It’s funny, this is only my fourth CAA Men’s preview since this blog started in December 2005. It seems like I have been doing this longer. It's the first CAA preview I have written without Eric Maynor involved. Yes, the king is dead, or in this case, graduated and gone to the NBA. The rest of the CAA no longer needs to worry about the two time CAA player of the year and first round pick of the Utah Jazz burying the three point jumper or knifing through the lane for a floater layup.
The league is now up for grabs. No one team really stands out to me. Each team has a significant weakness, whether its depth, guard play, youth, lack of scoring options etc etc. However, the CAA coaches had to pick some team to finish first and they voted Old Dominion as the preseason top team. In fact, if you want to see the predicted order of finish, check out Michael Litos’ article on it.
Well we know how accurate the coaches are with their preseason poll. They had Drexel at the bottom of the league last preseason (then again, so did I). Let’s see if I can do any better. This is in order of predicted finish.
Northeastern - I am a little uneasy about picking the Huskies first overall because they were hands down my award winner for “2008-09 CAA Enigma Team of the Year”. They truly deserved the award after starting out the season 3-4, then winning 12 of their next 14 games. This included starting off 10-1 in conference. But then they lost five of their last eight in conference to finish third in the conference. Then they topped that with an embarrassing CAA Tournament quarterfinal loss to Towson.
The Huskies however return four of their five starters from last season’s team (only Eugene Spates graduated). Senior guard Matt Janning, who was the poster child for Team Enigma, leads the Huskies. Janning did worse in most categories last season than the season before. In 2007-08, Janning averaged 16.1 points per game, shot 44.7 percent from the field, shot 37.6 percent from beyond the arc, and shot 81.2 percent from the free throw line. In 2008-09, Janning averaged 14.3 points per game, shot 40.6 percent from the field, shot 32.3 percent from beyond the arc, and shot 81.2 percent from the free throw line. Yet somehow, he was voted First Team All CAA over a much more deserving Darryl Monroe from George Mason.
Janning must have a better season if the Huskies wish to finish first. However Janning has lots of help from senior forward Manny Adako, senior center Nkem Ojougboh and junior guard Chaisson Allen. They have better overall starting five balance than the team picked to finish first by the coaches, Old Dominion. However, they need to be consistent from start to finish if they are to be the best team in the CAA. Also they need quality minutes from Vinny Lima and Baptiste Bataille, who are really the only other two players back from last season’s team. The Huskies have six incoming freshman and they will provide the depth off the bench.
Northeastern immediately gets several big tests as they first start their season at Siena on November 17, followed by a home game against the always impressive Aggies of Utah State on November 21. Games against St Mary’s and Santa Clara will also be tests. If the Huskies can win a big game or two early against some impressive non-conference teams, that should bode well for CAA play.
Key Player – Matt Janning, duh! Forget 2008-09, Janning must improve on his good 2007-08 season to bring the Huskies to the promised land. If he continues playing in that 2008-09 funk he was in, then the Huskies will be lucky to finish in the top four.
Old Dominion - I know the Monarchs had a great inaugural CollegeInsider.Com tournament, winning the whole shebang. The Monarchs won 25 games last season, which helped give them an average 24 wins per season the last 5 years. They are returning all five starters; First Team All CAA forward Gerald Lee along with fellow frontcourt starters, juniors Ben Finney and Frank Haskell and senior guard Marsharee Neely and junior Darius James. They have an emerging sixth man in Keyon Carter. They have one of the two best coaches in the CAA in Blaine Taylor (the other is Jim Larranaga). Taylor is always guaranteed to have a deep team that plays nine to ten guys on average.
So why don’t I have them finishing first despite all the evidence above to the contrary? Well I am not very enamored with their outside shooting, specifically from their guards. Neely was the best of the three guards in shooting from three at 38 percent (40 percent overall), but there was a significant drop from there with James shooting 32 percent (38 percent overall) and Kent Bazemore shooting 26.5 percent (43 percent overall). And none of the three guards shoot higher than 66 percent from the line.
Still, Taylor finds away to overcome deficiencies by using his trademark depth and physical play. Often Taylor will make hockey line changes, bringing in three players in at one time in his continued attempt to grind down opponents. Taylor will count on Carter and Bazemore for significant minutes. And of course, Lee is a terrific post player who can also hit the outside jumper.
The Monarchs start the first two months of the season with road games at Missouri, Dayton, and Georgetown (the last two teams ranked). This will show how good the Monarchs really are. Three seasons ago, Old Dominion punched their ticket for an at large bid to the NCAA Tournament by winning at Georgetown
Key Player – Darius James – If the Monarchs are going to finish first in the CAA, James has to become a much more consistent outside shooter, otherwise teams will collapse in and double team Lee, Finney and Haskell on the inside.
VCU is coming off a CAA championship and a heartbreaking one point NCAA first round loss to UCLA. The Rams also lost the aforementioned all CAA guard and first round pick, the King, Eric Maynor. They also lost coach Anthony Grant to Alabama. Still the Rams bring back four starters from last year’s NCAA team and their new coach, Shaka Smart is another assistant from Florida.
With Maynor gone, this year truly promises to be “The Larry Sanders Show”. The junior 6 foot 10 forward has a wingspan that’s nearly a foot longer. He averaged over 11 points a game, nearly 9 rebounds a game and nearly 3 blocks a game. The CAA Defensive Player of the Year altered a lot more shots than he blocked and provided a second scoring option for the Rams. Now Sanders is the primary scoring option that must cut down on his fouls to be effective.
Sanders gets support from senior guard Joey Rodriguez, whose three point shooting (41.6 percent) is much better than his assists to turnover ratio (85 assists, 79 turnovers) . Rodriguez must now handle the point guard duties since Maynor graduated. Also returning are starters Bradford Burgess and Kirill Pishchalnikov (Pischalnikov in Russian stands for “five fouls”). Burgess will be counted on for additional scoring and Pischalnikov, well, Russian muscle.
The Rams likely fifth starter is Marist transfer Jay Gavin who averaged 12 points per game as a freshman for the Red Foxes. The other possible fifth starter could be returning Rams guard Brandon Rozzell. Smart also has returning players TJ Gwynn, Ed Nixon and Wake Forest transfer Jamie Skeen, giving the Rams a very deep bench.
But without King Maynor and most likely a new system under coach Smart, the Rams most likely will struggle early to find their own identity. A home game early on vs. former coach Jeff Capel’s #16 ranked Oklahoma Sooners will be a test of their identity. The Rams have a lot of depth returning but I think the loss of Maynor will result in a team that will struggle to scores at times. But their athleticism , pressing defense and non foul prone Sanders will keep them in every game, where they will win most of them.
Key Player – Joey Rodriguez. Rodriguez is the only real returning guard able to play the point. He almost transferred to a Division II school before Smart convinced him otherwise. He must improve on his turnover to assists ratio for the Rams to be successful.
James Madison – Second year coach Matt Brady turned the Dukes fortunes around as they won 21 games and made the semifinals of the College Insider tournament (where they got smoked by fellow CAA member ODU by 38 points). Gone are forwards Kyle Swanston Hungry Man Dinner and Juwann Jamming at the James. However, a solid nucleus of Pierre Curtis, Devon Moore, Julius Wells and Andrey Semenov are back.
Moore, Semenov and Wells, the CAA Rookie of the Year, are all sophomores and will only get better. Dazz Thornton, who came on later in the year for the Dukes had offseason surgery and will be back in December. Another player they should have in December is transfer Denzel Bowles, who comes to the Dukes by way of Texas A&M where he was one of the top 100 incoming players in the country as a freshman (but hasn't shown that talent yet).
The Dukes don’t have the depth per se of Old Dominion or VCU, but I was so impressed with Moore and Wells at the end of the season, especially Wells’ game vs. Hofstra at Hempstead. I think both will be second team All CAA players this season. And if Bowles is as good as they say he is and Thornton stays healthy, the Dukes first six players are as good as any team in the CAA.
The Dukes first game is at #17 Ohio State. Neither Thornton nor Bowles will be playing in that game. But once those two big men are in the lineup the Dukes should roll. I have the Dukes as my sleeper team in the CAA. I wouldn’t be surprised if come the end of the CAA regular season the Dukes are the team that no one wants to have to face in the Richmond Coliseum.
Key Player – Pierre Curtis – Lost in the shuffle with the terrific trio of freshman was the solid year Curtis had. He shot 50 percent from the field, shot 40 percent from the field and cut down his turnovers. However, his assists were down from the year before. If he can get his assists up and feed the terrific trio for the Dukes, while maintaining his other stats, the Dukes will be a very difficult team to beat in the CAA.
George Mason – Coach Jim Larranaga lost three fifths of the team that lost to VCU in the championship and then lost a heartbreaker to eventual champion Penn State in the first round of the NIT. Gone are Jon Vaughan, Dre Smith and Darryl Monroe, the second, third and fourth scorers on the Patriots team.
However, leading scorer junior Cam Long returns along with forward Louis Birdsong. Another terrific sophomore trio in Ryan Pearson, Michael Morrison and Andre Cornelius will join them. The three sophomores combined to average 48 minutes a game, so they have significant game experience. They will be counted on a lot more this season. Here’s a real interesting piece of trivia. Both Pearson and Morrison are left handed, which is unusual to see two big men who are lefties.
Long will be counted on for more scoring and Birdsong must get more touches to take advantage of his 48.8 percent field goal shooting and 70 percent shooting for the line. Birdsong getting more touches will be the responsibility for Cornelius.
Unlike past Patriot teams though, this George Mason team is short on depth. Basically it’s guard Isaiah Tate and crop of talented but unproven freshmen. Also there is the question of who will pick up the scoring for the three seniors who graduated. Only Pearson averaged seven or more points per game besides Long. Thus why I think Mason will finish fifth in the CAA.
The Patriots will find out early on how well this new nucleus will be able to score against good competition. The Patriots will be playing in the Puerto Rico Tip Off Tournament and their first opponent is #6 Villanova. (Mason potentially can also play ranked teams Georgia Tech or Dayton in this tournament as well). Plus regular season games vs. #22 Dayton and perennial Missouri Valley Power Creighton.
Key Player – Andre Cornelius will be responsible for getting his players the ball. He must improve on his one to one assists to turnover ratio, otherwise the Patriots will really struggle to score.
Hofstra – When I read Michael Litos’ article about the CAA preseason poll and that Hofstra was picked sixth, I thought it was somewhat low. That’s because the Pride finished fifth last season and three of their five starters at the end of last season were returning, including all CAA first team member Charles Jenkins (the other two starters are junior guard Nathaniel Lester and junior shot blocking forward Greg Washington. They also have former starter and sixth man Cornelius Vines returning, who averaged double digits last season.
Then I saw the Hofstra Blue and White Scrimmage and I left the scrimmage saying, yeah sixth is about right. That’s because outside of the three starters and Vines returning, only forward Miklos Szabo is back from last year’s team. The rest of the bench is supplied by four incoming freshman and one JUCO guard.
Normally I do not talk about freshman in my preview, but one freshman player on Hofstra could be very important. Freshman guard Chaz Williams is a highly touted point NY city point guard. He is listed as 5 foot 9, but he looks to be 5 foot 7. But he is cat like quick and seems to possess good instincts and is known for his stylish passes.
Hofstra will be in the mix though because of Jenkins. The 2008-09 Haggerty award winner is a force of nature. He is 6 foot 3 220 pounds and is built like a Miami Hurricane strong safety (and yes he is that strong). He averaged nearly 20 points, nearly 5 rebounds a game and over 4 assists per game. My favorite statistic is that Jenkins shot 82 percent from the line hitting 192 of 234 free throw attempts (only Maynor had more attempts and more free throws in the CAA than Jenkins). Jenkins is a true assassin.
Another lingering question is will Nathaniel Lester step up and be the complimentary scorer to Jenkins. Lester was almost as equally as touted as Jenkins coming out of Canarsie High and at at times has shown that potential. But often Lester disappears. He came on late last season and the Pride need him to be that second scorer.
The Pride will get the ultimate early test of their freshman depth. Hofstra travels to #1 ranked Kansas on Friday, November 13 (and I get to be there!). Then it’s off to Storrs, Connecticut with a likely second round matchup against # 14 UConn.
Key Player – Chaz Williams. I hate to make a freshman the key player for a team. But if Williams can become a legitimate point guard in his freshman season, it will take pressure off of Jenkins to play the point, which he often did last season. Jenkins is so very good off the ball because of his speed and strength. Allowing him to play less point will give him more scoring opportunities. Williams’ play will dictate whether or not that happens.
The second half of the CAA preview will be done by Wednesday.