Wednesday, October 26, 2011
CAA: Five Things I Can't Wait To See
By Dana O'Neil
Here are five storylines I look forward to following in the CAA this season:
VCU Part Deux
Can Shaka Smart and the Rams make a return trip to the Final Four?
The bar has been set pretty high for Shaka Smart’s encore season. After all, Brad Stevens went to back-to-back finals in NCAA tournament darling runs.
OK, so expecting the Rams to run back to the Final Four might seem crazy (then again, so did Butler and VCU in the Final Four up until a season ago), but certainly plenty of eyes will be watching to see if Virginia Commonwealth remains a relevant player in both the CAA and national pictures.
The Rams have plenty of holes to fill -- Joey Rodriguez, Jamie Skeen and Brandon Rozzell are all gone from that Cinderella team of a year ago -- but Smart has plenty to lean on as well. Bradford Burgess, whose lethal 3-point shooting helped lead the NCAA charge, is back, as is Juvonte Reddic, the big man who should slide in to Skeen’s shoes.
Maybe a Final Four is asking a lot, but don’t be surprised to hear VCU’s name again this year.
Paul Hewitt’s debut with George Mason When the former Georgia Tech coach landed at Mason, it was like he stepped in a bed of roses. Great tradition, strong commitment to basketball and a loaded team returning -- who says the grass is greener in the ACC?
But since he was hired, a few weeds have sprouted up that will make this inaugural season a little more tricky. Luke Hancock, the hero in last season’s NCAA tournament upset of Villanova, transferred to Louisville and Andre Cornelius, the team’s fourth-leading scorer, was suspended after being charged with credit card larceny and fraud. His preliminary hearing isn’t until Nov. 15, so the Patriots will start the year without him. Oh, and Cam Long, the team’s leading scorer from last season, graduated.
Hewitt still has plenty to work with -- forwards Ryan Pearson and Mike Morrison make for a nice returning frontcourt and big man Erik Copes could be the best freshmen in the league -- but new jobs are never easy. Hewitt is a different voice with a different style (more uptempo) than Jim Larranaga, so it will be interesting to see how it all works out for Mason.
Is it Drexel’s turn? The CAA has given us two of the better Final Four stories in the game’s history -- George Mason and VCU. The league also has been responsible for some serious major upsets in the NCAA tournament -- Old Dominion over 3-seed Villanova in triple overtime comes to mind -- so it’s not a stretch to think someone in this league will make some noise come March.
The question: Is it Drexel’s turn to be that someone? The Dragons, remember, almost stopped VCU’s run before it started. Skeen’s buzzerbeater in the tournament quarterfinals turned out to be the difference-maker. From that team -- which won eight of its final 11 games -- Bruiser Flint returns a strong core that is committed to defense. Drexel allowed just 59.7 points per game -- 11th in the nation -- and dominated the boards thanks to Samme Givens, Dartaye Ruffin and Daryl McCoy. All three are back and by December, Chris Fouch will be, too. The leading scorer last season despite starting just two games, Fouch is recovering from knee surgery.
The Dragons are the preseason pick to win the league, which was a surprise to some. Ever since David Robinson left Navy, only one school outside of the state of Virginia (UNC Wilmington) has ever won the CAA. Can Drexel buck history?
Can new coaches pull Georgia State and Towson out of the basement? Ron Hunter and Pat Skerry don’t have it easy. Georgia State hasn’t had a winning season in eight years and last season ranked 301st (out of 335) teams in scoring offense with 61.9 ppg. Towson, meantime, hasn’t sniffed a winning record since 1995-96, this despite having Gary Neal on the roster for two seasons.
So the glass half-full reads: Hey, there’s nowhere to go but up. The reality: It’s a steep climb.
At least both schools have found men up to the job. Hunter spent 17 years at IUPUI, shepherding the Jaguars from NAIA to Division I, while Skerry is a former Pitt assistant who learned a thing or two about winning.
Hunter will try to push tempo to energize an offense that shot an anemic 42 percent from the floor but will have to trust guys who couldn’t score in double figures to do it. Skerry, meantime, had but one returning starter -- RaShawn Polk -- but he was suspended indefinitely following his arrest on seven criminal counts last week. He does have Robert Nwankwo, a shot-blocking force who redshirted last year. He also has a beautiful new arena in the works for 2013. That should help.
Is Mike Moore the next Charles Jenkins? Mo Cassara sure hopes so.
Jenkins, the scorer extraordinaire and the two-time league player of the year at Hofstra, is in a holding pattern along with his NBA brethren.
But Moore isn’t exactly a lousy substitute. The guard averaged 14.9 points per game last season. That's a precipitous dip from Jenkins’ 22.6, but he showed on plenty of occasions that he is as capable of lighting up the scoreboard. Moore topped the 20-point plateau six times last season and in his final 11 games, reached double digits in every contest, averaging 16 per game.
Without Jenkins, Moore is going to be the Pride’s primary scoring option.