College basketball: Colonial seeks resurgence in 2015-16
In 31 seasons the Colonial Athletic Association has been, among other things, a haven for tremendous coaches. Stints in the conference groomed, at various stages, the careers of Rick Barnes (George Mason), John Beilein (Richmond), Jim Larranaga (George Mason) and Shaka Smart (VCU). The legendary Lefty Driesell passed through after his tenure at Maryland, winning five regular season titles in nine years at James Madison.
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Strong leadership on the sidelines produced historic success on the court for a mid-major conference, multiple NCAA tournament bids in multiple seasons and two of the most memorable underdogs ever to grace March Madness.
In the last three seasons, however, key programs departed and the CAA dropped significantly in the rankings, plummeting to 22nd (of 32) in the 2012-13 Ratings Percentage Index (RPI). The conference champion earned no better than a 14 seed in the NCAA tournament and exited each year in the Round of 64.
Perhaps the CAA will never return to its bracket-busting salad days. Still, early returns indicate the conference is on the upswing in 2015-16.
Conference schools have a 13-4 overall record entering Wednesday’s games and this weekend is filled with opportunities against likely top 100 programs from the five power conferences. On opening night, the conference carved two notches in its belt. William & Mary won by 17 points at N.C. State, which reached the Sweet 16 last season, and James Madison won by 12 points at Richmond.
Ron Bertovich has served as the CAA’s deputy commissioner for basketball since the position was created in 2005. Experience - on the bench and on the court - has fueled optimism throughout the conference, which spans from Boston to Charleston, South Carolina. The CAA returned 74 percent of its starters from last season and what the favorites lack in blue-chip recruits they offset with chemistry and experience.
“I’ve been saying for 30 years, this business at this level is so much about player development,” said Bertovich, who previously served as commissioner of the Mid-Continent Conference and the Atlantic 10. “Our coaches are teachers first. Players and teams have been together for an extended period of time. That’s such a positive. Our kids are getting bigger, faster, stronger and obviously more experienced.”
College basketball at the mid-major level has a cyclical nature. Timing and luck play a significant role and the entire season is often condensed into a three-game conference tournament weekend. Teams hopeful of earning at-large bids need grizzled guards to score nonconference victories in November and December that become quality marks on their resume when the tournament selection committee makes decisions in March.
In general, the best scenario for postseason recognition occurs when there’s separation at the top of the standings, yet the bottom teams are strong enough to avoid hurting the overall strength of schedule.
The top tier was strong in 2006 when George Mason became the first mid-major since NCAA tournament expansion in 1985 to reach a Final Four. The Patriots defeated Michigan State, Wichita State, North Carolina and Connecticut before losing to eventual national champion Florida in the national semifinal.
The conference peaked in 2010-11. A record three programs received NCAA tournament bids on the strength of a 82-58 (.586) nonconference record that pushed the CAA to ninth in the RPI. Led by fearless seniors, VCU made history by winning five games in the NCAA tournament, defeating Kansas in the regional final before losing to Butler in the Final Four.
Then conference realignment hit the CAA hard.
After the 2011-12 season the CAA lost VCU, a member for 17 years, to the Atlantic 10 where it won the tournament championship last season. Charter member George Mason departed for the Atlantic 10 following the 2012-13 season. Old Dominion moved to Conference USA to play football at the FBS level and rising basketball program Georgia State headed to the Sun Belt for football purposes the same year.
The CAA courted Davidson, which landed in the Atlantic 10. It ended up adding former Southern Conference members College of Charleston and Elon.
The league has regrouped, and taken on a new identity, straying from defensive-oriented roots that produced low-scoring rockfights (UNCW is currently the highest rated defense at No. 117 in the nation). Ken Pomeroy projects William & Mary, James Madison and Hofstra in the top 50 of his adjusted offensive efficiency ratings.
There’s been stability in the head spot on the bench as well. Bruiser Flint is in his 15th season as coach at Drexel. Tony Shaver has taken William & Mary from bottom feeder to perennial contender in 13 seasons. Bill Coen is in his 10th year at Northeastern, and guided the Huskies to their first CAA tournament championship last season. JMU seeks its fourth 20-win season in coach Matt Brady’s eight years. Newcomers like Kevin Keatts, a former Rick Pitino assistant at Louisville and the Coach of the Year in his first season at UNCW, have injected hope into previously forlorn fan bases.
“In the preseason and at media day, all the coaches kept saying ‘watch how competitive we’re going to be,’” Bertovich said. “The kids have been there and done that. They’re tired of taking their lumps and the ball is going in the basket.”
Of course, the season is less than one week old.
The schedule offers immediate opportunities for meaningful victories. Preseason favorite Hofstra faces Florida State in the opening round of the Paradise Jam in the Virgin Islands, followed by either South Carolina or DePaul. Towson tackles Oklahoma State in the opening round of a solid field at the Charleston Classic. Over the weekend, William & Mary travels to play A10 favorite Dayton, while Elon heads to Syracuse and College of Charleston aims to impede Davidson’s ultra-efficient offense.
Ultimately, a champion will be decided over 18 regular-season games. The NCAA tournament field will include the CAA team that emerges over three days in Baltimore on the first weekend in March, and likely that team alone. But weekends like this can help the CAA regain respect and repair its reputation as an elite mid-major conference.
CAA in the Rankings
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* Simple Rating System - a rating that takes into account average point differential and strength of schedule. The rating is denominated in points above/below average, where zero is average. Non-Division I games are excluded from the ratings.