A key opening stretch of four games in eight days for each team has just concluded. While there are still 13 CAA games left to play for each team, how a team starts can influence how they finish, especially if they start strong or in the hole.
With that in mind, here’s how each team fared in this stretch:
George Mason 4-0
James Madison 3-1
Georgia State 1-3
Old Dominion 1-3
UNC Wilmington 1-3
William & Mary 1-3
With UNC Wilmington knocking off Delaware Saturday night, every team came away from this stretch with at least one win. At the end of it all, George Mason and Northeastern are tied at 5-0, with VCU right behind at 4-1 and James Madison further back at 3-2. A host of teams are 2-3.
Right now, next Wednesday’s matchup of George Mason at Northeastern looks like a game to keep an eye on. But first, the Huskies hit the road for two games, playing at Delaware on Thursday and Hofstra on Saturday, and the Patriots go to William & Mary before hosting James Madison.
Unexpected Bright Spot Emerges For Seahawks
It hasn’t been a season full of fun for UNC Wilmington thus far. Saturday night’s win over Delaware snapped a ten-game losing streak for a team that was already young and has been ravaged with injuries, especially in the frontcourt. But on Saturday, a bright spot emerged in the victory aside from snapping the losing streak.
Daniel Mercer came off the bench to contribute a career-high 10 points in a career-high 17 minutes. He made all five of his field goal attempts, and six of those points and all three of his rebounds came in the second half, when the Seahawks rallied from an eight-point deficit coming out of the locker room.
Who is Daniel Mercer, you ask? He’s a 6’6″ junior forward from Raleigh who had not played basketball for a long time. His previous claim to fame might have been attending the same high school as former Duke forward Shavlik Randolph (Broughton High School), although he did transfer from the other half of college basketball’s best rivalry, North Carolina.
Mercer had been working at a basketball facility for skill development in Raleigh, one whose owner was a friend of former Seahawk big man Todd Hendley. Hendley also worked out there this summer before he headed overseas. That was the connection that set in motion a transfer down the road to Wilmington, and ultimately an opportunity to walk on.
“He plays like a guy who cherishes that opportunity,” said head coach Benny Moss. “He’s definitely the heart and soul of this team.”
Moss added that Mercer, who he describes as “almost a real-life Rudy story,” is the team’s hardest worker and does a lot of work in the weight room on off days. While Moss hasn’t had a lot of wins this season, he’s spoken highly of the character of his players all along, and this has shown up again with regard to Mercer and how he has helped out a team whose frontcourt has been decimated by injuries.
“Part of the tribute is to his teammates, because from day one when he got here, those guys treated him as one of their own,” Moss added. “They treated him like a teammate. They’ve worked with him, they’ve battled with him, they’ve helped him along the way.”
In a season like this, it’s been challenging for Moss to find a lot of positives, especially since this is a bottom-line business to a fault. But Mercer is the latest one to emerge, and this probably helps him get through this difficult season a little more.
Tigers Don’t Look Different
It’s never a good sign when a team in January looks much like they did in late November. But that was the case in Towson’s 68-53 loss at Northeastern on Saturday, as the Tigers looked frighteningly similar to how they did at the Philly Hoop Group Classic in November.
A couple of plays stand out, both of which involved the ball being taken out of bounds. Once, the defense fell asleep as the inbounds pass went to Manny Adako, and he easily hit a jumper. Later, when they got the ball after a dead ball, no one came into the backcourt to take the inbounds pass until they nearly got a five-second violation, and the pass was errant to boot.
Back in late November, the Tigers looked like a team trying to find their way, in large part because they have a number of newcomers. For a lot of the first half, they looked very similar, which isn’t a good sign. Head coach Pat Kennedy thinks they’re a little further along in that respect, but it’s hard to tell from game to game.
“We’re not nearly as experienced as some of the teams we’ve played, so at times we look like we have a fair amount of talent, I think more than we’ve had in the past,” Kennedy said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if this team bounces back and beats VCU. But we’re not consistent by any means.”
He was quick to credit Northeastern’s defense for giving the impression that they haven’t improved much, if at all.
“That’s about as well-scouted as we’ve been since I’ve been here,” said the fifth-year Tiger mentor. “They had us so well-scouted, they pushed up at all five positions – at all five positions, they were up in our chest, and they just didn’t let us run any offense and we panicked.”
Kennedy also noted that this team has been feast or famine for much of the season. Only four of their 17 games thus far have been decided by single digits, so they haven’t often been in games that are decided in the final minutes. Four of their seven wins have been by double digits.
Huskies Start Fast, Get Help For Janning
The pattern lately for Northeastern has been clear: shut down the opponent defensively and own the glass, and ride it to a victory.
Besides that, the Huskies have done another new thing to get wins: help Matt Janning. A month ago, when they went through a three-game losing streak, the Huskies looked like they wouldn’t stand a chance if Janning had an off night. But this past week, several players have stepped up to help lead the way while Janning hasn’t been quite at his best. Best of all, it hasn’t been just one player or the same one each time out.
On Monday night, Chaisson Allen controlled the game and Manny Adako and Nkem Ojoughboh had the best numbers. In Wednesday night’s big win at Georgia State, Janning had his first career double-double with 11 points and 14 rebounds, and he handed out five assists to players like Allen (14 points), Eugene Spates and Adako (13 points apiece), and Matt Smith came off the bench to make three of five from behind the arc.
In Saturday’s win over Towson, the Huskies were again in control from the outset, and Janning struggled from the field as he was just 4-15 (he made all eight of his free throws). But Adako had 24 points on 12-15 shooting and grabbed 12 rebounds, and he had a big second half. Spates made two early three-pointers as they scored the game’s first 13 points.
“The basket was as big as the ocean today for him,” Janning said of Adako’s performance. “He hit everything, and it’s just nice that when somebody has an off night we have guys on this team who step up.”
“Whenever you can have a balanced attack, it really helps your chances,” said head coach Bill Coen. “In particular, when we can get Manny giving us a low post presence, that just opens up the basketball game for everyone else on the team. We’ve gotten contributions up and down the lineup from guys off the bench as well as the starters, so it’s nice to see.”
Adako has always been adept at scoring when he gets the ball within about 15 feet, but foul trouble has dogged him and he’s tended to be hit or miss with his rebounding. Despite starting all but seven games in his college career, the junior forward averages 4.3 boards per game for his career and is averaging a career low total this season. It hasn’t always been a major liability since the guards he has played alongside can rebound, and as a freshman he had support from Bennet Davis in the frontcourt.
“We were trying to get Manny to understand what he’s capable of on the backboards,” Coen added. “He’s got a chance to be a very good rebounder, and I think today he took a big step in that direction.”
Now the Huskies hit the road for two straight games. They made out well with the recent stretch, as three of the four games in eight days came at home. They take on Delaware on Thursday night, then head up the road to Hofstra for a Saturday afternoon game.
Georgia State Needs Their Veterans
Although Georgia State added five transfers who sat out last season, the Panthers weren’t a bad team last year. They returned three starters from that squad, but the two best players among them have been slow to get untracked this season.
While Rashad Chase has gone from being a key player to a bit player, having started half of the team’s 16 games, Leonard Mendez, a preseason first team All-CAA selection, is the most noteworthy one. One of the top shooters in the conference last season, Mendez is averaging less than nine points per game and shooting below 38 percent from the field, including just over 30 percent from long range.
Meanwhile, the Panthers have struggled at the offensive end, averaging just over 60 points per game while shooting a touch over 40 percent from the field. That doesn’t seem to be a coincidence.
“I think the biggest problem with our team right now is our scoring, and he definitely could answer that,” head coach Rod Barnes said, alluding to Mendez. “If he comes around, it changes the complexion of our team.”
All of his aforementioned numbers are slightly up in the first five CAA games, so there is reason to believe he may be coming alive. He showed some signs of life against George Mason, then had a few good moments against Northeastern, but had a light knee injury in the second half of that game.
One had to wonder what would change with the influx of talent into the program this season. Mendez was the team’s most proven player in the CAA, so he figured to be a leader. But that hasn’t been the case, and it isn’t because the newcomers are taking opportunities from him. Instead, Barnes thinks it’s because Mendez is very laid-back as opposed to having the mindset of being a go-to guy.
“I think last year, he felt like we forced him to be a good scorer and really attack people,” the second-year mentor reflected. “I feel like the year before that, watching him on tape, he kind of let it come to him. Now we’re back to trying to force it on him to score.”
If Mendez would rather be a complementary player, that means someone must step up to help leading scorer Joe Dukes. Trae Goldston, the other returning starter, might be the most logical player to do that as he is second in scoring.
- Kennedy added that Towson should soon get a couple of players back who are missing time due to academics in junior Calvin Lee and sophomore David Brewster, both forwards. He expects that the two will help them right away. “We’ll get those guys back in another week or two. We really need them, we have very little depth right now and the depth is hurting us,” Kennedy said.
- After the Northeastern game last Monday, Hofstra head coach Tom Pecora took some solace in the way Greg Johnson played in the game. The next time out, the senior point guard showed Pecora wasn’t reaching for a silver lining, as he scored ten points and handed out seven assists with no turnovers in their 66-61 win over Delaware.
- As Bruiser Flint still tries to figure out some things about his Drexel team, one thing he seems certain of is improvement from last year’s newcomers. Players like BC transfer Evan Neisler and sophomores Jamie Harris and Gerald Colds have all improved, with Neisler having a nice week as the Dragons pulled off a couple of wins during the tough stretch. Neisler had a career-high 22 points and nine rebounds at James Madison, then led the way with 18 points and eight rebounds at Georgia State.
- Quietly, VCU is 4-1 in CAA play, but not getting much notice. That could change soon if sophomores Larry Sanders and Joey Rodriguez continue to play like they did recently, with Sanders averaging 15 points and 10.7 rebounds in the last three games and Rodriguez scoring 25 points against UNC Wilmington and leading the way with 16 at Drexel.