Thursday, March 06, 2008

Your UNOFFICIAL Colonial Athletic Association Conference Tournament Preview

It doesn’t take any reader of this blog very long – whether viewing daily or yearly – to recognize a friendly bias towards the CAA.

And why not? We have alums from Mason and VCU working hard to spread the good word of one of America’s most underrated conferences. The term mid-major isn’t going anywhere, although this conference is looking to change that perception via their postseason impact.

Need I remind you all of what a certain George Mason team did in 2006? [Hint: FINAL FOUR!]

To a lesser extent, USC fans (not to mention, Sam Clancy) won’t forget the name Brett Blizzard, Duke fans are sick and tired of Eric “The Dagger” Maynor, and Aaron Coombs would haunt Maryland fans if it weren’t for the heroics of Drew “St.” Nicholas.

UNC-W's Brett Blizzard may have been the best mid-major performer of the last 10 years. Seriously.
Credit: BlizzardAcademy

Nevertheless, championship weekend in the CAA kicks off early Friday afternoon with a few snoozers (we’re not exactly getting UP for Northeastern vs. James Madison). Fortunately, there is hope on the horizon as Saturday may have an upset or two in mind (not likely, as you’ll see below) and Sunday could potentially offer up what could become a tantalizing pair of appetizers before the conference championship game gets the royal treatment on The Ocho.

While it’s too early to start predicting results (or is it?), let’s take a look at what the conference’s twelve squads have to offer this weekend, and perhaps, determine their chances of cutting down the nets and earning one of the nation’s first automatic qualifying bids.

We’re not predicting any losing record squads to go all the way, but they deserve their just due. Call me crazy - or a hater (I prefer hata’ by the way) - but I have a hard time NOT envisioning a 1/4 vs. 2/3 semi-finals. In case you didn’t know, the conference only sports (sadly) 4 teams with overall winning records this season.

#12. Georgia State

-Thought to be an up-and-coming squad, Georgia State has a knack for losing games in the closing minutes time and time again. An enticing matchup against an overachieving William & Mary squad may afford them the opportunity to pull off a Friday afternoon upset.

#11. James Madison

-In shambles after a surprising start (they did beat VCU back in 2007), the Dukes have a lame-duck coach and a roster that lacks athleticism at most positions. While Northeastern is far from a juggernaut, both teams are on different sides of the CAA universe during the last two months.

#10. Drexel

-Easily the biggest disappointment of the season, Drexel lost key senior leadership and, surprisingly, any form of last season’s dominant interior presence from 2006-07 Defensive Player of the Year, junior Frank Elegar. You’d think a team with Bruiser Flint riding them would be a darkhose to pull a few upsets this weekend (at least the pro-Bruiser media would), but the Dragons will be fortunate to be competitive ten minutes into a game they may not reach on Saturday.

#9. Towson

-A lot can be gained in their 8/9 matchup against Hofstra, especially considering VCU will garner some mild national interest as the Rams have a decent chance of securing an at-large bid (although that becomes far less likely with a quarterfinal choke-job). While thoughts of CAA-legend Gary Neal have vanquished, the Tigers still have enough athleticism to make it to Satuday.

#8. Hofstra

-After losing last year’s Player of the Year, Loren Stokes, to graduation, Hofstra clearly stood on the fence of pre-season rankings for the conference. It should come as no surprise that they enter the tournament as an uneven 8-seed. What isn’t a surprise is the stellar play of likely CAA 1st teamer Antoine Agudio. If you can make it to any of Hofstra’s games, he’s easily worth the price of admission alone.

#7. Delaware

-Every year, I wonder if the Blue Hens will make a legitimate tournament run. Outside of a mild upset here or there, Delaware has been far from amazing since joining the conference. While Herb Courtney provides presence in the paint, they appear a rather easy matchup for 10-seed Drexel to pull of the potential “upset”. Although, it must be stated that Delaware’s overall record is a little flawed since several talented transfers after December 15.

#6. Northeastern

-To be honest, the only true interest Northeastern offers for us is the potential for a quarterfinal rematch with recent regular season foe George Mason. Why you ask? Northeastern stunned Mason (sort of) by 11 points on Saturday and cost the Patriots the 2-seed and their wildest of pipe dreams of at-large consideration. Honestly though, that result might not make much of a difference, as Mason in recent years has been able to turn on impressive play for their annual weekend in Richmond in early March. Northeastern may not even reach that matchup if they overlook at nothing-to-lose JMU squad.

#5. William & Mary

-10-8 in conference is a definitive step up for the Tribe; however, 14-15 overall means the NIT won’t even consider them. Yet, if the Tribe is serious about contending in conference in the coming seasons (and alleviating some anxiety from certain VCU fans), they need to control the pace of their 5/12 matchup early and often (remember, Georgia State loves to play you close) and then give self-proclaimed darkhorse-ODU a real run for their money in an under-the-radar 4/5 matchup. This weekend will go a long way in determining the next few seasons for William & Mary basketball in the CAA.

…now for the big boys…

#4. Old Dominion

Pros: Seemingly the hottest teams in the conference before last Saturday, those illusions were swept under the rug after being manhandled on both sides of the balls and the boards at UNC-Wilmington. Coach Blaine Taylor’s squad doesn’t have the starpower of year’s past; however, they have the right blend of talent to give VCU, in particular, fits in the semi-finals. A relatively easy road there should leave the Monarchs more than ready for their 3rd matchup of the season with the Rams (each winning on each other’s home court).

Cons: ODU can live and die by the three-ball. Despite having a talented bench, that is often the result of less than stellar starters. Only sophomore Gerald Lee has been a consistent scorer in and out of the paint this season. Hitting clutch shot after clutch shot last month against VCU, ODU still clanged two key free throws in the closing seconds and walked away victors only after an apparent no-call on an obvious arm slap on Eric Maynor (ODU won by 1 at the Siegel Center, the only conference opponent of the Rams to do so). ODU’s early schedule (UNC, Georgetown, Louisville) tested them for high-pressure conference tourney moments; nevertheless, they have shown they will play down to their lesser opponents just as often as they’ll play up to their elite ones.

#3. George Mason

Pros: Three key performers remain from the Final Four-squad of 2006; especially PF Will Thomas (the conference’s top interior performer) and Folarin Campbell (the best shot-maker in the conference…when he’s on). Always capable of three good days during the second weekend in March, the Patriots have a proven coach and plenty to play for. Not to mention, they are the only CAA team to not lose to #1-seed VCU. There’s a reason they are a consistent second choice to win this conference tourney.

Cons: Sloppy play down the stretch has erased any at-large considerations for the Patriots. Collapsing against Ohio in their bracketbuster was inexcusable and a late-season loss to Northeastern was downright embarrassing. Although, that’s the exact motivation this team needs entering this weekend. Campbell has been uneven this past month and Mason often becomes far too streaky from behind the arc (hello, Dre Smith!). It remains to be seen if they can perform for 40 minutes for three straight days.

#2. UNC-Wilmington

Pros: Anybody who’s been to a CAA Tournament this millennium knows that the teal t-shirts of UNC-W flood the Coliseum. In fact, per capita, it’s not even close who draws the most fans year in and year out. After a horrific 2006-2007 season, the W swept Mason and earned the tie-breaker for the #2-seed. Interestingly enough, it allows a likely third matchup with Mason in the semi-finals. TJ Carter’s playmaking ability is well known to GMU fans, as is UNC-Ws recent ability to continuously foul the Patriots in the blocks without repercussion from the zebras. After last season’s embarrassing run, UNC-W is hungry to perform well in a tournament that has treated them exceptionally well the last half-dozen years.

Cons: UNC-Wilmington was handled on the road and at home in the second-half of both of their games against VCU. Even though they swept George Mason, we all know how annoying it is to hear about beating a team three times in one season, no matter the sport. More importantly, if the refs handcuff the physicality in the paint of Todd Hendley and Vladimir Kuljanin (or their palming of the ball nearly every position), Wilmington has shown it can lose to lesser opponents badly (Drexel, JMU by 20+, and Delaware).

#1. Virginia Commonwealth {VCU}

Pros: VCU’s perimeter game is led by a dynamic scoring duo of junior PG Eric Maynor and combo senior guard/forward Jamal Shuler (also a lockdown defender). Both are able to score away from the basket and at times appear unstoppable while driving to the basket. Eric Maynor is a lock for Player of the Year and has the ability, unlike any other player in the conference, to carry his team the entire weekend on his back to a championship. The Rams have won this tournament two of the last three seasons and been a staple in the finals the past five seasons (including two wins over George Mason and a loss to ODU). Anthony Grant is 1 for 1 so far in winning CAA Tournaments, while seniors Michael Anderson and Will Fameni both appear healthier and sharper, especially Anderson, than in weeks and months past. Freshmen Larry Sanders also is 10th in the nation at 3 blocks a game.

Cons: VCU’s inside game has shown plenty of holes. If Maynor can be contained on the perimeter (Mason displayed that blueprint flawlessly) or Shuler finds foul trouble/erratic shooting early, the Rams may have to depend on wildly inconsistent freshman like PG Joey Rodriguez and PF Larry Sanders (who lacks any true offensive post-up game). Both should be limited to 4-5 key plays a game, at best. In fact, Rodriguez has appeared a downright liability at times in the closing moments of games. CAA pundits know that George Mason always plays VCU extremely well and was the only CAA foe the Rams couldn’t knock off (to be fair, they played only once, in Fairfax). ODU also stunted a ton of VCU momentum (who couldn’t equal their 16-2 conference mark of last year thanks to the Monarchs) with their big-time W in late February. If the paint is unkind to the Rams, they may not be able to shoot their ways out of early deficits on Sunday or Monday. Despite defending the 3-ball better than any of the other 340 teams in Division 1, the Rams often become far too reliant on the deep ball at times.


VCU is, but does not have to be, the favorite to win the tournament after winning their last three games in impressive fashion (8 of 9 overall as well). Despite it being held less than five miles away from their home court (Siegel Center) at the Richmond Coliseum, the Rams may not necessarily have the most fans in attendance during all stages of the weekend. Eric Maynor, the likely CAA Player of the Year, has anchored the Rams to a potential at-large birth, but that is FAR from set in stone. It’d be a mistake not to consider the experience of 2007 tournament runner-up George Mason as well, especially considering it took a Herculean effort from Maynor in the closing minutes in last year’s finals to push the Rams to victory over the Patriots. UNC-W and ODU obviously have the talent and coaching to punch their ticket to March Madness as well. What I don’t see is the big-time upset on Saturday or continuing through Sunday…which almost assures us of one. Enjoy the tournament!

Until next time…

1 comment:

Paymon said...

On the caption, I think you're forgetting a certain General from the CAA. Blizzard sure was a beast though.

Here's to 120 minutes in March.