Oy, what a mess.
For the past decade, the CAA tournament was one of the hottest mid-major tourneys going. Annual battles between VCU, George Mason, Old Dominion and other tough teams from the league presaged Big Dance upsets and even Final Four runs. This year? Not so much.
VCU is tearing up the A-10. Old Dominion fell off a cliff and fired Blaine Taylor, and they’re off to C-USA next season. George Mason is mediocre, and preseason favorite Drexel never got going this year. Half of the league’s remaining schools aren’t eligible for the postseason tourney because of impending realignment or APR-related sanctions. The league’s best story – the record turnaround of Towson – won’t be continued in the postseason due to academic issues, in fact.
The biggest casualty in all this? Rock Fight Friday, the traditional opening round in which the league’s also-rans battled for the opportunity to face the league leaders – earners of byes – on Saturday. With the wonky field this year, No. 1 seed Northeastern gets to wait until Sunday for an opponent, while everyone else must battle on Saturday.
The teams that are left standing this year aren’t a bad lot, but none was able to effectively dominate during the regular season. Even Northeastern took a couple of head-scratching losses. In essence, this tournament is wiiiiiide open, and only the auto-bid winner is going to sniff the NCAAs. That makes every game count, and that’s compelling television.
Where: Richmond Coliesum in Richmond, VA
When: March 9 -March 11
Final: March 11, 7:00 p.m., NBCSN
The Huskies have the best offense in the CAA this season, led by sharpshooter Joel Smith and all-around threat Quincy Ford. They excel on the perimeter, where they’re shooting over 37 percent as a team. Now, for the bad news: Northeastern is in the league’s lower echelon in terms of defense, which contributed to horrific losses to postseason ineligible cellar-dwellers UNC-Wilmington and Old Dominion – the latter in the final game of the season. We’ll stipulate that the Huskies earned the favorites role by winning more league games than anyone else, but they are vulnerable.
And if they lose?: George Mason
The Patriots have been as baffling as anyone else in the CAA this season. Given that uncertainty, it is worth noting that they deploy the best defense in the league, and their offense is dangerous when it’s not suffering the league-wide yips that have affected every team to take the floor. For the rest of the eligible teams, this is a big year – the auto-bid has been owned by Virginia-based teams – specifically Mason, VCU and ODU – for years. They’ll be gunning for Mason as the most likely team to continue the trend, and thus the team everyone wants to take down.
Sleepers: All of ’em. I’m not kidding. Delaware is top of this list – loaded with talent but bafflingly inconsistent this season, they may pull it together at the right time. Preseason favorite Drexel is also mega-talented, but seems woefully out of sync. Hofstra and William and Mary seem unlikely, but it’s that kind of season in the CAA. James Madison may be a true dark horse, having earned the league’s No. 3 seed. Sentiment is on the side of the Tribe, who have never made the NCAA tournament, and are sick and bloody tired of me pointing that out.
– Joel Smith, Northeastern: Smith can shoot his team in or out of any game they play, which is rough in a single-elimination event, but his season-long habit has been consistent excellence when the ball leaves his fingertips.
– Devon Saddler, Delaware: The Blue Hens have suffered some injuries and had some letdowns this season, but Saddler has been an iron man throughout. The junior guard averages 20.2 points per game and contributes his fair share of steals, assists and rebounds as well. Delaware is the No. 2 seed in the tourney, and they can break through if Saddler puts the team on his back yet again.
– Damion Lee, Drexel: The 6’6″ Lee is just one reason we thought Drexel would dominate the CAA this season. He’s just a sophomore, but he’s been playing like a warrior for the Dragons. He may not be enough to rescue them this season, but his skills – alongside those of stud freshman Tavon Allen – give Drexel fans hope for the future.
Invisible Heroes: Thanks to a combination of bad academics and the CAA’s punitive banning of any program that is leaving for greener pastures, we’re missing out on a handful of superior players on our TV screens this March. Foremost amongst them is Towson’s Jerelle Benimon, who has been an absolute beast in helping to turn the program around this year. Also sadly sitting home this weekend: R.J. Hunter of Georgia State and Keith Rendleman of Wilmington.
CBT Prediction: Drexel – a very good defensive team – locks down and takes the auto-bid as karmic repayment for all the times Bruiser Flint had a valid at-large profile and got snubbed. Because he’s due. That’s the way it works, right?
Eric Angevine is the editor of Storming the Floor. He tweets @stfhoops.