Commentary

MMR: It's getting crowded atop the CAA

Originally Published: January 10, 2012
By Myron Medcalf | ESPN.com

As Ron Hunter considered a job offer to become the head coach at Georgia State last year, most of the people he talked to urged him to pass. Their concerns were understandable.
Georgia State finished 12-19 last season and hasn't finished with a winning record since 2004.
"The 12 people I asked about the job, 11 told me not to take it," Hunter said during the Colonial Athletic Association's teleconference Monday.
In the end, Hunter's mother was the only one who advised him to take the gig. Mom must know best. Hunter saw promise in the program and a league that continues to build off a recent stretch of national achievements.

[+] EnlargeBryon Allen
Rafael Suanes/US PresswireGeorge Mason and Georgia State are among the contenders in the Colonial Athletic Association.

At 11-4, Georgia State is one victory from matching last season's win total, and it's still early January. First-year coach Paul Hewitt has led George Mason to the top of the league's standings with a 4-0 record. Shaka Smart, the star of last season's Final Four, turned down more money and prestige to guide a young VCU squad that won eight in a row from Nov. 30 through Jan. 2.

But Georgia State is right there, joined in Ken Pomeroy's top 100 by VCU, GMU and Drexel.

Hewitt and Hunter have helped the Colonial boost its national profile, one that began to transform when George Mason earned a Final Four slot in 2006 and continues to evolve as multiple teams add the necessary pieces to become consistent factors in the conference.

Mason's Final Four run introduced many to CAA basketball. Earning three bids for the first time in last season's NCAA tournament and sending VCU to the Final Four, however, added another layer to the league's resonance with casual fans.

"Once Mason went to the Final Four, they know who's in the CAA," Drexel coach Bruiser Flint said. "And then last year, that sort of typifies, let everybody know.

"We've had good players. Over the last four years, we've put a few guys in the NBA. And last year just showed how good our league was from top to bottom."

Hewitt turned down an opportunity to coach Saint John's two years ago. And in 2004, he guided Georgia Tech to the Final Four. His decision to take the George Mason job, after being fired from the Yellow Jackets last year, was viewed as a respectable move, not a major step down.

"I just think there are a lot of positives, probably too many for me to list," Hewitt said about his new job on the league's weekly teleconference Monday.

The early stages of the CAA race have been feisty.

Eight squads are .500 or better. Four teams are 3-1. And George Mason is undefeated at 4-0.

Flint said the early parity is a sign that the CAA is getting deeper. "I still don't think we get enough credit," Flint said. "They really only talk about the top of our league, but I think the league as a whole has gotten better. The bottom teams have gotten better. So I think when you go into your league play, it's tough games every night."

Hunter was more emphatic.

"I said it before I took this job, and I'll say it now. It's the best non-BCS conference in the country, no doubt about it," he said. "I wanted to be a part of that."

Five individual performances you might have missed

Doug McDermott (Creighton): The Bluejays sophomore scored a career-high 44 points in a 92-83 win at Bradley on Saturday. He was 18-for-23 from the field and hit 3 of 5 from beyond the arc. In his past three games, McDermott has scored 80 points. Cue the surge in player of the year chatter. Jamelle Hagins (Delaware): The junior forward finished with 21 points and 18 rebounds in a 67-66 victory over Hofstra. Hagins followed the performance with 13 points and 12 rebounds in a 75-64 victory over William and Mary. He has nine double-doubles this season.

Tony Mitchell (North Texas): The Mean Green freshman scored 34 points and grabbed 16 rebounds during a 78-73 win at South Alabama. Mitchell was a five-star prospect who'd signed with Missouri out of high school. After being ruled a partial qualifier, he left Mizzou and signed with the Mean Green. He's averaged 13.1 points and 8.0 rebounds since joining the team in mid-December.

[+] EnlargeDamian Lillard
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezIt's safe to say that Weber State star Damian Lillard hasn't been bothered this season as the top target of opposing defenses.

Wil Carter (San Jose State): The senior forward recorded 21 points and 20 rebounds in his team's 82-69 loss at Hawaii.

Damian Lillard (Weber State): The junior guard scored 38 points in 40 minutes in an 88-81 victory at Portland State. He also had five assists and five rebounds. He's averaging 26.7 points in true road games this season.

Five recent scores you might have missed

Akron 67, Marshall 51: Nikola Cvetinovic (14 points) was one of five Zips who scored in double figures in this solid road win Jan. 1. Akron outscored Marshall 40-24 in the second half. The Thundering Herd were 2-for-11 from beyond the arc.

Western Michigan 72, Milwaukee 61: The Broncos went 30-for-37 from the charity stripe in this MAC-Horizon League battle on Jan. 3. Matt Stainbrook led all scorers with 21 points in that game. The Panthers were 10-for-36 from 3.

Illinois State 68, Missouri State 60: After starting Missouri Valley play with a win at Creighton and a home victory against Drake, the Bears never led on Wednesday in this loss to the Redbirds, who are off to a strong 3-1 league start.

Wagner 89, Monmouth 79: Wagner earned its fifth straight win and fourth consecutive true road victory Saturday. Latif Rivers scored a game-high 28 points for Danny Hurley's squad.

George Mason 61, Georgia State 58: Paul Hewitt's squad snapped GSU's 11-game winning streak with this victory Saturday. Mason was 18-for-21 from the charity stripe and sits atop the Colonial.

Five games you don't want to miss

Old Dominion at Delaware (Tuesday): Four CAA squads entered the week with 3-1 records in conference play, and George Mason was 4-0. ODU and Delaware are a part of the 3-1 group. This matchup is significant because so many teams in the league are seeking separation.

Gonzaga at Saint Mary's (Thursday): This one is always fun. The Zags and Gaels both started West Coast Conference play with 3-0 records. SMC has the No. 2 scoring offense in the WCC (76.3 ppg). Gonzaga is third (75.2 ppg).

Montana at Weber State (Saturday): The Grizzlies entered the week riding a five-game winning streak. But they travel to both Northern Arizona and Weber State this week. A victory over league favorite Weber and its nation-leading scorer Damian Lillard would be an early coup for Montana.

Texas-Arlington at Lamar (Saturday): This is a battle between Southland contenders. UTA, top-30 nationally in scoring offense and rebounding, starts the week hoping to continue a five-game winning streak. Lamar has won three straight after a Dec. 28 whipping at Kentucky.

Loyola (Md.) at Iona: The MAAC's top two squads will battle Sunday in New Rochelle, N.Y. Iona is ranked 14th in Ken Pomeroy's offensive efficiency ratings. Loyola has held conference foes to 62.0 ppg, No. 2 in the league.

The Mid-Major Power 15

(Conference USA, the Atlantic 10 and Mountain West are not represented in these weekly rankings)

1. Gonzaga: Currently riding an eight-game winning streak.
2. Creighton: Responded to Missouri State loss with three consecutive wins.
3. Murray State: Still undefeated and won't be an underdog until the NCAA tournament.
4. Saint Mary's: Road loss to Denver and neutral-site loss to Baylor are only blemishes.
5. Wichita State: Won all four true road games and owns an RPI of 33.
6. Long Beach State: Casper Ware has scored 17 or more in three of past four games.
7. Iona: High-scoring Gaels rank 41st in Ken Pomeroy's ratings.
8. Harvard: Fordham loss was shocking.
9. BYU: Shooting 49 percent from the field.
10. Oral Roberts: The 6-0 Golden Eagles are dominating the Summit League.
11. Northern Iowa: Has wins over Milwaukee, Colorado State, Iowa State and Iowa.
12. Middle Tennessee: Blue Raiders haven't lost since Dec. 7 and are 4-0 in Sun Belt.
13. Denver: 2-2 record against opponents in RPI's top 50.
14. George Mason: Snapped Georgia State's 11-game winning streak.
15. Cleveland State: The Vikings have won four of their past five.

Myron Medcalf covers college basketball for ESPN.com. He can be reached at mmedcalf3030@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter: @MedcalfbyESPN