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CAA is positioned to get multiple bids again

11/15/2006

Last season, the Colonial Athletic Association earned something none of the other mid-major conferences has managed -- a spot in the Final Four. Still, the CAA hardly is content to stand pat.

The easy comparison is with the Missouri Valley, a comparison that was made often last season as teams from the two leagues were jousting for at-large berths in the NCAA Tournament. The CAA knows, though, that it hasn't yet reached that global standard of fan passion and top-to-bottom quality.

"The Valley has generations of fans and generations of sponsors and media coverage as well as the rivalries, and we don't," said CAA associate commissioner Ron Bertovich. "They're a big fish in a small pond, and that's the difference."

The CAA, however, is positioning itself to be the equal of other solid mid-major conferences.

To get there, the league must build upon last season's postseason success by getting multiple teams in the NCAA Tournament again this season -- something that is plausible with at least three potential Top 25 teams (Hofstra, Drexel and George Mason). Winning consistently in the NCAAs once teams get there also is a must.

Facilities are improving around the league, with solid arenas at George Mason, VCU and Old Dominion and smaller but quaint venues at Hofstra and Delaware. But since the current incarnation of the CAA came together only this decade, intraleague rivalries are still forming. Combine that with many of the teams playing in metropolitan markets, and it's harder to draw big crowds consistently.

The league also needs the bottom teams -- William & Mary, Georgia State, James Madison and maybe Northeastern -- to improve if it wants to become a consistent major player.

George Mason coach Jim Larranaga, who coached the Patriots to the Final Four in March, doesn't disagree with any of these points. But he noted that it's important to remember the CAA faced a crisis period in the recent past.

Richmond, Navy and East Carolina were once members of the CAA, but when those programs left for the Atlantic 10, Patriot League and Conference USA, respectively, the CAA was left with only six members: George Mason, Old Dominion, James Madison, UNC Wilmington, VCU and William & Mary. The league had to act or face the possibility of losing its automatic bid, so it grabbed Drexel, Towson, Delaware and Hofstra from America East in 2001, then added Northeastern (also from America East) and Georgia State (from Atlantic Sun) in 2005 to make a 12-team league.

So, as you can see, the new CAA is still young enough that putting it on a pedestal too quickly would be a mistake.

"We don't want to be a one-year wonder," CAA commissioner Tom Yeager said. "What's our goal? To get multiple teams in the tournament and advance."

The Mason factor has had a trickle-down effect. For one, other players believe they can do it just the same. Hofstra guard Loren Stokes said watching a team the Pride beat twice in the final two weeks of the season reach the Final Four while they went to the NIT's third round gave the Pride even more motivation for this season.

"It did a lot for us and let us know as a team how good we are," Stokes said. "It showed that going into the [NCAA] Tournament, any team can win it."

"The one thing it did was, now we don't have to explain about the league," Hofstra coach Tom Pecora said. "When we go into a home to recruit, the kids are aware of Mason and the Final Four. And because of the Internet, they know this was the eighth-rated conference. Do we need multiple teams in every year? Yes. We should have had three last year."

Pecora is referring, of course, to his Pride to go along with the at-large Patriots and CAA tournament champion UNCW.

Drexel coach Bruiser Flint sees a parallel between the CAA and the Atlantic 10. He was an assistant at UMass when the Minutemen went to the 1996 Final Four and was convinced that berth did wonders for the A-10's reputation.

"Every year, this league is getting better," said Flint, who agreed with Pecora that Mason's run to the Final Four helped explain the CAA to the Northern fans who didn't quite get all the Southern teams in the league.

Drexel was picked seventh in the CAA last season, yet was a few buckets away from upsetting Duke and UCLA in the NIT Season Tip-Off. The Dragons lost seven games in the final possession last season and ended up finishing tied for sixth.

George Mason finished sixth in the CAA the year before its Final Four run, but "then had a helluva season," Flint said. "So we're in the same boat since we return essentially everyone. Hofstra returns one of the best backcourts in the country."

We'll add that Mason brings back four key members of the Final Four team, making the Patriots a viable NCAA pick, as well.

The big problem for the CAA right now is getting home nonconference games; this is also an issue for the Valley, but not as much for schools in the Atlantic 10 or the West Coast Conference. CAA and Valley schools struggle to get quality games at home, forcing them to go on the road for solid competition, which potentially means more losses and less of a chance of at-large bids.

Drexel has three nonconference home games, against Florida Gulf Coast (a D-II school in its first year transitioning to D-I), Toledo and Fairleigh Dickinson. Hofstra has one, against St. Francis (N.Y.). George Mason managed to get three nonconference home games, including two against possible NCAA teams Wichita State and Mississippi State (the other is versus Florida International).

Despite all the challenges, though, the CAA still can make plenty of waves this season. Getting multiple teams in the field of 65 and having them advance is very plausible again.

Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.