In preparation for the start of the 2011-2012 regular season on November 7, we’re running a preview series here on Busting Brackets. You can check out all of our pieces in the series by clicking here. Our previews continue with a look at the Colonial Athletic Association, where all the magic seems to happen in March. But Is the CAA still the top Mid-Major conference in the nation? Up next on our 2011-12 preview trail, we take a look at the home of the Blue Hens, Dragons, Black Bears, Dukes, and Monarchs. Thank goodness this league is full of talent and competition — because we here at Busting Brackets would have previewed this league on Mascot names alone if we had to.
When it comes to competitive basketball night in and night out, it might not get better than the Colonial Athletic Association. Beyond being known as having some of the best Bracket Busters in March, the Colonial is one of the most competitive through and through conferences in the nation. It might not get the national accolades, but it’s become clear over the last five years that a team coming out of the CAA will have some real steam heading into tournament play.
For the second time in the last six years, the Colonial had a team in the Final Four. VCU’s run last season was one of the more pleasant story lines of March. From First four to the final weekend, a lot of VCU’s victories have to be credited to the great coaching of Shaka Smart. He returns to the bench for the Rams, but he’ll look to develop a new clan of talent, as 4/5 top scorers from last season have graduated from the program.
Last season, we saw three teams gain bids to the NCAA Tournament, with six teams putting together 21 or more wins. Much of the same is expected in the 2011-12 season.
HEAD OF THE CLASS
Though you never know what is going to happen in the Colonial, It seems like this season’s race to the finish will come down to Drexel, George Mason, VCU, and Old Dominion vying for two to three tournament selects. At the top of the conference is Bruiser Flint’s Drexel Dragons, who return 4 starters from a year ago. Despite finishing 5th in the league last year, the Dragons were able to upset Louisville and also beat VCU and Old Dominion during the season. They arguably have the best front court in the conference, which is interesting considering their size. 6’5″ Samme Givens is a monster on the glass at the forward position and was the only player in the Colonial to average a double double last season. He teams up with Daryl McCoy and Dartaye Ruffin on the glass. Together that’s 65% of last year’s defensive rebound production. When you add in the top guard duo in Chris Fouch and Frantz Massenat, the Dragons bring back 75% of their rebounding power.
When it comes to scoring, this team has a powerful mixed attack. Chris Fouch is a go-to shooter at the guard position. He probably has the best touch in the Conference. Givens and Ruffin will have a huge impact up front, and chemistry wont be an issue at the beginning of the season. The Dragons return over 80% of their production from a year ago.
For the VCU Rams, the rebuilding process begins. As VCU Ram Nation’s Matt Morton broke down for us earlier today though, it’s a restock instead of rebuild for Shaka Smart. The offense for the most part ran through departed seniors Jamie Skeen and Joey Rodriguez last season, but now it’s time for Bradford Burgess to shine. The swing guard took over in March against top notch competition. The sharp shooter hit 43% of his shots from beyond the arc last season and was second on the team in points per game. The key will be finding the grit in the post that gave the Rams their identity last season. It might take a while, but there is no doubt that Shaka Smart will have his team playing tough inside for the stretch run.
The George Mason Patriots are without their longtime leader Jim Larranaga to start the season, but former Georgia Tech import Paul Hewitt has some very good talent to work with in his first season. Ryan Pearson returns in the front court for the Patriots and is a possible player of the year candidate in the conference. Joining him are senior Mike Morrison and incoming freshman Erik Copes. Copes shows a fairly developed offensive game for a frosh and Morrison is an athletic forward that can fit Hewitt’s uptempo style. In the back court, Cam Long and Luke Hancock have both graduated from the program, leaving a really big void. The consensus is that Bryon Allen and Corey Edwards will battle at point and Vertrail Vaughns leads the way at the 2.
Finally, the Old Dominion Monarchs returns the best defensive player in the conference in swing man Kent Bazemore. He will need to step up his offensive game in order for success. Chris Cooper is a big man that has the talents to take over a ballgame, but has yet to do so in his previous three years in conference. The truth of the matter is that this team has to find a way to replace 60% of it’s scoring and at least 50% of it’s production in nearly every single statistical category. Head Coach Blaine Taylor will also call upon Trian Illiadis at the guard position to put points on the board. He has excellent range and will be given the opportunity to pick up the slack left behind by four graduating seniors that gave Butler the scare of a lifetime last March.
There are so many options in this conference of teams that can come out of nowhere, but the James Madison Dukes are the most intriguing of everyone in the middle of the pack in 2011-12. Not only do they have the talent, but they have the great story lines to go with it. Devon Moore is arguably the most skilled guard in the conference. He could light up the scoreboard when he returns from academic ineligibility in December. He gets to the line, creates openings for team mates, and is improving is spot on jumper. Filling his role will be the intense but talented Humpty Hitchens (man this conference has the best names). Hitchens will be a valuable two guard down the stretch that takes huge chances. He doesn’t turn over the ball too much, but he definitely puts the fear of god into head coach Matt Brady.
So can Forward Julius Wells, who jacks up crap load of contested shots. When he gets hot though, he can carry his team. He had some big games last year and adds another weapon alongside Moore. Throw in the big man (literally) Rayshawn Goins, who has the ability to average a double double. He just might need to be spotted a double cheese every once in a while during timeouts. Wyoming transfer A.J. Davis brings another solid athlete to the program who can bring down some hefty rebounds for his 6’5″ frame. He also gives the Dukes a top notch on the ball defender. Then you throw in junior Andrey Semenov. He is the heart and backbone of this team when healthy. He is tenacious on the court and gets the best out of his teammates. He has a solid shot, is a top notch passer, and a pretty good defender. If he stay’s healthy, James Madison has the ability to sneak up on the CAA this season.
FIRST TEAM ALL-CONFERENCE
- Samme Givens (Drexel) -He is the best all-around post player in the conference and brings the Drexel Dragons to a whole new level. Teams have a hard time trying to guard him because he can hurt you in so many ways. He puts himself in such good position that it’s almost impossible to beat him on the glass. An early candidate for CAA Player of the Year.
- Ryan Pearson (George Mason) – The heart and soul of George Mason’s offense will have an even bigger season under new coach Paul Hewlitt. Watch for him to improve on his nearly 15 PPG from a year ago.
- Bradford Burgess (VCU) – I’m really excited to see what Burgess can do with this team under his wings. He takes over ballgames with his potent shot. He could be the single offensive threat that carries this team during the season.
- Quinn McDowell (William & Mary) – A slasher who scored 25% of the Tribe’s points last season. What’s scary is that his 45% three point field goal percentage a year ago was just about as good as his field goal percentage.
- Kent Bazemore (Old Dominion) – His defense alone will get him recognized on one of the top teams in the conference, but it’ll be his offensive game taking a step up this season.
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH
It’ll be an interesting race at the middle of the pack, and the talent at the top of the conference matches up well against each other. The bottom of the conference is full of talent as well in a since that they will battle back and forth making the season even more predictable.
- 1. Drexel – It’s a bit surprising that George Mason hasn’t gotten more love as the top team at the end of the year, but the Dragons are very talented throughout. Young talent mixed with experience. The thing to me that seperates this team from others is their prowess on the glass.
- 2. George Mason – With the uptempo style of play, Paul Hewitt’s guards will be in mid-season form by the start of December. The front court is just too good not to grab another tournament birth. They might lose some conference games they shouldn’t, but they will be in the CAA Tournament game without a doubt.
- 3. VCU – For those that think this is a low representation for the Rams, think again. There is a lot of talent to replace and Shaka Smart will get his team to peak at the right time. VCU will compete in March.
- 4. James Madison – I’m going out on a limb here, but this team has everything you need for success. They started off 5-1 in conference last year, but fell apart. Devon Moore in December gives this team just the right spark.
- 5. Old Dominion – There is just too much talent to replace in order to be a top tier team in the conference. They will compete with the top four, but will have a hard time holding their heads over water. The decline starts now.
- 6. William & Mary – Quinn McDowell time! He’s going to carry this team on his lonesome to the top half of the conference. If he stays healthy, The Tribe could have a .500 conference record.
- 7. Northeastern – Joel Smith and Jonathan Lee are daggers from three, but there is no one to dish the ball inside to. They’ll compete but not to the level of pre-season hopes.
- 8. Delaware – There is a lot to like from the Blue Hens. Freshman of the Year Devon Sadler returns as well as junior forward Jamelle Hagins. They could be a surprise team down the stretch.
- 9. Hofsta – Mike Moore is a true talent on the wing. He will be a lot of fun to watch in his second year with Hofstra. If anyone emerges alongside him, this team could be dangerous.
- 10. UNC Wilmington – Buzz Peterson always gives his team a chance to win, but the lack of talent on the floor will hurt the Seahawks in 2011-12.
- 11. Towson – New coaching staff, and not nearly enough talent to compete. They’ll be better than their 0-18 conference record from a year ago though
- 12. Georgia State – A good new coaching staff and a solid big man in Eric Buckner, but just not enough pieces to the puzzle yet.
Overall, another good year is on the way for the best Non-BCS conference in the country. The only question is which team will be upsetting college basketball fans hearts across the country in mid March.