By Matty Wasserman

Dylan Painter is the star center of the CAA’s consensus preseason top team, the University of Delaware. However, nothing can be taken for granted in one of the country’s most competitive, experienced leagues that will test even its top teams on a nightly basis. 

“There’s so much parity in this league,” Painter said at CAA media day.

Parity is a good descriptor for the league’s return to normalcy after an erratic 2021 mired in COVID protocols and stagnant conference schedules. Six teams received first-place votes in the CAA’s preseason coaches and media poll announced by the league on Thursday. KenPom’s projected adjusted efficiency of the league’s top five teams is within a miniscule three points of one another. Last season, the No. 6 and No. 8 teams in the conference standings advanced to the CAA championship game.

The league has taken advantage of NCAA’s fifth-year eligibility rule as dramatically as any conference in the country, supplying the league with a breadth of talent and experience it’s rarely been privy to. For a league with a combination of veteran mainstays and young, returning players expected to take a leap, there is understandable uncertainty from players, coaches, and media for how to place last year’s COVID-truncated season into perspective, and how to project the league forward for this upcoming year.

The rankings I’ve compiled below look slightly different from the official CAA media and coaches rankings published last Thursday. As you read this preview, keep in mind that I’ll usually refrain from referencing statistics on a per-game basis. Because of extreme tempo and pace discrepancies across college basketball, it’s often more useful, particularly when projecting ahead, to view statistics as a percentage of the teams’ total possessions rather than strictly numerically. With that said, let’s get to my rankings.

1 – Delaware (KenPom Projected CAA Record: 11-7)

Six teams received at least one first-place vote in the preseason poll, but Delaware received more than half the total votes. Delaware is the league’s most experienced team, returning all five starters – namely All-CAA big man Dylan Painter. Painter, the former Villinova transfer and  top 150 recruit nationally, enters his third season at Delaware as the premier interior presence in the league. At 6’10 and 23 years old, he’s one of the league’s tallest and most experienced players. His 30.2% defensive rebounding rate – seventh best in the country last season – make him an absolute weapon on the glass in addition to his ultra-efficient interior scoring.  

Alongside Painter is longtime Delaware stalwart guard, Ryan Allen. Allen has played above 80% of his team’s minutes in three of his four seasons, and should surpass the 2,000 career points milestone in his fifth-year season. Perennial double-digit scoring veteran Kevin Anderson, a three-point marksman and high-end role player, also returns for his fifth season to space the floor for the Blue Hens.

This is the last dance for the Painter-Allen-Anderson nucleus. Yes, Delaware finished fifth last season with an almost identical roster, but they lost their last eight regular season games to COVID-19 and the experience they return is unmatched in the league. The Blue Hens were an elite defensive team last season, limiting opponents to a league-best 45.4% effective field goal rate. Expect the three fifth-year seniors to keep the team consistently in games on both ends of the floor and methodically beat-down opponents by the end of games. 

2– Hofstra University (KenPom Projected CAA Record: 11-7)

My first stray from the official CAA poll is Hofstra, whom the consensus pegs to finish fifth in the conference. Speedy Claxton, former Hofstra guard and nine-year NBA veteran, takes over an experienced roster in his first season at the helm for his alma mater. I love the game of All-CAA fifth-year guard Jalen Ray, and he’ll likely be the highest-usage player in the conference this season. Ray averaged 19.3 points per game last season, taking 29.4% of his team’s shots, third most in the conference. He’s a tough-shot maker and is a career 39% shooter from deep with over 500 career attempts. Particularly with the loss of Issac Kante and his 20.4% usage to Long Island University, Ray’s role on offense should only expand. Ray’s offensive efficiency has never dipped as his usage has increased throughout his first four seasons, and with an even bigger workload as a fifth-year senior, he’s my pick for CAA player of the year.

Ray’s backcourt mate, Caleb Burgess, is a third-year distributing guard. He and Ray play really well off one another, and Burgess was second in the league last season with an impressive 32.8 assist rate. Burgess is primed to make a leap in his second season as a starter as he builds confidence and the defense focuses its attention on stopping Ray. On the interior, Kvonn Cramer was one of the league’s most efficient players last season, shooting a conference-best 73.5% on two-point shots. Without Kante his usage should elevate substantially as well from 16.9% as a freshman. 

Claxton’s first team at Hofstra is built around Ray’s offensive prowess and his dynamic scoring ability both off the bounce and the catch. However, it’s the two key returning underclassmen beside him, Burgess and Cramer, who will dictate this team’s potential. If Cramer can match his efficiency as a sophomore with increased usage, this team will be one of the league’s best.

3 – Drexel University (KenPom Projected CAA Record: 10-8)

2021 marked Drexel’s first CAA title and the program’s first trip to March Madness in 25 years. Drexel caught fire at the end of last season, but remember this was a league-average team in adjusted efficiency in the regular season and a sixth-place finisher in the standings. Guard Camren Wynter enters his senior season with a mountain of expectations and the billing of CAA preseason player of the year. Wynter is the consummate all-around lead guard, leading the CAA in assist rate last season at 35%. Wynter has played above 86% of his team’s minutes in each of his first three seasons, but he’s slowly grown into his own and upped his offensive usage each season. Expect that to increase yet again this year.

Alongside Wynter is physical menace James Butler, the 6’8, 245 pound fifth-year big man. Since transferring from Navy after his freshman season, Butler has been the most efficient offensive player in the CAA. His net offensive rating of 128.5 last season led the league, posting a 60.5% effective field goal percentage on a healthy 23.2% shot usage. Alongside the Dragons two stars is Xavier Bell and Matt Okros, two role players who were lights-out during Drexel’s magical postseason run last March. 

The Dragons were the league’s most efficient offensive team in 2021, with a 56.4% effective field goal rate. However, the expectation for Drexel should not be to steamroll the league as they did last March in the conference tournament where many of their opponents were dealing with COVID-19 absences. The foundational pieces that sparked the high-powered offense last season remain intact and coach Zach Spiker should have a formidable team in 2021-22. 

4 – James Madison University (KenPom Projected CAA Record: 10-8)

James Madison was the best team in the CAA last season, coasting to an 8-2 conference record behind 2021 CAA player of the year Matt Lewis. First year coach Mark Byington was named CAA coach of the year, and rightfully so: The Dukes led the conference in turnover percentage (16.7%) and FTA/FGA (40.9), placing JMU amongst the top teams in the country in turnover margin and getting to the stripe. 

Losing the senior guard Lewis creates an immense hole, but JMU should have the pieces returning to weather the storm. That starts with the All-CAA senior guard Vado Morse, who was an impact performer in his first season with the Dukes in 2021. Morse only played 68% of his team’s minutes last season, playing a complementary role to Lewis in the backcourt. How the 6-foot guard performs as the lead ball handler and playmaker will dictate the success of the Dukes this year. 

The high-flying Justin Amadi may be the conference’s most likely candidate to have a SportsCenter Top 10 appearance this season. But above the excitement he brings to the floor, he was also remarkably efficient as a freshman last season. His 68.3% effective field goal rate will likely tick down slightly as his usage increases from 14.9% of possessions, but the 6’7 wing still should make a sizable impact. The CAA does not administer a most-improved player award, but if they did, Amadi would be my pick. With an increased role in the offense, the template is there for ascension into stardom.

JMU will not be the same team as last season’s juggernaut, but they should still be thought of amongst the league’s top teams and should deliver a quality season. 

5 – Northeastern University (KenPom Projected CAA Record: 11-7)

The official CAA poll – which picks Northeastern to finish second – accounts for the potential of a talented young nucleus, but underestimates the question marks surrounding Bill Coen’s roster. Northeastern was by far the best defensive team in the conference last season, with a league-best 98.6 adjusted defensive efficiency. Much of that defensive production is attributed to 2021 CAA defensive player of the year Tyson Walker, now at Michigan State, and his maniacal 4.1% steal rate. 

Northeastern’s success is predicated on their wingmen, sophomore Jahmyl Telfort and senior Shaquille Walters, to take big leaps with Walker departing. Telfort had some huge scoring outbursts as a freshman, headlined by his 30-point season finale against Drexel in the CAA tournament. His scoring prowess and fluidity with a 6’7 frame is rare in the CAA, but Telfort must become more efficient as a lead option, both as a scorer and distributor. He’ll need to shoot more efficiently than 45% from two-point range and improve his playmaking as he becomes featured in the offense. The flashes of stardom were unmistakable as a freshman, making him primed for the classic “sophomore leap.” Should his shot selection and efficiency offensively jump in 2021-22 with increased confidence and a defined role as a go-to guy, I expect that leap to happen.

The fifth-year Walters will also be expected to take a leap in his first season as one of the focal points of the offense. He was really efficient as a scorer during Northeastern’s seven game conference win streak last season, averaging almost 14 points per game during that stretch. Walters was playing heavy minutes at over 91% in conference play, and his 58.2% effective field goal rate during that span was one of the best in the CAA. 

With the length, athleticism, and track record across Northeastern’s roster, I expect the Huskies to repeat as the best defensive team in the conference (as does KenPom). But the lack of a natural replacement for Walker at point guard and playmaking questions drop Northeastern to the middle of my rankings. 

6 – Elon University (KenPom Projected CAA Record: 9-9)

The CAA has a clear-cut top six teams, as polling and statistical projections both spell out. Elon made a dramatic run to the CAA championship last March as the No. 8 seed, but let’s remember: This was a 4-7 team in conference play and an ineffective offensive team with a 96.7 adjusted offensive efficiency last season. The optimism surrounding Elon revolves around Hunter McIntosh, the preseason All-CAA first team selection entering his junior season for the Phoenix. McIntosh averaged 15.3 points per game on 27.5% of his team’s shots last season, and his usage should be in a similar range again this season without many new pieces around him.

The supporting cast for McIntosh is underwhelming. Hunter Woods, a low-efficiency wing last season, should take on the number two role in the Phoenix’s offense. Though his offensive rating has plateaued at a middling 88.6 through his first two seasons, he’ll be relied upon to score alongside McIntosh. Zac Ervin, an impressive freshman two seasons ago in 2019, returns after being sidelined last season with an injury and should give the offense a boost should he return to form. 

Elon relied more heavily on three-pointers than any other CAA team last season, and McIntosh took 135 attempts alone at a below-average 34% clip. This was the worst offensive team in the conference by a wide margin based on adjusted offensive efficiency last season. I don’t expect Elon to be amongst the best teams in the conference (whoever gave them a first-place vote in the CAA poll should be exposed, that’s ridiculous), but they have one of the best lead guards and a supporting cast that should keep them afloat to a league-average season.

7 – College of Charleston (KenPom Projected CAA Record: 8-10)

We’ve now hit the lower-third of the conference, and while parity is common in the league – as referenced earlier, the No. 6 and No. 8 seeded teams advanced to the championship game last season – the league thins out on paper as we approach the bottom tier of teams. Charleston was one of the best teams in the conference last season, finishing with a respectable 6-4 conference record and an hyper-efficient offense. The Cougars suffer from roster turnover as significantly as any CAA team, and reasonable expectations should be placed on new head coach Pat Kelsley’s first season. 

Like Northeastern, Charleston will struggle with the loss of high-major up-transfers, losing do-it-all point guard Zep Jasper to Auburn and sharpshooting wing Peyton Willis to Minnesota. Brenden Tucker is the only relatively high-usage player from the 2021 roster that’s still intact. His role increased substantially in the latter half of last season, and he put together some really impressive scoring outbursts over the second half of last season, including a 35-point outpouring against Drexel which saw him go 5/7 from deep. 

The Cougars were forced to get resourceful around Tucker, finding transfers from all directions to provide help in a transitional season. Grad-transfer forward John Meeks should provide an inside-out scoring punch after scoring ultra-efficiently in a part-time role at Bucknell. Division II up-transfer Dalton Bolon can really score it, and is a three time D-II All-American at West Liberty. 

This team should be much better in March than November, incorporating so many new pieces coming from many levels of basketball and asking new roles of them. They should hover around .500 in conference play and hope to make a late season postseason push. 

8 – College of William & Mary (KenPom Projected CAA record: 7-11)

Congrats, we’ve reached the first team sheet that features plenty of dark red statistics – indicating a plethora of data that places the tribe towards the bottom of the league. William & Mary actually finished last season with a 4-6 conference record, which included close wins, blowout losses, and an alarmingly-bad 94.8 adjusted offensive efficiency. This was one of the youngest teams in the conference last season, and most of that young talent returns and should improve after a full year of CAA experience. The Tribe’s youth starts with the sophomore backcourt of Yuri Covington and reigning CAA Rookie of the Year Connor Kochera. Both Covington and Kochera were thrust into starting roles immediately as freshmen last season, and each fared about as well as expected for teenagers patrolling a Division-I backcourt together. Both guards used around 24% of the team’s possessions, but Kochera was more efficient en route to 13.4 points per game. He’s a 2021-22 preseason All-CAA second team selection, and he should only get better in his second season for a team in dire need of shot creation. Alongside the exciting young backcourt is the senior big man Quinn Blair, who thrived in his first season as a starter last year. However, he only shot 27% on 43 3-point attempts last season, and he must space the floor better to create room for Covington and Kochera. 

There’s upside for William & Mary to improve off last season and end the season far higher than this number eight ranking I’m bestowing upon them. However, the efficiency will have to improve and the Covington-Kochera backcourt, while exciting, needs to play more consistently on both ends of the floor for the Tribe to succeed.

9 – Towson University (KenPom Projected CAA Record: 8-10)

2021 was a nightmare for Towson, posting a 4-14 record and 3-9 in conference play. Much of the same nucleus and depth returns for one of the CAA bottom-feeders from a year ago. The only statistic I could find to provide any optimism is that Towson had some of the worst 3-point luck in the country last season, with their opponents shooting over 40% from deep against them. Towson graduates their best player from last season, Zane Martin, who accounted for 33% of their total shots and was the primary creator in the offense. It will rely heavily on returning starters Charles Thopmson, Nicolas Timberlake, and Jason Gibson to carry the offensive load. There’s a path for both Thompson and Gibson to take leaps this season – both were effective offensive players in limited roles a season ago. 

Towson had a stagnant, methodical, and dreadfully inefficient offense a season ago. It’s counting on many of the players who contributed to that to step into larger roles this season, and will catch the league (and myself) by surprise if they are an upper-half league team this year. 

10 – UNC Wilmington (KenPom Projected CAA Record: 6-12)

KenPom’s 6-12 projection is actually quite kind to UNC Wilmington, who will likely repeat as the worst team in the conference after a disastrous 1-6 CAA record in a season destroyed by COVID. UNCW played the fewest games of any participating Division I program last season, meaning our picture of the roster is incomplete and difficult to evaluate contextually. 

Forward Jaylen Sims averaged a team-leading 17.8 points per game (in just eleven games) before having his season cut short due to injury, and his ability to maintain the same productivity over the course of the entire season will be crucial to UNCW. All-CAA forward Mike Okauru will work alongside Sims, and could be in line for a breakout season as he becomes more comfortable and grows into his offensive role. UNCW was by far the worst defensive team in the conference last season, posting a hideous 109.5 adjusted efficiency against. This is a team that relies upon drawing fouls and mucking the game up to generate offense. 

It’s unfair to completely assess UNCW on the merits of a season-from-hell in 2021. However, this team will struggle to compete against the best teams in the league and will likely fall towards the bottom of the standings yet again this year.

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