Charleston and Towson were picked in the top three of every credible CAA Hoops preseason poll, including the official one, voted on by media, coaches and the athletics communications representatives from each member school.
The Cougars, returning their top seven players from a 25-win team, were the unanimous pick to win the regular season and with good reason. The Tigers also welcomed back the bulk of their roster from a 20-win outfit and haven’t disappointed, stringing together 10 consecutive victories already in the 2017-18 campaign.
Today at 2 the teams conclude their regular season series, meeting for the second time in nine days. Why so soon? This is silly and should have been avoided.
I understand that building a regular season schedule for a 10-team conference is a complex challenge. Teams can’t play more than three consecutive games at home or away. Loose geographic partnerships and Thursday-Saturday (or this week Friday-Sunday) pairings have eased travel concerns in a conference that stretches from Boston to Charleston but also forced certain games to be played in a specific order. There are many moving parts. Changing the date of Charleston’s trip to Towson might have also affected their first game on the trip, Friday night at Drexel (which the Cougars would prefer to forget). Pleasing all 10 teams is impossible, unrealistic and shouldn’t be considered. Regardless how it’s laid out, some team must start the CAA slate with a three-game road trip or extended homestand. Argue on about the favorable or unfavorable order in which a team’s games are assembled but one important trait cannot be denied: The CAA is one of 17 Division I conferences that crowns a legitimate regular season champion because each team faces each opponent home & home.
As the old folks used to say, it all comes out in the wash.
Still, for the sake of the conference there’s no reason Towson and Charleston should conclude their series before the spring semester starts. Having the teams meet on opening day was a terrific idea. Why not start with a battle between the two teams who could very easily meet again on the final day of the season, 10 miles down the road, with a trip to the NCAA tournament on the line. But teams evolve as a season unfolds. Players improve and regress, rotations change, coaches tweak strategy and hope their late February product shines brighter than what they put on display in early January. The outcome of today’s game will likely have significant bearing on the final standings and tiebreakers and such. If the Tigers hope to win the regular season, they can’t afford to fall to 1-3. Charleston, which headed north eyeing the outright lead better fix its defense or it will head home .500, nearing the quarter pole.
The second meeting should have been scheduled for mid-February. But it’s today, and we’ll be watching.
Charleston won that first meeting 73-62, of course, as Jarrell Brantley, Joe Chealey and Grant Riller were spectacular. Brantley’s efficiency has been ridiculous in three conference games – 15 of 23 on 2-pointers, 8 of 13 on 3-pointers, 16 of 18 on free throws. His offensive rating (produces 124.3 points per 100 possessions) is even more impressive when factoring in an obscenely high usage rate (31.3 pct. of possessions). If you want to be picky his 14 turnovers are not ideal but I’ll bet Earl Grant is fine with an errant pass or two from the 6-7, 250-pound mismatch problem. To put it simply, college basketball assistant coaches commonly use another name – actually, there are two – to describe a player like Brantley. For the sake of the children, neither one can be written in this space.
Charleston won the first game at the free throw line. The Cougars outscored the Tigers 54-53 on field goals. Towson narrowly won the offensive and defensive rebounding scuffles. Charleston was 22 of 28 on free throws. Towson was 9 of 15. There’s your margin.
Keys for the Tigers? Taking more free throws, making the Cougars’ big three shoot a bunch to score their points and getting more than six points and five shots from Mike Morsell, who could score 32 or 2 this afternoon and I’d be shocked by neither one.
There are four other games this afternoon as the teams wrap this four-games-in-nine-days flurry and in most cases return home to resume classes.
JMU @ Northeastern, 2 p.m.
Coachspeak: Don’t let a loss beat you twice. JMU had victory ripped from its mitts by Justin Wright-Foreman in Hempstead on Friday night. I don’t believe the young Dukes will bounce back quickly. Vasa Pusica isn’t going to win a footrace or jumping contest anytime soon but he’s quickly becoming a star at Northeastern. He’s hit 55 percent of 2s and 47 percent of 3s in CAA play while assisting on more than one-fourth of the Huskies’ hoops. This one could get ugly.
UNCW at Delaware, 2 p.m.
The Seahawks snatched defeat from the hands of victory last week in a 58-56 home loss to Delaware. The Blue Hens snared not one but two critical offensive rebounds following missed free throws in the closing seconds and even though they would’ve been even money to drop a basketball into the Atlantic Ocean from the end of Johnnie Mercer Pier, they won a game they had no business winning. What does that mean about today’s game? I have no idea. CAA teams have made 45 percent of 3-pointers vs. UNCW.
William & Mary at Drexel, 4 p.m.
We can go on-and-on about the Tribe’s offense, have before and will again. But here’s a number to follow: 1.03 – that’s how many points per possession (adjusted) William & Mary allowed in its first three CAA games. It’s the second-best defensive efficiency in the conference. If the Tribe can remain in the top four, it will remain in the regular season title race until the final week of the season. That being said, the Tribe could be in trouble today. The Dragons are full strength and riding high after the upset of Charleston. There are many promising pieces on the Drexel roster and Alihan Demir (20 pts., 6 rebs, 4 assists vs. Charleston) has been excellent of late.
Elon at Hofstra, 4 p.m.
Justin Wright-Foreman hit a 3-pointer with 1.1 seconds in regulation to send the Pride into overtime against JMU on Friday night and the Pride won 87-81. Wright-Foreman finished with 26 points and leads the conference in scoring. He’ll join the 1,000-point club with nine points today and we’re betting he gets there because he’s scored 89 points in three CAA games despite shooting poorly from beyond-the-arc (6 of 23). Elon is one of the better shooting teams in the conference but has a turnover problem (20.3 pct of possessions in conference games).