CAA must improve depth to take next step

March, 31, 2011

HOUSTON -- The Colonial Athletic Association is experiencing a renaissance with an unbelievable stretch of two Final Four appearances in six years.

That's one more than the Big 12, one more than Conference USA, two more than the Mountain West, Atlantic 10, WAC and any other conference outside of the Horizon (which has sent Butler in consecutive seasons) from the power six leagues.

The runs made by George Mason in 2006 and VCU in 2011 were the least predictable of any of the recent multiple appearances from any conference. Neither team was a lock to even get into the NCAA tournament in the two seasons that it reached the Final Four.

"It shows how good our league was this year,'' Drexel coach Bruiser Flint said. "The difference was that we won games outside our league.''

VCU beat UCLA in Madison Square Garden. Drexel won at Louisville. Old Dominion beat Xavier, Clemson and Richmond. Mason didn't have a big-time win but played its schedule well from a power-rating perspective, and winning the league by two games certainly carried weight with the selection committee. "This is really the first year that we won games outside of our conference,'' Flint said.

VCU finished in fourth place, four games behind Mason and two behind Old Dominion and Hofstra this season. Mason received an at-large bid and beat Villanova in the second round. ODU beat VCU to earn the league's automatic berth, then lost to Butler at the buzzer in the second round. Hofstra didn't have a good enough nonconference profile to earn an at-large berth.

But the problem for the Colonial is that's where the postseason ended.

No team went to the NIT. James Madison and Hofstra went to the College Basketball Invitational but lost in the first round to Davidson and Evansville, respectively. No other team in the league went to a postseason tournament.

The bottom of the league wasn't up to par and needed to be much better for the Colonial to truly have the depth to be considered differently. The top of the league, meanwhile, has been as competitive as any conference in the top eight to 10.

That doesn't mean those teams would win any kind of playoff series, but in a one-game playoff, they can fare well, as we've seen in the NCAA tournament.

But Drexel didn't earn a bid to a tournament. Delaware and UNC Wilmington were below .500 in the league. Georgia State and Northeastern finished six games below .500 in conference play, and all the above-mentioned teams finished below .500 overall.

William & Mary was even worse, 10 games below .500 in the CAA and 12 overall.

Towson didn't win a league game (0-18), was 4-26 overall and is now searching for a head coach. Georgia State fired Rod Barnes and hired IUPUI's Ron Hunter, who said that one of the main reasons he wanted to make the switch after 17 years was to get into the Colonial. Towson hopes that it can land a head coach who wants to be in the league, too.

ODU's Blaine Taylor has one of the better jobs in the region, and that's why he's not moving for just any gig. Wyoming tried to woo him, and the former Montana head coach and Stanford assistant said no. Wyoming is in the Mountain West, but ODU is a much better job because of resources, salary, access to players and quality nonconference games. Utah hasn't pushed for Taylor, and maybe that would move him to leave for a Pac-12 job, but he might not leave considering he's extremely comfortable living by the beach and coaching one of the better teams outside a high-profile league.

Clearly, VCU has been fertile territory for coaches to go on to higher-level jobs like Oklahoma (Jeff Capel) and Alabama (Anthony Grant). The Rams will have to push Shaka Smart's salary close to $800,000 to likely keep him from moving to a program like NC State. The Final Four run may make that more plausible.

George Mason's Jim Larranaga isn't going anywhere because the Patriots' Final Four run still has legs. Drexel's Flint should be marketable, but he's a Philadelphia native who desperately wants to get the Dragons over the hump and into the tournament.

The Colonial television package, much like the Horizon's, is minimal with ESPN and could improve. It helps that these teams are quality opponents for leagues like the ACC, SEC and Big East.

The selection committee is taking this conference seriously, as it proved by giving the CAA multiple bids. But the league is earning its way in the NCAA tournament by winning games. For the CAA to really excel, though, teams at the bottom must improve.

The market size of those schools isn't going to change. The resources may not be as competitive as Mason, ODU and VCU. But the multiple Final Fours in six seasons and the wins in the tournament by the Rams and Mason will only help the CAA profile of being a top league outside of the power six, the Mountain West and the Atlantic 10.

The numbers speak for themselves. The Colonial received more bids and won more games than C-USA, and its fourth-place team is in the Final Four. It's hard to argue with the facts that the CAA is on the rise.

Andy Katz | email

ESPN Senior Writer



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