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Dane Fischer didn’t waste much time during CAA media day last week discussing the elephant in the room — or, more accurately, the 6-foot-10 big man no longer in the Tribe’s locker room.
“We’ve got a completely different look this year, obviously, replacing a huge void with Nathan Knight,” Fischer said, referring to the CAA Player of the Year who capped one of the finest careers in school history by ranking second in the nation with 23 double-doubles and placing in the top 20 in both scoring (20.7 ppg) and rebounding (10.5 rpg) while leading the Tribe to a surprise second-place finish.
Now, eight months after the pursuit of the first NCAA Tournament bid in school history ended with a 68-63 upset loss to seventh-seeded Elon in the CAA quarterfinals, the task for William & Mary — which was picked last in the 10-team CAA in the preseason poll released last week — is to try and fill that void while avoiding the year-after struggles often endured by a team attempting to adjust to life without a graduated Player of the Year.
Knight is the 24th CAA Player of the Year to win the award as a senior. The previous 23 teams that had to replace the Player of the Year averaged 5.35 fewer wins in their first season without the star.
Only four times has the team graduated a Player of the Year and improved its win total the next season. Northeastern went from 15 wins to 23 wins in 2017-18 following the graduation of T.J. Williams. In 2009-10, VCU went from 24 wins to 27 wins following Eric Maynor’s graduation, though five of those victories were recorded as the Rams won the CBI. George Mason went from 18 wins with three-time Player of the Year George Evans in 2000-01 to 19 wins the next season and James Madison won 21 games in 1991-92, one year after Steve Hood led the Dukes to 19 wins.
In addition, two notable teams equaled or almost equaled their win total without the reigning Player of the Year. William & Mary won 20 games in 2015-16, the same number the Tribe won with Marcus Thornton the year before, while Hofstra, which won 27 games with Justin Wright-Foreman in 2018-19, finished with 26 wins last year and would have had a chance to match or exceed the previous season’s total if the NCAA Tournament hadn’t been canceled due to the pandemic.
At the other end of the spectrum are the seven teams that won at least 10 fewer games in their first season without the reigning Player of the Year. Like the Tribe with Knight, most of these squads were trying to replace one of the most iconic players in program history.
Towson went from 25 wins with two-time Player of the Year — and future NBA player — Jerrelle Benimon to in 2013-14 to 12 wins the next season. Hofstra fell from 22 wins with Loren Stokes in 2006-07 to 12 wins in 2007-08. Old Dominion won 22 games when Odell Hodge won his third Player of the Year award in 1996-97 to 12 wins the next year. Hall of Famer David Robinson, the CAA’s first three-time Player of the Year, steered Navy to 26 wins in 1986-87 before the Midshipmen fell to 12 wins the following season. James Madison won 20 games in the CAA’s first season in 1982-83, when senior Dan Ruland shared Player of the Year honors with George Mason sophomore Carlos Yates. Ruland was drafted in the third round by the Philadelphia 76ers, after which the Dukes won just three games in 1983-84.
On the surface, the closest comp for the Tribe as the season begins might be Hofstra’s 2010-11 and 2011-12 teams.
The Pride looked like 2010-11 championship contender before head coach Tom Pecora exited for Fordham and CAA all-rookie team members Halil Kanacevic and Chaz Williams followed Pecora to the Atlantic 10 by transferring to Saint Joseph’s and Massachusetts, respectively. But reigning Player of the Year Charles Jenkins remained, alongside senior big man Greg Washington and senior transfer guard Brad Kelleher, and with Jenkins leading the way and winning his second POTY award, Hofstra raced out to a 5-0 start in CAA play before finishing third and going 21-12 under new head coach Mo Cassara.
William & Mary appeared primed to enter last season as the CAA’s favorite before longtime head coach Tony Shaver was fired and four starters — everyone but Knight — transferred. The surge into contention — the Tribe won its first six league games before finishing 21-11 — was aided by a trio of transfer seniors in 7-foot-2 center Andy Van Vilet and guards Bryce Barnes and Tyler Hamilton.
Prior to the 2011-12 season, Cassara spoke about the depth the Pride would have to utilize following Jenkins’ departure and the need for patience as the new lineup developed.
“Although some of them are older and veteran guys that have played some basketball, they’ve never played together,” Cassara said. “So there’s going to be a learning curve. It’s going to take some time.”
Alas, the Pride won just three CAA games, its lowest figure ever, and finished 10-22. The CAA is smaller (2011-12 marked the final season of the 12-team alignment) and not quite as top-heavy this season. And as much as Fischer would love it if Knight walked into practice today with a fifth year of eligibility, he’s energized by the challenge of the clean slate and the chance to try and minimize the Tribe’s post-Knight growing pains.
“Last year at times, we had one of the biggest lineups, if not the biggest lineup, in the league,” Fischer said. “We were about seven or eight deep and this year I think we’ve got 10 guys that’ll be in play for minutes. So it’ll be a completely different look and I’m excited with what this group has done so far.”
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.