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Tribe proving skeptics wrong

January 10, 2007 12:52 am

By JIM McCONNELL
By JIM McCONNELL

It's like a question on the SAT: Of the five teams locked within one game of first place in the Colonial Athletic Association men's basketball standings, which one doesn't belong?

The answer, of course, is William & Mary.

While Drexel (12-2 overall, 4-0 CAA), Hofstra (11-4, 4-0), Virginia Commonwealth (12-3, 4-0) and Old Dominion (10-5, 3-1) were all picked to finish in the upper half of the conference this season, nobody outside Williamsburg expected the Tribe to do much of anything.

Picked 11th out of the league's 12 teams following the transfer of dynamic guard Calvin Baker to U.Va., William & Mary (10-4, 3-1) instead is off to its best start in nine years. The Tribe's 57-43 victory at Georgia State on Monday night was its seventh straight, matching its longest such streak since 1997-98.

"I'm excited for our players to taste some success and see their offseason work pay off," William & Mary coach Tony Shaver said yesterday.

The Tribe gained credibility by knocking off last year's NCAA tournament darling George Mason in Fairfax last Wednesday. They outrebounded the Patriots 36-24 and ended their CAA home win streak at 14 games.

"They remind me of [current West Virginia coach] John Beilein's Richmond teams, where they used to spread you out, shoot a lot of threes and open lanes for rebounding," GMU coach Jim Larranaga said. "I think they surprised our guys how efficiently they ran their offense."

William & Mary won only 23 games over the past three seasons. Things were supposed to get even worse without the services of 2005 CAA rookie of the year Baker.

But the recent streak, including four wins over the past nine days, has Williamsburg abuzz with talk of a William & Mary hardwood renaissance. And the fever pitch will get louder if the Tribe knock off VCU tonight at Kaplan Arena.

"I've gotten I don't know how many e-mails and text messages from people who want to be part of this program, and we want them to be," Shaver said. "[Winning] has generated a lot of excitement. More important, it's generated some confidence for our players."

Clash of the titans

Two of the league's hottest teams will square off tomorrow in Philadelphia, with either Hofstra or Drexel assured of heading into the weekend with at least a share of first place.

Drexel is riding a 10-game win streak, its longest since 1996-97. Hofstra has won five straight and 11 of its last 12.

"It's always tough to go down to Drexel and win," Hofstra coach Tom Pecora said. "Look at the schedule they've played and the wins they've accumulated, and that really shows you the quality of their team."

The Dragons stumbled twice early, losing to Rider and Penn. Since then, they've gone on the road and beaten Syracuse, Villanova, Saint Joseph's and Temple--a surge that had them sitting at CAA-best No. 19 in the most recent RPI rankings.

But Drexel coach Bruiser Flint believes this week will tell a lot about his team's championship potential, with just one day off between games against Hofstra and Old Dominion.

"We know it's going to be a tough challenge this week," he said. "In college basketball, if you have good guard play you have a chance to be a good team. Both of them have that."

Interested spectator

With less than 48 hours to prepare for William & Mary after his team's victory over Northeastern, VCU coach Anthony Grant took some scouting material home with him Monday night.

Understandably, however, Grant found himself unable to devote full attention to the Tribe.

Grant watched with keen interest as Florida's football team pummeled Ohio State 41-14 to win its second national championship. In the process, Florida became the first Division I-A school to hold both the men's basketball and football titles at the same time.

Before replacing Jeff Capel at VCU, Grant was an assistant at Florida for 10 years, where he helped Billy Donovan guide the Gators to their first-ever national hoops title in April.

"I have a lot of pride from being affiliated with that school for 10 years," Grant said.

Patriot games

George Mason's lineup has been an almost daily experiment, as Larranaga continues to seek the right combination of players to complement mainstays Will Thomas and Folarin Campbell.

Following back-to-back losses to William & Mary and Old Dominion, Larranaga greeted UNC-Wilmington on Monday night with a starting five never before seen in Fairfax.

Gabe Norwood, John Vaughan and Louis Birdsong went to the bench. Jordan Carter and Dre Smith started at the guard spots and Chris Fleming made his first career start at power forward.

Fleming, an Osbourn Park graduate who's played just 16 minutes all season, responded by hitting four of five shots and scoring a career-high eight points.

Now Larranaga has to wonder if Fleming can do it again. Mason (7-7, 1-3) has suffered all season from inconsistent play at power forward, as neither Jesus Urbina, transfer Darryl Monroe or promising freshman Birdsong has done enough to lock up the starting job.

"We have to find the right matchups and find some consistency," said Larranaga, whose team has yet to win two straight games this season. "We've asked Folarin Campbell and Will Thomas to do too much. We need other guys to step up."

To reach JIM McCONNELL: 540/374-5444
Email: jmcconnell@freelancestar.com





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