The Colonial Athletic Association is undergoing a conference realignment in men's basketball, but this one is less disruptive and more geographic.
The center of the CAA universe has shifted to the Baltimore area.
The conference's postseason tournament will be held at Baltimore Arena in March, Towson will will unveil its new SECU Arena next month, and Tuesday the Tigers were announced as the league favorite in a vote of CAA coaches and media.
"It's kind of like the stars, the moon, the sun, everything is aligning," Towson athletic director Tim Leonard said Tuesday at the league's basketball media day at the Renaissance Harborplace Hotel. "I've got to knock on wood, because I don't want to jinx it. … I relish the opportunity to be the anchor for the CAA in Baltimore, and if we can help build this tournament into something special here in Baltimore, we want to do that."
The move north began last year when the Richmond-based conference announced that men's basketball tournament was leaving the Richmond Coliseum in favor of Baltimore.
The CAA women's basketball tournament has been played at The Show Place Arena in Upper Marlboro for the past three years, but this will be the first time since 1989 that the men's tournament will take place somewhere other than Richmond.
"We've been in Richmond for at least 24 years, and it's been a great venue, but things change," CAA commissioner Tom Yeager said. "We had talked to Baltimore over the decade a couple times. Things just never quite came together. This time, it did.
"We're really excited about the opportunity, and I think this is a city that is used to big events. You have the NFL playoffs, the World Series, a Triple Crown race, but March Madness is different. It's not just a couple basketball games. So I think for the basketball fans in the Baltimore area, it's going to be a great opportunity to see a special event. March Madness is unique and it's attractive. It's excitement. Fans of basketball can get attached to it and really enjoy it, and we hope that translates into a very successful and very, very long run in Baltimore."
The shift also involves the programs that make up the conference. VCU left two years ago, and George Mason also departed, leaving William & Mary and James Madison as the only Virginia-based institutions in the CAA. Three of the top four schools in the men's preseason poll — Towson, No. 2 Drexel and No. 4 Delaware — are north of the Potomac.
"I don't know if I look at the geography of it all, but I do know there are some really strong programs and some senior teams — Towson being one of them — that really have a chance to make some national noise," Northeastern coach Bill Coen said, also mentioning Drexel and Delaware. "They have experience returning on their rosters. So I'm excited for the league. I think the conference has a chance to return to national prominence."
The CAA also features three players Maryland on it's preseason all-conference first team: Drexel's Damion Lee (Calvert Hall), Delaware's Devon Saddler (Aberdeen) and William & Mary's Marcus Thornton (Bishop McNamara).
The opening of SECU Arena adds another element to the excitment in this area. The hope, Leonard said, is that the $70 million, 5,200-seat facility can become a focal point for college basketball in and around Baltimore.
"I think it has the potential to be really a transformational facility for the campus," Leonard said. "If we can continue the success that [men's coach] Pat [Skerry] has started to build and what I think [women's coach] Niki [Reid Geckeler] is going to do and we can get to the point where several thousand students coming into the SECU Arena and we start filling the rest of the seats with patrons that come into a packed house, that will totally change the perception of the university and this community. It's going to change the perception of basketball in this community."
The prominence of the conference tournament and SECU Arena can grow if Towson's men's team can live up to the high expectations. The Tigers had the biggest turnaround in NCAA history when they went from 1-31 in 2011-12 to 18-13 last season and also posted their highest win total (13) and regular-season finish (tied for second) in the conference.
With four returning starters, including the CAA Preseason Player of the Year in senior forward Jerrelle Benimon, Skerry noted that the program has an opportunity to win over new and old fans.
"I think people will be really excited getting this tournament down here in Baltimore," Skerry said. "The Inner Harbor is spectacular, and there are 400,000 CAA alums in the area. This could become a really good setup for this. And Baltimore is a sports town. They like winners. There's a lot of things that can happen with this that's real positive. March Madness is a special thing, and if it's done the right way, this area will catch on to that."
CAA PRESEASON POLL
3. College of Charleston
5. William & Mary
7. James Madison
8. UNC Wilmington
PRESEASON ALL-CONFERENCE TEAMS
First Team: Jerrelle Benimon, Towson; Damion Lee (Calvert Hall), Drexel; Frantz Massenat, Drexel; Devon Saddler (Aberdeen), Delaware; Marcus Thornton, William & Mary.
Second Team: Adjehi Baru, College of Charleston; Quincy Ford, Northeastern; Andre Nation, James Madison; Tim Rusthoven, William & Mary; Jarvis Threatt, Delaware.
Honorable Mention: Marcus Damas, Towson; Chris Fouch, Drexel; Anthony Stitt, College of Charleston.
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Preseason Player of the Year: Jerrelle Benimon, Towson
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