Colonial Athletic Association
With Virginia Commonwealth off to the A-10, the CAA will take on a different look in the 2012-13 season. Teams without much history will surely enjoy a slightly easier league; however, George Mason will not enjoy the power vacuum, making the league almost assuredly a one-bid league and putting the pressure on them to win the whole shebang. A big head-scratcher has been why Old Dominion, one of the most consistent performers in recent years, is currently 1-8 with a fairly easy schedule.
**Order based on league standings as of writing**
William and Mary, 5-3 (1-0): The Tribe won just six games all of last season, four in-league, so their start thus far is as surprising as ODU’s faceplant. Three of the squad’s top four scorers are back, including Marcus Thornton. He was one of the league’s best freshman 12 months ago. This is a fun story now, but I’m skeptical I’ll be seeing William and Mary in my office pool come March.
George Mason, 6-4: The Patriots have knocked off Virginia, lost to New Mexico by one, gave Maryland a game and suffered an OT loss to fellow non-football power league team Northern Iowa, a team that will be in NCAA contention. Translation: this team is pretty good despite the four losses already. Sherrod Wright is one of the CAA’s best players and his fellow backcourt mate Bryon Allen continues to improve his skill set.
Georgia State, 5-4: This Panthers team was a force last year but came up short against GMU in the league tournament. George Mason, of course, would promptly fall to VCU in the finals, sending the Rams back to the NCAAs. Leading scorer Devonta White is back and he is getting a lot of help early from Virginia Tech transfer Manny Atkins and freshman R.J. Hunter. Hunter was a star recruit who was on the radars of Iowa, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest, respectively. They’ll contend with Mason all year for the regular season crown and thus the top spot in the league tournament.
Northeastern, 4-5: The young Huskies managed to go 9-9 in-league last season and return their top four scorers. The top player, Jonathan Lee, was a preseason all-CAA selection. However, Lee hurt his foot in the off season, and while he was supposed to miss six weeks, he yet hasn’t played a game. If he can’t return, you can scratch the Huskies off the list of teams that can push George Mason or Georgia State for a league title.
Drexel, 3-6: Another contender already doomed by injury. The Dragons made the NIT and won 25 regular season games (29 total) a season ago. Despite returning several key pieces, however, one of their best players Chris Fouch is lost for the season. They’ll still be dangerous but that was a huge chess piece taken off the board.
Delaware, 3-7: My preseason pick to win the CAA has let me down a little bit thus far, but the injury bug stung them early. Extremely talented reserve man Josh Brinkley is lost for the year and key starter Jarvis Threatt has missed time with an ab injury. When he comes back, and if they can remain healthy the rest of the way, this Fightin’ Blue Hens squad might play up to expectations.
At its peak, the Colonial was a nightmare scenario league, receiving multiple Tournament bids, but with VCU gone and Old Dominion rebuilding this league has taken a step back. This will make the standings fun to watch, as anyone may come out on top, but beyond the champion, the CAA will be a single-bid league. With the slew of injuries to contenders, it looks like Georgia State and George Mason will be the main players in the regular season but if Northeastern, Drexel or Delaware straighten themselves out by the league tournament, they could steal the bid. Adding to the complexity of this is if upstart William and Mary can continue its plucky play and throw their hat into the ring down the home stretch of the season. As it stands now, I like George Mason to go Dancing.
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Southern Methodist, 8-1: The Ponies were not a good team a year ago but they added one of the all-time great coaches prior to the start of the season in NCAA and NBA champion Larry Brown. Jalen Jones has exploded and Kansas State transfer Nick Russell is also playing really well. Can these two keep it up and does Brown make that much of a difference to go from 13 wins to NCAA contention? That, my friends, remains to be seen. The early returns are encouraging though.
East Carolina, 6-1: Another bad team that has come out of the gate on fire. ECU did return some important pieces and their rotation is full of upperclassmen. The biggest thing helping ECU so far are, however, wins over two D-III teams and a NAIA team. It will be surprising to see this team be a factor down the stretch in C-USA.
Houston, 7-2: The Cougs went .500 last year but returned some key cogs while adding a very intriguing prospect in Jherrod Stiggers. They haven’t had the toughest schedule so far but have knocked off better teams than ECU. File this under wait and see.
Memphis, 6-2: The cream of the conference was a NCAA team a year ago and returned several key players. They have the best facilities in the league and have solid recruiting classes year in and year out. The only question is if Josh Pastner is the right man to lead this hoops-crazed school. If they don’t compete for the C-USA crown and fail to receive an invite to the Dance, you might see him out of the job even with 20-some wins.
Tulane, 7-3: I don’t know what has gotten into the water of C-USA teams that were bad last year, but the Green Wave is another club enjoying a hot start. After a 9-0 start last year, Tulane crashed and burned in-league, winning just three games. They do return all four of their studs off of last years team, highlighted by Ricky Tarrant. Although their wins so far have been of roughly the caliber as Houston and SMU’s, this team would be a surprise to see in title contention later this season.
[Tulane is not going to be in Conference USA for very much longer]
Southern Miss, 6-3: The Golden Eagles had a breakthrough season a year ago in making the NCAA tournament. They return their star Neil Watson and they added junior college stud transfer, Dwayne Davis. So far they’ve looked pretty good and should compete for another trip to The Dance despite some roster turnover behind Watson. Coach Donnie Tyndwall comes over from Morehead State after Larry Eustachy jumped to Colorado State. Can he handle this talented roster? Can he handle the grind of a tougher league? If the answer to those questions is yes, you have to like USM’s chances.
Tulsa 6-3, and Marshall 6-4: The Golden Hurricanes went 10-6 and The Herd went 9-7 in-league a season ago but a lot of roster turnover has led many to expect a step back from 17 wins for Tulsa and a NIT appearance for Marshall. Both teams have had encouraging starts, but like a lot of these teams so far, they haven’t played anybody.
Conference USA is going to be a toss-up this year. Memphis is the best team on paper, but hasn’t played like it yet. UCF is banned from postseason play but still have enough talent to impact the race. If SMU, Tulane, ECU and Houston can keep it up this will be one of the deeper seasons for the league in quite some time. If not, this league could just be a one, maybe two bid league. Even with the issues in the early going, the smart money is on Memphis to be dancing. Southern Miss also has a lot of upside, if they can put it all together. We saw that a few games ago when they gave Arizona all they could handle in Tucson.
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