After a quiet non-conference season, the Colonial Athletic Association has more questions than answers. More than half the league could make a case for being a contender, and each has a counter argument. With UNC Wilmington in reset mode, the league has competitive depth for the first time in a while. Here’s how things look heading into Saturday’s league opener.
1. Towson (10-3)
Best Win: 70-67 vs. Georgia Southern (neutral)
Worst Loss: 63-59 vs. Pittsburgh (away)
The Tigers have the league’s best resumé to date, and were on the national radar following a 10-game win streak and program-best start to the season. Pat Skerry’s team is still one of the toughest teams on defense and off the glass, but this year’s team has an efficient offense to help provide balance.
Sophomore guard Zane Martin looks like an all-CAA performer thus far, averaging an efficient 18.4 points per game to lead seven players contributing at least six points per contest. The Tigers shot above 33% from deep just once in Skerry’s first six seasons, but are converting on 38% thus far - second best in the league. Back-to-back road losses to Oakland and Pitt took some shine off the Tiger’s early season, but right now they’re the team to beat.
2. Charleston (9-3)
Best Win: 67-65 vs. Coastal Carolina (away)
Worst Loss: 73-68 vs. Cal Poly (neutral)
College of Charleston was a unanimous favorite to win the CAA this past fall, but struggled through their first 10 games without preseason first-teamer Jarrell Brantley. That stretch included an ugly loss at Wichita State and a disappointing first round exit in the Great Alaska Shootout.
Earl Grant’s stingy man-to-man defense still smothers opponents, but the Cougars are only getting consistent scoring from their backcourt of Joe Chealey and Grant Riller. The absence of the team’s best big man has forced underclassmen Jaylen McManus and Osi Smart to learn on the fly, but both have quickly developed into quality contributors. Brantley returned for CofC’s penultimate non-conference game, giving him just enough time to get some reps in before the league opener versus Towson.
3. Northeastern (7-5)
Best Win: 71-67 vs. Vermont (home)
Worst Loss: 71-67 vs. Utah State (neutral)
The Huskies once again played a challenging opening schedule, but got on track with a five-game win streak that included victories over Harvard, Bucknell and Vermont. Lopsided losses to St. Bonaventure and Furman showed that the team is still figuring things out after the departure of 2017 Player of the Year TJ Williams. Even so, the tough out-of-conference slate has traditionally paid dividends in CAA play for Northeastern, and they have real talent in the backcourt with Vasa Pusica (back from injury last year) and Devon Begley.
4. William & Mary (7-4)
Best win: 79-77 vs. Old Dominion (home)
Worst loss: 100-66 vs. High Point (away)
After an absolute thrashing at the hands of High Point to open the season, it was easy to write off the Tribe. But ever since, the hot-shooting squad from Bill & Mary has put the ball in the basket better than almost every team in the country. W&M is shooting 52% from the field, 46% from behind the arc and 80% from the line as a team - all tops in the CAA by a wide margin. Nathan Knight might be the most improved player in the league. The 6’10 sophomore gives the team legitimate size and efficiency in the post for the first time in years, and his scoring average has more than doubled from his true freshman season. That opens things up for Coach Shaver’s 4 Out offense to let it fly.
5. Elon (8-5)
Best win: 73-68 vs. Indiana State (away)
Worst loss: 75-44 vs UNC Greensboro (away)
It’s been a less-than-ideal start for the most experienced team in the NCAA (in terms of minutes continuity). Elon returned everyone of note from last year’s 18-win campaign and was an easy pick to finish top three in the conference. But the Phoenix have some head-scratching losses to the likes of Canisius and Milwaukee, and failed to get good wins against Furman and UNC Greensboro. To be fair, all of Elon’s losses have been in true road games, and they’ve already played a whopping SIX overtime periods so far this season. Expect the offensive statistics to improve from the pedestrian numbers they’re at now come conference play.
6. Hofstra (7-5)
Best win: 72-69 vs. Dayton (neutral)
Worst loss: 85-76 vs. Siena (away)
Scoring has never been an issue for Hofstra under Coach Mihalich, but inconsistency on defense continues to plague the Pride. The team has two bonafide mid-major stars in Justin Wright-Foreman, who leads the league in scoring, and double-double machine Rokas Gustys. They also have great role players like Eli Pemperton on the wing and Desure Buie at point. Luck has not been kind to Hofstra - the team played the surprising Auburn and Clemson squads back-to-back at the Charleston Classic - but losses to Siena and Manhattan shouldn’t happen to a team with this level of experience and talent. Six of the Pride’s games have been decided by five or fewer points (they went 5-1 in such contests) - the kind of razor’s edge margins you can expect from a team that both hits and allows jump shots at such a high rate.
7. Delaware (7-6)
Best win: 76-63 vs. Richmond (away)
Worst loss: 82-76 vs. Navy (away)
After a promising first season under Martin Ingelsby, expectations and enthusiasm were high in the First State coming into this season. In the first game of the year, the Blue Hens went down to Richmond and thoroughly dispatched the Spiders. But maturation in college basketball isn’t a linear progression, and UD came back to earth with a four-game losing streak that included three home contests. On the bright side, reigning Freshman of the Year Ryan Daly is avoiding a sophomore slump, Kevin Anderson looks like the league’s best rookie and the Hens recently welcomed former coach Mike Brey and the Fighting Irish to their arena. Things are still looking up.
8. Drexel (6-7)
Best win: 84-80 vs. Houston (neutral)
Worst loss: 66-62 vs. Loyola MD (away)
Had you told me in October that Drexel would pick up the CAA’s best win in non-conference play, I would’ve called you crazy and reported you to the appropriate authorities. But the Dragons did in fact pick up a marquee win for Zach Spiker when they defeated Houston in the first round of the Paradise Jam. Mizzou transfer Tramaine Isabell has been the CAA’s best newcomer, pacing Drexel with 19.5 points and eight rebounds per game, both top six in the conference. The Dragons have been mired by the injury bug, playing games with essentially zero backcourt depth, but are digging themselves out of the CAA basement.
9. James Madison (4-9)
Best win: 105-99 vs. Appalachian State (home)
Worst loss: 84-82 vs. The Citadel (away)
There was going to be a steep learning curve for the Dukes this season. Coach Louis Rowe replaced one of the country’s oldest teams with one of the youngest this season, all while still trying to integrate a new pace and offense. JMU has taken it’s lumps, including a brutal last-minute loss to George Mason, but has also shown signs of potential. The Dukes went toe-to-toe against Florida for more than a half and picked up a nice home win against App State in double overtime. Stuckey Mosley, who sat out last season after transferring from Toledo, is living up to expectations with 19.8 points per contest, second-best in the league.
10. UNC Wilmington (3-9)
Best win: 88-84 vs. Campbell (home)
Worst loss: 80-75 vs. Howard (neutral)
It’s been a painful crash back down to earth for the reigning CAA champs. Even though the Seahawks lost coach Kevin Keatts and three all-conference players, there was hope that the team could still finish in the top half of the league with Devontae Cacok and Jordan Talley taking on larger roles. Longtime UNC assistant CB McGrath has instilled a more traditional, two-big lineup and playing style that has not sacrificed scoring chances. The much larger issue is UNCW’s porous defense. The Hawks rank 327th in defensive efficiency and have allowed 100 or more points in three games already. Talley sat out the team’s final non-con game to nurse an injury before the CAA opener. The team will need him, as UNCW opens against some teams that can really score.