CAA Hoops: Sorting through the muddled middle

 

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Luke Eddy’s shooting has lifted Elon to a strong start (pilfered from Elon Athletics)

Conference power rankings seem pointless once the actual conference schedule starts. The standings speak for themselves. However, a solid month into the 2016-17 season and still three weeks removed from scuffling with familiar faces, this seems like a good time to assess the 10 teams in the CAA, attempt to put them in a sensible order.

First, here are my preseason predictions, which appeared in the 2016-17 Blue Ribbon Yearbook: 1. UNCW, 2. Charleston, 3. Towson, 4. Hofstra, 5. William & Mary, 6. James Madison, 7. Elon, 8. Northeastern, 9. Delaware, 10. Drexel

Every CAA team has played at least seven games. The ambitious youngsters at Hofstra are 10 games deep. And all but William & Mary return to action this weekend.

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With roughly 30 percent of the regular season behind us, the top of the CAA is clearly defined and, unfortunately for those in Harrisonburg, so is the bottom. In case you missed it, JMU AD Jeff Bourne fired Matt Brady after last season. Brady led the Dukes to a 40-25 mark the last two seasons, 19-13 in the CAA and they shared the 2014-15 regular season title. Last season, the CAA matched its highest ranking ever (ninth) out of 32 Division I conferences, per KenPom.com. The CAA was also ranked ninth in KenPom in 2010-11, which, along with 2005-06, is considered the strongest season in conference history as six teams won 20 games, three (George Mason, Old Dominion and VCU) reached the NCAA tournament and the Rams made their remarkable run to the Final Four. JMU won 21 games that season, finished 10-8 in the CAA and beat VCU in Richmond in the regular season finale.

In 2013, Brady led the Dukes to their first NCAA tournament appearance since 1994, when Lefty Driesell was the coach. Brady had a 139-127 (.523) overall record in eight seasons at JMU and was 40-30 in the CAA in his last four. By comparison, in the eight seasons before Brady arrived, JMU had a combined record of 77-145 (.347) under Sherman Dillard and Dean Keener. The Dukes were 31-85 in conference during that span.

2012 MBB-Philadelphia

Duke Dog, when his basketbowl was full and his coat was clean (stolen from a rando on Pinterest)

Anyway, there’s a muddled middle, again. Will Hofstra ever defend? Why does William & Mary keep missing so many 3s? Who are Elon’s most important players? Let’s get to it.

1. UNCW (7-1)

Best Win: East Tennessee State (88 KenPom); Worst Loss: Middle Tennessee (83)

The Seahawks aren’t perfect. The frontcourt depth is suspect. C.J. Gettys transferred to Rutgers and Chuck Ogbodo is suspended, sent home last month following the first of three games in Nashville. There goes 13 feet, 10 inches of paint protection. Opponents have exploited the interior, shooting 54.8 percent on 2-pointers (301st in the nation). And UNCW still fouls too frequently, leading to 24.1 free throws per game for the other team.

But their pressure remains fierce, forcing turnovers on 24.1 pct of possessions (17th) and Kevin Keatts has collected a cast of consistent finishers – 57.6 pct. on 2s (11th). The athletic, muscular sophomore Devontae Cacok has made the freshman-to-sophomore leap and ODU grad transfer Ambrose Mosley has knocked down 3s (40.7 pct vs. DI teams), as advertised.

Chris Flemmings, Denzel Ingram and C.J. Bryce form the best perimeter trio in the CAA.

 

2. Charleston (6-3)

Best Win: Davidson (63); Worst Loss: UCF (72)

Entering their game Sunday, against old SoCon rival Davidson, the Cougars’ season had essentially gone according to form. They beat the teams they were supposed to beat and didn’t have a bad loss. One could argue they should have handled UCF at home, but with 7-6 Tacko Fall in the middle, veteran guards in the backcourt and Johnny Dawkins on the sidelines, the Knights are the best defensive team in the nation.

Charleston gave a glimpse of what it could become in the second half against Davidson. The offense came alive for the Cougars, who are top 50 in adjusted defensive efficiency again. They shot 56 percent and held the potent Wildcats to 5 of 20 shooting and 22 points. On the season, the Cougars have an abysmal effective field goal percentage of 44.8, but that’s more a reflection of poor shot selection. More on that, tomorrow.

 

3. Elon (6-3)

Best Win: @Northern Illinois (164); Worst Loss: Charlotte (188)

Last week, I picked the Phoenix as one of seven pleasant surprises in college basketball and consecutive defeats to Georgetown and UNC Asheville haven’t changed those feelings. The home loss to the Bulldogs, though, magnified what center Brian Dawkins has meant to Elon this season. After scoring in double figures in seven of Elon’s first eight games, Dawkins missed all five shots and mustered one point in the 11-point loss to solid UNCA (127).

The talented sophomore class at Elon (Seibring, Santa Ana, Swoope, Eberhardt) is trending in a positive direction, but the key players in the early success have been Dawkins and point guard Luke Eddy, who is producing like he did prior to his late 2014 ACL injury. Eddy had a 120.9 offensive rating through nine games that season and in the two games before he got hurt, scored 43 points on 24 shots against Missouri and Duke.

Both veterans have shot the ball significantly better than they did last season.

PPG Offensive Rating FG Pct. 3PFG Pct.
Dawkins 15-16 5.6 92.1 51.3 20.7
Dawkins 16-17 12.1 120.5 62.9 63.2
Eddy 15-16 10.5 95.4 39.7 26.0
Eddy 16-17 12.1 117.8 48.5 42.9

 

 

4. Towson (5-4)

Best Win: George Mason (151); Worst Loss: Robert Morris (265)

Pat Skerry wanted to challenge his veteran group in the early going. The Tigers opened by beating old CAA friend Mason and that win looks even better now that the Patriots have won six in a row. The Tigers just missed wins at Maryland and Boston College, and at home against an Old Dominion squad that makes us nostalgic for the rockfights of yesterday.

Towson creates extra opportunities with excellent offensive rebounding (12th, with 39.8 percent) but squanders possessions via turnovers (21.4 pct.). Poor shooting has also been a problem. Per Synergy Sports, 22 percent of the Tigers possessions have ended in a spot-up jumper. They’ve scored only 122 points on those 145 trips, which drops them into the bottom fourth in Division I.

Mike Morsell has scored 14 points or more in Towson’s nine games vs. DI foes, boosted his output at the free throw line by drawing 6.9 fouls per 40 minutes.

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Mike Morsell is third in the CAA in scoring 18.0 ppg. (Hijacked)

5. Hofstra (6-4)

Best Win: Columbia (217); Worst Loss: Sacred Heart (325)

The Pride is 296th in adjusted defensive efficiency, per KenPom.com. It has surrendered 1.13 points per possession and 77.9 points per game. It’s not good, Dino.

Hofstra has defended poorly in two vital areas: beyond-the-arc, where opponents have made 8.6 per game at a 41 percent clip and at the rim, allowing 61 percent (215th). In the halfcourt, they’re one of the worst teams in the nation defending the pick & roll and handoffs. They are also in the bottom one percent of 351 DI teams in defensive transition.

On the bright side, Rokas Gustys is leading the nation in rebounding and scored a season-high 20 points last time out against St. Bonaventure. The freshman wing, Eli Pemberton, has been brilliant also, with four 20-point games and a 139.3 offensive rating.

 

6. Northeastern (4-6)

Best Win: UConn (78); Worst Loss: LIU Brooklyn (279)

The Huskies have been up-and-down, as expected and are riding a three-game losing streak, which can be blamed on poor defense (248th in adjusted efficiency).

T.J. Williams, however, is playing like his pants are on fire. There’s a long 18-game conference schedule ahead, but he’s on pace to have a historic high-usage, high-efficiency season that would put him in the company of CAA legends. And, who saw this coming? Williams played less than half the minutes last season and took only 14 pct. of the Huskies’ shots, compared to 28 percent this season.

(Charles Jenkins led the nation in efficiency in 2010-11 among players used on at least 28 percent of possessions)

Player Offensive Rating Usage
Charles Jenkins, HU ‘10-11 123.5 28.4
T.J. Williams, NU ‘16-17 122.2 30.6
Damion Lee, DU ‘14-15 118.4 28.1
Eric Maynor, VCU ‘08-09 116.2 33.0
V. Vasylius, ODU ‘06-07 114.8 28.3
Gary Neal, TU ‘06-07 113.6 34.0

 

7. William & Mary (3-4)

Best Win: Liberty (245); Worst Loss: Hampton (323)

Traveling 40 miles down I-64 and handing Hampton its first win against a DI opponent was not the best path for the Tribe to take into a 13-day exam break.

W&M was 5 of 23 from beyond-the-arc and scored only 0.92 points per possession against the Pirates, continuing a season-long slump from long range. The Tribe has hit 32.9 percent against DI teams, which is below the national average and is its worst 3-point effort since the 6-26 season in 2011-12.

The Tribe’s perimeter defense has also been porous. They gave up 124 points to the five starting guards for Central Michigan and Hampton, in their last two losses.

Greg Malinowski scored 14 points against Hampton, though, which provides a flash of hope for the future. The rangy wing suffered a concussion in the preseason and has struggled to find form since. Nathan Knight is a promising 6-10 freshman. He scored 14 against Louisville and 11 at Duke.

 

8. Drexel (4-4)

Best Win: High Point (290); Worst Loss: Niagara (281)

drexelZach Spiker inherited a mess in Philly. The Dragons were 288th in minutes continuitywhich means they had a host of new faces expected to take on new roles.

I’ll have more on this in the next post, but Drexel fans should be encouraged by a) talented freshman guards Kurk Lee and Kari Jonsson b) enhanced offensive aptitude. Spiker’s personnel will only improve in the upcoming seasons, but he’s already pouring the mortar necessary to build an efficient attack.

On the other end, the Dragons are doing a fine job defending the basket, holding opponents to 45.8 percent 2-point shooting.

 

9. Delaware (5-3)

Best Win: Bradley (271); Worst Loss: Austin Peay (289)

It’s hard to get a good handle on the Blue Hens, because they’ve played a schedule ranked 312th in the nation – and that doesn’t include their two wins over non-Division I schools. The Delaware situation was on the brink of irrevocable damage, but all signs point to Martin Inglesby being the upgrade required to inject energy into the fan base in Newark.

Like their old rivals up the road at Drexel, early statistical evidence reveals a more sophisticated and reliable offensive scheme. In short, brighter days lie ahead.

Injury halted Chivarsky Corbett’s season after four games last season. But the versatile 6-7 wing is scoring, shooting and rebounding like he was before he tore his ACL. He’s part of a balanced attack where six players average between eight and 12 points.

 

10. James Madison (1-7)

Best Win: Longwood (338); Worst Loss: Montana St. (227)

The Dukes won at Longwood last week after opening the season with seven straight losses. As Ken Pomeroy pointed out recently, new coach Louis Rowe didn’t inherit any automatic wins on the early schedule.

I watched the Dukes at Charlotte last week. (I’ve seen UNCW, W&M and Charleston (3x) live as well). The Dukes had a solid game plan. Their mistakes weren’t egregious, although the intent was unclear on many offensive possessions. On-floor leadership was difficult to identify and a JMU fan would probably hope to see more outward emotion. Down the stretch, they just looked like a team playing as if it expected to lose. I’ve seen that show before.

From a statistical view, the Dukes are 342nd in turnover percentage and 248th in effective field goal percentage. Those are two deep potholes on the road to good offense.