How Charleston Was Built: The Making of a Cinderella Squad

CHARLESTON, S.C. – Their leading scorer is in his seventh season of college, didn’t have a scholarship offer at any level coming out of high school and shot 41 percent from three with a patch on his eye.

The starting big man didn’t have a single offer coming out of high school in Croatia and most back home felt as though he wouldn’t make it at D-II Southeastern Oklahoma State.

Another starter averaged four points as a senior in high school, and spent four years in the NAIA ranks.

The guy who hit the game-winner against Virginia Tech didn’t have a meal plan and slept on a couple of couches pushed together his first season at Holy Family.

On the surface, it may look like a ragtag group. But trust me: there’s a reason that Charleston has made its way into the Top 25 for the first time in two decades. It’s a staff with a plan and purpose, and players who have completely bought into the culture.

Cougars head coach Pat Kelsey doesn’t claim to have all the answers, but he does have a system. Kelsey is a huge Cincinnati Reds fan, a baseball guy and he loves “Moneyball” and analytics.

“’Moneyball’ is all about massive numbers and massive people,” Kelsey explains. “The transfer portal is also all about massive numbers and people, and it’s about how you are able to whittle it down quickly.

“We’re not afraid to go wherever we need to find that person, whether it’s NAIA, D-III, wherever,” he added. “There are numerical metrics we try and sort through. But then it’s about peeling away the onion.”

Charleston is 19-1 overall and 7-0 in the CAA in just Kelsey’s second season at the helm. The former Wake Forest and Xavier assistant who left Winthrop in 2021 after two NCAA Tournament appearances in his final five seasons (he went 15-3 in the Big South in 2020 before the pandemic hit) brings endless energy to a Charleston job that is considered one of the best mid-major gigs in the country.

He’s got the Cougars ranked No. 18 in the latest AP Poll, and the program is looking to make just its second NCAA tourney appearance since 1999.

And they are doing it with an unlikely group.

In addition to the metrics, Kelsey and his staff also have another set of requirements, one that he stole from listening to former football coach Urban Meyer on a podcast. They must have at least three, and preferably four, of the following:

• Toughness
• Competitiveness
• Sport IQ
• Do They Make People Better?
• Adaptable

“Let’s say you’re only three of those,” Kelsey said. “You’d better be elite in one.”

These guys have been elite, and have done it as a team.

Nine players average between 16 and 28 minutes per game, and four average double-figure scoring with Pat Robinson III at 9.8 points per contest. The common refrain when talking to all of them is that they don’t care who scores — winning is all that matters, and it’s evident when watching them share the ball.

“These guys fit our culture,” Charleston assistant Brian Kloman said. “And they have talent, but their biggest talent may be how selfless and coachable they are. That’s a talent, and an extremely important one.”

“Everybody uses the word culture,” Kelsey added.

“If I don’t call it culture, it’s DNA. We just don’t bend, and they have really bought in. They are a great group to coach.”

Dalton Bolon | 6-4, 205, SG, Grad, Gnadenhutten (Ohio)
2022-23 Stats: 13.6 ppg, 4.4 rpg
Age: 24

This is the 24-year-old Bolon’s seventh season in college, and his journey to become the leading scorer on a Top 25 team is remarkable…

Ryan Larson | 6-1, 175, PG, Grad, St. Paul (Minn.)
2022-23 Stats: 10.8 ppg, 4.2 apg
Age: 22

Coming out of Cretin-Derham Hall in Minnesota, the D-I’s weren’t exactly knocking down Larson’s door…

Reyne Smith | 6-2, 190, SG, Soph., Ulverstone, Tasmania
2022-23 Stats: 10.8 ppg
Age: 20

Smith hails from Tasmania, and came through the Australian Institute of Sport, which produced NBA players like Patty Mills and Matthew Dellavedova…

Jaylon Scott | 6-5, 225, SG, Grad, Allen (Texas)
2022-23 Stats: 4.4 ppg, 5.1 rpg
Age: 22

When Scott was coming out of Allen High outside of Dallas, it wasn’t much of a surprise that the D-I programs didn’t take notice…

Ante Brzovic | 6-10, 225, PF-C, Soph., Zagreb, Croatia
2022-23 Stats: 11.1 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 38% three-pointers
Age: 22

Few back in Brzovic’s home country of Croatia thought that the skilled big man would even be able to play at the Division II level…

Pat Robinson III | 6-3, 205, G, Grad, Chesterfield (N.J.)
2022-23 Stats: 9.8 ppg
Age: 23

“When the game’s on the line, we’ve put the ball in his hands on several occasions…”

Ben Burnham | 6-7, 220, F, Soph., Fort Mill (S.C.)
2022-23 Stats: 7.9 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 41% three-pointers
Age: 20

“I don’t know why no one else really wanted me…”

Raekwon Horton | 6-6, 215, F, Soph., Santee (S.C.)
2022-23 Stats: 6.0 ppg, 3.6 rpg
Age: 20

“This season it’s really come together. We never expected this…”

Babacar Faye | 6-8, 210, PF, Soph., Saly, Senegal
2022-23 Stats: 4.6 ppg, 5.1 rpg
Age: 20

Faye was a soccer player in Senegal, but he kept growing and his uncle finally got him to start playing basketball…

Charles Lampten | 6-11, 230, PF/C, Sr., Cameroon
2022-23 Stats: 0.7 ppg, 2.4 rpg
Age: 22

“I chose Charleston because of the style, the passion, the city…”

Evan Kilminster | 6-1, 180, PG, Fr., Newcastle, Australia
Age: 19

“He plays with a poise and savvy that is beyond his years…”

Jordan Crawford | 6-2, 185, G, Fr., Charlotte (N.C.)
Age: 18

Crawford averaged 19.8 points per game and was a finalist for Mr. Basketball in North Carolina coming out of North Mecklenburg High…

Khalil London | 6-3, 180, G, Fr., Wyandanch (N.Y.)
Age: 18

“He is a prideful and competitive kid who has unlimited range…”