Mid-Major Conference Preview: Colonial Athletic Association Part II

Rankings always deserve a second opinion; accompanying Jake Fischer's CAA Preview and rankings, I submit my own set, which sees the Delaware Blue Hens as contenders rather than pretenders.

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.

Contenders

1. Towson Tigers

After a season in which the best coach and player in the CAA were denied entry to the conference tournament, Pat Skerry's Towson Tigers will be coming back with vengeance. The expectation is that the first season in the SECU Arena will see its fair share of success due in large part to the return of CAA Player of the Year Jerrelle Benimon, who averaged 17.1 points and 11.2 rebounds per game last season and is primed for a big encore presentation this year.

They will also be returning junior forward Marcus Damas and sophomore point guard Jerome Hairston, who together combined for 21 more points last season. By surrounding Benimon with ample talent and not ceding much in the way of graduation, the Tigers should have a stranglehold on the Colonial by February and dance their way to the NCAA Tournament by March.

2. Drexel Dragons

There's no need to rehash the well-worn story of Drexel's disappointing 2012-13 campaign; instead, the focus in University City should turn to the promise that lingered last October. By retaining sixth-year guard Chris Fouch for one more try at the conference tournament, the Dragons complete the most fearsome backcourt in the conference when you slide him next to senior point guard Frantz Massenat and junior shooting guard Damion Lee, the player with the best chance at dethroning Towson's Benimon as CPOY.

The graduation losses were barely skin-deep for the Dragons. Dartaye Ruffin is a better big man than Daryl McCoy was, and transfer Freddie Wilson will be able to step into Derrick Thomas's role as a fourth support guard as Bruiser Flint's squad tries to regain its defensive reputation and march towards a potential showing of what last year was supposed to bring.

3. Delaware Blue Hens

The Hens are returning the league-leading scorer in Devon Saddler, a player with unbelievable scoring ability but a penchant for less-than-efficient scoring methods. They also bring back junior guard Jarvis Threatt, who on any given night could go for 25 or just five, and Kyle Anderson, who along with Saddler needs to bump his scoring efficiency up in order to help the Blue Hens play near the top of the CAA this year.

The real challenge for Delaware will be the play of their bigs. With the departure of Jamelle Hagins, Carl Baptiste becomes their best inside threat, but his 4.0 points and 4.2 rebounds per game don't exactly intimidate. Without rebounding prowess, the Hens could be pushed around during league play. If he steps up, however, they'll be in contention come March.

4. College of Charleston Cougars

The Cougars bring a new face to the conference as they begin a new chapter in the program's history after leaving the Southern Conference for the CAA. But they don't plan on easing their way into things; C of C has a chance to legitimately compete at a high level this season.

While they lost leading scorer Andrew Lawrence to graduation, the Cougars retained three-point artist Anthony Stitt, and their two best rebounders in forwardsd Adjehi Baru and Willis Hall.

And they possess the player with the most to prove this season, Anthony Thomas. The junior forward comes into the season with a chance to establish himself as a consistent offensive threat if he cuts down on errant three-point attempts and works on finding smarter shots. After averaging 8.5 points and 4.8 rebounds per game last year, Thomas could be the key to the Cougars thwarting the CAA's elite during their trial run.

Dark Horses

5. William & Mary Tribe

CAA dark horse, thy name is William & Mary. The Tribe are returning their top four scorers -- worth 55.6 points per game last season -- and they're the only team in the conference who can claim that. When a collection of talent has the chance to become cohesive and progress together, as the likes of Marcus Thornton, Tim Rusthoven, Brandon Britt, and Kyle Gaillard will this season, the results can be phenomenal.

The main challenge will be consistency. Last season, the Tribe never put together a win streak of more than four games in a row. Win streaks are key when pursuing the top of the conference. If W&M want to play with the big boys, they'll have to bring it night in and night out this year.

6. Northeastern Huskies

Despite losing their top two scorers, Jonathan Lee and Joel Smith, to graduation, it's not all doom and gloom in Boston. The Huskies will be returning forwards Quincy Ford and Reggie Spencer, who will have to step into those currently-vacant lead roles as they try to adapt on the fly. Both averaged at least nine points and five rebounds per game last season, but Bill Coen will need both to average at least 12 points and seven rebounds if he expects his squad to even come close to last season's regular season title.

Another big cog in the Huskies' success will be the progression of sophomore guard David Walker, who contributed consistently last season but will be called upon to show up in a big way this season as Northeastern's guards undergo a revamping.

Rebuilders

7. James Madison Dukes

This past spring, James Madison rode a magical season of senior leadership and destiny last year to the CAA Championship and the NCAA Tournament; this year there will be considerably less of both. The Dukes' top three scorers -- A.J. Davis, Rayshawn Goins, and Devon Moore- all graduated, taking their 35.4 points and 14.6 rebounds per game with them. The keys to the squad, and the next three years of head coach Matt Brady's recently extended tenure, rest in the hands of a trio of young guards headed by Andre Nation.

Nation will likely lead the Dukes in most facets of the game this year, which is both a good thing and a bad thing. It's good in that he will be developing his game for the final two years of his career, when his impact on the CAA will be felt in wider waves. It's bad in that 2013-14 will most certainly be a down year for the purple and gold.

8. UNC-Wilmington Seahawks

Placing the Seahawks this low in the rankings is more a tempered measure than anything else; after losing 1st Team All-Conference forward Keith Rendleman to graduation, the ground is unsteady in the Trask Coliseum. However, with their second- and third-highest scorers returning in sophomore guards Craig Ponder and Chris Dixon, the Seahawks could be a team to watch in the second half of the season, if only to foreshadow the storm they could bring in 2014.

The two will be leading in a trial-by-fire setting with Rendleman gone, and it will be crucial for Ponder and Dixon to improve their efficiency. They both shot 38 percent from the field last year, an unacceptable mark for this season when they will be the leading scorers on the team.

9. Hofstra Pride

It proved nearly to impossible to keep track of Hofstra's roster switch-ups this summer, but the most important move was publicized quite nicely. Former Niagara head coach Joe Mihalich has taken over at the helm of the Pride, a program in dire need of turning a new leaf after last season's legal debacles and lackluster play. The best Hofstra player returning from last season's roster is senior center Stephen Nwaukoni, who will be expected to contribute a double-double nearly every night if the Pride have hopes of winning a handful of games this season.

Besides Nwaukoni, Hofstra's motley crew of transfers like Zeke Upshaw and Dion Nesmith round out a roster with capable-but-not-spectacular depth. This is just the first step of the Joe Mihalich era at Hofstra, and one that will more than likely begin with one small step for the team, but one large step for the program.

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