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October 21, 2011

League preview: Colonial Athletic

We continue with our league breakdowns for the upcoming season; we'll work backward from league No. 32 to our top-ranked league.

The breakdowns will become more in-depth as the leagues get bigger.


Life is good in the CAA. For the second time in six seasons, the CAA sent a team to the Final Four last season, and for the third season in a row, five league teams made it to postseason play.

In 2006, the CAA interloper at the Final Four was George Mason. Last season, it was VCU. Ironically, George Mason coach Jim Larranaga moved on after last season, to Miami, but VCU coach Shaka Smart spurned all suitors and remained at the school; he signed an eight-year contract extension in April.

VCU's mere presence in the NCAA tournament was a credit to the CAA. The Rams finished fourth in the regular reason, then lost in the league tourney final to rival Old Dominion. But VCU was one of the teams selected to participate in the "First Four," and the Rams made the selection committee look prescient by advancing to the Final Four, where they fell to fellow mid-major Butler in a national semifinal.

While Smart returns, VCU could take a small step back this season. The Rams lose three starters and four of their top five scorers. George Mason, which won the regular-season title and won an NCAA tourney game, and ODU, which fell in the NCAA first round, also took some personnel hits.

What that all means is that Drexel, which finished fifth in the league and won 21 games but was excluded from the postseason, looks like the league favorite. The Dragons, who beat ODU, VCU and Louisville last season, haven't been to the NCAA tourney since 1996. But four returning starters and a good freshman class give coach Bruiser Flint a lot of talent to work with.

Drexel is especially strong up front. The Dragons return three of the league's top seven rebounders from last season, including undersized F Samme Givens. Givens, who is just 6 feet 5, was the only CAA player to average a double-double last season, at 12.2 points and 10.1 rebounds. Daryl McCoy and Dartaye Ruffin each averaged at least 7.4 rebounds, and helped the Dragons outrebound foes by 9.1 per game. Freshman Fs Damion Lee and Kazembe Abif also should get into the mix.

The key guy in the backcourt is junior Chris Fouch, who led the Dragons in scoring despite coming off the bench. Fouch has been bothered by injuries throughout his career, and if he remains healthy, he and PG Frantz Massenat will be a solid duo.

One issue for Drexel: The Dragons were bricklayers from the free throw line last season, hitting just 61.6 percent. They didn't shoot all that well from 3-point range, either, at just 31.0 percent. Flint places a premium on defense, and sometimes you wonder if that costs his team on the offensive end.

George Mason, VCU and ODU also are going to be in the title mix, and along with Drexel, there looks to be a definite "line of demarcation" between that quartet and the rest of the league.

George Mason is going to miss Larranaga. The new coach is Paul Hewitt, who was fired by Georgia Tech before landing at Mason. The Patriots have one of the league's top players in lefty F Ryan Pearson, who is a well-rounded offensive player. Big things are expected from freshman big man Erik Copes, and he, Pearson and senior F Mike Morrison give Hewitt a solid frontcourt. The backcourt is a bit of a question, though.

VCU's key player is swingman Bradford Burgess, who has a nice outside stroke. But it's vital that Smart find some effective interior scorers; if he doesn't, Burgess isn't going to have much room on the perimeter. Sophomore F Juvonte Reddic has the physical tools to develop into an effective low-post scorer, and it's expected that Darius Theus will take over as the point man to replace team sparkplug Joey Rodriguez. But Theus was a horrendous outside shooter last season and that must change. VCU remains the league's most athletic team.

VCU lost a lot of talent, but ODU may have lost even more. Swingman Kent Bazemore is the league's best defender, but he suffered a fractured foot over the summer and no one seems to know when he'll be 100 percent healthy. Bazemore is an efficient scorer and rebounder, and a prolonged absence would be a crippling blow to the Monarchs. Senior big man Chris Cooper needs to become more offensive-minded for ODU.

The rest of the league is a mixed bag. James Madison and Northeastern have solid backcourts, but will those teams get anything from their big guys? Hofstra will miss league player of the year Charles Jenkins, but senior G Mike Moore - who had a strong first season with the Pride after transferring from Fordham - could take over as the league's leading scorer. William & Mary needs a big season from swingman Quinn McDowell, who is a good offensive player, if it's to finish in the top half of the league. UNC Wilmington is well-coached by Buzz Peterson, but outside of F Keith Rendleman, Peterson doesn't have much established talent to work with.

Delaware, Georgia State and Towson look to be bottom-tier teams. Delaware does have one of the league's better guards in sophomore Devon Saddler, who was the CAA's freshman of the year last season. Georgia State (Ron Hunter) and Towson (Pat Skerry) have new coaches, but those new guys don't have much talent. Hunter had been coach at IUPUI, while Skerry had been an assistant under Jamie Dixon at Pittsburgh. Towson had four double-figure scorers last season, but three are gone.

Six league teams finished with at least 21 wins last season and three had at least 27. It seems doubtful there will be a 27-win team in the CAA this season, but having six 21-win teams definitely is possible again.

F Ryan Pearson, George Mason (6-6/237, Sr.)
F Samme Givens, Drexel (6-5/220, Sr.)
G/F Bradford Burgess, VCU (6-6/225, Sr.)
G/F Quinn McDowell, William & Mary (6-6/215, Sr.)
G Mike Moore, Hofstra (6-5/200, Sr.)
F Keith Rendleman, UNC Wilmington (6-8/213, Jr.)
F/G Julius Wells, James Madison (6-5/205, Sr.)
G/F Kent Bazemore, Old Dominion (6-5/195, Sr.)
G Chris Fouch, Drexel (6-2/178, Jr.)
G Devon Saddler, Delaware (6-2/205, Soph.)

VCU G/F Bradford Burgess
George Mason F/C Erik Copes (6-8/220, Fr.)

1. Drexel
2. George Mason
3. VCU
4. Old Dominion
5. James Madison
6. Northeastern
7. Hofstra
8. William & Mary
9. UNC Wilmington
10. Delaware
11. Georgia State
12. Towson

Best frontcourt: Drexel
Best backcourt: James Madison
Coach on the rise: VCU's Shaka Smart
Coach on the hot seat: Delaware's Monte Ross
Program on the rise: Drexel
Program on the decline: Old Dominion
Most underrated player: UNC Wilmington F Keith Rendleman

New coaches: Paul Hewitt at George Mason (fired as coach at Georgia Tech), Ron Hunter at Georgia State (had been coach at IUPUI), Pat Skerry at Towson (had been assistant at Pittsburgh)
Regular-season winner last season: George Mason
Tourney winner last season: Old Dominion
League RPI rank in each of past 3 seasons: 10th in 2010-11, 12th in 2009-10, 14th in 2008-09
Last NCAA tourney win by a league team: 2011, VCU as a No. 11 seed advanced to a national semifinal and George Mason as a No. 8 seed won a first-round game
2012 conference tournament: March 2-5, Richmond, Va.

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Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.

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