One day before the start of conference play, the CAA collective has accumulated a 54-72 mark this season. Regardless of what happens when William and Mary plays Vanderbilt (or when JMU goes to Hampton next Monday), this has certainly been a nonconference season to forget. Only George Mason and W&M will enter conference play with more wins than losses. Despite the conference’s struggles, we shouldn’t be terribly alarmed.

Consider that 11 of the 16 players from the 2012 All-CAA squad no longer play in the conference. This isn’t to make an excuse for the conference’s poor start to the season, but serves as a reiteration that a certain degree of adversity had to be expected. The conference is not lacking in young talent, but we know that our biggest advantage as a mid-major is, generally speaking, having four-year players that buy into the system and improve every year. Many of these teams are still trying to figure out who deserves to be on the floor, who’s going to stop a run, and who’s going to take the game-winning shot.

When experienced, battle-tested teams falter down the stretch in big games, we get frustrated and disappointed. How should we respond when up-and-coming youthful teams do the same?

In Saturday’s 1-6 effort, the CAA’s youth struggles were on full display.

- UNCW played neck-and-neck with Campbell for 85% of Saturday’s 72-60 loss. The game was tied at 54-all, before a four-plus minute stretch allowed Campbell to make a 16-3 run. During that span, the Seahawks only passed the ball into Rendleman once in its 10 possessions. Good teams recognize when they need to get their stars involved, and the Seahawks guards need to understand that Rendleman (the team’s only senior seeing significant minutes) will most certainly create mismatches in CAA play.

- The most interesting thing about the College’s loss to Purdue was that it wasn’t a huge flameout, but simply an instance of a team fading away. Purdue never really dominated or took control of the game, the Tribe just had a missed shot here, committed an offensive foul there and Purdue made just enough plays to slowly build a multi-basket lead near the end of the game. William and Mary pushed Big 10 foe Purdue to the brink, but the Tribe’s hot shooting didn’t translate into the second half, and the Boilermakers pulled away for 73-66 win.

The loss provided a now-familiar mix of encouragement and frustration to Tribe faithful. Sure, the Tribe lost to another big-time nonconference opponent after controlling the majority of the game. Yes, the Tribe let another signature victory slip away just like it did against Richmond and Wake Forest. It’s certainly disappointing, but once this team figures it out and plays well in the clutch, watch out. The end result wasn’t really a function of bad offense or defense down the stretch — they just missed a few shots, and let the Boilermakers score baskets inside.

“It’s a game that was within reach — I can’t say we should have won it — but it was within reach, same thing down at Wake Forest,” Coach Tony Shaver said. “I think we are playing at a high-level, but maybe our composure isn’t quite there yet.”

To this point, the College has lacked a consistent closer. Most great teams have a few players that routinely step in and will their teams to victory. Marcus Thornton, Brandon Britt and Tim Rusthoven all fit the bill, and have all been finishers in the Tribe’s seven victories, but if one or all of them can establish himself as a bona fide go-to option in these tough games, the College could be coming out of some of these games with W’s instead of L’s.

The good news: It’s coming, just ask Tony.

“I think we played with a championship-level effort, but our execution wasn’t really at a championship level tonight, and we have to get that there. … I do feel that if we keep playing with this kind of effort and this kind of compassion, good things will happen for our kids,” Shaver said.

One key trend to watch: The Tribe did not attempt any second-half foul shots against Purdue. Zero. That’s a weird stat, but not something unique to the Purdue game: in its losses to Purdue, Wake Forest and Miami-Ohio, the Tribe has taken just 20 second-half free throw attempts, while its opponents have taken 58. Does it mean the Tribe is being less aggressive under the basket and shooting on the perimeter more? Who knows.

For what it’s worth, Matt Rum is the only senior playing major minutes for the Tribe.

- Georgia State scored the first 17 points in its 68-64 overtime loss at Georgia Southern. The Panthers held a 10-point lead with under two minutes to play, but failed to hold on. RJ Hunter fouled out in regulation, and Rashaad Richardson fouled out in overtime, so it’s no surprise that the Panthers failed to pull it out in the extra period.

Georgia State’s collapse was inexcusable –23 turnovers never help – but we’re talking about a team that replaced five of its top seven scorers, and six seniors (three of the redshirt variety) from last year’s squad. The Panthers have five freshmen on the roster, and many moving pieces shifting into new roles.

- Northeastern received a throttling at the hands of the UAB Blazers on Saturday. Coach Coen remarked that they were “baited into a pace that we didn’t want to.” UAB is one of the better offensive teams in the country, and Northeastern got caught trying to keep up. The Huskies led 15-10 early in the first half, but UAB used a 12-0 run to build a lead it never relinquished.

Controlling the tempo will be important for the Huskies in conference play. They don’t have a big frontcourt, so the temptation to get into run-and-gun games will persist. They may feel the need to play up-tempo against teams with formidable frontcourts, to avoid half-court grind-it-out games against the likes of Jamelle Hagins and Rendleman. But they also have to play within their abilities, because as they found out Saturday, sometimes the shots just aren’t falling.

The Huskies aren’t quite as young as the teams listed above, but it’s reasonable to expect them to play better as Jonathan Lee rounds into game shape. The UAB game was just his third game of the season. Additionally, Lee and Joel Smith are the only upperclassmen playing major minutes for Northeastern.

- Old Dominion had an opportunity to collect consecutive wins for the first time this season Saturday against the Stags of Fairfield University. The Monarchs held a 50-40 advantage with 8:23 remaining, and a strong finish would have given them their third win of the season. The Monarchs scored a whopping four points in the final 8:23, which was not enough as Fairfield came away with the 55-54 victory.

Richard Ross had an impressive 15 points for ODU, a welcome sign for the Monarchs. DeShawn Painter posted his fourth double-double of the season, putting in 16 points and snatching 11 rebounds. He’s averaging 16.2 points and 8.8 rebounds over his last five contests

Dmitri Batten followed up the best game of his career with a 1-of-8 performance from the field. The sophomore pair of Ross and Batten has shown potential, but not consistently enough for ODU. Coach Taylor pointed out that Painter might be having some difficulties that don’t show up on the stat line.

Taylor commented that coaching Painter is “like having a freshman again.”

He went into further detail:

“We’re sitting there scratching our heads some days, you know ‘where are you supposed to be on this play? Did you get that call? Do you know who you’re guarding?” These problems are expected for a guy coming into a new system, and hopefully things will smooth out as the season progresses.

Keenan Palmore and Nick Wright returned to action for the Monarchs. Palmore was recovering from a concussion, and Wright was just getting over an illness that cost him fifteen pounds, according to Coach Taylor. They both looked rusty, which should be expected: these are difficult things to overcome. Still, one can’t help but wonder if there would have been a different outcome with them at full force.

It was the fifth time this season that ODU lost a game decided by five points or less.

Old Dominion has faced the unenviable task of replacing the winningest-senior class in school history, which explains why 7 of their 12 players are new to the program. The seven players who have played the most minutes this season include three freshman, two sophomores, and two upperclassmen transfers.

- George Mason seems to be getting a lot of love as the new CAA favorite – and different simulations seem to agree. But the Patriots really need someone to emerge as a legitimate #2 option opposite Sherrod Wright. The Patriots offense was largely stagnant before Wright took matters into his own hands over the final minutes. He sparked a 12-4 run that brought the Patriots within two, but they couldn’t tie up the game in their 61-57 loss at South Florida.

Wright and solid defense have allowed the Patriots to stay in most of their games so far. They’ve lost to good teams (their opponent’s aggregate record is 50-12) and never by more than seven points. Still, it often seems like Wright is the only guy on the offensive end of the court. He had 22 points Saturday night, including nine in a row in the second-half run that brought Mason back into the game. As great as he is, he can’t do it alone. No other Patriot had more than seven points.

Mason will likely be the favorite to win the CAA next year, but they have a chance to be the flagship program this year. For them to be a viable CAA contender come March, someone other than Wright has to contribute on offense. Or maybe Wright should just got Jimmer Fredette on the Association.

***

Hopefully that gives you an idea of how young the conference is, and how it was evident on Saturday. Rob Washburn’s Weekly Report always serves as a reminder of the conference’s potential for greatness. There are only eight seniors among the top 30 scorers in the CAA, with Keith Rendleman and Joel Smith as the only two in the top 10. The top 30 includes 12 juniors, six sophomores, and four freshmen.

One of the other stats I love seeing in the Weekly Report: If you disregard the massive realignments, only five conferences (ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12, SEC) have more Final Four appearances than the CAA since 2006.

So as much positive press as the Mountain West is garnering, I’m remembering that the four MWC teams that danced in March 2012 only managed one win. Even though the Big 12 has three teams in this week’s AP Top 25, George Mason has danced further than any Big 12 programs outside of Lawrence, Kansas since Oklahoma State in 2004. And for all the love the Atlantic-10 is getting for its solid start to the season, the conference still hasn’t sent a team to the Final Four since 1996 (and UMass’s appearance was later vacated).

We shouldn’t be discouraged by the dismal start to the season. We’re young, and should be improved next year. Don’t lose sight of the fact that one of Delaware, Drexel, George Mason, Hofstra, James Madison, Northeastern and William and Mary will absolutely be playing in the Tournament in March. Even if it’s as a 15-seed, we just saw Missouri and Duke lose to 15-seeds last season. And if it’s as a 16-seed, who better to make history than the CAA?

***

-  The CAA split on New Year’s Eve. Delaware showed some resiliency in its 73-66 win over Rider. The Blue Hens held a 51-38 lead in the second half, which prompted Kevin Tresolini to tweet that they were playing like the team they thought they could be. The Broncs made a 22-9 run over a nine-minute span, and held a brief 61-60 lead over the Blue Hens. Devon Saddler did what a veteran lead guard does: his 12 points were one of his lower outputs this season, but he scored eight points in the final 5:46. The Blue Hens outrebounded the Broncs 52-31. Josh Brinkley had a season-high 17 points, and chipped in eight rebounds. Jamelle Hagins had yet another double-double, this one of the 14/16 variety.

- Drexel held an 18-10 lead over St. Joseph’s. Damion Lee had 12 points, and had outscored the Hawks to that point. The Hawks made a 13-0 run before the half, and never trailed in their 63-49 win over the Dragons. Frantz Massenat had three fouls in the first half, and the Dragons’ offense couldn’t get it going with Aquil Younger at the point. The Dragons stayed relatively close in the second half, but never got closer than five points.

From my observation, the game’s defining moment came in the second half. On a fast break opportunity, Massenat’s layup attempt was rejected by CJ Aiken. Chris Wilson corralled the rebound, pushed up the floor, and found Carl Jones for a three-pointer to cap a 10-3 run that gave the Hawks a 53-41 lead with 3:50 to play. It was a demoralizing sequence for the Dragons, who were victims of a “perfect” game from Aiken. The sophomore shot 6-of-6 from the field, scoring 19 points while hauling in eight rebounds and blocking six shots.

By the way, Goran Pantovic played his heart out for the Dragons on Monday. He’s the only reason they kept it close in the second half.

- Hofstra recorded its eighth straight loss on New Year’s Day with a 61-57 loss at Florida Atlantic. The Pride led 36-29 at the half, but for the second straight game allowed its opponent to rally out of the intermission. This time, the Pride had an answer, as it made a 13-2 run to take a 51-42 lead. The Owls gradually chipped away from Hofstra’s lead, ending the game on a 19-6 run. Stevie Mejia had a solid all-around performance: he’s averaged 11 points, 7.5 boards, 4.5 assists and two steals over Hofstra’s last two games. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been enough for a team that’s struggling to get offense from guys not named Mejia and Taran Buie.

***

The good news of the 2-8 mark over the last four days: we’re guaranteed at least three wins on Wednesday night, and at least five on Saturday. Conference play is finally here, and I’m sure we’re all welcoming it. Now that we’re all feeling a little more self-conscious about our squads, let’s get to the predictions you’ve probably missed this season. There’s no guarantee that they’ll be as insightful (evidenced by Saturday’s 1-6 prediction debacle) or as comical as years past, but we’ll do our best.

James Madison (6-6) at Old Dominion (2-11)

On this date last year, this game represented the turning point in JMU’s season. The Dukes led the Monarchs by eight at the half, but were unable to close out the Monarchs. JMU proceeded to drop its next four CAA games, and started 1-5 in the conference. The January 2nd bout with the Monarchs was also the last game of Julius Wells’ collegiate career. This time around, things have changed quite a bit: JMU has all the redshirts this season, and ODU is an uncharacteristically young team.

As young as the Monarchs are, they’re still the strong rebounding team that Blaine Taylor has historically coached. ODU is third in the conference in rebounding, and first in offensive rebounds per game. Although the second figure is correlated to the shots they miss, the Monarchs are bound to give the Dukes (dead last in the CAA in total rebounds per game at 30.8) fits on the glass.

Devon Moore is a big reason the Dukes went 5-1 in December, but he did not travel with the team to Norfolk yesterday. That means a freshman will likely be manning the point for the Dukes. That and the Monarchs’ rebounding prowess give me a poor feeling about the Dukes’ chances. However, James Madison’s youth is stabilized by the veterans, and Old Dominion has struggled in close games.

Dukes 63, Monarchs 59

Towson (5-8) at UNCW (5-7)

Towson is coming off a huge road win at Oregon State, and the Seahawks are undefeated at Trask this season. Both teams are dominated by impressive frontcourt stalwarts Jerrelle Benimon (Towson) and Keith Rendleman (UNCW) and neither team is eligible for this year’s conference tournament.

These two teams are 10th and 11th in the CAA in scoring, so the game really might come down to how well the stars play. Benimon and Rendleman are two of the CAA’s top-three big men, which is a great reason to tune in.

Right now, I just like Towson a little more coming off a huge win.

Tigers 58, Seahawks 55

Drexel (4-8) at Georgia State (5-8)

Another intriguing matchup: last year’s CAA Rookie of the Year, Damion Lee, against this year’s runaway candidate for the same award, RJ Hunter. Devonta White and Frantz Massenat are two of the better floor generals in the CAA. Georgia State has lost its last four games by a total of 12 points. Drexel has won 16-straight regular season CAA games.

Both teams are reliant on their backcourts, so it may come down to how the frontcourts can contribute. James Vincent is known for being a shot-blocker, but he did have a season-high 11 points in the Georgia Southern game. Daryl McCoy isn’t much of a scorer either, but he pulled down 12 rebounds in the St. Joseph’s game.

Both teams really need this victory. I think the more experienced Dragons have the means get there.

Dragons 62, Panthers 58

William and Mary (7-4) at Vanderbilt (5-6)

In the penultimate nonconference game of the year, the Tribe has a chance to capitalize on its early season promise. Vanderbilt’s three best players from last year are now playing in the NBA.

I’ll keep this short and sweet: I just think William and Mary is the better team right now. Vanderbilt managed just 33 points in a November loss to Marist. Memorial Gym is a tough place to play, and provides a great proving ground for the Tribe to show it’ll be tough for any and all CAA foes this season.

Tribe 65, Commodores 58

One Response to “The End is Near, The End is Here”

  1. Dave in VA Says:

    For what it’s worth, Purdue beat #11 Illinois tonight by the same margin they beat W&M on Saturday. I’m just sorry that very little went right for the Tribe this evening.

Leave a Reply