Top CAA storylines to watch in 2017-18:
1. Charleston hasn’t been to the Dance since the legendary John Kresse led them to three straight trips starting in 1997. It would certainly be a disappointment if this team wasn’t representing the CAA in the NCAA Tournament this year.
2. With Kevin Keatts taking over in Raleigh, CB McGrath at UNCW is the only new coach in the league. He’ll keep the Seahawks running, but his style of transition basketball will be totally different from Keatts’.
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH:
1. College of Charleston– Earl Grant’s squad is loaded, as the Cougars are the most experienced team in the country and have one of the best returning backcourts in D1 basketball. The hallmark of any Grant team will be the defense, and while the Cougars were a little less dominant on that end last year, they still posted the league’s best efficiency rating at 1.00 points per possession. The major improvement came on the offensive end, as the Cougars jumped from the least efficient CAA team two years ago to third best. That was due in large part to having Joe Chealey and Grant Riller healthy. Together, they form arguably the best backcourt in mid-majordom, and Chealey is the frontrunner for CAA POY honors. Chealey posted a 126.5 ORtg in league play, an absurd number given his usage rates. He posted the seventh-highest assist rate while hitting 47 percent of his 3-pointers. He’s the undisputed leader of the Cougars and can score off his outstanding crossover dribble or by pulling up. Riller, meanwhile, is another plus shooter and relentless penetrator and the better defender of the two in Grant’s suffocating, extended man-to-man defense that lives in the opponent’s jersey. With Chealey and Riller back, Marquise Pointer saw his role decrease, but he’s still a key member of the backcourt, as he’s able to spell Chealey on the ball and he’s a plus defender. Brevin Galloway adds much needed depth to the backcourt after a redshirt season. Jarrell Brantley is the other key offensive player on the wing. He’s a legit three-level scorer that can defend 3s on the perimeter and 4s inside at an equally high level. He’s also one of the league’s best rebounders. The frontcourt is anchored by Nick Harris at the 5. Harris is a vastly underrated CAA player, as he’s the best post defender in the league and an efficient scorer with his back to the basket. Plus, he rebounds at a high rate. There isn’t much proven depth in the frontcourt, so expect freshman Osi Smart to get some run at the 5 to spell Harris. Cam Johnson and Evan Bailey return to the wing, but both need to improve their jump shooting in their roles. With the offense making major strides last year thanks to improved health and with the defense being one of the best in the country, the ceiling is quite high for the Cougars. They’re experienced, confident, and not a team you want to see in March. A dominant CAA season is in store.
2. Towson– You know precisely what you’re going to get with a Pat Skerry coached team: tenacity on the offensive glass and physicality on both ends. In four of Skerry’s six seasons at Towson, the Tigers have landed in the top 10 in terms of offensive rebounding rate. Ditto for free throw rate, where the Tigers have been a top-10 offense four years running. The Tigers almost completely eschew the 3, and they don’t allow anything easy at the rim, ever. However, Skerry will introduce a new wrinkle to help an offense that has struggled since Jerrelle Benimon left town – the Tigers are going to pressure full court. Skerry busted out the press just before the CAA tournament last year and found it to be an effective way to convert defense to offense and maximize the length and physicality of his roster. That means the Tigers will be a little smaller this year with Eddie Keith shifting down to the 4. Brian Starr and Zane Martin can both play on the ball, with Martin being the most intriguing option. He’s a massive, physical presence at 6-foot-4 and 210 lbs and is the better shooter and defender, while Starr probably has a better handle. Mike Morsell and Deshaun Morman returns as relentless attackers off the ball. Morman is the team’s best defender and the key to the press, as he posted the league’s third-highest steal rate. Morsell is the primary scoring option as a 6-foot-5 wing, and he’s the most potent perimeter threat. Jordan McNeil should be a factor on the wing as well, and Keith is an excellent defender in his new role. Alex Thomas slots in at the 5 and is a plus rim protector and glass eater, but he fouls at an obscene rate. Justin Gorham has gotten in better shape reportedly, and he’ll be a factor at the 4 alongside Thomas in bigger lineups. Dennis Tunstall provides some frontcourt depth as well. Of the newcomers, Skerry will likely only play Quinton Drayton significant minutes, as he can be an immediate factor offensively on the wing. Towson will continue to dominate the glass and get to the free throw line at an extreme rate, but the press, if effective, could bolster a too often inefficient offensive attack.
3. Elon– A funny thing happened to Elon last year, as they were actually better defensively than they were offensively. The defense has generally been the issue for Elon, and if Matt Matheny can maintain the league’s second-highest rated unit on that end, the Phoenix have the potential to field their best squad since joining the CAA. The Elon offense, inspired by Bob McKillop’s efficient perimeter four-out motion at Davidson, should get back on track with more experience from guys in new positions last year, namely point guard Dainan Swoope, who is emerging as one of the league’s premier penetrating and shooting points. Swoope is surrounded by two highly efficient stretch bigs in Tyler Seibring and Brian Dawkins. Seibring is the more voluminous perimeter threat, while Dawkins is more skilled around the rim but still hit 46 percent of his 3-pointers. Off the ball in the backcourt, Steven Santa Ana might be most remembered nationally for the "Trip Heard Round the World," as he was on the receiving end of Grayson Allen’s meltdown vs Duke. But in mid-major circles, Santa Ana is known for shooting without conscience from deep. His running mate on the wing is Dmitri Thompson, a slasher offensively and Matheny’s best on-ball defender, and the linchpin to Elon’s renewed dedication as a team on that end. Depth behind those five is shaky, and it’s Elon’s biggest issue heading into the season. Karol Kundrotas is a typical Matheny big, capable of stretching out to the perimeter, while Sheldon Eberhardt on the wing is probably his most reliable bench member. Three freshmen will have to factor in immediately to provide some depth, particularly Dino Radja’s son, Duje, who can be a physical presence inside that the Phoenix often lack. With the defense playing at a high CAA level, Elon should be one of the better overall CAA teams this year.
4. Hofstra– If Joe Mihalich can find a way to bolster the defense to match the strength of his spread pick-and-roll motion offense, the Pride will certainly contend in the CAA. Hofstra returns an outstanding offensive trio led by combo guard Justin Wright-Foreman, Eli Pemberton on the wing and rebound machine Rokas Gustys in the paint. Few teams can match the Pride’s firepower, but too often they were forced to put up a huge number because of their defense. The addition of two key transfers could shore up the defense and move away from the vanilla 2-3 zone that was torched in a shooters league to the tune of 1.12 points per possession in league play. Offensively, the Pride will once again be one of the league’s best thanks to Wright-Foreman. Wright-Foreman posted a 120 ORtg despite having the league’s third-highest usage rate. He’s a highly skilled penetrator and finisher at the rim, and he has coupled his slashing game with a solid jump shot. Pemba Pemberton is his running mate on the wing, and he should be due for a massive sophomore season as a bigger version of Wright-Foreman. The backcourt is bolstered by the addition of Siena transfer Kenny Wormley, a big 6-foot-4 ball handler who can slide JWF to the 2. Wormley is also immediately Mihalich’s best perimeter defender and can bring some much needed ball pressure. Desure Blue returns from injury as a high-upside backup point and plus on-ball defender. His injury really put Mihalich behind the eight ball defensively and shortened an already short bench. Gustys heads the frontcourt as the best rebounder in the league, posting the CAA’s best defensive rebounding rate two years running; he was top two in offensive rebounding rate in that span as well. Gustys’ offensive numbers took a hit last year, mainly due to some nagging injuries. His field goal percentage dropped from 67 percent to 55 percent, and his free throw shooting found a level below rock bottom, falling all the way to an unspeakable 28 percent. Nevertheless, he’s a vital piece in Mihalich’s inverted motion. He’ll have some much needed help with SEMO power forward Joel Angus eligible. Angus can buoy the league’s worst defensive rebounding team (even with Gustys, the Pride were dead last in defensive rebounding rate). Hunter Sabety is a more than capable replacement at the 5, and he’s the Pride’s best rim protector. Unfortunately Sabety fouls at an even higher rate than Gustys. The offense won’t be an issue for Hofstra, but Mihalich has to bid the soft zone adieu if the Pride want to make a run. The additions of Wormley and Angus make that possible.
5. Northeastern– Bill Coen’s Huskies were decimated by injuries last year, but with a talented backcourt returning (even sans do-everything point T.J. Williams) around a healthy frontcourt, Northeastern should be a tough nightly out in the CAA. First thing’s first, how does Coen replace Williams? 6-foot-4 senior Devon Begley and 6-foot-5 San Diego transfer Vasa Pusica give Coen a few options, and the height and length on the ball should be a matchup problem for CAA defenses. Begley is more of a scoring combo guard and the team’s best perimeter defender, posting the CAA’s second-highest steal rate. Pusica isn’t explosive off the dribble, but he’s an excellent distributor with the size to see over defenses, and he’s a capable shooter. Red Gresham was one of the many wounded Huskies last year, and he’s a plus perimeter defender with an outstanding jump shot, albeit in a limited sample size. 6-foot-5 Shawn Occeus was forced into earlier minutes than expected due to all the injuries, and now the wing should be a major contributor on the wing as another shooter in the league’s most prolific 3-point offense and a versatile lockdown defender because of his athleticism. The key to the wing corps is 6-foot-8 sophomore Bolden Brace, who showed flashes as an elite CAA scorer, especially with his 40-point outburst against Elon, which included 10 3-pointers. Brace can play the 4 for Coen in smaller lineups as well. Maxime Boursiquot is a valuable contributor off the bench as well. Coen really needs Jeremy Miller to return to his pre-injury form to solidify the frontcourt, but he was a nonfactor in Northeastern’s trip to Canada this summer. That leaves Anthony Green at the 5 as one of the league’s best rim protectors and rebounders, particularly offensively. Green posted the league’s second-highest block rate and fifth-highest offensive rebounding rate. Coen’s scheme doesn’t dictate that a lot of offense be filtered through him in the post, but he shot 61 percent from the field last year. The biggest frontcourt addition is Tomas Murphy of the famous Murphy basketball brothers (Erik and Alex). Murphy can stretch to the perimeter and score at the rim and is a likely starter from game one; he forms a solid frontcourt nucleus with Green tethered to the paint. Coen doesn’t have the seniors he typically relies on outside of Begley, but the talent level is high enough and Coen is one of the league’s top coaches. Northeastern has CAA sleeper written all over them.
6. UNC Wilmington– The two-time defending CAA champs are going to go through a bit of a rebuilding year, both personnel wise and on the sidelines. Kevin Keatts left to rebuild North Carolina State, and CB McGrath comes in from UNC to lead the Seahawks. McGrath is a Roy Williams disciple, so that means the Seahawks will still play a transition-heavy, up-tempo brand of basketball. It also means they won’t be shooting the 3 at anywhere near the rate they did under Keatts last year. Last year UNCW ran a four-out offense that spread the floor extremely well in transition and shot the 3 at a top-50 rate. This year McGrath will go to the two bigs the vast majority of the time. A Roy Williams team hasn’t shot the 3 at a top-200 rate since 2005-06, and even then they were 199th. Expect something similar from UNCW this year, especially since McGrath has the most efficient big man in the entire country at his disposal. Davonte Cacock shot an absurd 80 percent from the field, shattering the NCAA D1 record. He posted a 141.4 ORtg, tops in the nation, and grabbed offensive rebounds at the 25th-best rate in the country and defensive boards at the 10th-best. That 80 percent shooting came mostly via dunks in transition, offensive rebounds and wide-open looks off pick-and-roll sets in UNCW’s spread offense. This year, McGrath will filter offense through him in a more traditional manner, so the shooting numbers will fall, but he’ll certainly still post massive rebounding numbers, which is of course another staple of any Roy Williams based scheme. The second big alongside Cacock is still TBD, but Matt Elmore probably has the lead in that battle, as he’s capable of stretching out to the perimeter and has gotten in shape over the summer. Trey Kalina is a 7-foot banger out of the JUCO ranks, while Marcus Bryan is a senior veteran. In the backcourt, Jordon Talley should return to a more prominent role at the point after seeing his minutes reduced last year. He’s steady with the ball and a good decision maker in pick-and-roll sets. Wichita State transfer Ty Taylor could slot in off the ball and would give McGrath lineup flexibility with his ability to run the point as well. JaQuel Richmond is yet another option as a penetrating ball handler. Jaylen Fornes figures to have a massive sophomore year on the wing. He’s a pure shooter and probably the only high-scoring outlet on the perimeter in McGrath’s two big system when defenses collapse on Cacock. Jay Estime’ is the most likely freshman to see minutes in the backcourt with his length and athleticism at the 2/3. Jeff Gary, meanwhile, is a pure shooter, while Jacque Brown is a pure point guard out of JUCO. McGrath’s scheme change will require an adjustment period, and the frontcourt might not be suited for it yet, outside of Cacock of course, but the cupboard certainly isn’t bare in his first season at the helm.
7. William & Mary– It doesn’t look to be a promising season for Tony Shaver, one of my favorite coaches in the league, especially after the Tribe have lived in the top half of the standings the last four years. The Tribe lose Omar Prewitt and Daniel Dixon, and a struggling defense should be even worse than last year’s team that allowed 1.11 points per possession in league play. Shaver’s four-out, motion offense is one of the best systems in mid-major college basketball, and with David Cohn returning at the point with two years of running the offense, there shouldn’t be too much of drop off in efficiency on that end, where W&M posted a 1.13 points per possession mark. Cohn is a solid pass-first point, but he’ll need to pick up his scoring a bit without Prewitt and Dixon on the wing. Cohn will be surrounded by the two best shooters in the league, Connor Burchfield and BC transfer Matt Milon. Milon is a perfect fit in Shaver’s system and could legitimately hit 50 percent from deep, with volume. Burchfield will have an expanded role as a 6-foot-4 rail thin wing, as he’s another dead-eye shooter with an underrated defensive game. Nathan Knight could be in store of big year as the "one in" in Shaver’s four-out offense. Knight posted a 120 ORtg in CAA play thanks to 62 percent shooting. He also posted top rebounding rates on both ends of the floor and led the CAA in block rate. With the spacing provided by Shaver’s excellent sets, he’s often allowed to work one on one, and he’s an advanced passer if/when the double does come. He’s a major asset on both ends. Paul Rowley is a lethal shooter as a stretch 4, but Justin Pierce is a better defending and rebounding option at that position, and Shaver is in desperate need of both of those with this team. Oliver Tot provides some depth at basically every position but the 5, and Luke Loewe should see immediate minutes as a freshman spelling Cohn on the ball. The offense will likely continue to hum, but the defense is once again going to hold the Tribe back. However, another top half finish isn’t out of the question with this group.
8. Delaware– The Blue Hens were dead last in both offensive and defensive efficiency ratings in Martin Ingelsby’s first season, but there’s reason for optimism this year, especially since the Hens managed five CAA wins despite those numbers. Ingelsby comes from the Mike Brey coaching tree, and he utilized the old Brey "Burn Offense" for the majority of the season, as the Hens had an APL of nearly 20 seconds in league play. The offense was essentially letting the clock run down and then setting a high ball screen for Ryan Daly and letting him go to work. And really, that wasn’t a bad idea, as Daly was phenomenal as a freshman. Daly was fifth in usage and third in shot rate in the CAA, but he still posted a 107 ORtg as the only dangerous offensive threat for Ingelsby. Even more impressive, he turned the ball over at the lowest rate in the league despite dominating possessions. Daly certainly turned some heads in the CAA tournament for fans of opposing teams who didn’t get a chance to see him in the regular season. Daly is joined in the backcourt by Champ Mosley, who can play on or off the ball and is the Hens’ best perimeter defender, which isn’t saying too much for a team that was shredded in man and zone equally. Darian Bryant returns on the wing, but he probably loses minutes to a trio of talented freshmen in the backcourt, particularly Chyree Walker, who brings some athleticism at 6-foot-5 that Ingelsby’s roster lacked last year. Kevin Anderson is another 6-foot-5 freshman who can play on the ball beside Daly, and Ryan Allen could immediately improve Delaware’s perimeter defense. The frontcourt is led by Eric Carter, who showed how effective he can be once he finally got healthy. Carter was a legitimate force in the paint on both ends from February on. Jacob Cushing is a stretch 4 who didn’t shoot the ball well last year, and Skye Johnson is something of an enforcer in the paint defensively but has little semblance of an offensive game. Saint Bonaventure transfer Derrick Woods figures to eat into Cushing and Johnson’s minutes this year. Ingelsby is a good X’s and O’s coach, and with more talent around Daly, the Hens should see team wide improvements on both ends of the floor. The future is bright in Newark, as the freshmen class looks solid on paper, and Daly is of course just a sophomore.
9. Drexel– Zach Spiker was dealt a blow last week with Kari Jonsson suddenly leaving the team. Jonsson was Spiker’s best shooter in his transition-based, four-out offense, and it certainly puts a damper on the season before it even begins, as his shooting was absolutely essential to the offense. That said, the backcourt still has a lot of talent, led by sophomore point guard Kurk Lee, one of the more exciting players in the league, especially in a system like Spiker’s. Lee’s efficiency numbers were actually OK considering his usage rate and the system he was thrust into as a freshman point guard. His 40 percent shooting from 3 was perhaps even more impressive than his assist rate, which ranked as the third highest in the league. Sammy Mojica returns as Spiker’s senior leader in the backcourt, and he can do a little bit of everything on both ends. Between Miles Overton and transfers Tramaine Isabell (Missouri) and Troy Harper (Campbell), Spiker might have to roll out at least one more basketball. All three are gunners in the backcourt with questionable shot selection. Replacing Rodney Williams in the frontcourt is the most pressing task ahead of Spiker. Austin Williams is likely the go-to guy, and while he’s the team’s best rebounder and shot blocker from a year ago, he doesn’t have Rodney Williams’ offensive skills. Nevertheless, if Williams can reduce the foul rate, he’ll be a consistent double-double threat. Veteran Tyshawn Myles would slot in at the 4 when Spiker needs a bigger lineup, but minutes will be available for freshmen Jarvis Doles and Timmy Perry in the frontcourt. Lee is worth the price of admission at the DAC, but efficiency on both ends is going to be an issue for the Dragons.
10. James Madison– JMU was the fourth oldest team in the country last year and managed to go just 7-11 in Louis Rowe’s first year, so it’s a bit worrisome to think about what will happen with a much younger roster this year. Of course, the optimist could say that Rowe inherited a roster that wasn’t set up for his style, and there were certainly some internal issues with key players in the beginning of the year. Plus, Yo Dalembert was only available for 18 games after a season-ending injury, which in turn sent the Dukes’ season into a tailspin. Rowe has Stuckey Mosley coming in from Toledo this year, and he should shore up the point guard issues that plagued the Dukes last year. That means Joey McLean can move back to his natural spot off the ball, which in turn means his efficiency should return to form. With brutal honesty, McLean had no business running the point, but Rowe simply didn’t have any options. To McLean’s credit, his 3-point shooting was still stellar, around 40 percent, despite playing a role he didn’t ask for. The other returnee for Rowe is Ramone Snowden, a relentless penetrator from the wing who posted the league’s highest free throw rate last year. He can play either the 3 or 4. Joining Mosley in Rowe’s talented class of newcomers is VCU transfer Gerron Scissum, who should make an immediate impact in the frontcourt defensively if Rowe decides to stick with the full-court pressure he busted out last year. Cam Smith out of FIU should see minutes on the wing as well. Two freshmen will see big roles immediately on the wing, with three-star recruit Darius Banks capable of taking home Freshman of the Year honors, while Matt Lewis comes in as JMU’s best shooter besides McLean. Outside of Scissum at the 4, the frontcourt is a bit of mess. Freshman Zach Jacobs could start immediately, or Rowe could go with DePaul transfer Develle Phillips. My money is on Jacobs. If Rowe’s freshmen class and slew of transfers mesh quickl, and the pressure defense throws teams for a loop, the Dukes could surprise, but a bottom tier league finish looks like the most likely result.
FINAL OUTLOOK: Charleston is clearly the team to beat, and with their offense finally caught up to their defense, they could be a March Cinderella. Towson, Elon, Hofstra and Northeastern should all see postseason play of some variety.
CAA PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Joe Chealey, Charleston
ALL CAA FIRST TEAM:
Joe Chealey, Charleston
Jarrell Brantley, Charleston
Ryan Daly, Delaware
Devontae Cacock, UNCW
Justin Wright-Foreman, Hofstra
ALL CAA SECOND TEAM:
Mike Morsell, Towson
Nathan Knight, William & Mary
Kurk Lee, Drexel
Rokas Gustys, Hofstra
Tyler Seibring, Elon