|With help from senior Kent Bazemore (left), Blaine Taylor has a solid team at Old Dominion. (US Presswire)|
The Colonial Athletic Association is almost a worthwhile follow each year. It delivers, minimally, one team that's considered chic to pull off an upset in the NCAA tournament. Then there's also that convenient fact: it has sent two teams to the Final Four in the past six seasons.
The Cinderella storyline has been effectively trumped by overachieving teams that have done wonders to embolden the CAA's national appeal. Who knows how much free publicity recent runs by George Mason and Virginia Commonwealth have provided the league.
As for this year, I think you have to expect another great overall season, which is why we think the CAA is the nation's 10th-best conference. For that, you'll just have to trust our secret metrics. But the reason why we think it's going to be fun: there's a lot of unpredictability paired with four teams at the top who will wrestle all season long.
Drexel, Mason, VCU and Old Dominion will be in a fight for the title. And schools like James Madison and Delaware won't win the conference but absolutely will steal games.
What the CAA lacks: real star power. Kent Bazemore (ODU) is a fine player and all, but he'll still be relatively unknown come March. VCU's Brad Burgess doesn't embrace the spotlight. Most of the country won't know who's who for Drexel until the postseason, should Bruiser Flint's team make the Big Dance.
The biggest stars in this league? Shaka Smart and Paul Hewitt -- both coaches. And that's fine. Team play in the CAA has always reigned supreme over big-time players, even when guys like Charles Jenkins, David Robinson, Eric Maynor and Speedy Claxton capture our hearts from time to time.
The big question: Is this a multi-bid league? I'm saying yes. With 68 spots to fill, the CAA should be good enough to get two in.
| 2012 Tournament: |
March 2-5, Richmond, Va.
| Defending regular-season champion: |
| Defending tournament champion: |
| Top returning scorer: |
Quinn McDowell (William & Mary), 15.5 ppg
| Top returning rebounder: |
Samme Givens (Drexel), 10.1 rpg
|G - Kent Bazemore, Old Dominion|
|G - Bradford Burgess, VCU|
|F - Samme Givens, Drexel|
|G - Ryan Pearson, George Mason|
|G - Quinn McDowell, William & Mary|
|G - Mike Moore, Hofstra|
|G - Devon Saddler, Delaware|
|G - Chris Fouch, Drexel|
|F - Joel Smith, Northeastern|
|F - Keith Rendleman, UNC-Wilmington|
|Player of the year|
|Kent Bazemore, Old Dominion|
|Newcomer of the year|
|Erik Copes, George Mason|
|Coach on the hot seat|
|Matt Brady, James Madison|
(Schools listed in predicted order of finish.)
1. George Mason: New coach (Hewitt), some transfer issues and a different identity. But we're picking the Patriots to win the Colonial, anyway. Ryan Pearson is a reliable shooter than I think will propel them to the title, even if it's only by one game or in a tiebreaker. Heck, they could very well share the title with ...
2. Drexel: The Dragons are the overwhelming league favorite this season, but we can't buy in just yet. In fact, all the hype surrounding this team makes me a little wary. Bruiser Flint's been at it in Philadelphia for a long time, and he's no doubt a good coach, but with all this expectation, we're hesitant to leap on the bandwagon. Drexel was 11-7 in the conference last season, and it's undoubtedly got some of the best talent. Taking the second spot here doesn't mean the Dragons won't make the NCAAs.
3. Old Dominion: Love Kent Bazemore's game, but with coach Blaine Taylor shaving off his mustache, we're thinking the basketball gods will be highly offended and depressed. That's the primary reason ODU will fall short of winning the league this year. Kidding aside, the top three teams figure to be in a tight title race. And it's possible the CAA will have three teams in bubble talk come February. Taylor's created one of the most stable programs in the CAA the past half-decade.
4. Virginia Commonwealth: Lookie here, the Rams finish fourth. Sound familiar? That's where Shaka Smart's team landed last year, at 12-6, before making that blessed Final Four run. So many keys guys are gone now, but Brad Burgess is still there, and he'll be an all-conference player. Expect some reality to set in after one of the more improbable Final Four runs in tournament history last season.
5. William & Mary: Bill and Mary will be a lot of fun to watch, and annoying for opponents because Quinn McDowell can put up points. We're expecting McDowell's points per possession to creep into the 1.25 area. This team loves, loves, loves to shoot the deep ball. Going to be a wild year for Tribe fans.
6. Hofstra: Charles Jenkins, one of the most valuable players in college basketball last year, is gone. Always tough for a program to play well following a departure like that. But the good news for Mo Cassara's Hofstra squad: serious experience. Six guys are 21 or 22 years old. That matters in a league like this.
7. James Madison: They've got the talent to be better, but JMU leads off the bottom half of the CAA. We do love senior forward Julius Wells' game, and Devon Moore was a second-team preseason All-CAA selection by coaches. JMU won 20 last season; we're going on a hunch here that 2011-12 could be a little more difficult.
8. Delaware: It's all about Devon Saddler. He was the conference's Rookie of the Year last season, and he'll carry the squad. The Blue Hens get some balance inside from Jamelle Hagins, who averaged 3 blocks last season. This likely is a pesky team nobody wants to play.
9. Northeastern: The Huskies have a couple of reliable forwards in Joel Smith and Jonathan Lee; both were top-10 scorers in the conference last season, and both are very valuable from the 3-point line. Team brings back four starters, but it's still pretty young. Not afraid to admit picking it ninth may be too low; this group has the talent to finish sixth or fifth.
10. UNC-Wilmington: Buzz Peterson told me over the summer he's never coached a team this young. Eight freshmen in all, and he thinks no other team in the nation is inexperienced as this group. Keith Rendleman, Donte Morales and Matt Wilson will be the triumvirate relied upon for big-time production. The Seahawks start their march now to be the CAA's best team in 2014-15.
11. Georgia State: Eric Buckner is the bright spot for the Panthers, who have been in the CAA basement for too long. It's shaping up like another rough go this season.
12. Towson: Towson begins its rebuilding process with first-year coach Pat Skerry, who previously was on staff at Pitt. The Tigers were winless in the conference last year and 4-26 overall. After dealing with a lot of turnover this will be an entirely new program under Skerry.
|2011-12 Season Preview|
|Oct. 13||Preseason Top 25 (and one)||Nov. 1||Top freshmen|
|Projected NCAA tournament field||Nov. 2||Top transfers|
|Goodman and Parrish bracket picks||Nov. 3||Under the radar players|
|Oct. 14||Team profiles: 'Cuse | UConn | UK | UNC||Nov. 4||Breakout players|
|Oct. 17||Preseason All-Americans||Nov. 5||Best shooters|
|Oct. 18||Top 100 players||Nov. 6||Best defensive players|
|Oct. 19||Positional rankings: Point guards||Nov. 7||68 things ...|
|Oct. 20||Positional rankings: Wing men||Nov. 8||Ranking the preseason tourneys|
|Oct. 21||Positional rankings: Big men||Nov. 9||50 can't miss games|
|Nov. 10||Coaches on the Hot Seat|