INSIDERS REPORT: CAA Basketball - February 7

The Colonial Athletic Association has long been considered among the best mid-majors in the country, and getting George Mason and VCU to the Final Four over the last decade merely emphasized that point. But what sets the conference apart? Superior defense, offered in a variety of ways by the league's top teams, is probably the overriding factor.

While scoring generally is down in basketball, compare what the CAA does to the two conferences that most people associate with defense -- the Big East and the ACC.

Well, the top six teams in those conferences give up an average of 60.9 points a game.

In the CAA it stands at 59.7.

It is not a large difference and one may argue that the offensive talent is better in the two power conferences, but the point is that defense is the common factor in the teams that get to the tournament from the three conferences.

It is no surprise that the three teams tied for the CAA lead -- Drexel, VCU and George Mason -- rank first, third and fifth in defense in the conference. Ranking second is Georgia State, which has had a turnaround season based on its defense, putting the Panthers in fifth place.

Old Dominion is fourth in defense and sits a game behind the top three in the standings.

Coach Shaka Smart, who led VCU to the Final Four last year with his changing, pressure defenses, talked about the emphasis on defense in the conference.

"We have some of the top defensive teams in the country," he noted. "Drexel and Georgia State, their zones make them difficult to prepare for. ODU, year in and year out, is one of the best defensive teams in the country. And George Mason, their defense doesn't get near enough credit."

Other teams understand how important defense is and realize in this conference you cannot reach elite status without it.

Matt Brady at James Madison has a strong offensive team but is far down in the standings.

"Defensively we have not been good enough," he said. "The numbers bear that out. You have to be able to ride your defense."

The team that is most blessed defensively is Drexel, coached by Bruiser Flint.

The Dragons allow only 54.4 points a game and are leading the conference in defending 3-pointers, giving up 25.9 percent.

"My philosophy is to contain and contest," Flint said. "Keep people in front of you and contest the shot."

He does it physically and does it every time down the floor.

Ron Hunter established defense at Georgia State to engineer a turnaround from an also-ran to a contender in one year.

"We're not blessed to be the best offensive team in the world. We have to be able to score off our defense," he said. "When we get those stops, get those long rebounds and get off the races, we're pretty good. We're a completely different basketball team when we do that."


ODU center sets rebounding record

--Before playing James Madison, Old Dominion C Chris Cooper was in the training room.
"I'm not feeling well," he told the trainer.
It turned out to be a contagious disease because he made the James Madison team sick by going out and pulling down an arena-record 22 rebounds.

--Sometimes you can throw out the scouting report. George Mason's report on Delaware freshman Kyle Anderson noted that he had not scored in the two previous games and was averaging less than 10 points a game. Then he scored canned five 3-pointers and scored 21 points to upset the CAA leader.
"When I was shooting around with coach (assistant Jeff Rafferty) earlier it was one of those days where you felt like you weren't going to miss," Anderson said.

--Old Dominion coach Blaine Taylor is on the mend from knee surgery but working on the sideline. He says it comes with the territory.
"The thing about our job is you don't get to call in sick much," he said. "During basketball season you always get a notice that you have vacation time and you have to use it or lose it. I keep thinking, 'Sure, I'll just take Thursday, Friday and Saturday off.'"
Taylor says he's on the mend, even though he has a noticeable limp.

--You know how coaches say they play 'em one at a time and don't talk about the league race?
Don't believe it.
"We have young guys," said coach Shaka Smart, whose VCU club is tied for first place with Drexel and George Mason. "If you don't talk about it, guys think it anyway so you might as well address it. We have six or seven guys on this team that were there last year, just not in the significant roles they are in right now, but they at least have experienced it."
George Mason coach Paul Hewitt is the same.
"We do talk about it, but you can't get caught looking too far ahead," he said. "We did it going back to the first game of the year against Towson. You talk about trying to win the conference because it gets you the best seed and that gives you the best chance to win the conference tournament. The goal is the NCAA tournament.

--James Madison has been handicapped by injuries, dressing only seven players for its last game. One of their most important players, Devon Moore, has been playing with a hand injury that has prevented him from practicing.
"That's an incredibly difficult thing to do at this level of basketball," Coach Matt Brady explained. "That doesn't show up in the stat sheet because his name is in the box score, but he's nowhere close to being able to play like he did last year."


MATCHUP TO WATCH: VCU at Old Dominion, Feb. 11 -- This is a hard-fought rivalry game that is crucial in what has become a four-horse race for the regular-season championship. VCU is in a three-way tie for the lead, with the Monarchs a game back.

The two teams are strong defensively, although VCU is more active in its pressing defense while Old Dominion uses more muscle and tries to dominate the boards. Chris Cooper is dominant in this department, having pulled down 22 against James Madison.

VCU forces teams into hurrying and making mistakes, leading the nation in steals. Offensively they are balanced, keeping any team from focusing on one area. VCU won the first meeting, 61-48.

Feb. 8
Drexel at James Madison -- Drexel is unbeaten at home and has a strong road record, along with an 11-game winning streak. JMU is shorthanded but has a lot of offensive weapons; if it gets hot, it could trouble the best defense in the league.

Feb. 8
Old Dominion at William & Mary -- This is another of those rivalry games, and Old Dominion comes in having already won the first meeting at home easily. "We can all point to some performances when we were less than our best or played well," ODU coach Blaine Taylor said. "William & Mary played well against us. They just got caught on a night when we played pretty good and at home and with a sellout crowd. Now we go there. They take the rivalry seriously, especially at home. We have to expect they will play well."

Feb. 11
Hofstra at Drexel -- This is another game that looks one-sided, especially at Drexel, but Hofstra has a couple of dangerous players in the league's scoring leader, Mike Moore (19.4 points a game), and senior Nathaniel Lester, who just became a 1,000-point scorer. If they can find a third player to go with those two, they could provide problems for Drexel. The Dragons won the first game but only by six points.


--Junior F Jamelle Hagins has had an amazing season. He stands second in rebounding in the CAA, just .1 rebound shy of the lead at 10.9, while ranking sixth in field-goal percentage and 11th in scoring (11.2 ppg). His latest game may have been his best: a career-23 points with 18 rebounds in an 85-80 victory at James Madison. Hagins tossed in four blocked shots as he notched his 12th double-double of the season. The 18 rebounds also were a career high and gave him 632, 13th in school history.
--In the Blue Hens' stunning upset of league-leading George Mason, reversing a 23-point defeat to that same team two weeks earlier, Hagins was the co-leading scorer with 13 points and had nine rebounds while also making the winning free throws with 3.4 seconds left to play.
--Sophomore G Devon Saddler continues to push for the CAA scoring lead, now sitting second at 18.8 points a game. He scored 22 against James Madison and led the Blue Hens with 13 in their upset of George Mason.
--Freshman Jarvis Threatt, who missed the second half of the Feb. 1 win over George Mason and did not practice on Feb. 3, shook off a right ankle injury to score 14 points on Feb. 4 against JMU.

--Drexel has stretched its winning streak to 11 games as it held fast to a three-way tie for first place in the CAA. It didn't come easily as Towson, recently freed from the shackles of a 41-game losing streak, pushed the Dragons to the limit in a 65-57 upset bid.
--PG Frantz Massenat had to come to the rescue from the point, controlling the game down the stretch. He scored 18 of his 25 points in the second half, including all eight of his free throws in the final 1:38. Massenat, in fact, went 15 for 15 from the free-throw line to get his season average up to 80.2 percent. He stands fourth in the conference in that department.
--Massenat broke the school record for most free throws in a game without a miss. The previous record was held by Brian Holden, who made all 14 in a game against Vermont in 1993. Massenat also had six assists with one turnover against Towson.
--Drexel has gone from last to first in free-throw shooting in a year, leading the CAA this season while canning 73.7 percent.
--F Damian Lee scored a career-high 25 points against Northeastern.

--Even though George Mason has stumbled a couple of times this year, you still don't want to meet the Patriots on their home court if you are in the CAA. While the overall home winning streak was broken in a three-point loss to Temple, they maintain an impressive 16-game home winning streak in the conference.
--F Ryan Pearson continues as a prime contender for CAA Player of the Year. In an upset loss to Delaware that dropped the league leaders into a tie for first place, Pearson scored 25 and grabbed eight rebounds, then followed that with his 10th double-double of the season to thrill a Homecoming crowd of 9,840 as Mason beat arch-rival Old Dominion. Pearson scored 17 points and had 10 rebounds in that game, giving him 42 points and 18 rebounds for the week. He stands third in scoring at 17.8 and fifth in rebounding at 8.8.
--The sell-out was Mason's first of the season, and represented the seventh time in program history that the attendance reached the capacity mark of 9,840. The Patriots have been victorious in six of those seven games.
--George Mason swept the season series with Old Dominion for the first time in 10 years.

--Georgia State got back on track with a pair of defensive-minded victories over UNC-Wilmington and Hofstra. The Panthers gave up only 96 points in the two games, holding Hofstra to 43 points on 29.3 percent from the floor and 13.6 percent from three-point range.
--Leading the defense, as usual, was senior Eric Buckner, who may have to change his name to Eric Blocker. He blocked six shots against Hofstra, breaking the school career blocks record with 129.
This is especially impressive because he has spent only two seasons with the team. He passed Zavian Smith, who played from 1989 to 1994.
"I have said this before: Eric Buckner is a special player," coach Ron Hunter said. "I am really happy that he was able to set this record. He has been one of our keys to success this season, and I look forward to him continuing to play at a high level during the final games of his collegiate career."
His next block will tie him with Sylvester Morgan for the season record of 81, set during the 2004-05 season.
--Senior G Jihad Ali scored 30 points in the two games and has scored in double figures in four straight games off the bench.

--Hofstra has not be as accurate a shooting team as it had been in the past, ranking ninth in the league at 40.8 percent, but facing the conference's toughest team to score field goals against, Georgia State, didn't help that any.
The Panthers held the Pride to 29.3 percent shooting from the floor and 13.6 percent from three-point range. The 43 points equaled Hofstra's lowest offensive output of the season.
--G Mike Moore, the league's leading scorer at 19.4 points a game, scored only 13 points. Moore scored 28 in the week's other game against Towson.
--Senior Nathaniel Lester scored 19 against Towson to become the 30th player in the history of Hofstra men's basketball to eclipse 1,000 points. He had eight rebounds as well.
"It was great for Nat. The guy has been through a lot here," Moore said. "He's been here five years. It's a credit to his work ethic and his stick-to-it-iveness to get his 1,000th point."

--Injuries limited the Dukes to dressing just seven players against Delaware. It was JMU's fourth straight loss.
--Redshirt junior G A.J. Davis continues his move up the scoring list in the CAA, standing fourth at 16.8. He scored a career-high 30 points against Delaware, hitting 10 of 19 shots (4 of 7 from 3-point range).
In the loss to Old Dominion earlier in the week, Davis was the leading scorer with 23 points but also had a chance to show his overall skills with four steals and three assists.
--Redshirt junior F Andrey Semenov hit a career-high six threes while scoring 22 points and pulling down a team-leading seven rebounds in the ODU loss.
--James Madison is turning more and more to the 3-point shot, averaging 9.75 made 3s over its last four games.
--With Delaware's Jamelle Hagins hauling down 15 rebounds and Old Dominion's Chris Cooper taking in 22, JMU has now allowed an individual to grab at least 15 rebounds in five games.

--Freshman guard K.K. Simmons has been suspended indefinitely for conduct detrimental to the team by second-year coach Buzz Peterson. Simmons, a newcomer from Marietta, Ga., has played in 22 games this season and made 12 starts, averaging 7.6 points and 1.7 rebounds. He scored four points in his last appearance, vs. Georgia State on Wednesday.
--The Seahawks broke a four-game losing streak with an 81-68 victory over William & Mary as freshman G Adam Smith scored 25 points to lead five players in double figures for the first time this season. Smith tied a school record by hitting all 10 of his free-throw attempts.
--Peterson has been working to get a productive bench together, and it worked against William & Mary as his bench outscored the Tribes' 32-4.
--Since his team responded well to his decision to take away their practice uniforms until they took pride in the name that was across their chests, Peterson has decided to give them back that gear and the use of the locker room and players' lounge.
"The laundry is getting pretty stinky now, so we'll go back to our regular practice gear," Peterson said.

--Junior co-captain Jonathan Lee led a furious comeback against VCU that fell short on Feb. 4. Lee scored 16 points, 12 in the final 3:07 of a game that ended in a 59-56 victory for VCU. Northeastern scored 10 points in the final 70 seconds. Lee has scored in double figures in 12 straight games and 32 of his last 35 games.
--Joel Smith, seventh in the CAA in field goals, has made a 3-point shot in 42 of the last 45 games.
--It's a tough week when you have to play two of the three teams tied for first place, which was Northeastern's task last week. They also lost to Drexel.

--F Chris Cooper grabbed a Constant Center-record 22 rebounds as the Monarchs beat James Madison 80-71.
"He's like a grown man out there," ODU star F Kent Bazemore said. "Like he's really 30 years old playing against little kids, getting rebounds like that."
JMU is far from the CAA's biggest or most physical team, and Cooper had his way. He said he has never grabbed that many rebounds at any level.
"I was just in a zone tonight, pretty much," he said.
Cooper is third in the CAA at 10.5 rebounds per game.
--Apparently ODU's offense hasn't quite reached the heights it seemed to have when it scored 80 points against James Madison.
"A couple months ago, if somebody took off on vacation and then came back, they wouldn't believe this," coach Blaine Taylor said. "We couldn't score 80 points in two games."
Then they played George Mason and reverted back to their troubled ways, scoring 50.

--It was almost a second remarkable upset for Towson.
With the memory of toppling UNC-W to end its record-shattering 41-game losing streak still fresh, Towson pushed CAA-leading Drexel to the limit behind a career-high 26-point outburst by sophomore Marcus Damas.
"Our guys are starting to figure out the winning formula, and it showed tonight," coach Pat Skerry said. "We have to guard, rebound and not turn it over. I would expect this to become the norm here quickly, with us finding a way to win these."
--Senior C Robert Nwankwo continues to play like one of the conference's top big men. He recorded his 10th double-double of the season with 12 points and a game-high 13 rebounds against Drexel. The senior has now posted a double-double in six of his last eight games and has 19 in his career. Nwankwo, who entered the game averaging 2.6 blocked shots per game, swatted a game-high five shots in the loss.
--Freshman G Kris Walden scored eight points and dished out a career-high 10 assists against Drexel while turning the ball over just three times for the Tigers. Walden leads all CAA freshmen and is fifth in the conference with 3.6 assists per game.

--VCU has reached 20 victories for the sixth consecutive season. "That says a lot about the way this program was built and the way the players have sustained that success," said coach Shaka Smart, who has been there for three of those seasons. "To be able to win that many for six straight years in the midst of a coaching change, losing a guy early to the NBA and other roster changes, it says a lot about the guys who played here."
--As of Feb. 4, the Rams were one of just five schools in the country to have 20-plus wins over the past six seasons. The four others are North Carolina, Syracuse, Ohio State and UNLV. Only 28 teams entered this season with an opportunity to reach that feat.
--The Rams had nine steals against Northeastern, lifting their nation-leading total to 248.

--Freshman G Marcus Thornton poured 28 points in against Virginia Tech and nearly led William & Mary to an upset. He certainly has caught the attention of VCU coach Shaka Smart.
"He's had 50 points against us in the two games," Smart said. "It's kind of nightmarish thinking of playing him down the road as he gets older."
Thornton didn't just gun for those points. He was 10 for 12 from the field and 5 of 6 from 3-point range.
"He was terrific. He was special," coach Tony Shaver said.
--G Quinn McDowell is a senior who has had an up and down season. "It's been a tough year for him in some ways," Shaver said, "but he's a special kid."
That was why it was nice for Shaver to see him dump 27 points on UNC-Wilmington.
"In a way what happened this week with him and Thornton are a good example of our problems now," Shaver said. "Quinn was good against Wilmington and not against VCU and Marcus was good against VCU and not so much against Wilmington."
--F Kendrix Brown is a veteran player who is a defensive specialist for William & Mary, but he is out with a concussion and it is handicapping the things the team can do.
"We missed him tremendously," Shaver said. "It's one of the reasons we gave up 80 points in both games. He's our best defensive player, and we put him on the opponent's best player, no matter what position."

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