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CAA Preseason Power Rankings: Charleston looks to unseat UNC Wilmington

The Cougars return all five starters from last year’s second-place team

NCAA Basketball: Charleston Classic-Wake Forest vs Charleston Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

After UNC Wilmington captured back-to-back league titles, the allure of an ACC coaching job was too much for Seahawks coach Kevin Keatts to pass up. His departure to NC State, along with that of leading scorer C.J. Bryce, has left a vacancy for what should be the Colonial’s lone NCAA Tournament spot this season.

The sudden opportunity has caught most league members in the midst of either a maturation or reloading process. One exception is College of Charleston, who returns all five starters from the team that finished just behind the Seahawks last year. Continuity makes the Cougars a popular preseason favorite for their first CAA title in school history.

CAA Preseason Power Rankings:

1. College of Charleston Cougars

Defense has been the calling card for Charleston since coach Earl Grant’s arrival, and the Cougars should be expected to once again suffocate their opponents. Last year, CofC held its foes to 64.6 points per game and 30.8 percent shooting from three. Both ranked among the top 30 teams nationally. Offensively, the Cougars lean heavily on the trio of Joe Chealey, Jarrell Brantley and Grant Riller. Chealey is a fifth-year senior who serves as the Cougars’ leading scorer, game closer, and emotional leader. Brantley is a versatile big man who has the size (6’9, 230) to bully most league forwards, and added a reliable three-point shot to his game last year. Riller, a redshirt sophomore, complements them both with his slashing ability and defense.

Depth could be an issue for the Cougars. Chealey, Brantley, and Riller accounted for 65 percent of the team’s points last year. But after grooming his freshmen last season, Grant believes he can add them to a strong seven-man rotation. If healthy, the Cougars look like the team to beat in the CAA.

2. Towson Tigers

Pat Skerry’s Tigers may not have the flashy scorer or offensive prowess of other teams in the league, but they get the benefit of the doubt over the rest of the CAA’s middle tier because of the system they run. Towson forces every team into a slow, bruising contest by crashing the glass and getting to the line. The Tigers have ranked in the top 12 teams nationally in offensive rebounding percentage each of the last three years, and as Tar Heel fans saw last year, that can be a difference-maker, no matter what you shoot from the floor.

Despite the loss of big man William Adala-Moto, the sturdy backcourt of Mike Morsell, Deshaun Morman, Brian Starr, and Zane Martin should all step up to help shoulder the load. Morsell will have to be the Tigers’ best player, and developing a consistent outside shot (33 percent from deep last year) will help give Towson some much-needed spacing. The Tigers’ first four conference games will be telling: at Charleston, at Elon, home against UNCW then Charleston.

3. Elon Phoenix

Still the CAA’s newest member after three years, Elon has often felt like the little brother of the conference. The Phoenix play an exciting brand of up-tempo, volume shooting basketball, but their lack of size and physicality had been exposed after moving to the Colonial. Head coach Matt Matheny recognized this early on and started recruiting players who could withstand the competition. Now, those young players have matured into upperclassmen, and Elon is poised for its best year in the CAA.

Junior Tyler Seibring is a versatile All-CAA stretch-four who can hit from the paint, the arc, or the free throw line. He’s flanked by four more returning starters, nearly all of whom will let it fly from deep. Steven Santa Ana, who took about 200 threes last season, is capable of dropping 20-plus points any night. Center Brian Dawkins and forward Dmitri Thompson provide the strength and toughness that the Phoenix had lacked in the past, while Dainan Swoope provides the steady point guard presence. The question marks for Elon have been defense and offensive efficiency. With consistency on their side, both areas should improve and Elon could contend for the CAA title.

4. Hofstra Pride

One of the breakout stars of the CAA last season was Hofstra’s Justin Wright-Foreman. After playing sparingly as a freshman behind 2016 Player of the Year Juan’ya Green, the 6’1 guard was given a starting spot last season and never looked back. Foreman got better every game, eventually hoisting 32.4 percent of Hofstra’s shots in conference play (second in the country) and averaging 25.4 points over his final 12 contests. Led by Foreman, head coach Joe Mihalich has more firepower in the starting lineup than any team in the league.

Inside, the immovable Rokas Gustys is a 6’9, 260-pound machine who can easily fortify the paint with four shooters around him. Gustys has been one of the five best rebounders in college basketball each of the past two seasons, and keeps the offense humming by collecting anything that doesn’t connect from deep. Then there’s Eli Pemberton, a CAA All-Rookie wing last season, and Desure Buie, a talented point guard who missed most of last season with an ACL tear. Together, they’re capable of putting 70-plus on opponents every night. But if Hofstra is going to regain a place atop the standings, they’ll need to improve upon a defense that ranked third worst in the CAA. The soft zone Mihalich uses to keep his notoriously short rotations from getting into foul trouble did not intimidate anyone last year, so look for him to throw in some variations this season.

5. UNC Wilmington Seahawks

The CAA’s two-time defending champions will look much different than the teams that gave UVA and Duke scares in the past two NCAA Tournaments. Four key contributors are gone, including the leading scorer Bryce, along with seniors Chris Flemmings, Denzel Ingram and Ambrose Mosley. Longtime Roy Williams disciple C.B. McGrath will be the only rookie head coach in the league this year, but he has a chance to keep the Seahawks competitive with what they return this season.

The key piece sticking around is 2017 Defensive Player of the Year and new record-holder for the best field goal percentage over a season in NCAA history, Devontae Cacok (80 percent from the floor in 35 games). He’s not going to get the same looks as he did with four all-CAA guards around him, but look for Cacok to again be one of the league’s best players and take pressure off the guys playing larger roles. That includes former sixth man Jordon Talley, who will now have the green light to get the offense going from the jump as a starting guard.

6. Northeastern Huskies

It won’t be easy to replace the production of Player of the Year T.J. Williams, but Northeastern returns a number of talented players from injury and adds a promising young talent that firmly puts the Huskies above the CAA’s rebuilding teams. Inconsistency was Northeastern’s weakness last year, amplified by the ever-changing lineups and heat level of its shooters.

Senior Devon Begley is the team’s highest-scoring returnee, and will likely split time with San Diego transfer Vasa Pusica on lead guard duties. Look for Bolden Brace to add a few highlights to his resume as well. As a freshman, Brace dropped 40 points on Elon, and had the CAA’s Play of the Year for a miraculous buzzer-beater in Charleston. The newcomer to watch is Tomas Murphy, a four-star recruit (per ESPN) and younger brother of former Husky starter Alex Murphy. Tomas is the highest-rated recruit in this year’s CAA class and could start immediately. It will take some time for all the returning pieces to figure out their roles, but the Huskies could challenge the CAA’s top tier if things fall into place.

7. Delaware Blue Hens

The Blue Hens were not expected to make much noise in the CAA last year with a recently hired new head coach and not much in the way of returning talent or promising recruits. That narrative had changed by the end of the season, as UD went into an exciting shootout with Wilmington in the CAA Tournament and coach Martin Ingelsby had his team looking full of potential. Much of the credit goes to Rookie of the Year Ryan Daly — a do-all guard who led the Hens in scoring and rebounding as a true freshman. That the Blue Hens were able to go 4-4 over their final eight games is a testament to the determination that Ingelsby instilled in his players. Daly should still be the centerpiece, but he’ll have more help this season from the maturation of senior guard Anthony Mosley and former GW product Darian Bryant.

8. William & Mary Tribe

After four years of coming tantalizingly close to their first NCAA Tournament, William & Mary said goodbye to the flame-throwing duo of Omar Prewitt and Daniel Dixon last spring. Now the Tribe is facing a rebuilding season, and must count on young role players to pick up the slack. The question for W&M is if it can ever find a way to play consistent defense without sacrificing anything in coach Tony Shaver’s well-oiled offense. The Tribe exited the postseason after a 105-94 defeat to UNCW — the 11th game where W&M gave up at least 85 points.

There are a couple intriguing pieces on the roster. David Cohn returns to start at point and will have to be more selfish to keep defense honest. Boston College transfer Matt Milon shot 49.4 percent from deep the last full season he played and should find an immediate role for the Tribe. Then there’s Nathan Knight, a traditional center who is a bit of an outlier in Shaver’s system. Even still, Knight impressed as a freshman who was not a first or second option. He could have a breakout year.

9. Drexel Dragons

College basketball is more fun when the Philly teams are all competitive, and the CAA is more fun when the Drexel Dragons are a contender. That hasn’t been the case the last two seasons, the most recent of which was a full-on identity switch as Zach Spiker took over for longtime coach Bruiser Flint. Spiker had his guys playing faster and loose, but with that mentality came porous defense (80.5 points allowed per game) and poor team rebounding. If there’s one thing to feel confident about as a Dragon fan, it’s that the point guard position seems secure for years to come. Freshman Kirk Lee averaged 15 points and 4.6 assists on the season and nabbed a CAA All-Rookie spot. There are questions in the front court after the loss of senior cornerstone Rodney Williams, but Drexel could be a fun team to watch this season.

10. James Madison Dukes

It was a tale of two seasons last year for JMU, although neither was one to write home about. As one of the oldest teams in the country, the Dukes were hoping the infusion of new coaching talent would allow them to break out. That did not happen. The Dukes went an embarrassing 1-10 against D-I opponents in non-conference play before somewhat salvaging their season by winning eight more games in league play.

Now coach Louis Rowe is ushering in 10 new players to play with two starting returnees — sharpshooting Joey McLean and combo forward Ramone Snowden. The influx of talent will have its growing pains, but at least Rowe gets to truly start from scratch in rebuilding the program.