The most chaotic day in the history of CAA men’s basketball might have been Feb. 28, 2015, when the final afternoon and evening of the regular season began with four teams within one game of first place and ended with those four teams tied for first place.
But if the 2019-20 preseason poll released Wednesday is any indication, the last day of February 2015 might have just been an appetizer for what could await the CAA on the final weekend of regular-season play Feb. 29-Mar. 1, 2019.
Hofstra topped what will almost surely go down as the most wide-open preseason mid-major poll in the land Wednesday, when the Pride (331 points) earned the top spot over Charleston (323 points) despite receiving fewer first-place votes (14) than the Cougars (18).
The Pride and Cougars were two of five teams to receive first-place votes. Northeastern (four), James Madison (three), and Delaware (two) placed third through fifth.
“Not surprised that so many teams got first-place votes,” Hofstra head coach Joe Mihalich said. “We know what a great league it is. We know how many teams can win this league. I’ve been saying for the last few months — and I won’t give the names of the teams, because we don’t want any bulletin board material — but there’s six teams that can finish first. So that means one of those six teams could finish sixth.”
The poll underscored what the league’s coaches knew long before Wednesday: There’s no super team, but a bunch of schools that have enough pieces in place to make a run at the conference championship and the automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament.
“The preseason rankings are just kind of a reflection of everybody’s returning roster,” Northeastern head coach Bill Coen said. “But in my experience, it’s typically the team that can survive the injury bug and that can come up with an ‘X’ factor. And that ‘X’ factor could be an incoming freshman that nobody really had a chance to evaluate or a transfer or a guy who’s made a huge jump through normal development over the summer.
Hofstra, which won the regular-season title last year and fell to Northeastern in the CAA championship game, lost two-time CAA Player of the Year Justin Wright-Foreman as well as valuable big man Jacquil Taylor. But the Pride returns star guard Eli Pemberton, who was named to the All-CAA first team, and fifth-year senior Desure Buie, who was selected to the All-CAA second team.
Hofstra’s placement was also an acknowledgment that Mihalich will find a way to replace Wright-Foreman’s points. Nobody is better evidence of that than Wright-Foreman, who scored just 44 points as a freshman in 2015-16 before becoming one of the most prolific scorers in the country in the last two seasons. The Pride is getting two highly touted transfers in sophomores Isaac Kante and Omar Silverio, while junior Jalen Ray is a sharp-shooter from three-point land.
Charleston lost a pro as well — Jarrell Brantley was drafted by the Utah Jazz three picks before the Jazz selected Wright-Foreman — but returns Grant Riller, a member of the 2017-18 championship team who was picked as preseason Player of the Year. The Cougars have also finished in the CAA’s top two in each of the last four seasons in defensive efficiency at KenPom.com.
“It’s nice to see your results get noticed by people around the league, so I’m very appreciative of it and ready to get to work,” Riller said.
Northeastern has to replace three starters in guard Vasa Pusica, who graduated, as well as Shawn Occeus, who turned pro, and Donnell Gresham, who transferred to Georgia. But being picked third is a nod to the program-building tendencies of the CAA’s longest-tenured head coach, Coen, who is in his 13th season of bringing overlooked talent from far-flung places to Boston.
“We have essentially seven young new players — the newest team that we’ve had in a long time,” Coen said. “We have a lot of moving parts right now and we’re kind of trying to define those things and get them in sync.”
James Madison has gone 34-64 in three years under head coach Louis Rowe, but the Dukes beat Hofstra and Charleston last season and were tied with the Pride halfway through the second half of the CAA quarterfinals. Rowe also returns four starters, more than any other team.
“Somebody can look at a game like Hofstra and say we played a decent game on the road and beat a very, very good team, but there’s also games — and we’re honest about this in-house — there’s games where we don’t play that way,” Rowe said. “We know what we’re capable of, and we’ve got to hold ourselves to that level.”
Delaware has lost a key player following each of the last two seasons — second-team All-CAA player Ryan Daly transferred to St. Joseph’s in the spring of 2018 and all-rookie team member Ithiel Horton transferred to Pitt this summer — but the Blue Hens return junior guards Ryan Allen and Kevin Anderson while welcoming three transfers, including former Villanova big man Dylan Painter.
“As we kind of built this program, I’ve always looked at this year as the year for us to be in position to compete for a championship and possibly earn an NCAA Tournament bid,” said fourth-year head coach Martin Inglesby, whose team lost to Hofstra in overtime in the tournament semifinals in March. “We do have some unknown guys that we’re really excited about.”
As for teams six, seven and eight? Towson (Brian Fobbs) and William & Mary (Nathan Knight) each placed a player on the All-CAA first team while Drexel returns the Rookie of the Year, guard Camren Wynter.
“I think there’s a little more depth to our league this year but it’s always going to be competitive,” Drexel head coach Zack Spiker said. “If you’re not ready to go every single night, anything can happen.”
And as February turns into March, perhaps something familiar will happen within the top half of the league standings.
On Feb. 28, 2015, William & Mary, which was tied for first place with UNC Wilmington at 12-5, tipped off against Drexel at 2 PM with a chance to lock up the regular-season title and the No. 1 seed in the upcoming tournament. But Drexel handed the Tribe an 80-66 loss.
James Madison, tied for third place in the league with Northeastern at 11-6, faced Hofstra at 4 PM and put a three- or four-way tie into play by beating the Pride, 83-72.
At 7 PM, UNC Wilmington had a chance to win the regular-season title outright when it visited Elon, which was tied for eighth place. But the Phoenix stunned the Seahawks, 74-55, to make a four-way tie possible. And Northeastern, which visited Charleston at 8 PM, ensured maximum chaos by beating the Cougars, 65-56. William & Mary ended up earning the no. 1 seed by virtue of having the best head-to-head record amongst the 12-6 teams.
Could it happen again on the final weekend of this season, when there are four games scheduled to tip-off between 4 and 7 PM on Feb. 29 before Northeastern hosts Towson the next day? It might be more surprising if history doesn’t repeat itself.
“I talked to some of the other coaches in the league and I’ve said that I think this is going to be a year when maybe something like 13-5 wins the league and there’s going to be a bunch of ties and it’s going to go into the final weekend,” Mihalich said. “Just a lot of parity.”