By Kevin Sweeney
The always-exciting, sometimes-defense-optional CAA is back for another year, and despite losing two NBA players in Justin Wright-Foreman and Jarrell Brantley (both drafted by the Jazz) should be exciting once again. Last season’s rendition of the Colonial saw tons of close games, ranking 3rd in games decided by less than four points or OT nationally per KenPom. While several teams lose key cogs, the parity should remain, and as a result this has the feel of being one of the most wide-open leagues in America this season.
#1. College of Charleston– I had the privilege of chatting with Earl Grant on my podcast this summer, and it was clear he was really excited about his group for the upcoming season. Replacing the aforementioned Brantley will be an incredible challenge: he was a versatile defender who could hurt you from anywhere on the court on offense. Still, the Cougars have a strong stable of guards that will keep them in any game– another draft prospect in Grant Riller headlines the unit, and should step into a more traditional point guard role full-time with the graduation of Marquise Pointer. Next to Riller will be breakout candidates like Brevin Galloway and Jaylen Richard, as well as dynamic freshman guard Brenden Tucker, who Grant called “wired to score”. Steady inside play from the likes of Jaylen McManus and Sam Miller, but the core is in place for the Cougars to reclaim the CAA.
#2. Hofstra– It will be somewhat of a new-look Hofstra team without Justin Wright-Foreman burying shots and opponents’ dreams across the east coast this season, but I’ve heard nothing but good things about the Pride as the season inches closer. A main reason for optimism: the addition of Georgia transfer Isaac Kante, who profiles as the perfect rugged big for Joe Mihalich’s 4-out, 1-in offense. Another savvy transfer market add by Mihalich: Omar Silverio, who should share backcourt duties with star wing Eli Pemberton and steady floor general Desure Buie. Defense will always be a concern with a Mihalich-coached team, but there’s no reason the Pride can’t contend for a CAA title once again.
#3. Northeastern– Few mid-major coaches are as good as Bill Coen, yet he somehow always flies under the radar when it comes to national acclaim. Despite losing four critical rotation pieces including point guard Vasa Pusica, I’d expect Coen to have his club ready to contend once again. He pulled one of the biggest recruiting heists of the northeast by landing New Hampton School product Tyson Walker, a talented PG ranked in the top-15 prospects in New England by NERR. Illinois transfer Greg Eboigbodin should help solidify the frontcourt. Those two newcomers should add to what was already one of the better returning cores in the league.
#4. Delaware– The Blue Hens entered the offseason as a legit title contender, but the late departure (or poaching, whichever word you prefer) of star freshman guard Ithiel Horton to Pittsburgh takes some wind out of their sails. The pieces are still there to contend– Ryan Allen and Kevin Anderson are foundational pieces in the backcourt, and UAB transfer Nate Darling has reportedly shined in practice and should bring major shooting and playmaking to the table on the wing. The big question is replacing big man Eric Carter, who put together an unbelievable senior season. Villanova transfer Dylan Painter should help at the semester break, but can High Point transfer Justyn Mutts hold down the fort in the meantime?
#5. James Madison— The Dukes are intriguing– on one hand, they return five of their top six scorers and add a strong freshman class. Other the other, they were 285th in KenPom last year and have six freshmen on the roster. The backcourt duo of Darius Banks and Matt Lewis is a strong one, and freshman wing Michael Christmas profiles as an instant-impact type. That said, the defense may be too broken to fix– JMU was bad in every statistical category on that end of the floor last season and still lack rim protection. Given that Matt Brady was let go after winning 40 games in his final two seasons, Louis Rowe may need to show some improvement in year four to keep his job after three straight 19+ loss seasons to begin his tenure.
#6. Drexel– Ultra-skiled big Alihan Demir departing with eligibility remaining is a crusher for Zach Spiker’s bunch, but a talented backcourt should keep the Dragons relevant. Sophomore Camren Wynter was a revelation in year one, a steady floor general who can really pass. He was one of just four freshmen nationally to average at least 11 points and 5 assists as a freshman, and pairing him with Kurk Lee, who missed most of last season, should create a pretty dynamic duo at guard.
#7. Towson– While the majority of the CAA is spacing you out and scoring tons of points, Pat Skerry has embraced an entirely different brand of basketball– one based on grinding out possessions and pounding the glass. The problem: despite playing slow, the Tigers were still horrible on defense last season, and the scoring exploits of Brian Fobbs weren’t enough to overcome that. Skerry needs a few true two-way players to establish themselves– Nick Timberlake had a few bright moments before getting injured last season, and San Diego transfer Juwan Gray might help some.
#8. William & Mary– Rather than give it one more crack with an outstanding returning core, W&M AD Samantha Huge elected to pull the trigger and fire Tony Shaver. What ensued was an extended coaching search that led to the dismantling of what was a very promising roster, with Justin Pierce (North Carolina), Matt Milon (UCF), and Chase Audige (Northwestern) all departing. What’s left for new coach Dane Fischer is just one player who has ever averaged more than 4 points per game in a season. Luckily for him, returning piece is Nathan Knight, one of the conference’s best players who should have an absolutely massive season as Fischer attempts to rebuild the roster. The real question is who else Fischer can trust– Wisconsin transfer Andy Van Vliet should pair with Knight for perhaps the league’s best frontcourt, but the backcourt could very well be the worst in the league.
#9. Elon– I absolutely loved the Mike Schrage hire for Elon, an accomplished assistant coach at a number of stops with a sterling reputation in the business. Schrage has gotten off to a strong start on the recruiting trail, building a nice late signing class and making some strong early moves in 2020. Year one will be one of transition– Stanford grad transfer Marcus Sheffield will be relied upon heavily from the jump, and former Wofford commit Zac Ervin looks like a potential foundational piece after being the Robin to Mac McClung’s Batman at Gate City High School in Virginia.
#10. UNC-Wilmington– Since taking over for Kevin Keatts, CB McGrath has shown an inability to coach the defensive end of the floor. Last year was even worse than year one, with the Seahawks ranking 339th nationally in adjusted defense per KenPom. Devontae Cacok, the team’s one saving grace last season as one of the nation’s best rebounder and an efficient scorer at the rim, graduates, and it’s hard to believe the Seahawks will be much better in 2019-20. Florida transfer Mike Okuaru being immediately eligible should help in the backcourt next to Ty Gadsden and Kai Toews, but it won’t matter if the defense isn’t any better.
All-Conference First Team:
- Grant Riller (College of Charleston)
- Jordan Roland (Northeastern)
- Eli Pemberton (Hofstra)
- Brian Fobbs (Towson)
- Nathan Knight (William & Mary)
Player of the Year: Grant Riller (College of Charleston)
I ranked Riller as my #1 point guard in all of mid-major basketball this summer, so it’s no surprise that I have him as the CAA’s best player. Riller is an absolute dynamo at the rim– he shot 71% at the rim last season despite the vast majority of those buckets being unassisted, per T-Rank. It will be interesting to see the balance he’ll maintain between playmaking for others and getting buckets for himself, but Riller is an absolutely special player who has a great chance to spend time on an NBA roster next season.
Breakout Player: Nick Timberlake (Towson)
Timberlake showed promise in the first nine games of his freshman campaign a season ago before an injury derailed things. However, I was bullish on him out of high school– a good athlete who can score at three levels. He could give a big boost to Pat Skerry’s bunch.
Newcomer of the Year: Isaac Kante (Hofstra)
Kante is a great example of a guy probably going a step too high out of high school. He profiled as the perfect mid-major big man, undersized but very athletic with the ability to finish around the rim with ease over less physical defenders. Those I’ve spoken with believe Kante will be a star in the CAA and a gamechanger in the conference title race– replacing Jacquil Taylor profiled to be a major challenge for Joe Mihalich, but I truly believe Kante will make most forget about Taylor.