Chaotic season makes for a wild finish

The CAA tournament has never been difficult to handicap. In 30 years, No. 1 seeds have won 17 times. No. 2 seeds have won eight.

When in doubt, the rule of thumb in the CAA is to pick the school located closest to the Richmond Coliseum. The venerable arena has hosted the last 23 years, providing a homecourt advantage to five-time winners Virginia Commonwealth and Richmond and -- to a lesser extent -- six-time champion Old Dominion.

But this year in the league, nothing has played out according to form. Preseason favorite Drexel finished seventh. Towson, picked to finish next to last, wound up second. ODU, picked fourth, finished in last place and last month abruptly fired one of the league's most successful coaches, Blaine Taylor, with little explanation.

CAA tournament
First round
Richmond Coliseum
G. Mason vs. Drexel, 3:30 p.m.
Delaware vs. Hofstra, 6 p.m.
William & Mary vs. JMU, 8:30 p.m.

With the CAA tournament beginning Saturday and for the final time in Richmond, no one knows what to expect. The final day of the regular season summed up the season appropriately as last-place ODU, in its farewell to the CAA, traveled to Boston and toppled first-place Northeastern.

On Monday, Northeastern coach Bill Coen didn't sound like a confident No. 1 seed when asked about this upside-down season.

"We're kind of the poster child for that," Coen said. "Every game has been a challenge. It doesn't matter what seed or how you finished in the regular season. I think each and every game is going to be decided by a very small margin."

The regular season was a study in unpredictability. Four of the top five teams in the CAA won more conference games on the road than at home. Out of 99 games, road teams won 48.

No team was more confounding than George Mason (17-13), which went 4-5 at home and 6-3 away from Patriot Center. George Mason got breakthrough seasons from juniors Sherrod Wright and Jonathan Arledge and promising work from freshmen Patrick Holloway and Marko Gujanicic. But ailments to forwards Erik Copes (hip) and Johnny Williams (concussion) hindered George Mason inside. The Patriots never were able to put together the pieces and develop cohesion.

"When you're young and you have guys who haven't been in their roles, usually it shows itself on the road, which is interesting for us because we've actually played well on the road," Hewitt said. "We've been a little bit backwards. It's been a little bit of a head scratcher in terms of where we play well and when we've won and lost games."

Conference realignment and off-court tumult set the scene for this chaotic season. Defending champion VCU fled for the Atlantic 10. When ODU and Georgia State announced their departures for Conference USA and the Sun Belt, respectively, they were banned from the CAA tournament. Poor academic performance ratings by Towson and UNC Wilmington erased them from the postseason as well, leaving seven teams eligible for the trip to Richmond.

Another jolt came in November when four key players from Hofstra were arrested for a series of dormitory thefts and dismissed from school. In this helter-skelter year, how appropriate would it be for the seventh-seeded Pride to pull off the ultimate caper and advance to the NCAA tournament?

"In 20 years, I don't recall a situation like this. I think that's the beauty of it," said Monte Ross, coach of second-seeded Delaware. "It's gonna be whoever can get on a little roll here, whoever can execute the best, whoever can pay attention to detail for three days."