The Dagger - NCAAB

Three weeks before the start of the Colonial Athletic Association tournament, longtime George Mason coach Jim Larranaga said this was by far the strongest the league has been in its history.

Based on Monday night's title game, it's easy to see why.

Neither second-seeded Old Dominion nor fourth-seeded Virginia Commonwealth were the CAA's best team in the regular season, yet on Monday night both looked like teams nobody would want to draw in March. In the end, Old Dominion built an 18-point second-half lead, staved off a fierce VCU rally and emerged with a 70-65 victory.

Old Dominion's win was excellent news for bubble teams across the country because it ensures the number of available at-large bids won't shrink by one. Whereas the Monarchs were almost certainly NCAA tournament-bound for the second straight season win or lose, a flurry of late losses in league play from the Rams probably ensured they needed to win the CAA tournament to land a bid.

At 27-6 overall with victories over Clemson, Xavier and Richmond in non-conference play, Old Dominion had a chance to land a more favorable seed than the 11 and 12 seeds the program has received in its previous three NCAA tourney appearances the past six years.

The 11th-seeded Monarchs upset sixth-seeded Notre Dame in the first round last season before falling to Baylor in the round of 32. This year, a No. 7 or 8 seed is certainly not out of the question.

What will make Old Dominion a tough out is its offensive rebounding prowess and its stingy defense. The Monarchs crash the glass like no other mid-major in the country and their size, length and activity makes their zone defense particularly difficult for opposing teams to solve, especially those who don't have the perimeter marksmen necessary to shoot over the top of it.

VCU mounted its second-half rally by making it difficult for Old Dominion to make entry passes into the post and turning the Monarchs into a jump-shooting team, but the Rams could only get within one and never had a shot to tie or take the lead. Old Dominion steadied itself, holding off VCU behind big man Frank Hassell's 22 points and guard Kent Bazemore's 14.

The lasting image from Old Dominion's first-round NCAA tournament victory over Notre Dame last year was the way the Monarchs hardly celebrated afterward because they believed they would win.

Expect Old Dominion to approach its first-round game with a similar attitude this season too. The team that draws the Monarchs should know it's facing an opponent that's rugged, experienced and battle-tested from playing in a league that's as strong as it has ever been.

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