(SportsNetwork.com) - Baltimore Arena is the sight for the 2014 Colonial Athletic Association Tournament, which begins on Friday and will conclude with Monday's title bout.
This is the first time in 25 years that the CAA Tournament isn't being played in Richmond, Virginia. James Madison won the event last season, but the top of the field is vastly different than a year ago.
The top seed belongs to Delaware (22-9, 14-2 CAA), which really turned on the jets in the second half of the season and is 16-2 since the start of January. The regular-season title is the first for the Blue Hens since they joined the league in 2001. But they may not even be the favorite here as second-seeded Towson (22-9, 13-3) finished out its slate with wins in 10 of 11 games, including a 78-63 victory over UD on Feb. 17. And then there is No. 3 seed William & Mary (18-11, 10-6), which suffered four of its six league losses to the top two seeds, although all four of those games were tightly contested.
First-round action gets started on Friday night with the eighth-seeded Hofstra Pride (9-22, 5-11) taking on the No. 9 seed UNC Wilmington Seahawks (9-22, 3-13) at 7 p.m. The matchup serves as a virtual play-in game, as the winner moves on to face top-seeded Delaware the very next day. Hofstra swept the regular-season series with the Seahawks. Pride forward Zeke Upshaw tied a school record with seven 3-pointers en route to a game-high 27 points in the first meeting.
Hofstra fought UD tooth-and-nail in both of those meetings, but the Pride struggled down the stretch with five straight losses before topping James Madison in the regular-season finale. Upshaw is the CAA's second-leading scorer with 19.6 ppg, while Dion Nesmith is also averaging double figures with 13.2 ppg. That duo has combined to shoot 37 percent from beyond the arc (142- of-389).
Along with JMU, UNCW is the only other current CAA member to have won the league tourney. The Seahawks' 32 CAA Tournament victories are more than any other school, but they have not captured the title since 2006. They also ended the season with losses in three of their last four games. UNCW has been plagued by offensive inconsistency throughout the season, as only Cedrick Williams (11.8 ppg, 6.7 rpg) averages double figures.
Awaiting the winner is the top-seeded Blue Hens, who clinched the league's regular-season title and an automatic berth to the National Invitation Tournament. However, they have their sights set on trying secure the school's first NCAA Tournament berth since 1999. And unlike either of their potential opponents in the quarterfinal round, the Blue Hens boast five players averaging double figures, headlined by Devon Saddler (20.2 ppg) and Davon Usher (19.4 ppg). Point guard Jarvis Threatt (17.9 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 5.7 apg) and starting forward Marvin King-Davis (5.5 ppg, 4.1 rpg) both returned to the lineup for the last two games following a one-month suspension. During their absence, UD lost twice and had to rally back from 15 points down to beat Hofstra.
The second contest of Saturday's quarterfinals pits fourth-seeded Drexel (16-13, 8-8) against the No. 5 seed Northeastern Huskies (10-20, 7-9) in what will be a rubber match. These teams split the regular-season series, as Drexel claimed a 93-88 double-overtime win in the first meeting, and then Northeastern pulled out a 54-52 win in Boston last Saturday.
There will certainly be a familiarity element in play, given that these teams just faced each other. The Dragons put together a solid season despite playing most of it without standout shooting guard Damion Lee (13.0 ppg, 4.2 rpg through five games), who underwent right knee surgery in late-November. Drexel is still a guard-oriented team with Chris Fouch (17.9 ppg) and Frantz Massenat (17.4 ppg) now leading the way. Freshman guard Tavon Allen (11.9 ppg) will need to step up, and the Dragons will also need to put forth a collective effort on the boards.
On the other side of the floor, forward Scott Eatherton and guard David Walker have each been in the starting lineup for every game this season. Eatherton has shot a healthy 54 percent from the floor this season and is averaging a double-double with 15.5 ppg and 10.1 rpg. Walker joins him in double figures with 11.5 ppg. Walker and Demetrius Pollard (9.0 ppg) have combined for 100 of the Huskies' 147 3-pointers on the year, but they are shooting only a collective 32.8 percent from the perimeter.
The winner of the Northeastern/Drexel game will advance to face the winner of UNCW/Hofstra/Delaware in Sunday's semifinal round.
Moving on to the evening portion of Saturday's quarterfinals, second-seeded Towson (22-9, 13-3) will face the No. 7 seed James Madison Dukes (11-19, 6-10) at 6 p.m. The Tigers swept both meetings during the regular season.
Towson has won six in a row and 15 of its last 18 games overall. The team closed out the regular season with a buzzer-beating win over William & Mary, and will look to carry that momentum into the tournament. Jerrelle Benimon has given opponents headaches in the paint all season long. A 53 percent shooter from the floor, Benimon averages 18.9 ppg and leads the nation in rebounding with 11.7 rpg. Rafriel Guthrie (12.0 ppg), Marcus Damas (11.4 ppg, 5.3 rpg) and Mike Burwell (10.1 ppg, 4.5 rpg) round out the team's double-digit scorers.
Meanwhile, James Madison will have to try and find a way to get by without leading scorer and rebounder Andre Nation (15.2 ppg, 5.3 rpg), who was suspended indefinitely last week by coach Matt Brady for academic reasons. Of course, Nation was already suspended for the first 15 games of the season for a different infraction, so the Dukes are at least accustomed to not having him on the court. Still, they face long odds to advance past to the next round of the league tourney. Charles Cooke leads the way with 14.3 ppg to go along with 5.0 rpg, while Ron Curry (12.1 ppg) and Andrey Semenov (11.0 ppg, 4.1 rpg) also average double figures in the scoring column.
The final quarterfinal matchup will see third-seeded William & Mary (18-11, 10-6) take on the No. 6 seed College of Charleston Cougars (14-17, 6-10). Each team won at home during the two regular-season meetings.
The Tribe is an interesting darkhorse candidate in this field. Senior Marcus Thornton headlines a guard-oriented lineup with 18.6 ppg and is a 40 percent shooter from beyond the arc (85-of-213). Down low, Tim Rusthoven is next in line with 12.2 points and 4.9 rebounds per tilt, while reserves Omar Prewitt (11.8 ppg, 4.7 rpg) and Brandon Britt (10.4 ppg) must also be respected along the perimeter. Prewitt is a 38 percent 3-point shooter (47-of-125), and Britt is shooting an impressive 49 percent (25-of-51) from beyond the arc.
First-year CAA member College of Charleston will have its hands full in this matchup. The Cougars, formerly of the Southern Conference, closed out their schedule with three straight losses, although they did take Delaware to task in the finale before ultimately falling, 89-86. In fact, their two losses to the Blue Hens this season were by only a combined six points. They also took Towson to overtime at SECU Arena last month. Willis Hall is tallying 12.2 ppg and 9.0 rpg while shooting 37 percent from the perimeter. Anthony Stitt is the team's only other player averaging double figures, with 10.0 ppg.
The winner between Charleston/William & Mary will take on the James Madison/Towson winner in the semifinals on Sunday.