Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Haves and The Have-Nots - The CAA at the Halfway Point

Yesterday morning, I was pretty sure I had the title of my article about the first half of the CAA season. But I wanted to see how things played out during the day . First at noon, I watched Drexel completely dismantle Hofstra 75-62 on MSG (trust me, the final score was not indicative of the game). Later in the afternoon, as pictured, I was at CW Post watching the Northern Boulevard Rivalry game between Post and N.Y.I.T. While I watched Post come back with a 15-0 second half run and hold on to win, I was checking up on the Northeastern-VCU and George Mason-Towson games on my phone. Finally last night, while at a friend's house making homemade hurricanes (which came out very tasty), I briefly checked up on ODU and William and Mary.

From all these games I learned one thing. Reinforcement is always good. Thus the title of this article is "The Haves and the Have Nots."

Not since the 2005-06 season have I seen such polarity between the top six teams and the bottom six teams in the CAA. You have six teams with over .500 records in conference and overall, and you have six teams with below .500 records in conference and overall. And right now, there is no evidence that I can see that tells me that any of the bottom six teams will come back and be part of the top group. None. Nada. Zilch.

And if you want evidence of that, how's this. In the first half of the season, the bottom half teams beat the top half teams twice - UNCW at William and Mary and Delaware defeated Drexel at home. Twice, that's it.

So you basically have six teams playing for the four first round bye spots at Richmond in the first week of March. And not since the 2006-07 season do you have the strong possibility that the CAA could have multiple bids in the NCAA Tournament. So let's review how the twelve teams are doing in current order of standing and then I will give out midseason awards.

The Haves

1) Northeastern (13-7, 8-1 CAA) after being one of my Top Five Disappointments to Start the 2009-10 season, is the hottest team in the CAA right now having won eleven in a row. My pick to win the CAA started this season 2-7 before the run of eleven straight wins. The formula for their win streak is simple - play good defense, get offensive balance and get good outside shooting. Let's see, second in the CAA in scoring defense and third in turnover margin. Check. Four players averaging about 10 points or more per game and first in the CAA in Field Goal Percentage at 45.6 percent. Check. Second in the CAA in Three Point FG percentage and Chaisson Allen shooting 26 of 44 from beyond the arc in his last eight games. Check.

Allen has been the difference maker for the Huskies. Matt Janning may be the leading scorer at nearly 16 points per game but Allen's deadly outside shooting since the start of the calendar year coincides with the Huskies' long winning streak. He is shooting 46.7 percent from beyond the arc. His torrid outside shooting opens the inside up for Manny Adako and Nkem Ojougboh, both of whom are shooting around 55 percent or higher from the field. His assists to turnover ratio is also very solid (1.7 to 1).

Allen and company will try to keep their torrid pace against a tough start to the second half schedule - home games vs Drexel and ODU, then road games at Hofstra and Delaware, then a home game vs. Georgia State, then road games at W&M and UNCW. They finish with their bracketbuster game, then at home with Hofstra, then potentially a huge road game at George Mason.

2) George Mason (13-7, 8-1 CAA). For such a relatively young team as Mason, to be tied for first place halfway through the season speaks volumes for the talent the Patriots have and the coaching of Jim Larranaga. The team only has one senior, Louis Birdsong (who barely plays) but they have not played like a young team in their past five games, winning all five, three of which were on the road. Grant you they were against teams with a combine CAA record of 11-34, but road wins are road wins.

Mason has been powered lately by the duo of Cam Long and Ryan Pearson. In their last three games, Long and Pearson have combined for 114 points, shooting 36 of 61 from the field (59 percent) including Long shooting 11 of 17 from beyond the arc and 28 of 38 from the free throw line (73 percent).

Mason has had a relatively easy schedule having played only two games vs. the other top five teams in the conference (win vs. ODU, loss vs Northeastern). The second half of the schedule also starts off light for the Patriots with home games vs JMU and Delaware, before a road game with Georgia State. Then the schedule gets interesting - at Drexel, home to VCU, at ODU, home to W&M, then their Bracketbuster game. Then it's at Delaware, then they finish the season home to Northeastern.

3) Old Dominion (16-5, 7-1 CAA). The team with the strongest at large resume in the CAA, due to the win at Georgetown, the Monarchs are coming off a big win at William and Mary last night, 58-55. It was accomplished in the same trademark way that ODU has won all season, terrific defense. The team that is first in the CAA in scoring defense and FG percentage defense held the Mary to 55 points (18 points below their season average) and 33 percent from the field (the Mary shoots 45 percent on the season). And of course the best rebounding team in the CAA , the Monarchs, outrebounded the Tribe 35-27.

Gerald Lee is having another solid season averaging 14 points per game and shooting 53 percent from the field. Lee, the tough defense and the rebounding are all givens for ODU, but the key to the Monarchs success may be the way they handle the ball. They are second in the CAA in both assist to turnover ratio and turnover margin and tied for first in steals. When you tend to play low scoring games, keeping a hold of the ball and forcing turnovers is key.

The Monarchs' second half schedule starts with a home game vs. Georgia State. Then the rough part of the schedule occurs; at Northeastern, home to the Mary, at VCU. It ends with three of the four games at home - home to Mason, then Towson, at Georgia State, then home to VCU. Here's what ODU fans should hope for - The Monarchs go 7-2 in the second half of the CAA season, win their bracketbuster game and at least make the CAA tournament semis. That should give them at least 24 wins. If that all occurs, I feel pretty confident in saying that with that win at Georgetown in their back pocket, the Monarchs will get an at large to the Dance.

4) William and Mary (14-5, 6-3 CAA). The Mary lost that heartbreaker at home to ODU last night. But losses have rarely been the case for the Tribe this season. Entering the start of the 2009-10 season, the Mary were picked to finish 10th in the CAA preseason poll. After two close losses to UConn and Harvard (the Crimson are a good team), the Mary reeled off ten straight wins. In those ten wins, William and Mary knocked off Richmond, then Wake Forest, VCU in the conference opener and put the cherry on top with another ACC road victim, Maryland. It has continued in CAA play, as the Tribe won five of their other eight conference games.

It's all about the offense with the Mary. Second in scoring offense in the CAA at 73 points, second in FG percentage at 45.5 percent, first in three point FG percentage and most importantly, first in assist to turnover ratio. David Schneider has made a strong case for first team all CAA averaging 17 points and nearly 6 rebounds a game. But it's not just Schneider. Quinn McDowell adds nearly 15 points per game.

The second half of the schedule has the Tribe playing five of their nine games on the road. Three of the first four games are on the road - at JMU, then home to Drexel, at ODU, then at Georgia State. Then home to Delaware and Northeastern, then at Mason. Next is the Bracketbuster game, then home to Towson and at UNCW to finish the regular season. Next to ODU, the Tribe have the best case for an at large bid. Thus, like ODU, they need to go at least 6-3 the second half of the season, win their bracketbuster game and make the CAA semis to make their case for an at large.

5) Drexel (11-10, 6-3 CAA). Having watched the Dragons dismantle the Pride yesterday, I can say that perhaps next to the Mary, they are the biggest first half surprise in the CAA. Everyone knows the Dragons can play defense, but their offense lately has really picked it up. In four of their last five wins, Drexel has shot at least 47 percent from the field. This is due in large part to the emergence of freshman sharpshooter Chris Fouch. In those four games, Fouch has shot 22 of 35 from the field. On the season, Fouch is shooting 37.5 percent from the beyond the arc.

Of course, it has not been just Fouch. Jamie Harris is the leading scorer on Drexel, averaging 15 points per game. Samme Givens has helped out on the boards, averaging nearly eight and a half rebounds per game, which is good for third in the CAA. And Givens just got some help. Leon Spencer has returned from a wrist injury to provide inside scoring and rebounding help. Spencer played well against JMU, with 9 points and 7 rebounds in 16 minutes. He didn' t play much against Hofstra, only playing 10 minutes, but my guess is that Bruiser decided to rest him during the blowout.

Drexel's schedule is somewhat difficult in the second half, five of the nine games are on the road. Two tough road games start the schedule off - at Northeastern, then at William and Mary. Then it's home to Towson and Mason, then at Hofstra, then home to Delaware. The Dragons end the regular season with home to Delaware at VCU, then a Bracketbuster game, then home to UNCW and finish the season at James Madison.

6) VCU (13-5, 5-4 CAA) - The Rams have been somewhat of a disappointment so far in the CAA. Barely above .500 for the defending CAA champs who returned four starters from last year's NCAA Tournament team (of course Eric Maynor was their fifth starter). But upon closer look, the losses aren't so bad - three road losses - William and Mary, Drexel and Northeastern, all teams in the top five in the CAA and a home loss to first place Northeastern as well.

Larry Sanders has certainly done his part for the Rams. Sanders is making a strong case for CAA player of the year, averaging 16 points 8 rebounds and nearly 3 blocks per game, while shooting 53.6 percent from the field. Joey Rodriguez has been a terrific sidekick, as noted in my preview of their game vs Northeastern yesterday. But if Rodriguez is shutdown, as he was yesterday vs Northeastern (3 of 13 from the field and only 4 assists, two under his season average), the Rams struggle. In games where Rodriguez has four or less assists, the Rams are 2-3.

VCU has a favorable schedule with five of their last nine games at home. The Rams start at home with Towson, then at Georgia State and at UNCW. Then its home for Old Dominion, then at Mason, then at James Madison. Then a home game with Drexel, a Bracketbuster game and then home to Madison again. Then the season finale at Old Dominion.

The Have Nots

7) Georgia State (9-12, 3-6 CAA) - Georgia State is one of those frustrating teams to watch. They play very good defense, third in the CAA in scoring defense, FG percentage defense and fourth in three point FG percentage defense. They have talent with Joe Dukes, Trey Hampton and Trae Goldston. The problem is they can't score, last in scoring offense in the CAA, next to last in three point FG percentage and last in assists. Most importantly, they are next to last to Wilmington in assist to turnover ratio.

Joe Dukes is a solid player, averaging nearly 14 points, 5.5 rebounds and 3 assists per game. However his shooting is down from last season, shooting 42 percent overall and only 23 percent from three (last year it was nearly 35 percent from beyond the arc). The Panthers are getting the ball more to Hampton, who has scored in double figures in each of his last three games while shooting 50 percent from the field.

If the Panthers want to get to .500, they do have a chance with five of their last nine games at home. But the start of the schedule is brutal. It starts at ODU, but the next three games are at home - VCU, Mason and William and Mary. Eek. Then it doesn't get any easier, at Northeastern, then at Towson. GSU ends the season at home to James Madison, then Old Dominion then they finish the season at Hofstra.

8) UNC Wilmington (7-13, 3-6 CAA) - Well, give the Seahawks credit. They improved their defense, as they are only tenth now in the CAA in scoring defense (hey, last year, they were dead last). They are first in three point FG percentage defense. But the reason they are still struggling on scoring defense is that they are DEAD LAST in turnover margin with a -4.63.

This is the main reason why Wilmington is sub .500 in the CAA. Despite being fourth in three point FG percentage and sixth in overall FG percentage, the Seahawks are dead last in assist to turnover ratio. You can't score when you don't have the ball and thus the opposing team will. The main culprit, point guard Chad Tomko (14.7 points per game). Though he averages 4.7 assists per game, Tomko also averages 3.5 turnovers per game. John Fields has been terrific for the most part, averaging nearly 12 points and 9 rebounds per game (second in the CAA). But Fields also gives up the ball, nearly 3 turnovers per game.

Wilmington has played a lot of close games this season and along with the win over the Mary, a recent two point loss at Virginia is an example of how competitive the Seahawks can be. There is room for improvement in the second half of their schedule. They start out at Hofstra, then home games with Towson and VCU. Then back on the road at Delaware and at Towson. Then home to Hofstra and Northeastern. The Bracketbuster game follows, then at Drexel and home to the Mary to finish the season.

9) Hofstra (9-12, 2-7 CAA) - The Pride started the season 7-3 and could have been 9-1 had they held second half leads vs. UConn and Charlotte. Then it all started to unravel at the Holiday Festival, losing both games to St John's and Davidson. Including the two MSG losses, the Pride have now lost nine of their past last 11 games. They have also lost five in a row, including yesterday's thirteen point loss to Drexel. Even their once CAA leading FG percentage defense has unraveled, as the Pride have allowed 50 percent or more field goal percentage in each of their last four games. Amazingly despite the last four games, Hofstra is still second in the CAA in field goal percentage defense and third in three point FG percentage defense, along with being first in blocks.

The problem is that when Hofstra does not play good defense, Hofstra does not have the offense capable of keeping up. Hofstra is next to last in FG percentage at 40.2 percent. Hofstra is also tenth in three point field goals made. This results in teams keying on Charles Jenkins, who still leads the CAA in scoring at 18.3 points per game. But Jenkins has seen his FG percentage go from 48.5 percent after the first ten games in the season to its current 43.5 percentage (likewise his three point FG percentage has gone from 48 percent after 10 games down to its current 36.8 percent). And with no consistent second scorer, the Pride often rely on Jenkins too much.

In fairness to Hofstra, the seven games the Pride have lost have been to all of the top six teams. But their only two wins came against last place Towson. Thus they have a lot of work to do with a somewhat easier second half schedule. It starts with two home games vs UNC Wilmington and Delaware, followed by a road game at JMU, then two home games vs. Northeastern and Drexel. They end the season with two consecutive road games vs. UNCW, Delaware, then a home Bracketbuster game. The Pride then travel to Northeastern and finish their season at home with Georgia State.

10) James Madison (8-11, 2-7 CAA) - Next to Hofstra, the Dukes have been the most disappointing team in the CAA. In fairness, they did lose star guard Devon Moore before the season with an ACL injury, and forward Andrey Semenov during the season with back problems. Still, when you can't shoot the three (1oth in the CAA at 30.2 percent) and you can't hold onto the ball (tenth in the CAA in turnover margin at -2.05), you're not going to win a lot of games.

Madison is led by the dynamic duo of Denzel Bowles and Julius Wells. Bowles would be leading the CAA in scoring at 21.5 points per game, in FG percentage at 59.3 percent and second in rebounding at 9.3 rebounds per game. However, he has not played enough games yet since he was not eligible until December 12. Wells averages 17 points per game and nearly 6 rebounds per game. A third scoring option in the backcourt would be nice. Freshman Darren White is averaging 10 points per game, but has not scored in double figures in the last three games.

The Dukes have a lot of home games left. They first start with a non conference makeup game with Radford, then host William and Mary. After a trip to Mason, they host Hofstra. Then its on the road again to Towson, then home to ODU and VCU. Then at Georgia State, then a bracketbuster game, then Longwood at home. The Dukes finish up at VCU, then host Drexel in the regular season finale.

11) Delaware (6-14, 2-7 CAA) - I have to give the Fighting Blue Hens some credit. I didn't even think they would win two games in conference all year after starting the overall season 1-6 with their sole win over lowly Penn. But they have been a semi respectable 5-8 since, including wins at Vermont, home to Drexel and most recently, an overtime win over Georgia State on Saturday.

Jawan Carter has been terrific. The current second leading scorer in the CAA (that is till Bowles has enough FG attempts to qualify) averages 17 points, nearly 5 assists and 3 rebounds per game. Alphonso Dawson makes a good sidekick, averaging nearly 13 points and 6 rebounds per game.

The Blue Hens have a tougher second half schedule which starts with two road games, at Mason and at Hofstra. Then followed by home games with Northeastern and UNCW. Two road games, at William and Mary and Drexel follow suit. Then it's home to Hofstra, Bracketbuster, home to Mason and at Towson to finish the regular season.

12) Towson (4-15, 1-8 CAA) - What can be said that hasn't already been said. Next to last season's UNCW team, this Towson team is probably the second worst defensive team I have ever seen. Just bad. Last in scoring defense, last in FG percentage defense, last in rebounding defense and rebounding margin.

Poor Robert Nwankwo, the only double double player in the CAA who averages 10 points and 10 rebounds per game. He has to average 10 rebounds per game because no one else rebounds. (ok, that was harsh, Calvin Lee averages nearly 6 rebounds per game, but it drops off from there). Nwankwo also leads the CAA in FG percentage at 56 percent (that is till Bowles qualifies). But the Tigers might want to get him the ball more. He doesn't even quite average eight field goal attempts per game. Geesh.

Towson will play out the season, and most likely Pat Kennedy's last season, starting with three tough road games - at VCU, at UNCW and at Drexel. Then it's home for three straight - JMU, UNCW and Georgia State. Road game at ODU follows, then comes the Bracketbuster game. Towson finishes up at the Mary, then home to Drexel.

Midseason CAA Awards

Best Team - Old Dominion. They do it their own way, defense and frontcourt scoring. The win at Georgetown is huge. Runner up - Northeastern. Really have saved their season. Great coaching job by Billy Coen.

Worst Team - Towson. DUH. Runner up, James Madison.

Most Surprising Team - William and Mary. Hands down. The preseason tenth place team has wins at Wake and Maryland, over Richmond and is in fourth place in the CAA currently. Runner up, Drexel. Really good coaching job by Bruiser Flint.

Most Disappointing Team - Hofstra. Hands down. Not even close. Madison had at least injuries. Hofstra has no excuse, especially after starting 7-3. Runner Up - James Madison

Best Player - Larry Sanders. Has been flat out dominant lately. There were eight scouts at the Hofstra game, including NBA legend Dick McGuire to watch him play and he didn't disappoint. Runner Up - Charles Jenkins. Jenkins gets very little support and is relied on so much. Amazing he still does what he does.

Most Surprising/Improved Player - Chaisson Allen. Has had an absolutely terrific first half of the season. Definitely the most improved player in the CAA this season. Runnerup - Quinn McDowell. McDowell has had a terrific season for the Mary, averaging nearly 15 points per game on 49 percent shooting from the field.

Most Disappointing Player - Chad Tomko. His scoring has decreased, though his field goal percentage is up. But it's the way he handles the ball, or to be precise, doesn't handle the ball that is disappointing. His assist to turnover ratio has dropped from last year and he averages nearly four turnovers per game. Not good for a point guard. Runnerup - Nathaniel Lester. Yes, his point production and FG percentage have improved from last year. But if you watch Hofstra games as much as Jerry Beach and I do, you will notice how often Lester disappears. He should be averaging double figures every night...easily.

Best Rookie - Chris Fouch - Drexel. Chaz Williams, Halil Kanacevic, Luke Hancock and Darren White are all talented but Fouch has become a deadly three point weapon for Drexel, as shown by his 29 points against Hofstra yesterday. He has a sweet shooting stroke. I think he has the chance before long to be very special. Runnerup - Williams. Has struggled the last month with his assists to turnover ratio, but has shown he has a good outside touch, especially from three (52 percent shooting from beyond the arc). Over time, he will make better decisions with the ball and will be a good point guard.

Best Transfer - Tie - John Fields and Denzel Bowles. Both have played extremely well Bowles is an offensive and rebounding machine for JMU. Fields is a defensive and rebounding machine for UNCW, who also is pretty decent on the offensive end.

Best Coach - Tony Shaver, William and Mary. To scrap your offense in the offseason and move to a completely different offense based on your talent, is gutsy. And to get the results Shaver has, speaks volumes for a coach who I still think had the best game plan against the VCU press I have ever seen. Runnerup - Billy Coen, Northeastern. To keep a team going after a 2-7 start and have them reel off eleven straight wins is a great coaching job.

Team Most Likely to Improve Second Half - VCU. Just too deep and talented to finish the second half of the season 5-4. Add a favorable schedule into the mix and I could very well see a 12-6 regular season record for the Rams. That might be enough for a first round bye. Runnerup - Hofstra. Very favorable second half schedule. If their defense comes out of witness protection, five wins in the second half of the conference season is possible.

Team Most Likely to Regress Second Half - George Mason. They got off to a terrific start but their second half schedule, especially their last six games, is not favorable. Also, they are at the bottom of rebounding margin and assist to turnover ratio. Throw in that they are a very young team and a 6-3 second half record is more than likely (which isn't bad mind you). Runnerup - Drexel. Also a young team, has a tough road schedule the second half of the season. They are also prone to game long shooting slumps (see games at ODU and home to W&M as proof).

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