Mid-Major Conference Preview: Colonial Athletic Association Part I

Jerrelle Benimon looks to lead Towson to the NCAA Tournament this season. - Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

After originally losing VCU to the A-10 before the start of last season, the CAA has had a complete makeover this summer, losing perennial contenders in Old Dominion, George Mason and an exciting wildcard in Georgia State. With 9 teams remaining, who can take the crown from James Madison?

As we march towards November 8 and the official start of the 2013-14 basketball season, Mid-Major Madness will be bringing you conference previews on a regular basis to get you ready for tip-off. We'll also be highlighting these conferences and speaking with experts and coaches on our weekly podcast.

The Colonial Athletic Association is rebuilding. During the conference’s heydays in the late 1990’s, the CAA featured six schools in the state of Virginia. Now, only two remain in James Madison and William & Mary and many media members are expecting this could be the final season without a North and South Division setup within the league (Towson in Baltimore being the most southern North school) with Elon set to join in 2014-15.

But, despite losing George Mason, Georgia State, and Old Dominion to the A-10, Sun Belt, and C-USA, respectively, the CAA still has their top four teams from conference play back in action. And, there will be plenty of veteran play from each of the contending programs. But who will rise to the top?

1. Towson Tigers

Last Year: 18-13 (13-5), 2nd CAA

Departures: Bilal Dixon (6.9 ppg)

Key Returners: Jerrelle Benimon (17.1 ppg, 11.2 rpg, CAA Player of the Year), Marcus Damas (11.4 ppg), Jerome Hairston (9.9 ppg)

A common discussion amongst media members in Richmond during the CAA Tournament was that Pat Skerry’s Tigers would have likely taken the conference crown if they weren’t ineligible for postseason play due to a pre-Skerry era low APR. Benimon is the most well-rounded player the conference has seen in years and Skerry has surrounded him with a surplus of three-point shooting to complete their offensive attack, a scheme that returns all of their top-five scorers from last year and is adding sharpshooting transfer Four McGlynn from Vermont. The Tigers were also ferocious on defense, holding their opponents to just 39.6 percent shooting from the field. If Towson doesn’t win the regular season title, that should be considered a surprise.

2. Drexel Dragons

Last Year: 13-18 (9-9), 7th CAA

Departures: Daryl McCoy (4.4 ppg, 8.6 rpg)

Key Returners: Damion Lee (17.1 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 2nd Team All-Conference), Frantz Massenat (14.7 ppg, 4.2 apg, 2nd Team All-Conference), Chris Fouch (16.7 ppg)

Although Benimon is the clear favorite to repeat as Player of the Year, Drexel’s Damion Lee could very well be the next-best candidate for the award. Massenat is a year removed from being named the conference’s preseason Player of the Year and 6th year senior Chris Fouch has said he’s fully recovered from an ankle injury that sidelined him for the majority of the season. Last season was a struggle with Fouch injured early and injury problems galore. But, Bruiser Flint has added Freddie Wilson from Seton Hall and freshmen Major Canady and Rodney Williams. Essentially, the Dragons have a loaded back court, and then some. Will that speed, scoring and athleticism be able to run opponents off the court? We think so.

3. Charleston Cougars

Last Year: 24-11 (14-4), 2nd Southern South, CBI 1st Round

Departures: Andrew Lawrence (13.5 ppg, 1st Team All-Southern Conference)

Key Returners: Anthony Stitt (11.0 ppg), Adjehi Baru (9.8 ppg, 8.3 rpg), Anthony Thomas (8.5 ppg, 4.8 rpg), Trent Wiedeman (8.5 ppg, 5.5 rpg)

In Doug Wojcik’s team’s inaugural season in the CAA, the Cougars will be without their leading scorer from last season. But, don’t let that phase your confidence in Charleston’s talent. The Cougars return their best five scorers following Lawrence from last season and in a league that recently lost DeShawn Painter, Keith Rendleman and Jamelle Hagins, junior forward Adjehi Baru is poised to have a dominant campaign. Not only should Baru show tremendous improvement on the offensive end, but he also anchored a Charleston defense that would have ranked first in scoring defense (62.2 ppg) in the CAA last season.

4. William & Mary Tribe

Last Year: 13-17 (7-11), 8th CAA

Departures: Matt Rum (5.3 ppg, 4.8 rpg)

Key Returners: Marcus Thornton (18.8 ppg, 2nd Team All-Conference), Tim Rusthoven (14.4 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 3rd Team All-Conference), Brandon Britt (13.9 ppg), Kyle Gaillard (8.5 ppg, 5.3 rpg)

Last season was one of plenty ups and downs for the Tribe. Tony Shaver’s club started 2012-13 undefeated through their first three games, subsequently dropped three games, won the next four and then lost eight-straight before steadying out and finishing the season 6-6. William & Mary even came within a rimmed out Thornton jumper of defeating the eventual CAA Tournament champion, James Madison. Fortunately for Tribe fans, Shaver gets back his top-four scorers and has two legitimate All-Conference talents in Thornton and Rusthoven. William & Mary has the potential to earn it’s first winning season since 2009-10.

5. Northeastern Huskies

Last Year: 20-13 (14-4), 1st CAA, NIT 1st Round

Departures: Joel Smith (16.1 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 1st Team All-Conference) Jonathan Lee (13.8, 4.4 rpg, 4.0 apg 3rd Team All-Conference)

Key Returners: Quincy Ford (12.2 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 3rd Team All-Conference), Reggie Spencer (9.8 ppg, 6.0 rpg), David Walker (6.2 ppg, 1.3 spg, All-Rookie Team)

Bill Coen’s Huskies secured their first CAA regular season title ever last year. Northeastern jumped out to an 8-0 record in conference play, but they did so behind two 1,000-point scorers and senior co-captains in Smith and Lee. If the Huskies are going to win the conference for the second year in a row, they’ll need 6-8 junior forward Quincy Ford to lead the troops, but he’ll likely have to put on about 15 more pounds to stabilize his nagging back problems and to maximize his potential as a penetrator from the wing. Demetrius Pollard should also be called upon to provide scoring from the outside. St. Francis (PA) transfer Scott Eatherton could play a big role in replacing Smith and Lee as well, patrolling the high-post. Once the season starts, the Huskies will have a challenging non-conference schedule to iron out all their kinks.

6. James Madison Dukes

Last Year: 21-15 (11-7), 4th CAA, NCAA Tournament 2nd Round

Departures: A.J. Davis (12.2 ppg, 3.6 rpg, CAA Tournament MVP), Rayshawn Goins (12.1 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 3rd Team All-Conference), Devon Moore (11.1 ppg, 4.9 apg, 3rd Team All-Conference), Alioune Diouf (4.9 ppg, 3.5 rpg)

Key Returners: Andrey Semenov (10.0 ppg), Andre Nation (9.3 ppg, All-Rookie Team), Charles Cooke (5.8 ppg), Ron Curry (5.7 ppg)

One of the only four teams who had to win a game in the first round of the NCAA Tournament to get to the second round in March, James Madison has a completely different identity this season. Head coach Matt Brady now has a new contract and he’ll hand over the keys to the team over to sophomore guard Andre Nation after losing four starting seniors. The return of 6th year senior Andrey Semenov, a guy Brady has called the best shooter in the CAA but was limited to only 7 games last season with an ankle injury, will help fill the void in JMU’s starting lineup. But, expect some regression from the Dukes this season.

7. Delaware Blue Hens

Last Year: 19-14 (13-5), 3rd CAA

Departures: Jamelle Hagins (11.6 ppg, 10.7 rpg, Defensive Player of the Year), Josh Brinkley (7.3 ppg, 3.9 rpg)

Key Returners: Devon Saddler (19.9 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 1st Team All-Conference) Jarvis Threatt (13.0 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 3rd Team All-Conference), Kyle Anderson (9.1 ppg), Carl Baptiste (4.0 ppg, 4.2 rpg)

The Delaware Blue Hens were just a questionable out of bounds call on Threatt away from having a shot to earn a spot in the CAA title bout in March. Then A.J. Davis drilled two free throws to put the Dukes past the Hens. Considering Monte Ross’ club had an "NCAA Tournament or Bust" mindset in 2012-13, the program then elected to turn down multiple postseason invitations. Delaware is now without their starting frontcourt in two-time CAA Defensive Player of the Year Jamelle Hagins and Josh Brinkley. Yes, Devon Saddler is still in Newark to lead Ross’ offensive attack, but that might not be such a good thing. While Saddler scored almost 20 points a night a year ago, he did so only shooting 42.8 percent on 15.3 attempts per night. The Hens would be wise to work the ball around on offense, utilize Baptiste's size in the pick-and-roll and stash Anderson in the corner as a deadly assassin from outside. But if Delaware only gets one opportunity each trip down the offensive end, via an outside shot or a runner from Saddler or Threatt, they could be continuously setting their already weaker defense up to fail.

8. UNC-Wilmington Seahawks

Last Year: 10-20 (5-13), 9th CAA

Departures: Keith Rendleman (17.0 ppg, 10.5 rpg, 1st Team All-Conference)

Key Returners: Chris Dixon (9.8 ppg, 3.3 apg), Craig Ponder (8.5 ppg) Cedrick Williams (6.5 ppg, 6.0 rpg), Tanner Milson (6.4 ppg), Freddie Jackson (5.9 ppg, 3.6 rpg)

Buzz Peterson and the Seahawks have lost the program’s heart and soul and all-time leading rebounder in Keith Rendleman to graduation. That loss is so enormous, Rendleman’s absence will likely overshadow the return of the team’s next five scorers following him last year. Having two young guards in Chris Dixon and Craig Ponder is a positive sign for the future, but UNCW will undoubtedly experience some severe growing pains before they can compete in this conference.

9. Hofstra Pride

Last Year: 7-25 (4-14), 10th CAA

Departures: Taran Buie (12.4 ppg), Stevie Mejia (11.9 ppg, 4.1 apg, All-Defensive Team), David Imes (7.6 ppg, 5.2 rpg)

Key Returners: Stephen Nwaukoni (6.8 ppg, 7.9 rpg), Moussa Kone (6.5 ppg, 4.4 rpg), Jordan Allen (5.0 ppg, 2.9 rpg)

Last season was a nothing short of a nightmare for the Pride and head coach Mo Cassara. Starting with Hurricane Sandy and four players getting arrested and suspended in November, UConn transfer Jamal Coombs-McDaniel never saw game action due to injury and Taran Buie left the team for personal reasons by seasons end. All of the above eventually culminated in Cassara’s firing and the Pride have now ushered in a new era under former Niagara head coach Joe Mihalich. Now, only five players remain from last season’s squad and Mihalich has brought eight new faces to Hempstead, NY. One can only assume this rebuilding project won’t be completely smooth sailing in year one, but a bright future may be on the horizon for the Pride.

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