CONWAY, S.C. – Coastal Carolina coach Cliff Ellis has a hard and fast rule for road trips back to campus: Win and the players watch a movie, lose and they slog through game film.
"We've haven't watched much game film lately," Ellis, the former Clemson and Auburn coach, said with a smile.
The Chanticleers (18-2) have the country's third-longest winning streak at 16 games, trailing only Ohio State (21-0) and San Diego State (20-0). They haven't lost since an 80-61 defeat to Georgetown on Nov. 18 in the Charleston Classic. They beat their first BCS opponent in 17 years with an overtime victory at LSU last month.
And as the victories pile up, Coastal players can't resist checking ESPN each night to see if they've moved up further.
"Yeah, it's a topic in the locker room," said senior forward Chad Gray, a South Carolina transfer who's second on the team with 13.1 points a game and the leading rebounder at 6.3 a game.
Moreso than winning streaks, Gray says, is finishing what they couldn't a season ago.
The Chants won a school record 28 games and, with the Big South tournament title game at their Kimbel Arena, appeared a lock for their first NCAA tournament trip since 1993.
But Winthrop, the conference's powerhouse program the past decade, stunned Coastal Carolina 64-53 in the championship game.
It was a harsh blow to Coastal and Ellis, on the verge of taking his fourth program to the NCAA tournament.
"We didn't owe an apology to anybody," Ellis said. "It's a part of the system as to what's fair and what isn't."
So Ellis sought to toughen up his team for "three days in March," he says.
A big part of that was the addition of another South Carolina transfer in 6-foot-8, 240-pound Mike Holmes. But Holmes played in just seven games before he was permanently dismissed by Ellis for violating team rules without the chance to return.
Ellis says Holmes was involved in an "altercation," but would not provide any details.
Holmes was averaging 14 points and eight rebounds and looked like the difference maker that elevates mid-major programs once on basketball's biggest stage.
"Mike was a big part of the team," Gray said. "But we've had to go on."
The Chants have kept winning after Holmes' dismissal on Jan. 10 and Ellis doesn't see that success ending too soon.
He'd been out of coaching three years when the chance to succeed Buzz Peterson came up. Ellis had seen close friend and former Atlantic Coast Conference coaching rival Bobby Cremins rejuvenated at College of Charleston and knew he could build something with the Chants.
Coastal Carolina was a small school basketball success more than two decades ago with five Big South Conference titles and two NCAA tournament appearances from 1988-93. But an NCAA scandal — former coach Russ Bergman acknowledged paying plane fare home for two players after watching the 1994 Nick Nolte film "Blue Chips" — devastated the program, which had only one winning season between 1995-2007 before Ellis arrived.
Not that it's been an easy transformation.
Ellis practices at fading Kimbel, where teammates have to walk into the wooden bleachers to retrieve the ball when practicing free throws. The coach sits in a cinderblock office near the gym with the walls lined with portraits of NBA players he has coached — like Clemson's Dale Davis.
"I'm used to working on six baskets, not two," he says.
Coastal is set to open a new convocation center late this year, more than tripling Kimbel's listed capacity of 1,039.
Ellis, 65, gained his 600th career win earlier this month and, at 602, stands ninth among NCAA Division I active coaches.
And he hasn't lost his touch relating to his much younger players. "He knows how to put the pieces together," says sophomore forward Sam McLaurin, Ellis' first recruit at Coastal. "He really knows his players."
That personal contact was lost at times during Ellis' days in major college basketball. He says on chartered jets, he barely got to say more than a few words to players and remind them of the next day's practice. Now, Ellis chats up his guys on the bus, discussing school, life, basketball or anything that comes up.
"I still like getting a chili dog with them," Ellis says.
The location, about 10 miles west of Myrtle Beach's Grand Strand, was perfect for Ellis, a musician and singer who's had songs on the "Beach Music" charts. "I see people all the time who when they leave here can't stand it," Ellis says. "I get to stay here all the time."
Ellis wishes NCAA selectors placed more weight on regular-season titles. If Coastal's wins keep coming, though, it might be impossible to keep the Chants out, no matter who wins the Big South tournament.
"It's possible," Ellis says. "We're going to try and make it happen."