CAA ShootAround: Who's the favorite?

Updated: September 2, 2008

AP Photo/Phil Coale

Georgia State's Leonard Mendez will be surrounded by five talented transfers this season.

Quick turnover at Georgia State?

One of the better teams in the CAA last season won most of the time it took the floor, but never actually played in a game.

Puzzled? Don't worry; so was Georgia State head coach Rod Barnes. He got to watch practice each day where his reserve team, comprised of five Division I transfers who were sitting out per NCAA rules, regularly bested his team's current starters, who were on their way to a 9-21 record. Barnes, the former head coach at Ole Miss, said he'd never seen or heard of anything like it at the Division I level.

"I started dividing [the transfers] and switching them up sometimes, because there were days it could get pretty bad," Barnes said. "I think it hurt last year's team a little bit. When you don't win much in practice, what's going to give you confidence that you can win in the games?"

Last season's pain could become this season's pleasure, though, as Georgia State now literally can bring in some reserves. The high-major reinforcements include wing Trey Hampton and forward Xavier Hansbro (former players of Barnes' at Ole Miss), point guard Joe Dukes from Wake Forest, forward Bernard Rimmer from Mississippi State and Dante Curry, a shooting guard from South Florida who will be eligible after the fall semester. Those five, who fit neatly into each position on the court, will join returning senior guard Leonard Mendez (16.0 ppg; 40.5 percent 3s) to form a much more formidable Panthers rotation.

We had a lot of close games. And to have five guys sitting out waiting, we're pretty encouraged about this season.

--Rod Barnes

"Mendez is a very, very good Colonial Athletic Association player," George Mason head coach Jim Larranaga said. "He can shoot the ball, he has enough size, he can defend. If he doesn't start, if someone beats him out, they're going to have a top-two or top-three team in our league."

Barnes knows that rolling five transfers out on the floor doesn't guarantee success in a league as solid as the CAA, but he likes the kids he's brought in and believes the year away from official competition will be a big plus for a group looking for collective redemption.

"Just because they transferred from Division I, that's not going to translate necessarily for wins," Barnes said. "But I think they're talented enough and worked hard enough, and there's something to be said about sitting out to get a great perspective not only on college life, but of the program you're in."

For those wondering why all these former high-major players have gathered in Atlanta, realize that Georgia State, while fairly new on the Division I scene, has had previous success at this level with a similar M.O. The 29-win Panthers in 2000-01, coached by Lefty Driesell, were fueled by Shernard Long, Kevin Morris and Darryl Cooper, transfers from Georgetown, Georgia Tech and LSU, respectively. That season kicked off a stretch where Georgia State, then in the TAAC/Atlantic Sun, won 83 games over four seasons, including a first-round NCAA tournament surprise over Wisconsin in '01.

This season's batch clearly is the wild card team in what looks to be a pretty wide-open CAA. Yes, the Panthers have upgraded their talent, but it would be unfair to gloss over how competitive last season's undermanned club was. Georgia State's last 18 losses of the season came by an average of 6.3 points. They lost two games to league champ VCU by a total of seven points, beat second-place George Mason by a deuce, lost twice to William & Mary by a total of three points and split a pair of two-point games with Northeastern.

Those near misses have Barnes anticipating the chance for some revenge in Year 2.

"[Our goal last season was] just get competitive, to let everyone know that at least they have to prepare for us before we get in," Barnes said with a laugh. "I thought we accomplished that. Our kids really competed. We had a lot of close games. And to have five guys sitting out waiting, we're pretty encouraged about this season."

Five Things To Watch in '08-09

Eric Maynor

Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

Reigning Player of the Year Eric Maynor is back to lead VCU, one of the favories in a muddled CAA.

Who's in it to win it?
Ask around the league and you'll get a mixed bag of answers, based on the number of returning starters but also on the number of top players who are gone. Ten of the league's 12 teams return at least three starters, with five teams (Northeastern, Delaware, James Madison, Old Dominion and Hofstra) bringing back four or more. That said, VCU star guard Eric Maynor, the CAA's Player of the Year, is the only all-conference first-teamer back. ODU junior forward Gerald Lee and Northeastern junior wing Matt Janning are back from the second team.

What does it all mean? The Maynor-fueled Rams should once again be strongly in the mix. George Mason, despite losing Will Thomas and Folarin Campbell, should be as well. Old Dominion and Northeastern look primed for a bump after putting young teams on the floor last season. Georgia State is a true wild card.

Gone but not forgotten
Yes, reserve forward Chris Fleming is still on the roster, but for all intents and purposes, the departures of Thomas and Campbell closed the book on George Mason's 2006 Final Four team. That's not to say that the program isn't still reaping the benefits of that serendipitous run. Attendance is way up, recruiting continues to hum along, and the general shape of the program helped keep head coach Jim Larranaga in the fold after Providence, his alma mater, made a run at him in the offseason.

Just because things are different doesn't mean they are bad. Senior guards John Vaughan (who sat out the Final Four season with a knee injury) and Dre Smith (a juco transfer who set an NCAA record with a 10-for-10 3-point performance at James Madison last season) lead a young but talented Patriots club that is still expected to challenge for league honors.

Coen home at NU
Entering just his third season after taking over when Ron Everhart jumped to Duquesne in the Atlantic 10 (and took standout forward Shawn James with him), Bill Coen has the Huskies (9-9 CAA last season) positioned to make a run at the CAA crown. The only team in the league with all five starters returning, Northeastern will lean once again on a balanced offense led by Janning's sweet shooting and a solid team defense. The Huskies have six guys who are at least 6-foot-8, so size shouldn't be an issue, either. The quick success Coen has had is doubly sweet given the undercurrent of Everhart's departure, part of which involved the perception that the school, after moving from the America East, didn't have the budget to legitimately compete in the tougher CAA. NU will need to continue to increase its basketball investment, but for now Coen seems to be doing just fine with what he has.

Old hat
How do you know you've become a consistently good program? When you finish 18-16 with a young team in a mid-major conference … and still land a postseason berth. Old Dominion can thank the newly created CBI for its fourth straight postseason appearance, but the Monarchs probably won't need such help this season. ODU only has one senior on the roster, but don't let that deceive you. Lee is back to head a team where guard Darius James, wing Ben Finney and forward Frank Hassell all started at least 16 games as freshmen last season. If they can establish a viable replacement for leading assist man Brandon Johnson, who also was the CAA Defensive Player of the Year, this season's club should resemble the teams that won 76 games and made two NCAA trips from 2005-07.

Bidding them adieu
George Mason's Final Four run may have masked the fact that the CAA hasn't been treated all that well by the selection committee over the past three seasons. In 2006, when the Patriots made it as an at-large, Hofstra was nixed despite an RPI of 31. A year later, Drexel was arguably the biggest NCAA snub in the country. Last season, league champ VCU, despite winning the CAA by three games over eventual tourney champ George Mason, got left out. That's the same VCU, with much of the same personnel, that beat Duke and took Pitt to OT in the 2007 NCAAs. So while the popular belief is that leagues like the CAA and MVC (which only got one tournament team last season) are getting more respect when it comes to NCAA consideration, the evidence suggests that things could have been a whole lot better. Something to consider this season where league depth again appears to trump top-end quality.

If I were commish …

The commissioner needs to force league teams to play more home games. Scheduling alliances with other conferences would help. But schools need to do a much better job of getting nonconference home games. The CAA teams usually get crushed before the league season because they're on the road so much. These teams need to be able to start league play with better records and a much better RPI.

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2008-09 Team Capsules

Colonial
DelawareDelaware
The Blue Hens have a lot to cluck about with returnees Marc Egerson (13.4 ppg, 6.9 rpg), all-rookie team guard Alphonso Dawson (11.0 ppg, 4.5 rpg) and lead guard Brian Johnson (9.5 ppg, 5.2 apg) leading the way. The Hens lose solid forward Herb Courtney, although he was better as a junior than as a senior, and the roster has the quality and depth now to potentially replace what he provided. The biggest question will be on the glass, where the Hens were below average on both ends.

DrexelDrexel
The Dragons finished tied for last at 5-13, but they didn't look like a last-place team … until you saw them on offense. Head coach Bruiser Flint's nickname was apropos for his shooters, who bruised the rim to the tune of a 45.6 percent effective FG percentage (316th in D-I). Combine that with a high turnover rate (23.3 percent; 292nd in D-I) and you can easily see why Drexel's offense was statistically one of the 10 worst in the nation. That doesn't mean the team didn't get after it on the defensive end, but the Dragons will have to maintain that same type of effort this season without lanky big man Frank Elegar and fellow forward Randy Oveneke. The search for scoring probably begins with Tramayne Hawthorne, who finished third in the CAA with 81 3s to go with 60 steals.

George MasonGeorge Mason
Without the physicality and skill of Will Thomas and flexibility of Folarin Campbell, it will be interesting to see if the Patriots can maintain their three-year defensive plan: defend well, don't gamble for turnovers and rebound like fiends on the defensive glass. As good as Campbell was, Thomas is really the irreplaceable guy. Overshadowed by gregarious post partner Jai Lewis during the 2006 Final Four run, Thomas was great last season (16.4 ppg, 10.2 rpg, 64.2 percent shooting, 1.69 points per shot). Most of the size on this season's roster comes from the freshman class, so Mason could have a hard time replacing Thomas' production.

Georgia StateGeorgia State
Lost in the shuffle of the influx of eligible transfers this season is the return of leading rebounder Rashad Chase, who finished fifth in the CAA last season at 7.6 rpg. Along with 3-point shooting, rebounding at both ends of the floor is the thing that Georgia State actually did well last season. The Panthers finished in the top 75 in both offensive and defensive rebounding rate. When you return two solid contributors -- including all-league guard Leonard Mendez and Trae Goldston -- and they might become the first two guys off your bench come league season, you can see why there is ample enthusiasm in Atlanta for this club.

HofstraHofstra
Why should coach Tom Pecora feel good about things despite losing Antoine Agudio, the school's all-time leading scorer who poured in 22.7 ppg last season? The other four starters are back, including CAA Rookie of the Year Charles Jenkins, who averaged 15.0 ppg and 4.6 rpg last season. And lest you forget, this is a program that went 69-26 over the three seasons before last season's 12-18 campaign. If the Pride want to step back into league contention, they are going to have to improve offensively. Even with Agudio in the fold, the Pride were below par offensively last season, not shooting well from either 2- or 3-point range and turning the ball over at one of the highest rates in the country.

James MadisonJames Madison
Matt Brady has made the leap from Marist in the MAAC and inherits a JMU squad with some decent talent returning. The Dukes lose Terrance Carter's 13.1 ppg but return just about everyone else, including leading scorer Abdulai Jalloh (15.5 ppg, 5.5 rpg), a former Saint Joseph's Hawk. The first thing Brady needs to figure out is who can handle the ball besides guard Pierre Curtis. If the Dukes can avoid some of the injuries that plagued them last season, they have a chance to make a strong impression in Brady's first campaign.

NortheasternNortheastern
If the Huskies are going to challenge for the league crown this season, they are going to have to shoot the ball better. After Matt Janning and Manny Adako, there wasn't a player on the roster who had even an average campaign from an efficiency standpoint. The Huskies ranked 311th in 3-point shooting (31.3 percent) and 286th in effective FG percentage (46.7 percent). After Janning's 37.6 percent mark from the arc, no other NU player with at least 20 attempts shot better than 30 percent. So while it's a good thing that all five starters are returning and have matured, Bill Coen will have to hope they spent some of their offseason working on their jumpers … or their offensive rebounding.

ODUOld Dominion
Rebounding played an important part on both ends for ODU. Despite pedestrian shooting numbers, the Monarchs managed an above-average offensive efficiency because of how well they hit the offensive glass (37.7 percent; 25th in D-I). Defensively, they stopped teams from making shots more often than not but had some trouble keeping opponents from claiming the misses. Coach Blaine Taylor has the interesting dichotomy of five underclassmen returning with significant playing time from last season and very little experience behind them.

TowsonTowson
The Tigers nailed a school-record 220 3s last season, with the considerable help of Georgetown transfer Josh Thornton, who made 67 in just 22 games after becoming eligible after the fall semester. The problem, though, is that the Tigers only made 32.9 percent of their 3s and didn't hit the offensive glass (28.4 percent; 301st in D-I). Towson has some talent to build around, though. Junior Hairston (12.0 ppg, 8.9 rpg) and Tony Durant (Kevin's brother) make up a formidable frontcourt pairing. The Tigers also welcome three transfers of their own, including brothers Jimmy and Jarrel Smith from Colorado State. Towson will have to find a replacement for C.C. Williams, the leading assist man at 4.7 apg who helped the Tigers to one of the lowest turnover rates in the nation (17.3 percent; 16th in D-I).

UNC WilmingtonUNC Wilmington
The Seahawks posted the nation's biggest turnaround in Benny Moss' first season as head coach, going from 7-22 in 2006-07 to 20-13 in 2007-08. Similar success might be difficult to find this season as the Seahawks are the CAA team hit hardest by graduation. Gone are all four double-digit scorers from last season, a foursome that represented nearly 75 percent of the team's scoring. All-rookie point guard Chad Tomko is back along with several other underclassmen who saw solid minutes last season, but coming anywhere close to the 20 wins from last season might be an equal accomplishment to what Moss pulled off last season.

VCUVirginia Commonwealth
Is the Rams' excellent defensive performance last season repeatable? VCU held opponents to just 42.9 percent shooting on 2s, the 15th best rate in the land, and 26.9 percent shooting on 3s, the best in the country. Offensively, with Jamal Shuler gone, it will be interesting to see where his 12 shots a game go.

William & MaryWilliam & Mary
The Tribe had a breakout season, making the CAA title game for the first time and winning at least 15 games in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1984 and '85. Can they keep it up? Multipurpose junior David Schneider is a nice start. He finished second on the team in scoring (10.9 ppg) and rebounding (4.5 rpg) while also leading the Tribe in assists (3.8 apg) and steals (1.7 spg). But the team will need to make up for the loss of Laimis Kisielius (11.3 ppg) and Nathan Mann (9.5 ppg).

2007-08 Colonial Standings

Overall record CAA record
Virginia Commonwealth^ 24-8 15-3
George Mason* 23-11 12-6
UNC Wilmington 20-13 12-6
Old Dominion# 18-16 11-7
William & Mary 17-16 10-8
Delaware 14-17 9-9
Northeastern 14-17 9-9
Hofstra 12-18 8-10
Towson 13-18 7-11
James Madison 13-17 5-13
Drexel 12-20 5-13
Georgia State 9-21 5-13
*NCAA tournament
^NIT berth
#CBI berth

For all the Colonial news and notes, check out the league page.

Top Returning Scorers

Player PPG
Eric Maynor, VCU, Sr. 17.9
Matt Janning, Northeastern, Jr. 16.1
Leonard Mendez, Georgia State, Sr. 16.0
Abdulai Jalloh, James Madison, Sr. 15.5
Charles Jenkins, Hofstra, Soph. 15.0

Top Returning Rebounders

Player RPG
Junior Hairston, Towson, Sr. 8.9
Rashad Chase, Georgia State, Sr. 7.5
Marc Egerson, Delaware, Sr. 6.9
Darren Townes, Hofstra, Sr. 6.7
Nkem Ojougboh, Northeastern, Soph. 6.4

Final Shots

• Which Colonial team ranks the highest since the start of the 1984-85 season? Prestige Rankings

• The Colonial has been the league with some surprising Dance moves of late (VCU over Duke in 2007, George Mason's Final Four run in 2006). Which CAA team will bust a move this postseason? Bracketology

• Missed the other conference breakdowns? Click here to check out the ShootArounds archive.