Across the country in the lead up to nearly every conference tournament, coaches will talk as they do about their league's event being wide open. In most cases, such statements, even if true on paper, are roll-your-eye moments.
As only seven teams are participating in the Colonial Athletic Association tournament and no apparent powerhouse exists among them, such talk in this case is sincere.
With Towson and UNC Wilmington ineligible because of academics, Old Dominion and Georgia State out because of upcoming departure from the league, just a tiny group of programs are descending on Richmond this weekend.
"I don't recall in 20 years a situation like this," said Monte' Ross, coach of second-seeded Delaware. "I think that's the beauty of it. I think it's going to be very exciting."
The intrigue exists because of the miniscule amount of teams in the field - and six of the seven programs having a legitimate puncher's chance at streaking their way to winning the conference's automatic bid (sorry Hofstra).
There is also the uncertainty over which version of each program will emerge.
Three quarterfinal contests take place Saturday - including George Mason vs. Drexel at 3:30 on CSN. The matchup features the two preseason frontrunners. Both sides performed below expectations, the Dragons dramatically so.
Delaware dropped out of the regular season title conversation early with a three-game losing skid, but closed better than any team in the league. James Madison's fourth-place finish was surprising, but the Dukes first opponent, William & Mary, nearly ran them off the court last week.
No. 1 seed Northeastern automatically advances to the semifinals and needs just one win to reach Monday's championship game. However, the Huskies stumbled late in the season including a stunning regular season finale loss against last place Old Dominion.
"Old Dominion jumping up and beating Northeastern at Northeastern sends a signal to everybody: it truly is wide open," George Mason coach Paul Hewitt said. "Clearly, Northeastern was the best team this year...but it's a reminder that you have to come out and play."
Northeastern awaits the George Mason-Drexel winner. The other semifinal will pit the victors from Delaware-Hofstra and James Madison-William & Mary. Play these games 10 times and the results likely vary in most cases. Of course, that's not how this works. In what is a one-bid conference this season, there is only chance.
"It's going to be whoever can get on a little roll here, whoever can execute the best, whoever can pay attention to details for three days - or two days in Northeastern's case - is going to be the winner," Ross said.
For a closer look at the teams (in seed order) vying to be the winner...
*Sunday's semifinals and Monday's championship game will be on NBC Sports Network)
NORTHEASTERN (19-11, 10-4)
Recent: Wire-to-wire winner lost three of last five including season finale at home to last place Old Dominion.
Good Stat: Huskies drain conference-high 41 percent of their 3-point attempts.
Uh-oh stat: Outrebounded by -5.1 boards per game, last in the CAA
Outlook: With a quarterfinal round bye, Huskies only need two wins for first NCAA appearance since 1991. Bill Coen's squad lost only one game (Delaware) against teams in the field and went 4-0 versus potential semifinal opponents Drexel or George Mason. Factor in the potent senior backcourt of Joel Smith (16.5 ppg) and Jonathan Lee (13.8), and sporting the most efficient offense in the conference, Northeastern makes for a legitimate favorite - though rebounding issues could prove problematic in potential finals matchup with the Blue Hens.
DELAWARE (18-13, 13-5)
Recent: Won four straight and 10 of 12 games
Good Stat: Holds conference opponents to 40.3 percent shooting from the field, best in the CAA
Uh-oh stat: Can get caught up in one-on-one offense, evidence in part by its 9.7 assists per game in conference play. Only Hofstra averaged fewer.
Outlook: Rather bright considering the current winning stretch and the high-end talent with guard and CAA leading scorer Devon Saddler (20.9) and double-double machine Jamelle Hagins (13 on the season). Saddler, Delaware's third all-time scorer, has tallied 20 or more points 15 times, including 8 of the last 10 games.
JAMES MADISON (17-14, 11-7)
Recent: Closed regular season with a come-from-behind road win at William & Mary after losing two straight
Good Stat: Allowing 60.8 points per game, tied with Drexel for league-best
Uh-oh stat: Collectively shooting 39.9 percent from the field, 10th in the CAA
Outlook: Those that kept waiting for the Dukes to drop the league's top half were left waiting thanks to the productive trio of Rayshawn Goins (12.9 ppg, 7.4 reb), Devon Moore (11.3 ppg) and A.J. Davis. The Dukes swept the season series from both quarterfinal foe William & Mary and potential semifinal opponent, Delaware. Avoiding up-tempo stretches is vital.
GEORGE MASON (17-13, 10-8)
Recent: Dropped last two and 4 of 7
Good Stat: Powerful center Erik Copes has begin turning into a consistent interior presence, scoring double figures in 6 of the last 8 games while averaging 9.5 ppg and 8.2 rpg over that stretch.
Uh-oh stat: Fourth overall in scoring defense (67.1), but the Patriots surrendered 81 points per game in their last four losses.
Outlook: The Patriots are the deepest team in the CAA, but coach Paul Hewitt never found a steady rotation during the season, leading to uneven performances on both ends of the court. However, having 11 players is a nice luxury, especially defensively, when trying to win three games in three days. Sherrod Wright (16.5 ppg) is the Patriots primary scoring option, but the wing guard also suffered from late season ups and down, though forward Jonathan Arledge and Copes have provided recent production inside. Somehow, somewhere freshman-scoring threat Patrick Holloway provides a key point-producing surge this weekend. Hey, at least George Mason is playing anywhere but at the Patriot Center, where the green and gold lost four of their last five including a 58-54 setback to Drexel on Jan. 31.
DREXEL (13-17, 9-9)
Recent: Closed with two wins, finished 5-5 over last 10 games
Good Stat: In addition to tying for scoring defense lead, finished second in rebounding margin.
Uh-oh stat: Not a shot-blocking team, the Dragons average league-low 2.2 per game.
Outlook: Injuries crippled coach Bruiser Flint's team early in the season and the Dragons never fully recovered despite the explosive backcourt of Baltimore native Damion Lee (17.4 ppg) and Frantz Massenhut. The reigning CAA Player of the Week, Lee averaged 23.0 and 7.5 rebounds in two wins last week while the shifty Massenhut directs the Dragons offensive attack. Four plus months of disappointments can be set aside by three winning days in Richmond.
WILLIAM & MARY (13-16, 7-11)
Recent: Glass half-full -- won four of final six games. Glass half empty--lost two of last three.
Good Stat: Paced conference with 46.3 field goal shooting percentage
Uh-oh stat: Worst turnover margin (-2.2) of any teams in the tournament
Outlook: Earlier this week I laid out rationale for how William & Mary could reach its first NCAA Tournament ever, which essentially is W&M makes shots and sophomore guard Marcus Thornton is a scoring and 3-point-shooting stud. Even though they lost to QF foe James Madison twice including 69-67 last Friday, the Tribe led last week's contest by 16 at halftime before losing by two points. The recent winning stretch had three of the Tribe's four late seasons wins come against two of the conference's worst teams (UNCW twice, ODU). Still, Thornton averaged 21 points and five 3's against the Dukes. Get a win and everyone starts using the "playing with house money" phrase.
HOFSTRA (7-24, 4-14)
Recent: Since Jan. 16, two wins, 13 losses
Good Stat: Lost last two games of the season -- against co-second place teams Delaware and Towson -- by a combined four points
Uh-oh stat: Averaged CAA-low 55.2 points, or seven points per game fewer the next team (JMU)
Outlook: Perhaps the nicest thing that can be said is Hofstra is one game away from officially focusing on next season. It's worth noting that the Pride lost at QF opponent Delaware 57-56 on February 27. Forward Moussa Kone scored a career-high 18 points in the loss and then topped that total the next game with 20 against Towson. Still, even one win would be rather stupendous.