W&M is legitimate contender heading to wide-open CAA tournament

Northeastern University coach Bill Coen’s formula for tournament success is simple: the expected and the unexpected.

“I think we have to get excellent play out of our better players,” Coen said, heading into the Colonial Athletic Association tournament. “At this time of the year, you’re looking for your guys who’ve been carrying you all year long, your leaders on the court, to step up and play their best when their best is needed.

“And then you’re going to need some unsung hero, some guy that you couldn’t write that script, to make a shot, to get a rebound, to do something extraordinary. That’s what makes the tournaments great, this time of year so great — that something unpredictable is going to happen. It’s going to come from some unsuspecting force.”

The best players and unsuspecting forces convene in Baltimore for the first CAA tournament held entirely outside of Virginia. Unlike last year’s event that was abridged because of school departures and NCAA academic sanctions, a full field and four days of basketball are scheduled at Baltimore Arena.

The tournament begins with Friday’s 7 p.m. play-in game between No. 8 Hofstra and No. 9 UNC Wilmington. The winner gets regular-season champ and top seed Delaware in Saturday’s first quarterfinal at noon, kicking off a four-game schedule that ends with No. 3 seed William and Mary versus No. 6 College of Charleston at 8:30 p.m.

“When the whole thing started, at Media Day, I think everybody went in with the feeling that it was wide open and anybody can win it,” Delaware coach Monte’ Ross said. “We had that feeling and we won it. We go to the CAA tournament with the same feeling, where it’s wide open and anybody can win it.”

A top seed isn’t required, but it helps. The last time the No. 1 seed won the tournament was Old Dominion in 2010, though top seeds have reached the championship game 10 of the past 12 years.

Since the CAA reconfigured and expanded in 2001-02, the lowest seeds to win the tournament are No. 3 — James Madison in last season’s truncated event and George Mason in 2008. The lowest seeds to make the title game were No. 6 Mason in 2007 and fifth-seeded William and Mary in ’08.

The Tribe finished solo third, and its No. 3 seed is the highest since the 2010 team that won 22 games and advanced to the title game.

Higher seeds this season are a reflection of teams that won close games, rather than conference dominance. Thirty-seven of 72 league games were decided by seven points or fewer, or went into overtime.

Seven of Delaware’s 14 conference wins were by five points or fewer. Two of second-place Towson’s three losses were to the last-place Seahawks and to Coen’s fifth-place Huskies. Seventh-seeded JMU, which underwent a massive rebuild after last year’s tournament title, played 10 games decided by six points or fewer.

Though William and Mary finished four games ahead of College of Charleston in the conference standings, the teams split during the regular season.

“A very talented team,” W&M coach Tony Shaver said of the Cougars. “I think their strength is their ability to defend people. They defend you hard. They have a lot of scorers on their ballclub. I know at times they’ve struggled to score the ball a little bit this year. But at least the times we played them, they shot the ball exceptionally well, at a lot of positions.

“They present problems. They’re tall and long inside, and they’re just a really good basketball team. It’s going to take a great effort for our guys to be successful.”

The contrasts are jarring. W&M is the league’s No. 2 scoring team and best 3-point shooting team, while Charleston is the top defensive team. The Cougars are the No. 2 rebounding team, while the Tribe is statistically the worst rebounding team.

Asked for the Cougars’ jobs one, two and three for Saturday’s quarterfinal, Coach Doug Wojcik responded, “Marcus Thornton, Marcus Thornton, Marcus Thornton.”

Indeed, Thornton almost willed the Tribe to a 74-63 win in Williamsburg, scoring 17 of his 26 points in the second half as W&M overcame a double-figure deficit. In the Cougars’ 87-54 win in Charleston, Thornton made just 3 of 12 shots, though the Tribe’s shortcomings that night were comprehensive, and Charleston was uncharacteristically efficient on offense.

Wojcik talked about Thornton in the context of what he refers to as William and Mary’s Princeton offense, though to be accurate, the Tribe’s philosophy and movement are based more on Michigan coach John Beilein’s schemes than those of Pete Carril.

“He’s a guy,” Wojcik said of Thornton, “that’s unlike at a lot of places that run that type of offense. He can get his shot whether he’s running Princeton offense or he wasn’t running Princeton offense. That’s impressive, from that standpoint.”

The Tribe doesn’t bleed the shot clock. When W&M defends and rebounds, it will goose the tempo and attack, to which Wojcik alluded in other remarks.

“I think a lot of people don’t realize William and Mary is a way better transition offensive team than (it’s) given credit for,” he said. “If you can kind of get them under wraps in transition, I think that’s real important. That’s where they get a lot of open shots, that’s where (Thornton) gets a lot of open shots. I would say transition defense is more important than a lot of people realize.”

All nine teams head to Baltimore believing that they can make a run. All hope to hit upon Coen’s formula, to which he added:

“We’ll need a touch of magic, a touch of luck, and hope it falls our way.”

Fairbank can be reached by phone at 757-247-4637.