After a week that included rumours involving Kendrick Lamar performing at Villanova, Nicki Minaj came out in a Villanova jersey and shocked The Pavilion much to the delight of ‘Nova Nation. Seriously, try to stay off Twitter for the next few hours, but if you must go there, try to not search for “Nicki Minaj” or “Hoops Mania” or “OMG” – it’s pretty crazy on there.
Another home run from the Villanova administration – this seems like one of the best Hoops Mania events yet.
These events just keep getting bigger and bigger. I fully expect a Breaking Bad reunion show at The Pit next season.
If you want to know which way the wind blows in the Colonial Athletic Association these days, open your ears. The league that rode Virginia-based schools like George Mason, Virginia Commonwealth and Old Dominion to attention-grabbing Big Dance victories sounds very different these days.
For starters, Northeastern University pahked their cah in the yahd by winning 14 league games and claiming the regular-season crown. Right behind them at 13-5 was Maryland-based Towson, led by Massachusetts native Pat Skerry, who took a league doormat and turned it into a winner in one season. New guy Joe Mihalich hopes to work similar magic in his debut season at Hofstra, a pronouncement he delivers in the hard-bitten tones of a big city police detective.
“When I got here, there were four players on the team,” Mihalich told NBC Sports via phone. “That was the bad news and the good news. I had to go out and get eight guys all at once, but I was able to get my guys. The kind of guys you need to get this thing turned around.”
It’s common to hear a coach make upbeat noises when he takes over a moribund program, but that kind of confidence seems strangely warranted in the new CAA. Pat Skerry’s Towson team was built along similar lines, taking on players various and sundry in an attempt to improve on 2012’s 1-31 mark. Clearly, five wins would have counted as progress. Skerry’s team went out and won 18, despite the fact that APR missteps from the prior administration had his program on a postseason ban.
“It took a while, but they did a good job of buying in,” Skerry said, also via phone. “We didn’t talk about the ban, just about trying to get better each day. Maybe it wasn’t fair, but they handled it. Pride was the key piece.”
The Tigers are entering this season with much higher expectations, hoping to ride reigning CAA Player of the Year Jerelle Benimon to an NCAA berth. Skerry has surrounded his breakout star – a Georgetown transfer – with several complementary pieces.
“Jerome (Hairston) was on the All-Rookie team last year and he’s a lead guard who can score the ball,” Skerry said. “Timajh Parker will step right in for us this year, and our transfer from Vermont, Four McGlynn, is still a sophomore and he’s a very good shooter.”
In addition to the dramatic uptick in talent and team cohesion, Skerry is excited about the possibilities presented by SECU arena, the new $72 million home base for Tiger basketball. His team’s bright future was built brick-by-brick, quite literally.
To add a cherry on the sundae, the CAA tournament, long anchored in the Richmond Coliseum, has migrated to Baltimore this season. With Virginia-based founding members George Mason, Old Dominion and VCU realigned out of the conference, the shift makes some geographical sense.
Skerry acknowledges that the northern contingent: Towson, Delaware, Drexel and Northeastern in particular, stand to benefit from the changes. But he scoffs at the notion that the power will easily shift his direction.
“We added Charleston as well, and they beat our brains in last year,” Skerry said. “Elon’s going to be very good (in 2014), and James Madison are the reigning champs. We’ve got our hands full.”
Winning the league is, honestly, considered little more than a first step in the CAA, thanks to a rich history of giant-killing in the NCAA tournament.
“We had our coaches meeting a few months back and one of the other coaches said ‘Hey, we’ve seen teams come out of this conference and be incredibly successful, get to the Final Four,'” said Hofstra’s Mihalich. “‘Who’s going to be the next VCU or George Mason?’ I do believe that somebody can do that.”
It may not be Mihalich this year, though he made strong moves to stabilize the Pride’s roster in both the short and long term. Hofstra added graduate students Dion Nesmith (formerly at Monmouth) and Zeke Upshaw (Illinois State) to serve as one-year elder statesmen, signed three skilled freshmen and let his four holdovers show them the ropes. Another layer of known quantities will debut next season, when Juan’ya Green and Ameen Tanksley – who followed Mihalich from his last posting at Niagara – and former SMU guard Brian Bernardi are eligible to suit up.
Neither coach thinks it will be easy to seize a title in a league that hasn’t seen an auto-bid issued from north of the Mason-Dixon line since before the turn of the millennium.
“As John Chaney used to say, for us to win this year, we need the two women in our lives to be there for us,” Mihalich joked. “Mother Nature and Lady Luck. We’ve got to hope a lot of things break our way.”
Skerry, in a decidedly better place than last year, concurred.
“Make no mistake about it, winning is really hard,” the Massachusetts native said with a chuckle. “I think Doc Rivers said that.”
That being said…
“We’ve got a chance to be good. We’re not hiding from that.”
All month long, CBT will be rolling out our 2013-2014 season preview. Check back throughout the day, as we’ll be posting three or four preview items every day.
To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. To see the rest of the Conference Previews we’ve published, click here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.
Realignment has hit the CAA in a weird way. The first top-notch program to bolt the league was Virginia Commonwealth, and they left to improve their basketball options. All this national shuffling has been football-based, but Final Four appearances still count for something. VCU left two years ago, but fellow giant-killer George Mason joins them in the A-10 this season.
Football hasn’t been absent from the radar, by any means. Old Dominion and Georgia State created gridiron programs out of thin air in 2009, and both jumped straight to the BCS big time this season. For a league headquartered in Richmond, the CAA is suddenly experiencing a glaring lack of schools located in the Commonwealth of Virginia. The league tournament will be held in Baltimore for the first time this season, perhaps reflecting a new power base in the northern climes.
Up north is definitely where the excitement lives this season. Towson, a perennial doormat in years past, has become a legitimate contender under Pat Skerry, who engineered a record-breaking 17-game turnaround for the Tigers last season. In Skerry’s backyard are his presumptive competitors for the league’s upper echelon – the Philly-tough Drexel Dragons, reigning regular-season champs Northeastern, and a dangerously well-stocked Delaware team. Hofstra, a rebuilding project under new head coach Joe Mihalich, rounds out the CAA’s Yankee contingent.
The southern set isn’t exactly to be dismissed, either. James Madison brought the league’s auto-bid to a Virginia-based program yet again after claiming the tourney title last season, and new member College of Charleston has a well-earned reputation as a mid-major to be reckoned with. The College of William & Mary – an Ivy League-caliber academic institution somewhat out of place in CAA basketball circles – has never been to the Big Dance but has one of the conference’s most exciting players and an opportunity to knock that door down if the chips fall the right way. Wilmington is coming off of an APR nightmare, but should rebuild quickly under a coaching brain trust that features former UNC-Asheville head man Eddie Beidenbach and former Appalachian State boss Houston Fancher under the leadership of Buzz Peterson, who spent four years helming the Tennessee Volunteers once upon a time. The league will regain its north-south equilibrium in 2014, when Elon joins the league.
A betting man would probably choose one of the northern schools to snag this year’s auto-bid, but JMU should be back in the mix once guard Andre Nation finishes serving a 15-game suspension, just in time for conference play. Charleston, under Doug Wojick, may be primed to upset the apple cart as well.
Drexel was the preseason choice last season, and the team struggled to fulfill expectations. Fool me twice, shame on me, but with an all-league type backcourt in place, I like Drexel to come out of the pack and finally grab that brass ring that has eluded Bruiser Flint for so long.
In: College of Charleston (SoCon) Out: George Mason (A-10), Georgia State (Sun Belt), Old Dominion (C-USA)
PRESEASON CAA PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Jerrelle Benimon, Towson
Benimon was little more than an afterthought in two seasons at Georgetown, averaging just over a point per game. After sitting out a season at Towson, he was ready to play. Oh boy, was he ready to play. With his new team on a postseason ban based on APR scores, Benimon played like he was leading his team to the Final Four anyway, averaging 17.1 points, 11.2 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game. The 6-foot-8, 245-lb. wrecking ball earned Player of the Year honors in his conference, and he’ll go into his senior season with a shot to lead the Tigers into the Big Dance.
Anyone want to get in his way? I thought not.
FOUR MORE NAMES TO KNOW:
Marcus Thornton, William & Mary: Thornton’s boundless energy and 43% deep shooting mark make W&M dangerous.
Devon Saddler, Delaware: Saddler was on the All-CAA team with Benimon last season. He’s back for more.
Frantz Massenat, Drexel: Massenat is so tough, and so good with the ball in his hands. He’ll look to make good on last season’s promise.
Damion Lee, Drexel: Lee battled injuries at times last season. If healthy, he and Chris Fouch can team with Massenat to wreck this league.