Sunday, January 3, 2010

CAA preview: JMU, Drexel are teams to beat

Every year every coach in every league drones on at media day about the race being wide open. That was never true in the Colonial Athletic Association, where Old Dominion owned the title since joining the league in 1991. Then last year happened. An injury-plagued, uninspired Lady Monarch team never got its grip on the CAA and Drexel took advantage, defeating ODU in the tournament semifinals and JMU in the final.

This year James Madison, which will host the conference tournament for the second straight year, appears to be the favorite. But heavy favorite? We're not so sure. The Dragons still have reigning CAA Player of the Year Gabriela Marginean and one of the headiest coaches in the league in Denise Dillon. Delaware has the most exciting team in the CAA behind UConn no thank you Elena Delle Donne. And ODU? The Lady Monarchs' results suggest they are not a factor. But given their legacy, it's hard to overlook the Lady Monarchs because they didn't win many games in November and December.

Given a slate of nonconference results as our guide, here's our league preview for what just might be a more wide open race than ever before.

Ladyswish CAA projections

1. JMU; 2. Drexel; 3. Delaware; 4. Old Dominion; 5. VCU; 6. Towson; 7. Hofstra; 8. Georgia State; 9. UNC Wilmington; 10. William and Mary; 11. George Mason; 12. Northeastern

In case you've forgotten, here's how the CAA forecast the league race back in October:

1. Drexel; 2. JMU; 3. Old Dominion; 4. Delaware; 5. VCU; 6. Towson; 7. Hofstra; 8. UNC Wilmington; 9. William and Mary; 10. Northeastern; 11. Georgia State; 12. George Mason.

Ladyswish Player of the Year

Dawn Evans, JMU: Prolific scorer with ice-water in her veins in the clutch. Then again, it looks as though we can say the same thing about Delaware's Elena Delle Donne, and Gabriela Marginean (the official CAA Preseason Player of the Year) may mean even more to Drexel than Evans does to JMU. But since we still expect Evans to have the better team, comparable stats won't elevate Delle Donne. And with all due respect to Marginean, Evans is a better all-around player. So it says here that the award is Evans' to lose.

Ladyswish All-CAA

First team

Evans; Delle Donne; Marginean; D'Andra Moss, VCU; Shanae-Baker-Brice, Towson

Second team

Tia Lewis, ODU; Brittany Blackwell, UNCW; Taysha Pye, William and Mary; Danyiell McKeller, Georgia State; Tesia Harris, Delaware

Rookie of the Year

Delle Donne

All-Rookie team

Delle Donne; Shante Evans, Hofstra; Tarik Hislop, James Madison; Emily Correal, William and Mary; Amber Easter, George Mason

Best non-conference win by a CAA team

1. JMU 75, Virginia 73: Win catapulted the Dukes into the national polls, not to mention locked up state bragging rights. Heck of an exciting game, too.

2. Towson 67, Maryland 55: Think the Tigers won't get a bit of recruiting mileage out of this one?

Worst non-conference loss by a CAA team

1. LaSalle 68, Drexel 57: The Dragons blew a 13-point lead at home against their one-win crosstown rivals, denying Denise Dillon her 100th coaching victory.

2. Syracuse 65, Old Dominion 32: No shame in getting squeezed by this year's Orange, but rarely has an ODU team offered such feeble resistance.

Current standings

1. JMU 10-1; 2. Georgia State 9-2; 3. Delaware 8-3; 4 (tie). William and Mary 7-4; George Mason 7-4; 6 (tie). VCU 7-5, Hofstra 7-5; 8.(tie) Towson 6-5; Drexel 6-5; 10 (tie). Northeastern 5-6; UNC Wilmington 5-6; 12. Old Dominion 2-8.

Team breakdowns

Drexel (6-5)

Non-conference schedule strength - 120th out of 345. Best win: at Richmond. Worst loss: LaSalle...The Dragons were 5-6 at this point last season before winning 19 of their final 22 games...The Dragons have not left Philadelphia for a game since a Nov. 29 loss at Maryland and will remain in the city until visiting Old Dominion on Jan. 10...Breakout performer: sharpshooting sophomore G Kamile Nacickaite (13.4 ppg), a Lithuania native who has more than doubled her 2008-09 scoring average. CAA opener - Sunday vs. JMU

Bottom line:
Fear the Dragon, though not as much as a year ago. Don't be fooled by the 6-5 nonconference mark, however. A year ago Drexel finished 5-6 out of league and went on to dethrone CAA stalwart Old Dominion in the conference tournament - an unheard of feat for 17 years prior. Guard Andrea Peterson, lost to graduation, was integral to that team, though Drexel has adjusted with the help of Nacickaite. If Nacickaite and Jasmina Rosseel, who missed three games with a leg injury, can continue draining 3s at their current pace, Drexel will be able to deflate opponents in a hurry. This much is certain. Reigning CAA Player of the Year Gabriela Marginean needs to stay out of foul trouble, which doomed her in the loss to Princeton.

JMU (10-1)

Non-conference schedule strength: 190th...Best win: at #14 Virginia. Worst loss: None. Dukes have two quality wins (Virginia, Georgetown) and a "good" loss at Duke...Received a boost from the return of C Lauren Jimenez, who scored 21 points against Western Michigan in just her second game back from an ACL injury suffered last February...Breakout performer: freshman G Tarik Hislop (12.7 ppg), a defensive ace and an excellent offensive complement to Dawn Evans in the JMU backcourt. CAA opener - Sunday at Drexel

Bottom line: How high is the Dukes stock? While many of the CAA teams are question marks due to patsy nonconference schedules, JMU has improved substantially from the team that lost in last year's CAA tournament semifinals. National scoring leader Evans is not only the leading candidate for Player of the Year; she's a legit All-American candidate who erased any doubts with her 38-point performance at Virginia. Hislop is a pleasant surprise, and just when you think it couldn't get any better, Jimenez makes a heroic return. We like the Dukes. A lot. Only potential knock: Have they peaked too early?

Old Dominion (2-8)

Non-conference schedule strength: 7...Best win: Ole Miss. Worst loss: Florida...Offseason knee surgery has severely hampered preseason All-CAA forward Jessica Canady, who is averaging just 3.4 ppg in five games...Breakout performer: sophomore transfer Tia Lewis (8.2 rpg) has attacked the boards with Rodman-esque tenacity. Special mention to junior G/F Shadasia Green, who is averaging more points than last season (from 9.3 ppg to a team-leading 13.6), making nearly 50 percent of her shots (49.5) and snatching more than six rebounds a game. She is also the only Lady Monarch seeing significant minutes to have more assists (20) than turnovers (19). CAA opener - Sunday at Delaware

Bottom line: They've limped in before and won this league (in 2005-06 they started 2-7), but these Lady Monarchs are not those Lady Monarchs. Lewis and Green have impressed; nobody else has been consistent and their guard play is downright weak. The tough schedule explains losses to Stanford, Tennessee and Maryland -- but getting beaten by 16 at St. Joseph's, scoring 32 against Syracuse and letting winnable games against NC State and Florida slip away at home are worrisome signs. We pick them No. 4 because of coach Wendy Larry, who knows a thing or two about putting together a CAA champion. Larry would love to start a new streak and have 2008-09 be just a hiccup. A win in Sunday's opener against Delaware would put all those nonconference blemishes in the rearview mirror in a hurry.

Delaware (8-3)

Non-conference schedule strength: 133...Best win: None, really. Maybe Houston (6-7); Worst loss: None, really. Two of the losses were without Delle Donne...Delle Donne leads the Blue Hens in scoring, rebounding, assists, blocks, field-goal percentage and free-throw percentage. She has also won two games with shots inside the final five seconds and set the program scoring record by dropping 39 on Buffalo. Other than that...The Blue Hens enter CAA play on a six-game winning streak...Breakout performer: sophomore G Kayla Miller, Delle Donne's ex-teammate at Ursuline Academy who transferred from George Washington mid-semester last season and just became eligible for the Blue Hens. So respected is Miller the other Blue Hens elected her a captain after the sophomore played just game. CAA opener - Sunday vs. Old Dominion

Bottom line:
We love Delle Donne, who would have been yet another cog in the UConn machine but is a downright superstar at Delaware. She's everything she was billed to be, and the Blue Hens reflect that as contenders in the CAA for the first time in three years. There's no overstating the benefit of Miller alongside her and guard Tesia Harris has proven she's no fluke. Harris scored 23 against Buffalo, including 6-of-6 from beyond the arc. A Delle Donne off night could be problematic for Delaware, but so far, the freshman has shown no signs of being anything but on top of her game despite a year's sabbatical to play for the school volleyball team.


Non-conference schedule strength: 238. Best win: Virginia Tech, VCU's only win over a Top 200 team. Worst loss: None, really. UNLV (7-6) isn't a great team, but it was at UNLV...D'Andra Moss has made a spectacular return from knee surgery and now ranks among the league's best scorers...Non-conference won-loss record hurt in part by the fact that the Rams played only four times on a homecourt where they had prevailed 19 straight times until falling to Richmond in mid-December...Breakout performer: Sophomore F Courtney Hurt, who is averaging 10.4 ppg and a team-best 7.1 rpg despite coming off the bench. CAA opener - Sunday vs. Northeastern

Bottom line:
VCU has done little to instill confidence, particularly given its 0-3 showing in the Duel in the Desert. Beth Cunningham has questioned the Rams' effort, which leaves us to wonder if VCU has enough in Moss, La'Tavia Rorie and Kita Waller to bother any of the upper echelon league teams.

Towson (6-5)

Non-conference schedule strength: 213. Best win: at No. 25 Maryland. Worst loss: Eastern Kentucky. The Maryland victory was the program's first ever over a nationally ranked team and was No. 100 for coach Joe Mathews...A bit of an imbalanced offense, as Shanae Baker-Brice averages 18.2 ppg and no one else averages more than 6.2...Horrible free throw shooting team (55.8)...Breakout performer: No one, really. This is essentially the same team as a year ago. CAA opener - Sunday vs. George Mason

Bottom line:
A year ago these Tigers finished 17-13. Baker-Brice is one of the top athletes in the league and 90 points shy of becoming Towson's all-time leading scorer. But she needs more help than she's gotten, and no Tiger has been close to matching her consistency. Though you don't get the sense the Tigers have enough fuel to ride to a CAA title, nobody would envy playing this team at home. Just ask Brenda Frese.

Hofstra (7-5)

Non-conference schedule strength: 214. Best win: Providence. Worst loss: at Rice. Hofstra has three one-point losses, the most in the nation according to STATS, Inc.; a fourth loss came at No. 1 UConn...Statistically Hofstra has been the best rebounding team in the CAA and one of the 20 best in all of Division I...Breakout performer: Freshman F Shante Evans, the No. 54 recruit in ESPNU's Top 100 who leads the Pride in scoring (13.3 ppg) and rebounding (7.8 rpg) and is coming off a 30-point performance against Rice. CAA opener: Sunday at William and Mary

Bottom line: The close game obviously eludes Hofstra, who lost reigning Rookie of the Year Joelle Connelly seven games into the season when the sophomore announced she was leaving the program. (One caveat that we can't resist. Indeed Connelly's playing time had decreased. But her mother, Debbie, was quoted in the Buffalo News saying this: "The football team was cut and that's 84 of your fellow student-athletes who are gone from campus. It was kind of a depressing place to be. It was a really hard decision. We loved Hofstra, but Joelle is happy with the decision."). OK, back to current Pride. What they do have is a 5-0 mark at home and this year's runner-up for Rookie of the Year (nod to Delle Donne) in Evans, who appears to be the real deal. Evans highlights a formidable front line that includes Jess Fuller (3.3 bpg). Twenty-two turnovers per game is a problem however, and if the Pride is to get into the thick of things in the league, they have to lower that number significantly.

UNC Wilmington (6-5)
Non-conference schedule strength: 232...Best win: Coastal Carolina. Worst loss: at Hampton. Star forward Brittany Blackwell has six double-doubles this season and leads the Seahawks in points, rebounds, assists and steals. She also ranks in the top 15 of the CAA in each of those categories. Breakout performer: Sophomore G Kristen Hanzer. Earned her first start on Dec. 12 against High Point and responded with 12 points and 5 rebounds in 24 minutes. Has been a starter ever since. CAA opener - Sunday at Georgia St.

Bottom line: Seahawks are yet another CAA team that gave Maryland fits (circa Towson), though the Terps prevailed 67-61 in that one. Blackwell proved she could play big time ball though, accounting for 16 points and 11 rebounds. That loss is actually UNCW's most encouraging result as they've largely struggled against a feeble schedule. The good news is every starter shoots 44 percent or better, and Greta Luksyte shoots that from 3. The bad news: If your best win after 11 games is a victory over Coastal Carolina, that's not much to hang your hat on.

William and Mary (7-4)

Non-conference schedule strength: 309. Best win: South Alabama. Worst loss: at Hampton. The Tribe leads the CAA in several defensive categories, but it will be interesting to see how those numbers hold up through a considerably more rigorous conference schedule...F Tiffany Benson appears to have rounded into All-CAA form after a slow start. Breakout performers: Freshman G Taylor Hilton has already been named CAA Rookie of the Week; fellow first-years Emily Correal (8.0 rpg) and Jaclyn McKenna have each posted double-doubles. CAA opener: Sunday vs. Hofstra

Bottom line: The freshmen are fun to watch and we were impressed with their showing in Seattle where W&M won a pair of games.Their reckless turnovers are troubling, though; the Tribe gives it away 41 more times than its opponent. They've also had some puzzling scores, including allowing a dismal Delaware State team to come within 11 points of an upset. But night in and night out, the Tribe don't appear to have the horses to challenge the big guns in the CAA. Benson will be a marked woman given horrific numbers at the free-throw line for the fourth straight year, and the team shoots just 59 percent from the stripe. Can they upset a few teams? Sure. Win the league? Nah.

Northeastern (5-6)
Non-conference schedule strength: 68. Best win: UMass. Worst loss: Boston University, mostly because the schools are literally right next door to each other...Plays everyone tough as evidenced by the fact they're the only team in the nation to play three straight overtime games (two of them were double-OT)...As a group the Huskies are excellent shooters - they lead the CAA and rank among the nation's top 40 teams in 3-pointers made per game (7.5) and make 75.6 percent of their free throws (38th nationally). Breakout newcomer: Freshman F Rachael Pecota (6.8 ppg, 3.5 rpg), who led the Huskies in scoring in her first game and had double-figure points in her first two. CAA opener: Sunday at VCU

Bottom line: Getting decimated by those other Huskies in their opener raised Northeastern's strength of schedule though we doubt it did much for their confidence. The rest of the schedule isn't too slack either with foes that include Marist, St. John's and Hartford. Northeastern took Hartford to overtime and fell by seven to Marist -- moral victories if there is such a thing. Sophomore Brittany Wilson is off to a spectacular start, including back-to-back weeks when she was CAA Player of the Week. No doubt Northeastern is still reeling from the sudden departure of Jamine Crew, last year's scoring and assist leader, who transferred to Seton Hall during the offseason. Like a lot of league teams, they're not likely to get blown out by another CAA school. But can they string together a bunch of wins? They're probably not there yet.

Georgia State (9-2)

Non-conference schedule strength: 340: Best win: Not much to choose from. Probably Troy. Worst loss: None. No apologies are necessary when you fall to nationally ranked Florida State and Georgia Tech...Veteran group; starting lineup features three seniors and a junior-college All-American...Leads the CAA in seven statistical categories, including assists, steals and field-goal percentage. Breakout newcomer: Junior F Angelique Burtts, the junior college All-American who has already turned in a triple-double (19 points, 11 assists, 10 rebounds vs. Murray St). CAA opener - Sunday vs. UNC Wilmington

Bottom line: Don't be overly jaded by the gaudy record as the wins have come over the likes of Troy, Presbyterian, Iona and Nicholls State. But do take note of the Panthers ranking 26th in the nation in steals and holding opponents to 51.8 ppg, 17th in the NCAA. Danyiell McKeller has been nothing shy of spectacular, averaging 20.5 ppg, Shay Rawls is close to the school's all-time rebounding mark and Crystal Johnson averages 4.7 assists. The loss of starting center Chan Harris looms large; the junior was shooting a team-best 58 percent. What we see here is a pretty solid club that is 4-0 on the road with two close losses to Top 25 programs. Contend for a CAA title? We're not convinced. Challenge the big dogs? No doubt.

George Mason (7-4)

Non-conference schedule strength: 326. Best win: High Point. Worst loss: at Appalachian State, although that's not a terrible loss for a rebuilding team. Patriots scarcely resemble the four-win team of a year ago as four freshmen and two redshirt-eligible players have injected a much-needed infusion of talent...Have not trailed at any point in the second half of any of their seven home games...Have been blown out in all four of their road games...Breakout newcomer: Freshman F Amber Easter, who is averaging 10.8 points and a team-high 7.2 rebounds. CAA opener: Sunday at Towson

Bottom line: Take away that win over an unfocused Old Dominion team, and the Patriots season was abysmal last year, though understandable given Jeri Porter was in her first season as head coach. With just one Porter recruiting class in, the Patriots are flourishing behind a school record 7-0 mark at home. What's missing here is any type of statement on the road, where the Patriots are winless. They blew a golden opportunity to pick up their first road win in their last game against a 4-6 Appalachian State team but lost by 20. We congratulate the Patriots for the progress they've made in such a short time, but unless they're in the Patriot Center, we're not betting on them.


  1. Towson has added former HS AA Katrina Wheeler in the post. She's a terrific player and will make them more formidable. She and Baker-Brice were HS teammates.

  2. Wheeler isn't an addition; she started 26 games for the Tigers last year. But you're right about her being a terrific player - she was a third-team All-CAA pick.