Colonial NCAA Tournament Teams
There are compelling storylines throughout college basketball season: holiday tournaments, non-conference showdowns, the grind of league play.But seriously, we know what it’s really all about: March..
In March, all the pre-season hype does not matter. In March, the arguments over the best teams, the best conferences, and the best players are moot. In March, some teams borrow Cinderella’s slipper for a week or two. In March, dreams come true while tears flow freely, and with good reason.
March is also the time when teams evaluate their seasons. Ultimately, for many schools in Division I basketball, a team’s report card is based on whether or not it makes the NCAA Tournament. It doesn’t matter to them how many teams got in from the over-stuffed Big East or if the Big Ten or ACC got its due. Celebrations in the one-bid leagues, as they are often called, are often wilder for the team that wins the conference championship than they are for the eventual National Champion. In many of their collective minds, those teams believe they have won something as important as a national title. For those teams, winning the conference tournament means a few minutes (or longer) on the national stage in the Big Dance. Winning those conference tournaments gives teams an “A” for the year from their coaches, their friends and families, and their fans.
In recent years, the so-called experts have attempted to divide conferences into one of three categories: the BCS leagues (thank you, college football), the mid-majors/multi-bid leagues, and everyone else (one-bid leagues). However, once the brackets are released and the competition starts, there is a certain conference whose success does not reflect its status as a one-bid league.
That conference is the Colonial Athletic Association.
The CAA is made up of twelve schools stretching from New England to Atlanta. Obviously overshadowed by the likes of the Too-Big East and the ACC, these picturesque institutions sit quietly, content with their role on the landscape of college basketball. The plan hasn’t changed much over the years: serve as a warm-up for bigger schools in the area leading into conference play, play out a tough conference schedule, and try to win the CAA tournament. If you win the league tournament, jump around and be excited, lose your first round game as a 14 or 15 seed, and go home happy.
Except it doesn’t always happen that way. Anyone who sits down and fills out a bracket in March and knows anything about college basketball can relate to it. You watch the selection show, excited that your team is going to be playing in the Big Dance this year. Your school’s name pops up as a 4-seed. You think to yourself, “awesome, I thought we might end up as low as a 6.” Then, your heart sinks and your legs start to quiver. You realize that one of “those schools” is the 13-seed your team faces. One of “those schools” that pulls an upset, seemingly every year. “Those schools” are these schools, the CAA schools.
Since 1983, the CAA as a conference has won 12 games in the NCAA Tournament, nine of which were in the First Round. Nine out of 23 years, almost 40% of the time, a CAA team has advanced at least one round. Don’t believe it? Here’s the proof:
Years of Upset(s)
10 James Madison over 7 West Virginia
12 Richmond over 5 Auburn
13 Navy over 4 LSU
7 Navy over 10 Tulsa, 2 Syracuse, 14 Cleveland St
13 Richmond over 4 Indiana, 5 Georgia Tech
15 Richmond over 2 Syracuse
14 Old Dominion over 3 Villinova
14 Richmond over 3 South Carolina
13 UNC-Wilmington over 4 Southern Cal
Furthermore, in 2001, 14-seed George Mason lost to 3-seed Maryland by 3. In 2003, a running three pointer by Drew Nicholas saved the fifth-seeded Terps again, this time from Brett Blizzard and twelfth-seeded UNC-W. Finally, in 2004, 13-seed Virginia Commonwealth lost to 4-seed Wake Forest by a single point.
Sure, other conferences can say they deserve recognition along these same lines. And yes, I acknowledge that those pesky Richmond Spiders, responsible for four years’ worth of ruined brackets, are now members of the 14-team Atlantic-10. Nonetheless, the CAA has a serious history of post-season performance. And this year’s CAA may be more dangerous than ever.
The only question is which team (or teams) from this conference will be one of “those schools” this season? Let’s take a gander:
The Patriots are led by two senior guards, Lamar Butler and Tony Skinn. Each has played a huge role this season, lending experience and quality play. Jai Lewis, a 6-7 senior forward is second on the team in scoring and leads the Patriots with nearly 9 boards per game. The team is well-balanced, with five players averaging double figures. From a team standpoint, George Mason does not have a signature win thus far. A five point loss at Wake Forest and losses to Creighton and Mississippi State were its main opportunities to pull off such a victory. Current RPI figures don’t favor GMU (low 40′s), but with an extended run in the regular season, the Patriots could grab one of the last at-large bids.
A trendy sleeper pick prior to the season, the Monarchs have been slightly disappointing, not to mention erratic. Close losses at Richmond and Wisconsin were countered with victories against Georgia, DePaul, and Virginia Tech in the nonconference season. A bad loss to a lightning-quick UAB team is the only major blemish thus far. Isaiah Hunter and Alex Loughton pace this team. Hunter, a rangy shooter with a decent first step, is a senior from Charlotte, North Carolina. He will fill it up from the outside at times and can get to the foul line when his shot is off. Loughton, the reigning CAA Player of the Year, is from Australia. His crafty offensive game is supported by some tough work on the glass. The Colonials are held together by point guard Drew Williamson, who leads the team in assists.
Brad Brownell took over when Jerry Wainwright left the Seahawks for those pesky Richmond Spiders. His team, though not as talented as others in the league, is very smart and plays hard. A solid, if unspectacular defensive club, the Seahawks rebound well, share the ball, and commit few turnovers. Senior guard John Goldsberry is their unquestioned leader. The defending CAA Defensive Player of the Year also averages 13 ppg on the offensive end of the floor. The desire on this team is evident, giving the Seahawks a key intangible. Come March, UNC-W will hang its hat on three wins in three consecutive days to open the season over Butler, Wyoming, and Northwestern. The team also suffered a three point defeat at Wisconsin. An at-large bid is doubtful, but a win in the conference championship game could earn the Seahawks a first-round date with a four-seed.
The Hofstra Pride like to play fast. A quick team, Hofstra Prides itself on forcing the tempo in its favor. Hofstra leads the CAA in scoring at nearly 80 points per contest. Tom Pecora’s squad is led by its three starting guards. Antoine Aguido, the CAA Rookie of the Year last season, averages almost 17 points per game. Loren Stokes and Carlos Rivera complete the guard trifecta, with both averaging in double figures. These guards are quick off the dribble and also chip in a number of rebounds to help counter the team’s lack of size. An early season victory over St. John’s at Madison Square Garden and wins at LaSalle and Old Dominion in conference play will help their tournament resume, should they win the CAA Tournament.
The Rams, led by former Duke Blue Devil Jeff Capel, are not the most talented team in the league. Nick George, a 6-6 forward, and B.A. Walker, a 6-2 guard, are the only players to average in double figures. VCU gets it done behind the arc, leading the CAA in three point percentage offense (40%) and defense (25%). The team also leads the conference in steals and turnover margin. Therefore, one can deduce that the undersized Rams are aggressive defensively and unabashed with their three-point attempts. Coach Capel has made this the trademark of his teams since taking over as one of the youngest coaches in the NCAA. The Rams defeated Houston early this season on the road and also have a victory over Richmond.
There is compelling data to suggest that the CAA is the best traditional one-bid league in America (or is at least a strong challenger to the MAC). The CAA has pulled some Tournament upsets in the past, and the talent and heart is right there again this season.
But what does it mean? What is the point? Does the CAA deserve multiple bids to the NCAA tournament? Not necessarily. Like the MAC, the conference’s parity may be its downfall. Old Dominion was the pre-season pick and is ultimately the most talented and dangerous team. However, Hofstra’s fast-paced play could cause match-up problems in March. VCU has the ability to hit enough threes to knock off a big boy in the tournament. And George Mason and UNC-Wilmington are experienced and solid enough defensively to give any team fits. Add Northeastern, Towson, and Drexel and you have eight teams with the potential win the CAA Tournament in Richmond. This balance will probably keep any one team from earning an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament this season, but it certainly makes for an exciting regular season and league tournament.
One thing is sure: “protected” seeds, be warned. You do not want to see your name pop up next to the CAA champion on Selection Sunday.