By Ed Miller
© March 2, 2012
Forget the numbers. That's so 2011.
RPI is passe. Strength of schedule doesn't tell the tale. When making a case for a second Colonial Athletic Association team in the NCAA tournament, the conference's coaches have changed their tunes. By-the-numbers guys a year ago, when the CAA's bracketology numbers were strong, they're making a different, less quantitative argument this year.
"No, we didn't have the numbers, but the league definitely passes the eyeball test," Drexel coach Bruiser Flint said.
The feeling among coaches is that Drexel and Virginia Commonwealth look like NCAA teams, no matter what the numbers say, and regardless of whether they cut the nets at the Richmond Coliseum.
The league's tournament tips off today. The CAA's one sure thing - its automatic NCAA bid - is on the line.
Everything else is guesswork. A year ago at this time, the CAA had two teams that appeared to be at-large locks. George Mason was No. 24 in the Ratings Percentage Index, while Old Dominion was 27. Four others were in the top 81. This year, it has just three in the top 100, led by VCU, on shaky historical ground at 58. Drexel, despite winning 17 straight and a 16-2 conference mark, is at 75.
What the CAA does have going for it is a handful of the country's hottest teams - Drexel, VCU and Delaware - and competitive balance in its top half. That could make for a compelling tournament, no matter what Selection Sunday holds.
"About six schools have a chance to win it," ODU coach Blaine Taylor said. "The other six have a chance to win some games."
Here's your primer to the tournament:
Can No. 1 seed Drexel break a string of five straight championships by Virginia schools - Old Dominion, VCU and George Mason?
"I hope so," Flint said. "We were picked to win (the regular season) and we did win it, but we know how hard it is to win down in Richmond."
Drexel's task got harder with the suspension of starter Derrick Thomas, who is out for the tournament. Still, the Dragons have never looked more capable of knocking off "the big three," as Flint calls them.
If not Drexel, who?
No. 2 seed VCU is playing just a long 3-pointer from its home at the Siegel Center and always has to be considered a contender. The Rams have won 14 of their past 15 games and their fans, as usual, will paint the Coliseum black and gold.
What are Old Dominion's chances?
The Monarchs can make a claim to being the team no one wants to face. On the one hand, they're the only team with championship experience, having won the last two tournaments. On the other, they've got the reduced expectations that come with a No. 4 seed.
"We don't have the bull's-eye on us," Taylor said.
If the Monarchs find the sweet spot at the intersection of nothing-to-lose and been-there-done-that, they'll be a tough out. To win it all, however, they'll likely have to beat a team that finished ahead of them in the standings, something they've failed to do this year.
Anyone else have a shot?
No. 5 seed Delaware quietly has won eight straight. If the Blue Hens get by ODU Saturday - and they pushed the Monarchs to overtime in a loss in January - they'd likely face Drexel. Delaware is one of just two CAA teams to beat the Dragons. The Hens are also good from the free-throw line, hitting 81.8 percent over the last five games.
Who are the players to watch?
ODU's Kent Bazemore has made the past two all-tournament teams and is averaging 26.8 points and 8.5 rebounds over his past four games. VCU's Bradford Burgess made the 2011 all-tournament team and is averaging 18.7 points over his past six games. George Mason's Ryan Pearson is the conference's Player of the Year. All three are seniors with plenty of experience in March over the years.