HARRISONBURG – Heading into last October’s Colonial Athletic Association media day in Baltimore, Delaware basketball coach Monte Ross could sense it.
“I think everybody went in with the feeling that this thing was wide open and anybody could win it,” said Ross, whose Blue Hens – picked to finish fourth in the Colonial – went on to enjoy a 14-2 league record and their first regular-season conference championship since 1999. “We had that feeling, and we won it. Well, we go to the CAA tournament with the same feeling — that it’s wide open.”
That was the prevailing thought during Tuesday’s CAA teleconference, where the league’s top-to-bottom parity had coaches from several different programs and spots in the final regular-season standings expecting the unexpected at Baltimore Arena for this weekend’s Colonial tournament.
As evidence of Ross’ point, Delaware – the field’s No. 1 overall seed – went 8-0 against the field’s bottom four seeds but did so by a combined margin of just 51 points.
“Everybody’s going down there believing they have a chance to earn the NCAA bid,” Northeastern coach Bill Coen said.
History, though, suggests those hopes are ill-fated. Over the past 20 seasons, only one team — fourth-seeded North Carolina-Wilmington in 2000 – has come from outside the top three seeds to win the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Even more disconcerting for this year’s underdogs, in each of past 15 instances that a team swept an opponent in the regular season and then played them again in the CAA tournament, the initial winners prevailed all 15 times.
That includes four such games from last season’s tournament, which takes into account defending tournament champion James Madison’s quarterfinal win over William & Mary and its semifinal victory over Delaware.
The seventh-seeded Dukes (11-19 overall, 6-10 in the CAA) will attempt to buck that trend Saturday night when they face second-seeded Towson (22-9, 13-3) in a tournament quarterfinal game.
“I think they are older, more experienced and much more physically tough than we are at this point,” Madison coach Matt Brady said. “I do think there’s a lot of validity [to the difficulty] of beating the same team three times. We’re going to have to play really well. We’re going to have to do some things really well that we’ve just done fair in the two games we’ve played them. We like our chances. Obviously, I like our team.”
But Towson’s late-season surge and its close proximity to Baltimore Arena – the Colonial’s new tournament venue is about 10 miles from Towson’s campus – have made the Tigers a trendy pick for this weekend, even while coach Pat Skerry tried to downplay the significance of competing close to home.
“I think it’s a much truer neutral-court site for all the schools,” said Skerry, who starts four seniors – including the Colonial’s reigning Player of the Year in forward Jerrelle Benimon. “I think our fan base is growing daily, which is exciting, but we’re certainly not at the point where it was at the Richmond Coliseum for VCU. But we’d like to get as many Towson people as humanly possible there.”
Drexel’s Bruiser Flint, the CAA’s longest-tenured coach at 13 seasons with the Dragons, started his career in the late 1980s as an assistant at Baltimore’s Coppin State.
His fourth-seeded Dragons along with third-seeded William & Mary figure to be the biggest threats in Towson’s and Delaware’s respective quests for a CAA title and an ensuing NCAA Tournament bid.
Tribe junior Marcus Thornton, the leader of the Colonial’s top shooting team at 47.2 percent from the field, has reached the 25-point mark eight times this season.
“It’s always good to have veteran guards,” said Flint, whose starting senior backcourt of Chris Fouch and Frantz Massenat average a combined 35.3 points per game. “I think you can see that in the teams that actually [finished] above us — Delaware, Towson, William & Mary — all those guys have veteran guards, and that’s why they’ve had great years. … I hope [Fouch and Massenat] realize this could be it for them, and that they go out and play with such a sense of urgency that hopefully we can finish it off.”
From 2009-12, the last four seasons in which Virginia powers George Mason, Old Dominion and VCU competed together in the CAA, overall attendance at the conference tournament exceeded 42,000 each time.
League commissioner Tom Yeager wouldn’t put a number on his expectations for this weekend’s attendance in Baltimore, but was hopeful the tournament could “step into a bit of a void for competitive championship college basketball” in a city mostly known for its high school prospects.
Both Richmond Coliseum and Baltimore Arena can seat more than 11,000 people at capacity.
“We’re looking at the whole attendance thing as the first year of a building project,” Yeager said. “While we enjoyed tremendous success attendance-wise in Richmond over the years, it took a lot of years before that base was built up and familiar. We haven’t set any particular [standard]: ‘If we don’t average x, it won’t be successful.’”
The overall fan experience, however, was something Yeager wasn’t afraid to vouch for.
“I don’t think anybody would dispute that the inner harbor area of Baltimore and the restaurants, hotels and everything else are great destination locale,” he said. “So for fans that are there for three or four days that aren’t in the gym or arena for every minute of every game, there’s plenty to do in Baltimore.”
NOTE: Brady did not announce Tuesday whether suspended guard Andre Nation will be reinstated in time for the CAA tournament.