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STEVE DeSHAZO: Allegiances count more than assists in CAA
ARLINGTON—Georgia State men’s basketball coach Ron Hunter knows which Colonial Athletic Association schools voted to bar the Panthers from next March’s conference tournament. He has posted the list not only in his team’s locker room, but in his own bedroom.
“My wife keeps asking me why I spend a lot of time looking at it,” Hunter said Tuesday, becoming more animated as he spoke. “It’s not fair, but we can only control what we can control. Our games against those teams will become our conference tournament.”
Welcome to a dysfunctional season in the CAA, which had become one of the nation’s premier mid-major conferences, with two Final Four appearances (George Mason in 2006, VCU in ’11).
But as the conference affiliation landscape shifts, the Rams absconded for the Atlantic 10’s higher profile over the summer. Driven by football ambitions, two other schools are leaving after this academic year: Georgia State for the Sun Belt and Old Dominion for Conference USA. Their CAA rivals voted not to allow those lame ducks to play for the automatic NCAA tournament berths that await its men’s and women’s league tournament champions.
So instead of discussing power forwards at Tuesday’s annual preseason media day, many coaches talked about power plays.
“I’m sure it is [unusual],” said Tom Yeager, the only commissioner the 28-year-old CAA has known. “It’s not by design. But sports is something that gets everybody’s emotions going. There’s no doubt there’s a different feel. But you just deal with it.”
With two flagship programs gone or going, Yeager and his staff have been doing just that.
Officials at the College of Charleston will vote Friday on whether to accept an invitation to join the CAA, and fellow Southern Conference member Davidson is mulling a similar move.
Their expected arrival is at least a year away, though. For now, the CAA is bracing for a season unlike any other.
Not only are Old Dominion and Georgia State barred from the CAA tournament, but both Towson and N.C.–Wilmington are ineligible for postseason competition because they fell short of NCAA academic requirements.
That means March’s CAA tournament—possibly the last one held at the Richmond Coliseum after a 24-year run—will include only seven teams. (Last year’s was a 12-team affair.)
It’s an era where everyone has to look out for his or her own interests. Veteran ODU coach Blaine Taylor was more diplomatic than Georgia State’s Hunter, saying: “I don’t feel unwanted.” But he conceded that the regular season will have to mean more to his team, too.
Conversely, a smaller CAA tournament could mean a unique chance for a team like James Madison to get hot at the right time and reach the NCAA field for the first time since 1994, when Lefty Driesell was coach. The Dukes return three key starters, including senior guard A.J. Davis (a 15.9-points-per-game scorer).
“In Richmond, for a year, the tournament will not have a home-court advantage,” said JMU coach Matt Brady, referring to the fact that VCU used to play about two miles from its campus. “We feel good about our team. If we have a great regular season, we’ll have a great opportunity in the CAA tournament.”
Almost since its birth as the ECAC South Conference in 1982, the CAA has been a Virginia-centric league. George Mason, William & Mary and JMU were charter members, along with Richmond (which left for the A–10 in 2001). ODU joined in 1991, VCU in ’96.
The league offices are in Richmond, and VCU, ODU and George Mason have combined to win the last six CAA tournament titles (and eight of the last nine).
The CAA faced a similar crisis (and a six-team tournament) in 2001 after Richmond, East Carolina and American bolted. The league looked north, adding Drexel, Delaware, Hofstra and eventually Northeastern.
Now, it’s looking south—and could occupy most of the Eastern seaboard’s media markets if things pan out.
As of now, the 2013 tournament is the last one scheduled for Richmond.
But as Yeager put it: “On March 11, someone will be cutting down the nets at the Richmond Coliseum, surrounded by hundreds of ecstatic fans, and they won’t care how they got there.”
Steve DeShazo: 540/374-5443