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George Mason, VCU, ODU may have company atop CAA

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Colonial Athletic Association's evolution into a threat to produce multiple NCAA tournament teams has three consistent pillars.

This could be the year that changes.

Drexel was picked to win the conference. James Madison and William & Mary return veteran teams. Delaware lurks as a team capable of pushing into the top half of the conference. Northeastern annually proves pesky and improves as much as anyone.

It doesn't mean George Mason, Old Dominion and Virginia Commonwealth — owners of 11 of the 12 NCAA trips for the CAA since 2004 — won't be good. They just might have some company, as was evident at the conference's media day Tuesday in Arlington.

"I think it's been open like this before, but those teams have always been good enough to still stay up there," Drexel coach Bruiser Flint said. "I think they'll still be that way. I call them the big three. Everybody has to say to themselves 'We have to break that triangle to be able to be considered one of the better teams.' I think we've been right there on the edge."

The Dragons usually possess enough talent and toughness to be a headache, especially for opponents unwilling to tolerate their grind-it-out ways. But the powers atop the CAA are all dealing with some transition.

George Mason has a new coach (Paul Hewitt) and lost Cam Long to graduation and Luke Hancock to a transfer to Louisville. Guard Andre Cornelius remains indefinitely suspended, and Hewitt declined to discuss the senior's status. Cornelius was arrested on charges of credit card fraud and credit card larceny last month.

Meanwhile, much of VCU's first Final Four team has moved on. The same is true of Old Dominion, which returns CAA preseason player of the year Kent Bazemore but lost three starters and its top reserve.

"I don't think we're quite as top-heavy as we've been in some years," William & Mary coach Tony Shaver said. "I think the thing that's lost sometimes is that the 'bottom-tier' teams have gotten better. I look at Delaware, for example. They've got two of the better players in the league. I could use a lot of people [as an example]. I hope we're part of that, too."

It's possible, since the Tribe return one of the conference's top players in Quinn McDowell. James Madison brings back guard Devon Moore and forward Julius Wells. Delaware has Devon Saddler, a capable scorer who thrived as a freshman.

That doesn't mean the power center of the league will fade to a significant degree. VCU still has pieces from last year. Bazemore is a good base for Old Dominion. And Hewitt's first team in Fairfax includes a formidable frontcourt with Mike Morrison and preseason all-conference pick Ryan Pearson.

Others, though, are eager to share the spotlight.

"I think with the key losses and some teams with some guys coming back, I think there's an opportunity for some other teams to get in the mix," Delaware coach Monte Ross said. "And that's what you need. You need that for your league to have even more notoriety to get other teams into the mix. I think this might be the year to do that."

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