- The Washington Times - Friday, January 5, 2007

The small contingent of Old Dominion fans inside McDonough Arena chanted “C-A-A, C-A-A” as the Monarchs wrapped up their upset over then-eighth-ranked Georgetown in the Hoyas’ cozy on-campus gym earlier this season.

That has been a familiar scene throughout the 2006-07 college basketball season. Colonial Athletic Association programs have continued to stun more highly regarded opponents a season after the league busted onto the college basketball map thanks to George Mason’s surprise run to the Final Four.

Drexel, which currently is in first place in the league, has posted wins at Villanova and Syracuse. Hofstra beat Saint Joseph’s and St. John’s last month en route to winning the Holiday Festival at Madison Square Garden.

Still, just 10 months after George Mason’s NCAA tournament run, the CAA is two games below .500 against Division I non-conference teams after being 18 above .500 at this point a year ago.

“We have some teams playing well,” said CAA commissioner Tom Yeager, whose league has five losing squads among its 12 members. “Others have struggled and that has muted things overall a lot.”

Not surprisingly, the league’s Rating Percentage Index — a computer-generated ranking based on wins and strength of schedule — is down. The CAA is rated 14th. Drexel, with a team RPI ranking of 13, currently leads the league.

Last season at this time, six teams were among the top 72 in RPI. A year later, only three other CAA schools — Hofstra (81), Old Dominion (87), and Virginia Commonwealth (97) — crack the top 100. George Mason has an RPI of 109.

Despite it being early January, George Mason’s road contest against Old Dominion could be critical to keeping each team’s at-large hopes alive. Mason is 6-6 overall and 0-2 in conference.

“I heard someone say it doesn’t look like we are multiple-bid league this year,” Patriots coach Jim Larranaga said. “I really beg to differ with that. Although it might not have distinguished itself like people might think record-wise, the level of competition and number of quality teams we have played, especially away from home, and significant wins on the road lead me to believe that this is again a deep and talented league with a number of teams positioning themselves for postseason play and at-large consideration.”

The conference has been hurt by the struggles of its bottom feeders, as Delaware, UNC Wilmington, Georgia State, Northeastern and James Madison are a combined 14-37 in non-conference games. As a result, teams like Old Dominion, VCU (10-3) and Hofstra (9-4) likely will need around 15 in-conference wins to have a chance at receiving an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. Hofstra, which was snubbed for the tournament last season after having a 24-6 regular-season record, bulked up its schedule in hopes of getting at-large consideration.

“They have to understand how many road games we are playing,” said Hofstra coach Tom Pecora, whose team has won 10 of its last 11 games. “Not only ourselves. We played one non-conference home game. I look at everyone else and the majority of the games have been on the road. Some of that has to come into play at the end of the year.”

Pecora is quick to point out the tournament selection committee is forced to compare “apples and oranges” while choosing the field. Mid-major teams with tournament ambitions must spruce up their resumes with road-heavy non-conference schedules.

Meanwhile, bigger conference programs rarely have to leave their arenas. Maryland has played only one non-conference game on an opponent’s court, and that was part of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Fifth?ranked Duke has played 10 home games, three on neutral courts and zero on someone else’s homecourt.

The CAA also may benefit from the success of other mid-major conferences. The Missouri Valley Conference has proven that last season’s four bids was no aberration. It is the third-rated conference, behind only the ACC and Pacific 10. The CAA is hoping to get more serious consideration because of the overall success of mid-majors.

“There are other leagues out there besides these BCS leagues that can have very good teams,” said Old Dominion coach Blaine Taylor, whose team went against the road trend and played eight of its 11 non-conference games in Norfolk. “I’m glad we did our part that night [against Georgetown]. In the past, [George] Mason has. What Hofstra just did at Madison Square Garden was very significant. I think what Drexel has done has got people’s attention. The list goes on.”

While the league does have its share of marquee wins, it has experienced only moderate success overall. And the CAA, which placed only its tournament champion in the NCAA tournament for 20 seasons until George Mason broke the trend last season, will need something to change this season in order to repeat its multiple-bid status.

“Obviously [if] Drexel has the RPI and keeps things going, they would be there,” Yeager said. “If they storm through the league and win the tournament, do we have another team? I don’t know. It depends on how things play out down the stretch. We need some other teams to separate themselves from the rest, like Wilmington, George Mason and Hofstra did last season.”

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