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The shell of the standard CAA men’s basketball media day was in place Wednesday morning.
While a perennial contender was picked to finish first, a handful of teams received first-place votes. Coaches agreed the league was wide-open, though those presiding over teams picked in the bottom half uttered the usual should-we-really-believe-them comments about how they weren’t really paying attention to the rankings. Towson head coach Pat Skerry cracked wise about not having a catered lunch during the Zoom call and made self-deprecating comments in a thick Boston accent.
But in most ways, it was a media day unlike any other, filled with uncertainty, anxiety and short- and long-term concern befitting a pandemic-ravaged year unlike any other.
“In terms of the complexity of 2020, where do you start?” said Northeastern’s Bill Coen, the league’s longest-tenured head coach. “It’s impacted everything.”
Commissioner Joe D’Antonio’s opening remarks included a discussion of the financial solvency of the CAA following pandemic-related losses and the testing plans for each school. He didn’t have to state the obvious: There are many challenges laying before the league and its members between now and March 6, when the CAA Tournament is scheduled to begin in Washington, D.C.
The CAA, which normally plays a round-robin home-and-home schedule, announced a modified schedule last month in which teams will attempt to play each other at one site on back-to-back weekends with exceptions for travel partners, which will play home-and-homes over a three-day span.
“As you’ve seen, the NCAA’s minimum number of games needed to be played is 13 (for NCAA Tournament consideration),” D’Antonio said. “If you ask me what is our ultimate goal, our ultimate goal is to play all of our games. But at a minimum, we’re hoping that each institution will have an opportunity to play at least the 13 that they need to qualify for the championships.”
Trying to navigate a pandemic is stressful and difficult enough, but league coaches are also concerned with the well-being of one of their own — Hofstra’s Joe Mihalich, the head coach of the defending league champions and preseason favorites who is on a medical leave of absence.
“Hopefully we can get him back and that he’s healthy,” Skerry said. “This thing is precious. I don’t think any of us take that for granted.”
“He’s an unbelievable competitor and great coach and an even better friend to me since I’ve joined the CAA,” Delaware head coach Martin Ingelsby said. “Our basketball program, this community, is thinking about him.”
Before Mihalich was sidelined in August, he joined his nine rivals, peers and friends in regular discussions about coaching in a pandemic — talks and texts that went far deeper and were far more serious in nature than the usual court-side chit-chat during summer recruiting.
“The conference has done a good job of keeping the coaches connected with a lot of virtual Zooms, and I think the coaches have done a good job of staying connected,” Skerry said. “There’s been a good sense of camaraderie amongst the coaches, even though when it goes up Jan. 2, certainly, from our end, we’re going to try to kill them. But we’re rooting for them like heck right now to stay healthy. Guys have been really understanding.”
Each coach is in the position of trying to rush through a team-building process that normally takes place over a span of several months, and doing it with measures in place intended to keep everyone healthy in the midst of a pandemic. Per NCAA regulations, any team that has any member of the program test positive for the coronavirus cannot practice for at least two weeks.
“A ton of information sharing — we talk fairly regularly as a group, I think we talked more this off-season on one-offs, with guys calling each another, checking in,” Coen said. “I think with so much uncertainty, we’re just trying to see if we could come up with best practices or brainstorm best ways to do things. This is going to be a unique year.
“First and foremost, we want to keep and protect the safety of the student-athletes, the coaches and the staffs and all the campuses throughout the league. I think we just as a group just tried to share information and be supportive and learn what best practices may be and try to help be a part of a solution of a very, very difficult problem.”
If a basketball season can be played, it’s likely to be as entertaining and unpredictable as it has been over the last eight seasons, a span in which six schools have won the league’s automatic bid and seven schools have earned at least a share of the regular-season crown at least once.
Hofstra, which won the CAA Tournament and earned its first bid to the NCAA Tournament in 19 years less than two days before March Madness was canceled, lost all-CAA first-teamer Desure Buie and second-teamer Eli Pemberton to graduation but was picked first in the preseason poll and received 16 first-place votes thanks largely to the returning trio of Isaac Kante, Tareq Coburn and Jalen Ray. Kante was an all-first team preseason pick while Coburn and Ray each earned honorable mention.
“One of coach Mihalich’s favorite lines is ‘You prove them right or you prove them wrong,’” acting Hofstra head coach Mike Farrelly said. “When you’re not picked first, you try and prove them wrong. And when you’re picked first, you try to prove that they’re right.”
Delaware, which appeared prime to enter this season as the overwhelming favorite before leading scorer Nate Darling turned pro and forward Justyn Mutts transferred to Virginia Tech, was picked second and received 11 first-place votes. The Blue Hens, who fell to Hofstra in the CAA semifinals, placed senior guards Kevin Anderson and Ryan Allen on the preseason second team.
“I wouldn’t say that outcome against Hofstra was good for us, but I do think it gave us an opportunity to really motivate a group heading into the spring and summer and the fall,” Ingelsby said.
Drexel, which the only school with two first-team honorees in senior forward James Butler and junior guard Camren Wynter, was picked third and garnered seven first-place votes. The Dragons are looking to snap a streak of six straight sub-.500 seasons.
“I’m more interested in the postseason ranking,” Drexel head coach Zach Spiker said “But I do think it is a reflection of the trajectory of our program as we head into this year — how hard we’ve worked to develop a culture and the coaching staff and the group of players that are moving in this direction. This is what you work for, this is what you’re trying to accomplish.”
Towson, which finished in third place last season, was picked fourth with four first-place votes. The Tigers’ most important newcomer is a familiar face: Guard Zane Martin, who transferred to New Mexico following the 2017-18 campaign but returned over the summer for his senior year. Martin was named to the preseason all-CAA first team.
“So many unknowns,” Skerry said. “I think the thing’s wide-open.”
Elon, which mounted a surprise run to the CAA semifinals last season, was picked fifth while sophomore Hunter McIntosh, the reigning league Rookie of the Year, was named to the preseason all-CAA season team. Charleston was picked sixth and Northeastern, which fell to Hofstra in the title game, was picked seventh. Senior guard Brevin Galloway and sophomore Tyson Walker represented the cougars and Huskies, respectively, on the second team.
The programs led by new coaches, UNC Wilmington and James Madison, were picked eighth and ninth. UNC Wilmington’s Takayo Siddle was an assistant with the Seahawks under Kevin Keatts when the latter directed the program to back-to-back CAA titles in 2016-17.
“We’ll talk about (being picked eighth) and address it, but it’ll be a one-time thing,” Siddle said. “We’ll try to use it as motivation, but we’re not really focused on the rankings, especially in the preseason.”
In another sign of the league’s depth, James Madison’s Matt Lewis was tabbed as the preseason player of the year.
“I was happy we weren’t picked 11th, so ninth isn’t the worst thing in the world,” said James Madison head coach Mark Byington, who added with a grin that Lewis is the Dukes’ lone guaranteed starter.
William & Mary, which finished a game behind Hofstra in the regular season before being upset by Elon in the tournament quarterfinals, was picked 10th following the graduation of Player of the Year and potential NBA draftee Nathan Knight.
Whether picked first, 10th or somewhere in between, though, teams share a common objective heading into a season unlike any other.
“I think first and foremost, we hope everybody stays healthy, we get to play games and we get to crown a champion at the end of the year,” Coen said.
Jerry Beach has covered Hofstra sports since arriving on campus in the fall of 1993, when Wayne Chrebet was a junior wide receiver wearing No. 3, Butch van Breda Kolff was the men’s basketball coach for the East Coast Conference champions and Jay Wright was a little-known yet surely well-dressed UNLV assistant coach. Check out Jerry’s book about the 2000 World Series here and follow him on Twitter at @JerryBeach73.