The crispness of the fall air, the orange hues that overtake the treetops, and the squeak of basketball sneakers in gymnasiums across the country. These are just some of the telltale signs that basketball is back. More importantly, the annual countdown to March Madness can begin anew.
Here’s our look at the Colonial Athletic Association:
Sharp coaching, tenacious defense and talented guards guided UNC Wilmington to a special season and continued its rapid, remarkable resurgence. The Seahawks shared the regular-season title for the second consecutive year and won the conference tournament championship, defeating Hofstra in overtime in Baltimore to earn the fifth NCAA tournament bid in school history, which also was the first since 2006.
UNCW coach Kevin Keatts is 26-10 (.722) in CAA action in two seasons. The Seahawks were 28-78 (.264) in the six seasons before he arrived.
Hofstra earned a piece of the regular-season crown thanks to a late-season win at Wilmington in which CAA Player of the Year Juan’ya Green controlled the game down the stretch.
William & Mary, Towson and James Madison also won 20 games as the CAA enjoyed its best season since 2011-12, finishing ninth (out of 32 conferences) in the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI).
Hofstra lost in the first round of the NIT 82-80 to eventual champion George Washington.
While the slick-passing, smooth-scoring Green was the preseason and postseason pick a year ago, the race for top honors is muddled entering 2016-17.
Hofstra’s 6-foot-9, 260-pound center Rokas Gustys is dominant inside, unafraid to flex his bodybuilder’s frame on the glass and around the rim. He led the CAA with a 26.1 player efficiency rating last season and ripped down 20 rebounds in six games, including the championship game loss to UNCW.
UNCW’s Chris Flemmings made first team All-CAA and was tournament MVP last season. The smooth 6-foot-5 senior is a master of efficiency who uses his length, athleticism and soft touch to crank the Seahawks’ small-ball engine. In conference play, he shot 81 percent on free throws, 61 percent on 2-pointers and 34 percent on 3-pointers.
William & Mary always has one of the nation’s best offenses, and 6-foot-7 senior Omar Prewitt is one reason the Tribe is so hard to guard. He had six 20-point games in the final month last season.
College of Charleston sophomore Jarrell Brantley has a versatile skill set. The 6-foot-7 point forward is a dangerous passer, rebounder and scorer. Towson’s Arnaud William Adala Moto is an older version with the same arsenal.
With four starters joined by a strong cast of new faces, UNCW is the clear favorite and aims to become the first CAA program to win three consecutive regular-season titles since VCU from 2007-2009.
Keatts has modeled his program after those VCU teams — employing an aggressive mixture of pressure defense with a litany of athletic scorers who can shoot threes and finish plays in transition.
The Seahawks led the CAA in 2-point field goal defense (45.3 percent) and disrupted the opponents’ offense, allowing assists on 47 percent of field goals, which was also best in the league.
Devonate Cacok’s ability to control the interior could be the key to the Seahawks’ championship quest. Foul trouble and inconsistent playing time marked his freshman season, but Keatts praised the 6-foot-7, 240-pound Cacok for an excellent offseason. He’ll receive the first crack at a post position that was handled by committee a year ago.
The College of Charleston overcame an injury-depleted roster last season by developing into one of the nation’s best defensive units. The Cougars allowed 0.95 points per possession (17th) and stifled scoring better than any other CAA team.
Baskets were a problem at times, however, and cost the Cougars in two losses to UNCW by a combined six points in the final two weeks of the season.
This season, scoring should come like a fresh pot of Frogmore Stew — slow and steady with a strong blend of flavors. While it’s easy to focus on the transfer of leading scorer Canyon Barry to Florida, it’s worth noting that he missed the final two months last season with a shoulder injury. Adjusting to his absence shouldn’t be an issue for the Cougars.
Charleston coach Earl Grant returns every other significant piece from last year’s 17-14 club that defeated LSU. He also welcomes back combo guard Joe Chealey, who averaged 12 points in 2014-15 but missed last season with an injury, and Grant Riller, a redshirt freshman with a scorer’s touch who has yet to play a college game.
Freshmen Chevez Goodwin and Jaylen McManus should also contribute in what projects as a deep, athletic roster capable of playing slightly faster on offense (332nd in adjusted tempo last season) and still applying defense like Grant demands.
Freshman to watch
Eli Pemberton of Hofstra should receive enough minutes and take enough shots to factor in the CAA Rookie of the Year race. He’s an athletic 6-foot-4 wing expected to slide into the slot created by the departure of Ameen Tanksley. The Middletown, Connecticut, native scored more than 2,000 points in high school and was MVP of the Jordan Brand Regional game.