The First Four

I started following CAA Hoops in the fall of 2012, when I arrived on Drexel’s campus. It was a cold and bitter winter in University City; Chris Fouch broke his ankle, and the Dragons’ tournament aspirations were quashed before Thanksgiving.

The league, I quickly discovered, was on the downturn. VCU had recently departed. George Mason, Georgia State and Old Dominion were each on the way out. The remaining teams were not the superstars but the had-runs. UNCW was past its prime; so, it was becoming apparent, was Drexel.

Fast forward three years, and the CAA is off to a red-hot start. The conference has compiled a combined 52-29 record through a month of nonconference play. UNCW remains undefeated and impressive. Northeastern toppled then-No. 15 Miami (FL). Hofstra earned a neutral-floor victory over Florida State.

Projected basement dwellers Elon and College of Charleston, the two newest members of the league who struggled to find footing in their inaugural seasons, are off to impressive starts to the year. Charleston already has seven wins, including a victory over future lottery pick Ben Simmons and LSU.

Drexel aside, these teams have inspired a level of play not seen in the CAA in years. One can only hope the momentum carries into the conference slate, where parity becomes king.

Let’s dive in…

Charleston (6-2) 

Something Positive: Earl Grant has a bunch of young kids who can play, and given where this program was 15 months ago, that’s all we can really ask for. Cam Johnson is one of the most promising sophomores in the league. Freshman Marquise Pointer looks like a player. Frosh big man Jarrell Brantley is the team’s leading rebounder, and has scored in double figures in three of Charleston’s past four.

For me, Nick Harris has been a truly pleasant surprise. After garnering attention for his play in a career-high 25 minutes versus LSU, the redshirt freshman has averaged 11 points per game in Charleston’s last two wins. He didn’t stand out when I saw Charleston play at Navy, and logged a DNP against Davidson in the following game. But he was working his way back from injury then, and now looks like a building block in Charleston’s frontcourt.

Needs Work: Canyon Barry is using 30.9% of Charleston’s possessions and taking 34.8% (13th in D-I) of the team’s shots. Considering that he’s a redshirt junior on the 310th most experienced team in the country, the Cougars are likely to continue riding their leader. For such an inexperienced team, I’d say the Cougars have done a relatively good job closing out games, and proving they can rally when necessary. Barry, one of the best free-throw shooters in the country (86.8%), is a huge part of that.

But one has to wonder if being so dependent upon Barry will take its toll come conference play.

Revised Outlook: The Cougars were picked to finish ninth in the CAA, and we’ve since learned that no freebies will be had at TD Arena. I still think this team plays in Friday night’s opening round in Baltimore, but that seems way less certain now than it did four weeks ago.

Delaware (4-3)

Something Positive: It’s unfair to judge this team on what’s happened so far this season, because Delaware has faced as much attrition as any team in the league since practices began. There’s so much in flux, with guys having to ascend to new roles in short manner. Still, there have been some small positives to date.

For a guy who wasn’t even sure he’d be in Newark this year, Marvin King-Davis sure is making a Senior Surge. He’s tallied four double-doubles, and is the lone Blue Hen to have scored in double figures every game. Team manager turned walk-on turned scholarship starter Curtis McRoy has proved that he can be a contributor. Kevin Tresolini penned McRoy’s story here.

Needs Work: Injuries to Eric Carter, Chivarsky Corbett, and Devonne Pinkard have stripped a thin team down to the bone. Those ailments have put a lot of pressure on the other Hens to shoulder the load.

And so far, no one’s providing offense with much efficiency.

Sophomore Anthony Mosley is the only healthy rotation regular shooting above 43% from the field, and he was just recently inserted into the starting lineup as a result of the injury to Corbett. Of course, we know that Monté Ross’ dribble-drive offense never features a bunch of sharpshooters, and is built to produce easy looks at the rim or from the free-throw line. But this team has to find a way to put the ball in the hoop more effectively to make its defensive improvements matter.

Revised Outlook: Delaware was picked to finish fifth in this league, and given how the first few weeks have unfolded, you’d be hardpressed to maintain those expectations. This team still has talent, but is just so direly shorthanded. Fortunately, Pinkard will be back for the heart of conference play, and they’ll need him to pick up some of the outside shooting left behind by Corbett.

Drexel (1-6)

Something Positive: It’s tough to find many positives for a 1-6 team that seems poorly outfitted for its challenging nonconference schedule. One thing the Dragons can lean on is the fact that their best scorers inside and outside, guard Tavon Allen and forward Rodney Williams, are playing the best basketball of their respective careers. Allen is still launching plenty of deep threes, but he’s shooting with an accuracy that he lacked in his first three seasons, hitting at a 41% clip from beyond the arc through seven games. And Williams, an ultra-athletic forward with all-conference potential, has looked dominating in the paint when he manages to stay out of foul trouble, averaging 11.5 points and 9.3 rebounds in games where he plays at least 25 minutes.

Needs Work: Continuing a trend of the past few years, Bruiser Flint’s typically staunch defense is in shambles. For just the second time in his 15-year tenure, Drexel has allowed more than 500 points in its first seven games. With young guards getting a lot of playing time, defensive improvement needs to come fast, or else the Dragons will be losing a lot of shootouts this year.

A reason for optimism? Opponents averaged 81 points per game in Drexel’s first four games, but 62 points per game in its last three.

Revised Outlook: The Dragons were picked to finish eighth in the conference before the season started, but after an impressive nonconference performance by the rest of the league, Flint’s crew could be behind the eight ball against a surprisingly talented crop of teams. If Ahmad Fields returns in time for league play, Drexel can still make noise. But for now, the Dragons are near the bottom of the red-hot CAA.

Elon (5-3)

Something Positive: Depth is this team’s biggest attribute. On average, eight players are contributing at least six points each night while playing 15+ minutes per game. Dainan Swoope in particular has been a revelation, as the late summer addition to Elon’s 2015 recruiting class is the only player who’s reached double figures in all eight games.

Swoope’s production is correlated with high volume a la a certain Elon freshman who posted gaudy numbers last season. But Swoope’s playing within the team, not turning the ball over, and keeping Luke Eddy from having too much on his plate too soon.

Needs Work: The Phoenix sported the league’s worst defense in conference play last year, and appears to be headed for a similar honor this year. Elon’s 1.06 points per possession allowed ranks 283rd in D-I and last in the CAA so far. After holding four of its first five opponents below 0.96 points per possession, each of the Phoenix’s last three opponents (Texas A&M CC, Kennesaw State, and Florida International) have tallied at least 1.01 points per possession.

Revised Outlook: Elon certainly doesn’t look like a tenth place team, having emerged on the right side of a number of 50-50 games. Even so, it’s hard to imagine the Phoenix avoiding the CAA Tournament’s opening round without defensive improvement. Matt Matheny’s team seems destined to produce some thrilling barnburners in league play, but you’ve got to wonder how the Phoenix will fair against other offensively potent teams with talented, established veterans.

Hofstra (6-3)

Something Positive: We knew the backcourt trio would be great, so we were intently watching to see if Rokas Gustys could become the consistent pain in the arse he was for JMU and William & Mary in Baltimore. The sophomore big man is making good on the flashes he showed last season, averaging 9.2 points and 8.6 boards per game.

Perhaps the most notable thing about Gustys’ improvement is that he isn’t fouling as much. Gustys has averaged only 5.6 fouls per 40 minutes after averaging 7.4 per 40 as a freshman. His size will be a problem for the majority of the teams in the CAA, but he’s got to stay on the court for that to matter.

Needs Work: Could Hofstra be the slowest starting team in America? Let’s take a closer look at the first nine games of the season, where Hofstra was…

  • Doubled up by Canisius (36-18) less than 12 minutes into its season opener
  • Trailing Indiana State by 17 points before a second-half rally
  • Trailing St. Bonaventure by 10 in the first half
  • Trailing Siena by 15 in the first half

Now, Hofstra went 2-2 in those games, and should’ve beaten Indiana State. We know Joe Mihalich’s team has an offense capable of digging itself out of holes, but we certainly can’t count on the Pride to get stops on defense. The Siena game was a perfect example of that, as the Pride made a 6-0 run out of halftime to cut the Saints’ lead to single digits.

But on a rare off shooting night for Green, Bernardi, and Co., Hofstra never got the defensive stops necessary to make it a one-possession game.

Revised Outlook: The Pride has done its job in validating its status as the preseason conference favorite, but has to find a way to come out of the gates more quickly. This still has the makings of a season to remember, but it only takes one lackluster performance in Baltimore to squander it all away.

James Madison (7-3)

Something Positive: I keep waiting for Shakir Brown to slow down, but it’s not happening. The JUCO transfer showed immediate poise upon stepping onto the floor in his first D-I game, and is JMU’s leading scorer (15 points), rebounder (7.4 boards), and three-point shooter (51.9%, 28-of-54 from three). I certainly didn’t think there’d be enough basketball for anyone other than Ron Curry or Yohanny Dalembert to tally those sorts of numbers.

Matt Brady’s still rounding out his rotation, but boasts perhaps the deepest roster in the league. Nine different players are averaging at least 13 minutes per game, and that doesn’t include Devontae Morgan.

Needs Work: As has been the case with many of Brady’s team, we need to see some consistency here. After playing well in those first two games against Richmond and West Virginia, I expected the Dukes to take care of business on their home court against Florida International, Oral Roberts, and Tennessee Martin. So it was clearly disappointing that JMU was lucky to come out of that stretch with just one win.

One thing the Dukes did so well last year was win the games they were supposed to win. It’ll be interesting to see if they can do it again this year.

JMU is currently permitting 1.05 points per possession, one of the worst marks in the league. As Brady continues to hammer out his rotation, expect the advantage to go to the players who show a little extra on the defensive end.

Revised Outlook: Probably fallen a notch below Northeastern, but still a high-ceiling team that’s a good bet to contend.

UNCW (5-0)

Something Positive: This is a deep, deep team, and the Seahawks can score from pretty much anywhere. Six players are averaging at least eight points per game, and nine players are averaging at least six points per game. The numbers are clearly skewed by the fact that UNCW has played two D-II schools, but five of its top seven scorers are shooting at least 50% from the field, a luxury CAA teams don’t normally have at their disposal. I really like what junior Chris Flemmings has brought to the team. He’s scored 58 points on 57% shooting in his last three games, and is averaging 4.4 rebounds per game as a 6’5” guard.

Needs Work: Kevin Keatts’ team needs to be better from the charity stripe. It’s a bit of nitpicky considering the Seahawks’ top three scorers — Craig Ponder, Chris Flemmings, and Denzel Ingram – have combined to shoot a solid 74.5% from the line. But as a team, UNCW is shooting 66.4%. In a season dominated by fouls, free-throw shooting is at even more of a premium.

Revised Outlook: So far, the Seahawks are who we thought they were. The co-champions from the ‘14-‘15 regular season look like one of the more formidable threats in the CAA this season. They have two kids, CJ Bryce and Devontae Cacok, who look capable of getting in the conversation for CAA Rookie of the Year. With seasoned guards in Craig Ponder and Jordon Talley, and one of the best coaches in the conference, UNCW is right where it wants to be through five nonconference games.

Northeastern (6-3)

Something Positive: Last season, Northeastern was Bill Coen’s best defensive rebounding team ever (74.7%, 10th in D-I). Quincy Ford and Zach Stahl have helped Northeastern stay elite there, as the Huskies are hauling in 76.7% of defensive boards (20th in D-I) so far this season.

That’s a perfect segue into freshman Jeremy Miller, the young big man who’s grabbed at least five boards in three of Northeastern’s last four games. The 6’10” forward has scored 1.29 points per possession so far this season, and is seeing the floor more and more as the season goes on. He’s also connected on 7-of-14 shots from three, and I’m guessing offensive freedom was a big-time selling point for the most highly rated recruit to enter the CAA this season.

And in case you didn’t know David Walker is a really good basketball player. Like, dude just debuted on DraftExpress’ 2016 NBA Mock Draft.

Needs Work: This one’s obvious, but Bill Coen has to find a way to get TJ Williams on track. After starting all 35 games and averaging 11.1 points per game in conference play as a sophomore, Williams is at 4.2 points per game on 34.2% shooting so far this season. Williams doesn’t have to be a double-digit scorer, as his main job is to facilitate on offense. Even so, he’s too talented to be contributing so little. I expect that the added time off around exams will do him some good.

Revised Outlook: I saw a lot of preseason chatter on the Twittersphere indicating that the Huskies were every bit of Hofstra’s equal. Hofstra’s taken care of business thus far, but the Miami win indicated that Northeastern might indeed be the Pride’s biggest adversary. Walker, Ford, and Stahl are as good a trio as you’ll find in this league.

Towson (7-3)

Something Positive: Apologies in advanced for this obvious one. But for a Towson team desperately needing a steady point guard and consistent deep threat, Byron Hawkins has been nothing short of spectacular. When considering that he plays on a poor shooting team, Hawkins’ 2.09 assist-to-turnover Ratio is impressive. Hawkins has banged home 21-of-53 three-point attempts (39.6%).

Needs Work: We mentioned that Towson was a threat to be one of the worst three-point shooting teams in D-I, and Hawkins is the only thing keeping Pat Skerry’s squad short of that designation. Hawkins has 23 of Towson’s 49 3-pointers, and no one else on the team has more than eight 3-pointers. Arnaud William Adala Moto and Mike Morsell have combined to shoot 11-of-54 (20.3%) from downtown.

After going 1-of-14 from three in Towson’s first four games, Adala Moto has hit 2-of-7 over Towson’s last six. He’s been a much more effective player since focusing on scoring in the paint.

Revised Outlook: As expected, the Tigers are posting highly efficient offensive rebounding (39.2%, 17th in D-I) and free-throw rates (47.0%, 24th in D-I). Small sample sizes abound, but this team is defending (allowing 1.02 points per possession, 162nd in D-I) better than any Skerry team we’ve seen to date. This all foreshadows many frustrating games for future CAA foes.

Things have started to come together during this current six-game winning streak, and we’ve seen progress on the offensive side of the ball. Picked to finish seventh, I’m cautiously optimistic about Towson’s chances to outperform expectations.

William & Mary (5-3)

Something Positive: You know what to expect from Tony Shaver’s group, and you’re getting it so far this season. Despite the fact that Daniel Dixon (22-of-50, 44%) is the only Tribe player really connecting from outside, William & Mary still ranks 79th in D-I with a 37.1% mark from three.

While it isn’t the nationally elite marksmanship we’re used to see from W&M, there’s room for growth here. Omar Prewitt, Terry Tarpey, and David Cohn should all improve upon their early season percentages.

Of course, the team’s three-point clip is buoyed by sophomore Connor Burchfield’s 9-of-12 mark from three. That guy needs to see the floor for more than 10 minutes each game.

Needs Work: It’s baffling to see a team with so many good shooters struggling from the foul line (67.1%, 225th in D-I). If the Tribe shoots better than an aggregate 19-of-33 (57.6%) from the stripe against Dayton and Howard, it would likely be 7-1 right now.

Revised Outlook: The early season goal involved cohesively ascending as a unit to make up for the loss of Marcus Thornton. William & Mary won at NC State, but lost at Howard. A team so reliant on its offense’s potency will be prone to such peaks and valleys, and seems to indicate that William & Mary will likely sneak some conference road games it shouldn’t, and drop some games to lower-tier teams.

This team hasn’t touched its offensive ceiling, and we can expect to see improvements. Tarpey in particular seems to be feeling the pressures of shouldering more of the offensive load. David Cohn has done some nice things as the point guard, but still seems to be finding his own offensive groove. I think those guys will only improve as the season progresses, and we’ll see William & Mary emerge as a viable contender in conference play.

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