After the exodus of VCU, George Mason and Old Dominion, the Colonial Athletic Association went through a bit of a prolonged skid. A mid-major conference that sent three teams to the NCAA Tournament in 2011 would not get the same return in newcomers like Elon and CofC, but hardly lost all its footing over the next few years. Cut to the fall of 2015 and league preseason meetings were cautiously optimistic. The CAA was stable, returning a lot of talent and would perhaps have real parity for the first time in years.
Although the conference sent only UNCW to the Dance this year, it actually had a higher conference RPI (9th) than any multi-bid season. Here's how things shook out in one of the country's most competitive single bid races.
UNC Wilmington (25-7, 14-4)
The league champs fell short of upsetting Duke in the first game of the 2016 NCAA Tournament, but Head Coach Kevin Keatts and the Seahawks still left their impression on the CAA. Building upon Keatts' rookie campaign that saw the Hawks leap from worst to first in the standings, UNCW rode their Louisville-inspired defense and lightning-quick pace to a regular season co-championship alongside Hofstra. All season Wilmington utilized their deep bench and plethora of wing players to press teams and attack in transition. While their OOC schedule was not the toughest, UNCW did rip off 11 straight conference wins to hit their stride going into the CAA Tournament.
Chris Flemmings - the DII transfer and walk-on - became the story of the league. He was a First Team All-CAA award recipient and absolutely epitomized Keatts' two-way style. Flemmings was complemented on the perimeter by Denzel Ingram and Craig Ponder to form an intimidating backcourt. For once again exceeding expectations, Keatts was named CAA Coach of the Year in consecutive seasons and agreed to an extension through 2021.
Outlook: Trending up. The Seahawks lose their third leading scorer and starting point guard in Craig Ponder, but little else in their quest to repeat as CAA champions next season. Flemmings was granted a scholarship for his final year of eligibility, ODU grad transfer Ambrose Mosley joins the team and best of all: Keatts (a popular name during the coaching carousel) commits to a new deal. Wilmington should be the favorite heading into 2016-17.
Hofstra (24-9, 14-4)
No team in the conference had more individual star power than Hofstra. The Pride were led by CAA Player of the Year Juan'ya Green, All-CAA big man Rokas Gustys and 2nd Team All-CAA guard Ameen Tanksley. Green and Tanksley, both seniors, have on-court chemistry dating back to their days playing high school ball together. They both went to Niagara and then transferred to Hofstra to follow Head Coach Joe Mihalich. Green lived up to his preseason billing, averaging 17.8 points and 7.1 assists for the season and joining a select group of players to reach the 1,000 point plateau at two separate schools.
Mixing it up in the paint was Gustys, by far the most improved player in the CAA. The 6'9 Lithuanian sophomore morphed into one of the country's best rebounders (13 rpg) and a double-double machine. Supplementing the three stars in the starting lineup was the shooting and playmaking of upperclassmen Brian Benardi and Denton Koon.
While Hofstra's starting five was deadly, they were starving for depth. The Pride were able to ride their talent through much of the regular season to gain the CAA Tournament's #1 seed, but the lack of a bench caught up to them in the championship game. An OT final against Wilmington's superior reserves left the Pride gasping and they ultimately lost 80-73. A first round exit to eventual champion GW made for a quick NIT trip.
Outlook: The Pride will take a big step back. Aside from Northeastern, no team is losing more heading into 2016-17 than Hofstra. Green, Tanksley and Koon all graduate, leaving Mihalich to build around Gustys. Time will tell if the big man can put up the same numbers without being surrounded by the outside threats. Benardi and sophomore-to-be Desure Buie will have to step up.
Towson (20-12, 11-7)
Stepping down to the quagmire of teams in the middle of the CAA standings, Towson put together enough scrappy wins to secure the #3 seed in Baltimore. Pat Skerry, no stranger to the annual transfer list, introduced former Wake Forest big man William Adala-Moto. The Cameroon native quickly became the Tigers' best player and led a bullying, physical squad each night. While limited by their shooting ability, Towson overcame their offensive challenges with toughness. The Tigers were one of the best free throw-drawing teams in the country and would grind teams out at the line.
Towson didn't make it far in the CAA Tournament, but earned an invite to the Vegas 16/8 field. Unfortunately, like Hofstra, they ran into a buzzsaw in the first round as Kay Felder and Oakland made quick work of them.
Outlook: Steady to slightly improving. Adala-Moto returns for his senior season and should display a more refined game. The Tigers do lose point guard Byron Hawkins to the transfer market and All-Defense forward Timajh Parker-Rivera to graduation. However, individual talent is minimized in Skerry's system and the Tigers should maintain at least a similar standing next year.
Check back on Mid-Major Madness for the next two posts in this series later this week.