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George Mason's run to last year's Final Four didn't just raise the bar for mid-major basketball teams across the country. It provided a big boost to the reputation of the Colonial Athletic Association.
But the league might need a late-season surge from its top four teams to get a pair of squads into the NCAA tournament for the second year in a row.
Virginia Commonwealth, Hofstra, Old Dominion and Drexel have positioned themselves well to be considered by the selection committee, but none is a lock for an at-large bid with five games left in the regular season.
The CAA tournament winner earns an automatic berth in the NCAA tournament.
"I don't know if it's out of the realm of possibility that someone could get an at-large from our league, but I think from now to the end of the season some people are going to have to better their cause," ODU coach Blaine Taylor said.
That's not to say the CAA's perception around the nation hasn't changed. Once considered a one-bid league, the CAA earned attention from George Mason's run, and a quartet of teams can make viable cases to make the tourney.
However, none of the league's top teams are positioned like George Mason, UNC-Wilmington and Hofstra were a year ago. After Wilmington earned the league's automatic berth, the Patriots were an at-large selection over Hofstra, then made a statement for all mid-majors with a run to the Final Four.
"The conference didn't do it this year," said Jerry Palm, who runs CollegeRPI.com, a Web site that mirrors the NCAA's RPI. "The conference was much better last year. There might be a thought in the mind of the committee to give nonmajors more of a chance or think better of them, but it probably won't benefit the CAA this year."
A year ago, George Mason was ranked 26th in the Rating Percentage Index, one of the tools used by the NCAA Selection Committee to choose teams.
Virginia Commonwealth is the CAA's top-ranked team in the RPI this season at 53. Drexel, Hofstra and ODU are all in the Top 70.
"We were criticized for getting in when our RPI was ," George Mason coach Jim Larranaga said. "How does a team that is 50 get in? These last five games are critical for a team trying to get in."
No one knows that better than Hofstra coach Tom Pecora. His Pride were left out of the NCAA tournament a year ago in favor of George Mason, despite an RPI of 30.
"It's a shame that people are not aware of how good the league is," Pecora said. "Stubbing your toe in the CAA should be treated the same way as stubbing your toe in some of the other conferences."ACTION ARNAUD
In the minutes that followed Old Dominion's loss to James Madison on Jan. 18, Taylor, the Monarchs' coach, didn't miss words.
He wasn't happy with his team's performance, and senior Arnaud Dahi drew the brunt of his rage. Dahi was a "no-show," Taylor told reporters. "Absolutely missing in action," he added, throwing "uncompetitive" into the barrage for good measure.
It was enough to motivate even the most unresponsive player, and Dahi hasn't been hard to find since.
The 6-foot-7 forward from Ivory Coast has been the hottest player on the league's hottest team, and he was named the CAA's player of the week after averaging 17.7 points and 10.3 rebounds in three games last week.
He had 14 points and a career-high 17 rebounds in a 62-52 win over Drexel, then scored a season-high 25 points in a 66-56 overtime win against George Mason.
He hit the game-tying 3-pointer against the Patriots to force overtime, and in the six games since Taylor tapped him as MIA, Dahi has averaged 14.7 points and nine rebounds.
Old Dominion has won five-straight games.
"I think the kids on the team talked to him in their own way and told him how much they thought of him, how good they thought he was and how we needed him to shake out of whatever was bothering him," Taylor said.AROUND THE RIM
Northeastern's Matt Janning repeated as the league's rookie of the week. Janning averaged 17.3 points, four rebounds and three assists--a lone bright spot in the Huskies' three losses last week.
Towson senior guard Gary Neal achieved a rare double-double, becoming the third player in Division I history to score 1,000 points with two teams. Neal scored 1,041 points in two seasons at LaSalle, and notched his 1,000th point against James Madison on Jan. 29. He has scored 1,043 points with the Tigers.
Hofstra senior Loren Stokes is one free throw shy of the 2,000-point mark, but the lightly-recruited guard has long been impressing his coach. "Sometimes the most highly touted players you bring in don't pan out and become great ones, and sometimes it's the sleepers that do," Pecora said.Todd Jacobson: 540/735-
|Virginia Commonwealth (RPI: 53; 20-4 overall, 12-1 CAA): The Rams opened the CAA on an 11-0 run before losing to Hofstra a week ago and a weak nonconference schedule could be damning in March. Outside of the conference, VCU has no wins against teams ranked in the RPI Top 100. A regular season title and an ESPN BracketBusters meeting with Bradley (16-9), Feb. 17, will be crucial.
Hofstra (RPI: 67; 18-6, 11-2): The Pride is the only team to beat VCU, but has tough-to-swallow losses against Northeastern and Delaware on its resume. A win over St. Joseph's is Hofstra's only nonconference RPI Top 100 win.
Old Dominion (RPI: 63; 17-7, 10-3): The Monarchs' upset win at Georgetown Nov. 17 is the kind of marquee road victory the selection committee likes to see, but ODU slipped up in the conference against James Madison. They've also beaten Drexel twice.
Drexel (RPI: 55; 17-6, 9-4): The Dragons might have the best nonconference resume of anyone in the league--and the most to gain from its ESPN BracketBusters match-up. The Dragons beat Villanova and Syracuse on the road and will play at Missouri Valley Conference co-leader Creighton Feb. 17.
Wm. & Mary
Towson at Northeastern,
Old Dominion at Georgia St., 7 p.m.
William & Mary at JMU,
NC Wilmington at
George Mason at VCU,
Drexel at Hofstra, 7 p.m.