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Few men’s basketball preseason polls jumped off the screen like the CAA’s. As you no doubt know by now, half of the league’s 10 teams received at least one first-place vote in the survey of coaches and media members.
But as interesting a talking point as the poll was in October, the non-conference season would surely shake things out a bit and establish a clearer line between the potential haves and have-nots, right?
Not so much.
If anything, non-conference play further scrambled the glorious mess that is the CAA. As the league schedule gets underway Saturday, the top five teams in the KenPom.com rankings — Hofstra, Northeastern, Towson, Charleston and Delaware — are separated by just 33 spots. Every team in that quintet received a first-place vote in October except Towson.
Only one other league, the Mid-American Conference, has less separation between its top five teams (29 spots) at KenPom.com. Add William & Mary, the CAA’s No. 6 team at KenPom, to the equation and the top six are separated by 58 spots. Only the MAC (39 spots between the no. 1 and no. 6 teams) and the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (48 spots between the no. 1 and no. 7 teams) are more tightly bunched within the top half.
Given the CAA is smaller than both the MAC (12 teams) and the MEAC (11 teams), a case could be made the CAA is the most balanced and unpredictable conference heading into the new year.
“When I look at it, everybody has something that they can cheer about and everybody has something they need to work on,” Northeastern head coach Bill Coen said.
Indeed, each member of the top six had moments in non-conference play where it looked like a championship contender. Hofstra had the CAA’s most notable non-conference win when it upset UCLA, 88-78, on Nov. 21. Thirteen days earlier, Northeastern beat Harvard, 84-79, when the Crimson were a top-80 KenPom team. Towson beat a pair of A-10 teams (George Washington and Saint Joseph’s) and fell in overtime to Kent State and by just six points to Florida.
Charleston played the CAA’s toughest non-conference schedule and earned the biggest upset of the season when the Cougars knocked off Providence, then the no. 51 team at KenPom, 63-55 on Nov. 29. Delaware, which rose 88 spots in the KenPom rankings during non-conference play, enjoyed the longest unbeaten start in program history (9-0) and threw a scare into Villanova in a 78-70 loss on Dec. 14.
William & Mary, depleted by transfers following the spring firing of head coach Tony Shaver, led Oklahoma on the road deep into the second half and are basically getting nightly double-doubles from their 1-2 punch of senior big men Nathan Knight (19.9 ppg, 9.9 rpg) and Andy Van Vilet (14.7 ppg, 9.9 rpg).
“You don’t have a lot of years where a team just runs away with it,” Towson head coach Pat Skerry said. “Last year, there were only three teams that were very good. This year, you could have half a dozen that are postseason-worthy.”
But the top six also had moments the last seven weeks that gave their coaches fits.
Hofstra suffered the worst loss of any contender when it fell at home to No. 332 San Jose State in the season opener Nov. 6. Northeastern’s endured three two-game losing streaks. Charleston lost twice to Central Florida, the first time by a point and the second time by 21 points two days after the Providence upset. Towson was held to 38 points by Vermont and 54 points by Liberty.
“We’re certainly still an incomplete sentence,” Skerry said.
Delaware ended non-conference play by falling to No. 240 Long Island University. And William & Mary dropped almost 30 spots in the KenPom rankings by closing out non-league play with losses to Saint Joseph’s and St. Francis (PA).
“I think we’ve done a lot of good things so far this year, but there’s also some question marks,” Delaware head coach Martin Inglesby said.
And guess what? Things are likely to get even more chaotic this weekend and throughout the four-games-in-eight-days sprint that annually begins league play.
The preseason’s top three — Hofstra, Charleston and Northeastern — all open with back-to-back road games. Odds suggest at least one, and more likely at least two, of those teams are going to secure no more than a split, which will go a long way towards ensuring the standings remain far more bunched up than a year ago, when Hofstra raced out to a 9-0 start and was never seriously threatened on its way to earning the No. 1 seed.
“Hofstra had an unbelievable season, 15-3 in the league — it’s going to be hard for somebody to replicate that,” Coen said. “People are going to lose and they’re typically going to lose on the road. So if you can steal a road win, it’s like found money.”
In addition, with Christmas landing on a Wednesday, most teams didn’t return to campus until mid-to-late Thursday, which left everyone playing Saturday — everyone except William & Mary and Elon — with 48 hours or fewer to prepare for the league opener.
The only thing predictable about the play this weekend is going to be the unpredictability. The team that can shake those cobwebs fastest and find the consistency that has eluded everyone else is the one that will be best positioned to earn the regular season title and put itself in position to cut down the nets in Washington, D.C. in March.
“I think there’s going to be six or seven teams that if you have a bad half, you’re just not going to be able to get over it that night,” Skerry said. “You play bad for 20 minutes and it’s like ‘Oh boy.’"