CAA Tournament Preview: Will the Tribe Finally Dance?

CAA Tournament Preview: Will the Tribe Finally Dance? article feature image
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© Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

William & Mary will have the support of the entire country once again in the Colonial Athletic Association tournament. The Tribe are one of four original Division I teams to have never made the NCAA tournament (Army, The Citadel, and St. Francis Brooklyn). Is this the year they finally make it onto your bracket?

2018 CAA Tournament Overview

The tournament moved from a Friday-Monday to a Saturday-Tuesday format this season, and will be played in North Charleston, South Carolina, for the first time after being held in Baltimore the past three years. It is a standard bracket with all 10 CAA teams; the top six seeds receive a bye. Charleston is listed as the favorite (+140) to win its first ever CAA tournament title. UNC Wilmington (20-1) won the previous two seasons.

Let’s dive headfirst into the field to identify any futures value and then finish up with ATS predictions for today.

Who Should Win

Northeastern +250

Top seed Charleston doesn’t have to leave its hometown, and the Cougars swept Northeastern, so why Northeastern? Well, an injury to Nick Harris leaves C of C without a serviceable big man, and the gap between the Cougars and Huskies is nil.

Northeastern is led by outstanding point guard Vasa Pusica. The 6-5 Serb runs one of mid-major basketball’s most prolific pick-and-roll offenses. His height allows him to easily see over defenses, and he’s a great read-and-react ballhandler in ball screens. Pusica is a three-level scorer with a preternatural understanding of passing angles. I’ll stop gushing and move on.

As good as Pusica is offensively, he’s nearly as bad defensively, but the Huskies as a whole are the CAA’s best defense, particularly at limiting damage from the 3-point line. CAA teams shot an absurdly low 29.7% from 3 against the Huskies, but more importantly, Northeastern’s hard-hedging pick-and-roll defense yielded the lowest attempt rate in the league. In a conference that has the best 3-point shooting team in the country (William & Mary), that’s a valuable asset. On the flip side, teams don’t feel compelled to shoot 3s against NU because they can get to the rim for an easier shot. No team in the country allowed a higher shot rate at the rim than the Huskies, per hoop-math.com.

The Huskies will face the winner of the matchup between No. 7 seed Delaware and No. 10 seed Elon. The Phoenix had arguably the most disappointing season in D1. A team with the third-highest minute continuity in the country managed to win just six league games. Elon also comes into this tourney having lost six straight. Delaware, meanwhile, could have entered the CAA tournament riding a three-game winning streak if it didn’t blow an NCAA record 34-POINT LEAD against Drexel on Feb. 22.

The Hens have battled injuries all year, but do-everything wing Ryan Daly is now mostly healthy. He ate the Phoenix up to the tune of 22 points and 12 rebounds in the one game he played against them. Plus, CAA Freshman of the Year Ryan Allen has played out of his mind recently. He gained a lot of confidence in his shooting ability while Daly was out. The Hens lack size in the frontcourt, but Elon’s Davidson-inspired motion offense spaces its bigs away from the rim as jump shooters. (The Phoenix shot just 9-of-32 from 2 in the last meeting a month ago). Delaware’s pick-and-roll defense also grades out dead last nationally, per Synergy, which has forced coach Martin Ingelsby to a zone down the stretch (also due to a short bench), but Elon has struggled in zone offense all year.

If Not Northeastern, Then….

Charleston +140

C of C has to travel 10 whole miles for this tournament, but the questionable status of Nick Harris has forced coach Earl Grant to turn to an extremely small lineup of four guards around de facto 5 Jarrell Brantley. That lineup has unlimited offensive potential, but the Cougars gave up 114 points in 80 possessions at William & Mary in the one game they played without Harris to end the regular season (although the Cougars may have had a bit of a hangover after clinching the CAA’s top seed the Thursday before).

Even before Harris’ injury, the Cougars weren’t playing typical Earl Grant defense. The Cougars have seen their defensive efficiency rating inflate from sub-1 point per possession (ppp) last season to a robust 1.05 in 2017-18. That number has actually ballooned to 1.08 ppp in CAA play. With the same personnel as last year, the only explanation for this increase is that opponents simply hit more 3s this season. C of C’s 2-point defense is nearly identical to last year, but teams are shooting 34.6% from deep this year, a sharp rise from the 31.1% (16th lowest nationally) it allowed in 2016-17. The Cougars also still defend at a high level in pick and roll and in transition.

If Charleston can regain its defensive form (which may just involve opponent shooting regression) from last year, it will likely win the tournament. The Cougars’ offense is the most efficient in the league, scoring a silly 1.17 ppp in CAA play. With guards Joe Chealey and Grant Riller, Charleston ran pick and roll at one of the highest rates nationally. And it ran it well, grading out in the 97th percentile, per Synergy. With four guards on the floor at nearly all times, C of C also had the league’s lowest turnover rate.

The bitter irony is that for two seasons the talk surrounding C of C was “wait until this team plays offense like it plays defense.” The Cougars finally started scoring at an elite level, but the defense has somewhat vanished. The rebounding on both ends has been an issue all year as well.

Believe it or not, the winner of the 8/9 matchup between Drexel and James Madison could potentially give Charleston issues. The Cougars waxed Drexel in Charleston when the Dragons were without Stretch Williams, but Drexel beat them in Philly. The Cougars swept JMU, but needed an improbable rally on the road to win in OT in the second meeting. Either team will head into the potential quarterfinal matchup with belief they can hang.

Drexel and JMU played to a draw this year. The two teams split the season series, with a total score of 149-149. Drexel wants to run and spread the floor in pick-and-roll situations. JMU is poor defensively in both of those areas. JMU, meanwhile, basically operates in the same fashion. Freshman Matt Lewis has been sensational. He has given Lou Rowe a dual ballhandler look alongside Stuckey Mosley, who is more comfortable off the ball anyway. Drexel struggles to defend in transition and in pick and roll. These teams are mirrors.

Potential Sleepers

William & Mary +900 and Towson +700

The top five seeds in the CAA aren’t separated by much. A title run by any of the five wouldn’t be all that surprising. The winner of the quarterfinal matchup between No. 4 seed William & Mary and No. 5 seed Towson in particular could make noise.

The Tribe are capable of shooting themselves to a title, but they could also give up 100-plus points and lose to Towson. William & Mary is a historically good shooting team — like “the best shooting team ever” good. The Tribe are on pace to become the first team in D1 history to shoot 40%+ from 3, 50%+ from 2, and 80%+ from the stripe.

Tony Shaver’s (pictured above) 4-out ball screen motion offense is phenomenal at exploiting mismatches. William & Mary has five players shooting 40%+ from 3, and Connor Burchfield hits triples at 50.3%. As a result, versatile big man Nate Knight is often left in single coverage, and point guard David Cohn always finds him in position. The Tribe are beyond lethal offensively, but they can give it all back on the defensive end.

Towson had a disappointing season, but the Tigers swept William & Mary (including an improbable OT comeback win), as the Tribe typically struggle with the physicality of Pat Skerry’s teams. Towson routinely bumps the Tribe off their spots and switches on the multitude of screens in Shaver’s offense. The Tigers also attack the rim relentlessly from all five positions, which spells trouble for a Tribe team that struggles to defend the rim. It also exposes the foul-prone Knight inside. It is a classic matchup of physicality vs. finesse, and the aggressor typically wins in tournament settings.

Most Intriguing Matchup

No. 3 seed Hofstra, winner of four straight, will face No. 6 seed UNC Wilmington in a decent matchup for both offenses. Both the Pride and Seahawks scored 90-plus on their home court in a series split. Hofstra can’t guard hyper-efficient Davontae Cacok at the rim, and UNCW, which grades out in just the 3rd percentile in ball screen defense, can’t guard Hofstra’s Eli Pemberton and Justin Wright-Foreman.

Saturday ATS Predictions

Drexel PK

Delaware PK (top ATS prediction)

CAA Final Prediction

Northeastern over Charleston

 

Photo via Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports