In a year full of competitive conference races, the Colonial Athletic Association fit right in while still being under the radar. It didn’t have a seven-way tie at the top at one point, like the Big South did or three games separating first from tenth like the Patriot League did for a lot of the season, but it did produce its own great result: a four-way tie for the regular season title.
The conference wasn’t top-heavy, either. Another team was two games back of the top four and two more teams another game back. The six losses by the top four teams were tied for the most by a regular season champion in CAA history and marked the first time in 18 years that the regular season champion had more than four losses. Drexel was 9-9 in CAA play and had to play on opening night of the conference tournament. The other 9-9 team, Delaware, knocked off three of the four teams that tied for first during the season.
In other words, the CAA regular season featured a great race, and in a conference that is always highly competitive, this season stood out. Then came the conference tournament. We’ll sum that up in more detail below, but it provided a thriller for the ages and several more close games.
Five teams saw postseason play, the most in the conference since 2011. That’s a good sign, as how good that metric, for what it’s worth, will be has been an open question since four schools departed in recent years, including three traditional powerhouse programs. In addition to Northeastern in the NCAA Tournament, William & Mary went to the NIT as the regular season champion, while UNCW, James Madison and Hofstra all went to the CIT.
The season was one with a lot of good coaching jobs. Related to that, the conference is in the midst of an off-season without a single coaching change, a rarity. It looked like one job might open up, but Monte Ross signed a new contract that will keep him at Delaware.
The CAA has changed as a result of conference realignment. Elon joined this season to get the conference to a round number of ten teams, and for now at least, the membership seems stable. Elon had a tough first year, largely a result of in-season adversity more than the conference change. They had the conference’s top freshmen (although by a razor-thin margin in the vote) and should certainly be competitive in future years.
|William & Mary||12-6||20-13|
|College of Charleston||3-15||9-24|
The opening night of the CAA Tournament was a time for the two newest conference members to shine. In the first game, newcomer Elon needed overtime to beat Towson 74-69. In the nightcap, College of Charleston rallied to beat Drexel 56-48.
In the quarterfinals, only one lower seed won, and that came early on. First, William & Mary took care of Elon 72-59. The next game saw the win by the lower seed, and it was a 4-5 game so it wasn’t a shocker. Hofstra controlled the game against James Madison and got a nice double-double from Moussa Kone (18 points, 11 rebounds) en route to a 74-57 win. UNCW started the evening session by rolling to a 79-53 win over College of Charleston, then Northeastern held off a valiant effort from Delaware 67-64, with the Blue Hens having a shot to tie at the buzzer.
That brought us to the semifinals, the first of which was an instant classic people will talk about for a while. Hofstra and William & Mary gave fans their money’s worth and more, with a game that had everything going for it even before the ball went up. William & Mary rallied from down five late to send it to overtime, had the momentum in the extra session but needed a clutch three-pointer to send it to another extra session. There, the back-and-forth continued, with Hofstra leading by two late, when Thornton found Daniel Dixon wide open in the corner for a three-pointer that gave the Tribe a 92-91 win and ripped the hearts out of Hofstra. The second semifinal seemed anticlimactic after that, with less drama as Northeastern took over the game in the latter part of the second half to beat UNCW 78-71, avenging two losses to the Seahawks during the regular season.
The championship game was all Northeastern for about the first 30 minutes. The Huskies jumped out early behind Quincy Ford, who would be named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Performer, and built a big lead in the second half. William & Mary stormed back, eventually getting within single digits, but it was too little, too late as they ran out of gas and the Huskies won 72-61. With that, Northeastern broke a 24-year NCAA Tournament drought, by far the longest in program history.
Player of the Year: Marcus Thornton, William & Mary
Rookie of the Year: Elijah Bryant, Elon
Coach of the Year: Kevin Keatts, UNCW
Defensive Player of the Year: Terry Tarpey, William & Mary
Scott Eatherton, Sr. F, Northeastern
Juan’ya Green, Jr. G, Hofstra
Damion Lee, Jr. G, Drexel
Addison Spruill, Sr. G, UNCW
Marcus Thornton, Sr. G, William & Mary
- Five teams saw postseason play, the most for the conference since the 2010-11 season.
- Marcus Thornton became William & Mary’s all-time scoring leader, breaking the longest-standing record in that category.
- Terry Tarpey led the conference in rebounding, steals and blocked shots, and along the way posted the first triple-double in William & Mary history.
- Northeastern won the Springfield Bracket at the Hall of Fame Tip-Off Classic in November, beating Navy and Manhattan in Connecticut after winning at Florida State earlier.
- Hofstra went from losing over 20 games to winning 20, aided by the eligibility of several transfers.
- Damion Lee (Drexel) was fourth in the nation in scoring and Juan’ya Green (Hofstra) was ninth in the nation in assists.
- College of Charleston’s Canyon Barry was selected to the Capital One Academic All-America second team, holding a 4.0 GPA in the very demanding major of physics with a minor in computer science and mathematics.
What we expected, and it happened: Northeastern contended for the conference title, and ended up as part of the four-way tie. The Huskies had the best combination of talent and experience returning this season, so they were the pick by conventional means.
What we expected, and it didn’t happen: James Madison was expected to be a middling team, but dismissing the troubled Andre Nation from the program seemed to be just what this team needed. They ended up in the four-way tie for the top.
What we didn’t expect, and it happened: UNCW and James Madison were in the four-way tie for the top, with UNCW taking the No. 2 seed. Neither team was on anyone’s short list of contenders before the season, but UNCW might have been even more of a surprise in Kevin Keatts’ first season at the helm with a team that had struggled in their careers before this season.
Team(s) on the rise: UNCW. Keatts changed the culture in year one and has his program in place, and now he’ll start to get players he and his staff recruit. Trask Coliseum is not going to be a friendly place to be a road team in the foreseeable future.
Team(s) on the decline: Drexel. Bruiser Flint’s teams are consistent – the Dragons are the only CAA team to finish at least .500 in conference the past seven seasons – but they have steadily lost production they haven’t made up for, and Damion Lee’s transfer really stings for next season.
2015-16 Conference Outlook
Did you like this year’s race for the top of the CAA? If you did, next year’s should be even better. There are six teams that you can’t go wrong with thinking of as early favorites.
There’s no real reason to expect any of the top four teams to drop off significantly. William & Mary will certainly miss Thornton, to be sure, but the Tribe not only has good talent returning, but also a core of players back that have been to two straight championship games. That kind of winning experience will be new for them to have in the program, and there is intangible value there. Northeastern will miss Eatherton and Reggie Spencer, but they have a very solid cast coming back and a good recruiting class to add depth. UNCW loses key pieces, but Kevin Keatts showed what he could do in his first year. James Madison seemed to be a year away before this season, so next year could be their year.
Hofstra and Delaware should be right there as well. The Pride seemed to hit a midseason slump after a good run to end non-conference play, but a more mature team with Joe Mihalich as its coach has always been dangerous and this team should be no exception. Delaware grew up as this season went along and returns everyone except Kyle Anderson and Tom Allshouse, and while Anderson was a key to this season’s team, he’s not irreplaceable.
There are no slouches among the other four teams. Towson endured a season of growing pains after significant personnel losses in 2014-15, but Pat Skerry has a better mix and his young talent got better late in the season. Don’t be surprised if Mike Morsell turns his late season development into a breakout sophomore campaign. Drexel has been consistent and will always be tough, so even with Damion Lee gone the Dragons can’t be counted out. Elon brings back the reigning Rookie of the Year and good experience, and College of Charleston has healed from Doug Wojcik’s days under Earl Grant and will have an injection of new talent to shake things up.
Coaches will always speak of how competitive the CAA is. Next season, it most certainly won’t be a case of coach-speak.