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2011 CAA Tournament Preview: Can Anyone Stop George Mason?

We preview the CAA Tournament, set to begin in Richmond on Friday. George Mason is the favorite, but which players and teams are also worth watching. Can Old Dominion or another sleeper team knock the Patriots off?

It's been 15 games since the George Mason Patriots lost a game in CAA play. Heading into this weekend's conference tournament, the Patriots will look to extend its streak and secure a high seed in the NCAA Tournament.

But with the rest of the teams in the conference on Mason's heels, it won't be an easy road to the finals on Monday, despite its first-round bye. Virginia Commonwealth, Old Dominion and Hofstra also have first-round byes for their efforts during the regular season, and round out the top four spots in the tournament. Old Dominion is still the reigning CAA Tournament champions, and they won't be handing the trophy easily to anyone. Whoever comes out on top will have to earn it.

With so much talent in this year's conference, it should create quite an interesting tournament with the title up for grabs and any team able to come away with it. Here's a quick list of the matchups being featured (and the team's CAA record heading into the tournament):

Friday, March 4 -- First Round

Game 1 -- No. 8 UNC-Wilmington (7-11) vs. No. 9 Georgia State (6-12) -- Noon

Game 2 -- No. 5 Drexel (11-7) vs. No. 12 Towson (0-18) -- 2:30pm

Game 3 -- No. 7 Delaware (8-10) vs. No. 10 Northeastern (6-12) -- 6pm

Game 4 -- No. 6 James Madison (10-8) vs. No. 11 William & Mary (4-14) -- 8:30pm

Saturday, March 5 -- Second Round

Game 5 -- No. 1 George Mason (16-2) vs. UNCW/GSU winner -- Noon

Game 6 -- No. 4 VCU (12-6) vs. Drexel/Towson winner -- 2:30pm

Game 7 -- No. 2 Old Dominion (14-4) vs. Delaware/Northeastern winner -- 6pm

Game 8 -- No. 3 Hofstra (14-4) vs. JMU/W&M winner -- 8:30pm

Sunday, March 6 -- Semi-Final Games

Game 9 -- Winner of Game 5 vs. Winner of Game 6 -- Noon

Game 10 -- Winner of Game 7 vs. Winner of Game 8 -- 2:30pm

Monday, March 7 -- Championship Game

CAA Championship Game -- 7pm

Teams to watch:

With the top three teams being separated by just two losses, any of those teams could break through at the tournament. But the other nine teams are fighting for a chance to make it to the NCAA Tournament, so the high stakes could bring about some wild performances from an underdog team or player. Pressure can either make or break a team's chances of making it to this year's Big Dance, so here are the top three teams and players to keep an eye out for throughout the tournament. 

3. No. 5 Drexel:

Drexel enters this year's CAA tournament riding a three-game win streak, including a victory over their-first round opponents, Towson, in the regular season finale. Drexel also took the season series against No. 2-ranked ODU and had a winning record (3-2) against the top four teams in conference play this season. They are led by all-CAA Second-teamer, Samme Givens, who averaged a double-double on the year with 11.8 points and 10 rebounds per game, and Chris Fouch, who averaged a team-high 14.7 points per game.

2.  No. 6 James Madison:

JMU comes into the tournament led by all-CAA First Team member Denzel Bowles, who leads the team in scoring and rebounding, averaging a solid 18.2 points and nine boards this season. Devon Moore and Julius Wells round out the top three scorers, averaging 10.9 and 10.8, respectively.

JMU held their own against the top dogs this season. They hung around with top-seeded GMU and third-seeded Hofstra, losing by just two in both matchups, and lost by a mere six points to second-seeded ODU. With the stakes so high, the ability of Bowles to lead the team when the game is on the line could prove the deciding factor for the Dukes. 

1.  No. 1 George Mason:

All eyes are on the Patriots this year, and deservingly so. Will they be able to keep the streak alive? Will anyone take them down? If so, who? So many questions run through my mind, so GMU must be taken seriously. Hofstra and ODU have already taken them down early this season, but will they be able to do it again? Will another team do the honors? Only time will tell those answers.

But I can tell you this now: the Patriots have maturity and are led by a great coach in Jim Larranaga, so they are in good hands as the tournament begins. 

Players to Watch

3. CAA Rookie of the Year Devon Saddler - Delaware

Saddler started every single game this year for the Blue Hens as a freshman and dished out 83 assists, leading the team in the category. He also ranked second on the team in points (13.4), and earned conference awards for the last four weeks of the season. These are all very impressive numbers for a first-year player, but what caught my eye was that he scored a freshman single-season record at Delaware with 389 points and tied the single-game scoring record at Delaware when he scored 27 points against Rider. This kid's got game, and the combination of scoring and assists is something every team would want out of their guards, especially when that guard is in just his first collegiate year.

2. CAA Player of the Year Charles Jenkins - Hofstra

This isn't the first time Jenkins has won Player of the Year honors, as he also won it last season. He received 41 of 47 votes for the award, mostly because he proves that you can be a great player and also a great teammate on the court. He led the conference in both scoring (23.2 points per game fourth best among all Division I players) and assists (4.8). He had these very impressive numbers all while shooting nearly 53-percent from the floor. Now that's effective.

Keep an eye for this man during the tournament. You'll have fun doing so. 

1. CAA Defensive Player of the Year Kent Bazemore - Old Dominion

Bazemore stole the show for the Monarchs, recording 71 steals on the year. He has very impressive quickness, and as the old saying goes, "Defense wins championships." His sticky fingers will be a great asset with the season on the line. He on Defensive Player of the Year honors for the regular season and will look to keep the momentum heading into the tournament. 

Favorite to win it all: George Mason Patriots

The top-seeded Patriots lost just two games this season, one each to ODU and Hofstra, who each finished 14-4 in the conference. Those losses would be magnified much more if they had come during the end of the season, but with the back-to-back losses coming in just the second and third games of CAA play, it is clear that those losses are already out of the Patriots' minds. It's clear GMU took those losses to heart, because the team hasn't lost a game since. They walloped both teams in the second meeting later in the year, beating Hofstra by 19 and ODU three days later by 17 points on Homecoming.

All other conference teams looked like mere mortals to the mighty Patriots throughout the regular season, which is why they are favored to win the whole thing and make a deserving appearance as a high seed in the NCAA tournament.

Sleeper: Drexel Dragons

We've already established the Drexel is led by All-CAA second team member Samme Givens, but his conbination play with the young fellas could prove the difference. With two CAA all-Rookie team members in guard Frantz Massenat, who leads the team in assists, and big man Dartaye Ruffin, Drexel could open some eyes with a strong tournament.

Nobody knows how this team could react to the big stage that the CAA tournament brings, but their unpredictability could be a huge positive. They have already beaten their first-round opponent, Towson, and played what could be their second-round matchup (VCU) to just a four-point loss during the regular season. So with brighter lights being shined upon the top teams, who's to say the Dragons couldn't come up from the shadows and leave a blazing trail of fire behind them to the finals?

My pick to win: George Mason Patriots

And no, I'm not just picking GMU to win it all because they won the regular season title. The Patriots not only did that, but did it in convincing fashion, leaving no doubt in anyone's mind who ruled this league. With their current 15-game win streak creating some pressure and a bullseye on their back, the Patriots will definitely need to be worried about the rest of the pack chasing them. But their experience and great mix of attacking both inside and out, they should be able to come away with some more CAA silverware.