RTC Summer School: Colonial Athletic AssociationPosted by Brian Goodman on August 3rd, 2012
Over the next couple of week’s we’ll be checking in with each of the high mid-major leagues as to their mid-summer offseason status. Up next: the CAA.
Three Key Storylines
- A Different Look. Perhaps no conference faced the realignment wars more head on than the CAA. Georgia State announced in April it was moving to the Sun Belt effective in 2013. VCU and George Mason were both wooed by the Atlantic 10 — Shaka Smart took his Rams to a new conference while Paul Hewitt’s squad stuck. And Old Dominion followed Georgia State, making a football-driven decision to go to Conference USA. The summer was mostly spent managing off-court drama, so the season tip-off will be welcomed. Due to a longstanding CAA rule that programs leaving the CAA are not eligible for championships, ODU and Georgia State will essentially play lame duck seasons. When you factor in Towson and UNCW’s ineligibility due to APR results, the CAA Tournament — annually a raucous affair that plays to a sold-out Richmond Coliseum — will be a seven-team battle in March.
- Southern Bias No More? No team north of George Mason has won a CAA title since the conference expanded in 2000 to include four America East programs. In fact, VCU, Old Dominion, and George Mason have combined to win six straight CAA championships and eight of the last nine. However, VCU has moved to the A-10 and ODU is ineligible due to its impending move to Conference USA. Drexel finished 16-2 last year, losing to VCU in the CAA Tournament finals and Delaware returns every key player, adding St. Joseph’s transfer Carl Baptiste. Plus, Bill Coen has a senior backcourt and one of the conference’s top players in sophomore Quincy Ford. That leaves Hewitt’s team to fend off northern aggressors to keep the streak going.
- Channeling Medeleev. Several CAA coaches face as many chemistry concerns as X-and-O hurdles. Hofstra’s Mo Cassara could start as many as five transfers, led by former UConn Husky Jamal Coombs-McDaniel. The Pride went 14-4 and 3-15 in Cassara’s two seasons in the conference and his ability to combine elements could give rise to either record this year. Pat Skerry has a similar challenge at Towson. Skerry is rebuilding around a trio of Big East transfers that includes former Georgetown Hoya Jerrelle Benimon, Providence grad Bilal Dixon, and South Florida transfer Mike Burwell. And Ron Hunter replaces six seniors with a blend of freshmen (including his son, RJ Hunter, who turned down offers from ACC and Big Ten programs) and Virginia Tech transfer Manny Atkins. Hunter may also get Southern Cal transfer Curtis Washington eligible.
Where They Stand
- Drexel: The fact that absolutely nothing has happened for Drexel over the summer is an incredibly positive development. Bruiser Flint has the CAA’s prohibitive favorite after losing just one player from last year’s regular season champions. The Dragons have the best backcourt in the CAA, one that would stack up with plenty of national powers. Frantz Massenat is a scoring point guard, Damion Lee had one of the best freshman seasons in recent CAA memory, and Chris Fouch is a marksman. Throw in defensive stopper Derrick Thomas and role-playing Aquil Younger and you have a full house. Flint’s main question is getting frontcourt production—Darryl McCoy’s ability to shoot from the high post is a critical factor to loosening up defenses that will be very guard-focused, and Dartaye Ruffin needs to recapture his freshman season magic. Ruffin averaged 8.4 points per game as a freshman, but just 5.6 last year.
- Delaware: Star guard Devon Saddler is flanked by two sophomores, sharpshooting Kyle Anderson and Jarvis Threatt. Why is that the leading point? Khalid Lewis, last season’s floor general, transferred in early July, leaving just the three true guards on the Delaware roster. Saddler is a pure scorer, (18.8 PPG last season) but needs to cut down on his turnovers, while Anderson bombed in 68 threes. Still, the most noise could be made by Threatt. The numbers suggest that Threatt was a very good complimentary scorer, adding ten per game last year, but it’s a bit deceiving. See, Threatt was slow to adjust to college and was a nonfactor early in the season. However, he scored in double figures the final eight games, including putting 31 on Butler in the CBI tournament. The inside presence of Hagins and perimeter strength makes Delaware tough to defend in a defense-first conference.
- George Mason: Development is the key word for Paul Hewitt. Eric Copes proved to be a defensive force on the backline, displaying athleticism and strength uncommon in CAA freshmen. He swatted 51 shots in just 405 minutes. However, Copes was a liability on offense—not uncommon. Jon Arledge showed he belongs on the offensive end, but allowed himself to be pushed around with regularity. If Copes is able to master a couple basic offensive moves or Arledge beefs up the toughness, George Mason becomes a very dangerous team. What’s more, Hewitt’s backcourt showed promise, but was also very sloppy at times. While Bryon Allen (123 assists, 89 turnovers) and Vaughan Gray played well, they were overwhelmed and committed too many turnovers. They will need to settle down. Hewitt does have the luxury of two gunners—Vertrail Vaughans and Sherrod Wright can take over games offensively, but both disappeared at times last season. It seems like Mason has all the chess pieces, so developing the mode of play is critical.
- Georgia State: Ron Hunter hit Atlanta talking big: changing culture and insisting the Panthers could win. He fulfilled his promise early, turning a boring six CAA-win program into a feared 11-7 team. Now, he must replace six seniors with a new cast. Leading the way is his son, RJ Hunter. Cameron Solomon is the other new name to watch. Solomon is a pure scorer who will play even if he doesn’t yet defend. With all the new, it’s the old that will make this team go. Devonta White is the lone returning player and he is the Panther’s point guard. White is perfectly suited to how Hunter wants to play—fast-forward on offense and hectic on defense. James Vincent is an old school, back-to-the-basket center. His size and experience will get Vincent onto the floor with an opportunity to make a difference. In fact, Hunter believes Vincent is the difference between a 15-win season and a 20-win season.
- Hofstra: The Pride have gone 14-4 and 3-15 in the CAA in Mo Cassara’s two seasons. There is plenty of room to believe this year will be a return to the double-digit numbers in the win column. Cassara has amassed quite a talented cast of transfers to go alongside returning players who know what he wants. Jamal Coombs-McDainel (UConn) and Taran Buie (Penn State) lead the transfer parade. However, point guard Stevie Mejia will tell the tale. Mejia battled a bum hamstring and was fairly useless through the first part of last season, but once healthy, Mejia became the defense-slayer he was proclaimed to be. Mejia averaged and 11.8 points and 3.2 assists in the Pride’s final five games and 3.6 points and 1.4 assists in the first 27 games. Mejia hit 11-20 from three in those final five games, but went an ice-cold 9-35 in the first 27 games.
- James Madison: Matt Brady sits on the hottest seat in the CAA. It hasn’t been a quiet tenure both on and off the court for Brady, facing injuries in each season but one. In fact, in four of the last five years, Brady has lost multiple players due to a serious injury. The lone season in which there was no injury, James Madison went 21-12. The incredible number: the tally is 12 players lost in four years, with ten of those players being considered starters and nine of those players legitimate double-figures scorers. But he knows he has to win this year or it may be his last in Harrisonburg. He does have six seniors of his own, and a highly-touted recruiting class. Devon Moore has proven to be one of the top point guards in the conference when healthy, which has been a challenge. Brady also gets big Rayshawn Goins back. Goins is a load on the block at 265 pounds, but can shoot out to 15 feet.
- Northeastern: If guards and seniors win college basketball games, Northeastern is set. Jon Lee and Joel Smith are a formidable back court with three full seasons under their belt. What’s more, sophomore Quincy Ford is one of the best players in the country even CAA fans underestimate. Ford, who added 15 pounds of muscle this summer, led the team in blocks and steals, hit 35 threes and was second in rebounding. Lee (14.5 PPG, 42% from three) and Smith (12.9 PPG, 72 3FG) are both dangerous arcmen. Both, though, turned the ball over too much—something a senior should alleviate. Down low, Bill Coen can rely on Reggie Spencer, a consummate garbage man. However there isn’t much more beef, which could be a problem. The biggest difference this year could be between the ears. Two very talented but problematic players left the program, which should air out chemistry issues.
- Old Dominion: The Monarchs, no matter their final record, will be a psychologist’s dream. ODU lost four seniors who were responsible for a lot of wins in the very strong program, including new Golden State Warrior Kent Bazemore and rebounding king Chris Cooper. Kids like Dmitri Batten (8.0 PPG as a freshman) and Clemson transfer Donte Hill (7.8 PPG) have the opportunity to take the mantle. The big difference-maker could be Nick Wright. The big man has always brought energy to the floor, and now it’s time for production to match. Wright will be helped by NC State transfer Deshawn Painter, who was granted immediate eligibility this summer by the NCAA, and supersoph Richard Ross. Blaine Taylor has always fielded a scrappy, tough team. However, this year’s edition looks more finesse. Add to that the fact that it’s a lost season with an exacting coach—their move to the C-USA necessitates no championship participation—and you have the makings of a very interesting season.
- Towson: You cannot point to a single item of change that typifies the new culture at Towson because there are so many. The Tigers are in the middle of building a brand new basketball facility. Pat Skerry has a cadre of talented transfers (Jerrele Benimon, Mike Burwell) but also a couple freshmen to restock a decimated roster. And there are quality returnees from last year (point guard Kris Walden had 103 assists and wing Marcus Damas hit 12.5 PPG). Keep an eye on freshman Jerome Hairston. What does that mean? Nobody really knows; but the Tigers will be better in every facet. At no point during last season’s 1-31 disaster did Skerry equivocate to his situation. He demanded his team do the things they needed to win, and those ideals will begin paying off this season.
- UNCW: Three freshmen left UNCW after last season, and that may be a good thing. Buzz Peterson is rebuilding the once-proud program and the players who left were reportedly bad for the locker room. A 2-11 finish points to such things. Now, the Seahawks are on solid ground. Big man Keith Rendleman is the league’s best in the post. Rendleman had 16 double-doubles, including 12 in 18 CAA games. He is joined on the block by Ced Williams. The sophomore bucked the freshman trend and played better as the season wore on. He grabbed eight or more rebounds in six of UNCWs last eight games, and plopped 22 points on JMU in the CAA tournament. Craig Ponder had won the starting point guard spot last year before an ankle injury ended his season. He is back, and that matters.
- William & Mary: If there’s any justice in the CAA, last year will be this year for Tony Shaver. In non-con play, the Tribe looked to be a breakthrough team. William & Mary brought in freshman Marcus Thornton to join an already talented backcourt and a veteran leadership group. The dynamic Thornton did not disappoint, but injuries to star Quinn McDowell, forward Tim Rusthoven, and wing Kyle Gaillard sunk them before the season got started. So we look forward to this year, where Gaillard returns and Rusthoven is healthy. Thornton has a year under his belt to go alongside junior Brandon Britt and Julian Boatner. Britt is a jet quick point guard and Boatner his alter ego—a standstill shooter who can fill it up. Rusthoven provides Shaver a tough hombre inside but they are thin. Translation: this could be that year.
Hens Ready To Take It To The Next Level The Delaware Hens have almost imperceptibly gone from 3-15 in conference two seasons ago to 12-6 last year. Monte Ross has the conference’s second best backcourt and double-double machine Jamelle Hagins on the blocks. Hagins is also one of the conference’s top defenders and has a chance to finish third all-time in the CAA in blocked shots. Plus, Devon Saddler is a playmaker and scorer — a very important facet in a conference that grinds each other down. Everybody is talking about Drexel to break the Virginia stranglehold (and rightfully so), but don’t be shocked if Ross’s crew winds up on top. After all, YouDee has beaten Drexel at least once in four of the last five seasons and got a taste of winning and the postseason last year (CBI tournament).
The summer buzz is that the CAA is Drexel’s to lose. Who could be blamed for that option? After all, the Dragons lose but one player, Samme Givens. The difficult part is that Givens meant more to Bruiser Flint than statistics. He was a heart-and-soul player who had a great college career. There are a number of suitors, with George Mason and Delaware being the other lead dogs. However, we can realistically rule out nothing for the CAA season. The summer has left the league with an uneasy feeling — not down or desperate, rather not really knowing what to expect. VCU was the king of the league but they are now in the A-10. Old Dominion and Georgia State will play in the league’s regular season but both are ineligible for the CAA tournament. And UNCW and Towson, due to APR issues, are also ineligible.
“Weird” is probably the best descriptor for what we’re about to see. Unprecedented is another good one. The weirdness may beget a wide open fight. Each team has noticeable strengths but holes. Northeastern can score with anybody but will need to find rebounding strength. James Madison is talented and experienced but feels cursed. Old Dominion is annually a factor but lost four seniors, including Golden State Warrior Kent Bazemore. And as noted above, Hofstra and Georgia State have practically all new teams. The CAA has long been a defense-first grind-a-thon, highlighted by two-possession games at the under-four media timeout. This year? The strengths will fluctuate game by game as everyone jockeys for position. The only thing you can count on is the head coaching. For the first time since 2007-08, every CAA head man returns.