After an "off" year, the Colonial Athletic Association is once again a threat to send multiple teams to the NCAA Tournament. Virginia Commonwealth is currently the favorite to win the conference title, but George Mason, Northeastern, Old Dominion, Hofstra, and James Madison have also caught the eye of the college basketball world with their impressive records.
James Madison, who was picked to finish ninth according to a preseason coaches' poll, and Hofstra, picked seventh, are most likely to slip.
The Dukes, under first-year coach Matt Brady, have a scorer in Juwann James, but they also have too many freshmen with big roles. Freshman Julius Wells is third on the team in scoring, averaging 11.6 points per game on 41.3 percent from long range.
Devon Moore scores 10.1 points per night, and Andrey Semenov adds 7.5 per game.
The good news for James Madison is that their top two scorers are seniors. James drops 16.3 points per game, and Kyle Swanston adds 10.4. However, you can expect the combination of having a new coach and so many freshmen will lose a handful of games down the road.
After suffering a 98-69 loss to Clemson to open the season, Hofstra won eight games in a row before losing by 16 to UMass. During the eight-game winning streak, the Pride's only win against a team with a reputable record came by one point against Eastern Tennessee State (10-4, 4-0 Atlantic Sun).
Charles Jenkins has declared himself as the leader of this Hofstra team, which suffered last year while Antoine Agudio was hurt and was expected to continue to lose after his graduation.
Without Agudio, who is now playing in Turkey, Tom Pecora's squad is 10-5 and is second in the nation with 44.2 rebounds per game—Greg Washington, Dane Johnson, and Miklos Szabo are three big, in every meaning of the word, reasons why.
Rebounding is required to win games, but it won't win games by itself. Hofstra has shot 35.1 percent from the field during losses and is shooting 38 percent on the season. Their free-throw shooting is poor and so is their three-point percentage at 30.6 percent.
By the end of the season, Hofstra won't be considered for the at-large bid that was spoken about during the eight game winning streak, but they have potential to be a tough team in the conference tournament and maybe, just maybe, find a way to sneak into the NCAA Tournament by winning the CAA championship.
Old Dominion is always dangerous. They were picked to finish third, but with the help of All-CAA junior Gerald Lee, the Monarchs can compete with anyone in the conference.
After making the NCAA Tournament in 2007, the Monarchs declined to finish 18-16 last year. Now, they are 9-5, but three of their losses were by less than five points and four were by less than eight. Their only double-digit loss was by 15 against a revered UAB team, which is expected to give Memphis a run for its money in Conference USA.
Old Dominion's production is created by a handful of sophomores, two juniors, and a senior. Only Gerald Lee, Jonathan Adams, and Marcus Neely experienced the run to the Tournament, but that could be all the experience that is needed to will this team to the top of the conference.
Despite slightly worse play from All-CAA First Team member Matt Janning, Northeastern is living up to its conference expectations. The Huskies were chosen to finish directly behind Virginia Commonwealth, and they are currently 4-0 in the CAA.
There were, without a doubt, some rough losses—20 points at Michigan, 32 at Memphis—and some bad losses—eight points against Boston and 18 at South Florida—but the Huskies have found their stroke. They have won six out of their last seven, including a 13 point victory at Indiana and a blowout against Hofstra.
Here's why Northeastern was picked to finish second: They returned every key player from a team that went 14-17 with a 9-9 CAA record in 2007-'08, Matt Janning is one of the best players in the CAA, and the team is well-rounded. They have some talented big men, they shoot 42.4 percent from the field, 33 percent from deep, and 70.7 percent from the charity stripe.
Excluding the early-season blowouts, the Huskies defense has been superb—opponents are averaging a meager 59.8 points per game.
Northeastern is tough and has the ability to defeat VCU. Unfortunately for the Huskies, their only contest with the Rams is in Virginia.
Critics did not expect George Mason to be 11-3 this far into the season primarily because no one could believe that they would be able to respond to the losses of Will Thomas and Folarin Campbell.
However, the losses allowed the Patriots to assemble a very balanced scoring effort. Cam Long leads the team with 11.8 points per game, but six other Patriots score over seven points per game.
The Patriots have not lost by more than six and are still undefeated at home. The only inexcusable loss was by six at Hampton, but a three-point overtime loss to Seth Curry and the Liberty Flames and a four-point loss at Dayton shouldn't undermine GMU's chances of earning an at-large bid.
As a team, the Patriots can shoot and rebound very well. Thirty-seven rebounds per game, a field goal percentage of 45.4 percent, and 34 percent success rate from deep are stats that cannot be scoffed at. Averaging 70 points per game is better than most CAA teams, and with the balanced scoring attack, the Patriots will put up a consistent high-60s, low 70s score.
Other than VCU, the Patriots are the only team in the CAA with a legitimate chance of obtaining an at-large bid at season's end. The only road block that would direct them to the NIT would be unacceptable conference losses to anyone other than the top four teams.
If they manage to go 14-4 in the CAA, which is entirely possible, and advance to the CAA championship, they will have a legitimate case for earning an at-large bid.
Now for the league's best team, Virginia Commonwealth.
Every one remembers that sophomore named Eric Maynor who hit a jump shot that defeated Duke in the first round of the 2007 NCAA Tournament.
Well, Maynor is a senior now and is averaging 22.1 points and 5.9 assists per game. If that isn't enough, he is also shooting 40.7 percent from deep.
If his three-point percentage is not impressive enough for you, take a look at sophomore Joey Rodriguez's three-point percentage of 49.3 percent. Yep, 49.3 percent from deep! As a team, the Rams shoot 40.3 percent from long range.
Rodriguez is not the three-point shooter who only comes off the bench to launch a couple of threes; He also averages 11.5 points per game.
Last year's CAA Freshman of the Year Larry Sanders is averaging 9.9 points, 6.7 rebounds, and three blocks per game.
Freshman Bradford Burgess may win the award that Sanders received last year. He's scoring 8.7 points per game on 50.6 percent field-goal shooting and 45.7 percent three-point shooting.
The Rams are yet to defeat a high-profile team, but they've come close. Losses by six at Rhode Island, five against Vandy, and 11 against Oklahoma proved that the Rams can compete with top competition.
Anthony Grant is a great coach, and you can expect the Rams to win the CAA. However, the path won't be too easy because of teams like GMU, ODU, Hofstra, James Madison, and Northeastern, but VCU is still the favorite.
Anything can happen...