2011 was undoubtedly the banner year in the history of the Colonial Athletic Association. The league placed three teams in the NCAA Tournament; two reached the Round of 32, and VCU went all the way to the Final Four after sneaking in as one of the final at-large teams.
The enormous success by CAA teams last season squashed any lingering doubt about what the league did in 2006, when George Mason went to the Final Four. The run by VCU—who finished fourth in the CAA last year—helped to further legitimize the quality and depth of this league.
While many of the key players from last year’s tournament teams—VCU, George Mason and Old Dominion—were not returning, the CAA was still expected to have the opportunity to earn multiple NCAA bids this year.
However, the first month of this season was widely disappointing for the CAA as a whole. There were no real noteworthy wins over power-conference foes, and just a few over quality mid-major programs. In addition, several teams struggled mightily early on, in some cases to inferior competition.
Now halfway through the conference season, the CAA has progressed rather nicely after the collective struggles early. Each of last year’s three tourney teams are right in the hunt for the league title, along with Drexel—a team picked to finish first this year in some publications.
Here is a breakdown of the CAA in non-conference play, conference play (so far), and what to expect from the league going forward.
Non-Conference Play: Not Too Much to be Excited About
From a record standpoint, VCU fared the best in non-conference play, going 9-3. After struggling early in the Charleston Classic, losing to Seton Hall and Georgia Tech, the Rams bounced back in December with a couple of decent wins over South Florida—currently 5-3 in the Big East—and Akron. Considering they had to overcome the losses of Joey Rodriguez and Jamie Skeen, among others, VCU did fairly well in the early season, but not outstanding.
At 8-3 in non-league games, Drexel also fared respectably, but missed out on a chance for a couple of noteworthy wins. The Dragons lost to Norfolk State in the Paradise Jam in the Virgin Islands, which prevented them from potentially playing Marquette. They did face Virginia in the tournament, but managed just 35 points in a 14-point loss. Drexel’s best win outside the league, in terms of RPI, was against Princeton (103).
George Mason, last year’s regular-season champion, had virtually no wins of note outside the CAA and a couple of questionable losses. Their best win was against College of Charleston, who is currently only 4-4 in the Southern Conference. While losing at Virginia is fine, losing to Florida Atlantic and Florida International was not what new coach Paul Hewitt had in mind for this team.
Old Dominion played the toughest early schedule of any CAA team, but was still the most unimpressive among the four league title contenders. The Monarchs, who faced Kentucky and Missouri, went just 5-7 in non-conference play, including losses to Vermont and Fairfield.
Arguably the best two wins outside the CAA came by a team who currently has just one win in league play. Hofstra—ahead of only winless Towson in the CAA—defeated Cleveland State and Iona earlier this year. Both of those teams have had outstanding seasons and will be very dangerous in March. It shouldn't have been too much to expect someone else in the league to have been able to beat a team that is Top-25 caliber.
As for the rest of the league, the remaining seven CAA teams went a combined 28-47 (.329 winning pct.) against teams outside the league. William & Mary and Towson were a woeful 1-22, which really hurt the league’s overall RPI.
Conference Play: The “Big Four” Battling for First Place
After some questionable early losses, the four teams expected to compete with each other at the top of the CAA—George Mason, VCU, Old Dominion and Drexel—are now doing just that.
Despite the somewhat disappointing early play, George Mason (17–5 overall, 9–1 CAA) has been excellent thus far within the CAA season, holding onto first place currently. They won key games at Old Dominion and against Georgia State in early January, and have won five straight since losing their only conference game at Drexel a couple weeks back.
As for Drexel (17–5 overall, 8–2 CAA), they have been on a tear since starting 0-2 in CAA play. The Dragons have now won eight in a row, including wins over GMU and VCU at home. Defense has carried Drexel throughout the winning streak, as the Dragons have not allowed more than 58 points in any game. On Wednesday, they dominated Georgia State—who had started off 5-1 in league play—in a 68-46 win, avenging their earlier loss to the Panthers.
Another team on a winning streak is VCU (16–5 overall, 8–2 CAA), who has won six straight after losing at Drexel. While most of the wins have been against teams in the bottom half of the league, the Rams beat Old Dominion last week in Richmond to move into a tie for second place.
After the slow start, Old Dominion (13–9 overall, 8–2 CAA) has quietly put themselves right in the league title race by winning the games they should win. ODU is the only team among the four top sides to have not won a game against the other three, but they will have a few good opportunities to do so late in the conference season. The Monarchs will get a rematch with both GMU and VCU in February, after suffering their only two league losses to those teams earlier this year.
The top four teams combined have not lost a single game to a team with a .500-or-below record in the CAA. That has been crucial in creating a lot of separation between the rest of the league, and the four-team race we have now, and should see the rest of the season.
Rest of the Season: Regular Season Champion, Tournament Possibilities
Last year, George Mason finished 16-2 in the CAA. That was plenty good enough to earn them an NCAA at-large bid, after losing to VCU in the CAA Tournament. GMU may need to match that mark this year if they want to have a real chance to go back to the NCAA Tournament as an at-large team.
The remaining schedule for GMU isn’t too easy, as they still have two games with VCU as well as ODU at home. If the Patriots win two of those three, they would be in good shape to win the league’s regular season title and No. 1 seed in the CAA Tournament.
Who will finish first in the CAA this season?
Of all four teams competing for the league title, Drexel has the easiest road to the end. The Dragons have just two games against teams over .500, including a regular-season finale at ODU. Of the three teams tied for second, Drexel, with a tie-breaking win over GMU, has the best chance to earn at least a share of the title, and the No. 1 seed.
Whoever does finish first in the CAA will be far from guaranteed a spot in the NCAA Tournament, however. Because of the league’s struggles in non-conference play, the CAA is currently ranked just 17th in Conference RPI. The 17th best league normally does not see multiple teams make the NCAAs.
Right now, the CAA has just two teams in the RPI top 100—Drexel (86) and VCU (96). Last year, there were six teams in the top 100 at one point late in the season. If GMU and ODU continue to win, they should eventually join those two. Regardless, the top teams in the CAA won’t be nearly as high as they were heading into the end of the year a season ago.
There is still an opportunity for the CAA teams to boost their standing, as they play in the BracketBusters event in February. The matchups are still TBD, but GMU, VCU, ODU and Drexel all figure to face quality competition, which may include Davidson, Iona, Cleveland State and Ohio.
Winning these matchups will be crucial for the CAA teams if they want to avoid going back to being a one-bid league in 2012.
RPI information from realtimerpi.com