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December 10, 2012

CAA Power Poll: Exam Time

It's a relatively bare week for CAA basketball, as most teams take time off to focus on this semester's final exams. Each squad has played nine or 10 games, giving us enough data to hand out our own progress reports.

My grades are distributed based on a team's performance relative to their own potential, while class rank is still listed in order of whom I consider the best teams in the league.

1. George Mason (B): Boasting the league's best RPI, Mason has been steady but unspectacular. The Patriots' four losses have come against teams with a combined 32-5 record, and when they've played lesser competition, they've won. The one eye-catching victory is the season-opener against Virginia, which has now won seven straight. Mason has positioned itself as the team to beat in the CAA, but that's somewhat by default. If its defense remains as stout as it has been through 10 games, the Pats will likely get to at least a dozen league wins. And in a conference in which nothing has come expected, the Patriots' steady consistency gives them the poll position for valedictorian.

2. Drexel (D): That a 3-6 team with losses to Rider and Tennessee State is ranked second is, well, bizarre. But if you had to bet on a team to win the CAA, aside from Mason, you'd still take Drexel, right? The Dragons haven't defended, which is a bit surprising given that last year's steel safe of a "D" returned its best three or four players from that side of the ball. Teams are making 2-point field goals at a 53.5-percent rate against Drexel, which ranks somewhere in the 300s nationally. Still, backcourts win mid-major college basketball games, and it's only a matter of time before Frantz Massenat and Damion Lee take over for the Dragons.

3. Northeastern (B-): The Huskies have taken a tumble, losing four straight. But the losses have not been all that bad (combined record of those opponents: 22-10), and they show that Northeastern's fate this season will likely come down to a set of games that are decided by a mere possession or two. In total, NU's nine games have been decided by 36 points, with only one of them (a 66-55 loss to Vermont) ending in a double-digit deficit. It's quite fitting for a team that won its first two games this year on buzzer beaters. When Jonathan Lee returns from an injury, these recent tight losses might start swinging in the Huskies' favor.

4. Delaware (D+): The Blue Hens also beat Virginia, but they've done little to be proud of since then. Delaware has lost six of seven since that win, and while those losses include games against Duke, Temple, Pittsburgh and Kansas State, they also include Lafayette and a home game against Delaware State. Senior big man Jamelle Hagins is second in the league in field goal percentage (.583) but shoots less than 8.5 times per game. Guard Devon Saddler, meanwhile, has taken exactly twice as many shots as Hagins. If sophomores Jarvis Threatt and Kyle Anderson and freshman Terrell Rogers can find the net any time soon, UDel should turn things around.

5. William & Mary (B+): The Tribe's schedule has been soft as pudding, and W&M lost to the three decent teams it played. Racking up wins even against poor opponents, though, can give this team confidence heading into CAA play. After all, there are no unwinnable games in the Colonial this season. W&M has shot 48 percent or better in its last four games, and star guard Marcus Thornton is shooting 48 percent for the season. The Tribe is both shooting and defending the 3 well, which has historically been a recipe for success in Williamsburg.

6. Georgia State (C): At 5-4, GSU is another case of a team beating who its supposed to and losing to better competition. After falling to Duke in their opener, the Panthers have lost against some sneaky-good mid-major teams like BYU, East Carolina and Louisiana Tech. None of GSU's wins have been all that impressive, but winning is good for young players who are still getting to know each other. Somewhat of a geographic outlier, Georgia State will likely be a tough team at home within the CAA. And it's shown to have enough playmakers to steal some road games too.

7. James Madison (C-): The 3-6 record doesn't shown it, but JMU may have reinvented itself when senior forward Andrey Semenov returned from a groin injury. With him in the lineup, the Dukes suddenly have a somewhat potent offense and a defense that grinds, even if it doesn't produce tons of stops. The team's freshmen are growing up quickly, which could turn the JMU into the type of squad that finds what works after the New Year and begins to play more consistently. And A.J. Davis is back and full of life after a one-game suspension. The most important player on the team, though, is still fifth-year senior point guard Devon Moore, who has to look for his own shot for the Dukes to be dangerous.

8. Towson (B+): The Tigers' win over Vermont last week was their first over a team with a .500 or better record since Feb. 24, 2010. Towson followed that up with an ugly but effective performance against No. 15 Georgetown, in which both teams missed at least 2/3 of their shots before the Hoyas prevailed in the final minute, 46-40. Towson used a zone defense and dared Georgetown to shoot from the perimeter. When the Hoyas complied and inevitably missed, Towson forward Jerrelle Benimon was under the hoop to snatch 16 rebounds. With Benimon a potential first-team player in the CAA, Towson should be competitive every night.

9. UNC-Wilmington (C): The Seahawks have been at or near the bottom of these rankings all season, but maybe it's time to give them a degree of respect. Two recent road losses - at Marshall and at Georgia Tech - show that this team can compete. The team is Keith Rendleman and Co., but some members of the "company" have begun to step up. Freshman guard Craig Ponder scored 26 against Marshall, and freshman guard Chris Dixon had 20 against Georgia Tech. Teams will gear their entire defensive gameplans to stopping Rendleman, which should open up opportunities for the pups in the backcourt. It's nice to see players taking advantage of these openings.

10. Old Dominion (F): When the Monarchs were selected to finish fourth in the official CAA preseason poll, coach Blaine Taylor said that it must be due to reputation, rather than quality of returning players. Turns out the latter is a bit more important. The inexperienced Monarchs have looked nothing like the teams we've grown used to seeing under Taylor - those that defend the heck out of you for 40 minutes, snare every ball that hits the rim, and overwhelm opponents into defeat. This year's team, at 1-8, has been a bumbling mess. N.C. State transfer DeShawn Painter finally had a breakout game, scoring 26 in a home loss against VCU. The Monarchs almost need him to be a 20-point guy every night, because the offense isn't coming from anywhere else, and the defense isn't good enough to win games by itself anymore.

11. Hofstra (C-): Hofstra has lost five straight, and its difficult to see things trending upward after four players were suspended from school on charges of burglary. Hofstra's 3-2 start that included two quality wins now seems like eons ago. There's still some talent on this roster, but the Pride aren't getting high-percentage shots often enough. Maybe that's due to poor continuity; the team has had players coming and going like a pick-up team. The Pride should much be better in February than it is in December, but for now, it's struggling. Give Hofstra this: It plays at the fastest pace of any CAA team, so at least their games can be fun to watch.

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