George Mason Richmond Basketball

Conference Catchups: Mason best of shrinking CAA

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Conference play is right around the corner, so to help you get out of that post-holiday haze, we’ll be catching you up on all the happenings in the country’s top 12 conferences. Here’s our CAA Conference Catchup:

Favorite: George Mason

The more things change, the more they stay the same in the CAA. As the league’s power base of Virginia schools has been gradually eroded by realignment — most notably the absence of VCU in this year’s schedule — the time seemed ripe for a geographical shift. Drexel and Delaware were atop our preseason preview list, with Mason coming in third.

Well, here we are again, with the Patriots standing tall. They started the season with an upset win over Virginia, came within a point of knocking off New Mexico at the Pit, and drained a three to beat Richmond in the Spiders’ hometown. The Patriots have lost a few games they should have won, but that’s been an epidemic in the CAA this season, so they’re still the best of the bunch right now. Mason has one particular stat to hang their stocking caps on: their 91.6 Kenpom defensive efficiency number reflects a staunch inside presence led by Erik Copes that gives them a great chance night in and night out. If the Patriots can just get some offensive help for sharpshooting Sherrod Wright, they’ll be so much tougher to beat.

Contenders: Drexel is still the league’s most dangerous offensive team, even without senior Chris Fouch, who broke his ankle and will miss the rest of the season. Most bafflingly, the Dragons can’t stop anybody, so they’ve lost to good teams (St. Mary’s, Xavier, St. Joe’s) and mediocre teams (Rider, Tennessee State) alike.

William & Mary has played a pretty weak schedule, but they’ve won the games they should win, and that’s more than the rest of the league can say after non-conference season. Signs of life for the star-crossed Tribe include 1) excellent shooting (53.9%) inside the arc, 2) excellent defense on the perimeter and 3) unlike half of the league, they are eligible to win the auto-bid this season. Heartache is a familiar feeling for Tribe fans, who have never had an NCAA tourney team, but this could be their year.

Biggest Surprise: Jerelle Benimon, Towson

Benimon was a bench-riding afterthought at Georgetown. Granted, the Big East is a tough gig, but Benimon has been flat crushing it in his first post-transfer season as a Tiger. His 20 point, 21 rebound effort in last week’s upset of Oregon State put him on the national radar, but he put up 30 points in 40 minutes in an earlier loss to Temple, and 29 in a road win over Vermont. The Tigers as a team aren’t much of a threat just yet, but the 6’8″, 245-lb. Benimon is as scary as they come.

Biggest Disappointment: Drexel

Nobody in the CAA — possibly the nation — has been screwed over by the NCAA at-large process more than Bruiser Flint. His strongest teams have been thrown over in favor of dubious power-conference teams far too often. Flint knows as well as anyone that the only sure way to make the Dance is to get the league’s auto-bid, but a slew of uninspired non-conference losses has made certain that the committee’s folder on the Dragons is thin indeed.

Player of the Year: Sherrod Wright, George Mason

Other players score more points than Wright, but they’re making use of the volume-shooting method. Wright has a mighty fine 17.5 points per game average, but his shot selection and accuracy blow everyone else in the league away, easy. Wright is shooting 54% overall, and a stunning 45% from deep. Devon Saddler (Delaware) and Damion Lee (Drexel) might make up ground before it’s all said and done, but right now, I’ll take Sherrod.

Best Freshman: R.J. Hunter, Georgia State

The coach’s kid is no joke. The 6’5″ swingman is averaging 15.5 points and 5.8 rebounds per game. He can stroke it from deep and leads the team in free-throw percentage. He’s one of the team’s better defensive players, as well, and you’d better believe that Ron Hunter wouldn’t play anybody, including his own son, who didn’t put in the effort on defense. It’s a shame this team is on its way out of the league, with such bright days ahead.

Three Predictions

  • The CAA is a one-bid league. With VCU gone, the lowering tide was taking all ships down with it anyway, but the league’s decision to hold Old Dominion and Georgia State out of the postseason to punish them for leaving, and APR problems dinging UNCW and Towson, the league’s auto-bid won’t even be worth the paper it’s printed on. To top that off, the league’s non-conference record this season is atrocious – there will be zero thought given to an at-large bid this year.
  • An ineligible team will embarrass a contender. Some of the league’s best individual players (Keith Rendleman, R.J. Hunter, Jerelle Benimon) are on teams that can’t play in March. One or more of them will make the rest of the league feel his pain.
  • Drexel will rally. This team’s slump is really difficult to explain. And I’d rather drink muddy water and sleep out in a hollow log than go to practice every day and disappoint Bruiser Flint. I suspect his players feel the same. The Dragons will find their rhythm, as they did with last season’s 19-game win streak. But timing is everything. A simple three-win streak in March is all anyone is looking for.

Power Rankings (* = ineligible for CAA tournament):

1. George Mason
2. Drexel
3. William & Mary
4. James Madison
5. Delaware
6. Towson*
7. Northeastern
8. Georgia State*
9. UNCW*
10. Old Dominion*
11. Hofstra

Eric Angevine is an Old Dominion grad, which no doubt led to his controversial decision to rank his alma mater 10th instead of dead last in the league.

No. 1 Kentucky survives without Tyler Ulis in lineup

Tyler Ulis
AP Photo/Chuck Burton
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Less than a week after giving No. 2 Maryland all they could handle, Illinois State went into Lexington and gave No. 1 Kentucky fits.

The Redbirds never really threatened UK in the second half, but they went into the break tied and were within single digits down the stretch, eventually losing 75-63.

Kentucky was flustered. They turned the ball over 15 times compared to just eight assists, they shot 2-for-12 from three and just 29-for-46 (63 percent) from the charity stripe. They simply did not handle Illinois State’s pressure all that well.

And there was a reason for that.

Tyler Ulis didn’t play.

Sometimes it’s difficult to appreciate just what a player brings to a team until that player is not in the lineup, and that was precisely the case with Ulis on Monday night. It was crystal clear what he provides Kentucky. Beyond leadership and the ability to break a press without throwing the ball to the other team, he’s a calming presence. He doesn’t get rattled when a defender is harassing him and he doesn’t get overwhelmed by a situation like a mid-major threatening the No. 1 team in the country in their own gym.

He’s everything you look for in a pure point guard, and for as good as Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe have looked at times this season, it should be crystal clear who the most important player on this Kentucky team is.

LSU loses to Charleston, eliminates at-large bid margin for error

Ben Simmons
AP Photo/Kathy Willens
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Ben Simmons scored 15 points and grabbed 18 rebounds, the second time in his six-game career that the LSU freshman has collected that many caroms, but that wasn’t enough for the Tigers to avoid dropping a game on the road to the College of Charleston, 70-58. It was the third straight loss for Simmons’ crew, as they fell to Marquette and N.C. State at the Legends Classic last week.

But here’s the thing: LSU didn’t just lose.

The game really wasn’t close.

LSU was down by as many as 23 points. It was 39-17 at the half, and that was after Charleston had a shot at the buzzer called off upon review. They made a bit of a run in the second half but never got closer than seven. When LSU would cut into the lead, the Cougars would respond with a run of their own, killing LSU’s spirit while keeping them at arm’s length.

[RELATED: Ben Simmons’ one college year a waste?]

Now, there are quite a few things here to discuss. For starters, LSU’s effort was, at best, apathetic, and, at worst, regular old pathetic. The team has a serious lack of leadership that was plainly evident on Monday night; would Fred VanVleet let his team fold against a program picked to finish at the bottom of the SoCon? Would Tyler Ulis? For that matter, would Tom Izzo or Mike Krzyzewski or John Calipari?

Perhaps more importantly, does any of that change when Keith Hornsby and Craig Victor get back?

Simmons did show off his potential — 18 boards, four assists, he even made his first three of the year — but he also showed precisely why there are scouts that are trying to curtail the LeBron James comparisons. Simmons was 4-for-15 from the floor with seven turnovers against a mediocre mid-major team. There are so many things that Simmons does well, but scoring efficiently — particularly in half court setting — and shooting the ball consistently are not on that list.

But here’s the biggest issue: LSU may have put themselves in a situation where they aren’t a tournament team. As of today, they’re 3-3 on the season with losses to a pair of teams that, at best, seem destined to be in the bubble conversation on Selection Sunday in addition to this loss to Charleston. The rest of their non-conference schedule is ugly. The only game worth noting is at home against No. 6 Oklahoma at the end of January.

The NCAA factors in non-conference schedule strength when determining at-large teams. You need to at least try, and LSU didn’t try; they have one of the worst non-conference schedules in the country.

The great thing about being in the SEC — as opposed to, say, the Missouri Valley — is that the Tigers will have plenty of chances to earn marquee wins. Six, by my court: Kentucky twice, Texas A&M twice, Vanderbilt on the road and Oklahoma at home. They probably need to win at least two or three of those games to have a real chance, and that’s assuming they can avoid anymore horrid losses in the process.

The season isn’t over six games in, not by any stretch of the imagination.

But LSU has done a hell of a job eliminating their margin for error.