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CAA preseason rankings: Northeastern is the team to beat

The Huskies are looking for a second chance to take down College of Charleston.

NCAA Basketball: Hofstra at Villanova Dennis Schneidler-USA TODAY Sports

The preseason Colonial Athletic Association favorite has cut down the nets in each of the last two seasons. Northeastern is deservedly the frontrunner after their surprise success last season, but the Huskies have teams nipping at their heels. The top four teams from the 2018 CAA Tournament are still at the top of these preseason rankings, including defending champion Charleston, William & Mary and their high-octane offense, and Player of the Year Justin Wright-Foreman’s Hofstra Pride. Couple that with emerging teams in the conference’s muddled middle tier, and the CAA is primed for another competitive season.

1. Northeastern Huskies (23-10, 14-4 CAA)

The Huskies return just about everyone from a team whose season ended on a sour note with an overtime loss in the CAA title game. Northeastern is good enough to be one of the best mid major teams in the country; their success will start on defense. In a league that has players and teams who can light up the scoreboard, Northeastern was able to stifle opponents’ scoring most consistently last season. Vasa Pusica’s wizardry at point, coupled with the development of a deep crop of role players like Shawn Occeus and Tomas Murphy gives the Huskies an edge over the defending conference champs.

2. Charleston Cougars (26-8, 14-4 CAA, NCAA Tournament First Round)

Charleston returned to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in nearly 20 years by riding the explosive trio of Joe Chealey, Grant Riller and Jarrell Brantley. Chealey graduated, but the return of Riller and Brantley — both first team All-CAA preseason selections — should keep the Cougars in contention. Coach Grant needs to ensure his rotation players can play up to his defensive standards, but he’s high on the fact that this is the oldest and most athletic team he’s had in his four years at Charleston. There may be some lineup changes during a tough out-of-conference schedule, but the Cougars should find their groove by CAA play.

3. William & Mary Tribe (19-12, 11-7 CAA)

The Tribe had an absolutely electric offense last season. They ranked first in the country in both team three-point shooting (43.4%) and free throw shooting (81%), as well as top ten in points and assists per game. More will fall onto the shoulders of versatile big men Nathan Knight and Justin Pierce with the departure of last year’s backcourt, but Tony Shaver’s system can welcome the interchangeable pieces he’s had on the bench. The question as always is the Tribe’s commitment on defense. Shaver believes he has some new players who will bring that toughness, but the trick will be to not stutter a well-oiled offensive machine.

4. Hofstra Pride (19-12, 12-6 CAA)

The Pride got a brief scare last spring when CAA Player of the Year Justin Wright-Foreman flirted with the NBA draft. But he’s back for a final year, and is poised to put up massive numbers (24.4 ppg last season) for a conference contender. Rokas Gustys, who collected over 1,300 rebounds in his career is gone, but the Pride might just up the pace and take their chances with a zone defense that they turned to last season. Wright-Foreman has two upperclassmen flanking him in Eli Pemberton and point guard Desure Buie, plus All-Rookie guard Jalen Ray. There’s scoring across the board, but a newcomer like Jacquil Taylor (Purdue) or Dan Dwyer (Penn) needs to secure defensive rebounds and guard the paint.

5. James Madison Dukes (10-22, 6-12 CAA)

JMU has been in the basement for Coach Lou Rowe’s two-year tenure at his alma mater. That could change this season. The Dukes have quietly built a defense-first foundation and were a tough out for most CAA teams last season. Eleven of JMU’s conference games either went to overtime or were decided by five or fewer points. Rowe’s team was 4-7 in those contests, but the team’s youngest players got plenty of game experience. Two All-Rookie guards, Matt Lewis and Darius Banks, join fifth-year senior Stuckey Mosley (18.4 ppg) in the backcourt this season and could push JMU up the standings.

6. UNC Wilmington Seahawks (11-21, 7-11 CAA)

Last season, rookie head coach C.B. McGrath had an uphill battle reloading the Seahawks. Fortunately, Devontae Cacok, who shattered the NCAA field goal record as a sophomore, picked another NCAA statistic to dominate and led the country in rebounding. His production was consistent throughout an up-and-down transition year, but the Seahawks started to find their footing late in the season. They must improve defensively this year: something McGrath preached this summer after UNCW surrendered 100-plus points four times last season. Cacok will be a wrecking ball around the basket, but someone from the Hawks’ crowded supporting class needs to step up. Look for FAU transfer Jeantal Cylla to be one of the CAA’s top newcomers.

7. Delaware Blue Hens (14-19, 6-12 CAA)

I had the Blue Hens higher until news came out that CAA Rookie of the Year Ryan Allen would miss two months with a broken foot. That’s a big hit for a team that already has to reintegrate sophomore Kevin Anderson — the ROY favorite before a December knee injury — and replace leading scorer Ryan Daly. Coach Martin Ingelsby’s team will have to lean more on Anderson and skilled senior forward Eric Carter, but once Allen returns they should contend for one of six first-round tournament bye spots.

8. Elon Phoenix (14-18, 6-12 CAA)

Things did not go as planned for the Phoenix last season. Despite a veteran group that was picked to finish third in the conference, Elon fell apart in January, losing 10 of their last 12 regular season games. Through a four-way tiebreaker, they were seeded 10th in the CAA Tournament and got bounced in their first game. Coach Matt Matheny is hoping that opening the season in the brand new Schar Center will help fully cleanse the team of last year’s disappointing finish. The Phoenix have a more experienced roster than the teams picked ahead of them, including senior Tyler Seibring and Steven Santa-Ana, but they have to play with an edge and focus all season.

9. Drexel Dragons (13-20, 6-12 CAA)

In spite of a rocky first two seasons in the win-loss column, Drexel has faith in Zach Spiker to turn things around in Philly. The two parties agreed to a multiyear extension in July. That security is already paying off, as the Dragons are hitting in both recruiting and regaining fan support, but they still have a ways to climb this season. Drexel was last in the conference in most defensive metrics last year, and returns just three rotation players. Point guard Kurk Lee and forward Alihan Demir have to lead the recommitment to defense by example if the Dragons are going to return to CAA relevancy.

10. Towson Tigers (18-14, 8-10 CAA)

No team has to replace more pieces this season than Towson. In total, its five leading scorers departed via graduation or transfer. The Tigers also have to get back to their defensive identity, which slipped to uncharacteristically average in conference play. With nine newcomers at Coach Skerry’s disposal, Towson’s season could go a lot of different directions. But based purely on the number of question marks across the roster, they begin the season at the bottom.