The Colonial Athletic Association arranged a perfect season-opening Saturday, pitting the preseason’s top two teams - UNC Wilmington and Towson - against one another to highlight a loaded New Year’s Eve tip-off slate.
After that marquee matchup, four more teams that could easily round out the league’s top six seeds in March will face off against each other for early barometer tests. Charleston plays at Elon, and Northeastern hosts preseason No. 3 William & Mary.
UNCW @ Towson
After avoiding any Power 5 opponents during their first dozen games, the Seahawks had a reality check in this week’s loss to Clemson and former coach Brad Brownell. Still, UNCW has put some distance between itself and the rest of the CAA with convincing wins over its mid-major peers. The Seahaw,s league-leading offense is blitzing teams with an athletic four-guard unit plus emerging sophomore big man Devontae Cacok (81.7% FG%).
Towson has looked good at times, but hasn’t quite convinced fans that its the team to emerge from the pack as UNCW’s biggest threat in the CAA. William Adala Moto, an all-league player last season after transferring from Wake Forest, is once again the anchor of what the Tigers do best - defend and rebound.
It’s a clash of styles for these two squads. Kevin Keatts and the Seahawks will try to outrun Towson and bury the poor-shooting Tigers (29% from three on the season) with a barrage of outside shots. Conversely, Towson will look to pound the ball inside and generate its offense from the line. The Tigers are fourth in the country with 363 free throw attempts this season. UNCW has a propensity to foul when its small ball lineup is bullied in the post, and lack frontcourt depth behind Cacok.
Charleston @ Elon
Elon coach Matt Matheny commented at CAA media day that he needed to recruit bigger, faster athletes when the Phoenix upgraded from the SoCon to the CAA. That strategy is paying dividends for his team, as it may have the best offensive balance of any CAA squad this side of UNCW. The sophomore trio of Steven Santa Ana, Tyler Seibring and Dainan Swoope are all double digit scorers. Junior forward Brian Dawkins and senior guard Luke Eddy also average more than 10.0 points per game in Matheny’s motion attack.
The Cougars have been the definition of “solid” this season: beating the teams they are supposed to beat and losing in games as an underdog. Their solid defense (27th in adjusted efficiency per KenPom) was dominant against Davidson and East Carolina, but a pedestrian offense kept them from pulling off a signature victory over LSU or Wake Forest. After an Achilles injury sidelined him last season, point guard Joe Chealey now leads the Cougars in scoring and assists.
The Charleston man-to-man defense is less about forcing turnovers and more about forcing bad shots. If Elon, a jump-shooting team, can hit contested looks, it won’t matter what the Cougars throw at them. But Charleston should feel good about holding Davidson to 22 second half points earlier this year. The Elon offense is influenced heavily by Matheny’s 16 years as a Davidson assistant under Bob McKillop.
William & Mary @ Northeastern
Northeastern may be the biggest surprise in the CAA this year. The Huskies easily have the league’s two marquee victories - UConn and Michigan State - despite being picked 7th in preseason voting. The team lost the production of four record-setting seniors last season, but is filling the void behind Naismith-level production from T.J. Williams (21.5 ppg, 5.8 apg, 4.8 rpg) and the versatility of former Duke/Florida big man Alex Murphy.
The Tribe face the fastest turnaround of any team heading into conference play. They beat Old Dominion on the road Thursday behind 36 points from senior guard Daniel Dixon. Now they travel to the CAA’s northernmost outpost to take on the Huskies. Dixon’s recent outburst gave him the edge over fellow senior wing Omar Prewitt for the team scoring lead, but both are capable of filling up a box score. As has been the case during Tony Shaver’s time as coach, the quest to get to the Big Dance always comes down to defense for the Tribe.
Unlike the other top games on Saturday, this one has the highest chance of turning into a shootout. Both teams played some stiff competition during non-conference play and will look to showcase how they’ve grown from it. Expect Williams to shoulder the load and have his way against W&M’s porous defense. Dixon is riding a hot streak and could get a boost if Prewitt gets back to the shooting percentages he is capable of hitting. Whoever wins deserves an early bump into the league’s top half.