Conference play in the Colonial kicks off this weekend, and the early slate of games will go a long way toward defining the pecking order. So far, only three teams have established themselves as real contenders. Each one has backed their status with some talented returning veterans, solid wins and consistent play this season.
After that, the next best teams are anyone’s guess. Injuries and varying difficulty in schedules make it tough to determine which teams are in the next tier. Here’s how they stack up heading into CAA play.
1. Charleston (11-2)
The defending champs are still in the driver’s seat going into the new year. Charleston is on an eight-game winning streak and is currently second in the country with 22 straight wins at home. Grant Riller (22.2 ppg) and Jarrell Brantley (20.5 ppg) are one of the most productive duos in college basketball, and the emergence of underclassmen guards Zep Jasper and Brevin Galloway have helped steady the Cougs through the absence of starting point guard Marquise Pointer. Earl Grant’s stout man-to-man defense is fully on display each night, but the ability for the Cougars to score consistently — even while struggling from three (just 31 percent as a team) — has given them some balance. This has helped lead CofC to what might be the best trio of wins in the conference: VCU, Memphis, and Rhode Island. The fact that their only losses were on the road to Oklahoma State and LSU doesn’t blemish the win-loss record, either.
2. Hofstra (10-3)
The Pride have their best non-conference record since joining the CAA in 2001. As expected, Justin Wright-Foreman (24.8 ppg) is at the top of the scoring charts and leading a high-octane offensive attack. Eli Pemberton has matured into an All-CAA type of player on the wing, while Desure Buie and Purdue transfer Jacquil Taylor shine in their roles. Buie is the distributor and three-point threat, while Taylor cleans the glass and does the dirty work. Hofstra being effective on offense is no surprise, but its improved defense is worth noting. The Pride are holding opponents to 67 points and less than 44 percent from the field. Their schedule thus far won’t blow anyone away, but two of their three losses were by single digits at Marshall and at VCU.
3. Northeastern (6-6)
Northeastern’s status as a top-three team going into conference play despite a .500 record is due to two things. First, they played the league’s toughest non-conference slate, consisting of seven games against teams that went to the NCAA Tournament last year. Secondly, they have been without their two best players for the majority of the season. After missing games against Syracuse, Davidson and Vermont, point guard Vasa Pusica returned from a broken wrist last week to lead the Huskies to a win over St. Bonaventure. In his absence, George Washington transfer Jordan Roland has stepped in as the team’s leading scorer with over 16 per game. As Shawn Occeus works his way back, the Huskies will look more and more like a CAA favorite.
4. William & Mary (4-8)
Spots 4-8 in these rankings are a hot mess of teams that could all make a case for either this spot, or one at the bottom of the list. Is four-win William & Mary really the next best team in the CAA? Maybe so. The Tribe have played one of the tougher schedules thus far, but have two players in Nathan Knight and Justin Pierce that no other team in this tier can match. Knight has been the team’s MVP, and was the lone bright spot in their loss at Virginia in the final non-conference game. Tribe freshmen are combining for 87 minutes per game this season — way more than the usual Tony Shaver-coached team. But if I’m a Tribe fan, I’m worried about two things: the durability of Pierce, who already missed two games and rolled his ankle against UVA, and the very un-Tribe-like stat of the team shooting just 31.7 percent from deep, ninth in the CAA.
5. Delaware (8-5)
Delaware was a shoo-in for the top half of these rankings until its last non-conference game. The Blue Hens’ home loss to Delaware State, which may be the worst Division I team in the country, soured an otherwise strong start. Without defending Rookie of the Year Ryan Allen, UD has leaned on Eric Carter, the league’s best big man that no one talks about. While Brantley, Knight and UNCW’s Devontae Cacok attract most of the attention, Carter is quietly averaging 20-and-10 while leading the CAA in field goal percentage. Ithiel Horton looks like the latest Rookie of the Year-caliber to be recruited to Delaware by Martin Ingelsby. The guard leads all CAA freshmen in scoring at nearly 14 per game. With Allen back in the fold, maybe we can give Delaware a mulligan on their last game.
6. James Madison (7-6)
James Madison was my pick to be a surprise team this season, but the Dukes still look like they’re finding their identity. Wins over Radford and Charlotte looked pretty nice at the time, but have faded in value over the past few games as those teams have stumbled. Looking closer at JMU’s schedule, they did not play a Power 5 team, picked up two wins over Division III teams, and another was over 0-14 Coppin State. Lou Rowe has built the team around defense and rebounding, and the Dukes are solid in both, but the offense has yet to come around. JMU ranks at the bottom of the conference in points per game and field goal percentage despite the light scheduling.
7. Drexel (6-7)
The Dragons are slowly but surely figuring things out in Zach Spiker’s third season and climbing their way out of the CAA basement. Two prominent returnees from last year — Troy Harper and Alihan Demir — are leading the charge with 14 points per game apiece. The injury bug has hit here as well, with starter Kurk Lee having played in just three games, but that has given Camren Wynter more burn. The freshman guard looks legit, averaging over 5 assists and notching double figures in points in eight of his last 11 games. What puts the Dragons here for me is their performance in big games. In recent contests against UMBC, UConn and Temple, the Dragons lost by an average of 21 points. The CAA won’t have many stretches with back-to-back games against top 100 teams, so the Dragons could make noise come conference play.
8. UNCW (4-9)
This is unfamiliar territory for UNCW, which won the CAA in two of the past three seasons. Second-year coach CB McGrath gave the team a tough schedule, including games at UNC and Furman, and home against Stanford and UNCG. But there are troubling trends for the Seahawks. They are 0-5 in true road games this season, and just 2-16 in opponents’ gyms during McGrath’s tenure. They rank 300th or worse nationally in scoring defense, field goal percentage defense and three-point defense after finishing at the bottom of the CAA in those categories last season. Again, consider the competition, but UNCW’s porous defense looks to still be an issue. Working in their favor is their individual talent. Cacok is still a double-double machine and one of the league’s best and most well-known players. Jeantal Cylla has shaken off an inconsistent start to lead the team in scoring. True freshman point guard Kai Toews is a flashy passer leading the conference in assists. UNCW was able to address its turnover issues, so perhaps it can clean up its other deficiencies.
9. Towson (4-8)
As if scoring on their own basket wasn’t enough, Towson is at the bottom looking up in the CAA standings. The Tigers are fielding what is essentially an entirely new roster, and still figuring things out. Their best win thus far is a double-overtime victory over local rival UMBC — a game in which Brian Fobbs nailed a go-ahead three. Fobbs, who transferred to Towson after starring as a JuCo All-American, looks like the Tigers’ best player. Pat Skerry has his guys rebounding the ball with authority once again, but they need more consistent offensive production to steal some conference games.
10. Elon (4-9)
The Phoenix may be losing games, but they are doing so within the walls of mid-major basketball’s best new arena. The Schar Center has been a hit with fans, but the product on the floor is waning. Elon doesn’t do anything particularly well, and its offense — once the team’s strength — has looked pedestrian next to peers like William & Mary and Hofstra. Senior guard Dainan Swoope was forced into season-ending surgery just three games into the season, leaving classmates Tyler Seibring and Steve Santa Ana to carry most of the load. This team is hopefully not as bad as their 95-59 thrashing by UMKC suggests, but they might not be as good as any other CAA team.