CAA Tournament Preview & Season Wrap-UpPosted by Brian Goodman on March 2nd, 2012
Michael Litos is the RTC correspondent for the Colonial Athletic Association. You can follow him on Twitter at @caahoops.
CAA Tournament Glance
Without question, all eyes are on Drexel and VCU. Both squads finished the regular season in impressive fashion. After dropping its first two conference games, the Dragons won an unprecedented 16 straight to take the regular season title. The Rams are the second seed at 15-3 and have won 14 of 15 games. VCU is two buzzer-threes from 17-1 in conference. Troy Daniels missed a three at the buzzer and the Rams lost to Georgia State, and George Mason’s Sherrod Wright swished a 30-footer to beat VCU on Valentine’s Day.
Nobody really wants to face Old Dominion. Blaine Taylor, for the tenth time in his 10 seasons at ODU, has his team playing its best basketball in February. And the Monarchs grinding style fits perfectly with the slogging that will occur in the conference tournament. Though their path to a title is the most rigorous one, George Mason has both the most talent and most depth in the conference. Finally, Delaware has quietly won eight straight and can surprise.
But really, this tournament comes down the secret rooting interest of people who want the CAA to get an at-large bid. They want Drexel vs. VCU in the finals on Monday. The reason is clear: because the CAA didn’t have a stellar November, they don’t carry the sufficient resume bulk to make the field. However, you look at these two teams — the eye-test — and they clearly belong.
However, we’re very certain Paul Hewitt and Blaine Taylor have a little something to say in the matter. And while we’re at it — don’t count out Georgia State. Ron Hunter’s team plays outstanding defense, which will keep them in every game.
If the key to a mid-major conference obtaining at large bids into the NCAA tournament resides in separation—the top teams in the conference getting distance between themselves and the bottom of the conference—then the CAA accomplished the mission. Drexel (16-2), VCU (15-3), George Mason (14-4), and Old Dominion (13-5) fairly beat down the rest of the CAA. The top four teams did not lose to a bottom four team.
The Dragons lost their first two games but won 16 straight—an unprecedented feat. VCU lost two of its three games on last second three-point shots—the Rams’ Troy Daniels missed a bomb at the buzzer in a loss to Georgia State, and George Mason’s Sherrod Wright hit a 30-footer at the horn to beat VCU.
The season went remarkably according to plan. The top three teams (Drexel, VCU, Mason) finished in precisely the order expected, and Delaware (12-6) finished in the first division as predicted.
The differences reside with injuries. William & Mary was expected to rise, but a bevy of preseason and early season injuries sank the Tribe to 11th. James Madison finished the season with six healthy players and several phone calls to Hawkeye Pierce. Even head coach Matt Brady couldn’t avoid the big. Brady tore his Achilles tendon during practice when he ran scout team point guard duty. The Dukes fell to the #8 seed.
Georgia State, in its first season under Ron Hunter, surprised. The Panthers were expected to finished 11th but won 11 conference games and 20 overall.
- Coach of the Year: Ron Hunter, Georgia State – Opinions may vary based on what you value, but a very strong case can be made that Hunter made the most out of the least. Bruiser Flint was expected to win a tough conference and he did so. A 16-2 CAA record is worthy of acclaim. Shaka Smartlost four of his top five players, but coached VCU to second place and into the at-large conversation—this also merits acclaim. However, Hunter not only turned around the Georgia State ledger, he changed the culture in his first year. Georgia State was the definition of a moribund program, and there is a breath of life in Atlanta. Hunter won 11 CAA games with nothing going in his favor when he walked onto campus.
- Player of the Year – Frantz Massenat, Drexel – It was a two-man race in the CAA with George Mason’s Ryan Pearson. However we choose Massenat for his impact on winning. The raw statistical reality shows that Massenat lead the CAA in three-point shooting (47.4% in conference games) and assist-turnover ratio (an astounding 3:1, or 78:26). However, Massenat’s ability to drive and shoot transformed an entire offense. Drexel was the country’s 234th-most efficient offense last season, with an effective field goal percentage of 45.8% (297th nationally). This year: The 61st-most efficient offense and an effective shooting percentage of 49.9% (144th nationally). The Dragons three-point percentage last year: 31.0%, 305th nationally. This year: 38.0%, 41st nationally. And the summary: last year Drexel scored 59.6 points per game on 64.2 possessions. This year: 65.0 points per game on more than three fewer possessions per game (60.9).
- G Frantz Massenat, Drexel (13.5 PPG, 4.5 APG): He led the league in three-point shooting (46.6%) and shot 80.8% from the free throw line, but Massenat is the prototypical player who makes everyone else on the court a better player.
- F Ryan Pearson, George Mason (17.8 PPG, 8.5 RPG): Pearson reached double figures in 27 of 31 contests. He was Mason’s leading scorer in 22 of 31 games, topped the team in rebounding 19 times and recorded 12 double-doubles.
- G Kent Bazemore, ODU (15.3 PPG, 5.8 RPG): The senior guard ranked second in the conference and 24th in the nation with 67 steals. He made two or more thefts in 20 of 31 games, including seven in a victory over Big East foe South Florida. Bazemore, who topped the conference in steals in 2010 and 2011, ranks third on the CAA’s all-time steals with 243.
- F Keith Rendleman, UNCW (15.6 PPG, 10.5 RPG): Rendleman recorded 16 double-doubles this season, which is tied for the sixth-best total in the nation. What’s more impressive is that he was the focus of everyone’s scouting report and still managed to average a double-double on the season.
- F Brad Burgess, VCU (13.5 PPG, 5.2 RPG): Burgess, who has started all 141 collegiate games, is one of only three VCU players with more than 1,600 points and 700 rebounds in a career. His offense came around late in the year, including a 31-point effort against George Mason. He is as respected as any player in the conference.
The CAA freshman class deserves special mention. No fewer than 22 players averaged 16 or more minutes for their teams—some in critical roles. Drexel’s Damion Lee won rookie of the year honors, but Northeastern’s Quincy Ford wasn’t far behind. VCUs Briante Weber is so interesting he did not make the league’s all freshman team but did make the CAA all-defensive team.
Shot of the Year: Mason’s Sherrod Wright swished a heavily-guarded, 30-footer to beat VCU at the buzzer in a Valentine’s Day battle of two teams tied at the top of the CAA standings.
Performance of the Year: ODUs Kent Bazemore had 37 points and 12 rebounds in a season-closing loss to Drexel. Bazemore made every single play until the very end. He was fouled with less than one second to play and ODU trailing by three points. Bazemore made the first two free throws, but clanked the third off the front rim. It was a heroic performance from the senior.
- Drexel (16-2, 25-5): Richmond certainly has Drexel’s number. The Dragons never really play well in the CAA tournament, having made the semifinals just once since a 2002 finals appearance. But this year is different as Bruiser Flint’s team is one of, if not the, best offensive teams in the CAA. The big problem: Drexel enters the tournament with a short bench-Flint only goes seven or eight deep. And defensive stalwart Derrick Thomas has been suspended. Still, Drexel is a handful (as a 17-game winning streak would attest). They have power on the block and can shoot from the arc. They also play jersey-thread counting defense. Like VCU, they belong in the tournament and may even be favored in a first round matchup.
- VCU (15-3, 25-6): Brad Burgess dropped 31 points on George Mason in the regular season finale. Burgess—the Rams leader—is averaging 18.8PPG in his past six games. Why does that matter? VCU plays that havoc defense, and the ball pressure never relents. Now you have a first team AllCAA player scoring at a high clip? Uh-oh. And when you consider VCU carries the home city advantage of the tournament being played 25 blocks from campus, the Rams have to be the favorite. There is no team they will fear if winning the CAA (or gaining an at large bid). South Florida is the current BCS loverboy, and VCU beat them by a whopping 66-43 margin earlier this year.
- George Mason (14-4, 23-8): The Patriots dropped two in row for the first time all year to close the regular season, prompting CAA Player of the Year Ryan Pearson to shave his beard. The Patriots are the team you want to watch how they play. No team is more talented from spots one through ten, and Paul Hewitt will play all ten. What we man is that if Mason gets on a roll they will be a threat to win Monday because they are a machine when they get cranked up. Hewitt is talking about focus, too, which helps talent see the light. Of course, lack of focus may have them bounced on Saturday.
- Old Dominion (13-5, 19-12): The Monarchs enter the CAA tournament on a bigger roll that their record suggests. Sure, a 4-3 finish isn’t awe-inspiring, but the losses were to Mason, VCU, and Drexel. What’s more, ODU went on the road and put down Missouri State and Georgia State. Kent Bazemore is playing to the level Monarchs fans had hoped for much earlier in the year. The tournament is set up for ODUs kind of game – grind it out and make just enough shots. Just like in other seasons, ODU will wear you out.
- Delaware (12-6, 17-12): Eight of the league’s head coaches called Delaware the most underrated team in this tournament. The Hens finished up on an eight-game win streak, and they’ve beaten Mason, Drexel, took ODU to overtime, and beat Georgia State twice. It’s a real fear. Success for YouDee this weekend will surround remaining true to their defensive principles. They are a quality offensive team, but the Richmond Coliseum is where jump shots go to die. They need to defend, and get a 15 PPG effort from block stud Jamelle Hagins.
- Georgia State (11-7, 20-10): Quite frankly, Ron Hunter has worked a miracle at Georgia State. He’s turned a culture of losing and despair into one of hope and promise.GeorgiaState plays a ridiculously confusing matchup zone with length on the wing and the block that will give them a shot against the league’s elite this weekend. In fact, they’ve beaten Drexel and VCU. Next year may be tough as Hunter loses five seniors.
- Northeastern (9-9, 13-16): Bill Coen has the kind of team that can surprise—freshman Quincy Ford will make an All-CAA team or three before all is said and done because he can play multiple positions at both ends very well. Joel Smith can fill it up from outside, and Jon Lee is a dependable scorer. If the Huskies can get inspired block play from Kauri Black, look out. Note for next year: the only senior NU loses is bit player Kashief Edwards.
- James Madison (5-13, 12-19): Down to six healthy players Matt Brady is absolutely certain he cannot wait for health. His two best players, Devon Moore and Humpty Hitchens, will suit up injured. All you need to know is that Brady said this week he believe the JMU record would’ve been flipped had they not been pummeled with injuries.
- William & Mary (4-14, 6-25): A tough season is winding down for Tony Shaver. There was so much promise in November that dissipated under a hail of injuries. Star Quinn McDowell hurt his back, then his knee, then his ankle. JohnMark Ludwick hurt his foot. Kyle Gaillard never played a game with a knee problem. But the Tribe is that team nobody wants to face—five CAA head coaches said that William & Mary is the team they least want to play on Friday or Saturday. That stands for something.
- UNCW (5-13, 9-20): The Seahawks fell off a cliff late in the year, but that’s not entirely unexpected. Buzz Peterson played six freshmen regularly and had one of the three youngest teams in the nation. The good news is that Cedric Williams showed a late season spark—the big man will be needed to help first team All-CAA performer Keith Rendleman next year. Also, UNCW will have starting point guard Craig Ponder back, who hobbled for three games on a bad ankle before calling it a season.
- Hofstra (3-15, 10-21): The Pride seemed to never get the engine out of neutral. Starting point guard Stevie Mejia battled a bum hammy all season, and starting center Bryant Crowder was suspended twice, played just three games, and left the program in December. What’s more, a 2-8 record in games decided by 10 points never permits a glossy record.
- Towson (1-17, 1-30): For Pat Skerry, it was simply about a lack of talent. The silver lining is Skerry proved he can coach ‘em up, and get his kids to respond. Few teams in the CAA played harder, and it’s notable that Robert Nwankwo made the all-defensive team. With a bumper recruiting class, and twoBCS conference transfers, Skerry anxiously awaits next season.