By Kevin Sweeney
The CAA is a rare league that returns much of its top talent from its best teams from the previous season. Just look at last year’s conference title game, a thriller between College of Charleston and Northeastern. Northeastern brings back all but three minutes from that game, and Charleston returns three starters and 2 potential all-conference players. Hofstra brings a lot back, as does William & Mary, while UNCW returns one of the nation’s best big men in Devontae Cacok. All this returning talent makes the Colonial one of the hidden gems of college basketball to watch frequently this season.
The Huskies came into last season with little fanfare, attempting to replace a pair of senior stars from a team that had stumbled to a 15-16 mark in 2016-17. However, Bill Coen’s club shined, riding San Diego transfer point guard Vasa Pusica and a talented sophomore trio to 23 wins and the doorstep of the NCAA Tournament. Virtually everyone from that club is back, and the Huskies add another guy who can step in and make plays in GW transfer Jordan Roland. Coen’s teams run efficient half-court offense and are extremely well-coached on the defensive end. A big year is undoubtedly ahead for Northeastern.
#2. College of Charleston
The defending champs bring back a pair of potential first teamers in pure scorer Grant Riller and big man Jarrell Brantley, but Joe Chealey leaves behind a massive hole at the point guard position. Earl Grant is high on redshirt freshman Zep Jasper, who’ll likely be paired with Marquise Pointer in the backcourt. Already 2 years out of high school, Jasper is seen as the point guard of the future, with a solid all-around game for a floor general. Riller rounds out the backcourt stable, a high-efficiency scorer at all 3 levels. The defense should be strong again, and another 20+ win season should be the expectation for the Cougars,
Joe Mihalich’s Hofstra teams have consistently been outstanding on offense but struggled mightily on defense, and that formula appears likely to continue this season. Justin Wright-Foreman is one of the nation’s best pure scorers and is a smooth pick-and-roll operator, and has an excellent stable of guards to distribute to. However, the Pride will almost assuredly take a step back on the glass with the loss of elite rebounder Rokas Gustys as well as steady backup Hunter Sabety to graduations. Mihalich adds a steady grad transfer in Jacquil Taylor to fill that frontcourt void, but a lot will be relied upon from a guy who hasn’t played consistent minutes in his collegiate career.
With a defensive improvement unlikely, the Pride may have reached their ceiling already. That ceiling is enough to be in the mix come conference tournament time, but can they find the consistency over a 3-game stretch in March?
#4. William & Mary
Like Hofstra, W&M under Tony Shaver has been consistently elite on offense and horrendous on defense, and it’s hard to see that changing. The Tribe have two incredible forwards in uber-athletic center Nathan Knight and bruising combo forward Justin Pierce, both of whom are perfect fits for Shaver’s system. Losing floor general David Cohn hurts, but W&M brings in a pair of capable freshmen in Thornton Scott and LJ Owens at the position.
#5. UNC Wilmington
Year one under C.B. McGrath was hallmarked by huge games by Devontae Cacok and horrendous defense. Cacok is back for one more go, and should be the focal point again offensively. A pair of talented newcomers in JUCO product Ty Gadsden and Kai Toews should help in the backcourt, a unit that loses Jordan Talley and was largely a group of turnstiles on defense. Gadsden is a good bet to start at point guard from the outset after posting big numbers at JUCO power Vicennes University last season (16 points, 4 assists, 42% from 3). I still stand by the McGrath hire despite a rough first season, and expect things to start to turn around this year. However, his tenure will be defined by whether he can continue to bring in strong talent post-Cacok.
Pat Skerry’s roster was gutted this offseason by a pair of up-transfers in Zane Martin (New Mexico) and Justin Gorham (Houston). Combine that with 4 key graduations, and the Tigers lose their top 6 scorers from last season. That’s not a recipe for success in a league with as much experience as the CAA has. However, I love the newcomers Skerry brings in, and his grind-it-out coaching style should win the Tigers more games than their roster might indicate. Duquesne transfer Nakye Sanders should help solidify the frontcourt, and freshmen Jakigh Dottin and Nick Timberlake seem like pieces to build around in the backcourt. Throw in a pair of accomplished JUCO prospects to bridge the gap in Brian Fobbs and Tobias Howard, and the drop-off without Martin and Gorham won’t be as precipitous as some are prognosticating.
#7. James Madison
Year 2 of the Louis Rowe era was fairly underwhelming, as the Dukes stumbled to a 22-loss campaign thanks to a fairly inefficient offense and struggles on the glass. Part of that was a function of inexperience, as JMU relied on freshmen to play 45% of the team’s total minutes. That was excellent experience for highly-touted backcourt mates Matt Lewis and Darius Banks, who paired with Toledo transfer Stuckey Mosley to form a formidable trio of creators. Lewis and Banks taking the next step in their games is the key to the Dukes making strides in year 3.
As my friends over at three-man-weave.com pointed out well in their preview, Elon made absolutely no sense last year. Running it back almost entirely from a solid 18-win team in 2016-17, the Phoenix regressed significantly (especially on the defensive end). Matt Matheny brings a fair amount back from that club, and we’ll see what this team is truly made of. Tyler Seibring is an excellent piece that any mid-major would love to have in their frontcourt, and experienced guards Dainan Swoope and Steven Santa Ana should be solid.
A beautiful new arena should help with recruiting, and it paid immediate dividends in their 2018 class. Chuck Hannah is the headliner, a 6-6 combo forward from prep power Northfield Mount Hermon, while Andy Pack and Kris Wooten look like good long-term pieces.
I may come around to regret this rather-unoptimistic projection for the Blue Hens, but I have to be hesitant in the wake of Ryan Daly’s transfer out of the program. One of Martin Inglesby’s first recruits, Daly was a star for 2 years, but opted to return to the Philly area to play the rest of his collegiate career at Saint Joe’s. All is not lost, however, with an outstanding freshman class returning for year 2. Both Kevin Anderson and Ryan Allen are on an all-league trajectory (an honor that could come sooner rather than later), and Chyree Walker profiles as a breakout candidate. When you don’t shoot 3’s well nor win the turnover battle, it’s tough to win in college basketball. Inglesby will hope that Anderson and Allen getting a year older helps in that regard.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a bigger Zach Spiker fan than me. The job he did at Army was simply spectacular. Now, he has to find a way to recruit at a higher level. He had a star in Tramaine Isabell, but lost him a year early to St. Louis. Kurk Lee should take a nice step forward in his return to primary ball-handling duties, and I’m excited to see what Alihan Demir can do up front for this club. Those are foundational pieces, but Spiker needs 3 or 4 more to start making a serious dent in the CAA standings. The incoming group is underwhelming on paper, and Spiker needs a few of those to hit.
All-Conference First Team:
- Justin Wright-Foreman– Hofstra (24.4 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 3.2 apg, .449/.366/799)
- Vasa Pusica– Northeastern (17.9 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 5.1 apg, .574/.427/.807)
- Grant Riller– College of Charleston (18.6 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 2.0 apg, .545/.394/.729)
- Nathan Knight– William & Mary (18.5 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 2.2 apg, .575/.306/.769)
- Devontae Cacok— UNC-Wilmington (17.7 ppg, 13.5 rpg, 0.9 apg, .585/.000/.612)
Player of the Year: Vasa Pusica (Northeastern)
Wright-Foreman will be the popular choice here, and his incredible bucket-getting ability deserves all the praise it receives. I’ll roll with Pusica here though, an outstanding pick-and-roll operator who takes care of the ball, scores efficiently, and makes big plays in big games. Pusica edges out Wright-Foreman in both win shares and box plus/minus. While either would be a good choice, league champions tend to get the benefit of the doubt in these types of award settings.
Breakout Player: Chyree Walker (Delaware)
A well-regarded recruit out of high school, Walker took a bit of a backseat to the aforementioned Allen and Anderson as a freshman. With Daly gone, Walker seems positioned to slot in at the 3 next to his now-sophomore running mates, and should have a chance to break out. Walker is very athletic. If he can improve his jumper, he can be a special player at Delaware.
Newcomer of the Year: Ty Gadsden (UNCW)
As I wrote earlier, Gadsden is the likely starting point guard for the Seahawks, and he fits C.B. McGrath’s system well. A Roy Williams disciple, McGrath loves scoring point guards who can distribute or get their own, and Gadsden fits that bill. He can really shoot the ball and had a better than 2:1 assist:turnover ratio in junior college.