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Conference up for grabs nearing tournament

By Mike Murabito, Staff Writer

About three weeks from now, all twelve Colonial Athletic Association men's basketball teams will gather in Richmond, VA to try and earn a bid to the NCAA Tournament by winning the conference tournament.  At this point in the season, teams usually begin to fall into place, and the seeding becomes a little clearer cut.  Well, that is certainly not the case for 2010.  Through February 9, the top six teams are only separated by three games, with the top three separated only by one game.  With the regular season title and four first round byes up for grabs, things are bound to remain tight all the way down until the last day of the season.  These remaining games could mean the difference between playing an extra game and getting an extra day's rest.  The question is, who is going to budge first?

The Northeastern Huskies (16-8 overall, 11-2 in CAA) find themselves currently clinging to a one game lead in the conference, and their recent win streak is a huge reason for that.  After dropping their first conference game at Drexel, Northeastern has gone eleven for twelve in CAA contests, with the most recent being last Saturday against the Pride.  Guards Matt Janning and Chaisson Allen have ignited the Huskies offense this season, and Northeastern has even earned some Top 25 votes.

CAA preseason favorite, Old Dominion (18-7, 10-3) has hit a bumpy road lately.  After winning in Washington, D.C. against a Top 10 Georgetown team in mid December, the Monarchs appeared to be the definite frontrunner. For the next month and a half, losing only once (at George Mason), Old Dominion continued their dominance in the conference. The Monarchs have lost two straight road games to contenders Northeastern and VCU.  The little slide now positions Old Dominion one game behind Northeastern.  Old Dominion's defense, allowing only 55.6 points per game, a league best, could be the deciding factor.

Back on November 19 in Puerto Rico, when Villanova barely escaped a George Mason upset, everyone knew the Patriots (15-9, 10-3) would be a force to be reckoned with this season. George Mason has benefited from a soft schedule so far.  Last year's CAA tournament's runner-ups have only played three games against the top six in the conference, and they have only won one. The Patriots have gotten a full plate of cupcakes, with victories against UNC Wilmington (twice), Delaware, James Madison (twice), and Towson.  The rest of the conference will really see what this Patriot team is made of down the stretch, as George Mason still must face Old Dominion, VCU, William & Mary, and Northeastern.

Two teams find themselves tied for fourth in the conference, and both teams have been two of the hottest as of late.  The Virginia Commonwealth University Rams (17-5, 9-4) have the highest scoring offense in the CAA (76.9 ppg), and have also won eight out of their last ten.  Almost equally as hot as VCU, the Drexel Dragons (14-11, 9-4) have really picked things up since starting the season 5-8. February 16 could be a huge contest for both squads, as VCU hosts Drexel.  Only the first four teams get byes, so the winner of that game could earn an extra day of rest.

Finally, right above the Pride in sixth place, the William and Mary Tribe (16-7, 8-5) have been spiraling down the standings lately by losing four out of their last six, including two losses to Old Dominion. The Tribe has two good scorers in David Schneider and Quinn McDowell, who have propelled them to a 14-1 streak earlier this season. Now the Tribe find themselves trying to climb back into the elite of the CAA, as they are now equal distance from seventh place and first place (3 games).  Other than a home game against Northeastern and a road trip to George Mason, the other four games appear winnable for the Tribe, but as the streaky as this team has been, it could go either way.

What this means for the Pride is that there is hardly any margin of error allowed for Tom Pecora's squad.  They have the top scorer in the conference in Charles Jenkins, and all year fans have been waiting for the team to jump on his back and follow him to the promise land.  There have certainly been signs of great play, but the big knock on this team is that they cannot finish.  Coming up short has been the story of the 2009-10 season with tough losses against every team in front of them.  There is certainly plenty of time for them to turn things around in a conference that boasts some of the greatest parity in the country. 

So who's going to win the CAA?  At this point it is almost impossible to tell. The last team standing will also be the hottest team.  Any team is a big winning streak away from taking the conference.  And who knows, five straight wins to close out the regular season and four more could earn the Pride a bid in the Madness.  It could happen.  In this conference this year, anything can happen.  So, do not even count out Towson.

Kevin Phillip and Leon Spencer of Drexel battle Hofstra forward Halil Kanacevic for a rebound. (Sean M. Gates/ The Chronicle)

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