2011 CAA Tournament preview

The CAA tournament begins in Richmond this Thursday and much is at stake for the Rams. Despite some solid wins against “major” programs, the Rams’ slide to the fourth seed in the conference means that a conference tournament championship is likely their only route to the NCAA Tournament.

Planning on heading down to the Coliseum to cheer on the Rams? Check out the full tournament schedule.

As the 29th annual Colonial Athletic Association tournament begins in Richmond this Thursday, much is at stake for the host team, the Virginia Commonwealth Rams. Despite an ambitious out-of-conference schedule that included some solid wins against “major” programs, the Rams’ slide to the fourth seed in the conference means that a conference tournament championship is likely their only route to the NCAA Tournament.

The conference itself has enjoyed a very successful year, establishing itself as one of the top mid-major conferences in the nation. As a whole, the CAA was the only other conference besides the Big East with six teams finishing with 20+ wins. They also enjoyed a 59% winning percentage against non-conference foes. Speaking even more to what should be a competitive tourney, 63 of the 102 conference contests played this season were decided by ten points or less. If competitiveness and intensity only heighten during tournament time, that statistic should speak to a very exciting and unpredictable event here in Richmond.

The hometown VCU Rams stayed near or at the top of the standings for the bulk of the season until former NCAA Tournament darling George Mason began to run away from the field and never looked back. The Patriots finished the season with a sterling 16-2 conference record, a small feature in Sports Illustrated magazine, and more chatter on radio and television of being poised to be another upstart mid-major program that could create chaos for a team from a power conference come tournament time. It appears George Mason would have a solid opportunity to make the tournament with or without a CAA Tournament championship on its resume. Currently, the team is ranked #25 in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll, the first time a CAA team has been nationally ranked since the mythical Patriots team of ’06 that reached the Final Four. They are currently riding a 15-game winning streak, the best in the nation.

The Rams, however, ended up 10-6 in the CAA and endured a devastating late- season home loss to #6 seed James Madison at home. While the Rams have had a reputation of dominance at the Stuart C. Siegel Center, tournament time is a lot different from a regular-season matchup. The Rams’ reliance on the three-pointer (they shot 712 during the regular season, far more than any other team in the conference) has at times proved costly despite the difficulty their helter-skelter defense often causes for opponents. VCU enters the tournament having lost four straight conference matchups for the first time since the 1999-2000 season. The team will be counting heavily on consistent long-range shooting, the havoc of their usually disruptive defense, and the continued dominance of Jamie Skeen, who finished the regular season in the top ten in the conference in scoring, rebounding, and blocked shots. VCU will be seeking its fourth CAA Tournament championship.

As for players to watch in this year’s event, it starts with #3 seed Hofstra’s Charles Jenkins, the favorite for conference player of the year. Jenkins leads the conference in scoring at 23.2 points per game, is fourth in field-goal shooting at 52.8% from the floor, and leads the conference in assists at 4.8 per contest. James Madison’s Denzel Bowles is second in the conference in scoring at 18.2 per contest, third in rebounding at 9.0 boards per game, and second in field-goal shooting at 58.1%. And the Monarchs of Old Dominion boast forward Frank Hassell, coming in 13th in scoring at 14.2 points per game, second in rebounding at 9.8 per game, and third in field-goal shooting at 54.2%. Skeen can be found atop many leading categories as well to lead the local representative, VCU.

For the hometown team to take home the crown and a coveted trip to the NCAA Tournament they will need to rely on the partisan crowd to help amp up their defensive intensity; they’ll need to shoot the long-ball with consistent success; and they’ll need the continued leadership and production from veterans like Skeen and point guard Joey Rodriguez. They may also need to go through arguably the hottest team in the country right now in rival George Mason. It’s no small task, but if the regular season is any indication anything could happen in this year’s CAA Tournament.

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Lathan Wells

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