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Atlantic 10 Preview: The Best (Not-So) Mid Major Conference

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With a conference-record six teams dancing in March a year ago, the Atlantic 10 Conference grew right before our eyes. With six teams, the A-10 was tied for the second most bids by any conference behind the Big 12’s seven. As the 11-seed in the South Region, a Vee Sanford, Jordan Sibert, and Devin Oliver lead Dayton Flyers team dazzled college basketball fans on their way to an Elite 8 appearance.

Saint Louis had a tournament win over NC State before losing to a tough Louisville team in the round of 32. VCU, Umass, Saint Joseph’s, and George Washington all lost in their first games of the tournament, though that VCU loss still stings deeply in Richmond.

Last year it was the Flyers who carried the conference deep into the tournament with their upset over 6th seeded Ohio State in one of the best games of the first weekend. They followed that up with a nail-biting win over the 3-seed Syracuse. After winning their first two games by a combined three points, the Flyers comfortably thrashed a hot Stanford team before finally succumbing to the #1 seed Florida in the South Regional Final.

The conference has grown each year with six teams in the dance last season, five the year before that, and four the season before that. I think the conference will lose it’s Mid Major Status and become a Power Conference.

Not convinced? Let this article do the trick.

Dayton Flyers fans think Dayton will dance

Dayton Flyers fans think Dayton will dance

Who will be this year’s Dayton to make the conference’s presence felt deep in the tournament? Will it be Dayton again? The Flyers return their leading scorer Jordan Sibert and have one of the most underrated coaches in college basketball in Archie Miller. Though they are losing Sanford and Oliver, they return two crucial pieces to their success in forward DyShawn Pierre and guard Scoochie Smith (in the running for first team All-Name team). With Sibert back and Archie Miller, expect the Flyers to dance this season. I mean who can doubt any team that has these dedicated fans?

Could it be last year’s regular season conference champions Saint Louis? The Billikens have a lot of work to do to make up for the losses of their four leading scorers including last season’s conference player of the year Jordair Jett. He was one of the best floor generals in all of college basketball and one of the most electrifying distributors of the basketball. Dwayne Evans shot nearly 50 percent from the floor and was one of Jett’s favorite targets when he drove through the lane. This season SLU is going to need to rely on a very balanced attack with Austin McBroom as their highest scoring returning player. They can be competitive, but will be a bubble team at best, with an outside chance of dancing. Pay attention to big man Achraf Yacoubou to be a go to guy in the paint because the Billikens play a great inside-out game.

Can VCU overcome their unsatisfying first game loss in last year’s tournament? A million times, YES!. The Rams are good, really good. They bring back all but two of their six key components from last season, most importantly is the beast that is Treveon Graham. Graham scored 15.8 last season while grabbing an impressive seven rebounds a game. He is going to be better than ever and is a dangerous and impossible player to cover. The only guy in the conference that can probably cover him is on his own team! Briante Weber is the best defensive player in the country. He has more steals than any current player in the NCAA after recording 115 steals a year ago and easily winning the A-10’s defensive player of the year award. He tortures opponent’s point guards from start to finish of every game, especially when they are wreaking HAVOC at home. The Rams also return Melvin Johnson (10.4 ppg), JeQuan Lewis, Jordan Burgess, and one of my favorite unknowns in the conference, Mo Alie-Cox (watch him play, it’s a lot of fun). The Rams are my pick to win the conference and should be a very heavy contender for a top-4 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Shaka Smart is a difference-maker -Photo by Scott Zolotorow

Shaka Smart is a difference-maker
-Photo by Scott Zolotorow

Unlike some of other Mid Major’s, I’m looking at you Wichita State, the Rams have a tough non-conference schedule with plenty of chances to prove their worth.  Hell, two of their first four games are against Tennessee and preseason #12 Villanova. And those are just the appetizer for their in-state showdown against #9 Virginia, a game won last season by VCU. With all of their incredible players and their accolades, I have forgotten to tell you why they are always one of the best teams in the A-10, not that you don’t already know it…Shaka. Smart. Smart is one of the elite coaches in all of college basketball. He has won 137 games in just five seasons and was the second-youngest coach to get to 100 wins in NCAA History (Brad Stevens was 1st). VCU WILL win the Atlantic 10.

The Rams will win the conference, but there will be plenty of other teams to watch out for this season. First let’s start with my favorite “Will Shock You” team of this A-10 season. Say it with me…St. Bonaventure. The Bonnies return three starters from a year ago: Youssou Ndoye, Dion Wright, and Jordan Gathers. Those three along with the talented Andell Cumberbatch give the Bonnies four very impressive players. Ndoye will be a double-double machine this season, he cranked out four last year, including an eye-opening 19 point, 10 rebound performance in the A-10 tournament. The Bonnies are good and are my sleeper pick to finish in the top 6 of the A-10 and earn a bid into this season’s NCAA Tournament. In case you need another reason to watch the Bonnies, they have a Jaylen Adams and a Jalen Adams. That isn’t a typo, they are not related, but are both freshman and are sure to confuse the heck out of announcers.

Moving on to the other big players in the conference, UMass and George Washington. Though the Minutemen lost Chaz Williams, they bring back Cady Lalanne, who like Youssou Ndoye is primed to open some (more) eyes with some great double-double performances. Lalanne averaged 11.3 points and 7.9 rebounds a year ago and he’ll do better than that this season. There will be a lot of pressure on Derrick Gordon as a guard to fill the void left by the absence of Chaz Williams. He will face pressure on the court and off as he courageously became college basketball’s first openly gay player. He averaged 9.4 points last season and will be called upon to score more than that this season. Forward Maxie Esho and Point Guard Trey Davis are also extremely talented giving UMass an exciting starting five.And make sure to keep an eye on incoming transfer Jabarie Hinds who comes in from West Virginia. Under Bob Huggins, Hinds started a majority of his games in 2 seasons at WVU. UMass should be dancing.

As should the Colonials of George Washington. Mike Lonergan was rewarded with a big contract after his team’s success a year ago and like every team in the A-10, his lost some key players. It is nearly impossible to replace a Maurice Creek and Isaiah Armwood, but Lonergan has the tools to do it. It all starts with guard Kethan Savage. Savage was sidelined for nearly all of conference play last season with a fractured foot. But when healthy, he is one of the purest guards in the conference. He can score from anywhere on the floor and can pass with the best in the league. To replace Armwood, they’ll look to Denmark’s finest, Kevin Larsen. Larsen really matured through the second half of the season last year and a key role player. If he can stay out of foul trouble, which he wasn’t able to do a lot of last season, Larsen will be a difference-maker for GW. Last but not least, there couldn’t be an A-10 blog without mention of Patricio Garino. Garino is a streaky shooter, but when he is on he can carry the Colonials on his back through a game. The Argentinian scored in double-figures in all but two of GW’s final 20 games last season.

Another team to be on the look out for this season is Dr. John Giannini’s La Salle. They have what could be the best frontcourt in the Atlantic 10 with seniors Steve Zack and Jerrell Wright. Zack nearly averaged a double-double a year ago with nine points and 9.5 rebounds and Jerrell Wright is the second toughest defensive matchup after Youssou Ndoye. He has a great spin move inside the paint that leaves defenders in a daze and can score well with both hands. Guard D.J. Peterson will have a lot of pressure as he tries to replace Tyreek Duran and Tyrone Garland, two very good guards that the Explorers have lost from a year ago. La Salle will certainly fight for a tournament berth and I believe they will get it.

DeAndre' Bembry will be called upon to lead Saint Joe's - Photo by Mike Brilliant

DeAndre’ Bembry will be called upon to lead Saint Joe’s
– Photo by Mike Brilliant

So who drops from last season? Saint Joseph’s has to be the first team that comes to mind, although you can NEVER count out a Phil Martelli coached team, but the odds aren’t in their favor. Martelli’s A-10 Tournament-winning Hawks played six guys for the majority of the season a year ago. They lost four of those six. Halil Kanacevic, Langston Galloway, and Ronald Roberts Jr. were special players and were All-A-10 players. This year they will have to rely on Chris Wilson and DeAndre’ Bembry to carry the load. But this won’t be the same style of team from a year ago that lost that heartbreaking NCAA tournament game to eventual-champion Connecticut.

I see a very much improved Fordham, with a great guard duo of Mandell Thomas and Jon Severe causing some rucus in the conference and could surprise a lot of teams with their speed. Severe is suspended to open the season, but when he returns is an electric guard local to the New York area that can control the tempo of the game. Bryan Smith is the best three point shooter in the conference in my opinion, but the rams will struggle in the paint with a banged up Ryan Canty. Oh and in case you haven’t heard, the Rams have the best freshman in the conference and his name is Eric Paschall. He dropped 31 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in his debut in the Rams win over NYIT on opening night.

Richmond will certainly be worth a watch as they have one of the most electric 5’7″ players in the country in Kendall Anthony. Expect him to finish either first or second team all-conference. But with the exception of Terry Allen and Alonzo Nelson-Ododa, the Spiders aren’t very deep.

There is a newcomer in the A-10 and its Davidson, formerly of the SOCON. Bob McKillop’s Wildcats will suffer much like Paul Hewitt’s George Mason did last season in their first year in a MUCH bigger conference. These two teams and Rhode Island and Duquesne will finish at the bottom of the conference, but hey in this incredible conference somebody has too. For Davidson, Tyler Kalinoski is a fundamentally sound player who will draw a lot of attention from opponents. George Mason’s Jalen Jenkins is just a sophomore, but is my favorite player on the Patriots. Rhody has Gilvydas Biruta and he is a force to reckoned with, but these Rams will have trouble pacing with some of the deeper teams in the conference. For the Dukes, keep an eye on guard Derrick Colter, who actually took a big step back a year ago and struggled after a marvelous freshman season. If he can return to freshman form, he is fun to watch.

PLAYER OF THE YEAR CANDIDATES

Jordan Sibert-Will be THE guy for Dayton and is a great scorer with a nice jump shot.

Treveon Graham-Unstoppable player on a great team, who will benefit from Briante Weber dishing him the rock.

Youssou Ndoye-The 7-footer will lead the conference in double-doubles and can help his team dance.

Jerrell Wright-The best player in the city of Philadelphia this season.

WINNER – Treveon Graham

 

 

 

Scott Zolotorow