By John Akers, Basketball Times
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By reaching the Final Four just five years apart, George Mason and VCU placed some mighty impressive dots on the basketball map.
And what about the line that is the Colonial Athletic Association that connects them?
Much less has been said about a conference that has placed more teams in the past half-dozen Final Fours than the Mountain West, Atlantic 10 and Conference USA combined (a feat equaled by the Horizon League, though by a single team from Butler).
Much more deserves to be said about the Virginia-centric league that also has sent more teams to the Final Four over those six seasons than a Big 12 Conference that produced Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin and Michael Beasley over that same period, but just one Final Four team (albeit a national-champion Kansas in 2008).
How did Jim Larranaga, the former George Mason coach who recently left for Miami, VCU coach Shaka Smart and the CAA pull it off? It sure wasn’t from big spending. According to basketballstate.com, the combined 2009 basketball budgets of KU, Oklahoma State and any other Big 12 school that you might care to choose were more than the $21.8 million that all 12 CAA schools had to spend during the 2008-09 season.
“Without belittling anyone else, top to bottom, we probably have the most under-rated conference in the country,” said Smart, the 32-year-old architect of VCU’s five stunning NCAA Tournament victories in just his second season with the Rams.
The CAA was deep enough to send its fourth-place team to the Final Four last season and its second- or third-best team to the Final Four in 2006. And yet, while the CAA sent a record three teams to the NCAA Tournament last season; George Mason’s bid in 2006 ended a 20-year drought in which the CAA had not earned a single a-large bid. Though the CAA has sent two teams to Final Fours, it hasn’t placed another team in a Sweet 16 since former CAA member Richmond got that far in 1988.
For all the evidence that the CAA has been under-appreciated, there is also enough there to support the suspicion that it has also been twice blessed with the kind of luck that normally doesn’t come around in a lifetime.
“And that’s fair,” said CAA commissioner Tom Yeager.
Yeager not only is a voice of reason among self-promoting conference administrators, he is the only commissioner even known by the CAA – an offshoot of the old, massive East Coast Athletic Conference, which served as a governing body for Eastern institutions but wasn’t a traditional league of similarly sized and like-minded schools. The NCAA essentially handed the ECAC three tournament bids and left it to figure out how to distribute them. The six-team ECAC-South was formed in 1983, and Yeager left the NCAA to become commissioner of the CAA in 1985.
Likewise, Richmond Coliseum has been the home of the CAA tournament since 1990, second only to the Big East Conference and Madison Square Garden as the nation’s longest marriage of arena and conference tournament.
The league itself, however, has undergone more changes than a 1970s rock band. Navy left the CAA in 1991 and Richmond in 2001 (along with American and East Carolina), taking with them of the CAA’s most significant tournament history. Old Dominion arrived in 1992, and VCU was a fortuitous upgrade for the CAA when the Metro Conference broke up in 1995. When the CAA became a six-team league again for a few weeks after Richmond, American and East Carolina left in ’01, the league reached down to the America East and plucked Delaware, Drexel, Hofstra and Towson as their less-obvious replacements.
“I wasn’t even convinced,” Yeager said. “Who knows?”
The CAA added Georgia State and Northeastern in 2006, creating a league that now stretches nearly as far as the Pac-10 or the ACC along the two coasts. Though this is no longer a league of 3½ bus tours across Virginia and into the tips of Maryland and North Carolina, former VCU coach Mack McCarthy believes the CAA’s charm was always in its diversity.
“You had a school like Richmond, very academically oriented, and William & Mary and American, too,” McCarthy said. “You’ve got James Madison over in the Shenandoah Valley. And you have urban schools like VCU and Old Dominion and Georgia State and Northeastern. You’ve got state schools like Delaware. You’ve got Drexel downtown (Philadelphia). You’ve got a lot of different situations and a lot of different agendas.”
The league had its basketball moments in the 1980s, with Dick Tarrant pulling off a number of upsets at Richmond and the Admiral, David Robinson, leading Navy to an Elite Eight in 1986. The CAA became a home to coaches such as Tarrant, Paul Evans, Dana Kirk, J.D. Barnett, Sonny Allen, Lefty Driesell, Lou Campanelli, Rick Barnes and Oliver Purnell, among others.
Yet the CAA champions of 1990s were typically given no better than No. 14 or 15 seeds by the NCAA selection committee. While that set up Tarrant’s Spiders nicely in 1991 to become the first No. 15 seed to win an NCAA Tournament game by upsetting Syracuse, it did little otherwise to improve the CAA’s image. Even as the league’s top teams began to improve during the early 2000s, the CAA had little to show for it. Regular-season champions won each of the CAA tournaments from 2002-07, denying the league of any unexpected second bids. The CAA won only four NCAA Tournament games from 1989-2005 – and that was four more than was expected of it.
The CAA was still just the home to a Bill, a George, a Jim and even a Mary and all of the jokes that come with that.
”I made the comment six years ago that our league is a little bit under-sung, but somebody’s got to come out and do something like a Gonzaga or a Creighton,” Old Dominion coach Blaine Taylor said. “Some of us have got to make some noise. That year, we went 28-6 and kind of got us on the map, and since that time, these other schools have really done their part, too.
“The fact is, two of these schools have gone to the Final Four and Gonzaga hasn’t.”
Though there was no hard evidence to suggest that a CAA school was ready to make a NCAA Tournament breakthrough, there were clues in the losses. From 2001-05, CAA schools lost on a desperation 3-pointer (UNCW, to defending national champion Maryland’s Drew Nicholas in 2003), by the margin of a 3-pointer (George Mason, again to Maryland in 2001) and twice after holding second-half leads (VCU, to Wake Forest in 2004, and Old Dominion, to Michigan State in 2005). The day before George Mason began its Final Four journey in 2006, UNC Wilmington blew an 18-point lead and lost in overtime to George Washington. The only win during that time came in overtime, with UNCW beating USC in 2002.
“Through history, that’s where we’ve been,” Yeager said. “We’ve been right there.”
On Selection Sunday of 2006, the breakthrough that Yeager hoped for was simply to get three tournament bids for the first time in CAA history. Tournament champion UNC Wilmington held the automatic bid, and Hofstra and George Mason were on that so-called bubble. Yeager nervously spent the day raking leaves and tending to his yard, going over the numbers again and again in his head. Hofstra was No. 31 in the RPI ratings, was 7-5 against top-100 teams and had won 12 of its last 14. George Mason was 23-7 but had lost twice in 10 days to the Pride.
Yet, the NCAA selection committee took George Mason but not Hofstra in what was an even more controversial field than last March’s selections. Billy Packer argued that the Missouri Valley with four bids and the CAA with two received too many bids; some in the media criticized Packer and said that with the snubs of Missouri State and Hofstra, the two leagues didn’t get enough. Most could agree that if the CAA deserved just two bids, the second of them should have gone to Hofstra.
“It’s kind of like a tie game,” Yeager said that night. “We’ve been chasing an at-large bid for 20 years, and that was accomplished. But in all honesty, I thought there was another team that was deserving, and they did not make the cut.”
Ron Bertovich, the CAA’s associate commissioner in charge of basketball, left his car at the Baltimore-Washington International airport at the start of the CAA tournament. Most years, he would be have picked it up about 10 days later, when the first (and last) team from the league was eliminated from the NCAA Tournament. But then the Patriots did the unexpected, beating Michigan State without Tony Skinn, who served a one-game suspension for throwing a sucker punch at an opponent, during the CAA tournament, and then another toppled another giant, in North Carolina. After winning a rematch with Wichita State, Larranaga prodded the Patriots into becoming the most improbable Final Four entry in nearly 20 years with shouts of “C-A-A!” – which in this case stood for “Connecticut Assassins Association.” Thirty-one days later, Bertovich was finally able to retrieve his car at BWI.
And yet, despite the success of the 2005-06 season, the CAA from 2007-10 seemed to revert to a place similar to where it was from 2001-05: It was still a league that was right there, and yet wasn’t going particularly far. Despite the CAA’s newfound NCAA cred, the committee denied it a third bid again in 2007 by snubbing Drexel. VCU upset Duke in that tournament but was denied a Sweet 16 appearance by an overtime loss to Pitt. VCU lost by a point to UCLA in 2009, and Old Dominion beat Notre Dame and reached the NCAA’s second round in 2010.
CAA schools had played 15 first-round NCAA Tournament games from 2001-10 – every one of them in the lower-seeded dark uniforms – and all but two of them either were won or easily could have been.
Then came the 2010-11 season, which felt a lot like 2005-06 even before VCU made its run. The CAA produced six 19-win teams in 2006; there were six 20-win teams in 2011. The league also had six teams among the RPI’s top-100, which was significant both times in the CAA’s pitch for a third bid. VCU went 8-8 in top-100 games, the same as Virginia Tech and better than Colorado.
There were also eeary similarities between the two Final Four runs. Both George Mason and VCU had won harrowing Bracketbuster victories over Wichita State that were no doubt necessary in securing their NCAA bids. They both avoided near stumbles in their first games of the CAA tournament that surely would have kept them out of the NCAA Tournament – George Mason beat Georgia State in overtime in ’06, and Jamie Skeen hit a shot at the buzzer to give VCU a two-point win over Drexel last season. Both were controversial No. 11 seeds whose Final Four journeys began in Dayton. This time, however, Bertovich managed to move his car from the BWI airport parking lot some time between the first round and the Final Four.
Six years later, the story had repeated itself, right down to the skepticism over whether a future Final Four participant was even worthy of being in the tournament.
“We fight a perception problem every day, every hour,” Bertovich said. “But that’s OK, because the bottom line is that I have faith in that committee.”
VCU’s run was hailed as perhaps the greatest in NCAA Tournament, since the expanded 68-team field forced the Rams to become the first team to win five games to reach a Final Four. And they beat teams such as USC, Georgetown, Purdue and Kansas convincingly, winning their five games by nearly 12 ppg. Even CAA fans didn’t see that coming, particularly after a 3-5 February prompted Smart to symbolically burn that month from the calendar. Then Bilas and the crew from ESPN gave Smart’s team more emotional ammunition.
“I felt like we had two choices when Jay Bilas and Co. really crossed the line and started degrading us,” Smart said. “As a team, we could have tried to ignore it, or we could attack it head on. We chose the latter. The great thing from VCU’s standpoint is that (Bilas) will always be remembered as the member of the media who didn’t believe in us, who led the charge, and that he was wrong.
“At the same time, we were same, ‘Look guys, we’re kind of becoming America’s team.’ Guys like Joey feed off that. Everyone loves a great story. For the month of March, Joey Rodriguez, Jamie Skeen, Bradford Burgess and Brandon Rozzell were the story.”
With the extra game – and perhaps a determination to not be outdone by those estimates of the $400 million to $600 million of goodwill that George Mason received during the 2006 tournament – Smart said he was told VCU received an estimated $1 billion in free advertising during its run.
“Not that we have $1 billion,” Smart said, laughing.
VCU’s success overshadowed George Mason’s first-round victory over Villanova and Old Dominion’s loss at the buzzer to Butler that boggled the mind with what-might-have-beens. If ODU had won that game and duplicated Butler’s success over the next three rounds, the Final Four would have included an all-CAA semifinal.
“Let’s not get too delirious,” Yeager said.
The thought certainly crossed Taylor’s mind.
“When you play somebody right to the wire,” he said, “it’s human to be a little envious that you could be in that spot.”
If a Final Four run was worth up to $600 million for George Mason in 2006 and $1 billion for VCU in 2011, what will the two of them be worth to the rest of the league members in 2011?
There is the obvious financial windfall. According to published reports, VCU’s run earned the CAA an additional $12.6 million over the next six years. The CAA is expected to distribute $3.8 million payout in June 2012. Unlike most conferences, the CAA created an “excellence pool” rather than divide the revenues evenly among the 12 teams. VCU will receive an estimated $796,000 in 2012, George Mason $778,000 and Old Dominion $402,000 and the remaining schools between $236,000 and $193,000.
Towson is breaking ground on a new arena that will be ready by the 2013-14 season, and ODU and Delaware have plans in place for new practice facilities.
There were also more subtle recruiting benefits.
“I had two reporters call me during the Final Four and ask me if (VCU’s presence is) going to help recruiting – it’s going to help VCU’s recruiting, that I can tell you,” William & Mary coach Tony Shaver said with a chuckle. “But I do think it helps us. When we go across the country, people know the CAA. Kids don’t go, ‘Now, who’s in that league?’ They know.”
The next step will be in convincing the Packers and Bilases to accept the idea of a second or third CAA school crashing the NCAA Tournament on a near-regular basis.
“The Mason Final Four helped everybody in the league get a little better player – that’s one reason that I think VCU went to the Final Four,” said Drexel coach Bruiser Flint, a nine-year veteran of the CAA who along with Taylor became the dean of the league’s coaches with Larranaga’s departure. “We’ve had some teams that have had success, and it helped our league get deeper in talent.
“Now what I’m hoping for from the VCU Final Four run is that we get more opportunities to send more than one team to the NCAA Tournament.”
The CAA ranked an all-time best ninth in conference RPI – well ahead of its No. 16 ranking in 1999-2000 – just behind Conference USA and ahead of the Atlantic 10, which lost nine of 16 games against CAA teams.
“I think our league the past six years has been just beneath that line where the Atlantic 10 and the Mountain West is,” Smart said. “Everyone knows who Xavier is. Everyone knows who UNLV is. I think our league has been just below that.
“But at the same time, we’ve got two Final Four teams and they don’t have any.”
Since his Monarchs beat Xavier, Richmond and Dayton this season, Taylor is willing to stake a greater claim.
“The A-10 is thought to be a pretty good league,” he said. “There was a time when the A-10 thought they were a little bit ahead of us – and those days have come and gone.”
The Virginians of the CAA take particular glee in pointing out that the Virginia schools of the ACC – Virginia Tech and Virginia – have not scheduled its three most dominant teams, Old Dominion, VCU and George Mason. In fact, neither of the two played any of the five Virginia schools – including Richmond and Hampton – that played in this season’s NCAA Tournament.
Let’s just say that Virginia Tech’s snub from recent NCAA Tournaments doesn’t generate a lot of sympathy in the CAA.
“In this state, there’s all this talk about Virginia and Virginia Tech. We would love to play those teams home-and-home,” said Smart, who is now 8-2 against BCS schools in his two seasons at VCU. “They just don’t want to play us, and that’s their prerogative. I’ve been (an assistant coach) at Clemson and I’ve been at Florida, where I probably wouldn’t want to play VCU, either.
“I’m not trying to start a fight or anything, but if (Virginia Tech) had played (VCU, Old Dominion or George Mason) and won, it would have drastically improved their profile. And if they don’t win, that’s college basketball. You’ve got to win.”
After winning the CAA tournament title, Taylor made an impassioned plea for the NCAA tournament selection committee to include VCU as well as George Mason and his Monarchs. Taylor, who is 4-1 against Virginia Tech during his career, also took a well-aimed jab at BCS coaches who will politic for at-large bids despite owning what weak resumes.
“In Montana, we had an expression for that,” said Taylor, the head coach at Montana from 1991-98. “All hat, no horse.”
Taylor didn’t have to mention any names. “All hat, no horse” became a euphemism for Virginia Tech and its coach, Seth Greenberg, and a CAA rallying crying on Internet chatrooms throughout the Southeast.
The CAA schools face the same scheduling challenges as all mid-major conferences. When Bertovich heard an announcer say that Duke was playing its ninth non-conference games at home this season, it struck him that some CAA seniors might not get to play nine non-conference games at home during their careers. While a reporter determined that every CAA senior had played in at least 14 non-conference home games, Bertovich’s point was made.
Bertovich urges those schools that might be NCAA Tournament teams to create schedules befitting at-large teams. To the others, he preaches the CAA’s need for MBPs – More Better Programs. The CAA now has a lot of those, too. While Old Dominion, VCU and George Mason have undeniably been the CAA’s dominant programs – and George Mason has replaced Larranaga with Paul Hewitt, another coach with Final Four experience – UNCW was recently in that mix. Shaver has led William & Mary to the CAA tournament championship games in 2008 and 2010 after 10 consecutive seasons at .500 or below. Matt Brady has led James Madison to 20 victories in two of the last three seasons, though the Dukes had finished below .500 during the previous eight seasons. Someone from among Drexel, Hofstra and Northeastern also routinely is there to challenge to Big Three.
The CAA’s stronger, tighter midsection is important for more than just cosmetic reasons. Even if those teams haven’t earned NCAA Tournament bids, they have been important in helping others become at-large teams. VCU played 16 games against teams ranked among the RPI’s top 100, the same as Virginia Tech.
“Teams have learned, we can’t do next year’s version of this year,” said Michael Litos, whose book Cinderella traced a magical 2005-06 season for George Mason and the CAA. “We can’t improve by just 10 percent and pretend that that’s going to cut it.”
The CAA also sells the fact that more than 100 of its games were televised last season and that alums such as J.J. Barea, Gary Neal, Eric Maynor and Larry Sanders are on NBA rosters.
And yet, none of those things – the financial windfall, the recruiting, the improved facilities – can truly explain why, of all the good mid-major leagues, the CAA outperformed so many BCS schools and sent two separate teams to Final Fours. (As opposed to the Horizon League, which sent one team, Butler, twice.)
The financial boosts were nice, but Yeager quickly points out that they pale in comparison to BCS paychecks.
The arms race over facilities is good, but Yeager notes that “they’re good facilities, but this isn’t Oregon with flatscreen TVs in the locker room.”
Recruiting in the fertile Virginia, North Carolina, Baltimore and Washington D.C. areas has been aided, but Taylor there’s still no advantage gained when a CAA program goes head-to-head with a BSC school.
Another explanation for the CAA’s success, offered by Drexel’s Flint, is that it has traditionally developed good big men who are capable of matching up with the centers and power forwards from the BCS conferences. George Mason had the 275-Jai Lewis, and VCU had Skeen, a transfer from Wake Forest. Yet, Flint admits that the CAA’s run of solid big men isn’t necessarily by design.
“I don’t know if it’s an emphasis in recruiting,” he said, “or if they just grow them a little taller in the South.”
The CAA’s two grand slams might simply be equal parts good seniors and good coaches and the confidence that comes from having both elements. The league’s all-conference first team was comprised entirely of seniors last season, and four of the five were seniors in 2006. And though Larranaga and Smart are separated by some 30 years, they shared a scholarly wisdom that became so evident during both schools’ runs.
“During the tournament, they have the commissioner sitting right behind the bench, so we’re almost in the huddle,” Yeager said. “And I was struck with Jim previously and with Shaka that they both start from a positive place during timeouts. Other coaches rant and rave and scream and almost lose focus. (Larranaga and Smart) were teaching and were keeping everyone’s exposure and staying in a positive place.”
Ultimately, they delivered more than just Final Four appearances.
“In our neck of the woods, any credibility is measured against the ACC and Big East,” Yeager said. “When you have a couple of Final Four teams roll in, you know what? It gives you credibility.
“Hey, for whatever reason, this league put a second team in (the Final Four) in five years.”
“Whatever reason” might be as good an explanation for the CAA’s success as any.