By Scott Haynes, Associate College Basketball Editor
OUTLOOK : It was a banner 2011-12 season for the Colonial Athletic Association, as the mid-major conference finished the year with five of its 12 members posting 20+ wins, including a league high 29 from both Drexel and Virginia Commonwealth. With the Rams jumping ship to the Atlantic 10 this year, that leaves the Dragons as the favorite to take home the league title again in 2012-13.
Drexel isn't going to just run away with the conference crown though, as George Mason and Delaware could present a stiff challenge, as both have enough left over talent to guide a squad through a long season.
Old Dominion has been a postseason fixture for almost a decade and should continue that trend as one of the top teams in the league, especially if some of the newcomers on the roster deliver immediate results. The Monarchs will be moving to Conference-USA next season.
Northeastern, James Madison and Hofstra should have better seasons than a year ago, as all three finished under .500. The biggest drop off will come at Georgia State, where the Panthers have been gutted by graduation and to make matters worse, will not participate in the CAA postseason as the team is in transition to the Sun Belt for next year.
The bottom of the conference will belong to William & Mary, Towson and UNC- Wilmington. The Tribe could improve on their six wins from a year ago, while the Tigers will assuredly improve on their lone win. That leaves the Seahawks, who will also not participate in the postseason. UNCW has just one proven commodity and that alone will more than likely relegate the team to the CAA cellar in 2012-13.
The conference is undergoing some changes and it will be reflected in a conference tournament that only seven of the current 11 programs will take part in.
CONFERENCE CHAMPION : Drexel
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH : 1. Drexel, 2. Delaware, 3. George Mason, 4. Old Dominion, 5. Northeastern, 6. James Madison, 7. Hofstra, 8. Georgia State, 9. Towson, 10. William & Mary, 11. UNC-Wilmington
TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:
DREXEL : Bruiser Flint has turned Drexel into one of the most well-rounded mid-major program in the nation. Four starters return from a team that went 29-7 overall and ran through the conference schedule, capturing the regular- season crown with a 16-2 mark. Adding fuel to this year's fire for Drexel is the fact that the NCAA Tournament committee decided to bypass the team, relegating the Dragons to the NIT. Leading the way this year is junior point guard Frantz Massenat, who is the CAA Preseason Player of the Year after averaging 13.7 points and 4.8 assists per game as a sophomore. Damien Lee (12.0 ppg) is perfect complement, with his scoring ability off the wing. Chris Fouch (10.8 ppg) and Derrick Thomas (8.1 ppg) add plenty of punch in the backcourt. The team lacks big-time scorers in the frontcourt, but their job is to play stifling defense, which the team did all season long last year, ranking first in the CAA and fifth nationally in scoring defense (56.1 ppg). Leading the way in that regard will be forwards Dartaye Ruffin (5.6 ppg, 4.9 rpg) and Daryl McCoy (4.3 ppg, 6.7 rpg).
DELAWARE : The Blue Hens may represent the toughest test for Drexel to overcome this year, as Delaware returns four starters from a team that finished 18-14 overall and a solid 12-6 in league play. The backcourt is lethal, with a trio that consists of potent scorer Devon Saddler (second in the CAA at 18.8 ppg), Jarvis Threatt (10.7 ppg) and Kyle Anderson (8.9 ppg). The frontcourt has depth as well, led by senior forward Jamelle Hagins (12.4 ppg, 11.1 rpg, 95 blocks) who can do it all and ranked first in the CAA and fifth nationally in rebounding. He will be joined by fellow senior forward Josh Brinkley (8.7 ppg). Saint Joseph's transfer Carl Baptiste (6-8 junior) will help fortify up front as well. Both Hagins and Saddler were All-CAA Second-Team members last year and will certainly vie for First-Team honors in 2012-13.
GEORGE MASON : The Patriots went 24-9 a year ago, including 14-4 in-conference. Paul Hewitt's second year with the team could provide an even greater reward. George Mason must find an adequate replacement for CAA Player of the Year Ryan Pearson, but may have an All-CAA player on the roster if junior guard Sherrod Wright (9.6 ppg off the bench last year) elevates his game the way Hewitt believes he can. The two returning starters on the roster are point guard Byron Allen (7.5 ppg, 3.7 apg) and fellow guard Vertrail Vaughns (8.8 ppg). The frontcourt needs an identity and role players last year like forwards Erik Coples (3.3 ppg, 51 blocks) and Jonathan Arledge (4.3 ppg) will need to step up. Freshman guard Patrick Holloway has a chance to get extended minutes right away.
OLD DOMINION : The Monarchs are departing for Conference USA and after going 22-14 last year, with a 13-5 conference record, Blaine Taylor's squad would like nothing better than to go out on top. The team did all that despite ranking 250th nationally in shooting the basketball. So, where exactly will the Monarchs find offense this year? That's a good question. Kent Bazemore (15.4 ppg) and Chris Cooper (10.5 ppg, 10.1 rpg) are no longer around. Taylor hopes the answer can be found in a combination of players, including senior forward Nick Wright (8.3 ppg, 5.2 rpg) and guards Donte Hill (7.6 ppg) and Dimitri Batten (7.9 ppg). There is also great anticipation for what NC State transfer DeShawn Painter will do for the frontcourt. The 6-9 center will bring a toughness in the paint that Old Dominion has grown accustomed to over the years and could develop into one of the CAA's top big men.
NORTHEASTERN : The Huskies have been consistently average under Bill Coen's reign, finishing with a .500 record in the CAA in five of the last six seasons, including last year's 9-9 mark. Still, the team won just five games outside of the league, leaving it three games under par on the year (14-17) overall. How much those numbers change in 2012-13 depends a lot on the play of a backcourt consisting of senior guards Jonathan Lee (14.5 ppg) and Joel Smith (12.9 ppg), as well as the huge potential of 6-8 sophomore guard Quincy Ford (11.5 ppg), who showed the ability to do a little bit of everything as a freshman last year. Ford will really have to elevate his game early on, as Lee suffered a foot injury during drills recently and will not be ready to start the season. Sophomore forward Reggie Spencer (6.8 ppg, 5.1 rpg) makes it four returning starters, but Northeastern must get role players and newcomers alike to make contributions to push towards a winning campaign.
JAMES MADISON : Matt Brady is on the hot seat at James Madison after a 2011-12 season in which the team finished a mere 12-20 overall, with just a 5-13 CAA record, good for just a tie for eighth place in the standings. A lot of that had to do with key injuries throughout the roster, but Brady may still need a huge turnaround this season to keep his job. A veteran core of players returning could be just what the doctor ordered. The team returns three starters in senior guards A.J. Davis (15.9 ppg) and Devon Moore (8.8 ppg, 4.2 apg) and senior forward Andrey Semenov (10.2 ppg). Senior forward Rayshawn Goins (9.7 ppg, 6.8 rpg) was a key contributor off the bench two years ago, but missed last season with a shoulder injury. His healthy return should fortify things up front. A solid recruiting class is headlined by youngsters Andre Nation (6-5 guard) and Ron Curry (6-4 guard).
HOFSTRA : After winning 21 games in his first season at Hofstra, Mo Cassara's squad failed to continue the progress in 2011-12, finishing 10-22 overall, including a miserable 3-15 effort in the CAA. If the third time is a charm, Casarra is going to have to get the most out of the newcomers brought in. Gone is the CAA's top scorer Mike Moore (19.9 ppg), as well as backcourt mate Nathaniel Lester (14.6 ppg). So where exactly will Hofstra find that kind of production at the offensive end? Well, it isn't likely to come from any returning player. Despite three starters returning, the top point producer among them is senior forward David Imes (7.0 ppg), whose season was cut short due to injury. Anticipated transfer Jamal Coombs-McDaniel (6-7 forward), who won a national title at UConn in 2011, is likely to make a big impact. Another transfer, sophomore guard Taran Buie had a cup of coffee with Penn State in 2010-11, netting just under six points per game in 11 outings. Freshmen Jimmy Hall (6-7 forward) and Dallas Anglin (6-1 guard) should get plenty of minutes as well.
GEORGIA STATE : Ron Hunter's debut with the Panthers was certainly a successful one, as Georgia State finished 22-12 overall. The wins were harder to come by in conference play though, with the Panthers finishing in sixth place with an 11-7 mark. Expecting similar results in 2012-13 would truly be remarkable, considering the team loses four starters. The lone holdout is point guard Devonta White (12.9 ppg), but there isn't much of a supporting cast around him. Virginia Tech transfer Manny Atkins will finally get on the floor for Georgia State, and he could certainly help. Other newcomers of note include Markus Crider (6-5 forward) and Ron Hunter Jr. (6-5 guard), the coach's son.
TOWSON : Things couldn't have gone much worse for Pat Skerry in his first season with the Tigers, as Towson won just one game (1-31), finishing last in the CAA at 1-17. Towson hasn't posted a winning record in almost 20 years and that streak is probably not in jeopardy of being halted in 2012-13. Only two starters make their way back to the team this season and that's not necessarily a bad thing. Senior forward Marcus Damas (12.5 ppg) is the best option in terms of returning talent. To Skerry's credit, he has brought in some players to hopefully move this team in the right direction. That talent includes a couple of bigs in the form of former Georgetown Hoya Jerrelle Benimon (6-8, 245) and former Providence Friar Bilal Dixon (6-9, 245). There is also 6-3 freshman guard Jerome Hairston, who can play either guard position and 6-8 freshman forward Barrington Alston, who is a play-above-the-rim athlete. The pressure should be off for the newcomers as the Tigers will not take part in the postseason due to low APR scores.
WILLIAM & MARY : The Tribe were a disappointing 6-26 last season, struggling to remain competitive in the CAA with a 4-14 mark, good for a 10th-place finish. In order for Tony Shaver to move this team in the right direction, he will need to get the most out of his deep backcourt. The team returns three of last year's five starters with the lost of Quinn McDowell (12.5 ppg) being the most costly. Still, there are high hopes for 6-4 sophomore Marcus Thornton (11.1 ppg), who is the team's top returning scorer. Junior Brandon Britt (9.0 ppg) joins Thornton in the backcourt. Fellow junior Tim Rusthoven (10.3 ppg, 6.6 rpg) gives the team a frontcourt option, but must stay healthy to maximize his potential. Freshman Terry Tarpley (6-5, 190) and Sean Sheldon (6-9, 215) are versatile youngsters that can help a team in a number of ways. Still, there are too many unknowns on the roster to think the Tribe will improve significantly in 2012-13.
UNC-WILMINGTON : UNCW will also not participate in the postseason due to a low APR, but Buzz Peterson has bigger worries heading into 2012-13 after posting just a 10-21 mark a year ago, including a 5-13 effort against the rest of the league. The team returns just two starters from last year, but has a CAA Player of the Year candidate in the form of 6-8 senior Keith Rendelman, who averaged a double-double last season (15.3 ppg, 10.0 rpg). Former Rutgers guard Tyree Graham is now at UNCW and will be immediately available as a graduate student. His time in Piscataway were marred by injuries (torn ACL and ruptured Achilles' heel), but hopefully he can bring an offensive presence to a backcourt in desperate need of one. Peterson is expecting production from a couple of redshirt freshmen as well in 6-8 forward Luke Hager and 6-1 guard Craig Ponder.