Mason vs VCU: Battle of CAA's Final Four schools
By JOSEPH WHITE
FAIRFAX, Va. (AP) Last year at this time, George Mason guard Sherrod Wright could always tell you where his team stood in the computer rankings.
He had no choice. Coach Jim Larranaga was a numbers-geek who made it a constant theme in the Patriots' annual battle to be recognized as worthy of NCAA tournament bids.
"He gave us papers every week," Wright said. "He really focused on, like, `Hey, this is our RPI. This is where we're at.' "
Larranaga has since departed for the University of Miami and was replaced by Paul Hewitt - and the Rating Percentage Index is no longer a talking point at the Patriot Center.
"Coach Hewitt, he worries about `What's our field goal percentage defense?' That's the papers he gives us," Wright said.
Larranaga may be gone, and the players may no longer know their RPI, but the overall struggle is still there for the Patriots and the rest of the Colonial Athletic Association.
On Tuesday, the conference will have a moment unique in its history: George Mason vs. Virginia Commonwealth, the first CAA game between two schools that have been to the Final Four. GMU went in 2006 as an at-large NCAA team, and VCU performed the same against-the-odds feat last year.
"There's a lot of anticipation on the part of our players," Hewitt said.
But, if the various RPIs are to be believed, the same conference that produced two of the great underdog stories in recent memory is having an off year. The CAA sent three teams to the NCAAs in 2011; this time it might only get one.
"Let's face it," VCU coach Shaka Smart said. "Our teams, all of us - one through 12 - didn't have quite as impressive of a November and December as last season, but there's a reason behind that. Across the board teams in the CAA have gotten better."
Certainly the CAA has been compelling to follow in recent weeks. VCU, George Mason and Drexel start this week tied for first with 13-2 conference records. Drexel (21-5) has a 13-game winning streak. VCU (22-5) has won 11 in a row. George Mason (21-6) has won nine of 10.
But the computer numbers that Larranaga and other CAA advocates touted last year look bleak this time around. Instead of three conference schools in the top 50, there are none in the top 80.
George Mason's best nonconference win came against Bucknell, and there were November losses to Florida International and Florida Atlantic. VCU defeated Akron, while Drexel can boast - if it wants - about a four-point win over Princeton.
No one of those wins has much of a "wow" factor. It also doesn't help that the bottom of the conference has some serious dead weight this season, with games against Towson (1-26) and William & Mary (5-22) dragging down the RPI rankings for everyone.
The CAA's coaches would prefer to look beyond the numbers.
"In some respects, I don't know why everybody worships the RPI so much," Old Dominion coach Blaine Taylor said. "We had a 22 or 23 RPI at the end of last year. Sometimes I wonder how in the heck it happened."
Coaches noted how various CAA teams have evolved since those early season setbacks. Injuries and suspensions played a role at some schools. Smart had to rebuild after losing four top players from VCU's Final Four team. Hewitt was a total change-of-pace for a George Mason program so used to Larranaga.
"We're still going through - not growing pains - but we're still learning things, how he wants things to be run," GMU sophomore Wright said. "But (now) we've got a good feel for it as a team."
Smart said he used to look at RPIs every day when he was an assistant coach, but he barely follows them now because he feels his time can be "better spent on other things."
"As far as people saying that the CAA is down, I would beg to differ. ... I think if you went back and played those (November and December) games again, they might look differently," Smart said. "But obviously that's not how it works."
The CAA schools get to make one final out-of-conference statement this weekend when they play in a series of ESPN BracketBuster games.
"If the CAA falls short in the BracketBusters, then OK," ODU coach Taylor said. "But if the CAA steps up in the BracketBusters, I think that would raise the opinion of some people on a national basis."
Looking ahead, the CAA moved to increase its exposure Monday by reaching five-year agreements with the NBC Sports Group to provide a needed boost in television coverage. The deals run through 2016-17.
But first there is the big GMU-VCU showdown, a reminder of the conference's top two glory seasons. Asked if the Final Four runs might help the conference get an at-large bid this year, Smart answered by referencing another contest that has fluctuating numbers by the day.
"I leave hope to the presidential candidates," Smart said. "For me, it's about the team being the best it can be. Will the selection committee look at previous years? They're not supposed to, but they're only human, and they factor in."
Joseph White can be reached at http://twitter.com/JGWhiteAP
Updated February 13, 2012