The inevitable cannibalization within Colonial Athletic Association basketball began Wednesday night.
Inevitable because with five teams among the nation's top 100 according to CollegeRPI.com, and a sixth at No. 110, the league's bullies had to start whaling on one another.
Case in point: defending conference champion Old Dominion's 64-58 victory over upstart James Madison at the sold-out Constant Center.
ODU began the night a CAA-best No. 35 on the RPI but only tied for fourth in the league standings, a game behind leaders Hofstra, VCU and JMU.
The Monarchs are deeper, tougher and more battle-scarred than the No. 60 Dukes. That's why they led for the final 36-plus minutes and trailed for all of 43 seconds. That's how they held Julius Wells, who torched them for 29 points here last season, scoreless.
"We lost to a better team," said Matt Brady, JMU's third-year coach.
But when ODU seized a 10-point lead early in the second half, Brady's bunch didn't blink. The Dukes scored eight consecutive points, and with less than a minute remaining, the Monarchs' lead was a scant 56-54.
This is how it's going to be in the CAA. This is how it will be Saturday when No. 72 VCU visits ODU, while No. 50 George Mason travels to JMU.
"Now we're going to have to sink or swim," Brady said.
He's not alone. Little rest for the weary from now until March.
How intense were Wednesday's emotions and competition? Well, floor burns were common, and Brady left the court in a profane rage, torqued that officials waved off a late goal-tend on ODU's Kent Bazemore in favor of a foul that the stripes ruled, after lengthy deliberations, occurred before Humpty Hitchens' shot.
This was a game the Monarchs (14-4, 5-2 CAA) could ill-afford to lose. Dropping league road games at Delaware and Drexel is understandable, but holding serve at home is a must, especially against an opponent you've owned of late -- ODU has won 14 of the last 16 in the series.
The Monarchs prevailed in standard fashion, winning the rebound wars by eight and blocking eight shots. Unattractive but effective.
"I think our guys are maturing into the season a little bit," ODU coach Blaine Taylor said.
The good news for the Monarchs and the CAA is that CollegeRPI.com, whose data mirror the NCAA's Rating Percentage Index, ranks the conference 10th nationally, its loftiest rating in the 18 years archived on the website.
The potential trouble is that the CAA's depth and competition may lower teams' RPIs and affect their NCAA tournament hopes. A top-heavy league such as the Big East, with an outrageous 11 schools among the top 70, needn't worry about such issues as much as the modest CAA.
In 2006 and '07, two CAA teams made the NCAA tournament in consecutive years for the first time. But in 2008, '09 and '10, it was back to the league champion only.No matter who wins the CAA tournament and accompanying NCAA invite March 7, other teams will have a case.
The Monarchs' No. 35 RPI ranking reflects another stout non-conference schedule, rated 41st among 345 Division I teams. That's the fourth time in five years ODU has been among the top 50.
JMU (15-4, 5-2) arrived in Norfolk riding a nine-game winning streak, the program's longest since 1993. Plus, the Dukes already had bettered last season's 4-14 CAA flop.
That's quite the upgrade for Brady, whose roster includes one significant senior, top scorer Denzel Bowles (20 points and nine boards Wednesday).
"All the computer numbers are good across the board," said CAA commissioner Tom Yeager, who made the trek from conference HQ in Richmond. "We've got institutions that are supporting the programs. They're hiring good coaches, dedicating the resources, and their marketing people are really working to fill arenas like this.
"Hopefully, it's all kind of coming together."
David Teel can be reached at 247-4636 or by e-mail at email@example.com. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/teeltime, and follow him at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP