2020 CAA Tournament Day One

By Milton Posner

Reminder: Northeastern men’s basketball takes on Towson in the quarterfinal of the CAA Tournament Sunday at 8:30 PM EST. Michael Petillo, Matt Neiser, and Milton Posner will have the call from Washington D.C., with coverage beginning fifteen minutes before tip-off.

WASHINGTON — The CAA Tournament kicked off Saturday with two games featuring the CAA’s bottom four seeds, those that didn’t earn first-round byes. No. 8 Drexel squared off with No. 9 UNCW, then No. 7 Elon battled No. 10 James Madison.

Drexel 66, UNCW 55

Despite a steady second-half advance from UNCW, Drexel held on to win the tournament’s first game. Drexel will kick off the four-game Sunday slate against the No. 1 Hofstra Pride.

As you might expect of two well-rested teams playing a win-or-go-home game, the energy was sky-high from the opening tip. UNCW began by applying full-court pressure, but the main defensive objective was to funnel Drexel’s ballhandlers into the space between the midcourt line and the three-point arc, force them to the sideline, and trap them with double teams. The scheme required movement and energy, two qualities best exemplified by UNCW interim head coach Rob Burke, whose emphatic, demonstrative, dramatic sideline behavior was on full display.

The traps worked for a few possessions, but eventually the Dragons got more comfortable. They made the Seahawks pay with accurate passes for easy layups, enough to make the Seahawks relax the pressure a bit and finally ramp down the game’s initial chaos.

After a war of inside shots and parallel scoring droughts yielded a stalemate, Drexel’s Coltrane Washington and UNCW’s Ty Gadsden decided a little back-and-forth was needed. Washington kicked things off with a deep three from the left wing, Drexel’s first points in five minutes. Gadsden responded with a three. Washington nailed another three from the same spot after a pump fake and a slick sidestep. Gadsden nailed a tricky leaning midrange jumper. By this point, UNCW’s defensive pressure, again with mixed results, had refocused to swarming every time Drexel put the ball in the paint, so the jumpers were available.

After a close first half, Drexel emerged from the locker room and shot down the Seahawks. All-CAA Second Team guard Camren Wynter got things going by hunting out a layup to open the half. He hit a three, as did Mate Okros. After a pair of buckets from James Butler, the Dragons had built an 11-point lead. Though the Seahawks would steadily eat into the lead, even cutting it to three multiple times, the Dragons would never give it up.

Led by Butler, who finished with 14 boards, the Dragons snatched up most of the high-leverage rebounds and translated them into a momentum advantage. Only Gadsden (13 points) and Martin Linssen (18) got much going for the Seahawks, with Brian Tolefree, Jaylen Sims, and Mike Okauru making just one shot apiece. Three-pointers from Wynter and Zach Walton down the stretch put the game out of reach and ended the Seahawks’ season.

Elon 63, James Madison 61

If, someday, a movie is made of this game, there will be only one logical name for it: The Sheffield Redemption.

For the first 39 minutes of the game, Marcus Sheffield II, Elon’s top scorer, All-CAA Second Teamer, the focal point of their offense and the man who breathed life into a program reeling from the graduation of every volume scorer from last season, couldn’t score a basket to save his life. Long shots or short, contested shots or not, moving shots or stationary ones, it didn’t matter. Sheffield had tried 14 and made just two. He was sucking the life out of Elon’s offense.

But with one shot, a twisting, fading, stepback midrange jumper, Sheffield broke through. Elon’s first lead of the game was the only one they’d need.

The Phoenix will face the No. 2 William & Mary Tribe Sunday at 6 PM EST.

It was a fitting end to a game marked by profound weirdness. That weirdness began when James Madison’s Deshon Parker, a 26 percent three-point shooter this season, kicked off the scoring with a long-range swish. It continued when JMU, unquestionably the worst team in conference play this season, built on that shot until a 14–0 lead forced Elon to call timeout three-and-a-half minutes after the opening tip.

But Elon quickly flipped the script, taking better care of the ball and posting nine unanswered points of their own to make the game competitive.

The game featured poor outside shooting from both squads, partly due to poor shot selection and partly due to missed open looks. JMU want on a second-half run not because their offense clicked, but because Elon missed 11 consecutive shots. The only consistent offensive bright spot for Elon was sophomore big man Federico Poser, who scored more points (14) than he ever had against a Division I team.

If you had approached Elon head coach Mike Schrage before the game and told him that his squad would allow 14 unanswered points to start the game, that his best scorer would miss three-quarters of his shots, that his team would shoot just 28 percent from downtown, and that they would go seven minutes without scoring a bucket, he would have assumed disaster.

But that’s the kind of league the CAA has been this season. The line between disaster and triumph is so narrow that you often can’t see it until after the final buzzer sounds.

Men’s Basketball Bests Drexel in Crucial Late-Season Matchup

By Milton Posner

PHILADELPHIA — The last time Northeastern faced Drexel, the Huskies tore the Dragons up in every way imaginable. The Huskies nailed nine of their 17 tries from beyond the arc as their balanced attack carried them to a 85–52 victory.

Northeastern played seven games between then and Saturday afternoon’s rematch with Drexel. They posted a subpar showing from three-point land in every one of those games and, unsurprisingly for a perimeter-oriented team, their offense has suffered. Five of those seven games were losses. Their perimeter performance Saturday was among the worst of the year, with just three of the Huskies’ 15 long-range bombs settling into the bucket.

But Northeastern finally found a way around the distance deficiency. Led by Jordan Roland and Shaq Walters, the Huskies used ball movement and timely cuts to earn numerous layups and outlast the Dragons, 77–68.

The win is vital for the Huskies’ playoff hopes, as it guarantees they won’t fall below seventh place and — combined with Elon’s loss to Towson on Saturday — greatly boosts their chances of finishing in the top six. The top six seeds in next month’s CAA Tournament receive a first-round bye, essential given the league’s remarkable parity and the rigors of playing three games in three days (four in four days without the bye). If the Huskies split their games against JMU and Towson next week, they will secure the bye.

Saturday’s win was also essential in rebounding from Thursday’s 22-point loss against Delaware.

“You look up and down the league and everybody seems to have one of those games that’s an outlier,” Northeastern head coach Bill Coen observed. “We understand it’s the next play mentality . . . [we] have a mature team that doesn’t have a hangover effect into the next game.”

The Huskies jumped out to an early lead, keeping the pressure on the Dragons’ defense despite Roland heading to the bench with two fouls. Walters and Tyson Walker keyed the Husky attack in his stead, with Guilien Smith and Max Boursiquot joining them in nailing multiple buckets.

Roland attempted just two three-pointers, his lowest-ever total in a Husky uniform. It was, more than anything else, a function of Drexel’s defense.

“We all know what Roland does; he’s an elite shot maker, and if he gets going from three life can be pretty hard,” Drexel head Zach Spiker noted. “You want to make him work to get the basketball, you want to make him work to catch it in the right spot. So when you limit him from three and he back cuts, if you don’t have proper rotation he’s going to have a clean look at the rim.”

Nearly every Husky shorter than 6’6” spent most of the game doing just that. Roland, who usually spends most of his time outside the paint, often faked a flare toward the perimeter and slashed back toward the basket, receiving passes and displaying impressive touch and body control to lay it in over larger defenders. Shaq Walters finished a number of buckets inside en route to 16 points, while Boursiquot and Bolden Brace added 10 apiece.

The cuts yielded easy buckets early on, bolstering the Huskies’ resolve and energy. While the Delaware game was marked by stagnant offense and little off-ball movement, Saturday’s contest featured constant activity. Every Husky who made a pass instantly looked for the next cut or screen. Whereas Delaware pressured the Huskies’ passing lanes, Northeastern forced Drexel to choose between covering the passing lanes or the cutters.

“They’re a pressure-and-deny team,” Coen explained, “and when you do that [backdoor cuts are] one of the things that’s available to you.”

Drexel kept things close throughout, trading the lead with Northeastern in the waning minutes of the first half and responding quickly when the Huskies built an 11-point lead after the intermission. Led by 20 points from sophomore guard Camren Wynter and 17 from junior forward James Butler, the Dragons matched the Huskies with 36 points in the paint.

The Dragons also took excellent care of the ball all game, committing just nine turnovers. While the Huskies turned the ball over frequently in the first half, they lost the ball just three times in the second, making it difficult for the Dragons to build momentum and cut into the lead.

But besides the cuts for layups, Northeastern won its biggest advantage at the foul line. While both teams committed just four fouls apiece in the first half, the second half grew more and more chippy as the clock wound down. Northeastern’s 10 fouls were spread out across the half, and were therefore less destructive than Drexel’s concentrated 14. The Dragons shot just six free throws in the second half, while the Huskies shot 20 and made 18 of them. Roland and Brace both went six-for-seven, with Boursiquot and Walters cashing in multiple times as well. Though the Huskies made three fewer field goals than the Dragons in the second half, they outscored them by seven.

The Huskies did have one scary moment or, more precisely, a scary moment in two parts. A few minutes into the half, Butler received a pass on the low block with good position against Boursiquot. Walker rushed over from the weak side to help and reached in with his left hand trying to knock the ball away. When Butler raised the ball to avoid the steal, he caught Walker’s arm in the process, and the freshman point guard doubled over in pain.

Smith subbed in for Walker, who went to the locker room. Walker rejoined the team on the bench a few minutes later, re-entered the game, and played for six minutes without registering a stat before attempting a three and immediately grabbing his arm again. He exited for good this time, though he remained on the bench with his teammates.

“He just kinda ran into Butler and that’s kinda like running into a brick wall,” Coen lamented. “He got him pretty good in the shoulder so when we get back to campus we’ll get it evaluated.”

We won’t speculate on the condition of Walker’s left shoulder, but any time he misses is a body blow to the Huskies, for whom every game now holds critical playoff importance. If Walker is sidelined, Guilien Smith is the most likely candidate to replace him in the starting lineup, as Smith has proven his defensive mettle against some of the conference’s best guards. It would be the first game of the season in which Walker does not start.

The Huskies (14–14, 8–8 CAA) will play their penultimate regular-season game on Thursday at home against last-place James Madison. Michael Petillo and Christian Skroce will call that one, with coverage beginning at 7:45 PM EST.

Men’s Basketball Destroys Drexel Dragons

By Michael Petillo

BOSTON — Coming off a disappointing overtime loss to UNCW on Saturday, Northeastern returned to Matthews Arena Thursday night badly needing a bounce-back win. They got it against Drexel, soundly defeating the Dragons 85–52 in a game that was never in doubt. Jordan Roland led the scoring charge for the Huskies as usual, netting 26 points in just 28 minutes of action.

From the jump, it was clear that it was going to be the Huskies’ night. Drexel (12–9, 5–3 CAA) got on the board first, but Northeastern (11–9, 5–3 CAA) reeled off 18 unanswered points keyed by several Roland jumpers. When the halftime buzzer sounded, Roland had scored as many points (17) as the entire Drexel team.

Bolden Brace also came up big on offense, scoring 14 of his 17 points in the opening half and helping his team push the lead to 32 points at the break. The senior swingman was coming off arguably his most disappointing effort of the season against UNCW — he took just one shot — and his impact was much needed.

“We got together as a team at the beginning of the week and talked about what we can be,” Brace said. “I know we were all disappointed with the results on Saturday.”

The second half was more of the same, with Northeastern maintaining a lead of at least 30 while smothering Drexel on defense. They forced Drexel’s best perimeter players, Camren Wynter and Zach Walton, into a combined ten turnovers. Wynter, the conference’s fourth-leading scorer, was limited to just six points on 3–12 shooting; Walton was scoreless.

“We challenged our guys to step it up on the defensive end,” Northeastern head coach Bill Coen said. “I think they bought into that.”

The blowout win allowed Coen to rest Roland, Brace, and some of his other starters for most of the second half. The Huskies have a noon tip against Delaware on Saturday, making that extra rest even more important. Michael Petillo and Milton Posner will be on the call, with coverage beginning fifteen minutes before tipoff.

Saturday’s game is the annual Coaches Against Cancer game; coaches will wear suits and sneakers in an effort to raise awareness and money to fight cancer. 

“I’m hoping everybody will come out and support us,” Coen implored. “For every student that comes to the game on Saturday, I pledge a dollar to the American Cancer Society. I hope they come out and cost me $5,000 because it’s a great day to partner with our student body against this deadly enemy.”

Top 10: How CAA Teams Fared in Non-Conference Play

By Milton Posner

With the CAA’s conference slate beginning today, WRBB examined the non-conference performances of all 10 CAA teams and ranked them from worst to best. The rankings are based on each team’s record and strength of schedule, with occasional deviations if a deep dive into a team’s schedule, margins of victory, or statistics warranted one.

CAA teams played 125 non-conference games and won 68 for a winning percentage of .544. Their average opponent, as determined by KenPom’s strength of schedule metric, was very slightly below the Division I average.

They also spent a sizeable chunk of the last six weeks bludgeoning Division II and III squads. Eight CAA teams won a game by 40 or more points, with three teams winning by 60 or more. The largest margin of victory went to the Towson Tigers, who flattened Division III Bryn Athyn by 69 points. Only Northeastern’s biggest blowout — a 57-point laugher against Holy Cross — came against a Division I team.

Though a comment or prediction is given for each team’s upcoming schedule, the rankings reflect only how the teams performed in their completed non-conference games. Each section is prefaced with the team’s record, strength of schedule rank (compared to other CAA teams), head coach, and, just for kicks, the player with the best name along with an explanation for why.

With that said . . .

#10: Elon Phoenix

Non-Conference Record: 4–9

Strength of Schedule Rank: Fourth

Head Coach: Mike Schrage (first season)

Best Player Name: Federico Poser — fun to say whether you pronounce it correctly or not

This is not to say that Elon had no bright spots in the season’s first six weeks. Stanford grad transfer Marcus Sheffield emerged as a premier scorer, posting 17 points per game to go along with five rebounds and three assists.

Freshmen Hunter Woods and Hunter McIntosh were also pleasant surprises for a team that lost its top five scorers from last year. Both are averaging double figures in scoring and shooting more than 40 percent form downtown. Woods also leads the team in rebounding.

The Phoenix even managed to hang with No. 5 UNC for the first 20 minutes of their November 20 matchup, despite the Tar Heels entering as 30 ½-point favorites. Though UNC pulled away at the start of the second half, the Phoenix faithful could take some small comfort in Sheffield’s poster slam over former CAA standout Justin Pierce.

But the good news ends there for Elon. The UNC loss was one piece of a six-game losing streak. Of their four non-conference wins, two came against Division II teams, one against a Division III squad, and one against a Kennesaw State club ranked 342 out of 353 Division I teams.

The Phoenix are last in the CAA in offense and scoring margin, and are the only squad shooting below 40 percent from the floor. They are last in offensive rebounds and rebounding margin. Their sole saving grace is their three-point shooting; they are the only CAA club making more than 10 threes per game and are fourth in three-point percentage. But even then there is a downside; they are worst in the conference at defending the three.

The emergence of Woods and McIntosh as scoring threats is welcome news for first-year coach Mike Schrage. But Elon’s lack of depth and veteran talent is evident. Given that the team finished with the CAA’s worst non-conference record despite multiple players exceeding expectations, it’s hard to imagine they can pose a threat during conference play.

#9: UNCW Seahawks

Non-Conference Record: 5–8

Strength of Schedule Rank: Third

Head Coach: C.B. McGrath (third season)

Best Player Name: Brian Tolefree — you don’t have to pay for him

If the William & Mary Tribe were the CAA program most ravaged in the offseason — four of their top five scorers fled to other schools after the dismissal of longtime head coach Tony Shaver — then UNCW was the program most ravaged in non-conference play.

Though the Seahawks weren’t expected to shine much after the graduation of monster forward Devontae Cacok and the transfer of junior standout Jeantal Cylla, they at least had a few exciting pieces to fuel coach C.B. McGrath’s up-tempo offense.

The first domino to fall was sharpshooting junior guard and leading returning scorer Ty Gadsden, who began the season sidelined by injury, played December 7 against Charlotte, and hasn’t played since. The team confirmed he is out indefinitely, indicating that he may return sometime this season. The same cannot be said for fellow junior guard Jay Estimé, who injured his knee, went under the knife, and will miss the rest of the season. The injuries, when combined with the departure of grad transfer Carter Skaggs in November, gutted a Seahawks’ roster struggling for experience (the Seahawks are one of seven Division I teams without a senior).

But the last and largest domino fell after the team’s non-conference closer against Vanderbilt on December 21, when sophomore point guard Kai Toews informed McGrath and his staff that he is leaving the program. McGrath called the announcement a “total surprise.” The team said Toews planned to pursue a professional basketball career in his native Japan; Toews announced on Twitter that he was “thinking of going on a professional path or transferring.” Toews said previously that he would like to compete for the Japanese national team at the FIBA World Cup and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Though he was averaging just five points, four rebounds, and three assists this year, Toews was a crucial component of the team’s future. Although he wasn’t a major scoring threat, he was named to the CAA All-Rookie Team last year after breaking the conference record with 253 assists.

In their stead, sophomore guard Jaylen Sims has picked up some slack, leading the team in points (15) and rebounds (6) per game while shooting a CAA-best 47 percent from behind the arc.

Sophomore forward Martin Linssen has also chipped in, logging 10 points and four rebounds per game in his first season with the Seahawks after transferring from Valparaiso. But the biggest surprise has been six-foot freshman guard Shykeim Phillips, who is averaging nine points per contest on 49 percent shooting. Though he isn’t scoring from the perimeter, he uses a smorgasbord of quick hesitations, jukes, and handles to dart to the basket for layups. Phillips began the season off the bench, but earned a starting spot several weeks in.

But, like Elon’s, most of UNCW’s five wins have come against Division III teams, with Campbell and FIU as the only DI victories. The four departures and injuries are reflected in the CAA-worst five-game losing streak they take into conference play. Their typically high-octane offense keeps their scoring, field goal percentage, three-point percentage, and assists in the CAA’s top five, but their field goal, three-point, and scoring defense all rank ninth.

Even if Ty Gadsden returns for a good chunk of conference play, enough damage has been done to put the Seahawks in contention with the Phoenix for the CAA’s bottom spot.

#8: Drexel Dragons

Non-Conference Record: 7–6

Strength of Schedule Rank: Sixth

Head Coach: Zach Spiker (fourth season)

Best Player Name: Coletrane Washington — greatest jazz name of all time

Like Elon and UNCW, Drexel needed to replace a mix of graduates (Trevor John, Troy Harper) and transfers (Alihan Demir). The three combined to average more than half of the team’s points last season.

Unlike Elon and UNCW, Drexel has maintained enough healthy talent to post a winning record in non-conference play.

The biggest component behind the Dragons’ success has been the miraculous progression of senior guard/forward Zach Walton, who jumped to Drexel from Edmonds Community College (not in the NCAA) and played just seven games last year before an injury ended his season. Walton had a breakout night in the team’s third game against Abilene Christian, dropping 22 points and sinking the game-winning three after reigning CAA Rookie of the Year Camren Wynter was denied the ball.

Ten days later, he dropped a season-high 32 points in a win over Bryant. Though Walton’s 28 percent clip from downtown leaves much to be desired, his 13 points per game are keying a Drexel offense badly in need of scoring punch. His four boards per night and a steady series of highlights aren’t too shabby either.

Wynter and James Butler sit right behind Walton in the scoring column with 12 points per game. Both lead the CAA in a key category, Butler in rebounds (11.5 a game) and Wynter in assists (5.8). Butler’s inside presence is by far the biggest reason for Drexel’s strong rebounding margin, the third-best in the CAA.

But Drexel lacks both an elite scorer and a deep, balanced roster of offensive options, which will likely spell trouble in conference play. Their offense and defense both ranked eighth in non-conference play, and though their assist and three-point defense stats led the conference, they need to find another gear to exceed preseason expectations. They also need to figure out how to win away from home; they won five of their six contests in Philadelphia but lost all five road games.

#7: Northeastern Huskies

Non-Conference Record: 6–6

Strength of Schedule Rank: Eighth

Head Coach: Bill Coen (14th season)

Best Player Name: Greg Eboigbodin — save for the word “boing,” there’s no better way to describe the motion and feel of a trampoline

It’s surprising to see the Huskies this far down on the list, especially given that their scoring margin ranked third in the conference. But a .500 record and the third-weakest strength of schedule leaves them here.

That said, their bright spot was brighter than anyone else’s. In the season’s first few games, senior guard Jordan Roland torched every defense he saw, leading the nation in scoring and forcing his name into national conversations, award watchlists, and ESPN segments. He infuriated defenses with a flurry of difficult lefty floaters and overwhelmed them with twisting, drifting, contested threes from distances where no one in their right mind would think to shoot a basketball.

Roland’s best game came in an 84–79 win against Harvard on November 8. He scored 11 points in the game’s first three minutes en route to a 42-point firestorm that shattered the single-game school record held by Husky legends J.J. Barea and Reggie Lewis.

Though he tailed off somewhat as the season progressed, his 22.4 points per game still lead the CAA and rank seventh in the nation. His marks of 51 percent from the floor, 43 percent from three, and 93 percent from the foul line are all preposterous, and rank as the conference’s fourth-best, second-best, and best, respectively. He is also second in the conference in minutes per game (37.3) and has established himself as the clear favorite for CAA Player of the Year ahead of Delaware’s Nate Darling and Charleston’s Grant Riller.

Tyson Walker, Max Boursiquot, and Shaq Walters have stepped up at various times, giving hope that the Husky offense can become more balanced. Walker in particular has exceeded expectations, starting every game and taking the offensive keys from graduating guard Vasa Pusica.

But the consistency hasn’t been there. Senior guard/forward Bolden Brace, who was expected to be the team’s second scoring option behind Roland, has shot efficiently but hasn’t scored in volume, logging double figures in just four of the team’s 12 games. Without reliable scoring from him, Northeastern will be hard-pressed to remain a top-three CAA team.

The team also suffered from injuries to big men; 6’8” Tomas Murphy has missed the last eight games with an ankle injury and 6’10” Greg Eboigbodin has missed the last two. Though there have been some fine performances in their stead — namely back-to-back double-doubles by 6’5” utility man Max Boursiquot — the lack of size has presented problems for the Huskies. Though their CAA-worst rebounding numbers are partially attributable to their having the slowest pace in the conference, their challenges in crashing the boards without Murphy and Eboigbodin have often hampered their ability to build and maintain momentum in games.

The Huskies excelled from the outside, nailing a CAA-best 41 percent of their three-pointers, with their three most frequent perimeter shooters all shooting between 42 and 44 percent. They also sank 82 percent of their free throws, easily the best mark in the conference. But they allow the CAA’s highest field goal percentage, in large part due to the shortcomings of their interior defense.

The Huskies’ non-conference slate left plenty for coach Bill Coen to be optimistic about. But offensive inconsistency, namely from players not named Jordan Roland, left the Huskies with a .500 record when they could have fared much better.

#6: Towson Tigers

Non-Conference Record: 6–6

Strength of Schedule Rank: Second

Head Coach: Pat Skerry (ninth season)

Best Player Name: Demetrius Mims — m’s in all the right places

Last year, Towson struggled mightily, winning less than a third of their games while trying to incorporate 11 new players. This year, with 90 percent of their scoring and 86 percent of their rebounding from last year returning, the Tigers have a much better chance to develop.

Towson finished with the same 6–6 record as Northeastern, but Towson had a higher strength of schedule. Oddly enough, their most encouraging moment was a loss. Despite entering a mid-November game against the No. 15 Florida Gators as 18 ½-point underdogs, the Tigers kept the game close throughout. The clubs were tied with 80 seconds left before Florida salvaged a six-point win.

As expected, senior guard Brian Fobbs has keyed the Towson attack, averaging 17 points and five boards a night. However, his relatively low efficiency marks (41 percent from the field, 29 percent from three) will have to rise before he can join the elite tier of CAA scorers.

Sophomore guard Allen Betrand and senior forwards Nakye Sanders and Dennis Tunstall have continued their solid offensive production from last year. But all three will need to up their production before Towson can take the next step.

The Tigers’ reliably scrappy, energetic defense has shown up this year; they allow a CAA-best 65.4 points per game and boast the second-best rebounding margin and third-best steal total. But they don’t rank near the top of the conference in any meaningful offensive category and only Fobbs qualifies as any sort of offensive standout.

Their excellent defense can only take them so far, and if Towson wishes to capitalize on the senior seasons of Fobbs, Tunstall, and Sanders, the entire team needs to boost its scoring.

#5: Charleston Cougars

Non-Conference Record: 6–6

Strength of Schedule Rank: First

Head Coach: Earl Grant (sixth season)

Best Player Name: Zep Jasper — plenty of powerful plosives

Charleston is a general consensus top-three CAA team that finished 6–6 in non-conference play. At first glance, this might lead to comparisons with Northeastern, but Charleston had a decidedly superior non-conference slate.

Though they suffered blowout defeats at the hands of Oklahoma State and Central Florida, their other four losses were by single-digit margins to good teams: Central Florida again, Wake Forest, Richmond, and VCU. The Cougars fought through the most difficult non-conference schedule of any CAA team and emerged with plenty to be happy about.

They are led by senior guard and CAA Preseason Player of the Year Grant Riller, who is logging 21 points, four rebounds, and four assists per night. His scoring mark is good for third in the CAA (20th in the nation) and his field goal and free throw percentages are both top five in the conference. His scoring is coming in the same way it did last year: subpar three-point shooting and a sky-high percentage around the rim.

On November 29, Riller keyed a win over Providence and passed former teammate Jarrell Brantley for third on the school’s all-time scoring list. Two weeks later, he notched his 2,000th collegiate point.

That said, there is room for Riller to improve, particularly regarding his 26 percent mark from three-point land. He’s had a strong season, but at his best he is the conference’s greatest scorer and arguably its top player overall. He hasn’t hit his ceiling yet.

The Cougars lack a clear second scoring option behind Riller, but junior guard Brevin Galloway and senior forwards Jaylen McManus and Sam Miller have all assumed larger roles in the offense. Miller in particular has stood out, notching seven points and seven rebounds per contest thanks in part to moderately efficient perimeter shooting.

The Cougars boast a strong defense, led by a combined four steals per game from Riller and Galloway. Though their CAA-worst perimeter shooting badly warrants improvement, many of their other low ranks in team stats compared to other CAA squads can be explained away by their slow pace of play and the tough competition they’ve faced so far.

Their record isn’t fantastic, and there is room for improvement up and down the roster. But don’t be fooled; this Cougars team is still dangerous.

#4: James Madison Dukes

Non-Conference Record: 7–4

Strength of Schedule Rank: Seventh

Head Coach: Louis Rowe (third season)

Best Player Name: Michael Christmas — because Christmas time is here

At the outset of the season, James Madison appeared poised to snap a streak of three consecutive losing seasons, and they haven’t disappointed so far.

Leading the way is junior guard Matt Lewis, who ranks fifth in the conference in points (18), rebounds (7), and minutes (35) per game, and adds a third-best five assists per game as well. He’s taken the lead on a team with no seniors in the regular rotation.

His backcourt partner and fellow junior Darius Banks is faring almost as well, averaging 14 points (on 41 percent from downtown) and five boards a night. He has also continued his thievery from last year, swiping the ball 1.6 times per contest.

And if that wasn’t enough junior talent, try 6’8”, 250-pound junior forward Dwight Wilson, who missed the first four games of the season but has averaged a double-double since. Or junior forward Zach Jacobs, who chips in eight points and six boards a game.

But the performance nobody saw coming, especially with so many returning offensive centerpieces, is freshman forward Michael Christmas, who is putting up nine points and six rebounds per game, shooting a comical 46 percent from three on decent volume, and has established himself as a one-man highlight reel.

The Dukes’ team stats require a bit of context to decipher. At first glance, their counting stats and percentage stats appear to tell opposing stories. This is explained by the team’s pace of play, easily the fastest in the conference. The Dukes have the 26th-fastest pace out of 353 Division I teams; the next closest CAA team is Hofstra, nearly 100 spots down the list.

More possessions mean that the Dukes score more and give up more points, skewing their counting stats. The percentage stats tell a more accurate story. James Madison is eighth in the CAA in field goal and three-point percentage; save for Banks and Christmas, the regular three-point shooters are converting less than a third of their tries. They also struggled from the charity stripe, making just 65 percent of their free throws.

The Dukes shone on defense, limiting opponents to the lowest field goal percentage and second-lowest three-point percentage of any CAA team. They also led the conference in blocks.

The Dukes’ offense has a high ceiling and is likely to improve as the season progresses. But it is their defense that has turned heads, going from a middle-of-the-pack unit last year to — along with Towson — the conference’s best so far this year. If they can overcome the offensive hole left by the graduation of Stuckey Mosley, the Dukes can join the CAA’s top tier.

#3: Hofstra Pride

Non-Conference Record: 9–4

Strength of Schedule Rank: Tenth

Head Coach: Joe Mihalich (seventh season)

Best Player Name: Stafford Trueheart — no idea why he’s playing basketball instead of commanding the English army in the 12th century

Hofstra begin their non-conference schedule with a mandate (a first-place finish in the CAA Preseason Poll) and the question of how to replace the offense of graduating guard Justin Wright-Foreman, the two-time reigning CAA Player of the Year and arguably the best scorer the conference has seen in years?

But, as it turns out, you can lose Wright-Foreman and still have the best and deepest backcourt in the conference. It begins with a pair of seniors: Eli Pemberton and Desure Buie.

The pair have remarkably similar numbers. Pemberton averages 17.1 points per game, good for sixth in the conference; Buie’s 16.6 points rank eighth. Pemberton is third in minutes per game with 35.6; Buie is right behind him at 35.5. Pemberton averages six rebounds per contest; Buie notches six assists, good for second in the conference. Buie has also retained the defensive brilliance that won him CAA Defensive Player of the Year last year; he leads the conference with 2.7 steals a night.

Junior guards Jalen Ray and Tareq Coburn round out the backcourt, averaging a combined 18 points and 11 rebounds. Coburn’s seven rebounds per contest lead the team, while Ray has been the most efficient scorer among the Hofstra guards, shooting 41 percent from downtown.

Sophomore forward/center Isaac Kante, who sat out last season after transferring from Georgia, has established himself on a squad short on rebounding and defensive presence down low. He is averaging nine points on 61 percent shooting to go along with seven rebounds.

The Pride also scored the biggest win of any CAA team so far this season. On November 21, they walked into Pauley Pavilion and toppled UCLA.

Keyed by 29 points from Buie and 27 from Ray, Hofstra came back from a 13-point first-half deficit to take the game 88–78. It was the Bruins’ first loss of the year and one of the biggest wins in program history for Hofstra.

The Pride are the best-scoring offense in the CAA so far, though their numbers are inflated by their relatively fast pace of play and their strength of schedule, which was the weakest of any CAA team. Their four main guards are all among the conference’s ten best free throw shooters, with Buie’s 91 percent second only to Northeastern’s Jordan Roland. The team as a whole knocks down 78 percent of their foul shots, second only to Northeastern’s 82 percent. The Pride have the most steals, most offensive rebounds, and best assist-to-turnover ratio of any CAA team.

Hofstra’s biggest causes for concern inside depth (as evidenced by their middle-of-the-pack rebounding numbers) and efficiency — they ranked seventh in field goal percentage and three-point percentage.

The Pride enter conference play riding a three-game winning streak. They have a quartet of guards that can outpace anyone. If they can find the efficiency and inside play buttons, they will be an imposing bunch.

#2: William & Mary Tribe

Non-Conference Record: 8–5

Strength of Schedule Rank: Fifth

Head Coach: Dane Fischer (first season)

Best Player Name: Thatcher Stone — if people were once again named after their professions, you’d hire him to build you a sturdy house

This one was a surprise.

A month after their CAA Tournament exit last season, the Tribe looked like a bomb had hit them. Tony Shaver, their coach of 16 years, had been fired. Justin Pierce, Matt Milon, Chase Audige, and LJ Owens — four of the team’s five leading scorers who had a combined eight years of eligibility remaining — had transferred. Leading scorer Nathan Knight was thinking about bailing on his senior season and declaring for the NBA draft.

New head coach Dane Fischer walked into this mess and pulled everything together. The Tribe posted the CAA’s fourth-best winning percentage in non-conference play; the three teams ahead of them had considerably weaker schedules.

It begins, as any William & Mary conversation inevitably does, with Knight. When he decided to return for his senior season, the Tribe retained the conference’s best big man and, along with Charleston’s Grant Riller, a solid candidate for Player of the Year. He hasn’t disappointed, posting nightly averages of 20 points and 10 rebounds, with his 56 percent mark from the field and 1.5 blocks per game leading the conference. Along with Northeastern’s Jordan Roland, Knight was named to the watchlist for the Oscar Robertson Trophy, given annually to college basketball’s best player.

As spectacular as Knight has been, his elite play was expected. What wasn’t as expected was the establishment of senior center Andy Van Vliet as an elite two-way player. The seven-foot Wisconsin transfer is averaging 15 points and 10 rebounds a night, the latter tied with the 6’10” Knight for second-best in the conference. His is sixth in the conference in field goal percentage and blocks.

Good shooters are not hard to come by in the CAA; good shooters who are seven feet tall are rare. Both Knight and Van Vliet can space the floor, nailing 35 and 39 percent of their threes, respectively. This allows Fischer to play a twin towers lineup without sacrificing perimeter shooting, creating matchup and switching nightmares even for well-balanced defenses.

The Tribe also have benefitted from a pair of guards: grad transfer Bryce Barnes and junior Luke Loewe. Barnes is averaging eight points, three rebounds, and four assists a night in his first and only season for the Tribe after three years playing for Milwaukee. Loewe has taken a gigantic step forward, upping his production and efficiency across the board. He’s averaging 11 points a night on a hyper-efficient 53 percent shooting from the floor and 47 percent from downtown.

Sophomore guard Thornton Scott has missed nine straight games with a lower leg injury. In the four games he played — all of which the Tribe won — he showed tremendous progress from last year, averaging 13 points, five rebounds, and four assists with an absurd 52 percent clip from downtown. If he returns soon, it will add another weapon to an already well-stocked arsenal.

The Tribe won their first four games out of the gate, three of which came on the road. One of those wins came against Wofford, courtesy of a game-winning layup by Barnes. Before Barnes’s shot dropped, Wofford had won its last 17 home games in a row.

Fischer has picked up his predecessor’s tendency for a relatively even distribution of minutes. Van Vliet leads the team with just 30 per game, trailed closely by Knight and Loewe. It begs the question of what happens if Fischer decides to up their minutes, leaving opponents to face his twin towers for longer stretches.

William & Mary’s team stats reveal no obvious weaknesses so far. Their scoring, assist rate, points allowed, margin of victory, field goal percentage, field goal defense, and three-point percentage all fall between third and fifth. They rank second in defensive rebounds and blocks, and first in rebounding margin. Even their bottom-half offensive rebounding and three-point defense aren’t far off from respectable levels.

Entering the season, the Tribe were a question mark, with Knight projected to dominate but nothing else assured. With non-conference play complete, the Tribe have joined the CAA’s top tier and have as good a shot at the CAA title as anyone.

#1: Delaware Blue Hens

Non-Conference Record: 10–3

Strength of Schedule Rank: Ninth

Head Coach: Martin Inglesby (fourth season)

Best Player Name: Nate Darling — any Delaware fans who think he’s cute have an easy poster idea waiting for them

December 3, 2019. Hofstra, the winner of the CAA Preseason Poll, was 6–3. Northeastern, the defending conference champion, was 4–4.

The Delaware Blue Hens, who most preseason observers had placed outside the CAA’s top tier, were undefeated, winners of nine straight games. And though they fell to earth by losing three of their next four to close non-conference play, the statement had been made: Delaware is the team to beat in the CAA.

Although many had high expectations for junior guard and UAB transfer Nate Darling, he has outplayed those expectations and then some. His 21.4 points per game are second only to Northeastern’s Jordan Roland and rank 16th in the nation. He has played more minutes and made more threes than anyone in the CAA, and his stellar three-point percentage of 42 ranks third. Throw in his four rebounds and three assists per contest, and Delaware has the best CAA transfer since Northeastern nabbed Vasa Pusica from San Diego.

But because one excellent transfer isn’t enough, the Blue Hens have another: sophomore forward Justyn Mutts. In his first season with Delaware after leaving High Point, Mutts is logging 14 points per game on 53 percent shooting (second in the conference to Nathan Knight) and 9.6 rebounds (fourth in the conference). As if that weren’t enough, his highlights are electric.

Now, for the returning play . . . what? They have another transfer? He’s from Villanova? He’s 6’10”? He dropped 19 points in his Delaware debut? Sure, why not? This might as well happen.

Dylan Painter is a midseason transfer, so he only recently became eligible, playing in Delaware’s final two non-conference games. The Blue Hens won nine games in a row, then added a major piece to compliment Mutts down low.

And finally we turn our attention to returning junior guards Ryan Allen and Kevin Anderson. Both have long been ticketed for CAA stardom but have seen serious injuries impede their progress. They’re healthy now, and at the perfect time. They have similar numbers: double-digit scoring, a field goal percentage in the high 40s, and a three-point percentage around 40 percent.

The Blue Hens are third in scoring, points allowed, field goal and three-point defense, and defensive rebounds. They lead the conference in scoring margin, field goal percentage, and assist-to-turnover ratio. Though they ultimately fell 78–70 to No. 20 Villanova, they proved they could hang around against a superior team. In the season’s fourth game, Painter and Anderson combined for 69 points.

Last year, Delaware finished with a losing conference record and lost in the semifinal round of the CAA Tournament. Now they’re stacked, and the road to the conference’s March Madness bid goes through them.

CAA Preview: Drexel Dragons

Last Season: 13–19 (7–11 CAA, sixth place), lost in CAA quarterfinal

Head Coach: Zach Spiker (fourth season)

CAA Preseason Poll Finish: Eighth

Losses

  • G Troy Harper
  • G Kevin Doi
  • G Alihan Demir
  • G Trevor John

Additions

  • F Mate Okros
  • F T.J. Bickerstaff

By Alex Bensley

Despite finishing last season under .500, the Dragons improved slightly from 2017–18 when they went 13–20 and 6–12 in CAA action. They entered conference play with a 6–7 record before early losses to Northeastern and Hofstra put them in an early hole. Their season ended in a 12-point loss against third-seeded Charleston in the CAA semifinals.

This year, sharpshooting guard Trevor John is gone, as is premier scorer and All-CAA third-team standout Troy Harper (16 ppg). Harper is a substantial loss, although the guard shot only 39 percent from the field and 25 percent from three last season. The Dragons also lost Alihan Demir (15 ppg), who transferred to Minnesota.

The tall task of replacing last year’s top three scorers starts with sophomore guard Camren Wynter. He averaged 11 ppg and 5.3 apg last year en route to the CAA Rookie of the Year award. Expect him to run the show this year.

Senior guards Zach Walton and Kurk Lee are key backcourt assets as well, particularly Walton, whose 48 percent clip from the floor led Drexel guards last season. Forward James Butler looks to be the main man up front, as he shot a bristling 60 percent last season. Keep an eye on freshman forwards Mate Okros and T.J. Bickerstaff, who could provide some much-needed depth. It’s difficult to tell how much they can help, but their performances will be integral to the team’s success.

Bottom Line: Drexel has had some impressive wins over the years, but they haven’t posted a .500 record since 2013–14. That said, the team has improved every year, so if Wynter emerges as a top player and the team overcomes losing its top three scorers, Drexel could improve their record once again. But the task is quite tall for this group.