A Lousy Start
Colonial Teams Mostly Struggling
Posted: January 2, 2013
HARRISONBURG — Drexel basketball coach Bruiser Flint wasted no time and minced no words when describing how his team has fared in non-conference play this season.
“We’ve been awful,” Flint said last week. “That’s the bottom line. We’ve been bad. We have not played well in the non-conference and that’s why our record is what it is.”
The Dragons’ record is 4-8, and they are one of eight squads in the 11-team Colonial Athletic Association with more losses than wins. Drexel entered the season as an overwhelming favorite to win the CAA, and while the Dragons now look very ordinary, no other team looks primed to dominate the league, either.
CAA play begins this week, and the league, as Old Dominion coach Blaine Taylor said, appears “more up for grabs” than usual. Taylor’s typically contending team (which isn’t eligible for the league tournament this year because it is leaving for Conference USA next season) is just 2-11 and has already lost a conference game at William & Mary.
The Tribe, which is shooting a league-best 48.6 percent from the field (top 20 nationally), is 7-4 – along with George Mason, one of two CAA teams with winning records – but its schedule has been one of the two weakest in the country.
Delaware, selected in the conference’s preseason poll to finish second, is 5-8. George Mason (7-5), picked third, appears to be the favorite, but most of its wins have been ho-hum, and the Patriots are too imbalanced offensively to claim dominance just yet.
“I think everybody’s got question marks in this league,” James Madison coach Matt Brady said. “There’s not a dominant team.”
JMU, which has won five of its last six games to even its record at 6-6, is right in the mix with every other inconsistent and flawed CAA team.
The Colonial’s combined non-conference record is 48-80 (a .375 winning percentage). According to RealtimeRPI.com, the CAA ranks 23rd out of 31 conferences. George Mason (68th) is the only team in the top 186.
Why the excessive struggles?
Injuries have played a factor. Drexel, Delaware, Northeastern and James Madison each has lost a significant player for an extended period. In a case like Drexel’s, ace sixth man Chris Fouch will miss the rest of the season with a broken foot. Northeastern, on the other hand, recently got star senior guard Jonathan Lee back from a foot injury after he missed the team’s first nine games.
Delaware guard Jarvis Threatt has struggled through injuries, but the Blue Hens’ bigger problem may have been their schedule. They’ve already played six BCS-conference schools, not including talented Temple. While UDel upset Virginia in a mid-November Preseason NIT game, that victory set up dates at Madison Square Garden with Kansas State and Pittsburgh, both ranked at the time.
The Blue Hens did not have a home game until December, but now that the playing field is even within the conference, Flint thinks his nearby rivals will be potent.
“They’ll be good,” Flint said. “When you start to play a lot of games in a row, with the NIT and such, and no home games. …
“I think we’ve had a lot of tough road games. People have played on the road. That’s one thing about the CAA that’s tough about the league – a lot of teams in our league play a lot of road games. And they’ve played in some tough places.”
Two Colonial teams – Delaware and Georgia State – have already played at top-ranked Duke, for example. JMU has played at UCLA. Towson played at No. 15 Georgetown. Other teams have played high-level mid-major squads that have recently made NCAA Tournament runs.
Road games are notably difficult to win in college basketball. And once conference play begins, the intensity seems to ratchet up in home arenas. For that reason, winning at home in the CAA might be the norm this year – like holding serve in tennis.
“Seems that way to me,” Brady said. “I still think that Drexel, Delaware and George Mason are three really talented teams, so much returning in their lineups. Drexel and Delaware are not where they want to be in terms of their record. I’ve always thought George Mason’s very talented.”
The favorite last year as well, Drexel won the regular-season title with a 16-2 record, before losing to Virginia Commonwealth (which has since moved to the Atlantic 10) in the CAA championship game. None of the 11 CAA teams appears capable of dictating conference play quite like that this year.
Since the CAA began an 18-game league schedule in 2001-02, 14-4 is the worst record to capture a regular-season title – happening three times. The champion has been 16-2 three times and 15-3 five times.
Despite its slow start, Drexel might still be the best candidate to take the wide-open league. The Dragons looked like their old selves in a home win over defending Southern Conference champion Davidson two weekends ago. Drexel has the best backcourt in the Colonial, often the deciding factor in games, with preseason CAA Player of the Year Frantz Massenat and fellow first-team selection Damion Lee, who is having a breakout sophomore year.
The Dragons’ main problem is their defense, which has allowed 66.8 points per game. Last year, with four of the same starters, Drexel allowed 56.1 points per game.
“If we play to our potential,” Flint said, “I think we can beat anybody in the conference. But we haven’t done it to this point.”
No one else really has, either.