Friday, November 5, 2010

It's Here - Another Season, Another CAA Preview

Like a moth to the flame, like a lemming to a cliff, like Atlantic Salmon leaping off a river into a full den of hungry bears, I must of course have my CAA preseason preview.  It's my annual right of passage/torture.  A non expert who just happens to watch lots of CAA games and tries his hand annually to say what's going to happen in the league that's "Fun for the Crowd".

This is my sixth time doing a preview.  Usually I break up the preview into two, even three parts.  But what has happened on a couple of occasions is that due to work, my second son being born, or unfortunately last year at this time, a family emergency (if you are a full time reader of this site you know what happened), I did not finish the previews.   This year will be different, because once I get to the preview, the actual preview will be be on this one article.  No split parts. Why?  Because I want to get through a full preview.

Now I know what some people think about predictions and I fully understand and often agree with their point of view (and yes Kyle, I will get Basketball Prospectus very soon).  I even noted recently that "You will not see NCAA Tournament Bid projections in late October or November on this site."  And you won't, but you will get an annual CAA preview and as I noted that previous article link, you will soon also get my Mid Majors Bakers' Dozen, the tastiest thirteen teams in the mid majors.  That's also a right of passage on this site.

Yes, I don't get paid for this and this is not a business.  This blog is my hobby.  I have said that since December 4, 2005 when I started this labor of love about my mistress college basketball.  The first name of this blog was "College Basketball featuring CAA Men's Basketball",   It's gone through three name changes.  It later became "Mid Major Hoops" for a significant period of time.  Then I had named it something else which my one of my dear friends panned immediately, and thus now "The College Hardwood".

Over those nearly five years, I have watched much more than a normal person's share of college basketball games live.  And I have especially followed CAA basketball more than any other conference.   So thus armed with what I believe is a vast knowledge of the Colonal Dipper League,  I have written CAA previews for now five years.  That first article from my old Typepad site was my first conference preview.

As far as accuracy, well that December 4, 2005 article had me predicting Old Dominion beating Hofstra in the conference final.   Well, we all know what happened.  The Monarchs finally did beat Hofstra that season after two losses, but it was in the Quarterfinals of the NIT.  It was part of the most magical season the CAA has ever had.  Two NCAA tournament teams (should have been a third),  a guaranteed team in the NIT semifinals, a 9-4 postseason record and of course Jerry Beach's hated rivals, George Mason in the Final Four.

In my November 1, 2006 article, I actually got through an entire preview.  And I was unfortunately accurate in some cases.  Under "Best Team Most Likely to Struggle Early" I put "Hofstra.  Rough schedule plus unsettled frontcourt situation may result in some tough losses early on."   It was dead-on as my key player, Chris Gadley, was a huge bust that season (and transferred to Canisius shortly after that), Hofstra struggled with early losses and never got a true frontcourt presence.  They were upset by Mason in the Quarterfinals in 2007, caused Beach to drink lots of Pepto and were lucky to get a NIT bid.

In some cases, I wasn't accurate.  I had VCU fifth in that same preseason article.  I actually stated "The question with the Rams is who will now take the lead in scoring?"  Two words Gar - Eric Maynor.  Also, I had ODU finishing seventh.  Guess who got the at-large bid for the CAA in the NCAA Tournament that season?  Yup, the Monarchs on the strength of winning at Georgetown that season.  Again, good job Gar.

In my first part of my 2007 CAA preview article, I hit the nail on the head predicting George Mason to finish first...well sort of.  The Patriots did win the CAA championship, defeating William and Mary.  But that was only after the Tribe upset top seeded VCU in the CAA semifinals, as I witnessed in person perhaps the greatest game played against Anthony Grant and the VCU press.  With Jonathan being born, I was only able to get my second part of the preview in on Hofstra and then it was fatherly duties.  The third part never came.

In my late October/early November 2008 CAA preview, I actually got through both parts. In the first part, of course, I accurately picked VCU to finish first, but an octopus named Paul could have done that.  However, in the same first part of the preview, I thought that that Delaware being predicted sixth in the preseason CAA Coaches Poll was too high.  I noted "Though the CAA is down, I think the Blue Hens are not as good as last year and will not improve on their .500 record in conference."  Delaware finished towards the bottom of the conference with a 6-12 conference record.  Further proof blind squirrels can find nuts.

However, in the second part of the preview, I predicted Drexel would finish last, even behind eventual bottom feeding UNC Wilmington.  For those of you who know your CAA history, the Dragons would be one of the top teams in conference all season before slipping at the end and finishing sixth in a very tight CAA 2008-09 season race.  One more time, good job Gar.

Last season, 2009-10, in the first part of the preview, I predicted Northeastern to win the conference, ODU to place, VCU to show and JMU to claim the fourth spot in the first part of the preview (with Mason fifth and Hofstra sixth).  Then in the second part, I had Drexel, Towson and Georgia State finishing in that order but not after I noted about my sleeper JMU team losing Devon Moore.  Without Moore, the sleeper team hibernated through most of that season, finishing at the bottom of the conference.  Meanwhile I slept on William and Mary who I had finishing tenth (but was never listed since I never got to do the third part of the preview due to the aforementioned emergency), finished third and was an at large candidate for most of the season.   One last time, good job Gar.

So what does this season bring.  Well let's find out in predicted order of finish.

Old Dominion -  The defending CAA champs and mighty slayer of the Leprechauns in the first round of the NCAA Tournament return four of their five starters.  Darius James, Kent Bazemore, Ben Finney and Frank Hassell all return along with sixth man Keyon Carter.  Physical play, defense and rebounding is the creed by which the Monarchs live.  Coach Blaine Taylor's senior laden group (of the five projected starters, only Bazemore is a non senior) was first in the CAA in scoring defense, second in both FG  and three point FG percentage defense and of course, first in rebounding margin.

The only potential issue is who's going to put the ball in the basket.   The only non returning starter just happens to be their leading scorer from last season Gerald Lee.  So someone needs to step up.  Based on the recent history of the Monarchs under Blaine Taylor, a frontcourt player, with the exception of the 2005-06 season, has led the team in scoring since the 2001-02 season (Isaiah Hunter led the team in scoring in 05-06).  Over the past nine seasons, Ricardo Marsh, Alex Loughton, Valdus Vasylius and Gerald Lee were the main focal points for Blaine Taylor's offense.

With that in mind and despite Michael Litos probably throwing up when he reads this, the key player for the Monarchs is forward Frank Hassell. Hassell shot 54 percent last season while averaging nine points and nearly seven rebounds per game.  Of the four returning starters, Hassell averaged the fewest minutes last season.  Look for his workload and points per game to increase accordingly.

And ODU will need it with a tough non conference schedule that starts with a home game vs. #21 Georgetown on November 12 and a probable second round game vs. Clemson in the Paradise Jam.  Then another home game with Richmond on December 1,  a home game vs. Dayton on December 11, then a road swing to #15 Missouri on December 30 before conference play starts.  That's a tough schedule to start with, but Blaine Taylor and the stache would not have it any other way.

VCU - The defending CBI champs also return four of their five starters from last season. Joey Rodriguez, Brandon Rozzell, Bradford Burgess and Jamie Skeen all return.  Only Larry Sanders, 15th overall pick in the NBA draft, is gone from a team that had ODU on the ropes in the CAA semifinal before losing to the Monarchs in overtime.  Sanders was of course a big part of the Rams, averaging 14 points, 9 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game. VCU was first in the CAA in scoring offense, first in FG and three point FG percentage, second in assists and first in steals.

The offense should still be fine with Rodriguez, Rozzell and Burgess, who should all improve on their scoring.  However, due to the loss of Sanders leaving early, the graduation of Kirill Pischalnikov (remember, Pischalnikov is Russian for five fouls) and Terrence Saintil being kicked off the team, there is a dearth of experienced post players for the Rams.  Thus Jamie Skeen will be a key player for the Rams.  Skeen is the lone returning experienced big man (unless you want to include David Hinton and his 9 games played last year) and will have to play more than the 20 minutes he averaged last season.

To help out on the post, Coach Shaka Smart brought in JUCO Toby Veal and four freshmen bigs, but it remains to be seen if any will be a key factor.  Freshman guard Rob Brandenburg though could be the real deal and along with super sixth man Ed Gwynn and Darius Theus will give the Rams great depth in the backcourt.

The Rams are a part of the Preseason NIT and a second round matchup at Wake Forest looms.  Depending on how they do, they could match up against teams such as Road games at Richmond and UAB, and a home game vs. defending Southern Conference champ Wofford should all provide good tests for VCU before conference season starts.

James Madison  - My sleeper team from a season ago looks to come out of hibernation this season. If everything meshes together, the Dukes could be really spectacular. Or if they succumb to injuries and bad defense, they could be spectacularly bad, like last season.   The Dukes were basically in the middle of the pack sans two categories, FG percentage, fourth in the CAA at 44 percent, but next to last in turnover margin.

Give Em Hell Denzel Bowles is a force on both ends, averaging nearly 21 points and 9 rebounds per game while shooting 59 percent from the field. Julius Wells made a good sidekick averaging 16 points and 5 rebounds per game.  Wells had two problems though.  He only shot 38.7 percent from the field last season and had 32 more turnovers than assists on the season, averaging 3.2 turnovers per game (only Bowles was worse with 3.4 turnovers per game).

Two top players from the season before, Andrey Semenov and Devon Moore suffered serious injuries last season.  Moore never played in 2009-10, tearing an ACL before the season started.  Semenov played only four games before back problems ended his season.  Both are back along with Akron transfer Anthony "Humpty" Hitchens, a starting point guard for the Zips the past two seasons.

In a surprise ruling, Hitchens was declared eligible for this season, which will allow Moore to move to the two guard and concentrate on scoring.  A healthy Devon Moore, an all CAA rookie team selection in 2008-09 will be the key to how successful the Dukes will be this season.  Moore gives the backcourt balance JMU needs so that teams can't double up on Bowles.

A schedule that starts right off at #3 Kansas State, then road games at solid opponents such as South Florida and Kent State should allow the Dukes to cut their teeth before conference season starts.  There are several factors that will decide JMU's season - the health of Moore and Semenov, better team defense, less turnovers and better shot selection by Wells.  If Coach Matt Brady can stir all these ingredients together with the already unstoppable Bowles, they will be very dangerous.

George Mason  - Already Jerry Beach must be pleased that I have the Patriots fourth, down a slot from most other sites' prognostications.   It's nothing against a very solid Patriots team, I just think JMU has the potential to be better.  Mason was often quite frustrating to Coach Jim Larranaga and the Patriots fans.  The Patriots should have knocked off Villanova in the Puerto Rico Tip Off, then went 6-6 in their first 12 games.  Mason then went 10-3 in its next 13 games and were right in the thick of things for the regular season title.  The Patriots then finished the season losing six out of its last seven games, including a quarterfinal exit to VCU in the CAA Tournament.

Still Mason returns all five of their starters from last season's team led by the enigmatic Cam Long, who averaged 12 points per game.  Ryan Pearson almost averaged 12 points per game to go with 6.4 rebounds per game.  Andre Cornelius, Mike McDermott and Luke Hancock combined for nearly 26 points per game.  Sixth man guard Sherrod Wright should also improve on his 5.5 points per game.   Of those six players, only Long is a senior.

Though his points per game was slightly above the season before, all of Long's other statistics were significantly down from the season before;

FG Percentage - 38 percent in 2009-10, 46 percent in 2008-09.
3 Point FG percentage -32 percent in 2009-10, 40 percent in 2008-09
Rebound Average - 3.9 rebounds in 2009-10, 4.8 rebounds in 2008-09

During that 1-6 stretch to end the season, Long's struggles mirrored the teams.  In the six games he played (he didn't play against Fairfield in the CIT), Long shot less than 20 percent from the field (10 of 51) including 15 percent from beyond the arc (3 of 20).  For George Mason to succeed, Cam Long must return to his 2008-09 form.  When on, Long's ability to stretch the defense with his three point shooting opens up the inside for Pearson and McDermott.

The Patriots always play a tough non-conference schedule.  This season is no different as the Patriots head to my favorite early season tournament, the Charleston Classic.  Mason gets Charlotte first and depending on how the matchups turnout, Mason could play NC State and or Georgetown.  The Patriots also get a road test at Dayton at the end of December before conference play starts.

Hofstra - This may say either a lot about Hofstra or a lot about the rest of the CAA.  Despite losing two All First Team CAA Rookies in Chaz Williams and Halil Kanacevic to transfer, the Pride/Dutchmen are picked to finish fifth in the CAA Coaches Preseason Poll, two spots above from last season. A lot of that is due to the fact that Hofstra returns the best player in the CAA, 2010 CAA Player of the Year, Charles Jenkins.

20 points, 4.5 rebounds and 4 assists per game are givens for Jenkins.  The question will be, what help will he get.   Mike Moore, a junior transfer from Fordham, looks to be the Robin to Jenkins' Batman.  Moore averaged nearly 13 points per game as a sophomore for the Rams, including a 29 point performance vs Xavier.  6 foot 10 senior Greg Washington is good for nearly 3 blocks, 6 rebounds, and a few 15 footers per game. Sophomore forward David Imes has been a pleasant surprise in practice and the Fanfest scrimmage, but will his play continue over to the real season?

Jenkins and Moore can no doubt fill the basket and it looks like Imes could be a legitimate post scorer.  The question is, who will get them the ball?  That's why Brad Kelleher and Dwan McMillan are the keys to Hofstra's success this season.   Kelleher is the sharp shooting Australian who has to sit out the first nine games due to a NCAA ruling, while McMillan is a JUCO transfer.  McMillan should get first crack at starting for the Pride but Kelleher may be the better long term solution.  After that, depth is a problem with Andy Katz reporting that senior sixth man Nate Lester will be redshirting due to a quad injury. Yves Jules is the only other returning player. The Pride bring in four freshmen, three in the frontcourt.

The Pride jump right into the fire this season as they play #9 North Carolina in the first round of the Puerto Rico Tipoff.  Depending on how the tournament pans out, the Pride could face Minnesota, Western Kentucky West Virginia, Vanderbilt, Nebraska or Davidson in the other two games.   Hofstra also has a tough road game against an up and coming Iona team late in December before conference season starts.

William and Mary was the story of last season in the conference.  A team picked by most to finish tenth in the conference started off the season 10-2 with major non conference road wins over Maryland and Wake Forest, along with a home win over Richmond (all three of those teams made the NCAA Tournament).  The Tribe finished third in the CAA, then knocked off JMU and Northeastern before losing to ODU in the championship.  The Tribe would be denied an at large berth, then denied a home game in the NIT thanks to C.M. Newton and the boys.   William and Mary gave North Carolina all they could handle before losing 80-72 in Chapel Hill.

Gone from last season's 22-11 team are David Schneider, Danny Sumner, Sean McCurdy , all starters and sixth man Steven Hess.  But second leading scorer Quinn McDowell and his 49 percent FG shooting percentage are back along with fourth leading scorer Marcus Kitts, JohnMark Ludwick, Mark "A shot of" Rum and Kendrix Brown.  Brown is the key player here as point guard play is very important in Coach Tony Shaver's system.  The Tribe were third in assists and first in assist to turnover ratio in the CAA. Brown must make good decisions with the ball for the Mary to be successful.

The Tribe won't sneak up on anyone this season.  The Tribe have road games at Virginia, Richmond, Syracuse and North Carolina before conference season starts.  But again they will be fun to watch as they fire up threes from everywhere.

Drexel lost their best player, guard Jamie Harris due to his arrest in an armed robbery.  Harris along with backup forward Kevin Phillip were arrested along with a third Drexel student for an attempted robbing of a female student in her apartment.   It's one of the most incredibly stupid acts anyone, let alone two kids on full athletic scholarships, could ever do.

Now Chris Fouch, Gerald Colds, Samme Givens and Derrick Thomas must make up for the loss of Harris.  Fouch, the CAA Rookie of the Year will certainly improve his game.  But look to Samme Givens to increase his offensive output and be the key to Drexel's success. With Leon Spencer graduated, Coach Bruiser Flint needs an inside scorer, and Givens shot 49 percent from the field last season.  He is also a very good rebounder whose rebounding matched his points per average - 8.3.  Plus Bruiser's teams always play good defense, so the Dragons will be in most games.

The Dragons were at one time 9-4 in the conference before struggling down the stretch, losing five of their last seven.  Drexel lost to JMU in the first round of the CAA Tournamant a week after beating the Dukes on the road.  As for this season, well just like the rest of the CAA, Drexel plays a tough non conference schedule.  Road games at Rhode Island, Syracuse and Louisville, plus the annual tussle with St Joseph's.   Then it's onto conference games with a guaranteed Bruiser stomp at every venue along the way.

Delaware is my pick for a team on the rise and it wouldn't surprise me at all if they even finish higher than eighth.   The Blue Hens return their two best scorers, Jawan Carter and Alphonso Dawson, plus point guard Brian Johnson should return from injury by the end of the calendar year.  Throw in a couple of sophomore forwards, Jamelle Hagins and Kelvin McNeil, who are only getting better and Delaware should certainly be better than their 7-24 record.

A healthy Brian Johnson will go a long way in improving the Blue Hens.  In 2008-09, Johnson averaged 10 points, 5 assists and only 2.4 turnovers a game while shooting 49 percent from the field, including 39 percent from three.

Delaware will not have Johnson back for the game at Ohio on November 13 and he may not be back for the game vs. Villanova on December 18.   But he should certainly be back for when conference play really starts up in January.    Given a little time, the Blue Hens will be competitive come the second half of the season.

Northeastern is coming off a very wild, sometimes successful but ultimately disappointing season.  With a veteran squad, the Huskies limped out of the gate, starting out 2-7 before winning eleven in a row, including eight straight in conference.  A loss to Drexel only resulted in another four consecutive wins after that.  Noreaster looked like the Perfect Storm in the CAA at 12-2 until they struggled down the stretch going 3-5 in their last eight games.  They only survived the quarterfinal round due to an error in strategy by Hofstra's former coach, Tom Pecora, then were edged out in the semis by William and Mary.  A loss at UConn in the NIT ended their season and the careers of their three starting seniors, Matt Janning, Nkem Ojougboh and Manny Adako, and sixth man Baptiste Bataille.

The Huskies return Chaisson Allen, who averaged 13.6 points per game, along with starting forward Alwayne Bigby.  Joel Smith, Kauri Black and Vinny Lima will need to step up off from the bench and give quality playing time for Coach Bill Coen.  Allen needs scoring help in the backcourt and Joel Smith must provide that scoring.   It's going to be a struggle for Coen, who has ten freshmen and sophomores on his team.  However I can't wait to see top Huskie recruit Ryan Pierson defend Mason's Ryan Pearson in the post.  Can't wait to see the announcing crew trip over that one.

The schedule is not going to be kind for Coen's young team either.  At Southern Illinois on ESPN's 24 hour coverage of the first day of college basketball (November 16).  A home game with Siena, then at Utah State, at Providence, then the Cancun Governor's cup vs. St Louis, among others, before the conference schedule kicks in.

As for the rest of the league, Towson still has Tony Franklin, an emerging RaShawn Polk, but their best player, Robert Nwankwo, won't be eligible until the Spring Semester due to a credits issue. Braxton Dupree, a junior transfer from Maryland is supposed to be a really good player, but let's wait and see before we start calling him the second coming of Denzel Bowles.  If Dupree is half as good as Bowles, combine him with Nwankwo in late January and Pat Kennedy could finally be a happy man.

Coach Buzz Peterson knows that his first year with UNC Wilmington will be a struggle.  His tallest player is 6 foot 7 forward Keith Rendelman.  He does have two other starters in Chad Tomko and Ahmad Grant returning but depth is a serious question after those three.  Tomko also desperately needs to cut down on his turnovers.  3.4 turnovers per game for a starting point guard is just not acceptable.  If Seahawks fans are patient, Peterson should have this team turned around in a couple of years.  He has successfully recruited an eight man incoming class for next season.

Someday, Georgia State will be really good.  Whether that's in yours or my lifetime, well that's anyone's guess.  The top five leading scorers from last season's 12-20 team are all gone, leaving sixth leading scorer Jihad Ali as potentially their best player.  Rod Barnes needs a good season to potentially keep his job.  The problem is I don't think he's going to get that especially with a team with four incoming JUCOs.   That's not how to build a long term program.

But who knows what will really happen in the CAA this season until the games are actually played.  And I for one, can't wait.  Bet you can't either.

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