The result has been that the CAA has been able to attract better players and better coaches, the likes of Shaka Smart at VCU, Paul Hewitt at George Mason and Ron Hunter at Georgia State.
Hunter had a long history coaching mid-major basketball at IUPUI, where he was for 17 years, earning a reputation as a good coach and also as "the barefoot coach" for his charity that raises money for shoes to be bought for underprivileged children around the world.
He will coach barefoot this week against Wilmington to draw attention to the charity.
More to the point, however, is how he arrived in Atlanta, a large media market, with a mid-major team, Georgia State, a program that was not winning and seemed in a hopeless situation.
"I asked 12 people if I should take the job, and 11 of them said no," he said.
One said yes.
"My mother," he said. "She asked me if I thought I could win there, and I said yes. She said take the job."
It was the conference, however, that really sold him.
"Nationally, it's the best non-BCS conference in the country. I wanted to be a part of that," Hunter said.
It wasn't much different for Hewitt, who took the job at George Mason after having coached Georgia Tech in Atlanta.
"Mason has been one of the top programs in the country over the last 10 years," he said. "I looked at the area and the recruiting base. There were a lot of positives."
It is easy, though, to look at the CAA and see the top teams as powers and think that is the league. The coaches through the league believe that normally it is from top to bottom a solid league, although this year the CAA does possess in Towson a team that is in the state of transition and owns the longest losing streak in Division I history.
"A lot of people talk about us being one of the mid-majors, but they only talk about the top three teams. This league as a whole has gotten better," longtime Drexel coach Bruiser Flint said. "When they start talking about the other teams, we'll get more than three teams into the NCAA Tournament."
The success in the NCAA Tournament has made recruiting easier for conference schools, as has the fact that the CAA has put a few players in the NBA. In fact, former Hofstra player Charles Jenkins recently made his first NBA start for the Golden State Warriors.
Coach Mo Cassara's Hofstra team, on the road in Wilmington, went out together and got chicken wings and watched the Warriors game. When Jenkins scored his first basket, they all roared and cheered.
"People in the restaurant had no idea what was going on," Cassara said.
Hunter quickly revitalizes Georgia State
--When Ron Hunter took over the Georgia State program, it was one that had not been able to win since Lefty Driesell was there and one that did not particularly look like a program on the way up.
However, he turned things around quickly, won 11 straight games after losing his first three, and put Georgia State in contention for the league championship. The only league loss through Jan. 8 was to George Mason in a hard-fought battle.
A miracle? Hunter doesn't think so.
"I didn't take over a bad team. I took over a team that didn't know how to win," he said.
He didn't even see it as a rebuilding program.
"There's a fine line between winning and losing. I want to win every game," Hunter said.
And that's how he approached it.
"We had to strip everything down. It took three months for the kids to look me in the eye. There was a pessimistic attitude. Now we believe we're a good team. You have a great defensive team that believes it's good."
Perhaps the best way to illustrate what he did was the way he rescued the career of senior Jihad Ali, who was averaging 12.7 points and 5.9 rebounds a game through Jan. 8 and was about to move into the starting lineup. Last season, he averaged 7.2 points and 4.8 rebounds.
"He was the main guy from day one," Hunter said. "I coached against Georgia State a couple of years ago, and we thought he was really good but he had no confidence."
He went to work on Ali's confidence.
"It wasn't about thinking. It was about not believing in himself. He always was questioning himself," Hunter said. "We named him a captain. We did it purposely."
--Old Dominion is not the dominant force in the CAA it has been in recent years, but coach Blaine Taylor isn't panicking. He understands the league and how balanced it really is.
"I don't remember anyone who has gone undefeated in the league race," the veteran coach said. "You are going to have to take your lumps somewhere, sometime. Our only loss is to the only undefeated team left in the league. The only bad thing about it is it was at home. ..."The league race will come down to one kid playing a little better one night than he has or one charge or blocking call."
Early indications are that there will be a lot of teams in the race to the end.
--Towson has made a lot of negative national news with a losing streak that has stretcher longer than any other in Division I history. The Tigers scored a record-low 27 points in a 33-point loss to Drexel, and they followed that up by scoring 38 in a 37-point loss against Old Dominion.
It's a tough situation for new coach Pat Skerry, but the streak is not a topic of conversation.
"We have our own challenges. Anything that was here before, we don't pay attention to," he said, having inherited the streak before this year's 0-16 start through Jan. 7.
Certainly, he wasn't taken by surprise, not after a pair of exhibition games.
"I told my wife this was going to be a grind," Skerry said. "We were struggling to beat Division II teams."
--No matter how good a player is, he can better. PG Mike Morrison and F Ryan Pearson are two of George Mason's best players, Morrison running the offense and beginning to score, and Pearson averaging 14.2 points and 6.7 rebounds a game through Jan. 8.
Coach Paul Hewitt is working hard with both of them, though.
"We are focusing on Morrison improving offensively. He is the anchor for the defense, a smart, smart player. He always was an outstanding passer. We told him he had to be a better free-throw shooter and that he had to work on his scoring. He's starting to believe a little that he can score," Hewitt said.
"And Pearson can improve as he receives attention. He goes into lulls at time. He's our best player, but I think he has room for improvement. I haven't seen everyone in the league yet, but I think he's the best player in the league ... and he can get better."
--UNC-Wilmington had won four in a row as of Jan. 9, and it ranked among the most improved teams in the conference. One of the reasons was the improved play of F Keith Rendleman, who was averaging 15.1 points and 10.3 rebounds a game.
Coach Buzz Peterson knows why.
"If you just come to one of our practices and see how the young man comes in, doesn't talk much, all business," Peterson said. "He works extremely hard on the court. His teammates believe in what he's doing. They love to get the ball inside to him. ...
"He is playing real smart, much smarter on defense than last year."
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
MATCHUP TO WATCH: George Mason at Drexel, Jan. 12 -- The conference leader, George Mason, and the preseason pick, Drexel, go eyeball to eyeball in what figures to be a physical war. Mason was the last unbeaten team left in conference play through Jan. 8, having just knocked off Georgia State in a low-scoring game of attrition, and this game figures to be similar.
George Mason coach Paul Hewitt had been recruiting last weekend, so had not yet scouted Drexel, but he was aware of coach Bruiser Flint's reputation and the way the Dragons play a physical game, much the same as Georgia State.
"I've known Bruiser a long time," Hewitt said. "My time in Philly, I had the opportunity to know his dad. They will play tough defense. They will be very physical. We will be ready for physical, defensive-oriented game."
Flint feels the same way.
His team was leading the conference in defense, while Mason led in offense, setting up the classic showdown where whichever team can impose its will and play its style should win.
Drexel has a tough inside player, Samme Givens, while Mason features Ryan Pearson, who ranks among the league's top scorers and rebounders.
KEY CONFERENCE GAMES TO WATCH:
UNC-Wilmington at Georgia State
Red-hot Wilmington has to go on the road to play the surprising Panthers, who will have to find a defense to handle the Seahawks' Keith Rendleman.
VCU at Delaware
If Delaware is for real, it has to be able to win games like this at home against a reeling VCU team that had dropped two straight tough games through Jan. 8.
George Mason at James Madison
James Madison has fallen on hard times and is not shooting well, but this is one of those trap games on the road for a George Mason team that can't overlook anyone.
Drexel at UNC-Wilmington
If Wilmington were to upset Georgia State, this would be one of the really big games of the year. The Seahawks will be playing a really tough defensive team for the second straight week.
AROUND THE LEAGUE
--For the fourth time in 11 seasons in the CAA, Delaware got off to a 3-1 start, and that doesn't tell the whole story. The Blue Hens went on a two-game win streak after losing three straight games by a grand total of 13 points.
--Freshman G Kyle Anderson was quickly making a name for himself. Consecutive 17-point outings pushed his scoring average into double figures at 10.2 through Jan. 8.
--Junior F Jamelle Hagins had compiled nine double-doubles this season through Jan. 8. He led the conference in rebounding at 11.8 a game and ranked eighth in scoring at 14.2 per game. His biggest rebound of the season, however, may have been the one he grabbed on a Hofstra missed free throw with one second left to seal a one-point victory.
--The CAA did the Dragons a favor by scheduling them an early three-game homestand, and they won the first two heading into a Jan. 12 matchup against George Mason. Drexel defeated last year's Final Four representative of the CAA, Virginia Commonwealth, by a 64-58 score before a sellout crowd on Jan. 8.
--VCU held G Chris Fouch, last year's leading scorer and one of four Drexel players averaging in double figures this year, to just one field goal, but F Frantz Massenat picked up the slack with a career-high 24 points in the Dragons' victory.
--Last year, Drexel was the next-to-worst free-throw shooting team in the conference at 61.6 percent. Through Jan. 8 this season, Drexel was making 71.6 percent. The Dragons made 27 of 35 free throws (77 percent) against VCU, while the Rams hit only nine of 20 (45 percent).
--OK, Towson is having big problems offensively, but the defense Drexel threw at the Tigers in a Jan. 4 victory last week was still spectacular. Towson scored just 27 points, the fewest Drexel has allowed since joining Division I in 1973. Drexel's defense yielded just four field goals in each half and set a school record by allowing its opponent to shoot just 21.6 percent from the floor. The previous record was 25 percent in a 1988 game against Lafayette.
--In the course of a season, there are a few games that become signature performances, and George Mason had its first when it ended Georgia State's 11-game winning streak and took sole possession of first place in the CAA with a 61-58 victory Jan. 7. The Patriots withstood a furious late rally by the Panthers to hold on for the key decision.
--Senior F Ryan Pearson did not score a field goal against Georgia State, yet he still scored in double figures. All 10 of his points came from the free-throw line.
--The victory over Georgia State was part of a three-game torture test for the Colonials. Before facing the Panthers, they had to go on the road and win a really tough challenge at Old Dominion, always one of the best teams in the CAA. And on Jan. 11, they go to last year's Final team, VCU.
--Senior Andre Cornelius returned from a long, season-opening suspension to give the Colonials exactly what they needed. The 5-foot-10 guard was the key figure in a victory over William & Mary on Jan. 2, as he scored 20 points, helping the Patriots wipe out a 14-point deficit.
"I am getting back into my comfort zone," Cornelius, who sat out 10 games as punishment for legal problems, told the Washington Post. "My teammates did a good job of getting me open. ... When I was shooting the ball, it seemed like the (basket) was big and I was going to hit everything. Every time the ball left my hand, it felt good."
--Georgia State knew its winning streak would end at some point, but that didn't make it any easier when George Mason snapped the 11-game run with a 61-58 decision Jan. 7. The winning streak was tied for the fifth-longest active streak in the country.
--Coach Ron Hunter, in his first year at the school and credited for the amazing turnaround of a program that had not seen success since Lefty Driesell coached there, was happy with his players despite the loss.
"I am really, really proud of my team," he said. "I am even more proud than after the win at VCU the other night. They left it all on the court and gave me everything they had (against Mason).
"I think the streak and all of the other stuff was starting to get to them, and it showed tonight.
"When we were down eight at halftime, I wondered if it would just be too much to overcome. Although we fought back and took the lead, it took all of our strength to get back into the game."
--When a team is faced with adversity, really for the first time, it is often necessary for a senior to step up, and that's just what Jihad Ali did in the George Mason game. He scored 19 points, including 12 in the second half as the Panthers tried to wipe out an eight-point halftime deficit.
Ali cemented his position as team leader in the previous game, a victory over VCU in which he registered 17 points and 11 rebounds.
--Pieces of the puzzle were coming together, but Hofstra was carrying a three-game losing streak through Jan. 8.
--The last two loses certainly couldn't be blamed on Nathaniel Lester, as he strung together a pair of double-doubles. He had 23 points and 12 rebounds against UNC-Wilmington, and 15 points and 11 rebounds against Delaware.
--Mike Moore, the team's leading scorer, also was doing his part, scoring 22 in the loss to UNC-W, the 12th time he had cracked 20 points this season.
--The Pride's defense was eighth in the conference in points allowed through Jan. 8. Three of Hofstra's first four league opponents scored at least 75 points.
--Coach Matt Brady's team, which figures to be a contender in the CAA race, snapped a three-game losing streak with a 74-67 non-league win over Hampton on Jan. 9. A.J. Davis hit seven of 13 shots and scored a game-high 21 points.
--After earlier in the season ranking in the nation's top 10 in 3-point percentage and 3-pointers per game, JMU had gone 3-for-33 from the arc in its past two games through Jan. 8. The same James Madison squad set a two-game program record with 31 made 3s earlier this season. Against William & Mary, the 3-point shooters managed to hit just two of 23 (8 percent).
--The effect of not hitting 3-point shots is shown directly in the statistics. Through Jan. 8, the Dukes were 6-0 when holding opponents to fewer than 70 points when James Madison was hitting its 3s. However, JMU dropped three games in a row when the 3-point shooting fell off even though it held all three opponents to fewer than 70 points.
--UNC-Wilmington had begun making its presence felt in the CAA, winning three of its first four in conference play for the first time since the 2005-06 season. What's more, the Seahawks seemed to be getting better, setting a season high in scoring in their Jan. 7 victory over Hofstra with 86 points.
--A freshman and a senior were leading the way for the Seahawks. The leading scorer was freshman G Adam Smith, who was scoring 16.9 points per game through Jan. 8. Meanwhile, senior G Keith Rendleman had lifted his game to its highest level ever. He was averaging a double-double with 15.1 points a game and 10.3 rebounds per contest.
--Perhaps Rendleman's best game came when he was challenged by teammates about his head-to-head battle with Delaware's Jamelle Hagins, the league's leading rebounder and a double-double machine.
"I probably went into the game thinking (about Hagins) a little bit," Rendleman told the Star-News. "My goal was just to keep the team in it. It wasn't really about just matching him. I was trying to get us a win."
He did a pretty good job of it, scoring 24 points and hauling in a career-high 24 rebounds.
--The Huskies had held four of their last six opponents to 56 or fewer points through Jan. 8, leading to a spurt in which they won three of four games and draw even at 2-2 in conference play.
--In the victory over James Madison, five different players hit at least one 3-point shot for a season high. Quincy Ford reached a career-high 20 points. Jonathan Lee scored 20 points for the sixth time in his career, Ryan Pierson hit his first career 3-pointer, and Kauri Black had a career-high four steals.
--Northeastern had 14 or fewer turnovers in each of the last five games through Jan. 8 after having turned the ball over 20 or more times in the six previous games.
--The recipe for all that ails a CAA team is to face Towson, which was caught up in the nation's longest winning streak as it tries to rebuild. When Old Dominion played Towson, the Monarchs were coming off a defeat, but everyone got in a 75-38 victory.
ODU dished out a season-high 23 assists. The Monarchs' 16 steals tied the Constant Center record set in 2004 against St. Joseph's. Not only did every Monarch who played score, but each had at least one rebound.
--Senior Kent Bazemore had 1,097 career points through Jan. 8, placing him 38th all-time on Old Dominion's all-time list, just ahead of DePaul head coach Oliver Purnell ('75). With three steals against Towson, he had 215, which tied him with current ODU director of operations Drew Williamson ('07).
--Old Dominion is always one of the leading rebounding teams in the conference, and this year is no different, as they held the rebounding lead on Jan. 8. The man doing most of the work was Chris Cooper, who has recorded 11 double-figure rebounding games and was second in the conference in rebounding to Delaware's Jamelle Hagins.
"He has a nose for the ball," ODU coach Blaine Taylor said of Cooper in the News & Messenger. "He has the ability to go get it. He can play at a very high level."
--With a blowout loss to Old Dominion on Jan. 7, Towson set an Division I record with a 35th consecutive defeat. Sixteen of the losses had come this season. The previous low mark was a 34-game skid by Sacramento State between 1997 and 1999.
Old Dominion held the Tigers to 38 points, and before that, Drexel's tough defense held Towson to just 27. Towson's lowest point total ever was 16 points against American University in 1932. The 27-point performance was the Tigers' lowest since the joined Division I in 1979.
--Senior F Robert Nwankwo scored 11 points, blocked a season-high five shots and grabbed seven rebounds against Old Dominion. It was the 12th time in 16 games he led the Tigers in rebounding
--Sophomore F Erique Gumbs had a career-high 14 points against Northeastern on Jan. 2. He hit five of nine shots from the floor and added six rebounds and two blocked shots.
--VCU was looking more and more like the team that went to the Final Four last year when it ran off eight consecutive victories, but that trend turned quickly when the Rams dropped two in a row during the first week of January.
The Rams fell to the surprise team in the conference, Georgia State, then to preseason favorite Drexel. Each was a tight contest, Georgia State winning 55-53 and Drexel gutting out a 64-58 triumph.
It was the fifth time in the past six meetings that Drexel and VCU finished within six points of each other.
"Give Drexel a lot of credit for making the big plays when they needed to," VCU coach Shaka Smart said. "It is always a battle when the two of us play, and it comes down to who is going to make the plays when they need to be made. Tonight, it was Drexel."
--Georgia State proved just how strong it is defensively when it held VCU to just 27 percent shooting from the field.
"There's going to a couple games a year that you just don't shoot it well," Smart said. "However, when you shoot 27 percent, you need to do a lot of other things right to win, and we didn't do quite enough of those other things tonight to come out with a victory."
--The atmosphere at the Georgia State game in the Verizon Wireless Arena was spectacular and really impressed Ron Hunter, the Panthers' new coach. It was VCU's 10th consecutive sellout, breaking the CAA record of nine in a row set by UNC-W during the 2002 season.
"This is a tremendous program and an unbelievable environment," Hunter said. "I wish I could take this and send it back to Georgia State with us because this is what it's all about. This is a major league environment. What a great place for college basketball."
--Junior G Troy Daniels had a pregame routine that he followed on the road, spending the afternoon at a movie theater. However, when the team went to Hofstra, he was going struggling, so Smith suggested Daniels go to the gym to change his routine.
Daniels came off the bench to inspire a first-half rally that led to an 11-point lead. He wound up making five of eight 3-pointer and scoring 15 points after having been held scoreless in his previous game.
"I'm going to continue that routine," Daniels said. "It obviously worked."
WILLIAM & MARY
--With the Tribe's 68-61 victory over James Madison, Tony Shaver registered his 100th win at the helm of the William & Mary program, becoming just the second head coach in program history to accomplish the feat. Bill Chambers won 113 games in his nine-year career as the head coach of the program from 1957-66. Shaver, who was inducted into Hall of Fames as a head coach at Episcopal High School in Northern Virginia and at Hampden-Sydney College, owns 458 career wins, and he entered the 2011-12 season ranked No. 29 nationally among active Division I head coaches.
--After coming off the bench in his first 12 collegiate games, freshman G Marcus Thornton had moved into the starting lineup and taken off as a scorer for the Green and Gold. Over the Tribe's last four contests through Jan. 8, Thornton was averaging almost 19 points per game while shooting better than 50 percent from the floor. He had been the leading scorer for the Tribe in his last three games.
--After struggling offensively through the opening part of the season, the Tribe had stepped up its shooting and scoring production recently. On the year, William & Mary was averaging 59.5 points per game through Jan. 8, but it had upped that to 64 points per game over the last four games. The Tribe had produced three of its top five scoring outputs on the year over its past five games.
Along with its scoring, the Tribe was shooting the ball better from the field and 3-point range over the last five games through Jan. 8. During that stretch, the Tribe was shooting 46 percent from the floor compared to the 38 percent William & Mary shot in the opening 11 games of the season. From 3-point range, William & Mary was shooting better than 40 percent after shooting 29.1 percent from long range over the first 11 games.