For CAA teams with dreams of dancing, Baltimore 'is the gateway to the NCAA tournament'

Doug Wojcik took a moment Thursday to once again size up Baltimore Arena — the musty throwback of a building he played in as Navy point guard alongside David Robinson 27 years ago — and imagine the weekend's possibilities.

The College of Charleston team Wojcik coaches is seeded sixth in the four-day Colonial Athletic Association tournament, which begins Friday night with the play-in game between Hofstra and UNC Wilmington. Could he even imagine the possibility of Cougars fans rushing onto the newly refinished court Monday night to celebrate a championship victory — and the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament that comes with it?

"I don't know if we all have enough fans to rush the court," Wojcik said with a wry smile.

But he can dream. That's what coaches do in conferences such as the CAA, which is rich enough in parity that few observers would be surprised if a middle-level seed won the tournament.

In 1987, Wojcik played in a nationally televised game at Baltimore Arena. Robinson, the 7-foot-1 future Hall of Famer, scored 25 points and the Midshipmen defeated Miami and center Tito Horford, 78-62.

There are no David Robinsons in the CAA tournament, and while top-seeded Delaware and No. 2 Towson are the favorites, no teams have vaulted too far ahead of the pack.

"You see [fifth-seeded] Northeastern practicing right now?" Wojcik said, gesturing toward a shooting drill and the sound of bouncing basketballs. "They have the best big man in the league [junior Scott Eatherton]. There's no question they could be playing Monday night."

Said Northeastern guard David Walker: "I don't think we're like an underdog. The tournament is wide open. In my mind, I expect us to win."

For the nation's top teams — already assured of securing at-large NCAA tournament berths — conference tournaments can seem like mere dress rehearsals. Try as they might to stay in the moment, their attention occasionally drifts to the bigger show that takes shape when the NCAA brackets are unveiled on Selection Sunday.

But CAA teams know they are probably playing for a single NCAA berth. For them, the tournament is about survival, possibility and — for lower-seeded teams — redemption.

"Somebody in some conference — some 7th seed, 8th seed, 9th seed — is going to all of a sudden turn around and be in the championship," said Hoftstra coach Joe Mihalich, whose team is seeded eighth.

"Hope springs eternal. Somebody is going to do it. We're going to read about it. If you're Hofstra you hope it's you."

Northeastern coach Bill Coen said he wants his team to find the right mindset as underdogs. He hopes players understand the stakes — and gain adrenaline from them — without feeling burdened.

"The weight of that [pressure] can crush a team, get you playing not to lose," Coen said. "There's a fine balance between understanding what the moment means and staying in the moment, staying absolutely present in what you're doing.

"Baltimore right now is the gateway to the NCAA tournament," Coen added. "We want to fulfill lifelong dreams."

Northeastern has a special connection to Baltimore. Reggie Lewis starred at Dunbar before playing at the Boston school and later for the Celtics before dying of a heart condition in 1987 at age 27.

"He is someone that we remember and honor every day, every day we get into the huddle," Coen said. "He had such an impact on the community. We have his jersey that hangs in our gym and guys point to it and salute it."

For the local team in the CAA field, Towson, the tournament presents a chance to return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1991.

The Tigers are in an unfamiliar postseason position as a favorite. They open Saturday night against seventh-seeded James Madison, which won last year's CAA tournament as the No. 3 seed.

"I don't know about a favorite," Towson coach Pat Skerry said, "but we've got to be ready for James Madison on Saturday night."

jeff.barker@baltsun.com

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