Charleston, William & Mary Set To Battle For Midseason League Supremacy

Riller: Hoops 'Let's Me Be Free'

For Dane Fischer and Earl Grant, Saturday’s clash of the two hottest teams in the CAA is just another game, one whose importance, they will insist, is no more enticing nor carrying any greater potential impact than any of the other 17 regular season games during the two-month marathon that is conference regular season play.

The rest of us can declare otherwise.

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When Fischer’s unbeaten William & Mary squad hosts Grant’s unbeaten Charleston club, it’ll mark only the second time since the CAA expanded to 10 teams in 2001-02 that two teams perfect in league play through at least four games oppose one another — and the first time any team perfect through at least five games faces a fellow unbeaten foe.

Both teams did their part to create the unprecedented showdown Thursday night, when Charleston won for the fifth time in as many CAA games by pulling away from Elon, 73-65, and William & Mary extended its league-opening winning streak to four straight by beating UNC Wilmington, 79-63. 

When the two teams tip off Saturday afternoon at 2 PM, it’ll be the first time in almost exactly five years two teams unbeaten in CAA play have battled each other this late in the season. Northeastern and Hofstra were both 4-0 on Jan. 14, 2015, when host Northeastern earned a 91-82 victory.

In addition, Saturday marks the first time this season in any league that two teams 4-0 or better in conference play oppose each other. But good luck getting Grant and Fischer to embrace the hype or revel in the rarity of this clash of the unbeatens. 

“All it says is that’s where it is at after five games,” Grant said Thursday night “But it’s an 18-game year. So we’ve just got to stay the course. Obviously, I’m happy for our guys that we’ve been able to find some success and have got a lot of guys playing good basketball. But William & Mary’s got a good team. Dane’s doing a good job with them, got really good personnel so certainly playing against them, it’ll be a challenge.”

Fischer, who spoke Wednesday as he prepared for UNC Wilmington, was reluctant to even discuss Charleston before the game against the Seahawks was complete. Late Thursday night, he sent the following text message:

“We are really looking forward to competing with Charleston on Saturday. They are off to a great start and are led by the CAA pre-season player of the year. It’s another opportunity for us to get better as a team and we are excited to play in front of our fans.”

The tunnel vision of Grant and Fischer is to be expected and understood, and the truth is neither coach needs to utter a word to generate interest in what promises to be one of the most fascinating and entertaining games of the year.

Charleston and William & Mary got here in fashions as similar as they were disparate. Both provided hints of the hot CAA start to come during non-league play, when the Cougars beat Marshall and Providence while playing the league’s toughest non-conference schedule and the Tribe got off to the first 4-0 start in program history before pushing Oklahoma to the limit in a 70-65 loss on Nov. 18.

Both teams are led by experienced seniors who earned first-team all-CAA honors last season and are expected to vie for player of the year honors this season — the Cougars by prolific shooting guard Grant Riller, who was picked to win the award in the preseason, and the Tribe by 6-foot-10 do-everything center Nathan Knight.

Per KenPom.com, Charleston and William & Mary are tied for first in the CAA in conference-only offensive efficiency (114.3) while ranking second and third in conference-only defensive efficiency (97.0 for the Cougars, 97.2 for the Tribe).

Both teams have remained unbeaten because Riller and Knight have gone into takeover mode in the waning minutes of games. Riller had 21 points and five rebounds in the second half alone Thursday and scored Charleston’s final 12 points, a stretch that began with the Cougars nursing a 61-60 lead with three minutes to play. 

“He’s a special talent,” Grant said. “He’s been here for a while. What he’s doing more than anything, is just leading this team. He’s done a great job of leading.”

In the CAA opener against Elon on Dec. 30, Knight had 17 second half points — on 5-of-5 shooting from the field and 6-of-6 from the free throw line — and scored 14 straight points for William & Mary in a span of fewer than five minutes as the Tribe the Phoenix, 74-73.

Five days later, Knight again scored the Tribe’s final nine points — including the game-winning layup with one second left — to cap another 17-point second half outburst that led William & Mary to a 66-64 win over Northeastern.

“We’ve got some really good players and Nathan is clearly one of the best ones that’s ever played at William & Mary, one of the best players in the league,” Fischer said. “And when you can go into the game having the best player on the floor, you’re going to have a chance in a lot of games.”

For a little while last spring, though, it looked as if Knight might be the only player on the floor for William & Mary, which endured the transfers of Chase Audige, Matt Milon, L.J. Owens and Justin Pierce following the firing of longtime head coach Tony Shaver. Knight entertained thoughts of leaving as well as he worked out for NBA teams without hiring an agent before deciding in May to return for his senior year.

While the Riller-led Cougars received the most first-place votes and were picked second in the preseason poll, the Tribe was predicted to finish seventh. But thanks to Knight as well as 7-foot Wisconsin transfer Andy Van Vliet — the duo is averaging a combined 35.2 points and 19.6 rebounds per game — William & Mary can legitimately entertain thoughts of winning the CAA and making its long-awaited first trip to the NCAA Tournament.

“He is really embracing the leadership role — really bought into the idea of being the hardest worker and the guy that can set the tone,” Fischer said of Knight.

And on Saturday, someone will set the tone for the rest of the CAA season in a game that needs no embellishing from the men patrolling the sideline.

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