photo courtesy Northeastern Athletics

2013 Colonial Athletic Association tournament preview

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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.

The Bracket

Where: Richmond Coliesum in Richmond, VA

When: March 9 -March 11

Final: March 11, 7:00 p.m., NBCSN

Favorite: Northeastern

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.

Studs:

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.

Michigan’s Spike Albrecht to finish his career at rival Big Ten program

Michigan guard Spike Albrecht (2) makes a layup between Northern Michigan forward Brett Branstrom, top left, and center Vejas Grazulis (52) in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game at Crisler Center in Ann Arbor, Mich., Friday, Nov. 13, 2015. Michigan won 70-44. (AP Photo/Tony Ding)
(AP Photo/Tony Ding)
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Spike Albrecht’s career isn’t over, as the former Michigan point guard and graduate transfer has committed to play his final season for Big Ten rival Purdue.

“I’ll be playing my 5th year for Purdue University,” Albrecht tweeted on Tuesday morning. “Boiler Up.”

Albrecht’s career has been fascinating to follow. A very lightly recruited high schooler, Albrecht picked Michigan over Appalachian State, playing very limited minutes behind National Player of the Year Trey Burke before popping off for 17 points in the first half of the national title game that season (and launching the greatest heat check in the history of heat checks). He would play a bigger role as a sophomore before averaging 7.5 points and 3.9 assists in 32 minutes as a junior in 2014-15.

But as a senior, Albrecht cut his season short after just a couple of games due to a degenerative issue in his hips. He had surgery on both hips prior to last season and initially announced that his career was over. That changed, but Michigan’s scholarship situation didn’t: They had already recruited someone to take his scholarship after his graduation, so Albrecht was forced to transfer.

Purdue is a good fit for him. He’ll provide veteran leadership on a team with just one other senior on the roster — redshirt junior Basil Smotherman — and he’ll help anchor the point guard spot currently held by junior P.J. Thompson.

Villanova’s Jenkins to return for senior season

Villanova forward Kris Jenkins (2) reacts to play against North Carolina during the second half of the NCAA Final Four tournament college basketball championship game Monday, April 4, 2016, in Houston. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall
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After briefly taking part in the NBA Draft evaluation process, Villanova forward Kris Jenkins announced Monday night that he’s decided to withdraw and return to school for his senior year. Jenkins, whose three-pointer as time expired gave the Wildcats the win over North Carolina in the national title game, announced the news via Twitter.

2015-16 was a breakout season for Jenkins, who moved into the starting lineup and averaged 13.6 points, 3.9 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game. The 6-foot-6 forward shot 45.9 percent from the field and 38.6 percent from beyond the arc, and with starters Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu graduating he’ll have even more opportunities to produce next season.

Jenkins’ decision to return leaves wing Josh Hart as the lone Wildcats going through the early entry process at this time. Hart was a first team All-Big East selection as a junior, and his return would be the final piece to the puzzle for a team that many expect to be a national title contender in 2016-17.

Jenkins and Hart wouldn’t be the only returnees who had a part in the national title run, with guards Jalen Brunson and Phil Booth, wing Mikal Bridges and forward Darryl Reynolds back as well. To that group Villanova adds Fordham transfer Eric Paschall and a recruiting class anchored by Omari Spellman and Dylan Painter with Donte DiVincenzo and Tim Delaney available after being hampered by injuries last season.

Delaney missed all of last year after undergoing surgical procedures on his hips, and DiVincenzo played a total of 74 minutes over the first nine games before having to sit due to a broken foot.

Florida State guard Rathan-Mayes to return for junior season

Florida State guard Xavier Rathan-Mayes (22) drives past Notre Dame guard Rex Pflueger, left, for a score in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Tallahassee, Fla., Saturday, Feb. 27, 2016. (AP Photo/Mark Wallheiser)
AP Photo/Mark Wallheiser
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With their top three scorers from last season all deciding to declare for the NBA Draft, Florida State was facing the possibility of having to rebuild their backcourt ahead of the 2016-17 season. However two of those three have decided to return to Tallahassee, with rising junior Xavier Rathan-Mayes announcing on Monday that he will be back in school.

Rathan-Mayes joins rising sophomore Dwayne Bacon in returning to play another season for head coach Leonard Hamilton, with Malik Beasley hiring representation and remaining in the draft.

Rathan-Mayes had more scoring help last season and as a result was able to concentrate more on the distribution aspects of the point guard position, as he averaged 11.8 points and 4.4 assists per contest. With the return of Rathan-Mayes and Bacon, Florida State will have two of its top three scorers from last season back on campus.

The Seminoles did lose some veteran players, most notably guard Devon Bookert and center Boris Bojanovsky, but the returnees and a recruiting class led by McDonald’s All-American forward Jonathan Isaac means that they won’t lack for options next season.

Auburn lands third transfer within the last week

Auburn guard T.J. Dunans (4) and coach Bruce Pearl celebrate a 75-74 win over UAB in an NCAA college basketball game Friday, Nov. 13, 2015, at Auburn Arena in Auburn, Ala.  (Julie Bennett/AL.com via AP)
Julie Bennett/AL.com via AP
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After receiving commitments from former Purdue/Houston guard Ronnie Johnson and former Presbyterian forward DeSean Murray, Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl continued to load up on the transfer market Monday. Forward LaRon Smith, who was named MEAC Defensive Player of the Year at Bethune-Cookman last season, announced that he will use his final season of eligibility at the SEC program.

Like Smith, Johnson will also be eligible to compete immediately for the Tigers while Murray will have to sit out next season before having two years of eligibility remaining.

The 6-foot-8 Smith played two seasons at Georgia State before transferring to Bethune-Cookman, where he averaged 7.1 points, 6.9 rebounds and 3.0 blocks per contest in 2015-16. Smith played just over 25 minutes per game for the Wildcats, shooting 58.5 percent from the field.

Smith reached double figures in scoring in four of the Wildcats’ final seven games, including a 20-point, 11-rebound, three-block outing in an overtime win over North Carolina A&T. He joins a front court in need of depth following the departures of the likes of Cinmeon Bowers and Tyler Harris, with Horace Spencer, Trayvon Reed and incoming freshman Anfernee McLemore also competing for minutes in 2016-17.

SMU lands former Arkansas guard Jimmy Whitt

Arkansas guard Jimmy Whitt (24) leaps for a layup past Tennessee guard Shembari Phillips (25) during an NCAA college basketball game in Knoxville, Tenn., Saturday, Feb. 27, 2016. Arkansas won 75-65. (Adam Lau/Knoxville News Sentinel via AP)
Adam Lau/Knoxville News Sentinel via AP
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With a five-member recruiting class set to arrive on campus this summer, SMU added a talented transfer Monday afternoon. Jimmy Whitt, who played his freshman season at Arkansas, committed to join Larry Brown’s program. Whitt, a 6-foot-4 guard from Columbia, Missouri, will have three seasons of eligibility remaining after sitting out the 2016-17 campaign.

As a freshman at Arkansas, Whitt averaged 6.1 points and 1.7 rebounds in just over 17 minutes of action per game. He reached double figures in scoring nine time, with the high being a 15-point outing in a blowout win over Missouri in mid-January. Whitt produced a stretch of four consecutive games in double figures during non-conference play, but he struggled to maintain that consistency against SEC competition.

At SMU he’ll join a perimeter rotation that will lose rising senior Sterling Brown following the 2016-17 season. Among those who will have eligibility remaining when Whitt becomes eligible are Ben Emelogu, Shake Milton, Jarrey Foster and incoming freshmen Tom Wilson and Dashawn McDowell.