Checking In On… the CAAPosted by Brian Goodman on December 7th, 2011
The Week That Was
- Changing of the Seasons: Logistics dictate that in order to get all 18 games in by March, the CAA has to play one conference game in December. Last Saturday was slated for five matchups, and UNCW plays at VCU on December 17. Road teams went 3-2, with George Mason winning 65-53 at Towson, James Madison a 62-60 victor at Hofstra, and Old Dominion gutting out a 69-59 win at Northeastern. Delaware held serve at home, beating rival Drexel, 71-60, and Georgia State cruised by William & Mary in Atlanta, 66-34. The full conference slate begins January 2.
- Changing Of The Guards: Freshmen, especially guards, are seeing significant playing time around the CAA this season. All 12 CAA teams have at least one freshman on their team who is averaging better than 16 minutes per game and JMU and Northeastern are the only teams who haven’t had a freshman start at least one game. Four freshmen are among the CAA’s top 30 in scoring: UNCW’s Adam Smith, Drexel’s Damion Lee, William & Mary’s Marcus Thornton and Delaware’s Kyle Anderson. Three others–Towson’s Kris Walden, Mason’s Corey Edwards and Delaware’s Khalid Lewis – are among the top 15 in assists, while VCU’s Briante Weber and ODU’s Dimitri Batten are among the top 11 in steals.
- Changing of the Discussion: CAA fans are used to seeing Old Dominion, VCU, and George Mason lead the “teams playing well in non-conference action” conversation. And while those three are certainly doing fine, James Madison and Georgia State are turning heads with high quality play too. The Dukes continue to play well offensively but have won three in a row behind a staunch defense, something Matt Brady has never had the luxury of coaching. Ron Hunter’s Panthers have won six straight contests and are giving up just 47.0 points per game and limiting opponents to 30.7% FG shooting during the run. The 34 points allowed to William & Mary were the second-fewest allowed in school history.
- Changing of the Spotlight: It’s been a year of change around the CAA as many returning players have stepped into new roles and several newcomers are making an impact. Of the top 20 scoring leaders in the conference, 13 of them weren’t even among the top 30 in the league in scoring a year ago. The seven who were on last year’s top 30 list are Hofstra’s Mike Moore, Mason’s Ryan Pearson, VCU’s Bradford Burgess, ODU’s Kent Bazemore, UNCW’s Keith Rendleman and Northeastern’s Jonathan Lee and Joel Smith.
- VCU (5-3): When 11 CAA coaches get a look at the game tape from VCUs win over George Washington, 11 brows will furrow. After bludgeoning South Florida 41-18 in the second half of a 69-46 win, the Rams controlled the Colonials from start to finish. More importantly, they had “that look.” Bradford Burgess, whose 118 consecutive starts is the longest active streak in Division I basketball, looked comfortable hoisting the team on his broad shoulders. What’s more, point guard Darius Theus is getting more comfortable by the game at his position. The Rams’ only loss in the past five games was a nailbiter at Alabama. And don’t let this number pass you by: VCU is often derided for sketchy defense. In the past five games, only Alabama has scored more than 64 points. In all, the Rams are 38-2 under Shaka Smart when they hold opponents to 65 points or fewer.
- James Madison (4-3): Here’s why we love JMU. Their offensive prowess is well-documented. However, in the first half of last night’s game against Kent State, the Dukes missed nine of 12 threes and shot 34% overall from the field. Humpty Hitchens, their official gas can, was 2-10 on his own and gunner Julius Wells was 0-7. But JMU had 10 steals, had forced 16 turnovers and still held a 29-26 lead. Alioune Diouf, who was supposed to redshirt, had grabbed four rebounds and made two steals. Defense! If you want to win big in the CAA, you have to be able to grind and win rock fights. Granted, JMU gave up a game-ending 29-9 run and lost, but the big picture is clear — the Dukes can play defense if they choose to do so. This is new territory for them, and it looks good. What also looks good: Devon Moore, their best player, is now eligible.
- Old Dominion (5-3): Coaches love to talk about this year, and this game. They hate to talk about last year. But Blaine Taylor had to smile to himself when he saw old school Old Dominion basketball in its 69-59 win over Northeastern. The Monarchs outrebounded the CAA’s top rebounding team, which included a whopping 18 offensive rebounds. ODU grabbed 18 of its 34 misses, an offensive rebounding percentage of 52.9%. And star guard Kent Bazemore posted a 21-point, seven-rebound, three assist, four steal gem. Bazemore also committed seven turnovers, which if you look past the “that stinks” level you see that he was very involved. Taylor essentially went to a six-man rotation. Keep that in mind as ODU gets closer to the debuts of Richard Ross and Donte Hill.
- George Mason (6-3): We learned a little about the Patriots. They stepped up a few weight classes and were knocked out by Virginia, 68-48. Ryan Pearson and his awesome beard remains a stud: Pearson has led Mason in scoring in seven of eight games and ranks among the top five in the CAA in scoring (19.8 PPG/4th) and rebounding (8.4 RPG/5th). Sherrod Wright is proving preseason prognostications right. Wright is attacking the rim and shooting a league-best 62.3% from the floor. Sophomore Bryon Allen averaged 11.0 PPG, 7.0 RPG and 4.0 APG last week and committed just one turnover in 78 minutes. That becomes interesting, depending upon your viewpoint. Allen got his opportunity when freshman Corey Edwards suffered a concussion and missed two games, and the Patriots get Andre Cornelius back next Wednesday. That’s a lot of very nice options for Paul Hewitt. But we’re still scratching our own beard at this team.
- Georgia State (6-3): The Panthers started 0-3 under Ron Hunter, but that could be expected. New coach, new system, and a long trip to Washington can whip the best of programs. They returned home with a chip. Six straight wins in which the Panthers held their foes to 54 points or less (47.0 PPG in sum) proves it. Last week alone their three victims fell by an average of 29.7 PPG. Without question they are playing with as much confidence as anyone in The Association. Ken Pomeroy has Georgia State going 12-6 in the conference. As of today, we have no reason to believe he is wrong.
- Northeastern (3-4): The Huskies proved, twice last week, that their success is predicated on taking care of the basketball. They were undone by 22 turnovers against Old Dominion, and 15 via theft. NU had 23 more in the loss at Bradley (12 via steal). Northeastern is the embodiment of the new coaching cliché — value the basketball. Their turnovers seem careless — bad passes in the halfcourt offense and wild drives into defense. The good news is that those mistakes are rectifiable. Jon Lee and Joel Smith had three assists and 10 turnovers. The duo also combined to shoot 6-29 from the field. They are the leaders and need to play well so that all of the youth — especially Reggie Spencer – get a feeling of calm. Of note: Bill Coen opted to press ODU for most of the game. His rationale was that ODU is a team of patterns, and he wanted to disrupt those patterns. But it also showed that Coen feels he has the horses to press. Want more? Coen started Spencer and Quincy Ford against Bradley. It was the first time that Coen had started two freshmen in a game since Manny Adako and Matt Janning six seasons ago.
- Delaware (3-3): The Hens boast the nation’s second-leading scorer in Devon Saddler, and Jamelle Hagins is beginning to assert himself on the block. Hagins has back-to-back 17/12 double-doubles and dominated conference heavyweight Drexel. However it’s “the other guys” that are allowing the stars to shine for Monte Ross. Josh Brinkley had a season-high 12 points, six rebounds and two blocks in a win over Boston University, and Kelvin McNeil and Hakim McCullar have held their own on the blocks. McNeil grabbed six rebounds and McCullar played a season-high 20 minutes in the Drexel win.
- Drexel (2-4): The Dragons lost both games last week, both by double figures. Darryl McCoy grabbed 15 rebounds in the Delaware loss, but the Drexel big men just aren’t playing up to snuff. That’s extremely important, because Bruiser Flint plays an inside-out offense. If he’s getting little from the post, he’s getting little overall. Chris Fouch has played two mostly rusty games, and it’s time he settled back into his gunner role. The season is certainly not lost, but the natives are getting restless. This was supposed to be Drexel’s year.
- Hofstra (3-6): Mo Cassara’s team is battling right now. Steven Mejia is dealing with a bum hammy — never a good sign for a point guard. Plus, Cassara has to figure out what he wants to do with Bryant Crowder. The 6’10″ transfer is immensely talented, but has already run afoul of team rules twice. Crowder missed the first four games and the past two. Cassara’s seven-man rotation includes 19 minutes from walk-on Matt Grogan. Still, the coach has two leaders he can turn to: Nat Lester and Mike Moore have combined for 297 of 584 Hofstra points (50.9%).
- UNCW (2-5): In the past five games, freshman Adam Smith has hit 53.2% of his field goals (33-62) and scored more than 18 points per game. That opens up the lane for Keith Rendleman (29 points, 11 rebounds against Liberty) and allows new point guard KK Simmons to distribute the basketball with confidence. Throw in a maturing Freddie Jackson who can also be a solid defender, and Buzz Peterson suddenly has options and a dangerous team.
- William & Mary (1-8): Things appear to be getting worse in Williamsburg. The Tribe’s week saw two 30-point losses, including a 66-34 embarrassment at Georgia State. The scariest part is that it could be a neck-up problem. William & Mary thrives on the three-point shot, and nobody is shooting it well. Combine that with a slow start from a talented sophomore class (Brandon Britt, Julian Boatner), injured stars (Quinn McDowell and Tim Rusthoven), and a freshman with a hair trigger (Marcus Thornton) and you have a recipe for this start.
- Towson (0-7): It’s getting better for Pat Skerry. The Tigers committed just 13 turnovers in a loss to George Mason — a season’s best. Plus, the team continues to play hard. Sophomore Marcus Damas scored a career-high 25 points with five rebounds against Mason. Robert Nwankwo is providing leadership and numbers: he had his third double-double in a loss at UMass with 19 points, 14 rebounds and four blocks. Nwankwo also posted double-doubles against Kansas (14/10) and Michigan (16/10) and has 12 double-doubles for his career.
- Richmond at VCU (Friday): The Farm Bureau Insurance Black & Blue Classic takes on special meaning this season, as both teams were Sweet Sixteen darlings last year. Both squads lost several key components to those NCAA teams but have acquitted themselves well in the early going. An interesting matchup: each team features a hyper-quick freshman guard. Richmond’s Kendall Anthony is leading the Spiders in scoring, and VCU’s Briante Weber is a defensive menace.
- Princeton at Drexel (Saturday): If you can believe it, this game is Drexel’s first home game of the year. The DAC and its famed DAC Pack will be primed to greet the Tigers. However Bruiser Flint needs to find a way to get his frontcourt going. Samme Givens, the team’s lone senior, has a substandard performance report, and Dartaye Ruffin has regressed from a stellar freshman year. Flint’s offense revolves around going to the post first — they need payoff.
- UMBC at Towson (Saturday): Why is a matchup of two 0-7 teams important? Simple. The Tigers have lost 26 straight games dating back to last year and could just plain use a victory. Pat Skerry is changing the culture of the program and instilling winning virtues. The team needs to have that play out on the court.
Spotlight On… Georgia State
Georgia State hasn’t had what you’d call a successful run in the CAA. The Panthers have won more than five conference games only once since joining the league in 2005, an 8-10 mark in 2008-09. Former coach Rod Barnes bet heavy on major conference transfers and it proved to be a bad bet. Georgia State was known for lackadaisical play and a disjointed offense. Enter Ron Hunter, who has preached speed, tenacity and teamwork. And while the Georgia State high octane offense has yet to get untracked, defense has carried the Panthers to their best start since 2003-04.
The Panthers have now won six straight games, and to a man Georgia State is playing harder than they ever did under Barnes. Most importantly is that players are buying in to their roles. Most notably, senior Jihad Ali has embraced his role coming off the bench. Ali has averaged 13.7 points and 6.7 rebounds in the six-game streak. Georgia State has overwhelmed its past six opponents. Only Samford has come within 19 points of the Panthers. They still have a lot to prove, but Georgia State has a different look to it this year — and it starts with the head coach.