By Daniel Hooker
Assistant Athletic Director for Media Relations
Western Carolina men’s basketball opens the second phase of its 2023-24 season on Wednesday as the Catamounts travel down Interstate 26 into the South Carolina Lowcountry to open Southern Conference play against The Citadel Bulldogs. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m. at McAlister Field House on campus in Charleston.
Wednesday’s game will be broadcast on ESPN+ (paid subscription required) with live streaming audio from the Catamount Sports Network and live stats available online at CatamountSports.com. Fans can also listen to the CSN broadcast locally on 105.7 FM / 540 AM WRGC, “The River” in Sylva (www.wrgc.com).
Western Carolina (11-2) was one of two SoCon teams to close the 2023 calendar year with 11 victories through the nonconference portion of the schedule, joined by Samford (11-2) which won 11 straight after dropping its first two. The Catamounts played seven of their first 13 games on the road, collecting a league-best five road victories including two wins over Power Five conference opponents – on the road at Notre Dame (Nov. 11) and Vanderbilt (Dec. 18). WCU became the first SoCon team to win multiple games against Power Five foes in one season since Wofford accomplished the feat during the 2017-18 season.
The Catamounts now open a stretch where three of their next four in league play will also be played on the road, visiting The Citadel on Wednesday followed by visits to ETSU (Jan. 10) and Mercer (Jan. 13). The lone home date during that four-game stretch is Saturday, Jan. 6, with a 4 p.m. start against Wofford on Ingles Court at the Ramsey Center. WCU is 20-26 in SoCon openers all-time after falling at home to UNCG last winter. The squad last won its curtain-raising league game two seasons ago with a home win over The Citadel in Cullowhee (W, 94-90).
Western Carolina carries a five-game winning streak into SoCon play in Charleston with victories over Big South favorite UNC Asheville, USC Upstate, SEC-foe Vanderbilt, and non-D-I foes Brescia and most recently King University. Vonterius Woolbright and Tre Jackson both crested the 20-point plateau with 23 and 20 points, respectively, to both eclipse the 1,000-career point milestone in the win over the Tornado last Saturday. Woolbright is the 49th Catamount to score 1,000-plus points in a WCU uniform all-time.
Woolbright continues to pace the SoCon in a pair of statistical categories, averaging a double-double with 21.2 points and 12.1 rebounds per game, ranked tied for 10th and third overall respectively in the NCAA entering the week. His average of 10.15 defensive boards per game leads the nation. Woolbright, who has recorded five consecutive double-doubles, leads four Catamounts in double figures with Tre Jackson (19th, 12.5 ppg), DJ Campbell (20th, 12.4 ppg), and Russell Jones Jr. (25th, 11.2 ppg) each on the SoCon’s leaderboard.
The Citadel (8-5) is one of six teams in the league with eight or more victories heading into 2024 that includes four wins at home (4-1). The Bulldogs have won two straight with a 20-point road win over a common opponent, the ACC’s Notre Dame, and earned head coach Ed Conroy his 200th career victory with a 30-point, 106-76, win over non-Division I NCCAA foe Toccoa Falls last weekend. Seven Bulldogs scored in double figures in their most recent victory.
The Cadet starting five averages nearly nine or more points per game with three scoring in double figures. Sophomore AJ Smith, a product of Charlotte, N.C., ranks fifth in the SoCon with a 16.1 point per game average, followed by Notre Dame graduate transfer Elijah Morgan (17th, 13.3 ppg) and sophomore Madison Durr (10.1 ppg). Vanderbilt transfer post Quentin Millora-Brown has six double-doubles on the year including five in his last six games to average 9.7 points and a team-best 9.3 rebounds per game.
The Citadel was picked ninth in both preseason SoCon polls after a 10-22 overall record that included a 5-13 SoCon mark and a ninth-place finish.
The top two defensive units in the Southern Conference in terms of limiting opponent scoring to date square off on Wednesday. The Citadel is allowing just 65.5 points per game, just ahead of WCU in second at 66.0 ppg.
Western Carolina and The Citadel meet for the 87th time on the men’s basketball hardwood with the Catamounts carrying a slim 45-41 edge into Wednesday’s matchup. The Citadel has won three straight over WCU including sweeping last year’s two series meetings for the first time since 2010-11. The Bulldogs lead the series in Charleston with 23 wins in the 39 meetings (23-16) and the Catamounts have also dropped their last three road meetings in the series. WCU’s last road victory over The Citadel came nearly four years to the date, an 86-82 win on Jan. 4, 2020.
Following Wednesday’s road tilt with the ‘Dogs, the Catamounts return home to face another canine as the Wofford Terriers come to Cullowhee for a 4 p.m. Saturday start. Tickets for Saturday’s game are available online at www.CatamountSports.com/BuyTickets.