As we begin to anticipate the buzz at the Richmond Coliseum for a Northeastern-Delaware championship game the night of March 11, it’s worth checking in with Tom Yeager’s basketball collective as conference play ramps up.
Yes, the standings appear inverted as the league trends downward, thanks to a series of injuries, surprises, and lapses large and small.
The CAA is the 24th-ranked league in Division I, according to RealTimeRPI.com, and no team is rated among the top 120. That relegates the league back to NCAA one-bid status, with a consolation prize of an NIT berth if the regular season champ also doesn’t cut down the nets the second weekend in Richmond.
Northeastern (4-0) and the Blue Hens (3-0) are atop the pile. The Huskies and their healthy, veteran crew already have three road wins, while Delaware and its balanced, veteran bunch led by CAA top scorer and underrated defender Devon Saddler has two.
Hens’ coach Monte’ Ross has shelved his usual pre-game speeches and simply holds up a photo of K.C. Keeler in front of his team and says, “You guys want this to happen?”
Prohibitive fave Drexel (1-3) already is three games behind in the loss column and doesn’t have enough healthy bodies to field a competitive softball team, never mind hold a decent practice. The Dragons already were missing Chris Fouch and lately have been without Damion Lee and Darryl McCoy.
“We didn’t play well even before the injuries,” coach Bruiser Flint correctly pointed out.
As for now pointing toward three days in March, Flint said, “It’s been that way for a while. It’s not because we’ve got injuries. It was like that anyway.”
George Mason (2-2 before Tuesday’s game against JMU) appeared poised to be the class of the conference. But the Patriots melted down on defense in the second half against Northeastern and then lost to a deeply flawed UNC Wilmington (1-3) team that was dump-trucked by James Madison (3-1 before the Mason game) three days earlier.
The Sherrods were outrebounded by an almost unfathomable 51-27 margin. And no, Keith Rendleman didn’t have 45 of those boards. The Seahawks had as many offensive rebounds (21) as Mason did defensive rebounds.
“We’re fine with riding Sherrod and then different guys stepping up on a given day to be that secondary scorer,” Mason coach Paul Hewitt said, referring to alpha dog Sherrod Wright. “The thing that we cannot do, and it can be the downfall of our team, is if we drop off in our defensive effort and attention to detail.”
Towson (3-1) and double-double machine Jerrelle Benimon are a national-caliber feel-good story after winning one game all of last season. Coach Pat Skerry infused the roster with several transfers — Benimon included — and the program is trending upward in advance of moving into a snazzy, new on-campus arena next season (free marketing slogan: Towson Arena – A Skerry Place to Play).
The Tigers came back from the dead in regulation to beat William and Mary (1-3) in double-overtime last week. That loss likely contributed to the Tribe’s “meh” start and performance the following game at Hofstra (2-1), which is held together with duct tape and coat hangers after November arrests decimated the roster.
W&M has been collecting Marriott points and souvenir refrigerator magnets since Christmas. The Tribe has spent 16 of 21 days on the road, counting Wednesday’s game at Georgia State.
Coach Tony Shaver remains high on his group, but doesn’t want to hear about contending for the CAA title at the moment, after a five-game losing streak.
“I think it’s too early for us to talk about that right now and I told our team that,” he said. “I said a couple weeks ago that I thought we were good enough to beat anybody in this league and I thought anybody in this league is good enough to beat us. But when you let a number (of games) slip away from you, we don’t need to talk about contending right now. We need to talk about playing well at Georgia State and go from there.
“It’s tough on the road sometimes, but the great teams find a way to win on the road, as well.”
Speaking of small steps, that brings us to Old Dominion (0-4). One of the league’s signature programs is the only winless team in conference play.
The Monarchs’ youth and inexperience and injuries have been well documented. The latest is a knee injury to freshman guard Deion Clark that’s likely to sideline him for at least the next few days.
Hard to say what’s more remarkable: ODU’s uncharacteristic struggles or its win over Virginia.
The irony is that even in a season when the league is historically down and the race appears wide open, ODU might be too anemic to contend.
“Right now, trying to solve global warming isn’t really what I’m after,” head coach Blaine Taylor said. “We’re just trying to see if we can’t get a win, to tell you the truth. If all of a sudden, you get a little something going, maybe you set your sights on something different, but right now, we just want to have a chance to go in the locker room and high-five and feel good about a good performance or a good day of competition.”
Leave it to Georgia State coach Ron Hunter to provide a different take. Not that the Panthers (1-3) are world beaters. They’ve lost seven of eight, six of which by five points or less, including last Saturday’s 86-83 gut-punch to Delaware on Saddler’s 3-pointer with 0.8 seconds remaining.
Hunter, living in a 39th-floor condo in Atlanta, joked that, “It’s probably not a good idea for me to be on the 39th floor, with these one-point losses. My wife has me on lockdown right now.”
Hunter will coach Wednesday’s game against William and Mary barefoot, part of his work with Samaritan’s Feet — the charity that distributes shoes to impoverished kids worldwide.
Hunter took his team to South Africa last summer to hand out shoes and to reach out. The trip also provided a lesson for his own players, giving them a first-hand look at poverty and conditions elsewhere.
He said they picked up on a prayer they heard among South African people, summed up as 0-0-1. It means: Please bless us, if we don’t have breakfast or lunch, allow us to have dinner. In other words, if zero breakfast and zero lunch, please grant us one dinner.
“That’s kind of been a rallying call for us,” Hunter said, “is that when you think things are bad or when you’re on a losing streak, or you’re not playing well, there are children around the world who not only don’t have a pair of shoes, they don’t have a meal. It puts a lot of things in perspective.”