Conference Play: Conferring With The Colonial

USA TODAY Sports

The non-conference season has come and gone, and it's now time for the CAA to start revving its rivalry-fueled engines. It's time for conference play, and this is how it's going down.

It's finally here, Colonial fans. College basketball season is finally starting this week.

What?

No, I think you're mistaken. Of course I understand they started playing games back in November; what do you think I've been watching since then? College football? That'd be cruel.

I know what I said. College basketball season is finally starting this week.

Sure, we can watch teams play outsiders, non-conference opponents who won't actually stand in our favorite team's way come March and the end of our conference opponent.

We can pretend that those earlier games matter just as much, and for a team like George Mason, they might end up playing a large role in their selection analysis if they somehow can't win the conference tournament at the end of the year.

But for the rest of the conference, and for the true blue Colonial fans with high hopes of a wondrous trip to the NCAA Tournament via the CAA's automatic bid?

College basketball season is finally starting this week.

This is when teams can make or break their entire season, and by extension make or break history. During conference play, you're going up against teams who you've had run-ins with in the past. Numerous run-ins, possibly storied run-ins.

Maybe you want to keep rubbing in dominance over that one team that always seems to be gunning for you. Maybe you're seeking vengeance for last year's heart-wrenching loss.

The point is, the in-conference season is where teams define themselves against their peers. This is why we choose to align ourselves into conferences; teams see other teams that they believe they both identify with and have the skill to conquer, and join in. Then comes the time to face off against each other, contest after contest, until one team is declared the regular season champion.

While that title looks real nice on a website splash page, the one everybody's gunning for is the champion of the conference tournament. Just ask Drexel.

The CAA's tournament takes place in Richmond from March 9 to 11. On the eleventh, the college basketball season will end, giving way to the real postseason. Until then, these eleven teams will play out the true college basketball season, the one that starts when they play the teams that they know, fighting for a singular spot that, at the beginning of conference play, is there for any team to take.

And here's what to expect.

The Contenders

George Mason

It's no coincidence that the Patriots have held the number one spot in my weekly CAA Power Rankings since November 25.

This year's Patriots team is the premier squad in the Colonial, yet even they will rely on the conference tournament to make the Big Dance in March after accruing five non-conference losses.

Sherrod Wright has become the best player in the CAA during the first months of the season; he's only had one game with fewer than 14 points (a George Mason victory), and has scored 20 points in four straight heading into conference play.

The key for the Patriots will be role playing. Wright is the team's leading scorer with 17.3 points per game, but the second-highest scorer on the team averages just 7.7 per game.

If they can help Wright out, the team can have a relatively clear path to the tournament. Excluding injury -- or disaster -- of course.

William & Mary

I understand that the Tribe haven't played a rigorous schedule, I really do. I also understand that, heading into the conference season, they have the best record in the Colonial, therefore they are for real.

Marcus Thornton and Tim Rusthoven are real scorers (32.9 points per game between the two), and the team has the 17th-best shooting percentage in the country. They held tight to Purdue and took Richmond to double overtime, but ultimately lost both games.

The question to be answered: can they actually beat a quality opponent? Or will they continually fall just short against the top teams?

We'll have our answer sooner rather than later when they take on George Mason in their (well, second) conference opener on January 5. If they win that game? This could be a tighter CAA race than previously expected.

Drexel

Something that everybody keeps forgetting: Drexel went to overtime against Illinois State (on a questionable foul call against them) and lost by just two.

Putting aside that little two-game swoon against Rider and Tennessee State, the Dragons have played nearly all the way to their potential; excluding those two losses, their other six defeats have come to teams with a combined 51-26 record.

The thing about playing such a rigorous non-conference schedule? The CAA will feel like fluff compared to teams like Illinois State.

Don't overlook them: despite their record, this Dragons team is rife with talent, and against inferior opponents, I expect them to reverse their record. If they find momentum and Damion Lee keeps scoring like he has (18.8 ppg), they can prove tough come March.

The Pretenders

Delaware

I wanted to believe in the Blue Hens before the season started. In fact, I convinced myself that they would be second-best squad in the Colonial and Devon Saddler would be the best player.

Two months later, Saddler can't shoot 50 percent in a game to save his life and the Hens are toiling at 5-8.

The good news? Jamelle Hagins has the opportunity to double-double in every game of the conference schedule.

The bad news? If Saddler and Jarvis Threatt can't shoot more efficiently, it won't matter how many boards Hagins grabs. They'll just mirror their season thus far: slightly askew.

James Madison

It's not difficult to find yourself pulling for the Dukes. After starting 1-5, they've flipped that record in their last six games, and have found stupendous depth across their team in this stretch.

The problem for JMU is that they don't have a stalwart rebounding big man like the elite teams of the league do; 6-6 Rayshawn Goins grabs 7.2 per game, but he's outsized by trees like Delaware's Hagins and Drexel's McCoy, and he's all the Dukes have on the glass.

Having six players above 7.0 points per game is a great luxury for the team, but I need reaffirmation with a quality win. They can try to convince me January 12 against Drexel.

Northeastern

This Huskies team is defying all reason. They have four players in double digits. They just returned Jonathan Lee, a potential game-changer, and have talent across the board. Yet they just lost to a UAB team that entered the game with a 6-6 record by 20 points.

Twenty.

They just tend to score inefficiently, give average performances at random, and simply play inconsistent basketball. They found a perfect home under the "Pretender" category: believing in them would make logical sense. Yet, come the end of the year, if Joel Smith continues his regression and Lee can't score enough? You'll be wondering why you ever did.

Georgia State

The Panthers are mired in a four-game losing streak to extremely average teams, and while I find the three-headed monster of Manny Atkins, R.J. Hunter, and Devonta White, it's always dangerous to put 67 percent of your scoring into just three players and expect to go far during conference play without consistent role players.

The telling game will be the first, against Drexel on Wednesday night, when they'll both try to end their losing streak as well as boost their in-conference confidence (Ed Note: Oops, got to this one a little late. Drexel won.).

If they win, the may belong near the Contenders category. If they lose (and I expect they will) then I've put them right where they belong. Not that it matter since they are ineligible for the conference tournament.

The Cinderellas

Towson

I put the Tigers here because, if they catch fire, they truly could be a Cinderella story. Or they could finish in 8th. Nobody knows. Not that it matters because they are ineligible for the conference tournament. Next

UNC-Wilmington

Keith Rendleman doesn't have help and the Seahawks don't even average 60 points per game. Not that it matters since they are ineligible for the conference tournament. Next.

Old Dominion

They're 2-11, already suffered a 9-game losing streak, and don't believe in finishing close games. Not that it matters since they are ineligibile for the conference tournament. Next.

Hofstra

The Pride might not win another game before the season ends. At this point they can't even "play for pride" because it's all gone. Next.

Predictions

Regular Season Champion: George Mason (25-8)

Conference Tournament Champion: George Mason (def. Drexel 69-64)

CAA Player of the Year: Sherrod Wright (18.2 ppg)

Let the games begin.

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