By any standard, this was the best regular season in Colonial Athletic Association basketball history. Now comes the hard part.
Authoring an equally riveting postseason.
Top-seeded George Mason enters the event with Final Four pedigree and a national-best 15-game winning streak. Yet Patriots coach Jim Larranaga feels about as secure as a Middle East dictator.
"I think it's the deepest and most talented the league has been in my 14 years," he said. "We just finished playing the teams that are seeded ninth and 10th, and the games came down to the last two minutes."
Indeed, Mason trailed visiting Northeastern by five in the second half Thursday before winning 67-61. Two nights later at Georgia State, the Patriots were tied with three minutes remaining but prevailed 65-58.
Mason and regular-season runner-up Old Dominion give the CAA two teams among the top 30 on the Rating Percentage Index for the first time. Hofstra, VCU, Drexel and James Madison also are among the RPI's top 85.
With that upper half, the conference has six 20-win teams for the first time, and only the Big East's eight are better this season. The CAA's non-conference conquests include Louisville, UCLA, Xavier, Clemson, Dayton, Richmond, Wichita State and Northern Iowa.
"People ask about our league's ability to compete nationally in postseason play, and I've said, if you climb the standings in our league you're going to become a pretty good basketball team that can play against most everybody," ODU coach Blaine Taylor said.
"The depth of our league is what's scary. … I think there are more horses in the (tournament) race than there have ever been probably. But does that mean they can win the whole thing or just upset the apple cart? I don't know."
Point well taken. Other than Mason, ODU and perhaps third-seeded Hofstra — Pride guard Charles Jenkins is a relentless scorer and future pro — no one else appears poised to earn the CAA's automatic NCAA tournament bid.
VCU has lost four of its last five, three at home. JMU can outscore virtually anyone on a given night, but defense figures to be the Dukes' downfall.
Drexel defeated ODU in January, but are the Dragons capable of winning four games in as many days? Against a gauntlet that might include VCU, Mason and ODU? Since Drexel hasn't won four consecutive CAA games all season, the hunch is no.
No matter what transpires in Richmond, Mason and ODU should be assured NCAA tournament bids — league officials' not-for-public-consumption dream is for a Hofstra or VCU to win the tournament, giving the CAA three NCAA teams for the first time.
Regardless, Mason and ODU are capable of advancing deep into the bracket.
The Monarchs are steeled by not only an ambitious non-conference schedule but also last season, when they won the CAA tournament, upset Notre Dame in the NCAAs opening round and traded haymakers with Baylor in the second round.
"Sometimes ignorance is bliss," Taylor said of postseason experience. "Sometimes you have a group that just doesn't know anything (and it still works), and then sometimes you've got a group that just heads down the trail.
"I'd like to think, on the optimist side, we know the pitfalls. It's not an expectation that we're going to have any more success (than last year) because you have to go earn that. But I think we do know the pitfalls of preparation, I think we know the pitfalls of expecting to be in close games, expecting the other guy to really put it on and maybe play their best game of the year and us have to handle that. So I think from that respect we have a pretty steady, solid view of just what competition means."
George Mason's last NCAA tournament victories came during its improbable Final Four run in 2006. The Patriots lack their inside presence of five years ago, when wide-body Jai Lewis ruled the paint, but guard Cam Long embodies clutch — Larranaga calls him a great "closer" — and complements versatile forward Ryan Pearson.
Larranaga's message to his squad: "We've got to remember that the regular season is over and focus on tournament play, which is very, very different."
David Teel can be reached at 247-4636 or by e-mail at email@example.com. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/teeltime, and follow him at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP