By Matt Napolitano, Special to The Chronicle
The 2011-2012 season marks a new dawn for the Colonial Athletic Association on the men's basketball front.
Coming off three NCAA berths, including the Cinderella run of VCU to the Final Four, as well as a CAA player being drafted to the NBA for the third straight year (Hofstra's own Charles Jenkins to the Golden State Warriors with the forty-fourth overall pick), the CAA is ready to make a splash once more on the national stage.
With changes across the map on rosters and on the bench, these are the CAA pre-season rankings.
1. DREXEL DRAGONS
Head Coach: Bruiser Flint (tenth season)
Last Season:21-10 (11-7 CAA)
RETURN OF THE ‘DRAGI': The Dragons return four of their starters from last year along with two of their top bench players. Senior forward Samme Givens, a first-team all-CAA preseason player, returns as captain of the Dragons, being the only player on the Drexel roster to average a double-double last season (12.2 points per game, 10.1 rebounds per game). Guard Chris Fouch returns for his junior season as the team's long range threat. Fouch was given second team all-CAA honors. Sophomore forward Dartaye Ruffin earns honorable mention status in conference as well.
BIG GAMES: 12/17 v. Bradley, 1/8 v. VCU, 1/12 v. George Mason, 2/25 @ Old Dominion
2. GEORGE MASON PATRIOTS
Head Coach:Paul Hewitt (first season)
Last Season:26-6 (16-2 CAA)
NEW MAN ON CAMPUS:After 14 seasons and a dream Final Four run in 2006, George Mason head coach Jim Larranaga left the CAA for the ACC, taking the head coaching job for the Miami Hurricanes. The Patriots took a coach right back from the ACC, signing former Georgia Tech head coach Paul Hewitt to head the storied basketball team.
"What Jim did for this school, for CAA, for basketball was outstanding, and his reputation on this campus is part of this school's history," said Hewitt at CAA Media Day.
With sophomore guard Luke Hancock transferring to Louisville, senior leader and all-CAA first teamer Ryan Pearson takes a good share of the scoring load for Mason, after averaging over 14 points a game last season.
BIG GAMES:11/14 v. Florida International in NIT Tipoff, 12/6 @ Virginia, 2/25 @ VCU
3. VCU RAMS
Head Coach:Shaka Smart (third season)
Last Season:28-12 (11-6 CAA)
A SMART MOVE:The Rams silenced its critics with a Cinderella run to the NCAA Final Four last year; sneaking in with an 11-seed play-in berth. Though VCU loses four of its top five scorers from last season, it was fortunate to hold on to Shaka Smart. Smart received several job offers around the country, but signed an eight-year contract to stay put at Virginia Commonwealth.
"The support of the school, the alumni, the fans, it made it [VCU] the perfect place to coach", said Smart.
With a huge graduation turnover, one true scorer remains on the roster for the Rams. Senior guard Bradford Burgess finished in the top 15 for scoring in the CAA last season and earns CAA first-team preseason honors. Sophomore center D.J. Haley and sophomore forward Juvonte Reddic bring a strong presence underneath the basket and will be battling it out for many rebounds.
BIG GAMES: 11/23 @ Western Kentucky, 12/30 v. Missouri, 1/7 @ Drexel
4. OLD DOMINION MONARCHS
Head Coach:Blaine Taylor (ninth season)
Last Season:27-7 (14-4 CAA)
THE CONTENDER:Head coach Blaine Taylor knows his team "can run with the best of them, and have the talent to head back to the [NCAA] bracket."
Old Dominion took its second straight CAA title last season, along with its fourth trip to the NCAA Tournament in seven years.
The Monarchs are a regular powerhouse thanks to a steady offense led last year by an impressive post game that tallied the seventh most rebounds per game in the nation.
The good news for ODU: Senior forward Kent Bazemore returns as the CAA Preseason Player of the Year.
The bad news: Bazemore could be sidelined until early December, after having surgery on a fractured left foot. Look for the Monarchs to rely on senior 6'9" big man Chris Cooper underneath the hoop and developing sophomore guard Donte Hill to step forward.
BIG GAMES: 11/20 v. Kentucky or Penn State at Hall of Fame Tournament, 1/21 @ VCU, 2/4 @ George Mason
5. JAMES MADISON DUKES
Head Coach:Matt Brady (fourth season)
Last Season: 21-12 (10-8 CAA)
‘MOORE' TO COME: Junior guard Devon Moore takes second team all-CAA preseason honors this year, following a stellar redshirt sophomore performance. Coming off a torn ACL in the 2009-2010 season, Moore finished second in all scoring categories, behind the now-graduated Denzel Bowles.
"Devon knows it's on him to be the producer on offense", said Brady.
Moore earns a captain spot, alongside CAA honorable mention senior forward Julius Wells. Wells will be the key man on defense for the Dukes, leading in blocks and defensive rebounds last season. The first issue to fix for this squad, according to Brady, is conference play.
"Last season in conference was disappointing, and the CAA only got stronger this year. We can't settle for middle of the pack".
BIG GAMES: 12/3 @ Hofstra, 12/29 v. Rhode Island at EA Sports Holiday Classic, 2/22 @ Drexel
6. WILLIAM & MARY TRIBE
Head Coach:Tony Shaver (ninth season)
Last Season:10-22 (4-14 CAA)
RECOVERY ROOM:This squad suffered due to injury and an abundance of inexperience on the court, but now Shaver says this team is better prepared. "We're healthy, we're better educated on our opponents, now is the time," said Shaver.
Senior guard Quinn McDowell was the bright spot of William & Mary last season averaging nearly 16 points a game and five rebounds. Expect sophomore guards Benjamin Britt and Julian Boatner to provide from mid-range.
The team's issue: rebounding. The Tribe finished 305th in the nation on rebounds per game.
BIG GAMES:11/7 @ St. John's, 12/18 @ Missouri, 1/28 @ Old Dominion
7. DELAWARE FIGHTIN' BLUE HENS
Head Coach:Monte Ross (sixth season)
Last Season:14-17 (8-10 CAA)
CROSSING DELAWARE:Only two seniors make a return for Delaware, who finished in the middle of the pack yet again last season. Head coach Monte Ross thinks this is a promising sign.
"We are in a fortunate position where we have great depth now, and that depth can carry over the next two years".
The Blue Hens bring a deep frontcourt of junior forwards in Jamelle Hagins and Josh Brinkley.
On the scoring front, last year's CAA Rookie of the Year, Devon Saddler returns for a sophomore campaign at guard. Saddler also earned preseason CAA second team honors.
This team's greatest weakness is in the back court. Having lost Juwan Carter to graduation, freshmen guards Jarvis Threatt and Kyle Anderson will see a great deal of playing time.
BIG GAMES:11/18 @ Villanova, 1/14 v. VCU, 2/1 v. George Mason
8. HOFSTRA PRIDE
Head Coach:Mo Cassara (second season)
Last Season:21-12 overall (14-4 CAA)
LIFE AFTER CHARLES:With Charles Jenkins moving on to the NBA, Mo Cassara knows that this year will be a time for transition.
"On paper, yes, it looks like we lost a lot, but we can't settle on losses in a conference as strong as this," said Cassara.
The pressure now lies on senior guard and three-point slinger Mike Moore, a second team all-CAA selection, to step in as a leader for Hofstra.
Moore and fellow senior captains forward Nathaniel Lester and guard Stevie Mejia will need to be at the helm of production for the Pride.
Junior forward David Imes is Hofstra's leading returning shot blocker and rebounder and will have to pick up the pieces underneath the boards.
This is a transition year for the Pride, but there is potential to be a solid mid-standings finish.
BIG GAMES: 11/16 @ Oregon State, 1/2 v. VCU, 2/22 @ William & Mary
9. NORTHEASTERN HUSKIES
Head Coach:Bill Coen (sixth season)
Last Season:11-20 (6-12 CAA)
LATE BLOOMERS:The Huskies opened CAA play last season with eight straight losses, wrapping up the conference slate with a 6-4 record. This team found the gas pedal late in the season, but Coen knows this team needs to come out firing.
"We can't stand around with our hands in our pockets," said Coen. "I want 110 percent all the way through to the end."
Without top scoring guard Chaisson Allen, Northeastern is minus a major offensive threat. However, their other four starters return for 2011-2012.
Expect CAA honorable mentions senior Eric Buckner and sophomore guard Jonathan Lee to pick up the pieces for the Huskies. This team has depth, but cannot hang around until it's too late.
BIG GAMES:11/19 v. Southern Illinois, 12/22 @ NC State, 2/22 v. George Mason
10. UNC-WILMINGTON SEAHAWKS
Head Coach:Buzz Peterson (second season)
Last Season:13-18 (7-11 CAA)
YOUNG GUNS:The Seahawks have a total of four upperclassmen with two seniors and two juniors, one of which is forward Keith Rendleman.
Rendleman, who led the team in rebounds last season, took second team all-CAA honors. He will have to make up for some ground now that Chad Tomko, one of the best scorers in the CAA, is out of the picture.
There is a veteran presence in the backcourt with guard Trevor DeLoach, who should step up as a senior leader. However, you cannot look past UNC-W's youthful class, a roster that consists of eight freshmen.
"I definitely want to let the new guys get in the mix, test the water, out on the court with our more experienced guys".
Despite a move forward last season, Peterson's team may hit a stall.
BIG GAMES:11/13 @ Maryland, 12/21 @ Wake Forest, 1/18 v. James Madison
11. GEORGIA STATE PANTHERS
Head Coach:Ron Hunte r (first season)
Last Season:12-19 (6-12 CAA)
Georgia State has sunk to cellar dwellers in the CAA in men's hoops. The Panthers are hoping for a fresh start under Ron Hunter, the former IUPUI coach who recorded nearly 300 wins in 17 seasons for the Jaguars.
"The Panthers have the talent, and the support, they just need the proper system", said Hunter.
Georgia State has four returning starters this season.
Expect sophomore guard Devonta White to make a statement after a huge rookie season.
This team's problem is that they cannot score. The Panthers finished 310th in the nation for average points per game in the NCAA.
BIG GAMES:11/12 v. Washington at the World Vision Classic, 12/1 v. FIU, 2/4 @ Hofstra
12. TOWSON TIGERS
Head Coach:Pat Skerry (first season)
Last Season:4-26 (0-18 CAA)
DOWN IN THE BASEMENT: New head coach Pat Skerry knows that there is work to be done in Maryland.
"No wins in the conference last season, but I'm up for the challenge, this crew has fight," said Skerry.
This team only returns one starter in senior guard RaShawn Polk. Polk and senior forward Robert Nwankwo are going to be relied on to be the leaders of a Tigers team with only three returning lettermen and six newcomers.
This team needs an all-around rebuild. The question is if Pat Skerry can tackle the mountain that is Towson.
BIG GAMES:11/11-11/14 EA Sports Maui Invitational (Kansas, Michigan, Belmont), 12/23 v. Vermont, 1/23 @ Delaware