First, Happy New Year to Everyone! 2009 was a very rough year for me personally. My younger son's surgery, then my good friend's dad, who I was very fond of, passed away. Then my mom passed away, then my wild and strange car accident, then I found out today another friend of mine's mom passed away today suddenly.
I know it was rough for many of you as well. But as someone I admire greatly recently wrote in a note to me, "It's our response to adversity that defines us (basketball wise and in real life)." His note reminds me of that great scene from the last Rocky film as Rocky advises his son about life. It really is how you have to handle life. I have been told by someone I used to consider a dear friend that "Moores don't give up easily." And I know I don't. And neither do the rest of you. Here's to not giving up and making 2010 our year. As Rocky says, "Go out and get what you're worth!"
I had to share the following with you as well. My friend Jeremy, otherwise known as Dr J, put the following on his status line on Facebook;
"saw an MSNBC story about a woman named Marijuana. She's a college counselor and there's a sign in front of her desk that says "Sit here if you are waiting for Marijuana". He won't comment - he's just going to let that one speak for itself."
So I had to reply with this;
The title of my article is based on the fact that after two months, the CAA really starts their first half of conference play on Saturday (yes, there already has been one conference game for all teams). To me the season is based on thirds. The first third is non conference games. The second third is the first half of the conference season. Then the last third is the second half of the conference season.
Technically, by number of games each of the teams has played (11-13 on average), it's really more like 40 percent of the games played. But you can't really say "The CAA, 40 Percent of the Way Through". Doesn't sound right. You could also say that's it really a quarter through, with the last quarter being the conference tournament. But to me, the conference tournament is another animal altogether, so I will stick with the "Third of the Way Through Review".
The first two months of the college basketball season have been great for the CAA. You have one team, William and Mary, picked by the CAA Coaches to finish tenth in the CAA have a 9-2 record, with road wins at Wake Forest and Maryland. The preseason coaches favorite, Old Dominion, has once again beaten highly ranked Georgetown on the Hoyas home court for the second time in three years and destroyed Charlotte, a team that won convincingly at Louisville, by 38 points. You have the defending champion, VCU, also with a 8-2 record, who has a win over nationally ranked Oklahoma and has given Rhode Island their only loss on the season. Finally, you have two teams, the Mary and VCU in the top 20 in the country in RPI.
There have been teams with several nationally ranked close misses - Hofstra had #13 UConn on the ropes, up nine in the second half before losing late. George Mason led #6 Villanova the entire way until a Wildcat three pointer with 28 seconds resulted in a Patriot loss. And Drexel was up five on Rhode Island with 39 seconds left before they melted the lead away.
So with the battle for the four first round bye spots starting Saturday, let's take a look at all twelve teams in the CAA, based on three different levels - the Elite, the Middle of the Pack, and The Rear of the Bus.
These are the teams that I think will certainly finish in the top three. Two of them are not real surprises. But the team that occupies the #1 spot is absolutely a surprise, a very pleasant surprise. These three teams are either very good with the ball, shoot the ball well, defend very well and have a lot of depth.
1) William and Mary (9-2) - This team has been amazing. Road wins at Wake and Maryland. A home win over Richmond and VCU. The Mad Bombers of the CAA, given that name by me due to the fact that they have 63 more three point FG attempts then the next team in the CAA (James Madison), are a scoring machine. They lead the CAA in scoring offense, field goal percentage, three point FG percentage, free throw percentage, assists and assist to turnover ratio.
Their only losses were a single digit loss at #13 UConn and a heartbreaking loss at 9-3 Harvard on a Jeremy Lin three pointer at the buzzer in OT. What's really amazing is that this is basically the SAME team as last year's disappointing 10-20 team. Think about it, they are one win away from matching their season total of last year with the same roster. It's due to the fact that Quinn McDowell, David Schneider and Danny Sumner have all elevated their games. And the credit has to go to Tony Shaver, the most underrated coach in the CAA.
It will be interesting to see how the Mary do against solid CAA defensive teams like ODU and Hofstra, who they will play at Hempstead on Saturday. Also, the Tribe are dead last in the CAA in offensive rebounding. Again, teams like ODU, Hofstra, and UNCW will provide a good test for William and Mary. Can't wait to see Saturday's game at Hofstra.
2) VCU (8-2) - No Eric Maynor. No problem for the Rams. The wins against Oklahoma, Rhode Island and Richmond, albeit all at home, show that they have been able to spread the ball around and win without the now Utah Jazz star. They do it with offense, second in the CAA in scoring offense, fourth in FG percentage and three point FG percentage. And they do it with defense, first in the CAA in steals, fourth in blocks and third in three point FG percentage defense.
It's a collective group as far as Rams scoring. VCU has eight players that score 7.5 points or more per game led by Larry Sanders's 14.8 ppg (he also averages 8.5 rebounds and nearly 3 blocks per game). The Rams are ten deep now, with the additions of Wake Forest transfer Jamie Skeen and Terrance Saintil back from injury, which will come in handy come CAA Tournament time.
The Rams still need to prove themselves on the road, as they are only 2-2. They have an interesting home test vs. UNCW on Saturday. The Larry Sanders - John Fields matchup will be a dandy.
3) ODU (9-4) - The Monarchs started the season 4-0 against cupcakes, then lost three games in a row before winning five of their last six, including the win at Georgetown. The win at the Hoyas home gym, the only game GTown plays there during the season, was a big at large resume builder. However, the 33 point win over Charlotte typlified the Monarchs style of play. They outrebounded the 49ers 45-24 and the CAA's best scoring defense team held Charlotte to 30 points under their scoring average.
Gerald Lee, the preseason co CAA player of the year, is having another solid season scoring nearly 14 points per game on 51 percent shooting. And the Monarchs are also their typically deep selves, as Coach Blaine Taylor has nine players that average 10 minutes or more per game.
The concerns for ODU are still there. The backcourt is still suspect, though as the team as a whole shoots only 32 percent from three. Trian Iladius has been a three point threat off the bench but Darius James must improve on his 33 percent overall shooting, otherwise teams will collapse on Lee, Ben Finney and Frank Hassell. ODU has a big game at George Mason at noon on Saturday.
The Middle of the Pack
I think these teams right now are vying for one first round bye spot. Right now I have these teams in order of how I think they are playing. Can one of these teams finish in the top 3? Perhaps any of the teams rated #4-#6. After that, it's a stretch. But you can make a case that any of these teams can finish in fourth. There's not much separating these teams right now.
4) Hofstra (8-5) - The Pride have played well for the most part the first 13 games of the season, but they could be so much more. As noted, they had a 54-45 lead with nine minutes left against UConn. Then they had a lead for a good part of the game against Charlotte before falling 80-72. Then they were ahead of St John's 59-54 with six minutes left before the roof caved in.
For the Pride, it starts all with co CAA preseason player of the year, Charles Jenkins. He is averaging 19 points per game on 46 percent shooting and nearly matches that FG percentage from three (45.8). After Jenkins, the next leading scorer is Nathaniel lester at 10.6 points per game.
And therein lies the problem, the Pride at times struggle to score. Lester had not scored in double figures in five straight games until their win over Florida Atlantic on Tuesday. Cornelius Vines, the second leading scorer last year is averaging 4 points per game less than last season. The leading frontcourt scorer for the Pride is freshman Halil Kanacevic at 7.7 points per game. An inside game is necessary for Hofstra succeed.
Still it's defense that Hofstra "prides" itself on. First in the CAA in FG percentage defense at 38 percent, first in blocks, first in rebounding offense. And what has improved for Hofstra is their assist to turnover ratio, due to in large part freshman Chaz Williams who has a 2-1 assists to turnover ratio. The Pride's defense will be tested when the Mary, the Mad Bombers of the CAA, come to town Saturday.
5) George Mason (6-6) - When you have a relatively young team like the Patriots, you can expect inconsistency. And that describes George Mason's season in a nutshell - inconsistency. The same team that came within a whisker of beating both Dayton and Villanova can also get clocked by George Washington and Radford.
Mason has loads of talent, they just are mostly underclassmen. There is only one senior, forward Louis Birdsong , two juniors, guards Cam Long and Isaiah Tate and the rest are all sophomores and freshmen. Long has struggled this season. His points per game are around the same, but his FG percentage has dropped from 46 percent to 37.5 percent as well as his three point shooting from 40 percent to 28.9 percent. The team as a whole is shooting 40.8 percent as opposed to 44.8 percent last season. There are other areas of concern as Mason is dead last in rebounding margin and assist to turnover ratio.
Still Mason is very talented with Ryan Pearson (10.9 points per game) , Mike Morrison, Kevin Foster, Luke Hancock (10 points per game) etc. And they have the potential to improve and battle for one of the four first round bye spots. A good barometer of the Patriots will be their home game Saturday at noon vs. Old Dominion
6) James Madison (6-5) - My CAA sleeper of the year's season started off roughly with the loss of star sophomore guard Devon Moore to a torn ACL. Then they lost by 28 points to both Ohio State and Murray State. Then the Dukes rattled off four wins in a row, before losing two in a row again, one to Georgia State at home before winning two of their last three.
One thing is for certain, JMU is certainly a different team now with the addition of Denzel Bowles. Bowles, a 6 foot 10 transfer from Texas A&M has been a difference maker, averaging 24 points, 11 rebounds and nearly 3 assists a game in the four games he has played with. Combine Bowles with sophomore sensation Julius Wells (15 ppg, 6.5 rebounds per game) and JMU has a dynamic frontcourt duo.
Madison needs to improve their three point FG percentage, next to last in the CAA. They have played solid defense though, fourth in the CAA. Don't be surprised if the Dukes make a serious charge for one of the four bye spots. Bowles is a force to be reckoned with. But evening their record at 1-1 won't be easy when they travel to Northeastern for a Saturday afternoon clash.
7) Northeastern (5-7) - The Huskies won the Cable Car Classic in impressive fashion defeating host Santa Clara the first night, then defeating Kent State 61-58 last night. Matt Janning had a solid tournament scoring 34 points on 5 of 9 shooting from beyond the arc. The Huskies have now won three in a row after a 2-7 start.
But the reason they won the Cable Car Classic is they played good defense. They held Santa Clara to 29 percent shooting from the field and Kent State to 40 percent from the field. This is under what Northeastern has allowed for the season, 44 percent, which is tenth in the CAA. In fact Northeastern is dead last in three point FG percentage defense at 38.6 percent.
Janning though has brought his A game this season. He had a disappointing 2008-09 season where he saw his statistics drop across the board from the year before (he should have not been a first team All CAA member). But this year his scoring is up nearly 2.5 points per game and his shooting percentage is up to 43.7 percent. Janning will need to continue his A game performances against the dynamic JMU duo of Bowles and Wells on Saturday.
8) Drexel (6-7) - The Dragons managed to blow a five point lead with 39 seconds left against Rhode Island. All was needed a foul, a missed front end of a one and one free throw, and a turnover and Rhode Island escapes with an 80-79 win.
This seems to describe the Dragon season so far. They had a late lead against St Joe's to start the season only to see the Hawks tie the game with 23 seconds left in regulation, then win in overtime. Rutgers defeated them with a putback with 1.4 seconds left. But this is not surprising when you are last in scoring offense and last in free throw percentage.
What keeps the Dragons in games is their defense. They are third in scoring defense and third in turnover margin. Jamie Harris has taken over the scoring load for the Dragons, averaging 14.4 points and 3.8 assists per game. Sharpshooter Chris Fouch, a redshirt freshman due to a torn ACL last season, has come alive late, scoring 23 points vs. Rhode Island including 4 of 7 from beyond the arc. Getting Leon Spencer back soon would help too. The Dragons look to go 2-0 in the CAA when they face old America East rival Delaware at the Bob Carpenter Center on Saturday.
9) Georgia State (7-6) - The Panthers have slogged their way through their first 13 games, as they average only 61 points per game on offense. But defensively, they are outstanding. Second in the CAA in scoring defense, second in three point FG percentage defense and third in rebounding margin.
Joe Dukes is their go to guy. The problem has been the go to guy's three point shooting has gone and left the building. Dukes shot 34.7 percent from three last season. This season, it's 21.6. Yikes. His assists to turnover ratio is now 1 to 1, where last season it was 1.61 to 1. Dukes has picked up his shooting the last three games going 19 of 37 from the field.
However, Dukes has had help from Trae Goldston, who has picked up his game this season. Goldston is shooting 43.8 percent from the field (up from 39.8 last season) and is shooting 40 percent from three (33 percent last season). As long as Goldston and Ousman Krubally continue to contribute and the Panthers continue to play smothering D, the Panthers will be competitive. Towson may find out the hard way Saturday evening.
10) UNCW (4-7) - Next to William and Mary, this may be the most improved team in the CAA. So why do I have them tenth? Well, it's due in large part that a) they were the worst team in the CAA last season, so to be in the pack is an improvement and b) their ball control leaves a lot to be desired.
The Seahawks are dead last in turnover margin in the CAA and eighth in assists to turnover ratio in the CAA. However, the Seahawks have seriously improved on the defensive end. Last season, they were dead last in practically every defensive category. This year, first in the CAA in three point FG percentage defense, second in blocks, sixth in FG percentage defense.
Much of the credit is due to freshman Keith Rendleman and junior transfer John Fields. Rendleman comes off the bench and averages five and half points and nearly six rebounds a game in 18 minutes, while Fields averages 13.6 points, 9.2 rebounds and 3.2 blocks per game. Chad Tomko leads the Seahawks in scoring at 15.5 points per game and 5 assists per game. Tomko however nearly averages four turnovers per game.
UNCW has a win over Penn State and has been very competitive though losing to South Florida, Miami, Wake and George Washington. If UNCW can be more careful with the ball, more wins will be in store for the faithful at the Trask Center. And by the way, having seen two UNCW games on TV already, Fields is very enjoyable to watch.
The Rear of the Bus
The reason that Towson and Delaware occupy the rear of the bus in the CAA is that neither plays defense. Delaware is next to last in scoring defense and Towson is dead last. Same for FG percentage defense. Towson is dead last in rebounding. When you can't defend and can't keep the opposing team off the glass, it's a sure recipe for losing.
11) Towson - That run in the CAA Tournament was now definitely a fluke. How they could play two terrific games and then come back this season and play swiss cheese defense, is just stunning. If Lou Brown was watching this team, he would say "Kennedy (as in Towson Coach Pat Kennedy), what's with this ole bull__!" Yeah, it's that bad.
The one good thing for the Tigers is their assist to turnover ratio. You would think that Troy Franklin is responsible for that. But despite averaging four assists per game, Franklin averages three turnovers per game. It's Brian Morris, who is averaging 5.4 assists per game and only 2 assists per game that gives them that good assist to turnover ratio.
Towson does have "The Handful" Calvin Lee, who averages 13.6 points per game. Josh Thornton is right there with 13.5 points per game and is shooting much better from three lately (14 for his last 31 from three). The big surprise is Robert Nwankwo who averages 11 points and 11 rebounds per game. Someone had to take over the CAA double double responsibility since the graduation of Marc Egerson.
Towson has a tough test Saturday as they travel to Georgia State for a 6 pm start. The question will be if they can get the score in the seventies. If so, they have a chance, otherwise, they will start conference play 0-2.
12) Delaware - The injury to Brian Johnson. The loss of two incoming freshmen. The 4-8 start is not surprising except for maybe the fact that it's amazing Delaware has four wins. Outside of Egerson, their frontcourt was weak last season. Now without Egerson, they are next to last in scoring defense and FG percentage defense. The Dead last in blocks. Next to last in defensive rebounds. The frontcourt looks like the 2008-09 UNC Wilmington frontcourt. And combine all that with next to last in assist to turnover ratio and you have the recipe for last place.
The lone bright spot. Jawan Carter. Nearly 17 points, 3 assists and nearly 5 rebounds per game. Delaware has won two of their last three games including a road win at Vermont (9-5) so there is some fight in the Fighting Blue Hens. The question is, can their lackluster frontcourt keep them in games vs. ODU, Hofstra, VCU and Northeastern. Well, Drexel at home provides their frontcourt with a good test.
The New Year is upon us. Conference play in all leagues are upon us. Teams that have struggled now have the chance to be reborn. Hope always springs eternal at the College Hardwood.