The Wrens open the 2012-13 season tonight at home against Hampton, hoping to get off to a better out of conference start than last year, when injuries and inexperience turned preseason positivity into a liftoff fizzle right out of the Wide World of Sports intro. W&M opened the year 1-8, capped by three consecutive 30-point losses. Even if we weren't in the irrational exuberance business, it'd be hard to see a scenario where this years version of the Green and Gold isn't more competitive in the early going.
2012-13 promises to be one of the more unique CAA seasons in memory. VCU left the conference to join the Atlantic 10, taking with it arguably the league's best team and inarguably the CAA's best facial hair. Old Dominion and Georgia State made clear their intention to follow suit next year, so the conference banned the always-tough Monarchs and the rising Panthers from postseason play. UNCW and Towson got on the wrong side of Dean Wormer's double secret probation, and found themselves also prohibited from competing for the league's autobid to the NCAA Tournament.
As a result of those machinations, the CAA finds itself with only seven schools eligible to participate in the 2013 conference basketball tournament. From a personal perspective, this is disappointing - it means my annual tradition of taking the first day of tournament off from work to play hooky in Richmond takes a year off. But from the Wrens' viewpoint, it means a worst-case scenario needing two wins to get to the tournament final and a one in seven chance at a miracle.
Regardless of how good this year's team may be (patience - we're getting there), a miracle (or at least fortune's kind graces) may be the only way it goes deep in Richmond. Drexel is the punditocracy's nearly unanimous choice to win the league's regular season title and a fashionable early-season mid-major darling of the national media. Ken Pomeroy gives Bruiser Flint's boys an 83.6% chance of winning the league. The Dragons boast a deep, physical, talented squad, led by All-CAA guard Frantz Massenat, the league's preseason player of the year, and sophomore Damion Lee, the returning CAA Rookie of the Year. Drexel finished 29-7 last season and lost to VCU in the CAA tournament final.
Delaware's Devon Saddler and Jamelle Hagins both join Massenat and Lee on the preseason All-CAA team, giving the Hens a formidable outside/inside tandem. Though this observer expects them to struggle more than usual, George Mason is still George Mason. Northeastern's Jonathan Lee leads a Husky team that got better as the year went on in 2011-12. JMU's arguably the most experienced team in the league, with five fifth-year seniors, and the knowledge that it'd be nearly impossible to be as unlucky this season as they were last. Hofstra's a wild card, with several talented transfers that could make them dangerous. The question is whether they'll pose that danger on the court or in the local community.
And while ODU, Georgia State, UNCW, and Towson won't compete for a title, all four teams will play a regular season conference schedule. ODU has a lot of question marks after losing Kent Bazemore to the NBA, but they'll still battle on the defensive end and they'll rebound effectively. Georgia State looks to build on Ron Hunter's 20-win 2011-12, and they'll do so after adding his son R.J., a very highly recruited wing, to an already talented team. Towson will be significantly better than last year's one-win team after adding both freshman and transfers that will contribute immediately. UNCW is decidedly worse on paper after losing several players via transfer, but senior stud Keith Rendleman returns to wreak double-doubles on conference foes.
If the preseason buzz is to be believed, W&M has reason for real optimism. Our sources tell us that Thornton has been both an extremely efficient scorer and a highly effective distributor of the ball in early scrimmages. He's teaming effectively with junior frontcourt mate Brandon Britt, who seeks to bounce back from a 2011-12 clouded by personal loss and inconsistent play. If Thornton and Britt - both of whom thrive with the ball in their hands - find a way to work together effectively, their speed and versatility will challenge opposing guards.
Cult hero Tim Rusthoven returns fully healthy from the beginning of the season, a vast improvement on last year. Beasthoven's early-season health struggles last year were a significant contributor to the Tribe's slow start. Despite never fully getting into game shape, the junior still led W&M in rebounding 14 times and and averaged 10.3 points and 6.6 boards a game.
Senior guard Matt Rum has been lauded by Tribe observers as the team's most consistent player in preseason action. He's compared favorably by insiders with the recently-graduated Kendrix Brown - a player who did the dirty work that allowed others to thrive, rebounding, defending, and grinding. Rum came to Williamsburg as a shooter - it's a testament to his team focus that he's remade himself in Brown's image. As the only senior expected to get significant minutes, Rum's leadership will be critical.
For my money, while Thornton's the obvious key to W&M's success, the return of junior forward Kyle Gaillard to full health is nearly as important. When we last saw Gaillard, he was the most athletic player on the court (for either team) in the Tribe's heartbreaking 2011 NIT loss at North Carolina. Gaillard tallied 25 against the Heels, with five dunks - several of which were in traffic against the massive Carolina interior defense. His 2011-12 season ended before it began, as he was lost to injury in the summer. At 6'8", he adds much needed size and all-court skill, shooting 47.5% from the floor in 2010-11 (34.8% from three) in 2010-11.
Freshman Terry Tarpey is a hyper-athletic 6'5" guard who'll get lots of run as a defender while he learns to play offense at the D-I level. Junior Julian Boatner is working his way back from a knee injury, but will need to regain his long-range touch to give the Tribe another deep option. Fred Heldring and his 6'9, 245 lb. frame will pair with 6'9" freshman Sean Sheldon to help Rusthoven battle the Jamelle Hagins' and Keith Rendlemans of the league.
But for better or worse, the Tribe's fortunes will rise or fall with Marcus Thornton. The prolific tweeter (@MarcusWM3) has spent the entire offseason exhorting himself, his friends, and his teammates to 'Do Better'. Observers say he's worked extremely hard to get stronger and handle the ball more effectively. It's not a stretch to say he has a chance to be the best W&M player ever.
W&M's hopes of ending the much-discussed NCAA Tournament drought may be meager (The aforementioned Ken Pomeroy says we've got a 0.1% chance of winning the league's regular season title.), but they exist, futile and irrational though they may be. A great number of things must break really well, most of them in March, for the Wrens to dance. I'm not here today to tell you it's going to happen. I merely offer this message in a (blog-shaped) bottle: we've got a puncher's chance, friends.