CAA Tired of Going Stag to NCAA's Big Dance

george mason - wake forest
Although Folarin Campbell, left, and George Mason lost to Wake Forest in double overtime on Nov. 11 in the 2K Sports College Hoops Classic, the Patriots showed that the CAA is no longer satisfied with second-tier standing. (Rusty Burroughs - AP File Photo)

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By Dan Steinberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 27, 2005

In college basketball circles, it's the ultimate backhanded compliment: "A nice one-bid league." Colonial Athletic Association Commissioner Tom Yeager has heard variations on that theme over the past 19 seasons, each of which has ended with just one CAA team in the NCAA tournament.

Thirty-one conferences receive an automatic bid to the tournament, and success in that springtime extravaganza naturally burnishes a league's image. But simply placing multiple teams in the tournament can deliver national credibility, increased local interest and a seven-figure payout for lesser-known conferences such as the CAA, and that goal is accomplished as much during November and December as it is in March.

The quest, Yeager said, is discussed every day at the league's Richmond offices. This fall, the league hired former Atlantic 10 commissioner Ron Bertovich as its first deputy commissioner for basketball; Bertovich said the elusive second bid was mentioned in "probably the first sentence" during early conversations about that job.

"Whether people like it or not, the measure of strength in the public eye is how many teams do you send to the NCAA tournament," Yeager said. "Our mind-set all the time is we've got to think of ways to get two teams in. That's where the whole focus is; that's the number one goal."

A quick start during this year's nonconference schedule had both coaches and administrators murmuring that things could be changing. CAA teams have beaten schools from the Southeastern Conference, Big East and Big Ten. As recently as last week the CAA was ranked in the top 10 of the somewhat esoteric Ratings Percentage Index, a figure that has no real significance but is nevertheless a source of pride among league officials. Six CAA teams were in the RPI's top 100 entering last weekend, and the RPI actually does matter for individual teams. Yeager said last week that this had clearly been the CAA's strongest start during the 19-year dry spell, and several coaches agreed.

"This is the best the league's ever been," Drexel's Bruiser Flint said. "If we're gonna break out, this is the year."

Those who study the tournament and the numbers, however, are less enthusiastic, and a string of bad losses in recent days has not helped. ESPN analyst Joe Lunardi estimated that the CAA has a 30 percent chance of exiting one-bid territory this March. Jerry Palm, who calculates and distributes RPI figures on his Web site, CollegeRPI.com, agreed that the CAA likely will be disappointed again, and said UNC Wilmington was the only team with a legitimate chance for an at-large bid.

CAA teams have had more NCAA tournament wins, more narrow losses and a smaller margin of defeat than any other one-bid league over the past 15 years. Three times in the last five years, a CAA team lost its NCAA tournament opener by three points or less, which is why several outsiders were surprised to hear about the 19-year dry spell.

"That kind of shocks me," said Villanova Coach Jay Wright, who led current CAA member Hofstra when it was still in the America East. "I always look at that league more on par with the Atlantic 10, and I don't mean that as a knock on the Atlantic 10. It's just the quality of play in that league."

Why, then, the 19-year drought? The explanation lies somewhere beneath a confusing clutter of nonconference schedules, win-loss records and postseason results.

To begin with, understand that the surest path toward a second tournament bid is what Yeager calls the "fool's gold" route, in which a league's best-qualified team loses in the conference championship game, creating the strongest case for an at-large bid. The CAA's regular season champion has earned an automatic bid in eight of the last 11 years, thus eliminating the league's best candidate from consideration for an at-large berth.

"If you don't win at least a share of the regular season championship in a non-major league, your chances of getting a bid are just about zero," Palm said. "Not quite zero, but just about zero."


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