Category archive: North Carolina-Wilmington Seahawks

The Colonial Athletic Association buzz is at an all-time high.

VCU went to the Final Four last season.

George Mason went in 2006.

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Jamie Skeen
AP PhotoVCU went to the Final Four last season as a No. 11 seed.

The conference has put two more teams in the Final Four in the past six seasons than every other league outside the power six, although Memphis went from Conference USA in 2008 and Butler represented the Horizon League the past two years.

But the CAA still hasn't solved its provincial problem. The Virginia-based league hasn't had a team outside the state win the regular-season conference title since UNC Wilmington in 2006, and outside of Wilmington capturing the title four times since 2000, no other team outside Virginia has won the title since former member Navy did in 1987.

Look deeper at the stats, and you'll see that no Northern team has won the conference, either, unless you're going to count Navy's three-year title run from 1985-87 as a team from the North because it's in Annapolis, Md.

Granted, the conference is made up of five teams from Virginia, so that tilts the odds in the favor of the state. But the former America East schools -- Delaware, Drexel, Hofstra, Northeastern and Towson -- that arrived to change the demographic of the Colonial in the middle of the past decade haven't been able to crack through and earn a regular-season CAA title or a conference tournament championship.

That has to change for the CAA to truly be looked at as a game-changing conference, not just a collection of strong schools at the top with VCU, George Mason and Old Dominion as the most consistent players.

"It's pretty much been a steady three of late with VCU, Old Dominion and Mason," ODU coach Blaine Taylor said. "We've been more consistent than them, but we just don't have a Final Four run."

And if there is a chance that a Northern team can finally break through this year, the one candidate is Drexel if it can knock off favorite George Mason.

"Northern teams have always been in the mix, but it's been tough to win it," Northeastern coach Bill Coen said. "I think Bruiser [Flint] and Drexel have a chance. Drexel does two things terrific every game. They are outstanding defensively and one of the best teams in the country in rebounding. If you're going to separate yourself, it will come down to someone making a play at the end of the game, and in this league, typically you have to have upperclassmen to win it."

VCU had a strong senior class last season led by Joey Rodriguez and Jamie Skeen. Mason had an upperclassman-dominated team in 2006. ODU, which finished second to Mason last season, had a senior-dominated lineup.

Drexel didn't. The Dragons finished one game behind VCU and lost by two points in the CAA quarterfinals to the Rams.

"If VCU doesn't win that game they probably don't get a bid and ultimately go to the Final Four," Taylor said. "Drexel will be quite good this year. The thing that separates our league from other BCS conferences is that we have a lot of seniors or upperclassmen."

Drexel actually has more of a mix this season, but that could be enough with sophomores Dartaye Ruffin and Frantz Massenat complementing juniors Chris Fouch and Derrick Thomas and senior Samme Givens.

"We were one of the younger teams in the league last season and we won games," Flint said. "But we essentially return everybody."

The problem for the CAA is still a perception-based issue. Drexel won at Louisville last season, won 21 games and lost out to fellow member Hofstra for the College Basketball Invitational bid out of the CAA. James Madison, which finished behind Drexel, also received a CBI bid. The CAA had no NIT teams. Drexel didn't have any other postseason opportunities.

"VCU came in fourth in our league, and people forget that," Flint said. "Our conference doesn't get the respect it deserves. We're good, but we won't surprise anybody."

Flint didn't take any one-way guarantees this season and that will hurt the Dragons. Two seasons ago, the Dragons played at Syracuse and at Louisville last season -- splitting the two games.

Drexel has a soft schedule with games against still-struggling Saint Joseph's, likely second-place Ivy Princeton, Binghamton and St. Francis (Pa). Flint said he didn't want to add more guarantee games like last season because he had only three home games slated originally. A year ago, Drexel played only four nonconference home games. That puts even more pressure on the Dragons to do well in the Paradise Jam, in which the Dragons could get a chance to play upstart Virginia in their bracket, then possibly Marquette on the other side -- two possible NCAA tournament teams. Flint said he's working on a deal to play co-MAAC favorite Fairfield.

"We understand that to win this league you may have to go 16-2, but we're in the same boat as Mason was last year," Flint said. "We'll see. I'm not going to fool myself. The expectations are high for us. We can't let games get away from us. We want to be the first team not from Virginia, not Wilmington, to win a championship."

Rob Peterson, just 12 years old, looked up at his father after the last game of Appalachian State's season and laid it out for him.

"He said, 'This is hard, we've got to live together,"' Buzz Peterson said of his son's rather direct, mature response after the season-ending loss to Pacific in the CIT. "That's when it hit home."

Last season, Peterson had taken over Appalachian State for the second time as a head coach. The one season in Boone, N.C., was extremely draining. His family stayed in Charlotte, where Peterson had moved everyone in 2007 after he left the head-coach job at Coastal Carolina to join the front office of the Charlotte Bobcats, where his good friend and former North Carolina teammate, Michael Jordan, was a fixture.

The one year in Boone may have been a success on the court with 24 wins (13-5 in the Southern Conference), but it was hardly peaceful for Peterson. He would go 10 days to two weeks without seeing his wife and three children. Sometimes, based on the weather, the family couldn't make the drive from Charlotte to Boone -- and buying a new house while the Charlotte home remained unsold wasn't an option.

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Buzz Peterson
AP Photo/April L. BrownPeterson is in his fourth job in the last five seasons.

"I was hoping within a year that we would sell, but we couldn't," Peterson said. "It was really tough."

The UNC Wilmington job had been open for quite some time after the Seahawks fired Benny Moss in January after a 39-point loss to Hofstra. Moss had been 41-74 in his three-plus seasons at the school, the worst run of any coach in UNCW history. Peterson was in the midst of his Appalachian State season and at one point recommended his former assistant Ed Conroy, then at The Citadel, for the job (Conroy later took the Tulane gig).

As the season ended and it became even more apparent that Wilmington was interested in Peterson, he said he had to reprioritize. He called Jordan and told him he was going to accept the job and move back to MJ's hometown.

"He said, 'You're doing what?' We laughed because we used to come here in the '80s during school," Peterson said. "It's just weird how it turned out."

Looking at Peterson's track record of moving around makes it easy to question whether this is simply his latest stop. He could be construed as a carpetbagger, trekking from one show to another, looking for the best deal. But it's hard to question the moves, even if they have been numerous -- six head-coaching jobs (twice in the same place) and one NBA front-office position.

Peterson was an assistant at four stops -- Appalachian State, East Tennessee State, NC State and Vanderbilt, which is hardly abnormal. Taking his first head-coaching job at Appalachian State while an assistant at Vandy made sense. Four seasons later, getting the chance to take over a Tulsa program that had been a feeder system for high-major jobs was a no-brainer. He led the Golden Hurricane to the NIT title in 2001.

Going to Tennessee, an SEC job with a major jump in pay, was also a can't-miss. Getting fired by UT meant he had to find work, which he did immediately at Coastal Carolina. Two seasons later, he was receiving a call from Jordan to become the player personnel director in the NBA. How does one turn that down? There was a chance he was going to get a seat on Larry Brown's Bobcats bench a year ago, but a spot didn't open up. With a desire to coach again, he took another chance on Appalachian State.

Family pressures, a better league (the Colonial Athletic Association) and a locale change from inland to the beach made the move to Wilmington even more palatable.

Now, does he stay? He's just 47 years old, so there's no reason to believe this is a retirement job. But Peterson at least made a financial commitment, saying he signed a $500,000 buyout agreement that would be on him, not another school, if he broke the five-year contract. Granted, the buyout goes down $100,000 each year he stays, but it was still a statement to make that kind of financial commitment in this economic environment.

"My daughter just started ninth grade. I'm not looking to move. I want to build, stay here and create a winning product," Peterson said.

His attachment to Jordan has already paid dividends, with a commitment from the Bobcats to move training camp to Wilmington on Sept. 29, with a game at the end of the camp providing a treat for the local community.

But it may take Peterson a full five years to get this program to a highly competitive stage within the CAA. There was a time when this was one of the better spots in the league, with Jerry Wainwright going to the postseason four times in a five-year period (two NCAAs and two NITs) and Brad Brownell going to two NCAAs in a four-year period before he left for Wright State.

"It's at a low point now," Peterson said. "We've got to start this whole thing all over again. I've only got seven scholarships. We're going to have to add seven new players. I'm not sure we can do that in this class, but we're going to try."

Peterson said academics took a hit during the time Moss got fired and he got hired. He also was blindsided by the transfer of John Fields, the 6-foot-9 center who averaged nearly a double-double with 10 points and 8.7 rebounds a game. Fields graduated and Peterson said there were discussions about him pursuing a master's degree at UNCW. Instead, he ended up at Tennessee.

Fields took visits to Xavier, Rutgers and Miami as well before choosing the Vols. His plan was to get a waiver to play immediately since he is choosing a master's major that exists at UT, but not at UNCW. Fields is waiting for the waiver.

"He told us in April that he was staying and we were counting on him and then in late June he was gone," Peterson said. "We lost two other players to bad grades. What we have to do now is sign five or six this year and we'll have one of the younger teams next year. But we can do that and get this program in the direction it was in eight to 10 years ago."

Peterson is by all accounts a nice guy and says all the right things. He has had only two losing seasons -- both at Tennessee -- during his 12-year head-coaching career. The knock on Buzz has been concern about his commitment to stay in one place.

But for now, he is making it seem that he intends to stick with Wilmington. If he does, he may have finally found the place where he can truly find balance and flourish.