Colonial Athletic Association teams are proven tough outs in the NCAA Tournament: In 2018, Charleston went down to a final possession (and questionable non-foul call) against Auburn, UNC Wilmington took both Virginia and Duke to the limit in 2017 and 2016 and Northeastern went to the wire with Notre Dame in 2015.
No CAA team since VCU in 2012, a season removed from its remarkable Final Four run, has advanced past the Round of 64 in the Big Dance. That could well change this coming March, and a mid-February game between William & Mary and Delaware underscores why.
The raucous, back-and-forth affair between the Tribe and Blue Hens at Kaplan Arena on Feb. 15 delivered an intensity befitting the final stretch of the season.
“What an atmosphere,” said Tribe coach Dane Fischer in his postgame press conference, lauding the Gold Rush day crowd for elevating William & Mary to an 81-77 win. “Every play we made seemed just a little bit bigger today.”
If there's a way to bottle up the atmosphere of that Delaware-William & Mary game ship it straight to the #CAAHoops Championship, sign me up.— Bill Potter (@billpotter_) February 15, 2020
12 ties, 12 lead changes and came down to the final minute.
Both William & Mary and Delaware have at times looked like the potential standard-bearer for the CAA, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise if either leaves Washington D.C. in a few weeks with the Colonial’s automatic Tournament bid secured — certainly if they continue to play with the fire shown in Williamsburg, ignited by each team’s best player: Nate Darling and Nathan Knight.
On an afternoon when former Tribe legend Marcus Thornton’s jersey was retired, another William & Mary star likely bound for the NBA in Knight delivered 33 points, 12 rebounds and three blocked shots.
“Every timeout, every huddle,” Knight said in the postgame press conference, “The biggest thing we talk about is not fraying.”
Thornton’s William & Mary team in 2015 fell short of earning the program’s first-ever NCAA Tournament bid; the 2020 Tribe have the pieces not only to make the field but win while there.
So many of the most memorable moments in 1st Round history featured star players and future NBA’ers rising to the occasion: Bo Kimble in Loyola Marymount’s 1990 run; Steve Nash in Santa Clara’s 15-over-2 upset of Arizona in 1993; Wally Szczerbiak’s 30-point per game average in Miami U.’s 1999 Sweet 16 run; Steph Curry nearly gunning Davidson’s way into the 2008 Final Four.
Knight is a different style of player, but uniquely skilled compared to much of the college basketball landscape. He has the back-to-the-basket game, the toughness on the boards, the pesky length to alter shots defensively of a throwback five, but steps out from behind the 3-point arc effectively.
Play too far up on the jumper, and Knight can do this.
He’s one of the nation’s top scorers at 21.2 points per game, he’s eleventh in rebounding at 10.9 per, and Knight is one of 30 finalists on the Naismith Award watch list.
In a sport where an individual star can carry a team deep, having one of the country’s best in Knight could make William & Mary an intriguing dark horse. But the Tribe would have to make history and get there.
Delaware’s still in the mix for a regular-season championship despite Saturday’s loss. Darling nearly shot the Blue Hens to a critical road W, actually outscoring Knight with 36 points.
The eruption pushed Darling to No. 13 in the nation in scoring at 21.6 points an outing. With the importance of and emphasis on perimeter scoring in the college game, the presence of a consistently effective guard oftentimes translates to a dangerous Tournament matchup.
And the same foundation Darling provides Delaware has helped shaped the theme of this CAA basketball season, where any number of teams look like viable conference tournament champions.
The Colonial’s unpredictable campaign mirrors that of the national college basketball scene, where upsets are the norm and few squads – if any – look like firm Final Four contenders.
Amid such chaos, a dependable star can provide the stability to navigate the Madness.