- Dana O'Neil, ESPN Senior Writer
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Catamounts searched for perspective Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesJim Larranaga and George Mason's Final Four run put the Colonial on the map.
Virginia Commonwealth's upset of Duke in the first round of the NCAA Tournament wasn't the best thing that happened to the Colonial Athletic Association last season.
No, the best thing that happened to the CAA was that Drexel was left out.
A year after George Mason stunned the college basketball hierarchy by making the Final Four, the Dragons became the cause celebre on Selection Sunday, a team that had gone out and scheduled tough nonleague games, played them on the road, won them and still didn't earn a bid.
"Strange as it sounds, that maybe was a positive thing," VCU coach Anthony Grant said of Drexel's snub. "They were a topic of conversation and any time you get people talking like that, it only reinforces the impression of our teams."
Not so long ago, maybe even as recently as three years, the CAA arguing it deserved three bids had about as much a chance as Britney Spears petitioning for Mother of the Year honors.
But buoyed by winning records in nonleague games and one Cinderella-defining run to the Final Four, the CAA is quietly establishing itself as a legitimate multibid league. As college basketball searches for its next Missouri Valley, a one-time mid-major that has earned enough stripes to be considered among the big boys, the CAA is emerging from the pack.
"I think we're right on the verge of an explosion," Drexel coach Bruiser Flint said. "Sometimes you're a flash in a pan. You have a couple of good years and you're over. I don't think that's us."
This year could tell the tale if the CAA is a player or pretender. Two years running now the league has sent two teams to the NCAA Tournament, and neither at-large team received a mercy bid.
Two years ago, UNC Wilmington and George Mason tied for the regular-season crown and UNCW won the tourney title. Mason, despite a loss in the semifinals, got an at-large invite. Meanwhile Hofstra -- the team that beat the Patriots -- played the part of this season's Drexel, with plenty of people willing to take up the Pride's cause for an at-large berth.
This season, VCU won both the regular-season and tournament crowns, but Old Dominion, again semifinal losers, got in on merit.
With all that momentum rolling, the Colonial can ill-afford to revert back to a one-bid conference.
"I'm not sure the general public would concede two years as all off a sudden being a permanent fixture," said CAA commissioner Tom Yeager. "We're thrilled with our progress. We toiled 20 years laboring under the one-bid scenario. But to be completely honest, I think we have to do it more than twice. The Valley's numbers have been that way for a decade."
Flint thinks the league can be its own worst enemy. He points to the Valley's relentless advertising and campaigning on behalf of its teams, an increased television presence so strong that people actually know what a Saluki is.
Certainly he understands that the CAA has more complex issues. Many of the schools sit in major television markets, but virtually every one is second fiddle to a mack-daddy conference member. His own school shares the Philadelphia borders with five other Division I schools, including Villanova. Despite its recent success in head-to-head games, Hofstra always will fight St. John's.
But Flint believes if you think "can't," you "won't" and that's where he wishes his league would think bigger.
"We had a team in the Final Four," Flint said. "We should have been bombarding people with information about our league.
"The middle of the year during one of our conference calls, I was getting really upset. Everyone was talking about getting two teams in the tournament again, how important that was. At the time, we had four teams who should have been considered. If we're only pumping up for two teams, guess what? We're only going to get two teams. We've got to think differently."
Grant at VCU ... for now
He was right in the middle of the biggest hoops love triangle since Kobe and Phil and Shaq.
Or at least that's what it looked like from every city, town and tiny municipality that sits along I-75 between Gainesville and Orlando.
Anthony Grant was the next head coach at Florida.
No, wait. Anthony Grant was the jilted would-be next head coach at Florida, a dream job with cash and prestige at its disposal yanked away because his mentor got a case of the coaching yips.
Except Anthony Grant never felt any of that.
While the rest of the state got caught up in the 48-hour Billy Donovan tease, Grant simply kept on keeping on.
"For me, nothing happened," the Virginia Commonwealth coach said. "I know it was a big story for a couple of days from a media standpoint with the speculation. But for me, I was the head coach at VCU. I never met with Florida. I was set to meet with them but it never happened, so there was never a decision to make. It seemed like it played out forever, but it was maybe 24 or 48 hours. That's all."
Well, yes and no.
Now that the world knows he would have been good enough for Florida, Grant is officially the latest in the ever-evolving crop of Next Hot Young Coaches. His name will come up again and again when the big-time programs inevitably part ways with their coaches, and eventually he may have to make a decision.
And so as VCU -- hot off its upset of Duke and near upset of Pittsburgh in the NCAA Tournament -- welcomes seven new freshmen to the roster, Grant now will have to convince everyone that being wooed by Florida doesn't mean he's jumping ship for the next fancy school to come calling.
"I don't dwell on that. I dwell in what I know," said Grant, who added that he made sure his assistants kept his players abreast of the real goings-on with Florida. "I love being here. I love my players. I'm in a great situation and I'm excited to be here. I don't think it will be a hindrance to anything we're doing.
"I understand. It's something that has to be talked about and written about. But for me, it's not a reality."
For those scoring at home, it's four evers.
"I never, ever, ever, ever want to see a doctor again," UNC Wilmington guard T.J. Carter said. "Ever."
In four years of college basketball, Carter has logged more time in the doctor's office than he has on the court, enduring a recurring nightmare in which multiple injuries dogged him for the better part of three years.
These days, a finally healthy Carter can't really find the word to describe how he feels. Anxious doesn't do it justice. Neither does excited. A preseason conference player of the year candidate, Carter feels like a little kid about to play his first game.
"This is the best I've felt in a long, long time," Carter said.
The pain started when Carter was a sophomore, a dull ache that later was diagnosed as a sports hernia. He had surgery prior to the season, missing only the season opener, but it didn't really work.
The summer before his junior season, he decided to have surgery again.
No better. He gutted out his junior year in agony but still managed to earn CAA Tournament MVP honors and score 25 points, as well as play all 40 minutes, in a 2006 NCAA Tournament first-round loss to George Washington.
On the night that his senior season was to begin, Carter was in a Philadelphia hospital room, undergoing his third surgery to repair what now had grown into a bilateral tear in his pelvis, a far more serious injury. Renowned surgeon Dr. William Meyers, who counts Donovan McNabb and Nomar Garciaparra among his patients, performed the procedure.
Unlike the previous two, the recovery time was lengthy and Carter had to make the achingly difficult decision to put his senior season on hold.
"The first two, I was out maybe four to six weeks," Carter said. "This time, four to six weeks out, I couldn't even walk. It was so hard not to play, but I always had the dream of being able to play at the next level. I was worried if I didn't take care of this now, it would only get worse later and then it would be too late."
The agony of sitting out was only made worse by the Seahawks' season, a dismal 7-22 finish. Carter is hoping his time on the bench helped, that he has learned how to become a more vocal leader and to see the game from a different vantage point.
His coach hopes for that, too.
But more, Carter dreams of the day that he is back in a UNCW uniform.
"He was the best recruit we signed in the offseason," joked Benny Moss, who took over the head coaching job last year. "He's a very talented player and we really missed him last year. There were 13 or 14 games that were decided at the end and we just didn't have a go-to guy, a player who could create a shot for himself or his teammates."
* NCAA Tournament
# NIT participant
At least this season, Monte Ross will have a full team to coach. Between suspensions, defections and injuries, the Blue Hens were down to seven players -- including one who served as the team manager the previous season -- last season. The mess understandably showed up on the court; Delaware limped to a 5-22 record that included a humbling home loss to a one-win Iona team. With the problem children gone, Ross welcomes back Herb Courtney, who averaged 18.1 points per game in the midst of the mess, and sophomore point guard Brian Johnson, who started all 30 games. Also Pau Geli, a 6-10 Spaniard who suffered a life-threatening blood clot in his lung in January, is expected to return. Best of all, Ross brings three transfers into the fold. Jim Ledsome, a 6-9 forward coming from Nebraska, and Brian Young, a 6-7 forward out of Lafayette, bulk up the inside. The real get is forward Marc Egerson, who averaged better than 7 points per game as a sub at Georgetown before leaving the team for personal reasons in January. Egerson, who will be eligible in December at the end of the fall semester, comes with some issues, though. An April article in The New York Times claimed Egerson had a high school GPA of 1.33 in core courses and finished his academic career at Lutheran Christian Academy, one of a group of schools the NCAA recently decided it would not accept transcripts from because of its questionable academic standards.
The Dragons got more publicity for not making the NCAA Tournament than a lot of programs get when their names are called. The challenge now for Bruiser Flint is to continue to fan the flames but do it without point guard Bashir Mason, 3-point specialist Dominick Mejia and defender Chaz Crawford. Flint, whose team won at Syracuse, Villanova and Creighton but was left off the 2007 NCAA Tournament bracket, said he won't schedule the same way this year. "You've got to pick your spots," Flint said. "But I'm not doing that again, not this year. Last year, we had that kind of team." This season Flint will still have a lot of options. Leading scorer Frank Elegar, sixth man Tramayne Hawthorne and backups Scott Rodgers and Kenny Tribbett all return. Flint also can turn to Boston College transfer Evan Neisler. The question mark is going to be at point guard, where Mason set the tone for Flint's all-out defensive style. One of two rookies, Gerald Colds and Jamie Harris, could be the answer.
The Patriots nearly pulled off another Cinderella run last year, albeit a much quieter one on a much smaller stage. After stumbling down the stretch, losing five of its final seven regular-season games, Mason pushed into the CAA tournament final. Virginia Commonwealth cut short the dream. But six of Jim Larranaga's top scorers return, including swingman Folarin Campbell (13.9 ppg) and forward Will Thomas (13.4 ppg). Also, junior college transfer Dre Smith only got better as the season went on, leading the Patriots in scoring through the CAA tourney and draining 14 3s. Certainly an early favorite in the league, the trick right now is for the other scorers to up their numbers. John Vaughan was respectable at 8.3 points per game but can do more, and inside guys Louis Birdsong and Darryl Monroe, who together accounted for just 9.5 points and 6.9 rebounds, really need to up their production.
After three consecutive losing seasons, the Panthers fired coach Michael Perry and turned to former Ole Miss head man Rod Barnes. In 2001, Barnes was the Naismith coach of the year. But five years later, he was gone after a 13-3 start degenerated into a 14-14 finish. At Georgia State, Barnes inherits a team that has some potential despite an 11-20 record last season. Leonard Mendez got plenty of experience in the backcourt and could blossom into a real star after averaging 13.8 points per game. Forward Rashad Chase is plenty seasoned, a starter in all 31 games last year and Justin Billings lea showed promise despite missing the first half of the season because of academic problems.
Tom Pecora's three-guard attack was one of the most potent attacks in the league. The trio of Carlos Rivera, Loren Stokes and Antoine Agudio averaged 54.1 points per game for a team that finished 22-10. The problem? Two-thirds of that attack is gone in the form of Stokes, the conference player of the year, and Rivera. Agudio is a scoring dynamo, the third-ranked scorer in the league at 20.3 points per game, but the Pride become a lot more guardable with just one guy to worry about. Agudio, in other words, needs help. Swingman Zygis Sestokas, who shot 43.8 percent from the arc, has the potential and much is expected from incoming freshman Nathaniel Lester. The frontcourt has more issues. Sub Chris Gadley transferred to Canisius and Mike Davis-Sabb needs to step up.
The good news for Dean Keener? Everyone is back on his roster, including all-rookie point guard Pierre Curtis and big men Juwann James (13 ppg) and Terrance Carter (12.8 ppg). The bad news? All those guys together last season added up to a 7-23 season. Keener has to hope that two eligible transfers can make a big difference right away. Both have the stuff to do it. Abdulai Jalloh led Saint Joseph's in scoring and rebounding two seasons ago and could be the sort of enigmatic scorer this program desperately needs. Texas Tech transfer Dazzmond Thornton is a 6-7, 270-pound wide body who should give Carter a ton of help. Regardless of who is on the roster, James Madison has to reverse its numbers to win more games. The Dukes allowed 72.6 points per game last year, dead last in the conference and 262nd in the nation. They scored just 64 points per game. Do the math.
Lemons? Bill Coen had lemons. His top scorers graduated, his top rebounder bolted. The lemonade took a while to make, but by season's end, the Huskies reeled off six wins in their final eight games, a stunning run for a team that really was in shambles. Coen will need to squeeze even more out of his team this year. Three of Northeastern's top four scorers are gone. At least the one who remains, Matt Janning, is the kind you can build a team around. The CAA Rookie of the Year, Janning led all rookie scorers in the league with 11.6 points per game last season. His help comes in the form of sixth man Eugene Spates, who likely will be pushed into a starting role this year. Spates proved he could handle the task, averaging 10.8 points in his final six games. Coen also can call on center Nkem Ojougboh, a transfer from Texas-San Antonio who averaged 6.8 points and 3.8 rebounds there. The real trick for this team, that finished a respectable 9-9 in the league and 13-19 overall despite the turmoil, is to win on the road. The Huskies were just 2-14 outside of Boston.
Together, Drew Williamson, Valdas Vasylius and Arnaud Dahi won 93 games (the winningest class in school history) and accounted for more than half of the Monarch's offense last season. And now they're gone. Even after that trios departures, coach Blaine Taylor has good players to pick from. How quickly they go from playing in that trio's shadow to owning the spotlight will tell whether or not this is simply another great year at ODU or a rebuilding one. Guards Brian Henderson and Brandon Johnson are both seniors, which bodes well for the Monarchs. Henderson becomes the top returning scorer, averaging 9.4 points last season, while Johnson produced not 8.3 points and 4.8 rebounds out of his guard spot. It would help Taylor tremendously if Gerald Lee and Marsharee Neely became steady scorers.
Can Josh Thornton be the next Gary Neal? Pat Kennedy is hoping so. Two years ago, Kennedy welcomed Neal to Towson after he was forced out of La Salle amid rape allegations (Neal later was acquitted) and the guard flourished with his second chance, averaging 25.3 points per game last season, fourth in the nation. Thornton comes to Towson under less troubling circumstances. Seeing a glut of guards on the Georgetown roster -- and with more coming to D.C. -- he elected to go to a team that had more minutes available. He's eligible in December, just as Neal was two seasons ago, and the Tigers will need him. Neal, along with fellow senior Dennard Abraham averaged 36.5 points per game last season, more than the rest of the team combined. And Towson still finished 15-17. Tommy Breaux showed promise after transferring from junior college, averaging 5.9 points per game. Junior Hairston, a transfer from the College of Charleston, could provide a needed injection. C.C. Williams is a savvy point guard who dished out 4.1 assists per game.
Benny Moss is pinning his hopes on T.J. Carter's return and the assumption that up is the only direction the Seahawks can go. A year after winning the league title, UNCW tumbled down the loss column, failing to win back-to-back games all season. The nadir came at George Mason, when the Seahawks could muster just two field goals in the first half, tying a shot-clock era record for futility. Carter, a front-runner for league player of the year honors, certainly is a boost. But he'll need guys like Vladimir Kuljanin, who played all summer with the Canadian senior national team, and Todd Hendley, who really emerged at the end of the season, to regain their form. For the short time at least, the Seahawks will have to make due without guard Darryl Felder, who moved into the starting lineup by season's end but had back surgery at the end of August. His status remains up in the air.
In the amount of time it takes one arcing 17-foot jump shot to finish its trajectory through a hoop, Eric Maynor went from unknown superstar to poster boy of the NCAA Tournament. The MVP of the conference tourney, the junior guard was another guy slogging away in a mid-major league until he buried the jumper over Duke's Jon Scheyer, sending the Blue Devils packing in the first round. Now it's time for an encore for Maynor and the Rams, and although they lost B.A. Walker and Jesse Pellot-Rosa, the guys who sandwiched Maynor in the scoring ledger, this team isn't exactly playing on last year's angel dust. Three seniors join Maynor on the court -- Wil Fameni, Jamal Shuler and Michael Anderson -- and the incoming rookie class is among the best in the mid-majors. The real issue will be whether Grant can keep this group level-headed after such a heady 2007 season. "It's a new year," Grant said. "We're not going to be able to get anything off of what we did last year. For us the success we have will be based on the maturity we show."
William & Mary
The Tribe won 15 games last year. It also lost 15, which to outsiders doesn't seem like reason for jubilation. Tony Shaver disagrees. Those 15 victories represented the second-most games won by William & Mary in the past 20 years and the fifth-most in school history. And with all but one starter back, there are reasons to believe a middle-of-the-pack season could bode well for the future. Shaver wisely made his team a defense-first group last season. The Tribe allowed just 64.5 points per game, a number that kept them in games they might otherwise have struggled in. Now it's time to get the offense in order. Only two guys topped double-digits in scoring average last season and one of them -- Adam Payton -- graduated. That leaves Laimis Kisielius, a forward who averaged 11.3 points and can step out and shoot 3s, and rookie David Schneider as the best returning threats. But others, namely Peter Stein and Alex Smith, need to contribute to turn .500 into a winning record.
Early 2007-08 Bracketology
Were the last two years an aberration as the Colonial goes back to being a one-bid league?
-- Joe Lunardi
For all the 2007 ShootArounds, click here to go to the archive.
Dana O'Neil is a reporter for the Philadelphia Daily News. She can be reached at email@example.com.