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January 13, 2013

CAA Power Poll: The Bizarro League

Typically each week of a college basketball season brings another dose of clarity: The more available data, the more conclusions we can draw from trends and developments. But this year, in the Bizarro CAA, each week has seemingly brought new information to refute - rather than confirm - something we previously believed. As of Sunday, George Mason was the only Colonial squad ranked in the top 100 (or even the top 145) in terms of RPI, but that comes a day after a loss to UNC-Wilmington, which is treading in the 300s.

Here are this week's power rankings (subject to change by the hour) along with an observation from this past week that might portend future developments. Or, given the winds of the Bizarro CAA, it might not.

1. Delaware (8-8 overall, 3-0 in the CAA): Delaware has shot better than 50 percent in each of its two wins last week, and suddenly the Blue Hens look like an offensive juggernaut (by CAA standards), scoring more than a point per possession in each of their last five games. UDel's 3-0 CAA start has come against teams with a combined 11-36 overall record, so it's too early to anoint the Hens head-and-shoulders favorite. But things are looking up in Newark. Devon Saddler is scoring a CAA-best 26.3 points per league game, and shooting a ridiculous 63.4 percent to get there. Fellow guard Jarvis Threatt's 18.7-point average within CAA play ranks fourth.

2. Northeastern (9-7, 4-0): Heading into the season, Northeastern's biggest knock was its depth, particularly in the frontcourt. Don't have many serviceable bigs? Use four guards at a time. That's one way that Bill Coen has weaved around an unbalanced roster en route to a 4-0 start in league play. The question is whether the Huskies' winning strategy is sustainable. They were outrebounding by a combined 24 boards in wins against Drexel and Towson (two of the league's better rebounding teams, it should be noted). Northeastern collects the fewest rebounds per game among CAA teams. Usually the league's elite control the glass. Not necessarily so this year.

3. Towson (8-9, 3-1): We like that Towson is a tough, physical team; those attributes should keep the Tigers in games all season. But the team's 3-point shooting could keep the Tigers from winning some of those games. Towson made just 25 percent of its 3s last week, and the Tigers chucked a lot of them too (40, to be exact). Northeastern's zone defense on Saturday stifled Towson, which struggled to get junior man-beast Jerelle Benimon as many touches as he received in the 99-86 double-OT win against William & Mary (Benimon's usage rate was 19.4 percent vs. NU compared to 25.9 percent vs. W&M). The best way to beat most zones is by making open 3-pointers. Towson might not have the best personnel for that.

4. George Mason (9-7, 2-2): No. 1 in this power poll for most of this season, Mason takes a big tumble after losing at UNC-Wilmington (a team I saw earlier in the week play one of the worst games in my four years of covering CAA basketball, in a loss at JMU). Early in the season, Mason's staunch defense compensated for its inconsistent and one-dimensional offense. But the "D" just hasn't been great after November. The Patriots aren't overly quick and they're prone to fouling. The Pats committed 50 fouls in their two games last week, and they hack a league-high 20.7 times per game this season. Look at the fouling numbers of nation's top defensive teams - Virginia, Florida, Pittsburgh, Wisconsin, Georgetown. Only UVA and Pitt commit more than 15 fouls per game, and not by much.

5. Drexel (5-11, 1-3): Drexel shouldn't be devalued much for its last two losses against Northeastern and James Madison. The Dragons didn't have leading scorer Damion Lee for either game, and top rebounder Daryl McCoy sat out at JMU with a foot injury that had been nagging him. If not for a Quincy Ford double-clutch 3-pointer that landed the Husky at the apex of SportsCenter's Top Plays on Tuesday night, the Dragons would have beaten Northeastern without their best player. Until it gets healthy, Drexel will struggle. Bruiser Flint used just seven players against JMU, and is struggling to even find bodies for practice. He said last week that Frantz Massenat has tried to do too much this year. Now, without key players in the lineup, Drexel might actually need Massenat to do what would typically be too much.

6. James Madison (9-8, 3-1): The Dukes ran the gamut of results and fortune last week. On Monday they lost at Hampton, which was ranked next-to-last in RPI entering the game. On Wednesday, JMU crushed UNCW, leading by as many as 37 points in the final four minutes before easing off the gas. That would have been good news if not for two injured freshmen. Charles Cooke, one of the first players off the bench, broke his wrist and will be out for a month; starting guard Andre Nation hurt his shoulder (MRI this week) and missed the following game at Drexel. Against the Dragons on Saturday, another freshman stepped up to help JMU to victory. In his first career start, forward Taylor Bessick had nine points and 13 rebounds in 33 minutes - all career highs - as the Dukes posted its best defensive performance since 2001.

7. William & Mary (7-8, 1-3): Five straight losses have followed four straight wins, and it's not hard to see the distinction between the good Tribe and the bad. William & Mary shot a scintillating percentage in the first semester, but has cooled off considerably. Part of the chill is linked to heightened competition. Prior to games at Purdue and Vanderbilt, W&M played the softest non-conference schedule. Now that it's facing better defenses, the Tribe no longer looks like it's playing Pop-A-Shot. W&M is attempting a league-most 19 3-pointers per game this season; those shots produced far more clanks than swishes Saturday at Hofstra. The Tribe was 4-for-25 from deep in the loss.

8. Georgia State (6-11, 1-3): Good teams pull out games late with accurate free-throw shooting. Georgia State has the accurate free-throw shooting part down pat, but the Panthers still haven't been able to win very often. GSU is shooting a league-best 76.1 percent from the charity stripe in league games, including a 32-for-37 week at the line in close losses at Hofstra and against Delaware. Both of those were one-possession games, and you'd have to think Ron Hunter's group will start pulling out some nail-biters if it continues to make its one-pointers. Another hallmark of winners is protecting the basketball. GSU only commits 9.2 turnovers per game - second fewest in the CAA - but that hasn't vaulted a team that's lost seven of its last eight games. If you're wondering why Georgia State ranks this high in the power poll despite its shoddy record, it's because the Panthers are doing the little things that could lead to victories soon.

9. Hofstra (5-11, 2-1): Losers of eight straight heading into last week, Hofstra took two of three conference games to put the Pride in the hunt. What's the difference? Hofstra turned its metronome from allegro to larghissimo. The Pride struggled to adjust after four of its players were suspended for the season in late November, in part because Mo Cassara lacked quality depth. But he's now maximizing the efforts of his top players by operating at a slower tempo. Once the fastest-paced team in the CAA, Hofstra used just 51 possessions to beat Georgia State 52-50 on Saturday. In Monday's win against William & Mary, the Pride had just 59 possessions. Controlling the tempo will be easier at home, where Hofstra is 2-0 in CAA play (the Pride lost its road game against Delaware - the league's most up-tempo team - last week).

10. UNC-Wilmington (6-10, 1-3): The Seahawks could not have played worse against JMU last week, but they snapped a four-game losing skid three days later with a surprising home win over George Mason. While the Hawks have really struggled at times, they at least have an identity. No CAA team comes close to matching UNCW on the glass. In four league games, the Hawks are a plus-9.7 on the boards; the next-best rebounding team, Towson, is a plus-3.8. The Hawks have rebounded 57.6 percent of all misses in CAA games - and there have been plenty of misses to be had lately. UNCW shot just 27 percent against JMU and improved to a still-not-great 40 percent in the win against Mason.

11. Old Dominion (2-14, 0-4): The only team without a CAA victory yet, Old Dominion showed a national television audience exactly why, during its only game last week. The Monarchs shot 25 percent in a 71-46 loss at George Mason. You wonder if players on ODU - which is ineligible for the CAA tournament because of its impending exit to Conference USA - feel like they have nothing to play for anymore. The Monarchs performed poorly in non-conference play, but have been even worse in league games. In conference-only stats, they rank last or next-to-last in field goal percentage, 3-point field goal percentage, points per weighted shot, points per possession, turnovers per game, turnover rate, assist-to-turnover ratio, field goal percentage defense, 3-point field goal defense…you're still reading? Then you get the point.

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