Just six years ago the Colonial Athletic Association was on the verge of extinction.
The defection of three schools -- including cornerstone Richmond to the Atlantic 10 -- left the league with six schools, the minimum required for an automatic NCAA tournament bid.
"We were worried about if we were going to be around," said Tom Yeager, now in his 22nd season as CAA commissioner. "It was pretty tense. We were blood in the water. Sharks were circling. It was Jimmy Buffett, 'Fins to the left and fins to the right.' We were the only meal in town."
Now healthier than ever with 12 teams, the CAA is coming off its first season with two teams in the NCAA tournament since 1985-86, including its first Final Four participant in George Mason, which validated its selection as the CAA's first at-large selection since Richmond 20 years earlier. CAA officials are intent on proving last season was no fluke and that the league deserves at-large bids into the tournament every year.
"If you look at us in March, we may not have a Final Four team again," Hofstra coach Tom Pecora said. "But I think we are going to have multiple teams in the NCAA tournament. I think last year we were worthy of three, if not four. I think we are going to have six or seven teams in the top-100 RPI. I think this conference is going to continue to grow."
While George Mason and UNC Wilmington made the NCAA tournament, Hofstra and Old Dominion reached the quarterfinals of the NIT. Old Dominion became the first CAA team to make the NIT's final four.
Hofstra went 26-7 last season and was picked to win the league this season in a poll of reporters. George Mason, Drexel, Old Dominion and UNC Wilmington follow in the rankings.
Hofstra guard Loren Stokes was named preseason player of the year after averaging 17.4 points last season. George Mason forward Will Thomas and guards Antoine Agudio (Hofstra), Dominick Mejia (Drexel), Gary Neal (Towson) and T.J. Carter (UNC Wilmington) also made the first team. George Mason swingman Folarin Campbell made the second team.
On the heels of the CAA's most successful season comes the best television package in its 22-year history. Seventy-five games will be aired -- 36 more than last season's conference record -- with 19 on ESPN stations. George Mason has three appearances on ESPN and ESPN2, playing host to Wichita State on Nov. 18, at Duke on Dec. 9 and against Hofstra on Feb. 10.
Following the CAA's near-fatal collapse, Yeager tried to merge the depleted league with the America East Conference. But the Northeast-based league, with schools like Vermont and Maine, voted it down.
However, four America East schools -- Hofstra, Drexel, Delaware and Towson -- decided as a group to join the CAA. The one-time Virginia-dominated league added Northeastern and Georgia State last season and is in major media markets like Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Washington and Atlanta.
"You have to give credit to the presidents who had the foresight to see the future of our league and take what could have been a disaster, the departure of American U., Richmond and East Carolina, and proactively seek and secure replacements," George Mason coach Jim Larranaga said. "It has made our league deeper and more talented and more challenging, and it has created an opportunity for coaches to recruit up and down the Eastern Seaboard from Boston to Atlanta."