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Colonial Notebook

February 25, 2008 Conference Notes No Comments



Colonial Athletic Association Notebook

by Jay Pearlman

With Obama now safely ahead of Hillary, McCain long since having dispatched Giuliani and Romney, and even Boston folks now over the Pats’ near-perfect season, America’s hoops-junkies can return to their true passion. And with BracketBusters Saturday behind us, one week left in some conferences and two in others, well, it’s just in the nick of time.

BracketBusters Saturday was a mixed day in the CAA. An overall record of 7-5 brought the league within one game of .500 in non-conference games (69-70 with just post-season tournaments remaining). The two best teams split television games at MAC schools, with VCU besting Akron 57-52, and George Mason falling to Tim O’Shea’s Ohio U. 69-57, but the conference lost what was likely the only “true” bracket buster, Mason’s game in Athens, Ohio. So the quiet talk around the conference is that unless someone upsets VCU in the conference tourney – and perhaps not even excepting that circumstance – the CAA reverts to a one-bid league in 2007-08.

Even with the tiebreaker over Mason for second in the conference, 18-11 Wilmington’s 7-6 soft non-conference mark leaves the Seahawks out of the at-large running, and even before yesterday’s loss now 19-9 Mason appeared on the wrong side of the bubble. Heck, even at 21-6, VCU is hardly a lock for an at-large, and might need to win out through the conference semifinal – finishing 25-7 – to earn such a bid. So even with the conference office located in Richmond, that probably means that down deep, Tom Yeager and his staff are rooting for VCU to make the CAA tournament final on Monday night March 10, and then to be upset that evening.

In evaluating conferences, the natural and most frequent CAA comparison in recent years has been with the Atlantic 10. And yes, with Mason’s run to the Final Four two years ago, and strength at Wilmington, ODU, VCU, Hofstra, Drexel and Northeastern, the CAA zoomed to 8th nationally (nosed out for 7th by the PAC-10), jumping the A-10 in the process. Though not as clearly, with two bids and VCU’s slaying of Duke and near-upset of Pittsburgh, the CAA held off the A-10 for a second year last season. But after sitting courtside at the University of Massachusetts’ second win over Rhode Island in Kingston Thursday night (UMass’ Chris Lowe is a left-handed Eric Maynor with ten or fifteen more pounds), it is clear to this writer that for this year, the A-10 is both stronger at the top and deeper than the CAA. And no less a basketball guru than Five Star’s and HSBI Report’s Tom Konchalski told me at halftime of Holy Cross’ home win over Northeastern that the A-10 merits five NCAA bids this year, and will probably get four.

But CAA fans need not despair. Those of you around this league for a decade may remember that when Jim Larranaga landed at Mason eleven years ago after disappointing at Bowling Green with Antonio Daniels and Anthony Stacey, that was viewed as a huge step down in class (and hardly the lateral move revisionist historians would have us believe). Of course, due in no small part to Larranaga’s efforts, eleven years later no one could seriously dispute that the CAA has jumped past Larranaga’s former conference, the MAC. (On that subject, at 58 years old and two years removed from the Final Four, one wonders whether an upset of VCU in the CAA tournament – or even a run to the conference final and an NIT bid – would be enough to land Coach Larranaga one big job to crown his career).

All that said, even a brief look at CAA rosters will tell the story, and convince one that this rebuilding year in the conference bodes well for the future. At the bottom of the standings, with five sophomores and five major conference transfers sitting out at Georgia State, coach Rod Barnes will have a junior class ten deep supporting star senior Leonard Mendez next fall. Likewise, four players are sitting out for Pat Kennedy’s Towson team, with Junior Hairston and Josh Thornton returning. Drexel loses Frank Elegar (who disappointed this season anyway), and whoever replaces Dean Keener at James Madison will likely have everyone back, including a healthy Pierre Curtis. (This does assume no transfers, which these days assumes a lot.) Going forward Northeastern loses only reserve center Mark Washington, and its six best players are three sophomores and three freshmen.

Hofstra loses Antoine Agudio, but with the emergence of Charles Jenkins and still-high hopes for Nathaniel Lester, Tom Pecora’s club should stay competitive. Herb Courtney completes his career at Delaware, but freshman Alfonso Dawson is a budding star. While coach Blaine Taylor loses guards Brian Henderson and Brandon Johnson, emerging star Gerald Lee is only a sophomore, and forwards Ben Finney and Frank Hassell just freshmen. And while VCU will lose sharpshooter Jamal Shuler – and probably Anthony Grant – likely Player of the Year Maynor is just a junior, freshman guard Joey Rodriguez already starts and scores, and freshman shot-blocking machine Larry Sanders should have a much more well-rounded game by next fall. (In other words, what a great coaching gig someone will step into if Grant moves on to another job such as LSU.)

That leaves only Mason and Wilmington to suffer severely from graduation. Will Thomas and Folarin Campbell, sophomores on the Final Four team, finish this spring at Mason (giving rise to the speculation above about a bigger job for Larranaga), as do T.J. Carter, Vladimir Kuljanin, Todd Hendley and Dan Fountain at Wilmington. But with the CAA tradition, great gymnasium, and seacoast beauty of Wilmington – and with the wonderful play of freshman point guard Chad Tomko, this writer’s Rookie of the Year with two games to go – coach Benny Moss should be able to reload and compete in the not-too-distant future.

So even if VCU prevails, leaving it with just one bid, CAA fans have every reason to expect that next season – to quote a morning radio host – their conference will be “back and better than ever.” For now, enjoy the last two regular season games, conference tournament, and whatever lies beyond for CAA stars Shuler, Thomas, Campbell, Carter, Kuljanin and Courtney. And oh yes, enjoy that magician Agudio on Long Island.

CAA News and Notes

  • With two wins over Mason, Wilmington controls its own destiny in the battle for second. However, VCU and Alltel Pavilion lay in the Seahawks’ path, with a television game Wednesday at 7. (If you have a schedule that came out early, you may see that game listed as being on Thursday, so note the change to Wednesday night.)
  • Ralph Willard of Holy Cross may have done his finest coaching job ever this year, besting Northeastern at home with no-longer-a-project center Tim Clifford and a Division III supporting cast. And who’d have thunk Willard would control pace like Pete Carril used to? As for Bill Coen’s Northeastern Huskies, they looked mentally worn down from one of the nation’s toughest schedules, mostly on the road, and sixteen conference games under their belts without a single “night off.” No rest for the weary as ODU awaits in Norfolk.
  • Now on a five-game winning streak, ODU controls its own fate for a fourth seed and first round bye, hosting Northeastern Wednesday and finishing at Wilmington (in UNCW’s second television game of the week). It also appears to this writer that the Monarchs have thrust themselves right into the middle of the NIT conversation.
  • I wonder if the change of the Wilmington-VCU game from Thursday to Wednesday night was at Moss’ request, looking at travel home, preparation and fatigue leading to Saturday.
  • If money talks in college basketball, James Madison Athletic Director Jeff Bourne put his where his mouth is: with everyone back next year, Bourne will be paying both departing coach Keener (his final year) and a new coach, showing that Madison wants to win now.
  • So you think the big game of the day yesterday was Tennessee’s 66-62 win at No. 1 Memphis? Well, to this writer’s thinking – biased by my coaching pedigree – the game of the day was Indiana’s 85-82 win in Evanston in game no. 1 of the Dan Dakich era. Good luck Dan.
  • Lastly, with baseball’s spring training about to begin, Boston’s best basketball announcer is heading to Viera, Florida for his “off-season gig” with the Washington Nationals. Boston fans won’t hear Dave Jageler again this season unless Northeastern gets all the way to the conference final.

     

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