Beyond the Dragons, for the good of the conference

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As the calendar flips to 2019 and winter sinks its teeth into Philadelphia, students returning to campus for a new academic term will get a fresh chance to build up their grades regardless of what happened with their fall courses. Drexel basketball gets a similar opportunity as the schedule flips to the CAA games. If conference games are the classes, then the conference tournament is the final exams. Two months of hard work can set a team up for success during the final weekend where a bid to the NCAA tournament can be stamped. 

And this year, I hope College of Charleston makes it to the NCAA men’s tournament. And I hope Northeastern makes it to the women’s tournament. And I hope they both advance deep once they get there. 

This may be an odd statement to hear from a die-hard Drexel fan. Don’t be mistaken – I want the Dragons to win the men’s and women’s CAA tournaments to go dancing, but I want the Cougars and Huskies to be right there alongside us with respective at-large bids. Following non-conference play, those teams are the only two that look like they could have a chance to get in without winning the Colonial’s auto bids; and they’ll need to be pretty damn good – nearly perfect actually – for ten more weeks in order to have that chance. 

The case for Charleston 

Drexel fans know better than to count on gaudy win totals as the core argument for an at-large bid. Fortunately for Charleston, they would have slightly more than that working in their favor – a good win at VCU, a decent win by way of taking down Rhode Island, and most importantly, only two non-conference losses, both at the hands of good opponents. 

buzzer-beater from Jarrell Brantley at the end of their final non-conference game against Coastal Carolina brought the Cougars into CAA play with a 10-2 record. They started off their conference schedule with a scare from 3-9 UNCW, but ultimately held on for a win. They will need to do all they can to prevent those scares from becoming losses. Obviously Drexel fans should want wins for the blue and gold both times the teams meet, but outside of those two games, it’s best that Charleston wins as much and as convincingly as possible. Carrying a 26-4 (16-2) record into the CAA tournament would put them at the top of the class. Racking up two more wins before falling in the championship game would obviously fall short of their own goal, but it could be good for the league. 

Does a 28-5 (18-3) record get a CAA team an at-large? As referenced above, that is the type of mid-major record the selection committee loves to reject in favor of a mediocre team from a major conference. The key difference between this hypothetical Charleston scenario and the 27-6 resume Drexel ultimately took to the NIT in 2012 is the apparent lack of quality wins + some questionable losses in November/December in the older example. (This isn’t the place to get into why Drexel should have still been in. Tweet me if you want to have that debate.) 

Resumes aren’t evaluated in a silo. I’m sure there will be a 19-13 ACC team that manages to win a surprising conference game, and the Selection Committee will become infatuated and try to reward them with a ninth bid for their conference. We have no idea how things would be decided, but Charleston will certainly have a strong case if they take care of their own business. 

The case for Northeastern 

On the women’s side of the CAA, the win total will have to be the argument for to get an at-large for Northeastern, and recent history says that won’t be enough. Last year’s Drexel team took a 24-6 (16-2) record into the CAA tournament, ultimately losing in the championship game to the second best team in the conference, Elon. That final 26-7 (18-3) resume had no bad losses, but no good non-conference wins either. 

Northeastern could be in a similar position this year. Staggered scheduling means the women’s teams begin CAA play this weekend, and heading into it with a 10-1 record, their only loss was to an 8-3 Marist team. But like Drexel last year, they have no stand-out wins from non-conference. 

The CAA on the women’s side is open for a few teams at the top. Drexel and James Madison both have 8-3 records with experienced players who can take down a Northeastern squad that’s in uncharted winning territory for their program. 

In four years as head coach, Kelly Cole has taken Northeastern from 4-25 (1-17) in her first year to 16-15 (11-7) last year, and what she’s done so far this season is impressive. But they are still unknown going into CAA play and may falter several times in games they should win, let alone the ones that will already be tough. If they do manage to make it through CAA play 16-2 (again, ideally with those losses only at the hands of Drexel) and manage to lose in the championship game, would a 28-4 (18-3) record warrant an at-large bid? I actually think yes, but it’s much less likely that Northeastern will be in such a situation to begin with. 

Goodbye RPI (for the men) 

A wrinkle this year is figuring out how the selection committees will evaluate teams using the NCAA’s new NET rating vs the old RPI. This provided some questionable rankings early in the season, but it looks a bit more accurate now, and by March will hopefully provide the most objective view. Apparently the selection committee will still look at resumes using quadrants based on rankings + home/neutral/away game settings. 

As of January 2nd, Charleston has a NET ranking of 63, which sounds about right. Hofstra actually isn’t too far behind them, ranked 71, but without standout wins, their best chance to move up would be beating Charleston a few times and also remaining perfect everywhere else. If those end up being the only two losses for Charleston, then Hofstra is suddenly in an interesting position, but likely still on the wrong side of the bubble. 

The NCAA is still using RPI for women’s hoops, so there aren’t any new wrinkles there. Northeastern is currently ranked 35, but again, with a tougher top-to-bottom league, I expect more than a couple losses for them, which the selection committee won’t look upon favorably. 

Why Drexel fans should care? 

Back in 2011 there’s no way I would be rooting for the Virginia trifecta of VCU, ODU, (at-large bids) and George Mason (tournament champ) even if it was in the conference’s best interest – both for prestige and pocketbook. Watching VCU go all the way to the Final Four that year was miserable. When Delle Donne went to the Sweet 16 in 2013, I was too busy watching Drexel win the WNIT, but still had no interest in how it benefited our league. 

The CAA is in a different place now. With VCU, ODU, and Mason all long gone, the men’s side needs new teams to regularly make the case for an at-large. There is reason to believe that Coach Spiker will get Drexel to that territory as early as next season, but for now, that team is Charleston. And even if they lose head coach Earl Grant after another tournament bid, that program is in a good position to replace him and continue winning. 

On the women’s side, the reputation of the conference needs to match the quality of play. Coach Dillon said as much when we interviewed her earlier this year. Conferences such as the A-10 are perceived to be better than the CAA, in part because of the name recognition carried by their men’s teams. In reality, the CAA is the stronger women’s basketball conference. Hopefully the schools that are near the top every year, including Drexel, can find a way to bust through and get an at-large. This year however, only Northeastern has the numbers to do it. 

Without an apparent league bias favoring certain schools in the CAA anymore, there is less hatred for those that remain. Without that hatred, it’s more palatable to watch conference foes have post-season success. Hopefully the entire league can step up in the coming years and at-large bids can become a regular expectation again. 

Except Delaware. I hope they never taste success again. 

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