Among regular-season conference champions, only UCLA had a worse scoring margin in league play than Northeastern, which won the CAA crown at 14-4 despite outscoring opponents by only 4.0 points per game. (Stats from Basketball State and StatSheet)
After a wild 2012-13 season, Northeastern basketball fans desperately needed a full offseason to grow back their fingernails. The Huskies’ games were cuticle-chewers from opening night, when Demetius Pollard drained a last-second three-pointer to beat BU by one point. Four days later, they overcame an 18-point second-half deficit at Princeton, winning 67-66 on Reggie Spencer’s layup with two seconds left. The drama didn’t stop once conference play began — Northeastern took five of its 18 league games went to overtime, winning four. All told, the Huskies went 14-4 last year in games decided by five points or less, which is (a) an absurdly good record in close games and (b) an absurd number of close games in the first place.
In winning so many close games, the Huskies played well above their scoring margin — finishing first in the CAA at 14-4 despite outscoring conference opponents by only 4.0 points per game. (As the chart above shows, only the Pac-12’s UCLA had a worse in-conference point differential among regular-season champions.) It’s hard to say the Huskies were lucky to win the league — mostly because nobody else took the CAA by storm; Towson was the only team with a better scoring margin, and only barely so at 4.1 points per game — but if Northeastern had won only half of its close games, it would have been a sub-.500 team instead of one that won 20 games.
In other words, last year’s first-place finish shouldn’t set the expectation for this year’s Huskies, since it took some good fortune to get there in the first place. Furthermore, although Northeastern only graduates two members of last season’s rotation, they are two important ones — leading scorers Joel Smith and Jonathan Lee.
Smith, a ruthlessly efficient shooter, and Lee, a top playmaker, earned first- and third-team All-CAA honors last season, respectively, and replacing their production will be head coach Bill Coen’s top priority. One player who will be leaned on more heavily is sophomore David Walker, who had a usage rate of only 13% as mainly an outside shooter next year but drew rave reviews from his coach in the preseason. “He plays with a very high basketball IQ, and he’s very fun to play with. If I were playing the game again, I’d love to play with David Walker,” Coen said at the CAA media day.
The Huskies’ frontcourt returns intact, but it wasn’t the strength of last year’s team — Northeastern was the league’s worst rebounding team on both the offensive and defensive glass, and it struggled to defend the paint, allowing opponents to make 53% of two-pointers. Incoming transfer Scott Eatherton, one of the Northeast Conference’s top rebounders and shot-blockers as well as an efficient scorer in his last season at St. Francis (Pa.), is the Huskies’ best bet to strengthen their interior defense.
With other teams around the league bringing back more talent, Northeastern looks more likely to finish near the middle of the CAA than to repeat as champions. That is, unless Pollard and Spencer hit a few more game-winners and lead the Huskies to 14 more close victories — in which case, all bets are off.
With George Mason’s departure to the Atlantic 10 — as well as the loss of Old Dominion and Georgia State — the CAA no longer has either of the teams that went to the Final Four under its brand (Mason in 2006; VCU in 2011). As shown here Monday, realignment will make the conference somewhat worse in the short run — even with the addition of a strong College of Charleston team — and the long-term effects could be greater if the outflow of teams leaves the CAA with the reputation of a third-tier league.
But if you look past that dour news … the 2013-14 season should simply be lots of fun. There probably won’t be a great team to come out of the CAA — no likely at-large bids, no strong candidates to be the next Cinderella — but there should be parity at the top of the league, which means meaningful games for several teams all season long and a kick-ass conference tournament. The top five returning teams all finished between 166th and 179th in last season’s national Ken Pomeroy rankings, and in TeamRankings.com’s projections, the top six teams all rank between 121 and 156.
The conference media poll picked Towson to finish first, and the Tigers received the majority of first-place votes in my composite rankings below — but, you’ll notice, Drexel actually edges them for the top spot on points. The culprit is the computer projections of TeamRankings and Pomeroy, which both pick Towson to finish fifth — mainly because they aren’t wired to believe a team that went 1-31 two seasons ago could become a title contender so quickly.
The Tigers’ rise under Pat Skerry might be an exceptional case that the computers don’t handle well — but even if so, things won’t be easy for Towson. Drexel is the most polarizing team in the league, adored by statistical models and causing mixed feelings for everyone else after an unlucky 2012-13 season. College of Charleston will be a contender in its debut season, and really, it shouldn’t be a shock if any of the top six preseason teams come out on top of this deep league.
The chart below shows the percentage of returning possession minutes for each CAA team in 2013-14. Introduced (I think) by John Templon of Big Apple Buckets, returning possession minutes is a statistic that weights a team’s returning players by both the number of minutes they played and the number of possessions they used when on the court, representing the amount of continuity on its roster. Teams listed in order of 2013 finish.
The composite CAA prediction, including polls and rankings from all corners of the Internet:
- Drexel, 89 pts (3 first-place)
- Towson, 88 (7)
- College of Charleston, 73
- Delaware, 68 (1)
- William & Mary, 53
- Northeastern, 52
- James Madison, 39
- UNC Wilmington, 21
- Hofstra, 12
- Jerrelle Benimon, Towson (4 votes)
- Devon Saddler, Delaware (4)
- Marcus Thornton, William & Mary (4)
- Frantz Massenat, Drexel (3)
- Damion Lee, Drexel (3)
CAA Player of the Year:
- Jerrelle Benimon, Towson (4)
Rankings and/or All-league selections from: CAA media poll, ESPN.com, Mid-Major Madness (times two), College Basketball Talk, Dan Hanner, Ken Pomeroy, City of Basketball Love, TeamRankings.com, Sports Network, RushTheCourt, College Sports Madness