Friday, March 6, 2009

The Big One - The CAA Preview

In December of 2005, I started this blog out covering the CAA. Prior to that, I have followed this conference religiously since the 2002-03 season when I first got season tickets for the Hofstra Pride. As much as I now write about other mid major teams, this is my passion, covering the CAA.

For each of the past six years, I have gone to the CAA tournament with my very dear friend Tony Terentieff and for a couple of times, with our dear friend Mal Galletta III. I have seen so many things. So many memories.

Georgia State guarantees you at least one good game every tournament since they joined the league in 2005-06. I remember that George Mason had to come from behind late in the game to force overtime against the Panthers that first season of 12 teams. I saw the heartbreak the Panthers' Leonard Mendez gave the Mary with a 3o foot three point buzzer shot in 2006-07 to win the game. David Schneider got revenge for the Mary last season when the guard for the #5 seed hit a trifecta to win the game and avoid another Georgia State upset.

I was there when the Mary gave some heartbreak to VCU and played the perfect game to beat the vaunted Rams trap last season. I was at the game when Tony Skinn punched Loren Stokes in 2006 in an area no one should be punched in. I remember thinking excitedly after Hofstra beat George Mason for the second time that season that the CAA was definitely going to get two maybe even three teams in (setting myself and many others for the vaunted debate of how Hofstra got passed over by Mason on Selection Sunday). Little did I know that I knew about George Mason better than most before their vaunted final four run.

I got to see several of the vaunted UNCW teams with both Jerry Wainright and Brad Brownell as coaches. Both good, but Brownell's teams I liked better due to their fundamentals. I got to see how much of a rock star Anthony Grant had become last season. Little did I know how one win over Duke would make this guy a legend. We loved the Larranaga whistle. Got to see so many Bruiser Flint stomps and how he nearly lost it three seasons ago when the referees made one of the most bizarre calls I had ever seen.

I have seen some of the best players the CAA offered over the past six years; Jose Juan Barea, Brett Blizzard, Shawn James, Alex Loughton, Isaiah Hunter, Loren Stokes, Antoine Agudio, Nick George, Eric Maynor, Gary Neal, Phil Goss, Jai Lewis, Will Thomas, Tony Skinn, Folarin Campbell, Kenny Adeleke, Rick Apodaca, John Goldsberry and others who I apologize ahead of time for forgetting their names since time doesn't allow me to remember more.

And it wasn't just the games we would pay attention to at the Richmond Coliseum. We rejoiced in seeing, albeit briefly, the best pep band in the CAA, James Madison. We reveled in the witty signs the Drexel student section would whip up. I remember the back and forth between the ODU fans and the Hofstra fans in 2005. We would debate which school had the best looking dance team; VCU, UNC Wilmington or the lesser known but still good looking Delaware dance team. You always brought a hooded sweatshirt because the Richmond Coliseum, especially on Fridays is downright cold.

And it wasn't just the basketball, it was the road trips. There were the golf outings on Friday mornings/afternoons when the league only had an evening session on Fridays since they only had 10 teams until the 2005-06 season. In 2006, it was the memorable stopover to Atlantic City the night before. I still remember the old guy at the poker table telling my friend Mal after Mal beat him in a hand "Do you think I play crap hands!". Still hilarious to this day. The annual trek to Pasta Luna, the best Italian restaurant in Richmond and perhaps in Virginia. The many trips to Aunt Sarah's and Waffle House. Always looking for a Dairy Queen. The running joke that on the Jersey Turnpike, "the right lane is open"

So why am I waxing nostalgic? Well as I aforementioned in an column last week, this will be the first time in seven years that I won't be going to the CAA tournament. As I type this, my youngest son Jonathan is still crying from being sore from his surgery. He got home yesterday and we were warned that the recovery might take a little while and that he would be uncomfortable. Well that's been an understatement, the poor little guy can't sleep.

So I will be watching the first few rounds via the CAA online streaming video feed. I am going to borrow a VGA cable from work, hook up my laptop and watch it on my 40 inch screen. But as always I am giving a preview, albeit close to the noon starting time for the first game.

Well, now my preview and predictions are about to start. How accurate have I been? Well, I have been wrong before. And before that too. And after that too. Anyway, it is still fun to do it.

Speaking of that first game, its #8 Georgia State vs. #9 Delaware. The teams split their season series, each winning their home game. It's been tale of two disappointments here. Georgia State got a lot of early publicity for their redshirted transfers who beat the starters in practice last season with regularity. However, the Panthers struggled from the get go, unable to get any offense as the lowest scoring team in the CAA during the season. The Panthers were at one time 4-8 in conference and 6-17 overall before winning five of their last six including four in conference to finish the regular season at 11-18 overall. Meanwhile, Delaware finished seventh in conference last season with a .500 record and better things were expected. However a lack of a frontcourt doomed the Blue Hens defense and Delaware struggled to a 6-12 record in conference and 13-18 overall.

The Panthers had won four in a row prior to their spanking by VCU last Saturday. Part of that reason is the re-emergence of Leonard Mendez, well sort of. Mendez who averaged exactly 16 points per game last season is barely averaging over that at 8.8 this season. However, in two of his last five games, the Mendez of old is coming out, scoring 22 vs. Wilmington and 27 vs. Hofstra, both wins. The Panthers really need Mendez to complement leading scorer Joe Dukes and three point bomber Trae Goldston.

Meanwhile, the Blue Hens are a very guard oriented team led by CAA's Mr Double Double, Marc Egerson, the only player to average double figures in scoring (15.5 ppg) and rebounding (10.4). Jawan Carter (15.3), Alphonso Dawson (14.2) and quick as a hiccup Brian Johnson 10.2 round out the double figure scorers.

The winner of this game gets #1 seeded VCU (14-4 CAA, 21-9 overall), one of four teams to get a bye in the first round. The Rams have Eric Maynor, the CAA player of the year for the second year in a row. The future NBA star (yes, you read this correctly) averaged 22 points and 6 assists per game for VCU. The Rams won twenty games for the third season in a row but at times it was a struggle. The Rams were only 7-5 non conference, with their best non conference win a neutral site tournament game win over New Mexico.

The reason it has been a struggle is that often the Rams lack a second scoring option. Larry Sanders has tried to fill Jamal Shuler's shoes, averaging 11.2 points per game, 8 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game (which leads the CAA). However, Sanders gets into foul trouble often, averageing 3.7 fouls per game, and that has lead to problems for VCU (see the last six minutes of their loss to Nevada on Bracketbuster weekend). Still, the Rams lead the CAA in FG percentage at 46 percent, first in scoring offense and scoring margin, three point FG percentage, first in steals and turnover margin. The vaunted press, the atheticism, and Anthony Grant's trademark scowl are all still there. VCU swept Georgia State during the season but only split with Delaware. In fact in the game that VCU won at home vs. the Blue Hens, they had to come back from a 30-17 deficit.

The #5-#12 game that follows #8-#9 game features the Denver Nuggets of the CAA, #12 seeded UNCW vs. the defensive minded but basket challenged #5 seeded Hofstra Pride. The Seahawks have struggled all year with the concept of defense, giving up an average of 83 points per game. Scoring offense has not been exactly the Pride's strong suit this year. The Pride (11-7 CAA, 20-10 overall) are next to last in FG percentage at 39.1 percent. But the reason the Pride won eleven games in conference is due to their defense. The Pride led the CAA in FG percentage defense for the entire season until Drexel caught them at the end. The Pride also average the most blocks and are second in rebounding.

The Seahawks are led by the triumverate of Chad Tomko, Johnny Wolf and Dominique Lacy who combine for 4o points per game. The Seahawks lead the CAA in three point field goals made at 8.5 per game. They are also third in the CAA in scoring offense. However, the Seahawks get outscored by an average 12 points per game, easily the worst in the CAA, in fact almost double the margin of the next team, Towson. It is amazing that UNCW actually won three games in conference all year, including an upset of VCU at the Trask Center.

The Pride are led by all CAA first team Charles Jenkins who averages 19.2 points per game and is first in the CAA in free throw attempts. The problem is finding a second scoring option. Early on it was Cornelius Vines, but then Vines, who is often so erratic with his shooting, went so cold, he was relegated to the bench. Nathaniel Lester picked up the slack the second half of the season. One of them has to step up during the conference tourney. Thankfully, the Pride have this knack for close games having won 12 out of 14 games when the final score margin is five points or less.

Hofstra swept the season series from UNCW. But it wasn't easy as Hofstra won at the buzzer in Wilmington, then won in overtime at Hempstead. Both games were high scoring affairs, 80-78 and 88-81.

The Friday evening session features the #7-#10 game and the #6-#11 matchup. In the #7-#10 matchup it is James Madison (18-13, 9-9 CAA), who faltered at the end taking on William and Mary (10-19, 5-13 CAA) who actually played well at the end. JMU was at one time 9-6 and seriously had a chance for a first round bye before losing their last three games in conference. The Mary moved into tenth by knocking off Drexel at home 48-47.

The Dukes are led by all CAA second team Juwann James who averaged 15.8 points per game and shot 59.4 percent from the field. James, who I feel should have been first team CAA (more on that later), gets double digit scoring help from Kyle Swanston, CAA rookie of the year Julius Wells, and fellow freshman Devon Moore. Moore however was injured in a late season game against Hofstra and is questionable for tonight's game. The Dukes lead the CAA in free throw shooting at 75 percent which is outstanding and they are second in free throw attempts behind Hofstra.

The Mary have been a disappointment. Better things were supposed to occur this season after finishing fifth in conference last season and making it to the CAA Tournament finals. However, the Tribe lost a lot in their graduating seniors and couldn't make up the talent loss. David Schneider and Danny Sumner are by far the best players on the team. Thus the reason why the Mary are at the bottom of most CAA offensive categories.

The winner of this game takes on #2 seed George Mason (20-9, 13-5 CAA). The Patriots have won 20 games for the third time in the past four seasons. It's due to their trademark defense. The Patriots are third in the CAA in FG percentage defense at 39.9 percent and second in scoring defense. But Mason is also solid on offense. The Patriots are second in field goal percentage at 45.8 percent.

George Mason is a mix of veteran players and young studs. The Patriots start three seniors, Jon Vaughan, Darryl Monroe and Dre Smith. However their leading scorer is sophomore Cam Long at 11.8 points per game. Monroe leads the CAA in field goal percentage 57.9 percent (Juwann James missed eleven games due to injury and didn't have enough FG attempts to qualify). Monroe surprisingly only averages seven field goal attempts per game. Compare that to Gerald Lee, who finished second in FG percentage. Lee has 82 more field goal attempts in one less game, which averages to eleven attempts per game. More reason for the Patriots to kick into the big fellow and keep Dre Smith from chucking threes.

What I also like about Mason is those young studs; Andre Cornelius, Ryan Pearson and Michael Morrison. Morrison has really come on at the end of the season and Cornelius and Pearson play quality minutes along with Isaiah Tate. This team will be good for years to come.

Finally the last first round game features #6 Drexel vs. #11 Towson. The Bruiser Flint Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight vs. the Ole Defense of Pat Kennedy. It really is a contrast of styles. Drexel (15-13, 10-8 CAA) plays a physical defensive style that works. Towson (10-21, 5-13 CAA) plays a loose transition style game that doesn't. The Tigers have given up the second most total points in the CAA while Drexel has given up the fewest.

Drexel struggled early on, going 2-6 in their first eight games while trying to find an identity. It looked like the Dragons were going to live up to the low expectations the CAA prognosticators and I had for them (Drexel was picked to finish next to last in the CAA preseason poll) Then the Dragons found their identity, winning ten of their next twelve games, eight of which were in conference. The Dragons were right in the hunt for a top seed in the CAA tourney until they lost five of their last seven to finish in seventh. Still Bruiser Flint was named CAA Coach of the year for his efforts.

The Dragons are led by Scott Rodgers, their only double digit scorer averaging 13.5 points per game. However Drexel has six other players who average between 5.6 and 9.1 points per game and average 20 minutes per game. Still the Dragons are not a good offensive club. They are dead last in FG shooting percentage, three point FG shooting percentage, last in assists, surprisingly last in steals.

A lot has been talked about Georgia State's struggles the last several years. Well, the Towson Tigers are a Groundhog Day team. For the past several seasons, look at Towson's overall record

2001-02 10-17
2002-03 4-23
2003-04 7-20
2004-05 5-23
2005-06 12-15
2006-07 14-16
2007-08 12-17
2008-09 10-21

They are stuck in a holding pattern of mediocrity. There were the brief glimpses of hope when Gary Neal was around in the 05-06 and 06-07 seasons. But they were still under .500. Why?
Perhaps bad recruiting, perhaps it's a sense of gloom. Certainly could be a lack of discipline based on the way they play defense. The Tigers are second to last in scoring defense and FG percentage defense at 45 percent (only UNCW is worse at get this, 50.7 percent). You can't win games playing Ole defense. If you play good defense, but can't shoot straight you can still win (see Hofstra and Drexel for proof).

The Tigers, who lost both games to Drexel handily, are led by Junior Hairston who averages 13 points and 7.5 rebounds per game. Josh Thornton and Jarrel Smith also average double figures in scoring for Towson.

Northeastern gets the winner of this game. Talk about a team that has some serious Jekyll and Hyde issues. The Huskies started off the season 4-4. I watched their game against Michigan in the Preseason NIT, a twenty point blowout by the Wolverines and I thought, “This is the team that’s supposed to finish second in the CAA?” Then the Huskies got hot, winning twelve of their next fourteen games. This included an truly outstanding effort vs. VCU at the always difficult Spiegel Center. The Huskies beat the Rams there 68-63 and they were for a good part a top of the CAA. They had the defense, the solid inside scoring of Manny Adako, outside shooting with Eugene Spates and Matt Janning.

Then they hit a bump in the road. Ok., maybe a really large crater of a pothole. The Huskies would lose four of their next five and drop into a tie with VCU for first in the CAA. Northeastern “wrighted” themselves by beating Wright State on Bracketbuster Saturday in an impressive effort, then squeaked one by Drexel. This setup their final regular season home game with a chance to clinch the first seed in the CAA. They played another close game and got burned, as ODU tied the game with a late three then won in overtime.

The Huskies are first in scoring defense and second in free throw percentage. Janning was surprisingly first team All CAA, despite being down in every offensive category from last season. Janning gets able help from the solid Adako along with Spates and Chaisson Allen. They are a handful for any team.

Predictions - Well, its been a wacky year in the CAA, so why not some wackiness in the conference tournament. Yes, Parity, Thy Name is the CAA

First Round

Georgia State vs. Delaware - Past tournament wisdom dictates that Georgia State will win this based on their knack for seemingly playing a good first round game and often winning. However, the Panthers lack a quality big man which plays perfectly into the hands of the frontcourt challenged Blue Hens. The Blue Hens win this game by about seven points with Egerson having his usual double double.

Hofstra vs. UNCW - Tom Pecora is saying all the right things about how his defense has struggled in their last three conference games, and it has. For Hofstra to be successful, its all about the D, cause their offense is not very good. Hofstra swept the two games from UNCW. But the Pride are playing with fire, because both games were at UNCW’s style of pace. The Pride were very lucky to win either game. For Hofstra to win today, they HAVE to play their style, a slugfest game in the 60s. Anything higher, and it’s a major Seahawk upset. I think Hofstra will actually get the pace they want, but it still will be close say six points, just because Hofstra is not a good offensive team.

James Madison vs. the Mary - The Dukes are too athletic for the Tribe and can shoot the three, so the Mary won’t be able to pack it in on the Dukes. Don’t look for any William and Mary magic like last year. Juwann James should have a field day. Look for the Dukes to win by double digits. Finally the best pep band in the CAA makes it to the second round. Too bad I won’t be there to hear them.

Drexel vs Towson - Drexel won both games handily during the regular season. The Tigers are playing out the string and certainly not playing the defense. Dragons win by double digits.


Ok, Gar. You said this was going to be wacky and so far all I have seen in your first round predictions is chalk. But ah, that’s what the second round is for.

Delaware vs. VCU - You would think that VCU playing in front of a home crowd, this game will be a blow out. But Delaware plays VCU very well. Their guards can handle the vaunted VCU press and love a transition style game. This game should be high scoring and closer than the experts think. The key will be Larry Sanders and Kirill Pishchalnikov. If they can stay out of foul trouble, specifically Sanders, they will have a distinct advantage on Delaware. The Rams win, but it’s closer than you think

ODU vs. Hofstra - I can see Hofstra winning this game. I really can. Don’t be surprised if they do. In the past four conference tournaments, the five seed has beaten the four seed three times. In fact ODU twice was victim to this, in 2005-06 to Northeastern and last season to the Mary. Hofstra matches up really well with them and the Pride handled ODU in Hempstead winning 60-51.

However, I like ODU to win this game. First, Hofstra always plays close games. So even if the Monarchs come out flat, they should keep it close. Second, Jonathan Adams was missing from that regular season loss in Hempstead. As Northeastern knows, Adams is a very important sixth man for the Monarchs. Third, ODU is much better at ball control than the Pride. The Pride are at the bottom of the CAA in turnover margin and assists to turnover ratio while ODU ranks at the top. Fourth, if you live by the close game, you die by the close game. The law of averages is going to catch up to Hofstra in this game. Finally, I need ODU to win to play out my scenario. :-)
Monarchs win a very close game, due in large part that ODU can’t hit free throws (last in the CAA) and that will keep Hofstra enticingly in the game.

James Madison vs. George Mason - The two teams split their season series, each winning on their home court. I want to see Monroe and James just go add it. Post player vs. post player. It should be the “Feed the Beast” game with two of the best post players in the CAA. Madison has enough firepower to keep this interesting.

But, I think Mason plays the better defense by far and that will be enough for the Patriots to win. The only thing I am concerned about is Mason is their terrible free throw shooting specifically from Monroe. If I am Madison, Dazz Thornton and James should be playing “Hack a Shaq” on Monroe in the second half. Also, Madison is terrific on the line and if the Patriots foul a lot, there could be trouble in Dodge. Still Mason is the best balanced team in this tourney and they win a close one.

Gar, that’s still chalk so far. Wait for it. Wait for it.

Northeastern vs. Drexel - Say hello to upset #1. This is so perfect for an upset. You have a struggling Northeastern squad, losers of five of their past eight games. Northeastern split with Drexel and only won the second game with a layup with 2 seconds left, because Drexel couldn’t score a point in the last 3:43 seconds of the game.

What makes matters even better is that Drexel will already have a game in hand against a team that hasn’t played in a week in one of the coldest arenas to play in the country. Not good for the shooting stroke. Drexel wins this in a close slugfest and we have our first upset.


VCU vs. ODU - Ok, we had one upset. The only team that knocked off VCU in Richmond, Northeastern is gone. VCU has a game under its belt and should be ready to go to reclaim the CAA title in an arena in its home town. Everything looks good for the Rams, right?

As Lee Corso would say “Not so fast my friend”. In Old Dominion, you have the perfect team to beat VCU. First, the Monarchs have the frontcourt, all CAA first team Gerald Lee, Ben Finney and Frank Haskell, plus Adams off the bench to get Sanders and Pishchalnikov in foul trouble. Second ODU is an excellent ball control team; first in assists, first in assist to turnover ratio and in the top third in turnover margin. Thus the Monarchs can handle the VCU press.

Maynor will do his best to keep the Rams in the game. But with Sanders in foul trouble and ODU having split the season series with VCU, the Monarchs will smell blood in the water and the big shark, Gerald Lee will get the job done. ODU pulls off the big upset.

George Mason vs. Drexel - The name of the game is defense. Two of the best field goal percentage defensive teams go at it. A game in the low to mid fifties? Count on it. Jim Larranaga’s whistle vs. Bruiser Flint’s stomp. Priceless. Truly, the CAA at its finest.

The difference here is George Mason can shoot the ball. Drexel can’t. Drexel can’t hold onto the ball either. That’s going to be big in this game too. Monroe will be too much for the Drexel big guys to handle. The lack of depth for Drexel playing their third game will be too much for the Dragons as the Patriots wear them down. Look for a 55-47 win for George Mason.


ODU vs. George Mason - Two of the best coaches in the CAA, Blaine Taylor and Jim Larranaga battle it out. Two physical front lines knock heads. Two of the best big men, Gerald Lee and Darryl Monroe remind us that old school post play is still the best over the three point shot.

The teams split their season series with each team winning on their home court. I think the key is how the Mason guards do against the ODU guards. I think the frontcourts will cancel each other out. However, the Mason guards are better I think than ODU’s as far as shooting from the field. Also Mason leads the CAA in three point FG percentage defense, which I think is key here.

I think Mason wins this one based on the ODU guards inability in this game to shoot from three. Monroe and Birdsong will limit Lee somewhat and that will be the difference. The more balanced Patriots win and go to another dance.

Should be an entertaining two sessions today. Nap time comes in between sessions after Jonathan again being up early today.. He is getting better. Maybe I can bring him to the CAA tourney with me next season!

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