Like the solar eclipse, a preschooler’s attention span and my leaf-free front yard, opening weekend in college basketball has come and gone. After months of speculation, we finally #STDGA.
One thing you can count on in the early weeks each season is a wide disparity in the range of competition.
Elon, expected to contend for the CAA Hoops title this season, is a good example. It opened the season Friday at No. 1 Duke, which started five soon-to-be NBA pros, and lost by 29. The Phoenix returned home Saturday to face William Peace, which was an all-girls college for more than a century until it converted to co-educational five years ago, and won by 43.
November and December serve many purposes for college teams. Teams hope to jell, players adapt to balancing travel, practices, games, on-the-road study halls and early morning classes after late night arrivals. But now that the CAA has accepted its position as a one-bid league, coaches use the nonconference schedule to figure out their team and understand which players they can trust when the New Year arrives.
Because the CAA regular season matters. In the last 16 years, no team seeded worse than third has won the conference tournament and claimed the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. In the current 10-team configuration, Northeastern won as the 3 seed in 2015, UNCW as the 2 in 2016 and UNCW repeated as the 1 last season.
So, here’s a fully baked half dozen thoughts from the weekend. We’ll try to make this a regular deal.
Unanimous league favorite Charleston showed its experience and resolve in gutting out a 68-60 overtime win over Siena at home. Playing without All-CAA forward Jarrell Brantley, who suffered a minor injury in practice, the Cougars looked lost on the offensive end. They shot 40 percent on 2-pointers, 20 percent on 3-pointers (5 of 25) and mustered only 0.87 points per possession against a Siena team that was 208th last season in adjusted defensive efficiency and is projected 250th this season. Missing a player of Brantley’s caliber hurts any team, obviously, but the Cougars spent too much time standing around against the Saints’ zone. Brantley’s ability to gain position and pass out of the mid-post, around the free throw line and in the short corner would’ve been helpful against the 2-3 zone. Charleston plays one of the best defensive teams in the nation tonight at No. 7 Wichita State (9 p.m. CBS Sports Network). The Cougars have the personnel to become an excellent offensive team. They’ll need Brantley at full strength tonight. Of course tonight’s game also has two interesting side notes. C of C coach Earl Grant worked under Gregg Marshall at Winthrop from 2004-07 and during that span Marshall was the Cougars coach for 24 hours. Here’s a fun piece from King Kresse on what might have been.
Blue Hens Rising
Delaware went down to the Spider Hole and whipped a Richmond squad that’s expected to finish in the middle of the pack in the Atlantic 10. Granted, the Spiders were missing their leading returning scorer, Khwan Fore, still, this is a signature victory for second-year UD coach Martin Ingelsby, who is building something special in Newark. Ingelsby landed Ryan Daly last season and he was easily the CAA Freshman of the Year. Kevin Anderson, a 6-5 freshman, scored 11 points in 31 minutes against Richmond and five of the eight Blue Hens who played are underclassmen. I picked Delaware seventh in the CAA in my Blue Ribbon preview. Is it too late for a mulligan?
As of today, the 10 members of the CAA are scheduled to play 22 games against teams in the KenPom Top 100. This number could grow as teams advance in preseason tournaments. Northeastern is again the conference’s scheduling stalwart, set to face five top-100 squads, including Stanford, Bucknell and Vermont. On the flip side, every CAA member is playing a non-DI foe this season, combining for 14 affairs against the likes of Wentworth (which I thought was a good golf course in England), Arcadia(n) – a fine layout in Myrtle Beach and Molloy (which for some reason makes me think of the Smails’ kid’s line about a Scotch ad in Caddyshack).
Too many golf references in one paragraph. Also, too much fluff on the schedule. It’s a shame the similar mid-majors of the world can’t figure out a way to meet more frequently in the opening weeks of the season. There are 351 teams in Division I, after all. Scheduling is complicated and coaches aren’t eager to visit Trask Coliseum or Alumni Hall. That being said, UNCW at Davidson, Delaware at Bradley and JMU vs. ODU should be accurate barometers for both squads in the next two nights.
What to make of Drexel
The Dragons were well shy of full strength in their home opener, a nine-point loss to Bowling Green. There were bright spots: Senior big man Austin Williams was perfect on seven shots and had a double-double of 18 points and 12 rebounds. Sammy Mojica, who was last seen firing up quick, contested 3-pointers in the North Charleston Coliseum, played like a veteran with 17 points on 13 shots and seven boards. There were bleak spots: Guards Kurk Lee and Troy Harper, a transfer from Campbell, missed 21 of 25 shots and the Dragons committed turnovers on one-fourth of their possessions. Drexel has a tough trip to Houston on Friday followed by a five-game stretch of reasonable games that should shed light on which way this season is headed for coach Zach Spiker.
Fornes is key for Seahawks
The sophomore guard had 11 points, five rebounds and four assists in 21 minutes for UNCW in its season-opening laugher over D3 North Carolina Wesleyan. As expected All-CAA forward Devontae Cacock and senior point guard Jordon Talley combined for 45 points to lead the way, but if the Seahawks plan to contend for their fourth consecutive regular season crown, they’re going to need a consistent third scorer. Fornes is extremely athletic and has a sweet stroke from deep. Bothered by nagging injuries in the offseason, Fornes possesses the tools necessary to thrive in the CAA. Keep a close eye on his stat line this season. UNCW faces one of the most exciting guards in the nation Saturday when Chris Clemons and Campbell come to Trask.
The final Murphy brother, Tomas, is a freshman at Northeastern. The 6-8, 220-forward wasn’t bashful in the season opening win over Boston U., taking 31 percent of the team’s shots when on the floor. He finished with 15 points on 6 of 12 shooting, adding six rebounds and three assists in 31 minutes. Northeastern’s Bill Coen excels at coaching and downplaying his freshmen, yet there was noticeable optimism in his voice this summer when I asked him about Murphy’s potential. Riddled by injuries in 2016-17, the Huskies appear to be nine or 10 deep and possess the versatility throughout the lineup to match an array of opponents. The sophomores thrown onto the floor out of desperation a year ago should benefit from the game experience as this season unfolds. The turnover count was high against the Terriers (26 percent of possessions) however attribute it to first-game jitters for junior point guard Vasa Pusica, who hadn’t played in 18 months after transferring to NU from San Diego.