Sunday, January 25, 2009

The CAA at the Halfway Point

So we're nine games through the CAA season and the first half has brought some surprises but for the most part the league play has conformed to the preseason prognostications. Let's look at the teams in standings order

1) VCU (8-1, 15-5 overall) - The Rams had an early season loss at Delaware, but have played according to form winning seven conference games in a row. VCU leads the CAA in scoring offense, field goal percentage, three point FG percentage, scoring margin, first in steals, seconds in assist to turnover ratio and turnover margin. The concerns about where the Rams would find offense other than CAA scoring leader Eric Maynor (22 points per game) have been answered as Larry Sanders (11 ppg) and Joey Rodriguez (10.7 ppg) have stepped up to give the Rams more scoring options.

The Rams second half schedule starts with a home game battle for first with Northeastern on January 27th on ESPNU. Then two road games at Hofstra and at UNCW. The rest of the schedule features a home and home with James Madison, at ODU, home to William and Mary, Georgia State and Delaware (plus a Bracketbuster game).

Outlook - The Rams have a relatively easy schedule after the two games this week. The Rams look to be the team to beat in the CAA.

2) Northeastern (8-1, 13-6 overall). The Huskies started out to a 6-0 conference record before losing at Hofstra. The Huskies rebounded with a tough home win over George Mason then an impressive win at Old Dominion. Down 22-7 to the Monarchs early, the Huskies outscored ODU 51-20 the rest of the way in a 58-42 win. Matt Janning had two big games in the two wins, scoring 20 and 24 points respectively. However, the Huskies' ability to score inside with Manny Adako, Eugene Spates and Nkem Ojougboh has given Northeastern much needed balance. The Huskies are first in scoring defense, second in steals and first in turnover margin.

The Huskies' second half schedule features the showdown at VCU, home to Delaware then at William and Mary. Northeastern has a home and home with Drexel, the rematch at George Mason, home games to UNCW, Georgia State and ODU (plus a Bracketbuster game)

Outlook - The Huskies have a more difficult schedule than VCU with the road game vs. the Rams and on the road at third place George Mason. Throw in a home and home vs fourth place Drexel and the Huskies could be staring at a second place finish.

3) George Mason (7-2, 14-5 overall). The Patriots rode into the past week in first place at 6-0. After two very close tough road losses to co first place teams VCU and Northeastern, Mason is now in third place. The loss of Jon Vaughan at the end of the game with the Huskies due to a concussion certainly played a factor in both games.
Vaughan will miss the Tuesday home game vs. Delaware. But the play of underclassmen Cam Long and Ryan Pearson made things a lot closer vs. VCU than people thought so the Patriots will be okay. More touches to Darryl Monroe would help though.

The Patriots have Delaware at home, then at ODU, home to Hofstra on February 3rd on ESPNU, then two road games, then a revenge game at home to Northeastern, followed by another home game with Drexel, then a Bracketbuster game, then the last two games at UNCW and home to Towson.

Outlook - Don't be surprised if George Mason catches Northeastern for second place as the Patriots' schedule is more favorable than the Huskies. Mason's nice mix of four veteran starters plus five talented underclassmen should give Mason the needed depth required for a second half run. Unfortunately, the Patriots only played VCU once and the non rematch may cost them a chance at first.

4) Drexel (6-3, 10-8 overall). This is by far the biggest surprise of the first half of the CAA season. Picked to finish next to last in the CAA, the Dragons have won more conference games than I thought they would win the entire season. It quite possibly could be Coach Bruiser Flint's best coaching job ever. Considering what I believe is a dearth of talent, the Dragons have won five games in a row in conference after a 1-3 start. The emergence of Leon Spencer off the bench has helped greatly. Spencer has scored in double figures in all five straight wins for the Dragons. Another scoring option is needed since Scott Rodgers is the only Dragon averaging in double figures with 13.2 points per game

The Dragons second half schedule is a lot tougher than the first half. Home to Georgia State, home and homes with both Towson and Northeastern. At Delaware, home to ODU, at George Mason, then finishes at William Mary (along with Bracketbuster).

Outlook - Expect the Dragons to struggle in the second half of the season. The Dragons had an easy first half schedule with their two best wins being against Hofstra, otherwise they have feasted on the bottom half of the CAA. The second half schedule is much tougher with five road games. Also the stats show that the Dragons have done this with smoke and mirrors. Last in field goal percentage, next to last in scoring offense, next to last in assists, and turnover margin and last in steals. Definitely will be a struggle.

5) Hofstra (5-4, 13-7 overall). The Pride rebounded from a 2-4 start to win their last three games. The Pride are successful due in large part to their defense, which is first in the CAA in FG percentage defense at 38 percent (the only team in the CAA under 40 percent in that category), first in blocks at 5.3 and second in rebounding margin. Unfortunately that is evened out by the Pride's field goal percentage, which is last in the CAA at 38 percent as well. This was due in large part to the struggles of Charles Jenkins. Jenkins has seen his field goal percentage go down 10 percent over the past couple of months. Despite this, Jenkins is still the second leading scorer in the CAA behind Maynor. Another category the Pride needs improvement is assist to turnover ratio, dead last in the CAA at .7.

The Pride have a much easier second half schedule with only two games remaining against the top four teams; a home game to VCU on Saturday and a road game at George Mason. They also have a home against UNCW, home games with Towson, Old Dominion and James Madison along with road games vs. Delaware and Georgia State.

Outlook - Considering all their offensive struggles, to be 5-4 after the tougher half of their conference season is pretty impressive. The Pride now face a much easier schedule and one could easily see the Pride winning six of their nine remaining conference games. Throw in a Bracketbuster gamee and it is very conceivable that the Pride could have 20 wins and a possible first round bye come CAA tournament time.

6) James Madison (5-4 CAA, 13-8 Overall). Funny, I had Hofstra and Madison finishing next to each other in my preseason poll (though order was reversed) and here they are right next to each other. The Dukes lost their first two games in conference, before winning five of their next six before the loss to Hofstra at home Saturday night. The Dukes are winning, with get this...defense. Last season's swiss cheese D has turned into a respectable unit under new coach Matt Brady. The Dukes are second in three point FG percentage defense and fifth in FG percentage defense. The Dukes lead the CAA in free throw shooting and are third in scoring offense. However, some things never change as the Dukes are last in assist to turnover ratio and ninth in turnover margin.

The Dukes second half schedule is not easy with home and home vs VCU, home to ODU, George Mason, Georgia State and William and Mary, and road games at UNCW, Georgia State, Hofstra, and Delaware.

Outlook - The Dukes lost last season's leading scorer, Abdulai Jalloh due to a shoulder injury early on. However, Juwann James has picked up the slack, averaging 15.5 points per game and shooting 58.7 percent from the field. Since he doesn't have enough attempts to qualify for leading the CAA in FG percentage due to an injury at the beginning of the season, James will continue to get the ball a lot. How the Dukes perform though depends on how well they handle the ball.

7) Old Dominion (4-5 CAA, 11-8 overall) - The Monarchs classify as one of the biggest disappointments so far in the CAA. At times, ODU looks absolutely terrific, then at times they look terrible. There was no better example of this than Saturday's home game vs. Northeastern. The Monarchs jumped out to a 22-7 lead only to see the Huskies out score them by 31 points the rest of the way in a 58-42 meltdown loss. It's very simple with ODU - their guards have to shoot well to free up their talented frontcourt. When they do, you have the 73-56 crushing of Georgia State where the Monarchs shot 10 of 16 from beyond the arc (and nearly 62 percent overall). When they don't, you have the 58-42 meltdown where ODU shot 4 of 16 from beyond the arc.

The rest of the schedule is not that easy for the Monarchs. Road games at Madison, Drexel, Hofstra, UNCW and Northeastern. Home to George Mason, VCU, Towson and William and Mary.

Outlook - Unless the Monarchs straighten themselves out in a major way, the Monarchs will miss out on getting a bye for the first time in several seasons. And remember, no team has ever won the CAA tournament by being a non bye team and winning four games in four days (William and Mary and George Mason the last two seasons made the CAA final but both lost). Consistent play from the guards will be the key for Coach Blaine Taylor's boys.

8) Delaware (3-6 CAA, 9-12 overall). The Blue Hens have regressed from last season. The main factor, no size inside. The lack of a quality big man has resulted in the Blue Hens being next to last in rebounding margin, ninth in field goal percentage defense and tenth in scoring defense. This explains how UNCW, the Denver Nuggets of the CAA defeated Delaware. Marc Egerson though is a man among men. The six foot six guard/forward is the only player in the CAA averaging a double double - 13.9 points and 10.4 rebounds a game, the latter leads the CAA. Offense is not a problem as Jawan Carter leads the Blue Hens with 16.6 points per game and Alphonso Dawson chips in with 15.5 points and 5.4 rebounds a game. Delaware is fourth in scoring and third in three point FGs made.

The Blue Hens schedule is not very accommodating. It starts right off with road games at Mason and at Northeastern. Their first home game is not easy against fourth place Drexel who has already beaten the Hens this year. Then at Georgia State, home to Mason and Hofstra, then at VCU and Towson, then home to Madison.

Outlook - Don't look for the Hens to move up in the standings. The schedule is rough and with the lack of a big man to compete with the likes of Mason's Monroe and Birdsong, the Northeastern trifecta of Adako, Spates and Ojougboh and VCU's Larry Sanders, the Blue Hens would be very lucky to win four games the second half of the season.

9) Georgia State (3-6 CAA, 5-15 overall) - Remember at the beginning of the season with all the talk about how improved Georgia State would be with all their transfers now starting. Well as a friend pointed out to me (which I noted on this blog), there is a reason why they were sitting on another team's bench. The Panthers, outside of guard Joe Dukes, have been a huge disappointment. I mean think about it. The new look Panthers some how cut in half Leonard Mendez' production from last season (16 ppg game in 2007-08 to 8.5 ppg in 2008-09). It's not like the rest of the team is so great. Other than Dukes, not one of the other transfers averages 10 points per game.

The Panthers schedule actually starts off relatively favorable despite being at Drexel to start the second half of the season. Another road game follows at William and Mary , then home to Madison and Delaware, then at Towson, then home to UNCW. The end of the schedule is rough; at Northeastern, home to Hofstra, at VCU.

Outlook - I was watching the Georgia State/ODU game on TV a few weeks ago. They had a commercial on for Georgia State and you hear a student say "I get to watch AWESOME college basketball." Yeah perhaps if you are rooting for the other team, its awesome. Its been a long time since Georgia State was awesome in college basketball (we are talking the Lefty Driesell days).

For a team that is last in scoring offense, last in free throw percentage and next to last in three point FG percentage, its not good to be tenth in field goal percentage defense. It's time to get the ball back in the hands of Leonard Mendez and at least get him going. And boys and girls, let this be a lesson to those of you who think a team of all transfer starters is going to make a difference.

10) UNC Wilmington (2-7 CAA, 5-16 overall). It is so hard to imagine that a team with such a blatant disregard for defense, with no defensive post presence whatsoever could actually NOT be in the cellar of the CAA. Yet, thanks to the ineptitude of Towson and William and Mary, the Denver Nuggets of the CAA, the UNCW Seahawks are tenth, thanks to the equally defensive challenged Tigers and the Delaware Blue Hens. Yes, the Seahawks are second in the CAA in scoring offense, first in three point field goals made and even second in assists. But the Seahawks are dead last in scoring defense, giving up a whopping 88 points per game. Dead last in scoring margin at -14. Dead last in field goal percentage defense at 51.6 percent. FIFTY ONE POINT SIX PERCENT! Last in three point field goal percentage defense. Last in rebounding. Last in blocked shots and last in turnover margin.

How the hell are they only in tenth place?!!!

Schedule - Does it matter? Well here's a unique thing; three home games in a row. First Hofstra (talk about a contrast in styles - the team that plays D and can't shoot straight vs the team that scores and plays no defense whatsoever - something has to give. Then home to Madison and VCU (two guaranteed high scoring games). Then three road games - at Northeastern (uh oh), at William and Mary and at Georgia State. Home to ODU and George Mason, another ESPN Full Court televised pasting, then at Hofstra for another battle of styles contest

Outlook - Again, does it matter? If you like points scored, then the Seahawks are the team for you. If you want to see a team get clocked on a nightly basis and that will be fortunate to win as many games in the second half as they did in the first half, then again UNCW is the team for you. I really really want to see how Hofstra and UNCW matchup Wednesday. The immovable offense vs the always moved/run over defense. Priceless. At least Chad Tomko (15 ppg, 5 assists per game) is a solid player.

11) Towson (2-7, 7-14) - Well, Pat Kennedy and crew should be awfully proud. Give up 103 points and lose at home to UNCW. At least they fought into double overtime. I tell ya its karma for burying my boy Tim Crossin. It's killing me that my two player watches the Tim Crossin Burial Watch and the Chris Gadley Resurrection watch are on hold. Gadley is out with a sore back and Crossin is just out. Leading scorer Junior Hairston averages two less rebounds per game than last season and his FG percentage is down as well. But he did have 25 points and 15 rebounds vs UNCW. What a shock.

The amazing thing is that the Tigers might just have a better second half due to a relatively weak schedule. Home and home with Drexel and William and Mary. Consecutive road games against ODU and Hofstra. Also road games at George Mason. Home to William and Mary and Delaware. Ok, its not that weak. But a few wins are possible.

Outlook - Towson simply has to improve on their shoddy scoring defense which is next to last along with field goal percentage defense at 44.9 percent. Now the amazing thing is that Towson is third in three point field goal percentage defense at 31.5. Throw in that the Tigers are tenth in rebounding margin and this means only one thing. Teams are scoring inside at will. Not good.

12) William and Mary (1-8 CAA, 6-13 overall). This disheartens me the most because the Mary were one of my favorite teams last season for the way Tony Shaver coached them. Loved their offense and especially loved how they broke VCU's press (and their heart) in that CAA semifinal game. No more Nathan Mann. No more Laimus Kiselius. No more wins. Danny Sumner and the erratic David Schneider aren't talented enough to lift up the rest of a very talentless team. They can't hit a shot, especially from beyond the arc (they are tenth at 31.2 percent) and their style of zone defense is susceptible to a good outside shooting team (tenth in three point FG percentage defense).

Schedule - The Tribe actually start with two winnable home games vs Towson and Georgia State. Then two difficult games. Home vs. Northeastern then at VCU. Home to UNCW, then three road games; at James Madison, then Towson, then ODU. The Tribe end their season home to Drexel

Outlook - The Mary need to get Danny Sumner going. Despite being the Tribe's leading scorer, all of Sumner's other stats are down from last year. His FG percentage has dropped 10 points (50 to 40 percent), his three point FG percentage is down and his free throw percentage is down somewhat as well. A little more help from the supporting cast; especially Peter Stein who is averaging two points less this season and who's field goal percentage is way down from the past season 53 to 41 percent. It's a shame. When you watch the Mary, you can see how well coached they are and how they run the back door cuts, screens etc. They just can't finish.

CAA Outlook - It is pretty much a lock that the top three spots will be taken up by VCU, Northeastern and George Mason. There is still a question of how they finish. As for that fourth and final bye spot, there are really four teams fighting for that; Drexel, Hofstra, James Madison and Old Dominion. Of the four, believe it or not, the gang that can't shoot straight but can D up, Hofstra, has the easiest schedule of the four. Thus I think they have the best chance for the fourth spot. I just have a feeling that Drexel, a team that really can't shoot straight and has been winning with a little bit of luck, is going to hit the wall in the second half of the season. If Drexel and Hofstra tie for fourth, Drexel wins based on sweeping the Pride. Madison has a shot but needs to win some big games. I think ODU is just too inconsistent to jump over three teams to finish fourth. They do have talent though and I love Blaine Taylor as a game manager.

The rest looks like Delaware and Georgia State for eighth and ninth. Then pick your poison; UNCW, Towson and the Mary for the last three spots. As for the question of the CAA getting multiple teams in..highly signature non conference wins at the beginning of the season for any of the top three teams. I don't think the Bracketbuster will help that multiple bid cause much either unless VCU gets Davidson and beats them (then VCU loses in the championship to say Mason). Just look forward to a competitive CAA tourney where at least three teams can win.

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