Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
Take a look at the complete list of Colonial Athletic Association tournament winners, and a theme emerges.
Old Dominion leads all programs with six CAA championships. Richmond and Virginia Commonwealth have five apiece, George Mason and UNC-Wilmington each have four, James Madison and Navy have three, and East Carolina has the one left over.
That’s 31 championships, and not a single one won by a school from colder regions of the country.
Ever since the ECAC South basketball conference–which would become the CAA in 1985–started hosting a postseason tournament in 1983, every winner of the league’s auto-bid to the NCAA Tournament had come from the state of Maryland or further south.
Delaware’s exciting, come-from-behind, 75-74 win over William & Mary in the 2014 CAA championship game was not only the school’s first appearance in the league championship since leaving the America East Conference in 2001, but changed the feel of the entire conference.
“It’s special, but it’s a special league,” head coach Monté Ross said. “The reason that we were able to win, and the southern teams were winning it before, is because they were the most talented teams.
“We happened to be pretty talented this year, so we were able to win it.”
The league has always had a bit of a southern bias, with plenty of teams from below the Mason-Dixon line and only a few programs (Hofstra, Drexel, Delaware, Northeastern) that reside above it. But there had been a few prime opportunities for the northern squads to break through.
Two years ago, Drexel rode a 19-game winning streak into the CAA tourney finale before falling just short to VCU. Last season, top-seeded Northeastern was ready to end the streak, but James Madison had other thoughts in the championship contest, winning 70-57.
Delaware hadn’t even gotten as close as those schools did, and it was something everyone in the program program was well aware of.
“Since we’ve been in the CAA, we haven’t won a championship, we hadn’t made it to the championship,” senior forward Carl Baptiste said. “It’s tremendous, it just speaks volumes about what Coach Ross has done with the program and what direction the program’s going in general.”
It certainly helps that there’s been quite a bit of turnover. Virginia Commonwealth, Richmond and George Mason are now in the Atlantic 10; Old Dominion is in Conference USA, as was ECU before they’ll head to the American Athletic Conference next year. Navy’s now a member of the Patriot League.
The tournament isn’t even held in Virginia anymore; for the first time ever, it was held at the Baltimore Arena, up in Maryland.
So it was only a matter of time before one of the northern squads raised the trophy and cut down the nets at the CAA Tournament. Delaware just got there first.
Now it’s onto March Madness for the Blue Hens, who certainly have a chance to win a game or two in the Big Dance.
They can draw inspiration from a pair of CAA squads who’ve made deep runs. Back in 2006, George Mason made it all the way to the Final Four as an 11-seed. Five years after that, VCU–given the same seeding–made it out of the First Four in Dayton to go all the way to a national semifinal appearance of its own.
Delaware already ended one trend with their tournament victory, but this is one they’d certainly like to continue. But they know that the respect that those other programs brought to the league with those late runs has all but gone with them to their new conferences.
It’s time to make some new history.
“It’s reassuring that that’s happened in the past and it is going to give us some confidence going into this, but the confidence is really stemming from our team,” Baptiste said. “We’ve competed with Villanova, we competed with Ohio State, we know that we can play with the bigger teams. You get us on a neutral court and we think we can make an upset.”
When Virginia Commonwealth was opening eyes around the nation four years ago, current Delaware senior Devon Saddler was just finished his freshman year as a Blue Hen. Four years ago, it was seniors Joey Rodriguez and Jamie Skeen who became national names when they took the Rams past Georgetown and Purdue, Florida State and Kansas.
This year, it could be Saddler, the all-team leading scorer in UDel history and the sixth-highest scorer all-time in the CAA, who shows the country just what he can do. Or Davon Usher, who escaped APR sanctions at Mississippi Valley State and has flourished in Newark, scoring over 19 ppg this season to help the Blue Hens to their 25-9 record; Baptiste and junior guard Jarvis Threatt aren’t to be looked past, either.
Perhaps more than anybody else, it’s Saddler who understands the opportunity that the Blue Hens have in front of them.
“When VCU was making their run, I was cheering for them even though that was one of my enemies,” he said. “It inspires me that teams from the CAA can make big runs and play against big teams, and I love the mid-major atmosphere.”
Now they have a chance to carry that CAA banner onto the biggest college basketball stage there is. To be mentioned along with those 2006 Patriots an 2011 Rams would be a career-defining legacy. Just to have that opportunity to represent the league is not lost on Saddler.
“It’s meaningful,” he said. “Those two teams were two tough teams in this league.”
Now there’s only one thing left for the Blue Hens to do. Saddler put it simply.
“Go into the tournament and try to win a couple of games.”