College Basketball Preview - Colonial Athletic Association
*** College Basketball Preview - Colonial Athletic Association ***
From The Sports Network
By Brian Mason, College Basketball Staff Writer
OUTLOOK: The UNC-Wilmington Seahawks came into last season as winners of the last two regular season titles and Colonial Athletic Association Tournaments, but the loss of Conference Player of the Year, Brent Blizzard, spelled the end of the streak. Instead Virginia Commonwealth took over as the top dog in the CAA, winning both the regular season championship and the CAA Tournament. It was a banner campaign for Jeff Capel's squad, going 14-4 in conference play and coming within one point of upsetting Wake Forest in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. It is likely that there could be another changing of the guard atop the league standings this season, as the Rams have lost two key cogs from last year's outstanding team. Drexel (18-11) and George Mason (23-10) will likely be the two squads fighting for the top spot in 2004-05, but don't be surprised if Old Dominion (17-12) also makes a strong run at the title. Hofstra, VCU, and Delaware will all likely fall into the middle of the pack, while the rest of the CAA members will be fighting to keep themselves out of the league cellar.
CONFERENCE CHAMPION: George Mason
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. George Mason; 2. Drexel; 3. Old Dominion; 4. Hofstra; 5. Virginia Commonwealth; 6. Delaware; 7. UNC-Wilmington; 8. William & Mary; 9. James Madison; 10. Towson
TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:
GEORGE MASON - The Patriots finished in third place in the CAA standings last season with a league mark of 12-6. Jim Larranaga is now in his eighth season behind the bench for GMU and his 124-84 record with the Patriots speaks for itself. The Patriots and Larranaga last won the CAA crown back in 2001 and this looks like the year they could finally regain it, as center Jai Lewis and guard Lamar Butler are two of the finest players in the league. Lewis was outstanding last season for the Patriots, posting 14.5 ppg and a team-best 7.5 rpg. He is one of the most intimidating big men in the conference, using his size to impose his will on opponents. Butler on the other hand is an athletic scorer, who can drain shots from the outside or drive into the paint with a purpose. The junior guard averaged 10.5 ppg last year and not only made 37.7 percent of his three pointers, but also 82.5 percent of his free throw attempts. Losing Terry Reynolds at point guard hurts this squad, but Tony Skinn should fill in nicely for him if he can limit his turnovers.
DREXEL - Bruiser Flint's Dragons have never won a CAA title and after several close calls, this could be their best chance to do so. The reason for optimism out of the City of Brotherly Love is the return of one of the conference's top guards, Phil Goss. A preseason All-First Team conference member, Goss averaged 13.6 ppg and made 39.6 percent of his three-point attempts in 2003-04. The senior guard is not the only talented player in the backcourt, as Jeremiah King and Bashir Mason are viable scoring options. The squad's best forward is Sean Brooks, who stands at just 6-5, but is an extremely gifted interior scorer and a solid defender. He contributed last season with 14.4 ppg and 5.9 rpg, while also making 59.7 percent of his field goal attempts. Flint must make sure that his squad stays focused the entire season or else it could let another CAA Championship slip right through its fingers.
OLD DOMINION - The Monarchs registered their first winning season in five years with an impressive 17-12 overall mark. ODU also went 11-7 in league play, which was good enough for a fourth place finish in the CAA. Coach Blaine Taylor has four starters returning from last year's squad and expectations are once again high for the squad from Norfolk. The most important returning starter for the Monarchs is center Alex Loughton, who many believe will be the Conference Player of the Year this season. The former rookie of the year in 2002-03, Loughton proved last season to be one of the most versatile players in the CAA. He averaged team-highs in scoring (16.6 ppg) and rebounding (8.7 rpg), while also converting 48.8 percent of his field goal attempts and 79.2 percent of his shots from the charity stripe. Shooting guard Isaiah Hunter is an excellent complement to Loughton, having posted 13 ppg last season on 84.4 percent shooting from the foul line. A pair of freshman could also make huge contributions this year, as forward Jason Thompson and point guard Brandon Johnson are expected to see a lot of playing time. Loughton has the ability to be one of the most dominating forces in CAA-history this season, but the play of the rest of his teammates will decide whether or not they come away with a conference title.
HOFSTRA - The Pride had another average campaign in 2003-04, going only 10-8 in league play and 14-15 overall. However, that will likely change this season, as three valuable starters return for coach Tom Pecora, including guard Loren Stokes. Last year's team MVP, Stokes averaged 12.9 ppg and 4.4 rpg while also scoring 15.7 ppg in CAA action. Although Stokes' presence in the lineup should be a major factor in Hofstra's resurgence, the loss of all- conference candidate Kenny Adeleke does not. Adeleke was expected to return this season for Hofstra, but he was dismissed from school during the offseason. Forward Adrian Uter and center Wendell Gibson should pick up the slack with Adeleke gone from the team, as both players have the ability to score from the paint and rebound effectively. Gibson has gone widely unnoticed in the CAA, but this could be his breakout campaign after averaging 14.2 ppg and 6.2 rpg last year. Coach Pecora has the talent in place to make a run at the conference title, but the loss of Adeleke will make it difficult.
VIRGINIA COMMONWEALTH - Domonic Jones (16.3 ppg) and Troy Godwin (11.8 ppg) are gone from last year's 23-win squad, but head coach Jeff Capel returns after turning down inquiries from Auburn and Miami-Florida. Capel is one of the best little-known coaches in the nation, having posted an impressive 41-18 mark in his two seasons guiding the Rams. However, this season VCU could take a major step back with the losses of Jones and Godwin. Senior forward Michael Doles will be asked to take his game to the next level, after averaging 11.2 ppg and 4.4 rpg last season. Doles has the ability to score from both inside and outside, which should help take some pressure off a relatively average backcourt. Forward Nick George should also be solid up front for VCU, as his 9.2 ppg and 5.9 rpg will likely increase with another year under Capel's guidance. The backcourt trio of Alexander Harper, B.A. Walker and Jesse Pellot-Rosa has upside, but it lacks true scorers and all three have proven to be turnover prone.
DELAWARE - The Blue Hens started to make strides towards becoming one of the better teams in the CAA last season, but the loss of Mike Ames (15.3 ppg) is huge. Delaware will not only have to replace Ames in the lineup, but it also has to become a more disciplined team in terms of turnovers and fouls. The Blue Hens were undisciplined in fouling opponents and sloppy with the ball, ranking 285th in the country with an average of 16.9 turnovers per contest. However, coach David Henderson does return two superb players in guard Mike Slattery and forward Harding Nana. Slattery and Ames made up one of the best backcourts in the CAA last season, but Slattery will now be asked to team up with Rulon Washington, who is not nearly the player that Ames was. That being said, Slattery should improve upon his 11 ppg and 5.9 apg from a season ago. Nana, who missed several games last season because of injuries and transfer rules, is ready to become one of the top forwards in the league. He averaged 12.6 ppg and 8.5 rpg in limited duty and has shown signs of becoming a dominant force this offseason.
UNC-WILMINGTON - The Seahawks knew that they were going to be a shell of the team that had dominated the CAA over the past few seasons, but they could not have predicted how awful they were going to be on offense. UNCW averaged just 61.5 ppg and shot a mere 40.8 percent from the floor. Luckily, the Seahawks were once again the top defensive team in the nation, a distinction they have owned for nearly a decade. Three starters return from last year's squad, which did not have a single player scoring an average of more than 8.8 ppg. The backcourt tandem of Ed Spencer (8.7 ppg) and John Goldsberry (8.5 ppg) returns and even though they are the squad's two leading scorers from a year ago, neither player shot more than 39.1 percent from the floor. Goldsberry is probably the squad's best defensive player (50 steals) and has proven to be an extremely unselfish player (3.7 apg). Coach Brad Brownell is fortunate to have these two guards back this season, but his frontcourt is unimpressive and because of it the Seahawks will probably fall under .500 in conference play.
WILLIAM & MARY - The Tribe had hoped that the hiring of head coach Tony Shaver last offseason would infuse some life into a program that had become looked upon as bottom feeders in the CAA, but that was not the case in Shaver's first go around. William & Mary went a dismal 4-14 in conference play and just 7-21 overall. Things could get even worse this season, as all-league forward Adam Hess and his 20.3 ppg are gone. Freshmen will likely be asked to take over major roles on this squad, which could mean that Shaver's stamp on the squad will quickly come to the forefront. Cory Cofield is the top returning player for the Tribe, having produced 13.2 ppg and 6.6 rpg last year. Nick D'Antoni will most likely be the squad's best backcourt player and although he is an excellent passer (5.7 apg), D'Antoni is not a gifted shooter by any means (.321 FG).
JAMES MADISON - The Dukes suffered through another embarrassing campaign in 2003-04 (7-21, 3-15 CAA) and it led to the firing of coach Sherman Dillard. New coach Dean Keener, a former assistant at Georgia Tech, takes over the reins for JMU, but he already has many factors stacked against him. Keener was not named the coach until late into the recruiting process and his frontcourt is one of the worst in the league. That being said, the Dukes should have a solid backcourt behind the play of guards Daniel Freeman and Ray Barbosa. Freeman averaged 11.6 ppg last year and shot a solid 43.7 percent from the floor, while also leading JMU in rebounding with 5.5 rpg. Barbosa contributed with 11.5 ppg and proved to be a competent three-point shooter for the Dukes, making 33.6 percent of his long range attempts. Keener needs Chris Cathlin (4.3 rpg) and David Cooper (4.2 rpg) to play with some fire in the low post or else his run-and-gun offensive approach could be a flop.
TOWSON - Just like the Dukes, the Tigers decided to make a coaching change at the end of last season. Out is former coach Michael Hunt and in comes Pat Kennedy from Montana. Kennedy is just what this struggling program needs, as he will have the Tigers playing with enthusiasm and should prove to be one of the better recruiters in the conference. However, it will take time for Kennedy to completely turn this program around, which has won just 12 combined games over the last two years and finished a horrific 4-14 in league play last season. The backcourt should be the strength of this year's squad, with Mike Green (10.2 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 4.4 apg) returning and juco point guard Cantrell Fletcher showcasing his ability to distribute the ball. Forward Lawrence Hamm is the one true option that the Tigers have in the low post, having averaged 10 ppg and 5.3 rpg. Kennedy will get his squad to play up-tempo and faster than they have over the past few seasons, but the talent just isn't there yet and a last place finish could be in the cards.