A Midseason Examination Of The CAA's Underdogs

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Thanks to the St. Louis Blues and Washington Nationals, the last 12 months have provided plenty of inspiration and hope to underdogs everywhere.

The Blues had the fewest points in the NHL last Jan. 3, three days before several team members spent an off-night by going to a bar in Philadelphia to watch the Eagles play the Chicago Bears in the NFL playoffs. As has become legend, the DJ kept spinning Laura Branigan’s hit song “Gloria,” and when the Blues beat the Flyers 3-0 the next night, they decided “Gloria” was their thing.

It became a thing for Blues fans everywhere over the next five-plus months, a span in which the Blues ended the regular season on a 29-9-5 run before winning the first Stanley Cup in franchise history. “Gloria” became the post-victory soundtrack at the Enterprise Center and wherever Blues fans were congregating.

The Nationals were already climbing from rock bottom and had won 11 of their last 17 games June 18, when star pitcher Max Scherzer suffered a broken nose when he was hit by a pitch during batting practice. Remarkably, he pitched as scheduled the next night, when he tossed seven scoreless innings and earned the victory in a 2-0 win that capped the Nationals’ doubleheader sweep of the Philadelphia Phillies.

The sweep — which also featured the debut of Gerardo Parra using “Baby Shark” as his walk-up music — began a season-ending 60-31 stretch for the Nationals, who earned an NL wild card berth before a dramatic surge in October ended with the first World Series title in franchise history.

Now, thanks to the Blues and Nationals, everyone thinks they are in the race no matter how long a bad start drags on. Sure, their championship runs are almost surely the outliers and most teams at or near the bottom of their league a third of the way or deeper into the season are going to stay there, but why else do we watch sports except to see the seemingly impossible become reality?

So with the CAA schedule reaching the halfway point this weekend, we thought it’d be fun to examine the chances of the teams in the league’s bottom half mounting a Blues- or Nationals-esque run. We will grade their chances on a scale of 1 to 5 Glorias or Mad Max’s Black Eyes. 

(Sure, we should probably go with Baby Sharks, but some of us may have predicted the Nationals’ post-Scherzer broken nose surge even though we later picked them to lose in the NLDS and World Series. For the sake of the readers rooting for these teams, you should probably hope we are wrong here.)

Elon (1-6)

The Phoenix are shaping up as the team nobody will want to face in Washington D.C. in March. Elon has suffered two one-point losses in league play — to William & Mary, which is in first place, and Delaware, which was one of the five teams to receive a first-place vote in the preseason poll — and has lost by single digits to two more contenders, Charleston and Northeastern. But while the Phoenix appear to be building something sustainable under first-year head coach Mike Schrage, the payoff probably isn’t happening this year for a team that ranks 329th in experience at KenPom.com

LIKELIHOOD: One Gloria

UNC Wilmington (1-7)

Under interim head coach Rob Burke, the Seahawks are the team nobody wants to face NOW. An 11-game losing streak (average margin of defeat: 13 points) cost C.B. McGrath his job, but UNCW nearly upset Hofstra last Thursday before storming back from a 15-point second half deficit to stun Northeastern two days later. 

The young Seahawks going on a deep tournament run under the tutelage and motivational speaker Matt Foley-esque energy of Burke would qualify as one of the greatest stories in CAA history. Alas, UNCW is even younger than Elon (348th in experience at KenPom.com), so it’s probably not happening this year. But after last weekend, would you bet against Burke? 

LIKELIHOOD: Two Mad Max Black Eyes

James Madison (1-6)

While the Phoenix and Seahawks were consensus picks to finish at the bottom of the CAA, James Madison was picked fourth and received three first-place votes. It’s hard to imagine the Dukes avoiding the outbracket games now, but they were one of just two teams — Hofstra was the other — to have a first- and second-team player in the preseason all-CAA balloting. 

Matt Lewis and Darius Banks are healthy and combining to average 31 points and 11.2 rebounds per game, so the talent is there to mount a comeback. If the long road back yields a tournament run, maybe last Saturday’s near-comeback from a 21-point deficit against Towson is viewed as the catalyst. 

LIKELIHOOD: Two Glorias

Delaware (3-4)

The Blue Hens, who were picked fifth in the preseason and received two first-place votes, were the darlings of the non-conference season after going 10-3 and nearly upsetting Villanova. But the transition to league play has been a bit rocky for a talented yet transfer-laden team, which might be one year away from breaking through. 

The Blue Hens’ three wins have all come against the league’s one-win teams. Still, few would be surprised if likely all-CAA first teamer Nate Darling sparked Delaware in March. 

LIKELIHOOD: Three Mad Max Black Eyes

Towson (4-3)

We’re cheating a bit here, since Towson is obviously over .500 in league play. But the Tigers were picked sixth in the preseason poll and started 0-3, the latter of which is a familiar hole for the program. Towson opened the 2016-17 season 0-4 but finished in third place with an 11-7 record and advanced to the CAA semifinals. 

The Tigers are the only CAA team ranked in the top 200 in defensive efficiency at KenPom.com, and if preseason all-first teamer Brian Fobbs (19.3 ppg during the winning streak) keeps hitting his shots, they’re going to be a handful for everyone in March. 

LIKELIHOOD: Three-and-a-half Glorias

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