The Colonial Athletic Association had a banner year in 2011. It sent a team -- in miraculous fashion -- to the Final Four (VCU). It had two more qualify for the NCAA tournament (Old Dominion and George Mason). When you set aside quasi-mid-major conferences like the A-10 and Mountain West and get down the true mid-major leagues, the CAA was 2011's best, and it wasn't really all that close.
For a league like the CAA to have a season like that, a certain number of things have to come together. Good teams have to gel at the same time. Big-time seniors have to reach their late-career peaks. Jim Larranaga has to slowly build his core at George Mason. Old Dominion has to get Frank Hassell and Kent Bazemore to have good seasons together. VCU has to ... well, you saw what VCU did. Success like the 2011 CAA's comes as a product of both really good basketball and circumstantial coincidence: a handful of teams have to get good at the same time.
In 2011, those things came together. In 2011-12, they may be coming apart.
In today's early Paradise Jam action, Drexel -- the coaches' preseason favorite to win the 2011-12 Colonial, lost 61-56 to, wait for it, Norfolk State. How bad is that loss? In 2011, the Spartans finished 12-20 and ranked No. 302 (!) in Ken Pomeroy's efficiency rankings. It seems unlikely they will finish all that much higher this season. (Though a win over Drexel certainly helps.)
You get the point: The loss is bad. It could cripple Drexel's at-large profile almost immediately out of the gate, and well, just ask Alabama how much bad Paradise Jam losses can hurt your chances of getting an NCAA tournament bid. But it also speaks to something deeper: The CAA might just be down all over. Maybe Drexel was the preseason favorite less because the Dragons are that good. Maybe they were the preseason favorite because the conference itself is just in one of those cycles -- have a good year, coaches leave, players graduate, rinse, repeat.
The evidence to this effect is mounting. On Thursday night, VCU was blown out 69-54 by a veteran Seton Hall team. Old Dominion opened its season with a 63-46 loss to Northern Iowa in the Ted Constant Convocation Center, its rowdy home environment. (A few days later, Northern Iowa went to St. Mary's and -- jet-lagged or no -- scored 41 points in a 16-point loss in Moraga.) Meanwhile, George Mason under new coach Paul Hewitt has looked plenty shaky: The Patriots eeked a two-point overtime win at home vs. Rhode Island, followed by a three-point overtime loss to the Isiah Thomas-coached Florida International Panthers.
And those are just the usual contention suspects. Hofstra lost by 10 at Oregon State. (No shame in losing in Corvallis; Oregon State should beat Hofstra. But still.) Northeastern was trounced by 16 at UMass. William is Mary is 0-3, with losses at St. John's and Hampton and at home to Liberty. Peruse the standings at your leisure: The only team in this conference yet to lose a game is James Madison, which has played and won once (at home versus Canisius.)
This is the part of the blog post wherein it is customary to hedge. "It's early," I should write. "There's tons of season left. Three games is a small sample size." And so on. Which is true and important to remember and not at all sarcastic in its delivery. It's Nov. 18! Deep breaths.
But it's also not all that encouraging, either, because this is supposed to be the easy part of the season. That calculus is different at every school, and it's different in conferences like the CAA, because these teams have to get some early tough ones in if they want any chance of impressing the committee. (Hofstra probably didn't love the idea of playing in Corvallis, Ore. But it had to.) The deck is stacked against them. That's how college hoops works.
In other words, I don't mean to nitpick, and I don't mean to jump the gun. By the end of the season, the CAA may prove me wrong. Let's hope so. At its best, the Colonial offers competitive, entertaining basketball that few mid-majors can match. But the 2011-12 version of this conference -- even at these early stages -- seems awfully removed from what anyone could reasonably call its "best."