CAA Hoops – Towson & Charleston, again


Jarrell Brantley has been ferocious in CAA play, leading Charleston to a 2-1 record. The Cougars forward averaged 23.3 points, 6.6 rebounds and shot 64 percent in the first three conference games. 

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.

CAA Standings 01-07-18As 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).

CAA Hoops: Half-baked Half-Dozen II

There’s no other way to begin this edition of the Half-Baked Half-Dozen, although we must pause and issue a hearty cheers to all 10 CAA Hoops programs for keeping five on the floor so far this season. It’s not as easy to accomplish as one might think … 

Oliver Tot delivered a defining moment of the 2017-18 season, earned ESPN SportsCenter love and should receive a lifetime pass to Busch Gardens after giving  William & Mary a critical victory over old CAA neighbor Old Dominion. Tot’s only shot of the game sent the Tribe from losers to winners in a single swish. The team improved to 3-2 entering a home date with Marshall on Wednesday night. Tot, a senior, has endured an injury-riddled inconsistent career, falling from the rotation at times. He remains a bit player (14.8 minutes per game). Regardless his role in Tony Shaver’s rotation take the man to the head of the line so he can ride the Loch Ness Monster all night long.

The Tribe’s rollercoaster season began with a 34-point loss at High Point, a middle-of-the-pack Big South squad, yet the staff feels good about the top six players in the rotation and is hopeful depth will develop as the season unfolds. Sophomore wing Justin Pierce is thriving as a starter. He’s scored in double figures in all five games and recorded an impressive 121.6 offensive rating while taking 26.9 percent of the Tribe’s shots when on the floor. He’s one of four W&M players with a 108 O-Rating or better.

We’ve written this before but the Tribe must improve on the defensive end. It is 313th nationally in defensive efficiency and 321st in effective field goal percentage defense.

Also Good

Mike Morsell & Towson

The Tigers have won six in a row and cracked this week’s Mid-Major poll at No. 23 on the strength of their championship in the Florida Gulf Coast Showcase which they capped with a 70-67 defeat of a good Georgia Southern squad.

There are many reasons why the Tigers are rolling: Zane Martin’s emergence as a scorer, Eddie Keith’s play making at power forward, the Tigers are actually making shots! leading the CAA in field goal percentage (48.9) and outscoring their opponents 168-60 beyond-the-arc. And, of course, Towson is good at rebounding (first in offensive percentage). Even when Towson hasn’t been very good at basketball in recent seasons it has excelled on the glass.

MorsellOverriding all of those important factors, however, is the play of guard Mike Morsell. The 6-6 senior, a third-team All-CAA pick last season, possesses all the tools to be a top-five player in the conference and now he’s turning the potential into production. Morsell is taking a career-high 27.9 percent of Towson’s shots when in the game, using his sturdy frame to convert inside-the-arc (15 of 23) and drawing 5.7 fouls per 40 minutes on drives. Towson coach Pat Skerry has been pleased with Morsell’s shot selection thus far. In past seasons, Morsell was good for two or three troubling 2-point attempts per game but he’s avoided the urge to force from 17-feet for the most part and is also in the best physical condition of his career, Skerry said. It’s impossible to win the CAA without at least one first-team all-conference performer and Morsell’s ability and experience make him the best candidate to fill one of those slots.

Towson heads across the Atlantic to Belfast, Northern Ireland this weekend and on Saturday the Tigers face LaSalle (4-3), coming off a solid win over Big 5 rival Temple. Each of the Explorers’ losses is to a top-90 team. Towson plays either Holy Cross or Manhattan on Sunday.

Towson opens the CAA season Dec. 30th at Charleston in what could be a preview of the tournament championship two months later.

Dainan Swoope

There’s a strong batch of point guards in the CAA this season, starting with preseason POY Joe Chealey, who is fulfilling the billing with 19.5 ppg and 5.0 apg to rank third in the conference in both categories.

Elon point guard Dainan Swoope belongs in the conversation. He’s scored 95 points in the last four games, hitting 20 3-pointers while also recording a better than 3:1 assist-turnover ratio. Productive point guards are part of the program at Elon, and also Davidson where Phoenix coach Matt Matheny served as an assistant.

“He’s getting more comfortable playing the point in our system,” Matheny said. “The last 15 years coaching in this system the point guard has been a leading scorer, leading assist guy. If I’m a recruit that plays the point, I’m looking at our system.”

The Phoenix has hit 39.5 percent of 3-pointers in five games against DI opponents and the buckets have been generated by running the offense, as the team assist rate of 48.5 percent is 17th in the nation.

Elon enjoys a rare visit from an American Athletic Conference member on Thursday as South Florida enters Alumni Gym to close a home-and-home series. Former Georgia Tech coach Brian Gregory is in his first season at USF and has a bunch of guys who haven’t played much at all and even less together. The Bulls are 345th in minutes continuity (14.5 percent) a stat devised by Ken Pomeroy to determine a team’s returning experience playing together. Elon, on the other hand, leads the category, returning all five starters and key reserves to form the nation’s most experienced team (81 percent).


UNCW’s defense

The two-time defending champions are 2-3 and surrendering 90.8 points per game.

It’s extremely early. The Seahawks have a new coach, a new system and lost four veteran starters from a championship team. They’ve also lost to three teams who are loaded with bucket makers. Davidson, Loyola – Chicago and Valpo are top 40 in the nation in effective field goal percentage.

Still, the trend is troubling. UNCW is 259th in defensive efficiency and 345th in effective field goal percentage defense. Teams have scored, at will at times, around the basket and behind the 3-point line. Guarding the ball has been a real issue, even in the Seahawks’ lone DI win over Campbell.

UNCW beat writer Alex Riley felt the squad showed the requisite defensive effort for most of the Valpo game. His point is confirmed by the efficiency stats as the Crusaders scored 0.98 points per possession, which is below the Division I average (1.03) and should be a winning number. It was by far the best effort for UNCW in its four ‘real’ games.

Listen to the entire podcast here. The conversation on the UNCW defensive issues starts around the 19 minute point.

Seahawks have a good shot to continue their defensive progress Thursday night at East Carolina, which has failed to meet the national average in offensive efficiency in five of six games.

Conference’s Record

The CAA collective is 21-30 vs. Division I opponents entering tonight’s schedule. The conference is 3-13 vs. teams in the KenPom Top 100. Towson (Ga. Southern), William & Mary (Old Dominion) and Drexel (Houston) are the lone CAA teams to record a victory against a top-100 foe this season. UNCW is 0-3 while Hofstra and Northeastern are 0-2.

The league has slipped to 13th in the KenPom conference rankings, behind the Sun Belt and Missouri Valley, which is enjoying a banner nonconference season and ahead of the Ivy, MAC and Summit.

This week’s schedule provides opportunities to square the record. Games such as UNCW at East Carolina, Drexel vs. Lafayette and Charleston vs. Western Carolina need to land in the CAA win column.

Drexel’s luck

The Dragons’ backcourt is depleted. Miles Overton and Sam Green are out with leg injuries while Troy Harper has a separated shoulder. Their absence was felt in an ugly loss at NJIT which included 17 turnovers, 13 missed free throws and 3 of 21 3-point shooting.

Drexel is capable. Coach Zack Spiker’s squad owns the best victory in CAA land with the aforementioned defeat of No. 61 Houston. Get all the details firsthand right here. 

And we’ll close with a fitting gem, from the Mothership in Hampton, Va., right down the road from where Tot’s shot fell.