CAA tournament title truly up for grabs

Monté Ross and Delaware have never been to a CAA final. (Photo: Mark Jordan)

Monté Ross and Delaware have never been to a CAA final. (Photo: Mark Jordan)

Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)

The 2013 Colonial Athletic Association men’s basketball tournament is going to be wildly different from those that came before it.

For the last 19 years, a team from either Virginia or North Carolina–usually Virginia Commonwealth, Old Dominion, UNCW or George Mason–has walked away with the CAA crown and the NCAA bid that comes with it.

This year, that’s likely to change.

Virginia Commonwealth is already playing in the Atlantic 10. Old Dominion and UNCW are both ineligible for the CAA tournament; ODU due to their impending departure for Conference-USA and UNCW because of their low APR score. George Mason is the only one of the four that’s still alive, as the fourth seed in the tournament.

There are two other schools from Virginia–James Madison and William & Mary–who are also still in the mix, but considering neither has won the tournament since JMU’s 1994 title, it would still be something a little different.

“VCU’s the one team you didn’t want to play down there–or Old Dominion for that respect–so now it’s like okay, you’re down there, it’s wide open,” Drexel coach Bruiser Flint said after the Dragons finished off their regular season with a 62-46 win over UNCW on Saturday afternoon.

“I actually think all you have to do is look at the scores of the league and you knew it was going to be wide open anyways,” Flint added on a day where Old Dominion (5-25 overall, 3-15 CAA) won by seven at top-seeded Northeastern (19-11, 14-4).

The Rams were always the most-dreaded foe, playing not on their home court at the Siegel Center but just 1.5 miles away at the Richmond Coliseum in front of a packed house mostly wearing the Gold and Black. Add in the fact that Shaka Smart has had the program consistently in the top 25 over the last few years, and the absence of the now-famous “Havoc” system certainly leaves a gaping hole in the CAA hierarchy.

“Because VCU is not in it, because ODU’s not in it, does it open up some opportunities?” Delaware coach Monté Ross asked, then answered: “Maybe. But it’s still going to be terribly difficult to win it and it’s going to take some really good basketball playing from whoever does it.”

The Blue Hens are in a good position to make a run at their first NCAA bid since back-to-back appearances in 1998-99 under current Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey. They haven’t so much as made the CAA title game since joining the conference for the 2001-02 season.

Devon Saddler is the motst talented scorer in the CAA. (Photo: Mark Jordan)

Devon Saddler (right) is the most talented scorer in the CAA. (Photo: Mark Jordan)

Behind all-conference candidates Devon Saddler and Jamelle Hagins, Delaware enters the tournament as the hottest postseason-eligible team in the conference, having won four in a row and seven of their last eight games.

“I think our guys are confident–by no means cocky–but they are confident just because of the way that we’ve been playing here of late and the way that we’ve been able to win close ball games,” Ross said. “I think it lends itself to giving your guys some confidence.”

The hottest team in the entire league at the end of the season was Towson, also ineligible for the tournament due to low Academic Progress Rate (APR) scores. The Tigers (18-13, 13-5), under the direction of second-year head coach Pat Skerry, won eight of their final nine games of the season, completing the biggest turnaround in NCAA history after a 1-31 campaign last year.

They’re not the only ones who have been playing good ball of late.

Even William & Mary, the sixth seed in the tournament, has to feel good about the way they’ve been playing, losing two of their three by just four combined points but winning the three games prior to that. The Tribe, led by high-scoring sophomore Marcus Thornton and the versatile Tim Rusthoven, could certainly make some noise in Richmond.

“In most years, there’s that one or two outstanding teams that have to be the favorites going into the tournament. And I don’t think there is that one or two teams right now,” W&M coach Tony Shaver told CoBL. “A lot of people are playing well, so many games were just decided by one or two possessions right now in the league.”

The only school who doesn’t have a somewhat-realistic chance at winning the NCAA bid is seventh-seeded Hofstra, and even the Pride have four conference wins–albeit just one against a team in the tournament.

Top-seeded Northeastern still has to be considered the favorite despite that ODU loss, as the Huskies are led by a pair of senior guards in Joel Smith (16.5 ppg) and Jonathan Lee (13.8 ppg), with sophomore forwards Quincy Ford (12.9 ppg, 5.7 rpg) and Reggie Spencer (10.0 ppg, 6.2 rpg) rounding out a talented top four.

James Madison, the third seed, is an experienced squad led by four senior starters. George Mason at No. 4, needs some else besides star guard Sherrod Wright (16.5 ppg, 4.9 rpg) to shoulder some of the load–like when sophomore Bryon Allen dropped 13 points in a big season-opening win over Virginia that proves the Patriots are capable of quite a lot.

Frantz Massenat and Drexel were the 2012-13 preseason favorites.  (Photo: Josh Verlin)

Frantz Massenat and Drexel were the 2012-13 preseason favorites. (Photo: Josh Verlin)

And then there’s Drexel. The preseason favorites after winning 29 games last season, it’s certainly been a struggle this season for Flint’s squad. It took wins over ODU and UNCW in the final two games of the season just for the Dragons to get to .500 in conference play, but this is still a team fully capable of heading to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1996.

The only thing that DU has done well all season has been hitting the defensive boards, where they pull in 74.1 percent of available rebounds, the eighth-best mark in the country. Defensive 3-point percentage has gone from 29.0 percent (seventh nationally) to 34.6 percent (214th), both offensive 2-point percentage and 3-point percentage are down from last year as well.

“You’ve gotta play smarter, stay out of foul trouble, and we’ve got to shoot the ball a little bit better,” Flint said. “I’ve said since the New Year–we’ve played good enough defense to win, we’ve actually rebounded it, and we’ve actually taken care of the ball…so we’ve done all those types of things, but there’s certain things you’ve gotta do to try to win. One of them, we’ve got to play smarter, because we haven’t played smart.

“Can we do it? I have no question we can. But we gotta show it, and we’ve gotta play better than we played.”

Sophomore wing Damion Lee (17.4 ppg, 5.2 rpg) has blossomed into a bona fide star after winning 2012 CAA Rookie of the Year award, and junior guard Frantz Massenat (14.6 ppg, 4.6 apg) continues to be one of the best mid-major point guards in America. If Drexel can get more performances from the role players like the 13-point, 17-rebound effort they got from Daryl McCoy in the season finale against UNCW, watch out.

So no, there’s no VCU or ODU, Georgia State or Towson. No 19-game win streaks, no clear crowd favorite, and no Cinderella darling. Just seven teams, each hoping to start a new tradition in the CAA.

Get ready for a wild weekend in Richmond.

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