After the exodus of VCU, George Mason and Old Dominion, the Colonial Athletic Association began a prolonged skid. A mid-major conference that sent three teams to the NCAA Tournament in 2011 has not gotten the same return in newcomers like Elon and College of Charleston, but still hasn't entirely lost its footing.
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 UNC-Wilmington to the Dance this year, it actually had a higher conference RPI (ninth) than any of its multi-bid seasons. Here's how things shook out in one of the country's most competitive single bid races.
College of Charleston (17-14, 8-10)
Following the program's worst winning percentage in it's Division I history last year, expectations were predictably low for the Cougars this season. Earl Grant had inherited a dumpster fire; the best fans could hope for was a swift fumigation and the first signs of a rebuild in Year 2. Those hopes took a hit during the preseason, as starting point guard Joe Chealey and hyped freshman guard Grant Riller both suffered season-ending injuries. The outlook was grim in the Holy City.
But a funny thing happened. CofC -- rocking one of the country's youngest teams -- embraced Grant's Gregg Marshall-inspired defense and became one of the staunchest units nationwide. Canyon Barry -- youngest son of Rick Barry -- also exploded onto the scene averaging nearly 20 points per game before experiencing his own season-ending injury in just the second conference game of the year. The team got even younger.
But Charleston competed in every game, often shaping pace and style to their preference -- no easy task for a bunch of underclassmen. They had trouble closing out opponents, including Wilmington in the conference semis, but those lumps will only strengthen this promising squad in the long run.
Outlook: Trending sharply upward. Barry may be taking advantage of the grad transfer rule in his final year of eligibility, but his mid-season injury allowed the young core to develop in 2015-16. Next year, CofC returns both Chealey and Riller, along with CAA Freshman of the Year Jarrell Brantley, All-Freshman guard Marquise Pointer, Third Team All-CAA guard Cameron Johnson, All-Defensive guard Payton Hulsey and what looks like another solid recruiting class. There's reason to be optimistic if you're a CofC fan.
Elon (16-16, 7-11)
The newest CAA member is still finding its way, and that transition from the Southern Conference to the Colonial was still evident in Elon's second full season. Bob McKillop disciple Matt Matheny continues to run a high motion, Princeton-style offense that rewards guard play. It's a style not found many other places in the league, but may be Elon's best chance at success until it's able to recruit the type of big bodies that battle in this conference. Tanner Samson, a senior holdover from the SoCon days, was the team's leading scorer. Depth however was Elon's best weapon. Eight players averaged more than 15 minutes per game -- a strategy that will help young talent like Steve Santa Ana and Tyler Seibring rise to the top.
Outlook: Moving in the right direction. All-Freshman big man Tyler Seibring has of potential at the stretch four in the CAA - a rare position in this league. Santa Ana also showed promise in limited minutes behind the upperclassmen. Fans should be anxious to see if Matheny changes strategy to better match up with bigger CAA squads, or if he decides to roll with his volume-shooting guards and try to out-maneuver teams like Towson and Hofstra that way.
Drexel (6-25, 3-15)
We've now come to the CAA's cellar dwellers. Poor Drexel. As if watching former Dragon Damion Lee light it up as the leading scorer for Louisville wasn't painful enough, fans were also tortured in watching Bruiser Flint's squad struggle to put together any semblance of an offense. A step back after Lee's graduation was expected, but Drexel's rapid disintegration eventually caused Flint's firing and the subsequent transfer of talented freshman guard Terrell Allen.
Defense has been Drexel's calling card under Flint, but without that, the team's offensive struggles were even more glaringly apparent. Once scoring became a chore, it seemed like the players checked out on the other side of the ball as well. The Dragons allowed a CAA-worst 36 percent three-point shooting percentage from opponents, and the league's worst rebounding differential.
Outlook: Nowhere to go but up. Drexel made some national headlines by nabbing well-regarded former Army coach Zach Spiker to lead their program. The 2013 Patriot League Coach of the Year took Army from bottom-feeder to competent opponent in his seven seasons, securing West Point's first postseason birth since some guy named Mike Krzyzewski took them to the NIT. Spiker has a tall order in front of him, but fans have reason to believe he can turn things around.
Delaware (7-23, 2-16)
Just one win separated the Blue Hens from the Dragons in 2015-16, but the two programs are miles apart this offseason. While Drexel moved swiftly to cut ties with Flint, hire Spiker and get things back on track, Delaware floundered for months with no clear plan.
After firing head coach Monte Ross in March, the administration put a replacement search on hold until they could hire a new full-time athletic director. Meanwhile, leading scorer and Second Team All-CAA sophomore Kory Holden has decided to transfer to South Carolina, two more players have transferred out and three more have asked for their release. The bleeding has left next year's team with potentially just four scholarship players and the spring recruiting period behind them.
Outlook: Delaware's coaching search finally came to an end on May 24 when it was announced that Notre Dame associate head coach Martin Ingelsby would take over for Ross. Ingelsby was groomed by onetime Delaware coach Mike Brey with the Irish for over a decade. He's been a popular name in coaching searches the past few seasons and will now be thrown into the fire with one of the toughest jobs in the country. Step one is to assemble a full roster of players.