This season I was designated the sultan of the Colonial Athletic Association, charged with covering the conference as it progressed into a season that had the potential to showcase a Top 25 squad in Drexel University.
There was supposed to be a king-of-the-hill tussle between Drexel and rival Delaware for the Colonial crown, with every nonconference and onference win counting for major style points in a breakneck title race.
Instead, as the first MRI rankings came out yesterday, Drexel and Delaware are a combined 4-8. They are ranked 8th and 9th in the conference based on record , and No. 208 and No. 170 respectively, in the MRI rankings. Both teams are sitting behind Towson, a team that is just one year removed from a 1-31 season.
So the inevitable question stands: what happened to the Colonial's elite teams?
Let's head to the rankings board and delve a little deeper.
Let's start with the Dragons, who I expected to be a top 30 MRI team at this point in the season. Their losses have come to teams at Nos. 19, 36, 58 and 150 in the MRI rankings, which doesn't add up exactly to a padded nonconference schedule.
When you look at the quality of their opponents, and then compound that with the fact that their losses to the 19, 36 and 58th teams came by a combined 10 points? The Dragons' 2-4 record sounds a lot better than you originally thought.
The problem for Drexel will be finding ways to actually win those close games against quality opponents. This team started last season 2-4 and came within a judgement call of the NCAA Tournament; now, without senior sharpshooter Chris Fouch, they'll have to try and replicate success akin to last year's 19-game win streak to grab the committee's attention, and then focus their resources on the CAA's automatic bid.
Then we have the Blue Hens of Delaware, a team with four players averaging nine points per game or better but still seated at No. 170 in the MRI rankings. Also 2-4, the Hens were supposed to be the surprise pick for the conference title, but their nonconference start has hurt their ability to get their hopes up and make light of Drexel's slow start.
In their losses against No. 112 La Salle, No. 42 Kansas State, and No. 61 Temple, they couldn't find a way to get consistent late-game buckets and lost by a total of 15 points. Hopefully for the Hens, as Saddler continues to get his shooting touch back and Jarvis Threatt deals with his injury problems, the team will be able to start putting 40 minutes together.
They'd better learn on the job, too, because after what should be an easy win against No. 336 Lafayette, they play Duke, the AP No. 2 team in the country at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Good luck with that, Mr. Saddler.
The most shocking part of the Colonial for me so far is that their highest-rated team in the MRI is George Mason at No. 108. The league can't even crack the top 100!
To be fair, their two losses came to Top 100 teams (No. 44 New Mexico and No. 85 Bucknell), but their four wins came against teams with an average MRI of 180.75, including two squads in the bottom 120.
Don't get me wrong: I believe in Sherrod Wright and his ability to lead the Patriots this year, and my end-of-the-year player rankings will reflect his extraordinary ability if he continues to play great basketball.
But in their only two top 100 challenges thus far, the Patriots continued the conference's trend of not being able to win close games.
Against Bucknell, they trimmed the deficit down to three with 15 seconds remaining and possession, but were unable to convert. Against New Mexico, the Patriots had the ball with 10 seconds left and a two-point lead. But Patrick Holloway had the ball stolen, and Tony Snell sunk a 3-pointer with two seconds left for the win.
That's a prime example of what's bringing down the conference. Late-game execution is key, nowhere more so than in basketball, and when your best squads -- Drexel, Delaware and even George Mason -- aren't finishing teams off, you just might end up the No. 19 conference in the country even if your talent belongs in the Top 10.