College Hoops Preview: The Colonial Athletic Association

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Throughout the month of October, CollegeBasketballTalk will be rolling out our previews for the 2012-2013 season. Check back at 9 a.m. and just after lunch every day, Monday-Friday, for a new preview item.

To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. To look at the rest of the Conference Previews we’ve published, click here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.

Unless something changes, this may be the last time anyone asks me to write a CAA preview for a national audience. With VCU gone to the A-10, and Old Dominion and Georgia State playing out the string as lame ducks before following their BCS football dreams, the league’s strength of schedule is on life support. A much bruited-about raid of the SoCon’s top teams never materialized this summer.

None of that matters. It’s still one of the most entertaining conferences in the nation. I’m here to tell you why – even now – you should never sleep on the CAA.

Five things to know

1. VCU is gone, off to wreak havoc on the Atlantic 10.

2. Old Dominion (C-USA) and Georgia State (Sun Belt) are on the way out, and have consequently been uninvited from the CAA’s postseason tournament.

3. Drexel last went to the NCAA tournament in 1996 and has never been there under 11th-year head coach Bruiser Flint.

4. UNC-Wilmington and Towson have been banned from postseason play due to poor performance in the Academic Progress Rate calculations.

5. Long-time league doormat Towson has brought in three Big East transfers and looks to be on the right track under second-year head coach Pat Skerry.

Impact newcomers:

R.J. Hunter – 6’8”, 180 lb. G, Georgia State: He’s the coach’s kid, but he won’t be mopping up blowouts and high-fiving from the end of the bench. The all-state performer from hoops-mad Indiana chose loyalty to dear old dad over offers from Iowa, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest.

Ron Curry – 6’3”, 175 lb. G, James Madison: The CAA cognoscenti have tabbed Curry as the likely freshman of the year, and recruiting analysts say the point guard from New Jersey has the raw talent to play in any league in the country. He’s an inside-out threat who distributes the ball and has the long arms of a top defender. Definitely one to watch.

Tavon Allen – 6’7”, 205 lb. G/F, Drexel: The redshirt freshman is big, ambidextrous, and can shoot it from anywhere on the floor. His ability to play multiple positions will make him a matchup nightmare.

Carl Baptiste – 6’8”, 240 lb. F, Delaware: The junior from New Jersey didn’t show much during his two seasons at St. Joe’s, but Blue Hens coach Monte’ Ross called him “the most skilled big man we have,” and looks to pair him with brick house senior Jamelle Hagins on the blocks.

Bilal Dixon – 6’9” 260lb. C, Towson: The latest athlete to take advantage of the graduate transfer rule, Dixon is a bit of a cipher. At Providence, he had his best season as a freshman, and declined thereafter. Bare minimum, he’ll be a defensive force; throw in a healthy diet of putbacks and tip-ins and he’s a star.

Breakout players:

Jarvis Threatt – 6’2” 170 lb. G, Delaware: Threatt was an All-Rookie honoree last season, coming on strong at the end of his freshman year and dropping 31 points on Butler in the postseason CBI. Scary thought: that was just the beginning.

Sherrod Wright – 6’4” 196 lb. G, GMU: Wright was a bit inconsistent last season, but he found his rhythm by February. He’s a crazy insanely ridiculous shooter, and if he takes care of the ball a little better as a junior, he’ll keep Mason in the league’s top echelon, where they’ve taken up permanent residence.

Andrey Semenov – 6’7” 205 lb. F, James Madison: The lanky Russian can drill them from downtown (44% last season), but he’s not afraid to step inside and battle for a putback, either. If he (and the rest of the Dukes) can stay healthy, he can be the floor-stretcher that makes everything easier.

Quincy Ford – 6’8” 212 lb. F, Northeastern: Ford averaged 11.5 points and 5 boards as a freshman, and was just as good on the defensive end. If he nudges his shooting percentage up from 43%, he’s the league’s next Kent Bazemore – the ODU standout now with the Golden State Warriors.

Tim Rusthoven – 6’9” 230 lb. F, William & Mary: Members of the CAA’s vibrant blogging community call him “Beasthoven”. Academic powerhouse W&M rarely sees a player this size, and Rusthoven showed the ability to score 10 and grab 6 when he was on the floor last season. If he can stay healthy, hit his charities and consistently gain position under the basket, his numbers can only go up.

Player of year: Frantz Massenat – 6’4” 185 lb. G, Drexel: Massenat featured prominently in the discussion for CAA POY last season (Mason’s Ryan Pearson won it), and he was just a sophomore. Granted, he was a sophomore who averaged 13.7 points, 3.3 boards, 4.8 assists and nearly a steal per game, so the attention was more than warranted. As the central gear on a loaded Drexel team, he’s ready to go supernova.

All-CAA: Massenat; Devon Saddler, G, Delaware; Jamelle Hagins, F, Delaware; Keith Rendleman, G/F, UNCW; Rayshawn Goins, F, JMU

Coach under pressure: Matt Brady, JMU: Brady has had some pretty good teams, and some pretty bad luck. Any semblance of chemistry for the Dukes has been disrupted by a plague of injuries to Brady’s best players. The former Marist head coach has alternated 20+ win seasons with disappointments, so if the pattern holds, he’ll be back up on top of the peak. If it’s a second straight valley, he’s done.

Predicted finish (with bonus blog links)

1. Drexel – Big and mean up front, tenacious and experienced in the backcourt. Even when the offense droops, the defense comes up big. Bruiser Flint has seen his strong teams repeatedly snubbed by the NCAA selection committee, and he’ll be gunning hard for the auto-bid.

2. Delaware – First of all, head coach Monte’ Ross just has “it”, the intangible thing that radiates from coaches on the rise. He’s also got a complete team, with Devon Saddler and Jamelle Hagins looking like all-league selections, and Jarvis Threatt as the spark plug.

3. George Mason – Mason is league royalty for a reason, and now that in-state rivals ODU and VCU are leaving, they’re the CAA’s top dog in the Commonwealth. Not quite as talented as the big D’s at the top of our list, but always a threat to cut down nets in Richmond.

4. Northeastern – The Huskies have a talented core, but lack a proven post presence and depth. Smart coaching (a given) and a couple of players stepping up (a crapshoot) and these guys are dangerous.

5. James Madison – Good players, questionable chemistry, constant looming threat of injuries. If Curry is as good as he can be, and everyone stays relatively healthy, they can vault into the top four.

6. Old Dominion* – Not to be crass, but Blaine Taylor knows his team isn’t eligible for the auto-bid, and he has a young squad. Expect him to tinker a lot in search of the rotation that will serve him best in C-USA next season.

7. William & Mary – The Wrens (not their real mascot) are the CAA’s hard-luck story. With Ivy-caliber academics and uninspiring sports facilities, they’re always just a touch off the pace. Beasthoven, hyperactive sophomore Marcus Thornton and streaky shooter Julian Boatner could play spoiler on any given night.

8. Georgia State* – Ron Hunter barely had a chance to get used to the CAA and he’s already on his way out. His team lost a lot of production, and will struggle to get everybody on the same page in a time of upheaval.

9. Towson* – In the past, Towson was bad with no hope. With Pat Skerry in charge, the sun’s starting to peek over the horizon. Loads of Big East transfers make up the core of this year’s team.

10. Wilmington* – It pains me to put the Seahawks this low, because Keith Rendleman is such a great player. He stuck with the team even though he knows he can’t go to the postseason in his senior year. Love him. Don’t love their chances.

11. Hofstra – Mo Cassara and the Pride gambled on transfers Jamal Coombs-McDaniel (UConn) and Taran Buie (Penn State). The two BCS wash-outs are already in the doghouse, serving suspensions to start the season. Not a good sign.

*not eligible for CAA postseason tournament

Eric Angevine has covered the Colonial Athletic Association for nearly a decade. He recommends CAA Hoops and CAAZone for all your pressing CAA basketball needs.

Bluiett back to Xavier for senior season

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Xavier lost one significant piece to the professional ranks this spring, but will return another.

Trevon Bluiett, the team’s leading scorer last year, announced via social media that he will be back to play his senior season with the Musketeers.

Chris Mack will return the bulk of a roster that struggled February only to make a run to the Elite Eight, but getting Bluiett for a final season makes the Musketeers especially dangerous. The 6-foot-6 Bluiett scored a team-high 18.5 points per game last year while also putting up 5.7 rebounds and 2.1 assists per night. He shot 37.1 percent from 3-point range, the second-best mark on the team. His return, even with point guard Edmond Sumner going pro amid his ACL tear recovery, makes Xavier one of the top teams in the Big East heading into the 2017-18 season.

Bluiett himself is enough to keep Xavier relevant in the league, but when he’s coupled with the likes of returners JP Macura, Sean O’Mara and Quentin Goodwin, plus a recruiting class featuring two four-star prospects, it’s not difficult to see a path for Mack’s group to a place where they can compete with the likes of Villanova and Seton Hall atop the league.

Welsh and Holiday returning to UCLA

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UCLA sustained some major, though expected, attrition from its roster this spring. On Tuesday, the Bruins announced a pair of significant contributors that will be back.

Thomas Welsh and Aaron Holiday will both return next season to the UCLA program, according to the school.

Welsh, a 7-foot center, averaged 10.8 points and 8.7 rebounds as a senior last year for the Bruins. He shot 58.5 percent from the floor and blocked 1.2 shots per game, and decided to declare for the NBA Draft without an agent before ultimately deciding to return to Westwood.

“Thomas has worked hard all spring,” UCLA coach Steve Alford said in a statement. “We supported him testing the NBA waters and are excited to have him returning for his senior year. He simply continues to develop each and every season.

“Thomas will be one of the top centers in college basketball next year and, undoubtedly, has a great chance to be a first-round pick in next season’s draft.”

The 6-foot-1 Holiday averaged 12.3 points and 4.4 assists last season while sharing a backcourt with Lonzo Ball, whose departure, along with those of TJ Leaf, Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton will leave UCLA with a very different look next season. The positive results, however, may not fluctuate too significantly with Welsh and Holiday coming back to play alongside two five-star recruits, Kris Wilkes and Jaylen Hands, as well as Lonzo’s younger brother LiAngelo.

West Virginia’s Macon forgoing final year

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West Virginia’s attempt to dethrone Kansas atop the Big 12 took a bit of a hit Tuesday.

Elijah Macon, a 6-foot-9 forward, announced his decision to forego a fifth year in Morgantown in order to pursue a professional career.

“First things first I would like to say thank you Bob Huggins and Erik Martin for believing in a young 15-year-old boy growing up from the Southside of Columbus, OH losing my mother and still having you guys push me to be the man I have become,” Macon said according to the school. “I can do nothing but thank you for all you and Mountaineer Nation (have) done for me. Unfortunately, I will not be returning for my senior season at WVU and instead sign with a(n) agent and play professional basketball. Thank you guys for all the love and support!”

Macon wasn’t a major contributor for the Mountaineers last season, averaging 6.3 points and 4.2 rebounds in 16 minutes per game, but he was an experienced and tough player who was well-versed in Huggins’ style and demands. Given the pace that the newly-fashioned Press Virginia plays at, depth is also paramount for them as a program.

Macon’s departure, though, may have been expected or at least partly anticipated by West Virginia. The Mountaineers signed five players in its most recent recruiting class, putting them one over their allotment of 13, so something had to give. West VIrginia will stay have interior depth, anchored by junior Esa Ahmad, so the loss of Macon is one they likely can weather, even if it may take some time to acclimate the newcomers.

“Elijah is in the process of completing classes during this summer school period that ends June 2 and will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in August,” Huggins said in a statement released by the school. “I respect his decision to become a professional basketball player and to go make money to support his family. He had a great four years with us, and we wish him nothing but the best.”

Key returning to Alabama for sophomore season

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Alabama’s top scorer is returning to school.

Braxton Key has withdrawn his name from the NBA draft and will be back with the Tide for his sophomore season, the school announced Tuesday.

“I spoke to coach Avery (Johnson) just over a week ago and informed him of my decision to withdraw my name from the NBA Draft and return to the University of Alabama for my sophomore season,” Key said in a statement. “I made that official when I sent my paperwork to the NBA league office Monday morning. I want to express my appreciation to my teammates, Coach Johnson and the entire coaching staff for giving me their full support while I went through this process.

“I am excited for the future of the Alabama basketball program and looking forward to getting to work as we prepare for next season. Roll Tide and Buckle Up!”

The 6-foot-8 forward averaged 12 points and 5.7 rebounds per game while shooting 43.3 percent from the field as a freshman. He gives Alabama four returning starts to pair with one of the country’s highest-regarded recruiting classes, headlined by five-star guard Collin Sexton. The Tide will also have an eligible Daniel Giddens, who previously transferred in from Ohio State.

Key didn’t seem likely to stay in the NBA draft, especially after he wasn’t invited to the combine, but his ultimate decision is a huge one for Avery Johnson as he looks to break through in his third season in Tuscaloosa with his first NCAA tournament appearance. 

Report: Justin Jackson to return to Maryland

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Maryland forward Justin Jackson is expected to return to school for his sophomore season, according to a report from FanRag Sports.

Jackson is an intriguing talent, a 6-foot-7 combo-forward with a 7-foot-3 wingspan that shoots 44 percent from three. But he’s also still developing his offensive game and consistency on the defensive end of the floor, which is why he was projected as a second round pick in this year’s draft.

With Jackson back in the fold, Maryland is a borderline top 25 team. They lost Melo Trimble to the professional ranks, but that’s something that Mark Turgeon has prepared for. With a sophomore class that also includes highly-regarded point guard Anthony Cowan and sharp-shooter Kevin Huerter, the Terps have a promising season ahead of them.