Mid-Major Notebook (Jan. 14, 2022)

Coast To Coast : Mid-Major Notebook (Jan. 14, 2022)


After two weeks of conference games, the talent and balance in the CAA is obvious. Home teams won 10 of the first 13 matchups entering a busy weekend and the standings are turned upside down when compared to the preseason poll.

Buckle up for what should be an entertaining and unpredictable race to a furious finish with teams playing three games per week in late January and February to atone for the post-Christmas pauses related to COVID-19.

No team represents the wackiness better than William & Mary, which lost all 12 of its Division I nonconference games by an average margin of 15 points. Then the Tribe, picked 10th in the preseason, beat perennial CAA powers Hofstra and Northeastern in a three-day span to rise to first place. Any momentum gained from those victories faded in a pandemic protocol hiatus. So, when James Madison visits Kaplan Arena on Saturday it will be William & Mary’s first game in 16 days.

The experts expected UNCW, with an overhauled roster, to finish ninth in a CAA stacked with seasoned veterans on established programs. But the Seahawks play over the last month proves they’re interested in exceeding those expectations. After rallying to beat Elon on Wednesday night, the Seahawks are riding a five-game winning streak - the program’s longest since Kevin Keatts steered them to a conference championship in 2017. A veteran perimeter trio and an aggressive defense have reignited the magic in Trask Coliseum. Jaylen Sims, Shykeim Phillips and Mike Okauru are top 10 in offensive rating among high usage players in conference games.

Maintaining the theme, Towson was slotted eighth in the preseason but has no intention of finishing there. The Tigers have been the league’s most consistent team, scoring nonconference victories over Kent State, UNC Greensboro, New Mexico and Navy and winning two of their first three CAA games behind a deep, balanced rotation. This is coach Pat Skerry’s best offense in 11 seasons at the helm (54th nationally in adjusted efficiency) and the Tigers remain physical in the paint and rugged on the glass. Towson’s current rating of 105 in KenPom is the highest in program history.

Here are five storylines to follow in the CAA over the next six weeks before nine of the 10 teams convene in Washington D.C. for the conference tournament March 5-8.

Can Hofstra get healthy? The Pride, under first-year coach and program legend Speedy Claxton, made a splash in the nonconference with victories over Arkansas and Monmouth and near-misses at Houston and Maryland. But they’ve rarely been at full strength. Zach Cooks, a 1,700-point scorer at NJIT, missed the Pride’s last two games with a leg injury. Jalen Ray has dealt with nagging injuries throughout the season, testing Hofstra’s depth and defensive acumen.

Is there hope for the Huskies? Currently in a five-game losing skid - its longest since the 2016-17 season - Northeastern can feel Hofstra’s pain. Key contributors Shaquille Walters and Tyreek Scott-Grayson have been absent lately. Longtime head coach Bill Coen missed a game due to COVID protocols and a team most expected to contend for the title is buried at 0-4 entering visits from Drexel on Saturday and Delaware on Monday. Any result short of sweep kills any hope of a regular season crown. Typically one of the best defensive teams in the CAA, the Huskies are last in the conference in adjusted efficiency.

The Cougars better eat early All of the schedule shuffling created an imbalance for high-flying Charleston, who will play six of its first eight CAA games at home and 7 of the last 10 on the road. The Cougars split their first two home games and welcome the sizzling Seahawks to TD Arena on Monday night. The home rims have been unfriendly. Charleston is last in 3-point and free throw percentage. John Meeks is the key ingredient for Charleston, which has struggled to maintain double-digit second half leads. On the horizon, Dalton Bolon should return from injury sometime in February. The Cougars can use his shooting, toughness and experience.

What about the preseason favorite? With all-league caliber veterans Ryan Allen and Dylan Painter joined by high-scoring transfer Jameer Nelson Jr., Delaware earned the most votes in a tight preseason poll. The Blue Hens are in good shape early as the only CAA team with two road victories. All three of their conference games have been decided by four points or less also. Painter has been sensational in CAA games, recording a 129.1 offensive rating and the Blue Hens combo of low turnover rate, sharp shooting and strong 2-point defense is sustainable.

Who wins the hardware? Towson’s versatile forward Cam Holden Jr. (pictured above) was named to the Lou Henson Midseason Watch List earlier this week. The crafty 6-5 graduate student contributes across the box score and gives the Tigers an able playmaker in the post in late-game situations. Painter and Nelson Jr. have been as good as advertised. Cooks will be in the mix if he can get back on the floor but in his absence, teammate Aaron Estrada is delivering, hitting 55 percent of 2-pointers and 94 percent of free throws.