HARRISONBURG — In October, when many who follow the Colonial Athletic Association were ready to hand the league’s basketball title to Drexel, William & Mary coach Tony Shaver served as a prescient contrarian. With five fewer teams competing in the CAA tournament this season, Shaver reasoned, everyone had a chance.
“I think it’s wide open,” Shaver said about the league race. “Obviously, seven vs. 12, the percentages are better.”
Fast forward to March — and top-seed Northeastern, which receives a bye into the semifinals, is the favorite by default only. Six of the seven teams in this weekend’s tournament have a legitimate chance to cut down the Richmond Coliseum’s nets Monday night and take them as a souvenir to the NCAA playoffs, where they might end up as only a 16-seed — a sad distinction no CAA champion has held.
James Madison’s basketball team, meanwhile, might also be playing for Matt Brady’s future, although the fifth-year coach’s job security appears to have improved considerably — to the point where even a first-round loss, assuming JMU isn’t embarrassed, apparently is no longer the death-knell it appeared to be even days ago.
Brady is in the final year of his contract, and his third-seeded team’s performance this weekend, beginning with today’s 8:30 p.m. game against No. 6 seed William & Mary (13-16), will be only one factor in JMU’s decision on whether to keep him.
The Dukes (17-14), like Northeastern, No. 2 Delaware, No. 4 George Mason, No. 5 Drexel and even deep dark horse William & Mary, appear to have a shot to capture the crown. Only No. 7 Hofstra clearly lacks the firepower to win three games in three days.
“I do think it’s wide open,” Brady said. “I don’t think that we’re the most talented team, but I think we’ve got a chance. You’ve got to play every game like it’s a championship game. I think all three of those [first-round] games on Saturday will be really close, and then the two games the next day will be really close. I don’t see any of these games getting to double-figures. You just got to play them well. We’re not terribly deep, and we’re really young, so we’re in a precarious spot, in that regard. We play more freshmen than anybody in the league, but I think our kids are ready for the challenge.”
KenPom.com, a popular, stats-driven college basketball analysis website, says that none of the seven teams have a higher probability of winning the title than Northeastern, at just 24.5 percent. Delaware (22.6 percent), George Mason (19.7 percent), Drexel (13 percent) and James Madison (12.3 percent) are all capable, too. Meanwhile, William & Mary checks in at 7.3 percent and long shot Hofstra is given just a 0.6 percent chance.
JMU senior forward Rayshawn Goins set the tone for the week when, Monday after practice, he said, “Nothing less than a championship, or we’ve underachieved.”
Madison can reach the title game without having to play a team that’s beat it this year. The Dukes swept William & Mary, as well as likely semifinal opponent Delaware. JMU also beat Hofstra — which will play Delaware in the first round — in their lone meeting.
The Dukes came into the season with six seniors, but only three of them — Goins, point guard Devon Moore (both CAA third-team selections) and red-hot swingman A.J. Davis — are playing integral roles at this point. A group of freshmen has provided support for the Dukes’ three stars and will be receiving their first taste of March Madness this weekend when the Colonial stages its final tournament in Richmond before uprooting the event to Baltimore next year.
JMU notched an 81-71 victory over the Tribe on Feb. 6. In the regular-season finale last weekend, Davis scored a career-high 36 points and JMU came back from a 19-point road deficit to overcome W&M again, 69-67. The more athletic Dukes imposed their will in the second half of that game but hope they don’t put themselves in the position to need a frantic comeback again.
“Hopefully, we can rev it up for the tournament, because they’re a great team, and the tournament is one-and-done,” Moore said. “We can’t give them an opportunity like that. … Looking forward to playing them again and hopefully getting a lead on them, not letting their best players get on fire and do whatever they want.”
Tribe sophomore guard Marcus Thornton has tallied a combined 42 points in the two meetings, but the sharpshooter scored just one point in the final 12-plus minutes of the first game, and then just one point in the entire second half last week.
If the Tribe isn’t scared of the Dukes, that’s because it knows it gave away the most recent game. And even with that loss, W&M finished its CAA schedule 4-2. The Tribe players believe they can beat anybody, considering they lost to top-seeded Northeastern twice by just four points apiece.
“Everybody’s completely confident that we can do this,” Thornton said of winning a CAA title. “That’s out mindset and that’s what we plan to do.”
W&M’s field goal percentage (.467) and 3-point percentage (.375) lead the CAA. JMU, meanwhile, allowed the fewest points per game (60.8) in Colonial play.
With no juggernaut in the bunch, each team in the tournament has both strengths and flaws. The CAA is one of just four Division I conferences with no teams more than eight games over .500. The Big South, Big West and Ivy League are the others.
Wide open? Looks that way.
“I’ve felt that way all year long,” Shaver said at the end of the regular season. “I guess [the final day of the season] proved it: Last-place [Old Dominion] pounded the first-place [Northeastern]. I think it shows you how much the mental side of the game matters in sports. … It’s a very balanced league, it’s a wide-open tournament, I think a lot of exciting things could happen to us.”