It's quite simple really. The Colonial Athletic Association and its men's basketball teams are victims of their own recent success. This is not a whine or a gripe. As a fan and follower of mid-major basketball, in particular the CAA, it's hard to complain that a conference performed so well the previous year that the current early season performances (the conference is off to a combined 31-42 start) leave some scratching their heads, asking "I thought the CAA was good?"
This is what happens when the Virginia Commonwealth University Rams became national media sensations, clawing their way from First Four to Final Four in the 2011 NCAA Tournament. These sorts of expectations occur when a conference sends two teams dancing in addition to VCU: the Old Dominion Monarchs and George Mason Patriots. Struggle as the CAA has out of the gate this year, and the hoops world begins to wonder what happened to the three-bid CAA of just eight months ago. Heck, even I was whining early about the poor performances, wondering when the CAA had become a league of "Hoops McCann"s.
Earning three bids as a mid-major conference is rare, and last year's CAA performance should be celebrated for years to come. This year's CAA, with its coaching changes and roster turnover, was not going to equal that feat. Jim Larranaga headed to Miami and a basement dwelling in Del Boca Vista, replaced by Paul Hewitt at GMU. Old Dominion lost their star big man, Frank Hassell. Shaka Smart's club lost four starters from the Final Four squad. Hewitt was one of three new faces to join the league, along with IUPUI coaching legend Ron Hunter taking over the Georgia State head coaching job, and Towson nabbing former Pittsburgh, Northeastern and William and Mary assistant Pat Skerry as coach.
Knowing all of this I think I accepted the inevitable conference drop off deep down, but even with that "Serenity Now" moment, I still began to get distraught with the early season results. Preseason conference favorite Drexel lost 61-56 to Norfolk State of the MEAC. George Mason lost to both Florida Atlantic and Florida International, coached by basketball nomad Isiah Thomas. In fact, the CAA as a conference was 0-3 against FAU (h/t "Don CAA-leone"). Old Dominion was blown out 63-46 in their home opener by Northern Iowa. James Madison allowed a ghastly 92 points and 49 percent shooting in a loss to La Salle. A young and inexperienced league was being exposed. At least that's what myself and others thought watching the first few weeks of the season.
But a funny thing happened as I struggled mightily to properly tie the knot needed to raise the white flag: the CAA began to perform like the solid, if not always three-bid stellar, conference it has become. Northeastern served notice to the rest of the conference, easily handling St. John's of the Big East, 78-64. Hofstra took down previously undefeated Cleveland State, and though VCU lost 72-64 to Alabama and former Rams coach Anthony Grant, Smart's ballclub showed glimpses of the basketball that made last season's team special. George Mason has won three straight games, most impressively ending the five-game winning steak of Bucknell from the Patriot League, 61-57, on Wednesday night in Fairfax, VA. The CAA also happens to be home to two of the top eight scores in the country in Delaware's Devon Saddler (24.5 ppg) and James Madison's A.J. Davis (22.8 ppg).
The results on the court are beginning to show that even after early season struggles, the CAA is a league to be reckoned with. The conference is bound to improve, as several teams will welcome back players in the upcoming weeks. Drexel will soon have injured guard Chris Fouch back, and George Mason will see the suspended Andre Cornelius return in mid-December. Heck, even a current conference cellar-dweller like William and Mary will get better, with big men Tim "#Beasthoven" Rusthoven and JohnMark Ludwick returning from injury and Quinn McDowell playing himself back in to shape. CollegeInsider.com's "Mid-Major Top 25" poll had three CAA teams in their November 28 rankings: George Mason at No. 15, Drexel at No. 17 and VCU at No. 20.
I guess what I'm saying is there is much ball left to be played, and even if we don't see a #3Bids4CAA hashtag earned by March, the Colonial Athletic Association will still provide quality basketball and entertainment, with only a brighter future ahead (this sounds so Hallmark-y, I really should delete it. But I honestly feel that fired up about college basketball right now). Early season struggles will not define this league, as more recent performances have indicated.
Perhaps the CAA is a one bid conference this year, but even so, the lone Colonial Athletic Association representative will be a tough out for whoever they meet in next March's 2012 NCAA Tournament. Just the way we like and expect it.