Last season was the most successful year in Atlantic 10 history. The conference sent six teams to the NCAA tournament after sending five the year before and four the year before that. With conference momentum booming, the A10 added Steph Curry’s Davidson to the mix to make an even 14 teams. Last season, the A10 was arguably (not really an argument) the best mid-major in all of college basketball. But things aren’t quite the same this year.
This season, things have been slower and rougher for the Atlantic 10. It isn’t time to abandon ship or write off the conference just yet, there are still some good basketball teams here.
The best team in the conference is still VCU (6-3). How is it possible that a conference could be any good if their best team already has three losses? Well quite simply, two of those three losses came to #12 Villanova (now ranked 6th in AP Top 25) and #7 Virginia. The third loss wasn’t a bad one either, on the road against Old Dominion, who has already beaten LSU, Richmond, and George Mason and is 7-1. So three quality losses and wins over #23 Northern Iowa, Tennessee, and Oregon are why VCU is still easily the best team in the conference. They are 8th in RPI and have two of the best scorers in the conference in Treveon Graham and Melvin Johnson who average 17.8 and 16.3 respectively. Graham is the conference’s second leading scorer and can do so from anywhere on the floor. Johnson can shoot lights out and has big game capability, but he is a bit streaky.
As good as those two are, they aren’t what make VCU such a dangerous team. Their concept of HAVOC is, and that all starts with Briante Weber. Weber averages 4.25 steals per game. That is easily the most in college basketball and he is already 17th all time in that category, just 55 behind the record holder, John Linehan of Providence. Weber is always three steps ahead of his opponent with his speed and cat-like reflexes (a phrase that is normally overused, but not in Weber’s case). When VCU steps on the floor at their home arena, the Siegel Center, opponents are in for a deafening 40 minutes. It took #7 Virginia to give the Rams their first home loss in 22 games. Point is that VCU, who has one big non-conference game left at Cincinnati, will be just fine and probably will finish in the 4-6 seed range for the NCAA Tournament.
After VCU there is a big drop-off to the second tier of the conference that has five teams pretty close together. Davidson (8-1) has been the biggest and best surprise for the A10. The newcomers have the best record in the conference and score 88.6 points per game, second most in the country. With a team scoring that much you’d expect to hear that they have five guys scoring nine points or better per game and that they are third in the country in assists at 19.0. Tyler Kalinoski and Jack Gibbs have been the most consistent backcourt in the conference and both have been rewarded with a conference player of the week award. Kalinoski is third in the conference in scoring and third in three point shooting at 47.7 percent. Gibbs leads the conference in free throw shooting (94.6) and assists (5.2). The only reason Davidson isn’t on the same level as VCU is their schedule has been pretty easy with their best win being a weak UCF. Peyton Aldridge is one of the best freshman in the conference and is getting better and not afraid of big competition. He scored his career-high 25 points against North Carolina while shooting 6-10 from deep. The last player I need to mention is junior guard Jordan Barham, who is averaging 10.4 points in just 14.3 minutes of play, which is one of the most impressive stats in college basketball. Davidson is good, but conference play will really test them and before that starts they’ll travel to #6 Virginia.
As I predicted in my conference preview, St. Bonaventure (6-2) is near the top of the pack. What I didn’t predict was that all five starters would average double-figures and that they’d be led by junior transfer Marcus Posley (Ball State). Posley scores nearly 16 points per game and has helped fill the big shoes of recently graduated Matthew Wright and Charlon Kloof, last year’s leading scorers. Even though Posley leads the team in scoring, the most important player on the Bonnies is Youssou Ndoye. I said he’d be a double-double machine and he currently averages 10.7 points and 11.0 rebounds per game. He is listed at 7’0″ and 245 pounds, but it feels like he is even larger than that. He is nearly impossible to guard and can stuff anyone as he averages 3.0 blocks per game (16th in NCAA). Coach Mark Schmidt needs to help the big fella stay out of foul trouble and they need to get the man the damn ball! Freshman guard Jaylen Adams has taken the conference by storm with his 47.2 shooting percentage from behind the arc and has been rewarded with two Player of the Week awards. Veterans Dion Wright and Andell Cumberbatch have exceeded expectations and they’ll have to continue to do so for the Bonnies to keep up the strong start. St. Bona’s weakness is their depth, they remind me a lot of last season’s Saint Joseph’s squad, except they aren’t coached by Phil Martelli. I think the Bonnies will be dancing come March.
The team that I didn’t predict would get off to this hot of a start is Rhode Island (6-3). It’s the best start for the Rams in four years and Coach Hurley has a good core of E.C. Matthews, Hassan Martin, Jared Terrell, and Gilvydas Biruta. Matthews has been their best player and its not even close. He is called upon when they need a big shot and scored 26 points in their upset win over #21 Nebraska, including 7 of their last 9 in the overtime session. Martin and Biruta have been good so far, but I’d like to see them be a bigger part of the game plan. Biruta is a force inside but like Ndoye, isn’t a big enough part of each possession. In the same respect, they need to slow down the play of the freshman Terrell. He seems out of control at times and needs to let the game come to him instead of his current run and gun mentality. He has a lot of potential but is still showing his youth. Rhode Island has the easiest conference schedule in the A10, playing each of the top five teams only once and four of those five games are at home.
Last year’s Cinderella, Dayton (7-2) hasn’t done too much to impress yet, but their losses are to UConn and at Arkansas, so they haven’t done anything bad either. Jordan Sibert and Dyshawn Pierre are the two leaders for the Flyers averaging 15 and 11 points respectively, but they are also the only two players averaging double-figures. But that is fine because Dayton has won with their defense this season, allowing just 57 points per game (34th in NCAA). They have two must win non-conference games against Georgia Tech and Ole Miss, two of the weaker teams in their respective conferences. Wins in those two games would give the Flyers momentum heading into conference play where they should finish somewhere in the 2-4 range.
The last team in this tier is George Washington (6-3). The Colonials are still searching for a signature win as they have lost to the three best teams that they faced in Virginia, Seton Hall, and Penn State. They won’t have a chance to do that out of conference with only two games left against Ohio and VMI.
GW has one of the most consistent groups in the conference led by Argentinian Patricio Garino. Garino has made some nice improvements to his game, not just on offense (scoring 3 points more per game), but mainly on defense with his 3 steals per game. Garino has scored in double-figures in every game with the exception of his 5 in the ugly loss to Virginia. Kethan Savage is back and healthy, but hasn’t improved at all from last season. He is shooting worse and turning the ball over slightly more than last season, but still shows flashes of greatness like his 18 point, 11 rebound, four assist game at Rutgers. Denmark native Kevin Larsen is playing as well as anyone in the conference in the last few weeks averaging 14.3 points and 8.3 rebounds in his last four games while shooting 58 percent. The player that keeps those three going is point guard Joe McDonald. McDonald is one of the best all around guards in the conference, averaging 9.2 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 4.4 assists per game. He will be the key to beating the teams listed so far. The Colonials have plenty of time to work the kinks out as they don’t see any of the top 5 teams until their 8th conference game when they travel to VCU.
The Best of the Rest is UMass (6-4). I would have expected a better start from the Minutemen, but Cady Lalanne can only do so much. He is by far the best player on this team and his six double-doubles are tied for fourth most in the country. He averages 14.5 and 9.7 and at times takes two men to cover him. Maxie Esho has also been solid for UMass, but mainly because of the attention given to Lalanne. Guards Trey Davis and Derrick Gordon are both playing well but neither are a threat from deep so they can be guarded for the drive. UMass is another team with no depth and that has caused plenty of issues for them late in games as they seem fatigued late in games at times.
Still Work to do: There is one team that I am confident will turn things around and that is La Salle. The Explorers have had a tough schedule with three straight games against Virginia, Vanderbilt and Villanova. But they have a great backcourt in Steve Zack and Jerrell Wright, who will help this team figure things out come conference play.
Best Win: Rhode Island’s win over #21 Nebraska reintroduced the Rams as a player in the conference and EC Matthews a legitimate contender for Player of the Year.
Worst loss: Saint Joseph’s 94-42 loss to Gonzaga. I know it is tough to fault a team for losing at Gonzaga, but no A-10 school should lose by 50 points to anyone, and it was on national television. But i trust Phil Martelli to turn things around. He is one of the best coaches and leaders in the business. Also in the running is Saint Louis‘s ugly loss to now 3-5 Texas A&M Corpus Christi. It is clear that the Billikens are still searching for answering after losing Jordair Jett and their other three top scorers from last season.
Best Freshman: Eric Paschall of Fordham. The best reason to watch a Fordham game, besides going to Rose Hill Gym. He leads the conference in scoring with 18.1 per game.
MVP: This is tough because if UMass was playing better, it would be Cady Lalanne. And if VCU would have beaten either Virginia or Nova, it would have been Treveon Graham. So for now it is a three-way tie between those two and EC Matthews, who is helping to make those Rams relevant again.