Friday, March 6, 2009

CAA Tournament Preview

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The CAA didn’t have any viable at-large candidates like in years’ past, but it featured the most exciting conference race in the country. Six teams finished above .500, with all six within four games of each other. When the dust settled, VCU ended up on top, going 14-4. The Rams finished one game ahead of George Mason, and two games ahead of Northeastern, who had the league lead for much of the season, and Old Dominion. Hofstra and Drexel finished in fifth and sixth, respectively. This is going to be an outstanding conference tournament.

Favorite: VCU started the CAA campaign 8-1, but then lost three of its next six games before finishing on a three-game winning streak to get the regular-season title. The Rams don’t force as many turnovers as they used to, but they are very solid at both ends. Eric Maynor is still one of the best point guards in the country, and he can carry this team. Larry Sanders is a shot-blocker down low with a developing offensive game. Joey Rodriguez can shoot and handle the ball, while Bradford Burgess and Brandon Rozell bring quickness. Kiril Pishchalnikov is a banger.

Contenders: George Mason took the early lead in conference play, starting 7-0, but the Patriots lost five of their next seven to fall out of the race. They did win four straight CAA games to close the season, though. The Patriots have balance, depth and experience. The three-guard backcourt of Dre Smith, John Vaughan and Cam Long brings a little of everything. Long is a scorer and a playmaker, Vaughan can shoot and Smith pitches in everywhere. Darryl Monroe is solid down low. Northeastern had the inside track towards a regular-season title with its 10-1 start. However, the Huskies proceeded to lose four of their next five conference games, and then falling against in the season finale to Old Dominion. The Huskies are led by Matt Janning, one of the best all-around players in the conference. Manny Adako is a solid player up front who does his work inside the arc, while Chaisson Allen is a versatile performer. Eugene Spates can shoot. Old Dominion is the hottest team in the conference, winning nine of its last 10 games to finish tied for third. Gerald Lee leads the way for the Monarchs; he is very good inside the arc and can also rebound. Ben Finney is another double-figure scorer who leads the team in rebounding. The main man in the backcourt is Darius James, a solid point guard who takes care of the ball and distributes it well. Hofstra has won 10 of its last 13, and has an absolute stud in Charles Jenkins. He can take over a game and carry the Pride to a win. They are deep and balanced, and are one of the better defensive teams in the conference.

Sleeper: Out of the teams who finished below .500, Delaware poses the biggest threat to the top seeds (and I’m not just being a homer). The Blue Hens have defeated VCU and George Mason this season, and have as much perimeter talent as anyone in the conference. Marc Egerson is a match-up nightmare with his size and skill-set, while Jawan Carter and Alphonso Dawson can get hot from three-point range. Brian Johnson is a very solid passer at the point guard spot.

Prediction: This might be the most competitive and exciting conference tournament in the country, with several teams capable of winning a few games and getting the automatic bid. The tournament is being held in Richmond, which immediately gives VCU the advantage. George Mason should come out of the bottom part of the bracket, with neither Drexel nor Northeastern playing that well lately. Look out for James Madison, though. Up top, ODU and Hofstra are hot, but I think VCU has the experience and balance to get to the final. In the title game, the difference will be Eric Maynor. He has been there before, and knows what it takes to get an automatic bid. Will we see more heroics from the senior? Possibly, but either way, the Rams are headed to the Dance.

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