Four teams had the opportunity to break their first-place deadlock entering the final week of the Colonial Athletic Association's regular season.
Each eventually stumbled — three losing to teams in the bottom half of the league — which led to a four-way split of the regular season championship between William & Mary, UNC Wilmington, Northeastern, and James Madison. It also set up a conference tournament, beginning Friday at Royal Farms Arena, that could replicate the unpredictable and wide-open nature of the season.
"There are no upsets in this league," Northeastern coach Bill Coen said. "Each and every night, the team that comes prepared and ready to compete and plays harder during the 40 minutes probably will win that game regardless of record. I think from a fan standpoint, that's going to bode well for a very exciting tournament. The games have been so tightly contested all year long."
The unprecedented four-way tie was a fitting end to a season in which seven of the league's 10 teams had CAA records over .500 and nearly half of the games in league play ended as two-possession games or in overtime.
"I think it was apropos for our league this season," James Madison coach Matt Brady said of the hotly contested final week. "To me, it's indicative of mid-major basketball, not just this year. It's been going this way for a number of years."
Both No. 1-seeded William & Mary (18-11, 12-6 CAA) and No. 2 UNC-Wilmington (17-12, 12-6 CAA) were in a position to win the regular season title outright Saturday. Over 5,300 fans filled William & Mary's Kaplan Center for an afternoon tip to fete the school's all-time leading scorer, senior Marcus Thornton, with a victory ensuring an outright league championship.
Drexel, using just six players and without its leading scorer, beat William & Mary, 80-66, while Elon, which beat two of the league's top three teams in the final week of the season, topped UNC Wilmington later that night, 74-55.
No. 3 Northeastern (20-11, 12-6 CAA) and No. 4 James Madison (19-12, 12-6 CAA), were left to rue midweek losses that took them out of contention. Both won Saturday, but three days earlier they lost at Elon and UNC Wilmington, respectively.
William & Mary secured the top seed and an automatic bid to the National Invitation Tournament by virtue of its 5-1 record against the other co-champions. The winner of the CAA tournament will earn the league's automatic berth to the NCAA tourney.
At 12-6, the Tribe had the most losses of any regular-season CAA champion since 1996-97.
"I said this back in the fall at media day, that I don't think this league this year has that one or two great teams, but I think from top to bottom, it's going to be as good as I've seen," William & Mary coach Tony Shaver said. "I guess that's turned out to be true."
Under first-year coach Kevin Keatts, UNC Wilmington is enjoying its first winning season since 2005-06, with a senior class that entered the season with a career record of 29-63.
The same message his players heard as tournament underdogs in previous seasons — that records and past matchups mean nothing in tournament play — will now be a warning for the Seahawks, who are seeking their first NCAA tournament bid since 2006.
"I'm telling you now, anybody can beat anybody," Keatts said. "The team that's more focused and comes prepared and can put three or four days together will be the tournament champion. … Everybody's got their opportunity to win here, and that's what makes March so special."
Northeastern earned a share of its second conference title in the past three seasons with an 11-point win over Charleston on Saturday, though it too could have won outright if not for a midweek loss to Elon. In Saturday's quarterfinals, the Huskies will face No. 6 Delaware (10-19, 9-9 CAA), last year's CAA champion, which lost 10 straight to open the season before leveling off to finish strong.
James Madison went undefeated against the six teams below it in the CAA standings but didn't notch a victory against its fellow co-champions. The Dukes will match up for the second time in a week against No. 5 Hofstra (19-12, 10-8 CAA) on Saturday.
The tournament — in the second year of a three-year agreement to play in Baltimore — begins Friday with a pair of first-round games.
No. 8 Elon faces No. 9 Towson at 6 p.m, with the winner earning a Saturday matchup against William & Mary. No. 7 Drexel — playing without the CAA's leading scorer, junior guard Damion Lee (Calvert Hall) — faces No. 10 Charleston on Friday, with UNC Wilmington waiting on Saturday.
"For us, Friday night is the Super Bowl game," Towson coach Pat Skerry said. "If we can get [a win] Friday night against a good Elon club, there's no pressure on us after that. … I think it's going to be the true definition of what March Madness is about. Some teams came in first, some didn't, but I think anyone can win."