I happened to go the Hofstra Blue and White scrimmage last night. Two 12 minute halves. What I can tell as of this moment is that Hofstra seemed to have a lot more movement in their offense than in the past couple of seasons. Also, Charles Jenkins has added a really smooth consistent long range jumper to his game. He nailed several threes last night and his ball handling seemed more in control. That is a scary combination for Hofstra's opponents. Hofstra' s three new players, Marcus Szabo, Tony Dennison and Cornelius Vines all showed some potential, with Vines being the best of the three showing long range shooting potential.
Anyway, its time for Part I of my CAA season preview. Part II will be over the weekend.
For the first time in three years, the CAA was only a one bid conference in the 2007-08 season as George Mason won the CAA Tournament. Regular season champion VCU lost in the semifinals to William and Mary and was denied an at large bid.
This season the CAA looks to rebound and bring multiple teams to the big dance. The question is “Will they?” Below is the CAA preseason predicted order of finish;
3. Old Dominion
4. George Mason
6. Georgia State
8. William and Mary
9. James Madison
11. UNC Wilmington
Lets look at the teams by the CAA’s predicted order of finish, then I will give you my prediction.
As noted, this is Part I of the preview, so we will look at the first six teams in predicted order of finish.
VCU went 15-3 in conference last year. The Rams bring back the CAA’s most valuable player last season in guard Eric Maynor. Maynor returns with one of CAA’s two best big men in extraordinary shot blocker Larry Sanders (OD’s Gerald Lee is the other best big man in the CAA). Sanders and sophomore guard Joey Rodriguez will be counted on for additional scoring help now that all CAA guard Jamal Shuler, center Wil Fameni and forward Michael Anderson all graduated. Look for junior swingman TJ Gwynn and forward Lance Kearse to take increased roles on team.
Guard Jamal Shuler was an all around terrific players for the Rams. Not only was he their second leading scorer, he was their key defender, known for shutting down the opposition’s best player. I have seen Shuler’s handy work against Hofstra’s star guard Antoine Agudio and no other guard defended Agudio any better in the four years I saw Agudio play. Maynor will now be responsible for defending the other team’s best guard. How Maynor handles that will be a key factor in the Rams play.
Larry Sanders’ development as an offensive threat is very important to the Rams. They must have someone take the load off Maynor. If Sanders can give them a consistent inside presence, VCU will be even more dangerous.
As long as you have the talented coach and recruiter Anthony Grant, along with the league’s best player in Maynor and of course, the vaunted VCU Press, the Rams have to be seen as the favorites in the league. Early season games vs Rhode Island, Akron and at Oklahoma should give the VCU fans a good opportunity to see where they stand. However, with the loss of three starters, the Rams margin for error is much less and increased output from Sanders, Rodriguez and Gwynn is desperately needed. Another issue will be how talented Grant’s incoming class; Terrance Saintil, Bradford Burgess and David Hinton are. If they can fit in and give minutes off the bench, then the Rams should still win the regular season title. However, don’t look for another 15-3 season. These Rams aren't that good.
Returning all five starters from the sixth place team in the 2007-08 season, the Huskies look to become one of the elite teams in the CAA. It starts with junior guard Matt Janning who led the Huskies in scoring. He is joined by fellow guard sophomore Chaisson Allen, junior forwards Manny Adako and senior Eugene Spates and junior center Nkem Ojougboh. After Janning’s 16 points per game average, the rest of the starters are very balanced in their scoring.
Considering they have all five starters returning, there really isn’t a key loss for the Huskies.
As Matt Janning goes, so does the Huskies. After defeating George Mason in their last regular season game, the Huskies lost their rematch to the Patriots in the CAA quarterfinals. The main factor was the Patriots holding Janning to a 2 of 13 shooting night from the floor. For the Huskies to consistently succeed, Janning must consistently succeed.
The Huskies biggest problem last year was the road. The Huskies lost thirteen of their seventeen games on the road including six of nine in conference. For the Huskies to become a dominant factor in the CAA, they simply must improve on this. Early season contests at IUPUI, Providence, Indiana, and Memphis, along with a home game vs. Rhode Island should be a really good barometer of how the Huskies will fare this year. Billy Coen’s now experienced starting five should welcome this challenge.
The Monarchs finished fourth in the CAA last year and were promptly knocked out in the quarterfinals by William and Mary. That was the ODU season in a nutshell. Good game, bad game. Good game, bad game. No consistency. And that often had to do with the streakiness of their guards. The good news for the Monarchs is that they return the best big man in the CAA, Gerald Lee along with Darius James, Ben Finney and Jonathan Adams. The bad news is that they lost their two best guards to graduation, Brian Henderson and Brandon Johnson. Now that their two best guards are gone, Blaine Taylor must find a way to infuse more scoring into his lineup.
Not only was Brandon Johnson their point guard, who was fourth in the CAA in assists, he was also their best defensive guard, a CAA First Team All Defensive Selection. How well the Monarchs fill the point guard position will be a key indication in their success.
Darius James. The sophomore guard is only one of two guards left from last year’s team. James will be looked upon for additional scoring and leadership. He can shoot the three but will need to take more attempts as teams will try to pack it in and double team on Lee and Finney.
Blaine Taylor brings in six freshman for this year’s team, the best of which are forwards Nick Wright and Chris Cooper, both from Virginia. Chances are with Taylor’s coaching style, a lot of them will see significant minutes. Depth never seems to be an issue with ODU. And certainly, the Monarchs are solid up from with Lee, Finney, Adams and potentially Wright and Cooper. However their guard talent and depth is very questionable. The Monarchs non conference schedule is actually quite weak, with their most difficult games being on the road at Duquesne and Charlotte and a home game with Winthrop. However, ODU will be hard pressed to finish higher than last year’s fourth place in the CAA if the freshman don't develop. If they do, then fourth is about right.
The defending CAA champs may have lost two key members of their team to graduation in Wil Thomas and Folarin Campbell, but three starters return from last season’s team; guards John Vaughan and Dre Smith, along with forward Louis Birdsong. They are joined by forward Darryl Monroe, who redshirted last year due to injury and senior forward/center Chris Fleming who provides solid minutes off the bench. Throw in sophomore shooting guard Cam Long and two outstanding incoming freshman in Andre Cornelius and Ryan Pearson, and the Patriots are still in the hunt for the CAA title.
Will Thomas - Its really hard to replace an All CAA First Team and All CAA Defensive team player. Its even more difficult replace a 64 percent shooter who averaged a double double per game. The Patriots need someone up front to score. Could it be Birdsong, Monroe, or Pearson?
Louis Birdsong - Yes, a more consistent Dre Smith will help, but the loss of Wil Thomas means that Birdsong must step up in scoring and rebounding. Birdsong shot 54 percent from the field but only averaged 6 points per 23 minutes played a game. What was more disappointing was that Birdsong only averaged 4 rebounds a game. Birdsong will get help on the glass from a returning Monroe, but he has to become the man. Otherwise, he may very well get eclipsed by super frosh Ryan Pearson.
Coach Jim Larranaga retooled his team nicely with the additions of Pearson and Cornelius along with three other freshman to makeup the loss of Campbell and Thomas. This team may struggle at first to find a rhythm. But outside of a road game against Dayton, the Patriots schedule is easy enough for GMU to win most of its non conference games while finding that rhythm. Look for Pearson to become CAA rookie of the year and for the Patriots to be better than the prognosticators think. A consistent Dre Smith, the Dr Jekyll of the CAA, would be a big plus, but don’t exactly count on it. Many say Georgia State is the sleeper CAA team. Well, I like Larranaga and company a lot more. Don’t be surprised if Mason is fighting for the #1 seed at season’s end.
The Fightin Blue Hens started out last season 0-4 en route to a 4-7 start. Then a funny thing happened. Delaware started out 5-0 in the CAA and actually were 8-7 overall at one time. Then reality hit as the Blue Hens went 5-9 the rest of the way (4-9 in the CAA) to finish at .500 and in seventh place in the CAA. The Blue Hens return the trio of Marc Egerson, Alphonso Dawson and Brian Johnson, who combined for 34 points, 14.5 rebounds and nearly 9.5 assists a game. Its a nice trio to start out with.
Herb Courtney was a tremendous player at Delaware. The 6-7 forward averaged 14 points and 6. rebounds per game last year. Courtney ended up as a Third Team All CAA selection. The loss of Courtney means that Egerson and forward Jim Ledsome are their only dependable players up front.
Kelvin McNeil - Its hard to make a freshman the key player for any team’s season. But the Blue Hens are severely lacking up front and they must hope that McNeil will instantly give them quality minutes. He is the best of their incoming class and for Delaware to improve on last year’s standing, they need him to grow up quickly.
Sixth was too high a prognostication for this team. The Blue Hens struggled the second half of the year and that was when they had Courtney. Now the Blue Hens have to fill that void and its asking too much for Ledsome and McNeil to fill that. Sure Egerson, Dawson and Johnson can improve, but the Blue Hens don’t have much depth on the bench to back their starters. Early season games vs. Rutgers, Vermont, at Seton Hall and at Marist will tell a lot. Though the CAA is down, I think the Blue Hens are not as good as last year and will not improve on their .500 record in conference. But I have been wrong before.
If there is any team that has got the nod for “CAA Sleeper Team of the Year”, it is the Panthers. The ballyhooed five transfers that Coach Rod Barnes brought in now get to play. If you haven’t heard, ESPN in their recent CAA shootaround article detailed the fact that the five D1 transfers who sat out for the Panthers regularly beat the Panthers starting lineup convincingly during practices. So who are these five transfers. They are guards Joe Dukes and Dante Curry, forwards Bernard Rimmer, Trey Hampton and Xavier Hansbro. Throw in Leonard Mendez, the Panthers best player and things are looking up for Georgia State.
Hate to be cold, but when you finish 12th in the conference, its hard to have a key loss.
Leonard Mendez - Mendez is an outstanding scorer who is incredibly deadly from three. However, for want of a better term, he sometimes seems to be out to lunch. Mendez, who was third Team All CAA last season, needs to elevate his game more if the Panthers want to be in the top half of the CAA. If Mendez elevates his game and these five transfers are as good as their ESPN billing, then Georgia State has something here.
I read the ESPN story and all five players have a solid D1 SEC or Big East pedigree. But I am skeptical that these guys are going to come in and make the Panthers a powerhouse. There are reasons why all five transferred, and one of the reasons has to do with them being on the end of the bench for the teams they played on. They may be better at the mid major level, but it doesn’t make them necessarily stars. A good indicator will be how they play early against their non-conference schedule which features at Minnesota, home to Florida State and at Georgia Tech. If they play well against those teams, then we have something. Still, if some want to make Georgia State the sexy sleeper pick, be my guest. I’ll take Larranaga and the Patriots as mine. Still, they are better than their predecessors and with Mendez, they will be a tough opponent on a nightly basis in the CAA. Just be skeptical about a Top Four CAA finish.
Part II will be in over the weekend. Stay tuned!