2013-14 RTC Conference Preview: Colonial Athletic AssociationPosted by Mark Selig on November 4th, 2013
Mark Selig is the RTC correspondent for the Colonial Athletic Association. You can also find his musings online on Twitter @markrselig.
Since the last CAA game — a James Madison championship that its fans waited nearly two decades to see — the league has officially said goodbye to perennial powers George Mason (off to the Atlantic 10) and Old Dominion (now in Conference USA in a football-driven move), and hello to intriguing newcomer College of Charleston (formerly of the Southern Conference). Based on last year’s RPIs, the CAA won’t immediately suffer, but Mason — with a Final Four appearance last decade — is obviously a more high-profile program than Charleston. ODU is too. The swap is just the latest in the CAA’s geographical shift. The league is losing its Virginia members (VCU exited before last season) and seems to be trending south.
The league also said goodbye to Mo Cassara, Hofstra’s hard-luck coach who took the job in tough circumstances (replacing Tim Welsh after a DUI) and was let go in equally difficult ones. His replacement? Longtime Niagara coach Joe Mihalich, who said he’ll have to donate all the purple wardrobe accumulated from 15 years with the Purple Eagles to JMU coach Matt Brady (ironically, Mihalich and Brady both have wives named Mary, and both have three sons, including a set of twins — with the same May 30 birthday!). Brady, meanwhile, parlayed his CAA title into a four-year contract extension, although the talks were a bit drawn out, nearly lingering until his previous contract expired. As for a new coach joining Mihalich in the league, second-year Charleston coach Doug Wojcik becomes every CAA reporter and copy editor’s worst nightmare. Wojcik (I’m already getting the hang of it), is no stranger to the CAA, having played with David Robinson at Navy in the 1980s.
The final goodbye from the CAA was to the city of Richmond — home of the league’s last 24 postseason tournaments. The league offices are still located in Richmond, but the CAA will host its annual playoff in Baltimore this year. Trying to establish Charm City as a sort of hub for CAA hoops, the conference held its media day at the Renaissance Baltimore, a swanky hotel overlooking the Inner Harbor. “Crab Cakes and basketball. That’s what we’re going to do here in Charm City,” Towson coach Pat Skerry, channeling a Wedding Crashers line, said during a lunchtime speech at media day.
- Towson (18-13 last season, 13-5 in CAA): Reigning CAA Player of the Year Jerrelle Benimon is back and Pat Skerry is considering playing the 6’8″, 245-pounder at point guard now and then. Scan every college roster and tell me how many point guards averaged over 17 points and 11 rebounds per game last year, as Benimon did. You sure you didn’t miss anyone? Ineligible last year because of academic sanctions, the Tigers are the early favorites to win this year’s CAA Tournament, now held in their backyard. They’re also opening a sparkling new 5,200-seat arena. Fans will get to see not only Benimon but a deep supporting group including active forward Marcus Damas, precocious point guard Jerome Hairston, reliable guard Mike Burwell and sharpshooting Vermont transfer Four McGlynn. Timajh Parker-Rivera and Rafriel Guthrie are the type of intangible energy guys who make a good team great at the mid-major level. While Skerry hasn’t been blown away by his team’s performances in preseason practices, this team could be great in the CAA.
- Drexel (13-18, 9-9): The Dragons were the runaway picks to win the CAA last season. Oops. They were merely a .500 team, and one that was bounced in the opening game at the CAA Tournament. Let’s try this again: Drexel should compete for a league title in 2014. It returns scoring guard Chris Fouch (16.7 points per game in 2011-12), who missed all but three games to injury last year. And he might be the third best player in a backcourt that features left-handed point guard Frantz Massenat and smooth wing Damion Lee (17.1 PPG last year). Massenat was a POY runner-up two seasons ago but took a small step back last year when injuries wiped out many of his supporting targets. If the experienced guys, including bruising forward Dartaye Ruffin, stay healthy, Drexel will win a lot of games. The Dragons had the top defense in the CAA last year, and now they have enough offensive punch to pull out Ws in the low-70s.
- Charleston (24-11, 14-4 in SoCon): The dirty little secret of the CAA poaching Charleston from the SoCon is that the SoCon’s top two teams last year — Davidson and C of C — were each better than every single Colonial team, at least according to RPI. The Cougars, runners-up in the league, now come north with four returning starters and plenty of depth. The names to know right away are Anthony Stitt and Adjehi Baru. Stitt, the point guard, is the guy who makes Charleston go, while Baru, a 6’9″ junior forward, might have as much pro potential as any other player in this league. He led the SoCon with 8.3 rebounds per game last year. And keep an eye on freshman Canyon Barry, especially when he’s at the free-throw line. The son of NBA legend Rick Barry plans to attempt foul shots underhanded, just like Pops.
- Delaware (19-14, 13-5): The Blue Hens set a school record for most CAA wins last year, but it wasn’t an outright successful season for a team that had visions of net-cutting in Richmond. Instead, UDel fell victim to a late JMU comeback (and a controversial out-of-bounds call) in the tournament semifinals. Back are three high scoring guards —powerful senior Devon Saddler (league-leading 19.9 PPG last year), free-throw magnet Jarvis Threatt and outside threat Kyle Anderson. Missing is double-double machine Jamelle Haggins, also the team’s top defensive player. Carl Baptiste might be able to make up for some of the lost interior scoring, but Delaware’s defense could struggle without its anchor.
- William & Mary (13-17, 7-11): The Tribe has gone just 61-96 in the last five seasons, but jammed in there is a 2010-11 campaign in which the team came out of nowhere to post a 22-11 record in an uber-competitive CAA. This season could be a lot like that one for W&M, which returns four starters and shooters all over the court. The star is point guard Marcus Thornton, who followed a solid freshman year with a huge jump as a sophomore. He averaged 18.8 points per game and caught fire down the stretch. Deceptively effective forward Tim Rusthoven averaged 14.4 points and seven rebounds per game last year and is a preseason second team pick. William & Mary’s biggest question mark may be its defense.
- Northeastern (20-13, 14-4): The Huskies might get beat up a bit in an early-season tournament in Puerto Rico, but coach Bill Coen can usually locate the right buttons to make his team competitive, even when the talent isn’t there. After winning the regular season last year but not putting up much of a contest in the tournament title game, Northeastern returns three starters and two key bench guys. But the pair of starters it doesn’t return — guards Jonathan Lee and Joel Smith — could be a reason for drop-off. Those two were the team’s best scorers and ball-handlers. Now it’s up to promising sophomore David Walker to organize the offense and talent-dripping swingman Quincy Ford to increase his scoring load.
- James Madison (21-15, 11-7): The Dukes’ run to the NCAA Tournament was unexpected last March. A repeat performance would be even more surprising. Gone are five seniors — four of them starters in last year’s title game — including tournament MVP A.J. Davis. The Dukes’ roster, now, is collectively prohibited from entering bars across America. Eight freshmen. Four sophomores. A walk-on junior. And a senior (Andrey Semenov) spending his sixth year on campus. While the Dukes might have talent, they are probably too young to contend. Sophomore Charles Cooke is due for a huge breakout season, especially as JMU tries to navigate a road-loaded non-conference schedule without Andre Nation, suspended for the first 15 games for, according to sources, a second failed drug test.
- North Carolina-Wilmington (10-20, 5-13): The Buzz Peterson era has not started well, with Wilmington accumulating 59 losses in three seasons. The best player from that time period, power forward Keith Rendleman, is now gone, but the Seahawks return their other four starters — none of whom averaged double-figures last year. Senior guard Chris Dixon showed he was capable of explosions last year, scoring 30 in one game. UNCW will need him to be more consistent in the high teens. He’ll have help in the backcourt from Alabama transfer Ben Eblen, the projected starter at point guard. The team is still waiting on eligibility decisions for Nigerians Yemi Makanjoula and Chuck Ogobodo. Their statuses could determine whether UNCW is a frisky opponent or a doormat.
- Hofstra (7-25, 4-14): When Joe Mihalich filled out his CAA preseason ballot, he stuck to one tenet. “I just figured they’re all better than us,” he said of the eight other teams. Sure, coaches, by rule, aren’t permitted to place their team anywhere on the ballot, but even if he could, Mihalich would own up to the No. 9 spot. His group consists of two graduate students, three transfers, four freshmen and just three returning players. Dion Nesmith is a solid all-around guard transferring in from Monmouth while Moussa Kone and Stephen Nwaukoni are known quantities, if not impact players, in the frontcourt. It’ll be a long, difficult season starting with a game against 2013 National Champion Louisville. It can only get better from there.
Spotlight On …
Remember Blaine Taylor, the gregarious Old Dominion coach who led the Monarchs to 135 wins and four NCAA Tournament appearances in 11 seasons before an ugly divorce ended the 12th late last year? Well, ODU might be gone from the CAA, but Taylor isn’t. The 55-year-old, still living in Virginia Beach, said he will do color commentary for various televised CAA games this season, beginning with a Delaware at James Madison contest on January 11. “Many people told me, ‘Hey, I’d love to see you on television at some point,’” Taylor said during a one-on-one interview at media day last week. “So, here we go.” Always quick with a quip, Taylor was one of the biggest personalities in the CAA throughout his career at ODU. During a miserable season in which the Monarchs uncharacteristically racked up loss after loss, Taylor had a strange radio appearance which raised questions about his mindset at the time.
Now noticeably thinner and with close-cropped silver hair, Taylor is happy to begin a new chapter. “Right now I’m really content to doing TV,” he said when asked if he had a hankering to return to coaching. “I’m really committed to trying to do a good job with that. Just kind of see what my experiences offers me.” How will he be as an analyst? Probably pretty good. Taylor is obviously well-educated on most of the league’s team’s, and that big personality could provide some entertaining moments. “I’ve got some things to learn, but the things I don’t have to learn are the coaches and the places and the teams and all that kind of stuff,” Taylor said. “I pretty much have a feel for all that stuff. It’s pretty much a chance to do something different. It’s kind of refreshing.”