We’re on to the CAA, a league that has produced a remarkable amount of NBA talent in recent years for a mid-major. The latest CAA star to hit the NBA world will be Grant Riller, the College of Charleston bucket-getter who is widely expected to be drafted come November. Meanwhile, Riller’s former teammate Jarrell Brantley played rotation minutes in the bubble for the Utah Jazz, and Devontae Cacok from UNCW will get a ring for his time with the Lakers in the bubble. That type of NBA success out of a one-bid league is a massive recruiting tool, and I’m hoping that the league continues to raise its game thanks to this pro success.
- Hofstra – 24 hours after the Pride won the CAA title, the world came crashing to a halt. For a program that had been close so many times but hadn’t made the Big Dance since joining the CAA, not getting to hear your name called on Selection Sunday after doing all the work to get there had to sting as much as it did for anyone in college hoops. But HU has a very real chance to repeat in a league that would be best described as wide open. Replacing two stars in outstanding point guard Desure Buie and four-year starter Eli Pemberton is without a doubt a challenge, but the Pride return three double-figure scorers that make up a strong nucleus for 2020-21. I’m incredibly excited about another year of development for Isaac Kante, a highly productive big guy who is great around the basket (71% at the rim per T-Rank) and on the glass. Tareq Coburn is an excellent two-way wing, and Jalen Ray hit huge shots for the Pride when it mattered last season. Joe Mihalich’s teams have notoriously been kind to scoring guards, and Ray seems poised to step into that role and have a big year. Perhaps most critical to this team repeating as champs though is steady point guard play, a role that will likely be filled by JUCO import Shawndarius Cowart. Cowart was a top-50 JUCO recruit in the country per JUCORecruiting and is known for stuffing the stat sheet, averaging 13 points, 7 rebounds, and 6.5 assists per game last season at Pensacola State. HU doesn’t need huge scoring output from him, just steady ballhandling and passing to open Ray up to score. If Cowart does that, Hofstra has a great chance to repeat. I just hope Mihalich is able get out and coach soon after taking a medical leave of absence late this summer. Mike Farrelly is a sharp coach who will be successful as a head coach in his absence, but Mihalich is one of the best in the business and will be missed if he can’t get back on the court.
- College of Charleston – The Grant Riller era at CofC is over, and replacing a future NBA player who scored close to 2,500 career points will be far from easy. But the Cougars should remain as competitive as any in this league thanks to savvy recruiting and strong player development by Earl Grant and staff. The highest-profile addition is without a doubt Minnesota grad transfer Payton Willis, who definitely could have stayed at the high-major level after averaging close to 9 points per game for the Golden Gophers last season. Willis’ calling card is his shooting ability, but expect Grant to use him as the primary scoring option this season and put the ball in his hands to create more than he did at either of his prior destinations. Willis is one of the better high-major down-transfers of the spring and should have a huge year. Joining him in the backcourt will be Zep Jasper and Brevin Galloway, a pair of veterans better suited as secondary options. I’m also tracking the growth of sophomore scoring guard Brenden Tucker, a former highly-touted recruit who could develop into another reliable scoring option in the backcourt. Where the Cougs need help is on the boards: they really struggled there last season and lose both starting bigs. Redshirt freshman Dontavious King is the type of hard-playing forward Grant loves and should help in that department, though the grad transfer CofC added up front in Lorenzo Edwards (St Joe’s) is more of a finesse player known for his ability to stretch the floor.
- Towson – The biggest recruiting addition in the conference this offseason may have been a return. Zane Martin became the latest college basketball player to transfer back into a program he began his career at, rejoining a Tigers program where he averaged 19.8 points per game in 2017-18 before transferring to New Mexico. His return is especially critical when you consider that the team’s likely leading scorer in Allen Betrand transferred to Rhode Island this spring – replacing a guy like that is a challenge, but Martin is likely an upgrade over Betrand in a lead shot-making role. Pat Skerry also added two other veteran guards in grad transfer Cam Allen (CSUB) and junior Curtis Holland, who averaged 12 points per game and shot 39% from 3 at High Point and received a waiver to play right away. Add in All-Freshman nominee Jason Gibson, and this is one of the deeper backcourts Skerry has had at Towson. The frontcourt hosts one of the conference’s biggest x-factors in former 4-star recruit and USC transfer Victor Uyaelunmo, a talented 7-footer who didn’t get much run in SoCal. If he can develop into useful rotation big man (or more), this team has CAA title aspirations.
- Northeastern – Bill Coen’s club loses three starters, including a guy who matched an NBA-caliber scorer in Grant Riller shot-for-shot last season in Jordan Roland. But it would be foolish to count out the Huskies given Coen’s club’s consistency over the years. It’s Tyson Walker’s time to shine: the sophomore was very impressive as a freshman, showcasing an ability to hit shots, defend, and play on and off the ball. Veteran wing Shaquille Walters is also poised for a jump – he seemed to improve as the season wore on, scoring in double figures in five of the final six games last season. Beyond that duo, this is a fairly young team that may takes some time to come together. I’m bullish on freshman Coleman Stucke, a 6-7 sharpshooter who played at Orangeville Prep and should fill a role similar to that of Bolden Brace. Like Brace, Stucke can play either forward spot and absolutely light it up from downtown. Notre Dame transfer Chris Doherty has barely played in college, but he was a monster on the AAU circuit and could turn into a massive steal. With five freshmen and a transfer incoming, there may be some bumps early. But by March, Coen’s team should be as competitive as any.
- Elon – The conference’s big wild card, Mike Schrage enters year two with a strong returning core and some big newcomers after a surprisingly competitive year one. Despite losing 21 games, Schrage found three four-year building blocks in Hunter McIntosh, Hunter Woods, and Zac Ervin, who combined to average 30 points per game as freshmen. Defending conference ROY Hunter McIntosh was especially impressive, averaging close to 12 points per game, hitting 40% from 3, and taking care of the ball surprisingly well for a freshman. Elon may have added another star youngster this spring in JaDun Michael, an athletic two-way wing originally committed to Wichita State who chose to stay home at Elon late in the process after being connected to several high-majors this spring. That’s the type of recruiting win to make the rest of the league take notice and a clear sign that Schrage has things headed in the right direction. Unfortunately, Blue Ribbon reported that Michael is likely to miss the season due to injury, which is certainly a blow. A pair of veterans added through the transfer market will determine whether the Phoenix can compete for a title: veteran point guard Ikenna Ndugba joins from Bryant, while Jerald Gillens-Butler gets eligible after transferring in from Butler. Gillens-Butler is a bruising wing who can handle the ball and might help open up some smaller lineup opportunities for Schrage and company. It’s certainly possible this group is a year away, but I’m betting big that Schrage will have the Phoenix near the top of the league sooner rather than later.
- Delaware – When the season ended back in March, Delaware would have been the early favorite to pencil in at the top of the CAA. But a pair of stars departing unexpectedly poured cold water on that, and now it appears the Blue Hens are in transition yet again. Nate Darling finished his degree and decided to head to the pro ranks after putting together an incredible season in Newark. Darling was as good a shooter as there was in college basketball last season, but also was a capable creator off the bounce for himself and others. It’s a huge, huge blow. Martin Ingelsby’s club still would have had a real chance without Darling had Justyn Mutts not elected to grad transfer: Mutts was the secret to the Blue Hens’ success last season as the team’s best defender, rebounder, and finisher at the basket. A trio of veterans will have to lead the way: Kevin Anderson and Ryan Allen have scored 2,000 points combined in their careers and are steady backcourt presences (though neither are as dynamic as Darling), and Villanova transfer Dylan Painter showed promise after hitting the floor at the semester break last season. That group is enough to stay competitive, but the conference title aspirations no longer seem feasible.
- James Madison – Mark Byington was never able to get over the hump to get Georgia Southern to the NCAA Tournament, but hiring a coach who has won 20 games in three straight years and finished in the top 150 in KenPom in back-to-back years is a big win for James Madison. JMU continues to invest in its athletic programs and just built a new 8,500 seat arena set to open this season. Byington had a lot of work to do this spring to put together a roster capable of winning games in the CAA, but did a nice job in the transfer market to field a competitive roster in in year one. Having a stud running the show at point guard in Matt Lewis certainly helps: he’s gifted shot-maker with size playing a position that has historically been maximized by Byington’s teams in Statesboro. Five transfers join the fray, four of whom are immediately eligible. I’m most excited about Rashawn Fredericks, who was a productive rotation player at Cincinnati during Mick Cronin’s final year and should provide major versatility for the Dukes. Byington solidified the frontcourt with SDSU import Joel Mensah and grabbed some scoring punch in Mount St. Mary’s transfer Vado Morse, an undersized combo guard who will pair nicely with Lewis in the backcourt. Byington also assembled an impressive freshman class headlined by a nuclear athlete on the wing in Justin Amadi, who should be able to play multiple positions and attack in transition for the Dukes. The 2021 recruiting class will be critical for Byington as he looks to build a program, but he landed enough stopgaps to be solid in year one and set the tone for the future in Harrisonburg.
- Drexel – Having an all-conference PG in Camren Wynter is a heck of a place to start, but I’m not sure Zach Spiker’s club has enough talent top-to-bottom to climb out of the bottom half of the conference. Defense has been a consistent problem throughout the Spiker era, with teams that have consistently struggled to defend the rim and force turnovers throughout his four years in Philly. The turnover woes were particularly bad last season: not only were the Dragons one of the worst nationally (326th) in forcing turnovers, they also turned it over themselves a ton (319th). It’s next to impossible to win consistently when you do that. Help may be on the way on that front: JUCO import Chuka Mekkam comes from powerhouse Vincennes and posted a 3.2 A/TO ratio as the starting PG last season. He’s not a dynamic shot creator or elite defender, but his presence could allow Wynter to move off the ball and score. Just simply taking care of the ball better could give the Dragons a boost and win them a couple extra games.
- UNC-Wilmington – It’s hard to script a more disastrous three years following an elite stretch in program history than what UNCW just completed: three straight 20-loss seasons, a worse ranking in KenPom each year, and offenses that went from some of the nation’s best to some of the nation’s worst. The C.B. McGrath era was a disaster, and now the guy who likely should have gotten the job in 2017 in Takayo Siddle takes over after watching from across the state on Kevin Keatts’ NC State staff. Siddle is a young, hungry guy known for his impressive recruiting, and we can expect him to play a style of play similar to the one that Keatts played during his time with the Seahawks. However, I’m not counting on similar year one success to what Keatts pulled off (18 wins, a 9 win improvement from the final year of the Buzz Peterson era). Siddle immediately got to work on the recruiting trail, landing a pair of impressive in-state late signees in Jamahri Harvey and Jajuan Carr. Each guy will be counted on as a building block for the future at UNCW and should get major run as freshmen. Siddle then brought home Ian Steere, who he recruited to NC State originally but has played just seven games in two years across two schools (NCSU and St John’s). The new coach also grabbed an incredibly talented transfer in Holy Cross import Joe Pridgen, but Pridgen will sit out this year per NCAA rules. The big question is what Siddle can get out of the returners on this roster: guard depth from the likes of Mike Okuaru, Ty Gadsden, Jaylen Sims, and Shykeim Phillips should enable Siddle to play the style he wants, but that group has been horribly inefficient scoring the ball throughout their careers. Phillips is probably the guy I’m most excited about from that group, and he should pair nicely with Carr in future backcourts. This program needs a culture change, and that may take some time. But with Carr, Harvey, Phillips, and Pridgen in tow, things are moving in the right direction.
- William & Mary – Dane Fischer deserves all the credit in the world for finding a way to win 20 games last season in what was very much a transition year. He was fortunate to inherit a superstar in Nathan Knight and another high-level frontcourt piece in Andy Van Vliet, but he still definitely did more with less and set the tone for a good tenure at W&M. But this year, the Band-Aid gets ripped off without that duo, and Fischer will have a very young team without much firepower to work with in 2020-21. Luke Loewe and Thornton Scott are competent starting-caliber guards, but neither brings the upside needed to lead an offense. And a lot of the room they had to operate last season will no longer exist with the departures of Van Vliet and Knight. A three-man incoming freshman class will be critical for the future of this program: I like all three guys, namely Connor Kochera, a high-level shooter on the wing who had tons of mid-major interest before choosing the Tribe. Expect this year to be bumpy.
All-Conference First Team:
- Jalen Ray (Hofstra)
- Matt Lewis (James Madison)
- Payton Willis (College of Charleston)
- Zane Martin (Towson)
- Isaac Kante (Hofstra)
Player of the Year: Isaac Kante (Hofstra)– The two newcomers on the first team could earn this honor, but I’ll bet on Kante to have a breakthrough year as his usage in the offense increases. I was impressed by his activity level around the rim (particularly on the offensive glass) last season, and that energy should serve him well as he transitions into a role with more touches this season. Joe Mihalich’s offense should give him plenty of space to operate in the post, and I expect a huge year from the redshirt junior.
Breakout Player: Tyson Walker (Northeastern)– Walker served as a worthy Robin to Jordan Roland’s Batman in the backcourt last season, and now he steps into a leading role as a sophomore. He’s a solid shooter, great with the ball, and an excellent defender at the point of attack. He’ll set the tone for this season and if the Huskies compete for a conference title, he’ll be a main reason why.
Newcomer of the Year: Zane Martin (Towson)– We already know what Martin can be at this level. He was a second-team all-CAA player as a sophomore at Towson, stuck behind four future NBA players in Grant Riller, Devontae Cacok, Joe Chealey, and Jarrell Brantley on the awards lists. And that’s not even counting Nathan Knight, who earned a combine invite. Two years later, Martin is back and should be one of the conference’s best scorers. He’s a gifted shot-maker with great size on the wing, and he’ll be surrounded with a talented group of guards for the Tigers this season. Watch out for a huge year.