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New-look CAA trying to find its place in the changing landscape

October 23, 2013 Columns, Your Phil of Hoops No Comments
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BALTIMORE – As the Colonial Athletic Association goes through more changes, it’s natural to wonder where its place is in college basketball now.  The conference has had major membership changes over the last year and a half, and locations for major events like Media Day and the conference tournament are also changing.  While there is certainly a feeling of newness, one wonders what lies ahead for a conference that had a great run from 2006 to 2012 before things changed drastically.

The CAA is just one conference that is changing in an ever-changing landscape.  In the short term, the conference can be labeled one of the losers in the conference maneuvering.  In the last 18 months, George Mason, Old Dominion and VCU – the conference’s signature programs historically – have all departed, along with a Georgia State program that wasn’t in the conference long but looks like it might be on the rise under Ron Hunter.  What remains starts with five former America East schools and then includes newcomer College of Charleston and three charter members in James Madison, UNCW and William & Mary.  Next year, Elon joins the conference.

There’s every reason to expect the conference to remain very competitive.  It will continue to be well-run as there is a lot of continuity with a top-notch staff, starting with the only commissioner in the conference’s history in Tom Yeager.  The tournament’s new location at First Mariner Arena in Baltimore figures to be a hit, although some will no doubt miss the longtime home of Richmond.  “The fact that there’s 400,000 CAA alums in this area could make for a really special basketball atmosphere,” said Towson head coach Pat Skerry.  “Baltimore is a sports town, and they’ll catch on to this thing if it’s done the right way.  March Madness could be pretty special.”

But matching the recent postseason success – including being a multi-bid conference – may be a taller order.  That will be a big part of what the conference’s stature is and will be down the road.

In past years, CAA schools have had an uphill battle when it comes to non-conference scheduling.  They have been somewhat victims of their own success, as high-major schools have often backed away from playing them out of a fear of a perceived bad loss.  While that is still the case to some degree, especially with some schools, there is some hope that it will change for the better.

Looking around at the non-conference schedules this year, a few teams managed to put together challenging slates and even some with a lot of home games.  Conference favorite Towson has eight home games to open their new arena, including a visit from Temple.  While the Owls look to be a little down this year, it wouldn’t be a surprise if that game ultimately gives them some RPI pop.  But they should have plenty of other chances, as Skerry said they scheduled with the idea that this team would be a contender and need to be tested.  The Tigers will go to Villanova, Kansas and Oregon State.

Drexel is a team that has been through the wringer with non-conference scheduling, especially after doing everything right in 2006-07.  They played good teams, beat them on the road and still got snubbed from the NCAA Tournament.  Since then, in talking to head coach Bruiser Flint about their schedule from one year to the next, you could pick up a little bit of resignation that their schedule was good but not as challenging as that year.  This year, the Dragons project to be very good and will play at UCLA and Illinois State, and also have a chance in the NIT Season Tip-Off to get to New York and get two more potentially good games since they are in the pod hosted by Rutgers.  They also go on the road to play Davidson, Saint Joseph’s and Southern Miss.

“When you come off a losing year, more people are willing to play you than when you’re coming off 29 wins,” said Flint, who added that the game at UCLA has another meaning.  “I went to UCLA because I always wanted to coach in Pauley Pavilion – that was for me, really, so I hope they don’t clobber us!”

One thing newcomer College of Charleston will bring is an ability to get good opponents, including at home.  The Cougars, who have one of the better arenas in the conference, have eight home games, including visits from Charlotte and Miami, although the Hurricanes will be in a major rebuilding mode this season.  They have good road opponents, as they go to Louisville and Davidson, and also play three games in the Wooden Legacy starting with San Diego State and then against either Creighton or Arizona State in the second game.

Head coach Doug Wojcik worked for a coach in Tom Izzo who has a lot of experience with putting together tough non-conference schedules.  Having also previously coached in Conference USA, whose membership has been in seemingly constant flux, he has some perspective on this.

“We’re a good destination, and I don’t want to sell ourselves short, either, by saying that we’ve got to play on the road all the time,” said Wojcik, who had been at Tulsa before coming to Charleston last year.  “My RPI, the way I look at scheduling, is worth something.”

Given that a message has been sent to teams about non-conference scheduling in recent years, Wojcik is hopeful there can be some benefit for a school like his.

“What’s happening is everyone has to start playing people,” said Wojick.  “The SEC is trying to make everyone play a tougher schedule – hopefully I’m the benefactor of that, and hopefully I can get some of those games.”

Flint echoed the sentiment, while also noting that the conference changes play a role.

“The way some of these leagues now are structured, there’s not going to be as many teams from them getting in,” said the Drexel mentor.  “I think that will help us out a little bit.  A lot of teams got in because of the strength of their conference, and I don’t know if their conferences are as strong as they were before.  I think that will help us out.  In the end, you’ve got to play people and you’ve got to win some of them.”

Down the road from Drexel, Delaware has another challenging non-conference slate this year.  The Blue Hens had a murderous slate last year, and while this year’s doesn’t look quite as difficult, they will be tested with a visit from Northeast Conference contender Robert Morris and trips to Villanova, Notre Dame, Ohio State and a neutral site game against Bryant, another Northeast Conference contender, in Brooklyn.

No matter how much the conference landscape may change, head coach Monte Ross was concise in summing up what the basketball coaches – who are basically bystanders in all of this as football drives the train – can do.

“We focus on getting the best players we can get, and whoever is in our league, we’re going to try to beat them,” said the Delaware mentor.  “It starts with players; if you have the best players, you’re going to be in good shape.”

Northeastern has constantly scheduled aggressively under Bill Coen, and this season is no different.  Coen was quick to note that a number of the Huskies’ non-conference opponents are likely to be favorites in their conference this season.  They open with Patriot League favorite Boston University, then play likely conference favorites VCU (Atlantic 10) and Harvard (Ivy League), along with a team likely picked near the top of America East in Stony Brook as well as traditional power Georgetown.

Even Hofstra, a team that projects to struggle mightily this year with a smaller roster after a disastrous season a year ago, has seven home games in non-conference, including a visit from MAAC contender Manhattan.

The non-conference schedules will give teams like Towson and Drexel the potential to be NCAA at-large teams if they win some of their big non-conference games.  The Dragons could get two more of them early if they win at Rutgers.  If nothing else, a team knocking one of them off will pick up a quality win.

While scheduling has been difficult for CAA teams in recent years, there is some hope for that to change.  That’s a good starting point for them.  If that happens, and a team or two emerges, the conference can hope to reach the heights it once ascended to before things changed.  In the end, as Ross noted, the bottom line will be the big determinant of where the new-look CAA stands in the college basketball world.

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