CAA Season Preview: UNC Wilmington looks to defend their crown

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Beginning in September and running up through November 11th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2016-2017 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the CAA.

Here’s a fun stat for you to think about: Kevin Keatts has been a collegiate head coach for just two years, both coming at UNC Wilmington. And in both years, he was named the CAA Coach of the Year. What he’s done to turn the Seahawk program around has been terrific to watch, and if it wasn’t for the scandal currently looming over the Louisville basketball program, where Keatts was an assistant to Rick Pitino, he may not be in Wilmington anymore.

Keatts has the Seahawks playing a style similar to that of Shaka Smart when he was at VCU. They press, they trap, they run, they get up threes. They’re fun, they’re intense, and they return their best player, Chris Flemmings, a Division II transfer that was a walk-on last season. Senior point guard Denzel Ingram is back as well, as is C.J. Bryce, a wing that averaged 10.1 points and 4.2 boards as a freshman last season. With the way that Keatts’ teams play, however, the names aren’t as important as the waves. They’re deep, they’re in incredible shape and they’re going to keep coming at you. Ask Duke, who trailed the Seahawks at halftime and needed more than 38 minutes to finally put UNCW away in the NCAA tournament last season.

Hofstra will be the home of the most impactful player in the conference in Rokas Gustys. A hoss on the block, Gustys averaged 13.1 points and 13.0 boards last season, at one point recording back-to-back 20-point, 20-rebound games. The Pride will be running their offense through him as much as possible because Gustys, along with sharpshooter Brian Bernardi, are the only two returning starters. Hofstra loses a lot of talent and three players that started every game last year. Joe Mihalich has some players on his roster that can fill the void, but they are young, inexperienced or unproven at the CAA level.

Because of that, UNCW’s biggest challenger to CAA supremacy could end up being Towson. Pat Skerry may have his best team since arriving in Maryland, as Arnaud William Adala Moto, Mike Morsell and John Davis are all capable of carrying the team on a given night. All three could end up being all-CAA performers. They’ll have to replace point guard Byron Hawkins, but Eddie Keith II and Brian Starr should be able to fill the void. The issue with the Tigers last season was consistency and perimeter shooting. Some nights Adala Moto looked like he belonged back in the ACC, and others he looked like he was over his head in the CAA. Some nights Towson could beat UNCW by 16, some nights they struggled to crack 40 points.

Another team to keep an eye on is College of Charleston. The Cougars had a weird year in 2015-16, as they were ravaged by injuries while still managing to churn out an 8-10 finish in league play. Canyon Berry, the team’s most dangerous scorer, graduated and transferred to Florida, but Earl Grant returns plenty of perimeter weapons. Sophomore Jarrell Brantley and Marquise Pointer and juniors Joe Chealey and Cameron Johnson are back, while redshirt freshman Grant Riller is now healthy. There are question marks in the front court, which was young last season and will be young again this season, but there is a promising core available. Charleston’s best days may be a year away, but they should be competitive enough to make a push at a league title anyway.

William & Mary will have to replace leader Terry Tarpey, but with potential CAA Player of the Year Omar Prewitt back in the fold and Daniel Dixon and David Cohn returning to a team that won 11 league games, the Tribe should be right back in the mix for the top four. Their issue will be defensively, where the Tribe struggled and where Tarpey excelled.

Betting against Bill Coen and Northeastern is usually foolish, but replacing two guys as good as Quincy Ford (who signed a three-year deal with the Utah Jazz) and David Walker (who will play in Spain’s Liga ACB) is not easy at this level. James Madison‘s first-year head coach Louis Rowe will return four starters and eight rotations guys, but he lost all-CAA point guard Ronald Curry. Elon is entertaining to watch because of their style and they’re dangerous because of their ability to make threes, but they aren’t consistently good enough to win games in the CAA.

Delaware went two months between firing Monte’ Ross and hiring Martin Inglesby, and while they were crushed in the media and lost a number of key pieces to transfer, the good news is that Inglesby was able to convince enough players to return that the Blue Hens should still be better than Drexel.

MORE: 2016-17 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

 

PRESEASON CAA PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Chris Flemmings, UNC Wilmington

Flemmings was the best player on UNCW last season, and I see no reason that will change this year. He may not put up the best statistics in the league this year, but with the Seahawks looking like the clear favorite to win the league, he deserves this award.

THE REST OF THE PRESEASON ALL-CAA TEAM:

  • Rokas Gustys, Hofstra: There may not be a better mid-major big man in the country. The key for Gustys this year? Make better than 43 percent of his free throws. Hack-a-Rokas is a real possibility.
  • Omar Prewitt, William & Mary: Prewitt averaged more than 17 points for the Tribe last season.
  • Arnaud William Adala Moto, Towson: He may be the most talented player in the league, but he doesn’t always play like it on a night-to-night basis.
  • Jarrell Brantley, Charleston: He has a chance to have a breakout sophomore season the same way that Charleston has a chance to sneak into the CAA’s top three.

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @CAABasketball

PREDICTED FINISH

1. UNC Wilmington
2. Towson
3. College of Charleston
4. William & Mary
5. Hofstra
6. James Madison
7. Northeastern
8. Elon
9. Delaware
10. Drexel