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CAA Tournament Preview: Sneaky good Colonial promises another competitive showdown

The Colonial Athletic Association kicks off postseason play Friday night in Baltimore. Hofstra and UNCW are the favorites, but several other teams could make noise in this cutthroat league.

Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

Without the national exposure of a transcendent star player or team, casual fans may have thought the Colonial Athletic Association was experiencing a lull in its rock solid history as a mid-major. Although VCU, George Mason and Old Dominion are no longer in the mix, the CAA actually had one of its most competitive seasons ever.

The conference finished 9th in RPI thanks to multiple teams picking up strong nonconference wins. Then they beat the snot out of each other during league play. It's one of the flattest conferences in the country, but has three top 100 teams and as many as eight worthy tournament champs. Just three games separate the 1st- and 5th-seeded squads. If you're just tuning in, or need a refresher, here's what to make of each team heading into what figures to be a slugfest in Baltimore.

The Favorites

Hofstra (22-7, 14-4)

Why they will win: The Pride have the best guard in the conference (Juan'ya Green), the best big man (Rokas Gustys) and the momentum of a five-game win streak heading into Charm City. The preseason favorites got off to an uneven 6-4 start, but systematically took care of opponents down the stretch to pull even with Wilmington. A 16-point comeback against the Seahawks on Feb. 25 would break a tie for the 1-seed.

Hofstra can score, pressure opponents and rebound at a high level. In a close game, they have three All-CAA players who can create their own shot. Look for them in the championship game.

Why they will lose: Depth. All five Pride starters have played every game and four of them average more than 35 minutes per night. When it takes winning three games in three nights to cut down the nets, Hofstra could be gasping for air by Monday night.

Who to watch: Rokas Gustys. Green will get a lot of the attention for his drives and passing, but watching Gustys rumble his way toward a 20-20 game is just as aesthetically pleasing for basketball purists.

UNCW (22-8, 14-4)

Why they will win: The Seahawks were the team to beat for much of the season. Led by junior Chris Flemmings - a First Team All-CAA wing who walked on to the team after transferring from D-II Barton College - they have the same record as Hofstra. Head Coach Kevin Keatts employs the aggressive defense he learned as an assistant at Louisville and his guys can put together runs in a hurry when they turn opponents over.

Outside of Flemmings, guards Denzel Ingram and CJ Bryce are pesky three-and-D players. The Hawks play fast and run deep.

Why they will lose: After UNCW won 11 straight games, they dropped two of their last four and nearly fell in overtime to seventh-seeded Charleston. Well-coached teams can break that Pitino-inspired defense and slow the pace. If the Seahawks fall into that trap, it could be an early exit in Baltimore.

Who to watch: Chris Flemmings. He leads his team in points and rebounds and is the perfect utility man for Keatts' system.

The Contenders

James Madison (21-10, 11-7)

Why they will win: Behind senior guard Ron Curry and big man Yohanny Dalembert, the Dukes are the only team in the CAA limiting opponents to below 40 percent shooting from the field and below 30 percent from outside the arc. JMU might have the deepest team in the league as well - a huge advantage come tourney time. They play rotate ten on occasion and keep pressure on the defense with about nine threes launched per game.

Why they will lose: The Dukes have a tendency to settle for jumpers and turn the ball over when they're facing one of the stout CAA defensive teams. They don't go to the line often - including just 19 total attempts in two games versus first round opponent William & Mary. Cold shooting could doom them.

Who to watch: The backcourt of Ron Curry and Shakir Brown can be electrifying when they're both on. Hopefully they'll put on a fireworks show under the bright lights of a postseason atmosphere.

William & Mary (19-10, 11-7)

Why they will win: The Tribe can shoot. They're just behind Hofstra and UNCW in points per game, but have the best percentages in the league. Omar Prewitt leads the CAA in scoring, with sniper Daniel Dixon not far behind. They also have the advantage of experience. Four of the team's starters have advanced to the CAA Championship game the past two years. William & Mary...so close to that first NCAA Tournament appearance.

Why they will lose: History repeating itself? In all honesty, the Tribe will have a tough time locking down three straight opponents. Outside of two-time DPOY Terry Tarpey, the Tribe give up way too many interior looks. They also rank dead last in the conference in offensive rebounding.

Who to watch: In the semifinals last year, the aforementioned Dixon had the guts to take this shot when 2015 POY Marcus Thornton was smothered. Here's to hoping for more baskets like that in W&M's quest for a championship.

Towson (20-11, 11-7)

Why they will win: If toughness wins you games in March, the Tigers might steal one from the favorites. Pat Skerry's team will not score any finesse points, but they defend, hit the glass and grind out games better than almost anyone. They lead the CAA in both rebounding and blocked shots. That's important because without offensive boards and transition buckets, this team would struggle even more to score in the low 60's.

Why they will lose: Inconsistency. The Tigers put up 37 points (that's total for a game) in a losing effort at home to Charleston. A few games later they put up 99 in a win against William & Mary. As easy as it is to think that the Tigers' style will thrive in March, they might lack the firepower to knock off another contender.

Who to watch: William Adala Moto is a Wake Forest transfer who is leading the team in scoring and rebounding this year. The bruising forward is a load in the paint and is one of the few bullies down low in the CAA.

Could Cause Some Problems

Northeastern (17-14, 9-9)

Why they will win: The Huskies are the CAA's defending champs. They are led by two seniors , David Walker and Quincy Ford, who showcase enviable all-around game. The Huskies beat Charleston in the final weekend of the regular season to win an all-important first round bye in Baltimore - no team has advanced from the Friday play-in games to the net-cutting ceremony.

When Northeastern is healthy, they have excellent spacing with freshman forward Jeremy Miller threatening from deep and burly senior guard Zach Stahl cutting to the basket. That leaves Ford and Walker free to take their defender on in space.

Why they won't: NU had an ugly six game losing streak during conference play where they could not put teams away. It seemed like every time a team would throw a new defense or halftime adjustment at them, Northeastern would fold. The Huskies finished winning five of six to retake the bye, but the threat of blowing another lead is very real.

Who to watch: David Walker is a legitimate NBA prospect with great size and a full arsenal of offensive moves. He's a great shooter - 41% from the arc, 86 percent from the line - and with Ford back he will have more open looks.

College of Charleston (16-13, 18-10)

Why they will win: They say defense wins championships right? Coach Earl Grant has instilled the principles learned under Gregg Marshall and Brad Brownell in this young Cougar team and they routinely forced each league opponent into a rock fight. The 61.8 points allowed by CofC is good for 9th best in the country. The Cougars have been ransacked by injuries this year, but the available underclassmen and role players have not made games easy for anyone they play.

Charleston will win if they can convert enough stops and steals into points on the other end. Above average three-point shooting will also give the Cougs a fighting chance against the top teams.

Why they will lose: The Cougar offense is offensive. When you slow the pace and limit the number of possessions like Grant likes to do, you narrow the margin of error. With most of their scorers injured, CofC needs everyone to chip in points.

Who to watch: Jarrell Brantley. The recently-crowned CAA Freshman of the Year is a match up problem at the mid-major level. At 6-7, 240 lbs., Brantley can take most guys his size off the dribble, nail the occasional three and has a variety of nifty post moves. He finished the season on an 11-game double-digit scoring streak.

Elon (16-15, 7-11)

Why they will win: Head Coach Matt Matheny and the Phoenix run a three-point heavy, Princeton-style offense. Tanner Samson is the leading scorer with just 12.5 points per game, as he shares the wealth with six other guys who contribute at least 8.5 per contest. Elon is not going to wow anyone with defense, but if more than one or two of those shooters can go on a hot streak they'll pull an upset.

Why they will lose: Two characteristics of this team that do not bode well for postseason play: they allow 76 points per game and they make just two out of every three free throws as a team. Elon needs threes to fall in order to win. Teams that dependent on outside shooting can be eliminated quickly.

Who to watch: Samson is the most likely to fill it up. The senior started his career in the Southern Conference and he's a throwback to the shoot-first guards of that league.

Hoping for a Miracle

Drexel (5-24, 3-15)

Why they will win: Sweet, sweet karma? Damion Lee left the program this past offseason and looked like he would lead Louisville to a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. Then it all came crashing down. The Dragons are rebuilding, but have talent in All-Freshmen selection Terrell Allen and skilled forward Rodney Williams.

Why they will lose: Drexel produces just 63.2 points per game. That number isn't scaring anyone. Bruiser Flint's teams have traditionally been built around a tough defensive philosophy, but the pieces just aren't in place this year.

Who to watch: Williams can face the basket or back guys down in the post. As long as he's not double-teamed, he is capable of putting on a clinic against the CAA's crop of undersized power forwards.

Delaware (7-22, 2-16)

Why they will win: The poor Blue Hens are another team that has just been decimated by injuries this season. Even so, they have to feel good about their first-round matchup with Charleston. The Cougars were one of only two teams to lose to UD, and the Hens only lost by one point in South Carolina. If they can build some momentum, and if Kory Holden and Marvin King-Davis can transform into early 2000's Kobe and Shaq, Delaware could take this thing.

Why they won't: The injuries to key players have taken the flow out of Delaware's offense. They have talent, but there's a lot of one-on-one action and poor shot selection. That won't get them far in Baltimore.

Who to watch: Holden, who was an All-Freshmen selection last year and landed on the All-CAA Second Team this year, could have a breakout tournament if his teammates can keep games competitive.

For the full bracket, along with television and streaming options, visit CAASports.com.