2013-2014 was a banner year for Atlantic 10 basketball. As many A-10 teams made it to the NCAA Tournament as ACC teams. But this year was always going to be a transition year for the conference. Non-conference play is now nearly over, and it has become evident that the conference is down significantly from the highs of a year ago. Teams top to bottom have struggled at various times throughout the year. But from the struggles, solid basketball teams are emerging as conference play is about to begin.
The A-10 won’t get six bids this year, but it can reasonably aim for three or four. There is tremendous parity among the middle eight or nine teams, so this should be a fun year. Here are my predictions for the order of finish in conference play this winter. All statistics are through December 28 and are from Kenpom.com.
14. Fordham (4-6). Best Wins – None. Worst Losses – home vs. Maryland Eastern Shore, home vs. UMass-Lowell. Player to Watch – Eric Paschall (16.8 ppg) – the freshman scored 31 points in the season opener, but has since cooled down. He is a streaky shooter capable of catching fire. On the negative side, he turns the ball over at alarming rate (3.4 per game).
Fordham does little well on the court. They are subpar on offense and can’t play defense. Their relative inexperience is shown in their 339th national rank in turnovers. They shoot below 30% from three as a team, so they don’t have much chance to beat better teams that way. The one thing they do well is rebound the ball, as Ryan Rhoomes is one of the best offensive rebounders in the conference, although he can’t do anything else with the ball. Fordham will have to improve tremendously if they want to win more than one or two games.
13. Duquesne (4-6). Best Wins – None. Worst Losses – home vs. NJIT, home vs. Maryland Eastern Shore. Player to Watch – Jordan Stevens (12.5 ppg) – Stevens leads the Dukes in points despite playing only 22.4 minutes per game. His best game of the year came at Penn State. If given a bigger role, Stevens has a chance to blossom.
Duquesne has not beat anyone even remotely good in non-conference play, but they have kept a couple of games close against talented teams. They actually play a little defense, and are capable of shooting the three, which is why I put them ahead of Fordham, as they might win some games if they get hot. However, this team might be equally bad. They shoot a miserable 59.6% from the free throw line, good for 341st in the country. And they have no star players capable of leading the charge.
12. Saint Louis (8-4). Best Wins – home vs. Vermont. Worst Losses – home vs. Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, home vs. South Dakota St. Player to Watch – Achraf Yacoubou (9.8 ppg, 4.8 rpg) – the transfer from Villanova is part of a balanced Billikens offense. Yacoubou likes the ball in his hands and has been putting the ball on the floor more this year to get to the basket. He’s no Jordair Jett, but he’s just about the best they’ve got.
The problem with starting five seniors one year is that you’re left with a lot to do the following year. Don’t be fooled by the wins in non-conference play, as Saint Louis has played one of the ten easiest schedules thus far. This team is young and lacks a true scorer. Not one player averages even 11 points per game. They do a tremendous job of getting to the free throw line, but they aren’t a particularly great shooting team from the stripe. Defensively, they’re solid, but where they will struggle is in the half-court offense. For a team used to success, Saint Louis will have a rough go of it this year. Jim Crews has a tough job.
11. St. Bonaventure (7-3). Best Wins – home vs. Buffalo. Worst Losses – home vs. Maryland Eastern Shore. Player to Watch – Youssou Ndoye (11.1 ppg, 11.3 rpg) – the senior center has taken a big leap this year and become a force on the glass. His defensive rebounding rate is 7th best in the nation. He has also begun to put things together on the offensive end, scoring 17 or more in three of his last six games.
This is where the parity begins. The Bonnies are by no means a bad team, as many saw in their run in the conference tournament last year. They might even reach seven or eight victories. But they have some holes that make me believe they’ll struggle at times. For one, while their interior defense is strong, they are dreadful at defending the three. They also rely solely on their starters, which means foul trouble or a single injury could prove problematic. Marcus Posley can score, Ndoye can rebound and defend, so they will be right there in many games. But I’m not sure freshman point guard Jaylen Adams (not to be confused with Jalen Adams, a redshirt freshman) is quite ready for big road tests. He can shoot, but can he make the right decisions in tough situations? (On a side note, Maryland Eastern Shore would do well to play A-10 teams all year.)
10. George Mason (5-6). Best Wins – home vs. Iona. Worst Losses – home vs. Cornell. Player to Watch – Shevon Thompson (12.7 ppg, 11.3 rpg) – the JuCo transfer from Jamaica has produced some massive double-doubles lately, including 29-10 and 24-14 games. He is a rebounding machine, and currently ranks second in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage.
George Mason has played a tough non-conference schedule and taken their licks. After the first week of December and a heartbreaking overtime loss to Northern Iowa, they sat at 2-6. But a recent win streak should give them some confidence going into A-10 play. They aren’t a great shooting team, but they do a good job of getting to the line. Their height, led by Thompson, will give a lot of teams big problems. This team can play. It’s just a question of whether or not they’ll be able to finish games.
9. St. Joseph’s (6-4). Best Wins – home vs. Temple. Worst Losses – home vs. Fairleigh Dickinson. Player to Watch – DeAndre Bembry (14.9 ppg, 6.7 rpg) – Bembry is almost always on the court, taking a lot of shots. But he hasn’t found his shooting rhythm this year, seeing his percentages drop significantly from a year ago. His last couple games suggest a change in his fortunes might be coming though.
The Hawks are an interesting team. Between Bembry and Isaiah Miles, they certainly have the scoring ability. Their defense will be near the top of the A-10 too. And they’ve pulled out a lot of close games so far. But this team hasn’t shot the ball well at all, shooting only 25.2% from three as a team on the season and 62.3% from the free throw line. They’ve thrown two stinkers in their two biggest games against Gonzaga and Villanova, losing by a combined 80 points in the two games. So where will they land in conference play? I think somewhere in the middle. They’ve got the talent to beat anyone, but they lack the consistency to make a serious run.
8. La Salle (7-5). Best Wins – at Hofstra. Worst Losses – home vs. American. Player to Watch – Jordan Price (18.8 ppg) – the sophomore transfer from Auburn has lit it up, scoring upwards of 25 points four times, including in three straight late December contests. He lives at the free-throw line, and always will take the big shots.
Here’s where the teams really begin to bunch up. La Salle has played a lot of good teams close, and they’ve seen great competition, but they have come up short in every single one of those games. They just don’t have that killer instinct quite yet. However, they do a number of things well. As a team, they defend in the half-court better than almost everyone in the conference. They have some height across the board, and are a solid rebounding team. Price’s ability to score should keep them in many games. Expect them to get a couple of huge wins, but disappoint with more than their fair share of tight losses.
7. Dayton (9-2). Best Wins – neutral vs. Texas A&M, home vs. Georgia Tech. Worst Losses – none. Player to Watch – Jordan Sibert (15.3 ppg) – a major contributor in last year’s Elite 8 run, Sibert has had an up and down season so far. He’s great with the ball in his hands and brings a veteran presence to Dayton’s offense. He was terrific in the victory over Georgia Tech last week.
Were it not for the dismissal of Devon Scott and Jalen Robinson, the Flyers could have been an outside contender for the conference title. But the loss of the two forwards leaves Dayton in a bind, as they now have zero players taller than 6’6″ and a rotation of only seven players. I just don’t see that working out long term. They have a good offense and an even better pressure defense, but the lack of size will bite them in the foot against otherwise inferior teams like George Mason. Their schedule is set up for a great start, so don’t be surprised if Dayton is 5-0 heading into their trip to Davidson, but I don’t think they have the bodies to withstand the recent adversity all the way to March.
6. UMass (6-6). Best Wins – home vs. Northeastern. Worst Losses – home vs. Florida Gulf Coast. Player to Watch – Derrick Gordon (11.5 ppg) – Gordon earned the headlines by becoming the first openly gay college basketball player last spring. Big things were expected from him on the court this season. Gordon has been solid, but unspectacular. He’s been sharp with the ball, but hasn’t shot the ball well. For UMass to find success, Gordon needs to become a bigger part of the offense.
UMass had high expectations coming in to this season, but December has seen things fall apart for the Minutemen. A close loss to rival Harvard sent them into a skid in which they’ve lost five of six. They’re a great team in the half-court offense, but they have very little in the way of outside shooting, which has cost them. Cady Lalanne has been big down low in setting up their interior defense, but he’ll need to improve further on the offensive end in conference play. UMass has a tough January, so it’ll be interesting to see whether they can bounce back from this tough stretch quickly enough to get mentally ready for the conference grind. That being said, they are one of the most talented teams in the league, and have a higher ceiling than most. I can see them finishing anywhere from 3rd to 10th.
5. Richmond (7-6). Best Wins – home vs. William & Mary. Worst Losses – at James Madison. Player to Watch – Kendall Anthony (15.3 ppg) – the diminutive senior has maintained a steady level of production since freshman year. But now, more needs to be asked of Anthony. He’s been streaky from behind the arc so far, which has led to scattered performances. The Spiders need their senior guard to be a consistent scoring presence and a reliable ball handler.
Don’t expect to score more than 60 points against the Spiders this year. They play at a snail’s pace and buckle down on defense from the opening tip. They won’t blow by you or overpower you inside, but they will give you a game. Offensively, they do a good job of not turning the ball over, and they shoot a great percentage inside the arc. They have a lot of length, which could present problems for teams that like to put the ball on the floor. This team doesn’t have as high a ceiling as many across the A-10, but they will be a tough one to beat.
4. Davidson (9-1). Best Wins – home vs. Charlotte. Worst Losses – none. Player to Watch – Tyler Kalinoski (16.1 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 3.7 apg) – an outside conference player of the year candidate, Kalinoski is one of the nation’s most efficient guards. He is a lights out shooter, making 41.5% of his threes thus far, and he never turns the ball over. He’s patient on the break, and gets his teammates a lot of space by drawing extra defenders. He also has been a much better player in the second half of games – twice in early December he had 19 or more second half points – and has the clutch gene so many players lack.
Possibly the biggest joke of the A-10 year was the preseason placement of newcomer Davidson as 12th out of 14 teams. In their first year in the conference and without a veteran front court, many expected the Wildcats to struggle. But Bob McKillop’s team has breezed through their non-conference slate with the nation’s best scoring offense. This team does not turn the ball over and is full of players who can shoot from anywhere. Seven different players have scored at least 16 points in a game. Freshman forward Peyton Aldridge is proving to be a terrific addition, and a player not afraid of the big stage, as evidenced by his 25 point performance against UNC. Davidson may come to regret the easy non-conference schedule, as an at-large bid may be in play. Watch out for the Wildcats in March, as this team can not only shoot (17th best three point shooting team in the country), but they play defense and don’t give away any possessions.
3. Rhode Island (7-3). Best Wins – home vs. Nebraska. Worst Losses – none. Player to Watch – E.C. Matthews (17.7 ppg) – Matthews has scored in bunches when he’s caught fire this season. He’s the key to Rhode Island’s offense and a great shooter. The sophomore guard has shot the ball better than he did a year ago both within the arc and outside it, although he has been streaky from three.
Rhode Island will be squarely on the bubble all season. But I believe they will ultimately get in the Big Dance behind a stingy defense that ranks 25th best in the nation. Hassan Martin and Gilvydas Biruta lead a front line that is one of the toughest in the A-10 on both ends. And while Matthews provides the outside threat, his teammates do an excellent job of getting to the foul line. Together, they make for a dynamic group of players. A home game vs. VCU on January 13 will be a fantastic test of the Rams’ defense, so be on the lookout for that score as a way of determining just how far Rhode Island will go.
2. George Washington (9-3). Best Wins – neutral vs. Wichita State, neutral vs. Colorado. Worst Losses – none. Player to Watch – Yuta Watanabe (7.0 ppg, 4.3 rpg) – the freshman role player from Japan might seem a strange choice given his relatively low numbers, but he will be vital to the Colonels long term success. “The Chosen One,” as dubbed by The Japan Times, has the ability to stretch opposing defenses with the three-point shot, something none of his teammates do. He will be the necessary zone-buster in certain games. But Watanabe is also capable of putting the ball on the floor, so don’t be deceived into thinking he’s a one-way threat.
If I had to rank the best team in the conference at this moment, I’d put George Washington at the top. They’re an incredibly solid basketball team. They have a top-15 defense, which gives away very few easy buckets despite its propensity to force turnovers. And offensively, they’re balanced and efficient in the half-court. Kethan Savage and a few others showed in Hawaii that they’re capable of stepping up in the crucial moments, so beware the Colonels in March. With George Washington, you know what you’re going to get – 40 minutes of disciplined, well-coached basketball. But where they might struggle is against equally defensively minded teams that pack the interior.
1. VCU (9-3). Best Wins – home vs. Northern Iowa, neutral vs. Oregon. Worst Losses – at Old Dominion. Player to Watch – Treveon Graham (16.3 ppg, 6.3 rpg) – the senior has taken another step this year, improving his three point stroke and his ball-handling. VCU will go as Graham goes against top quality opposition, as he is one of the players capable of matching up with anyone across the nation.
VCU has played one of the toughest schedules in the country, and after falling to 5-3 with a loss at home to Virginia, there were some questions about whether this team would fail to reach their potential. But since that loss, VCU has won four straight, including grinding out an impressive double-overtime win over Northern Iowa. VCU is one of the nation’s best on both ends. They play fast, and as a result force turnovers on 25.6% of their opponent’s possessions, good for ninth in the country. Offensively, they’re as talented as anyone, and their veteran backcourt doesn’t turn the ball over. This team has not come close to reaching their ceiling, and for that reason I project them to finish ahead of George Washington. They can make a deep run in March.
Over the course of the conference season, I will provide updates and analysis periodically. Follow me on Twitter (@Klaus_Faust) for regular A-10 basketball coverage, and check back for write-ups of Davidson basketball games.