It’s that time of year. The calendar says March. Jon Rothstein has made declarations. Jerry Beach has his hopes up! And as all ten conference teams assemble in our nations capitol for the first time, all writers must pen an article looking ahead at a conference tournament that promises to be up in the air until the final buzzer. Without further ado, here’s the breakdown:
Who isn’t going to win: Elon, Drexel, UNCW, James Madison
No team has ever won the CAA after playing in the first day of a ten team tournament. While Elon and the Dub have both improved as the season has continued, there is a reason a top six seed is all that matters in the
regular season. These teams didn’t make the cut, so they get cut. Quick hits on each team:
Elon: Sure, they’ll be lucky to make it to Monday this year, but I’m buying stock. New arena, coach who knows what he is doing, and a capable freshman class. That sings of moving in the right direction.
Drexel: They’ve got to be tougher and more focused. Culture seems improved, then the next step will be to practice intensity and discipline. They have the talent to make Monday – they’ve played Hofstra tough twice – or to lose by 15 on Sunday, if their defense continues to falter.
UNCW: Rob Burke may not be the Head Coach next year, but he deserves a good job somewhere. CB can recruit it seems – they just needed someone else on the X’s and O’s. With another full reset down there in the offseason, who knows where things go for the Dub.
JMU: I’ve met Louis Rowe twice. I bought in. He had a mixture of genuineness and intensity that make for a lethal recruiter, and you know he wanted to do right by JMU. Much like Bruiser Flint at Drexel, count me as one of the people really upset that this didn’t work out for coach or school.
Who I’m betting against: Northeastern, College of Charleston
When is the last time that a team that disappointed expectations in the regular season suddenly puts it together in March? Charleston was my favorite to start the year, but it became clear during the four game losing streak that began at home against Elon and ended in Trask that something is just wrong here. Jasper, Galloway and Riller should be enough to be at the top of a weak CAA, especially with veterans like McManus and Miller in the paint, and a Coach of the Year on the sideline. Instead, a fourth-place finish and a first “road” CAA tournament appearance. Something is wrong, I don’t like it and I’m selling my shares.
In Boston, another former Coach of the Year also struggled to round his team into form. This one may be simpler. The Huskies depth chart is even shallower than Hofstra, and while Roland/Brace/Walker is a solid big three, that is heavy weight for Brace, who works best as a role guy, and the freshman Walker. Add to that, Northeastern is a jump shot reliant team, which has worked for some (Villanova) but generally hampers the consistency needed in tournament situations. Folks will talk about their defense as a league leader, but the truth is that there just wasn’t a good defense in the CAA this year. Northeastern’s was solid, but not dominant, and as thin as this roster is, three games in three days strikes me as a longshot.
Who I’m not sure about: William & Mary, Delaware
There’s as many reasons to like these teams as to not like these teams. William and Mary opens against the winner of the Elon and JMU game, either being a good matchup for the Tribe. The next game, likely against Towson, is less of a good matchup. With Player of the Year Nathan Knight, and Andy Van Vleet, it is no secret that W&M beat up on teams inside the paint this year. With a CAA that lacked a lot of big men this season, that worked. Matched with some outside shooting and some solid coaching, they looked like a wrecking ball running through the league the first time. However, as there became tape on Coach Fischer and his team, the results were not as strong. It’s a fool’s errand to pick against the best player on the floor during this time of year, but if the Tribe has to go thru Towson in the semi’s, and then a competitive challenger on Tuesday, I think there will be enough frontcourt challenges to give them a problem. And karma says that Samatha Huge doesn’t deserve it anyway.
In the first state, a guard heavy team added Villanova transfer Dylan Painter and suddenly could win games from inside and outside. That presents a rare challenge in this version of the CAA, and their record shows as much, as they have had a successful campaign under fourth year coach Martin Inglesby. That said, the Ryan Allen regression is a bit of a mystery, Nate Darling is a one-way player, Justyn Mutts isn’t there yet, and Inglesby refuses to give Painter the 30+ minutes per game that would make the Blue Hens a much better team. UD also lost three of their last five heading into the tournament, with the two wins at home against 9th seed UNCW, and at home against a Northeastern team that did not show up. They are another team that lacks depth, and while they may have the best inside-out combo in the league, there’s enough flaws to keep them out of the top basket.
Who I’m betting on: Hofstra, Towson
It speaks to the league this year that neither of these teams are wagons that I really want to hitch to either. They were my second and third place teams in the pre-season preview, and that’s largely on the back of seniors who provide strong veteran presence. Buie and Pemberton have been fantastic this year, but they are first and fourth in the conference in percentage of teams minutes played. It seems that every year that I ask if Joe Mihalich is running his guys into the ground to win games in January and February at the expense of games in March. As the clear favorite going into this year’s tourney, we may finally get our concrete answer.
At Towson, well, have you ever have that kid you saw in high school or college and said “that guy is gonna be good at the next level” and then you had to follow his career after, no matter where he ended up (Hi, Saquon Barkley fans). That is how I feel about Towson. Picked second in the preseason, behind a senior class of Fobbs, Sanders and Tunstall, it was the rise of Allen Betrand that took this team to another level. CAA coaches don’t want to play Towson in the tourney, since their physical style will leave an opponent beat up even if they win. And now with Betrand and Gibson, two 35%+ three point shooters highlight an attack that can also feature Sanders and Tunstall underneath. And not yet mentioned was CAA Second Teamer Brian Fobbs. I don’t know if Towson wins this thing, but I do know who absolutely no one wants to play.