A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step – Lao Tzu
It’s been a long time since I did the Stroll – Led Zeppelin
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In professional tennis, the preliminary rounds are called the “Qualies.” Players who haven’t climbed to a certain point in the world rankings must win the requisite number of matches in a qualifying tournament to earn a spot in the main draw. They fight and scratch to qualify, make a paycheck and earn the right to get crushed by a superstar in the first round. The winners go down in history. The losers go home to practice.
College basketball at the one-bid league level lives a similar existence. It’s called the regular season. History reveals a team better have a top-4 seed if it hopes to win the CAA tournament (and yes, we remember outlier East Carolina, way back when). Still, everybody is alive as December becomes January. Some teams are searching for answers. Others are trying to build on what they’ve seen so far. But everyone is breathing. The eliminations come later, and quickly.
In CAA hoopsland, each coach is trying to shape his team into a finished product that can overcome different styles of play and win three (or four!) consecutive games in North Charleston on the first weekend in March. There are great games to be played in a series of ebbs, flows and nights where jumping-off-the-cliff seems like the best option. Buzzer beaters and incredible individual efforts lie ahead. Late-night road trips planned on a bar stool and getaway weekends to thaw out from the cold. Fans will fall in love with certain players and scream nasty words at officials (Moving Screen!).
But each team, fan and coach embraces the dream entering this first weekend, clinging to hope they can build momentum over the next two months, clip the nets and earn their way into the 68-team pinnacle of the sport. Everybody believes they can come together and become something much stronger than their flawed selves. It doesn’t matter how many times they’ve double faulted or clanked a volley into the net. The score is love, all.
What had happened was: Towson unleashed a flurry of aces until it flopped at Oakland and folded at Pittsburgh. Charleston welcomed back its main forward two games ago and is ready to slam opponents under the boards. Elon loves cozy Alumni Gym and may have a hard time saying goodbye. Northeastern rushed the net to beat three teams who were the preseason favorite in their respective leagues. Hofstra scored and played exciting games of basketball featuring long, wild, and so very improbable rallies. Delaware flashed power and precision and looked young and unpredictable. James Madison looked young and unfortunately predictable. Drexel’s players played a lot because often there were many players unfit to play at all. William & Mary made shots – from everywhere – and UNCW’s opponents did the same.
Here’s how KenPom saw things before the season began
Here’s how the forecast has changed, six weeks in
Up – Towson (3 wins), Delaware (2 wins), Northeastern (2 wins)
Down – UNCW (4 losses), Elon (2 losses)
The warmup games against overmatched schools from lower divisions mean nothing now. The pain from the beatings administered for the guarantee of a paycheck are gone too. It’s opening night, dammit, and some poor souls will be four games out of first before they can understand what went wrong, left there begging to return to love, all once again.
Towson at Charleston (4 p.m., Saturday)
The CAA Hoops schedule lords blessed us with this beauty, a rematch from last year’s tournament semifinals, to open the season. Two weeks ago, Towson looked like the superior team. But now, Jarrell Brantley is back for the Cougars and while he showed rust coming off the bench in the Cougars’ two most recent victories against S.C. State and Coastal Carolina (4 of 13 shooting, six turnovers) you better believe coach Earl Grant is happy to have his versatile, powerful junior back in the rotation. As a bonus, Jaylen McManus gained valuable experience while Brantley was out. The Cougars are going to have to shoot better at some point (47 percent on 2s, 33 percent on 3s vs. DI) but they have a reliable rotation loaded with veterans and are willing to defend.
Zane Martin might be the CAA nonconference Player of the Year. He’s improved in every area in his sophomore season, despite taking on a more significant share of the offense. Towson coach Pat Skerry is committed to giving nine players double digit minutes and going deeper if necessary. The Tigers lead the league in every significant defensive category and have held DI foes to 30 percent on 3s and 44 percent on 2s.
Drexel at Elon (2 p.m.)
The Dragons open the season with the I-40 swing, starting at Elon, where coach Matt Matheny’s squad wasn’t always pretty yet was extremely effective, posting a 4-0 record that included wins over Radford and South Florida.
Drexel coach Zach Spiker has been relying on seven, maybe eight players as his squad has endured a litany of injuries. The good news for Spiker and Dragons fans is one of those players is Tramaine Isabell, a 6-3 transfer from Missouri. He’s done everything but sling cheesesteaks at halftime for Drexel, producing 19.5 points and 8.1 rebounds. Did we mention he’s a guard? Josh Verlin has a midseason review of the Dragons that’s well worth your time.
Elon has been a ‘mild’ disappointment. The Phoenix led the CAA in field goal percentage defense in conference games last season (48.7) and was 2nd in adjusted efficiency (101.7). With seven of its top eight players returning, it was fair to assume the Phoenix would build on that foundation this season. That hasn’t been the case. Elon allowed 1.06 points per trip to its 11 DI foes and had puzzling losses to Canisius and Milwaukee. Tyler Seibring remains an offensive rock (51 percent on 2s, 42 percent on 3s) but senior Brian Dawkins needs to rediscover his long range touch. He’s 13 of 50 on 3s after burying 46 percent a year ago.
Northeastern at James Madison (4 p.m.)
We’re high on the Huskies, despite an 84-65 loss to an excellent St. Bonaventure squad in their last outing. Northeastern has controlled the defensive boards and converted its 2-point chances (57 percent). Donnell Gresham has played well at times – 22 points in a win over Cornell – but also failed to reach double figures in half the games. Vasa Pusica has been steady in his first season at point guard, assisting on 25 percent of the Huskies’ buckets while hitting 60 percent of 2s and 40 percent of 3s. Turnovers are an issue (281st nationally).
The Dukes are in full-on rebuilding mode. Stuckey Mosley has been a pleasant addition. The transfer from Toledo has a 114.3 offensive rating. Freshmen Matt Lewis and Darius Banks are good signs for second-year coach Louis Rowe’s ability to evaluate talent. Defense is the issue. Rowe has been adamant about building his program on this end of the floor but his players haven’t grasped the concepts yet. DI teams have made 40 percent beyond-the-arc and rolled to 1.09 points per possession.
Hofstra at William & Mary (4 p.m.)
We love buckets. So we love this game. And these two teams don’t necessarily love each other. Which should make for a fun-filled afternoon in Kaplan Arena. Somebody make sure that my man Charlie Woollum has ample water handy, because the Tribe’s former coach and astute color analyst should have plenty of action to describe in this one. The names on these rosters are easy to find. They’re crowded atop the CAA Hoops offensive stats. William & Mary leads the league with 87 ppg in all games and adjusted offensive efficiency of 110.5, hitting 43 percent of 3s and 80 percent of free throws against DI. Hofstra is close behind at 108.6 efficiency and 77 points a night.
Nathan Knight is a CAA POY sleeper and his interior battle with Rokas Gustys should be high-level entertainment. Justin Wright-Foreman leads the league with 23 ppg. Matt Milon has been the most productive newcomer. Eli Pemberton adds 16 ppg for the Pride and scores in many ways. The Pride fan base can only pray that Daniel Dixon is far, far away from Williamsburg. His image still haunts them.
Delaware at UNCW (7 p.m.)
The Blue Hens are coming in hot after erasing a double-digit second half deficit to beat Cornell 97-96 in overtime for their third win in a row. But UD is banged up. Talented freshman Kevin Anderson missed the victory with a knee injury and is questionable vs. the Seahawks. Jacob Cushing suffered a broken nose in practice last week and forward Derrick Woods, a transfer from St. Bonaventure expected to provide valuable frontcourt depth, was kicked off the team last week. Ryan Daly is averaging 16.9 points and 5.5 rebounds.
UNCW won for the first time in 40 days, beating up on D3 Greensboro College. That makes two of the Seahawks three wins this season against non-DI competition. The deficiencies are deep-rooted. UNCW is 325th in defensive efficiency, allowing 1.18 points per possession. To put that in perspective, last season the Seahawks had one of the best offensive teams in CAA history and scored at a similar clip. UNCW’s Division I opponents have made 44 percent of their 3s and scored nearly one-third of their points beyond-the-arc. The Seahawks are down to eight scholarship players after 15-minute-a-game backup guard JaQuel Richmond was booted from the team for undisclosed rule breaking.