The Colonial Athletic Association men’s basketball season is off to a fitting start, in both recent and traditional perspectives.
And in the process, Delaware has learned quite quickly and clearly that being preseason favorite is no antidote to avoiding the CAA’s harrowing challenges.
On Friday afternoon, that meant committing 16 turnovers and going scoreless in the final 2:34 but getting a steal by Kevin Anderson with one second left that gave the Blue Hens a 67-66 win at the College of Charleston.
Get ready for two months of similarly excruciating drama, beginning when Towson visits the Carpenter Center Wednesday. Monday’s visit from James Madison was called off Friday night due to COVID-19 protocols at JMU.
Last year, the CAA was undermined by the COVID-19 pandemic and the postponements and cancellations it wreaked on the schedule, which were more than any other Division I conference. Delaware did not even play a game in February.
The 2021-22 season has, unfortunately, begun similarly. Four of the nine games on Dec. 29 and Dec. 31 were erased due to virus protocols. That does not bode well for the rest of the season.
In the five games that were played, including two for the preseason media/coaches’ poll favorite Blue Hens, the CAA is once again shaping up as a league with top-to-bottom competitive balance. Parity has long been a conference characteristic.
On opening night, three teams deemed to be among the league’s worst, each playing at home, beat three of the teams judged to be among the best. That included Delaware’s 70-68 loss at UNC-Wilmington.
It showed that preseason conference assessments are fun if foolhardy. But it made contemporary, objective mathematical measurements, such as the NCAA Net Evaluation Tool, appear a tad dubious, too.
No. 73 Hofstra lost at William & Mary, which at 351 in the NCAA NET was the CAA’s lowest-rated team and seventh from the bottom of all Division I squads. Hofstra owns a win over then 24th-ranked Arkansas and lost by two at Maryland this season.
William & Mary then improved to 2-0 in CAA games and 3-13 overall Friday with a 71-70 win over Northeastern, which – true confessions – was No. 1 on my ballot in that preseason media/coaches’ poll with JMU second and Delaware third. Northeastern had been slammed at Elon 79-62 Wednesday.
While such outcomes make for entertaining visits to league gyms and arenas for fans, it also ensures that the CAA’s streak of qualifying only its tournament champion to the NCAAs will continue. The last time the CAA had multiple qualifiers was 2011.
The preseason CAA poll featured six teams receiving first-place votes, which is unusual but demonstrated the equality and unpredictable nature of the 10-team league.
With the nonconference season now in the books and a smattering of league games having tipped off, we’ll take another shot – fun but likely futile – at predicting how the CAA teams might line up heading into the conference tournament in Washington, D.C., March 5-8.
1-Hofstra (8-6 overall/0-1 CAA)
NCAA NET ranking before CAA play: 73
Preseason CAA poll: 5th (one first-place vote)
Hofstra’s performance in nonconference play certainly branded it as the team to beat in the CAA, though the loss at William & Mary was a reminder that mid-major competition always has challenges and teams that live by the 3-pointer and can also perish when such shots do not fall. Under first-year coach Speedy Claxton, the guard who sparked Hofstra to the 1999 and 2000 America East title game wins over Delaware, Hofstra continues to distinguish itself by its ability to score from the perimeter or by driving to the basket. It has five players averaging 11.8 ppg or better, led by Zach Cooks (16.1) and Jalen Ray (15.4).
2-James Madison (9-2 overall/0-0 CAA)
NCAA NET ranking before CAA play: 138
Preseason CAA poll: 4th (3 first-place votes)
James Madison, the defending regular-season CAA champ, is barred from the conference tournament and ineligible for this year’s title because of its impending move to the Sun Belt Conference. But games against the Dukes still count in the standings and they’ll no doubt be playing with chips on their shoulders. Takal More (11.2 ppg), Vado Morse (10.6) and Charles Falden (10.2) comprise a formidable perimeter trio. Postmen Justin Amadi and Alonzo Sule lead the CAA in field-goal percentage.
3-Delaware (10-5 overall/1-1 CAA)
NCAA NET ranking before CAA play: 139
Preseason CAA poll: 1st (19 first-place votes)
Delaware spent its nonconference schedule beating who it was supposed to beat (Fordham was probably the most impressive win) and losing the games in which it was slightly overmatched (though Delaware missed a great opportunity to beat Temple). The CAA opening loss at UNCW was concerning, but the Blue Hens bounced back nicely in a challenging environment at Charleston Friday. The Blue Hens are among the CAA’s top three in free-throw and field-goal percentage and field-goal percentage defense, which must continue for them to contend for the title. If they can defend better, especially beyond the arc, and cut down on their turnovers, their chances would improve. Certainly, Delaware’s experience was the reason it earned the preseason No. 1 ranking. The Hens just need to find the consistency and composure to go with it.
4-Towson (9-4 overall/0-0 CAA)
NCAA NET ranking before CAA play: 62
Preseason CAA poll: 8th
Towson is now the only one of the four schools – with Delaware, Drexel and Hofstra -- that moved from America East to the CAA in 2001-02 and has not won a league title. Could this be the Tigers’ year? Their nonconference showing says it’s not out of the question. The Tigers always play hard under 12th-year coach Pat Skerry. Now they lead the CAA in 3-point percentage, 3-point defense and rebound margin while exhibiting good scoring balance led by Nicolas Timberlake and Cam Holden.
5-Charleston (8-5 overall/0-1 CAA)
NCAA NET ranking before CAA play: 135
Preseason CAA poll: 7th
Under first-year coach Pat Kelsey, who left Winthrop, Charleston has been a handful because of its fast-paced style of play. Some injuries have limited Bucknell transfer John Meeks, but he came back to score 17 points against Delaware Friday. Reyne Smith (13.3 ppg) heads a promising group of freshmen who likely ensure Charleston’s best years are ahead. At the moment, beating the Cougars will still take an effort.
6-Drexel (5-5 overall/0-0 CAA)
NCAA NET ranking before CAA play: 187
Preseason CAA poll: 3rd (5 first-place votes)
Drexel has two of the CAA’s best players in guard Camren Wynter and James Butler, whose six double-doubles lead the CAA and rank 10th nationally. The Dragons’ success depends on those two getting the complimentary support they need, which they often have, especially from Melik Martin. Defense, once a Drexel strongsuit, has sometimes let the Dragons down.
7-Northeastern (6-7 overall/0-2 CAA)
NCAA NET ranking before CAA play: 178
Preseason CAA poll: 2nd (7 first-place votes)
Wins over Duquesne and UMass highlighted the Huskies’ nonconference start. If anyone can figure out a way to get a team untracked its Huskies coach Bill Coen. The game at Elon was the Huskies’ first in 17 days after a COVID pause. Chris Doherty is among the CAA’s top rebounders and Shaquille Walters, Jahmyl Telfort, Nikola Djogo and Tyreek Scott-Grayson give Coen plenty of capable guards.
8-Elon (4-10 overall/1-0 CAA)
NCAA NET ranking before CAA play: 320
Preseason CAA poll: 6th (1 first-place vote)
Elon shoots more 3-pointers than any CAA team except Hofstra, but actually has better aim than the Pride. Defending and rebounding have been problems for the Phoenix, however. The league’s most difficult nonconference schedule, with losses to Arkansas, Duke, Florida, North Carolina and West Virginia), has certainly prepped the Phoenix for the CAA slate and they won’t be easy to beat, as Northeastern saw.
9-UNCW (7-5 overall/1-0 CAA)
NCAA NET ranking before CAA play: 279
Preseason CAA poll: 9th
UNC-Wilmington has the CAA’s smallest lineup but that was enough to beat Delaware Wednesday through tenacious play and clutch foul shooting. That may be difficult to sustain the Seahawks through the entire conference schedule. But it will give them a chance in many games. They’ve also been one of the CAA’s best defensive, and shot-blocking, teams.
10-William & Mary (3-12 overall/2-0 CAA)
NCAA NET ranking before CAA play: 351
Preseason CAA poll: 10th
The Tribe had done nothing to distinguish itself, with its lone win coming over Division III Mary Baldwin, before its one-point squeakers over Hofstra and Northeastern to start the CAA schedule. Go figure. The Tribe limited Hofstra to 6-for-34 aim on 3-pointers and forced 20 turnovers by Northeastern, which was 5-for-19 on threes. There's always a way.
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This article originally appeared on Delaware News Journal: Preseason favorite Blue Hens face tough road as CAA basketball starts