47 days into the ’15-’16 college basketball season, Star-News’ Dan Spears took notice of a sign from the basketball gods. It was the day before CAA conference play was set to begin, and KenPom’s algorithms had aligned in such a way that forecasted a season that would end with yet another four-way first place tie featuring James Madison, Northeastern, UNCW, and William & Mary.
Astute observers saw the slippage present in the quartet’s projected 11-7 conference record – a record that was a full win less than the 12-6 mark that won the league last season. The computers recognized the impressive nonconference play from last year’s regular season champs, but acknowledged that Hofstra, College of Charleston, Elon, and Towson had improved enough to close the gap.
Fast forward a few weeks, and we’ve got more parity than anyone could’ve predicted.
Following a weekend that featured two overtime cliffhangers and a last-minute game-winning 3-pointer, we are officially one third of the way through conference play. And at the first intermission, six teams sit knotted atop the CAA standings with 4-2 records. That’s bound to change, but sure makes things interesting for the time being.
Here are a few thoughts, stats, and articles from the first three weeks of league play:
College of Charleston emerged from the first three league games with wins over preseason favorites Hofstra and JMU. But the Cougars’ lone loss in that trio of contests proved costly in the worst way.
Canyon Barry, the CAA’s leading scorer (19.7 points per game) suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in Charleston’s loss at William & Mary on January 2nd. We were openly nervous about how much the young Cougars were leaning on Barry, so this is an undeniably enormous blow.
Charleston’s growth is one of the best stories in the league to date, and while we’re not about to write the Cougars off (C of C did best Hofstra sans Barry), we are tempering expectations for the remainder of the season. Charleston has lost three straight, including back-to-back one-possession home games versus William & Mary and Elon.
While Earl Grant’s club will likely fall out of contention, the silver lining is the opportunity to get more reps for the young guns comprising the nation’s 317th youngest team. This squad is littered with promise, and when you remember that elder statesmen Barry and Joe Chealey will join a talented freshmen class (the injured Grant Riller was supposed to be an impact player for this team, and recruit Chevez Goodwin is said to be a steal), it’s easy to understand why optimism abounds in the Low Country.
Delaware has lost nine in a row since scoring an improbable win at Marist on December 12th. The Hens have talent, but the Thursday-Saturday format is especially hostile on a team receiving just 22.4% of minutes from its bench (342nd fewest in D-I). They’ll win some league games, but the injuries have taken their toll. This is shaping up as a lost season, and exemplar of why leaving a coach in a lame-duck situation is a horrible idea.
Here’s Dan Crain’s recap from Drexel’s win versus College of Charleston. The Dragons are 3-14 this year, so we must savor the flavor when possible.
With seven players averaging 20+ minutes per game in league play, well-roundedness continues to be a strength for Elon. Matt Matheny has five players averaging double-figure scoring in conference play, and three freshmen averaging more than eight points per game. The young Phoenix showed uncommon poise during Saturday’s win at Charleston, rallying from a double-digit lead and getting the win on Dainan Swoope’s 3-pointer with 20 seconds to play.
Freshman Tyler Seibring has been lights out in league play, averaging 13.2 points per game on 56.9% shooting. He’s hit multiple 3-pointers in every game in 2016, and at least three treys in four of five games. Seibring has (deservedly) earned CAA Rookie of the Week honors in consecutive weeks, and is the only freshman in the league to have earned the award three times this season.
Hofstra’s bench accounted for 18 minutes in Saturday’s overtime loss to JMU. Hofstra’s starting five has the talent to compensate, but it is fair to question how the Pride will hold up if playing three games in three days in Baltimore. Four starters (Juan’ya Green, Brian Bernardi, Ameen Tanksley, and Denton Koon) are all logging more than 33 minutes per game. Joe Mihalich has accounted for his team’s lack of depth by pulling the reins back on a team that finished top 20 in tempo last season.
Rokas Gustys tallied double-doubles in both Hofstra’s games last week, including a monstrous 25-point 20-rebound effort Saturday versus JMU. His standout performances earned him a share of the CAA Player of the Week award.
Early-season trends indicate that Matt Brady should be thankful the CAA Tournament is played outside of Harrisonburg. James Madison is 6-0 in true road games and 8-4 at the Convocation Center. Heading into their recent northeast road trip, the Dukes were in a precarious situation. They’d dropped two of their first three conference home games against teams (Charleston and Elon) that were not expected to contend.
After scoring road victories at Northeastern and Hofstra, Brady’s bunch has eased some of the initial concerns. We’re wary of the small sample size, but can’t help but note the fact that JMU ranks first in defensive efficiency (98.3 points allowed per 100 possessions) through six league games.
The most notable development for the Dukes has been the play of a trio of juniors – Shakir Brown, Yohanny Dalembert, and Jackson Kent – that scored in double figures in both road games.
Brown has dropped 20+ in six games, but scored less than six points in each of JMU’s first three conference games. Brown tallied 22 points at Hofstra, which was far and away his best effort of the young conference season.
Dalembert’s disappointing season had cratered in JMU’s previous three games, a stretch in which the junior tallied eight points on 1-of-16 shooting. Thus, it was extremely encouraging to see the Preseason All-CAA Second Teamer score in double figures in consecutive games for the first time all season.
With Brown assuming a bigger role than expected (from my perspective, anyway), Kent struggled to find his spot in the early portion of the season. Kent has been a double-figure scorer in three of JMU’s past five games, and it’s promising to see a guy who shot 42% from beyond the arc in ’14-‘15 start to come around.
UNCW couldn’t afford another home loss versus a shorthanded contender, and got the job done Saturday against Daniel Dixon-less W&M. Denzel Ingram got the scoring going Saturday, and hit eight 3-pointers en route to a career-high 30 points. UNCW’s white-hot offensive play has resulted in wins in seven of the team’s last nine games, and Ingram’s been a huge part of Kevin Keatts’ team’s success.
After not playing in UNCW’s first nine games, C.J. Gettys has started all six of UNCW’s conference outings. Averaging 3.7 blocks per game in the conference slate, Gettys has the highest block rate (18.3%) in the CAA.
Junior wing Chris Flemmings is up to 17.8 points per game in league play, and is shooting an otherworldly 69.7% on 2-pointers. One of the biggest surprises in the league to date, Flemmings just earned his first CAA Player of the Week award.
Before shooting an aggregate 10-of-49 from three-point range in losses to W&M and JMU, Northeastern was looking like the cream of the CAA crop. The Huskies were able to withstand another subpar outside shooting effort (9-of-30 from three) in Saturday’s win versus Delaware, but it further confirmed that this team is slumping offensively.
I think Northeastern’s offensive struggles are (at least partially) the product of a fluctuating rotation.
Frosh Donnell Gresham is a starter now, and has averaged 22.3 minutes per game since debuting on December 29th. Battling a hip injury, Zach Stahl has been in and out of the starting lineup, having averaged just 7.5 points per game in January. T.J. Williams missed a few games due to injury, but has shown signs of getting over his nonconference scuffles.
These are significant occurrences for a team that started the same starting five in all but one game last season.
Despite the recent shooting woes, the upcoming schedule will provide Northeastern with a chance to get right. The Huskies play five of their next six games at Mathews, and will only leave Boston for a Thursday night road bout in Charleston.
Ultimately, you can trust that Bill Coen will figure out the best way to utilize these pieces.
If we’re scoping our preseason predictions, Towson is the most surprising member of the six-way tie atop the CAA. KenPom’s system still doesn’t love Pat Skerry’s team (pegged to finish in a sixth place tie), but at least the Tigers are starting to produce consistently on the offensive end. The Tigers top five scorers in league play are all shooting above 73.7% from the foul line – an essential development for the team ranked ninth nationally in free-throw rate (47.6%).
David Cohn was inconsistent in the early portion of nonconference slate, but has posted an offensive rating above 110 in eight straight, including a 14-point, 11-assist effort Saturday at Trask. Sean Sheldon also poured in a career-high 20 points in Wilmington, and has made 27-of-37 (73%) field goal attempts thus far in conference play.
If William & Mary continues to get high quality play from its secondary offensive options (especially from positions one and five), the Tribe might be the team to beat in Baltimore.