CBB Review is again ranking the top 100 teams heading into the new college basketball season. Each day, we will reveal the next team until we reach the team slotted at number one. Follow along with #CBBRank on all our social media channels.
The College of Charleston Cougars had a historic season this past year, finishing 31-4, with losses to only then-#1 North Carolina, Drexel and Hofstra in-conference, and a first-round loss to eventual national runner-up San Diego State in the NCAA Tournament. Winning the Charleston Classic threw the Cougars onto the national radar, and they eventually climbed as high as No. 18 in the polls after a 21-1 start to the season.
Ever since arriving on campus two years ago, Pat Kelsey has taken what Earl Grant started and made Charleston a name in the mid-major hoop sector. A jump was expected after a 17-15 record in his first year, but no publication predicted such a rise from the Cougars. A fast tempo combined with tenacity on the offensive boards is the on-the-court strategy, while Kelsey’s off-the-court strategy teeters between calculated insanity and an unceasing love for the city of Charleston.
While the Cougars lose three double-digit scores to graduation this offseason, including perhaps the most intense player in college basketball, Dalton Bolon, do-it-all point guard Ryan Larson, and the prettiest jump shot I’ve ever seen from Pat Robinson III, Kelsey has two double-digit scorers return, along with 4 more from the transfer portal.
This year, it’s unwise to project another 30-win season, but it wouldn’t be foolish. Somewhere toeing the line between questionable and achievable. With Reyne Smith, Ante Brzovic, and Ben Burnham, the Cougs have 3 reliable contributors already on the roster. From the D1 ranks, the portal brings in Frankie Policelli from CAA member Stony Brook and CJ Fulton from Lafayette. Also joining the Cougars is Kobe Rodgers from the D2 champions Nova Southeastern and Bryce Butler from West Liberty, the same school that produced Dalton Bolon.
This year’s freshman class is headlined by 4-star Mayar Wol, as well as 3-star James Scott. Kelsey is convincing high-tier prospects to come to Charleston, and it’s working. Is it too early to announce the College will be the Gonzaga of the East Coast? I’ll call it now. It’s simply too good not to work.
Click here to learn more about our preseason top 100 teams heading into the 2023-24 college basketball season.
Head coach: Pat Kelsey (12th season, 3rd at College of Charleston)
2022-23 record: 31-4 (16-2)
2023 postseason finish: Lost to San Diego State, 63-57, in the first round of the NCAA Tournament
Notable departures: Ryan Larson (Graduated), Dalton Bolon (Graduated), Pat Robinson III (Graduated), Jaylon Scott (Graduated), Raekwon Horton (Transferred to James Madison) Babacar Faye (Transferred to Western Kentucky)
Notable non-conference games: vs. Iona (Nov. 6), vs. Liberty (Dec. 1, Boca Raton) at FAU (Dec. 2), at Kent State (Nov. 26)
PG: CJ Fulton (6-2, 190, Jr.)
2022-23 stats: 10.4 PPG, 5.0 APG, 5.1 RPG (Lafayette)
SG: Reyne Smith (6-2, 190, Jr.)
2022-23 stats: 10.8 PPG, 2.0 RPG, 1.3 APG, 90.1 FT%
SF: Frankie Policelli (6-9, 225, Gr.)
2022-23 stats: 13.7 PPG, 9.4 RPG, 1.8 APG (Stony Brook)
PF: Ben Burnham (6-7, 220, Jr.)
2022-23 stats: 8.8 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 0.5 APG, 16.8 MPG
C: Ante Brzovic (6-10, 225, Jr.)
2022-23 stats: 11.6 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 0.9 APG
6: Bryce Butler (6-5, 205, Gr.)
2022-23 stats: 22.4 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 3.6 APG, 43.4 3PT%, (West Liberty)
7: Kobe Rodgers (6-3, 180, Jr.)
2022-23 stats: 12.8 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 2.3 APG (Nova Southeastern)
8: Mayar Wol (6-8, 185, Fr.)
247Sports Composite No. 168 rated recruit
9: James Scott (6-11, 210, Fr.)
247Sports No. 37 rated Center
10: Jack Miller (5-11, 180, Jr.)
2022-23 stats: 0.5 PPG, 0.2 APG, 0.1 RPG, 1.7 MPG
College of Charleston Cougars MVP: Ante Brzovic
Watching Brzovic last season reminded me a lot of Vlad Golden from the FAU Final Four team. Tall, not super heavy, good with their feet, and capable of playing well in a fast-tempo possession. I’m convinced that Brzovic could have swapped with Golden and the Owls still could’ve made the Final Four. Despite only starting 24 of 35 games played, (he came off the bench for the first 10 games) Brzovic produced some of the biggest moments for the Cougars last season. Finishing with averages of 11.6 PPG and 5.9 RPG, he scored 15 against UNC and had a 12-point, 8-rebound game against eventual runner-up San Diego State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
The Croatian forward/center started his career at Southeast Oklahoma State, but Kelsey picked him out and wouldn’t you know it, Brzovic looked the part against D1 competition. Multi-faceted, Brzovic placed in the top 20 of the CAA in both offensive win shares and defensive win shares. With 2 years of eligibility remaining, it’s not out of this world to suggest Brzovic could end up as CAA Player of the Year at least once. His improvement from game to game last season was evident, and he’s really just getting started.
Excellent at getting to the line, he wasn’t a horrible free throw shooter, either, making 71.8% of his attempts from the stripe. 1st on the team in offensive box plus/minus and 2nd right behind Larson in defensive box/plus minus, Brzovic was arguably already the team’s MVP by the second half of the season. His ceiling is sky-high, and yes, it’s early, but is it too early to say he’ll be the College’s first NBA player since Grant Riller? His game fits really well into today’s NBA, and he will feast on CAA defenses this year. If you don’t have Ante Brzovic’s name in your head yet, get it in there now. He’s arrived.
College of Charleston Cougars make-or-break player: CJ Fulton
The Irish point guard comes to Charleston after a successful couple years at Lafayette. Representing the Irish national team as well, Fulton comes to Charleston for his third year of collegiate basketball. In his freshman season with the Leopards, Fulton started all but 3 games, averaging 3.3 APG and 1.4 SPG on his way to the 2021-22 Patriot League All-Freshman team. Standing at just 6 ‘2”, he still managed 3.9 RPG in 29.4 MPG.
Fulton’s sophomore year with the Leopards included an even larger role. His 36.4 MPG paced the Patriot League and was 1 of only 2 players in the conference with a 10-5-5 PRA mark per game. All that with a coach on administrative leave for a chunk of the year and an interim coach in place. When the going gets tough, the tough get going. CJ Fulton is tough. After lead guard Ryan Larson graduated, Kelsey had to attempt to fill that role again. Enter Fulton. He should slide right into that role, with limited to no dropoff for the Cougs. A player with a top-5 career steal percentage in the Patriot League? The highest defensive box/plus minus in his conference last year? Combine that with 5 assists per game? Sign him up as the next Larson.
With that, though, it’s important to remember Fulton is Fulton and not just Larson 2.0. Fulton will provide more rebounds than Larson, especially now that he’s in the high-pace College of Charleston offense. It’s also not unreasonable to suggest Fulton’s shooting percentages will be a tad higher than Larson’s this past season. 85.7% from the line should translate no matter the competition, and it’s unlikely that Fulton’s 38.6 3PT% falls too far either. He should be an invaluable addition to this Cougar squad as they look to repeat.
Key analytic: Offensive rebounds per game
Yeah, I know this is more of a basic statistic than an analytic, but bear with me. College of Charleston averaged 11.7 per game last year. Out of 363 teams, that’s good for 4th, behind only Kentucky, UAB, and Mississippi State. Two of those teams made the tournament and the other deserved to, didn’t, then placed 2nd in the NIT. A high rate doesn’t necessarily correlate to a strong team, as it could be due to a number of variables. Mississippi State, for example, missed a ton of shots and had Tolu Smith to clean them up. But at Charleston, it’s not a stat. It’s a mentality. See ball, get ball. Ball hits rim, grab ball. Grab the ball, shoot again.
The team mirrors Kelsey in this way. He has instilled a culture of hustle and grit. Not by screaming at his players or placing uber-high expectations, but by finding and extracting the best version of each individual and caring for it. The College didn’t have the tallest lineup last season, but they (likely) had the most dives for balls going out of bounds, putbacks, jump balls, all because they wanted it. All programs out there, get a coach that’ll do pull-ups on the rim pre-game or dish out assists in practice, not because he’s insane (he could be) but because he wants it so much more than the next guy.
Pat Kelsey wants to build this program, and in doing so, has already shown he can bring out the best in his players. This hustle, grit, and want will propel the Cougs on the offensive boards, as well as getting them back to the Big Dance. This time, they won’t be first-round exits, simply because they don’t want to be.
College of Charleston 2023-24 projections
Projected conference finish: 1st in CAA
Projected postseason ceiling: Sweet Sixteen berth