CAA newbies adjust to the gauntlet

College of Charleston head coach Earl Grant. Wade Spees/Staff

The Colonial Athletic Association doesn’t have tough tickets or NCAA Tournament at-large candidates. But it has good coaching staffs, deep rosters, long road trips and potholes throughout the standings.

Bill Coen finds out about the CAA basketball brand every time he tries to build a non-conference schedule.

“Nobody really wants to give you an advantage when they’re scheduling a CAA opponent,” said Coen, in his ninth season as the head coach at Northeastern University in Boston.

New coaches find out the hard way.

The College of Charleston went 6-10 vs. CAA competition last year and got bounced out of the CAA Tournament in the first round in its inaugural CAA season with Doug Wojcik at the helm. Earl Grant’s Cougars (6-13 overall) are 1-5, tied with Towson for last place going into a Wednesday night home game against UNC-Wilmington.

“The CAA is about what I expected,” Grant said Tuesday.

That is, rugged and underrated with few soft spots. It reminds Grant of his days as an assistant coach on Gregg Marshall’s Wichita State staff.

“I always try to reference back to my time in the Missouri Valley Conference,” Grant said, “and I think (the CAA) is very comparable.”

If the CAA doesn’t have the overall power of the Missouri Valley, it’s certainly a bigger basketball step up from the Southern Conference than most College of Charleston employees and fans realized when the school made the jump before the 2013-2014 season. It looks like catching up in the 10-team league will take a few more solid recruiting classes.

Elon (10-9) is 2-4 in the CAA one season removed from the SoCon. Head coach Matt Matheny says a CAA commitment to basketball shows up from conference meetings to pockets of enthusiasm at campus venues.

“We go up to James Madison on Saturday and they have the best band I’ve ever experienced in college basketball,” Matheny said. “And I’ve been doing this 22 years.”

Different coaches have different views about what makes the CAA tough.

Grant points to the “very good coaches” around the league.

Wojcik reminded people last season that every CAA team had at least one reliable scorer and often two. That’s not something the Cougars typically had to deal with in the SoCon.

Matheny talks about league-wide depth.

“The seventh and eighth players are good enough to score and defend,” he said.

The CAA is No. 18 in USA Today’s Sagarin computer ranking of the 35 NCAA Division I conferences, the middle of mid-majors (the SoCon is No. 26). There is no traditional power, and no designated doormat.

“The more mature, older teams with a lot of guys that have been in the league and who have continuity in their systems, those teams do the best,” Grant said.

Experienced coaches help, too.

“I look forward to building our program where we’re one of the best teams in this league,” said Grant, on the job only since September.

It might be comforting to know that CAA hardships cut both ways at the College of Charleston. The Cougars made enough progress last week — a 66-50 win at Elon and a 69-67 loss at Northeastern — to concern first-year UNC Wilmington head coach Kevin Keatts going into Wednesday night’s game.

“Obviously, they’re starting to play very good basketball as we all hope our teams would be around this time,” said Keatts, who was a top Louisville assistant last season. “Just a very dangerous team that’s peaking at the right time.”

The trick in the CAA is getting coaches to say that about your team when you’re in first place.

Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff