A year after getting three teams into the NCAA Tournament, the Atlantic 10 has a challenge on its hands to get back to that number. With help from statistics from Kenpom.com, I bring you my predictions ahead of the beginning of Atlantic 10 conference play, which begins tomorrow afternoon at noon. The teams are in reverse order of how I think they will finish.
14. George Mason (6-7). Best Wins – neutral vs. Ole Miss, neutral vs. Oklahoma State. Worst Losses – home vs. Colgate, at Manhattan. Player to Watch – Shevon Thompson (9.3 ppg, 10.3 rpg) – Thompson remains a rebounding machine and a menace on defense but his offensive game has not developed the way the Patriots needed it to. He has six straight single-digit scoring games since two monster double-doubles in their big wins in November.
After an impressive showing in the Charleston Classic raised expectations a little bit, the team has struggled. They go as Thompson goes, as there aren’t many shooters on the roster. It’s still a young group, so under new coach Dave Paulsen, they’ve got a lot of room to grow. But this might be another long year. Defensively, they are dead last in Division 1 basketball in forcing turnovers, which puts significant pressure on their halfcourt offense.
13. Fordham (9-2). Best Wins – none. Worst Losses – home vs. Boston College. Player to Watch – Joseph Chartouny (14.9 ppg, 6.7 rpg) – while the freshman is by no means their go-to option, he looks to be capable of scoring bursts. With last year’s star Eric Paschall gone to Villanova, Chartouny has a chance to be a real impact newcomer.
Fordham may have an eye-catching record, but that tells us absolutely nothing. Certainly do not make a lot of Fordham as A-10 champion bets. None of their 9 wins have come against a top-200 team. So while their defensive numbers look impressive at this point, I’m going to ignore most of that until they prove they can handle better teams. As a team, they shoot the ball well, so maybe they are improved from a year ago. Mandell Thomas has looked good as the primary scorer, but he must prove his no show against Boston College in their last outing was merely an off day.
12. Saint Louis (5-7). Best Wins – home vs. North Florida. Worst Losses – home vs. Tennessee Martin. Player to Watch – Milik Yarbrough (10.2 ppg, 6.6 rpg) – Yarbrough is one of four Billikens averaging double figures. A year ago, his play in conference games came and went with alarming inconsistency. There are few signs he is settling down, but he is touching the ball more than anyone else. Perhaps that will help bring composure to a struggling offense.
Saint Louis has the nation’s 319th best offense. They turn the ball away like it’s their job and grab almost no offensive rebounds. They have no go-to scorer. Yet despite their losing record, they might be an improved basketball team from a year ago as evidenced by the way they’ve been able to stay in most of their losses this season. Games against Louisville, Wichita State and Kansas State have the Billikens prepared for conference play. The question is whether they’ll be able to score enough points to win many games. I’m thinking not. One thing to watch is their ability to get to the free throw line. Guard Miles Reynolds has figured out that might be the best way to score.
11. La Salle (4-6). Best Wins – None. Worst Losses – home vs. Drexel, home vs. Hofstra. Player to Watch – Jordan Price (22.6 ppg) – after starting the year with three straight efforts of 27 of more points, the preseason all-conference selection has struggled. His 6 point, 4 rebound game against Miami is simply not good enough for a player of his calibre.
La Salle has fallen off big time from a year ago. Without Steve Zack, the defense has fallen from one of the best in the country to one of the worst, showing an inability to rebound. A school-record 46-point loss at home against Miami just before Christmas does not suggest this team is improving as the year goes along either. If they hope to bounce back in A-10 play, the Explorers will need someone to help Price carry the load. He alone cannot drag this team to mediocrity.
10. Duquesne (10-3). Best Wins – home vs. Penn State. Worst Losses – neutral vs. Pepperdine. Player to Watch – Micah Mason (16.1 ppg) – the veteran guard has quietly been among the top shooters in the A-10 since he arrived from Drake before his sophomore season. This year has been no exception, as he is above 42% from deep shooting a high volume. He has scored in double-figures in 12 of their 13 games and has twice gone off for 25+.
While it might look from their record that Duquesne has made a dramatic step up from a year ago, don’t be sold on their being a much improved team. At least not yet. While the win over Penn State was nice, none of their wins have come against teams with legitimate NCAA Tournament hopes. While the Dukes can shoot the ball, their defense is as leaky as it has been in the past, and opponents are shooting an insane 41.9% from 3. They have improved on the interior, but they need to figure out how to defend the arc if they want to compete night in and night out in the conference. Their first three conference games will offer a stern test. They welcome Dayton before traveling to Davidson and George Washington. If they win even one of those games, it might be time to pay attention.
9. UMass (7-5). Best Wins – neutral vs. Clemson, at Harvard. Worst Losses – at Florida Gulf Coast. Player to Watch – Trey Davis (19.5 ppg) – after showing flashes of brilliance against the bottom of the league a year ago, the senior has taken his offensive game to the next level this season. Although he has fewer assists this year, he has increased his scoring load, shooting higher percentages than he did a year ago.
Not much was expected from the Minutemen, but after a 5-0 start, some were wondering if they were a better basketball team than we gave them credit for. However, losses in 3 of their last 5 have cooled expectations again, and in conference play, 6 wins might be the goal. Davis and sophomore Donte Clark are scorers with the best of them, and might be capable of single-handedly winning a game or two. One strength of this team is its perimeter defense, as they have held opponents to only 28% shooting from 3. Though there aren’t many weaknesses, there also aren’t many strengths beyond that.
8. St. Bonaventure (8-3). Best Wins – home vs. Vermont. Worst Losses – at Siena. Player to Watch – Marcus Posley (17.0 ppg) – best known for his back-to-back buzzer beaters last year, the senior guard has taken on more of a scoring load, playing just about every minute. His 35-point outing against Canisius was one of the best performances in the A-10 so far.
The Bonnies are squarely in the middle of the pack, but have potential to surprise. They have three primetime scorers. However, behind them, the roster is very thin. An injury would be crippling to Posley, Dion Wright or Jaylen Adams. But should this team stay healthy, they can compete with anyone, as evidenced by the way they stuck with Syracuse for long periods of time in their November encounter. Their free throw shooting as a team is extraordinary (78.5%) and they have a ton of experience, so don’t expect them to lose many close games. Defensively, they have forced a lot of turnovers but have struggled to replace the rebounding of Youssou N’Doye.
7. VCU (8-5). Best Wins – home vs Old Dominion. Worst Losses – at Georgia Tech. Player to Watch – Melvin Johnson (18.3 ppg) – Johnson likes to shoot. When he catches fire, watch out. Ask Florida State, whom he torched for 36 points. But his desire to shoot his way out of a bad night can have negative effects. Against Georgia Tech, in a 6-point loss, he kept shooting all the way to an 0-11 showing. He is unafraid to pull the trigger, but needs to know when to let teammates take the shots.
Everyone was worried about VCU after Shaka Smart left for Texas. But Will Wade has kept the same system in place with many of the same players from last year, so there has not been that big of a dropoff. They miss the production and composure of Treveon Graham especially on the offensive end. Mo Alie-Cox has been disappointing, but a 19-point effort from him in their final non-conference tuneup bodes well for the Rams, who desperately need his production inside so that the shooters can have space. They have the second highest steal rate in the country, which allows them to get into transition easily, but there are a lot of veteran guards in the A-10 that will slow games down. I don’t believe they have the offensive talent necessary to win games in the halfcourt. Don’t expect a big run from VCU this year.
6. Rhode Island (8-5). Best Wins – home vs. Iona. Worst Losses – at Nebraska. Player to Watch – Hassan Martin (11.9 ppg, 2.6 bpg) – the first-team preseason all-conference selection just picked up an ankle injury which will sideline him two weeks. But when he returns, he needs to be better. Last year he was a beast on the glass, but this year he’s averaging only 5.4 a game. He also needs to do a better job staying on the court, as foul trouble has limited his minutes. The Rams won’t match their potential unless Martin plays up to his.
URI has the most talented roster in the conference. But 10 minutes into the season, all-conference guard E.C. Matthews went down with a season-ending injury. And nobody has stepped up. Incoming transfer Kuran Iverson has shown flashes of his talent in recent games, but hasn’t been consistent. Jered Terrell has completely lost his shooting ability. It took overtime for the Rams, many people’s preseason pick to win the conference, to beat Brown on Wednesday night. But despite all that, they still have the talent to make a run at a conference title. If Martin and Iverson can get going together, they will destroy teams on the glass. Free throw shooting is going to be a problem down the road, but they need to figure things out first.
5. Davidson (8-3). Best Wins – none. Worst Losses – none. Player to Watch – Jack Gibbs (24.6 ppg) – the junior guard has been the A-10’s best player this season. He has already had point totals of 35, 41, 37 and 41 and can score at will when teams guard him with only one man. But the fear is he is trying to do too much against the better teams, especially when Davidson has struggled early. His turnovers have been way up in recent weeks. Expect him to be A-10 Player of the Year. But his turnover to assist ratio might be more important to Davidson’s ultimate success than his points.
Coming off a conference title in their maiden campaign, Davidson has been hit hard by injuries. Already thin, they have lost three scholarship players to season-ending injuries. Gibbs has been spectacular, but in the three games against higher-calibre opposition, the over-reliance on him has become apparent in blowout losses. Peyton Aldridge and Brian Sullivan have offered glimpses off their all-conference talent, but have lacked the consistency from behind the arc needed so that teams can’t put two on Gibbs at all times. With the frontcourt thin once again, sophomore Nathan Ekwu has to take another step up, especially on the glass where they have struggled. The Wildcats have the offensive talent to play postseason basketball, but they d0 not have the depth to withstand another injury. With even one more injury, they could fall all the way to 7th or 8th in the conference.
4. St. Joseph’s (10-2). Best Wins – at Temple, home vs. Old Dominion. Worst Losses – none. Player to Watch – DeAndre’ Bembry (16.3 ppg, 7.9 rpg) – Bembry was the talk of the conference heading into his junior season. Though he has been a consistent scorer and has improved defensively, he has not been quite as good as many hoped. With Isaiah Miles stealing some of the spotlight, Bembry has not had to be at his best. But he needs to be there soon if St. Joe’s wants to make a run.
The success of St. Joe’s has been a surprise for the Atlantic 10. Everybody knew Bembry was good, but few foresaw Miles having 35 point, 15 rebound games like he did against Virginia Tech. That duo might just be the best in the conference. Though the Hawks don’t force many turnovers, their defense has been a strength. The achilles heel might be their three-point shooting, as they shoot only 30.4% as a team. However, one thing working in their favor is their conference schedule. After a tough opener at Richmond, they have it relatively easy. They only have to play Dayton, VCU, George Washington, Davidson and Richmond once. Of the six other top teams, they only play URI twice. Don’t be shocked if St. Joe’s ends up as a bubble team come Tournament time.
3. George Washington (11-2). Best Wins – home vs. Virginia, home vs. Seton Hall. Worst Losses – at DePaul. Player to Watch –Patricio Garino (12.8 ppg) – Garino’s leadership at the guard spot might be more important than his scoring. The Colonials go as their senior guard goes. They played their best basketball in November when he was scoring 18 a night. Since then, his numbers have dropped. An 0-8 outing against DePaul resulted in his team being blown out. With so much talent on the roster, GW needs consistency from Garino.
George Washington owns the conference’s most impressive victory – a win over #3 Virginia back in November. For that, they earned national attention. Come March, their resume will look really good. But they looked just as good a year ago with a largely similar roster before falling apart in conference play. Tyler Cavanaugh and Kevin Larsen form a fearsome duo in the paint and are complemented nicely by slashers. 3-point shooting, which was a big weakness last year, has slightly improved, but only Yuta Watanabe and Garino are threats. They open with four cupcakes in conference play before a hugely important trip to Dayton. Win that game, and the Colonials will be the favorite going forward.
2. Richmond (8-4). Best Wins – neutral vs. Cal, home vs. Northern Iowa. Worst Losses – home vs. James Madison. Player to Watch – Terry Allen (19.9 ppg, 8.3 rpg) – the senior forward would be right behind Gibbs at the moment for player of the season. A 34 point, 14 rebound performance in the upset victory over Cal has been the highlight of the season, but Allen has been there every night. He has done a great job of getting to the free throw line, where he makes 78.6% (he was 17-21 against Cal).
After a puzzling season opening loss at home to James Madison, Richmond rebounded with vengeance. This upperclassmen-led team is one of the best in the country offensively. Few teams have the frontcourt depth to defend both Allen and TJ Cline. Shawndre’ Jones has been a beneficiary of the attention those two take, as he is shooting a career-best 43.9% from deep. Nobody wants to face the Spiders right now. Home and homes with George Washington and Davidson will go a long way towards determining Richmond’s fate. But they could make a serious run for the conference crowd and a bid to the NCAA Tournament.
1. Dayton (10-2). Best Wins – neutral vs. Iowa, at Vanderbilt. Worst Losses – home vs. Chattanooga. Player to Watch – Dyshawn Pierre (11.0 ppg) – after a very public suspension from school following a sexual assault allegation, Pierre won his way back onto the roster and played his first game of the season on Wednesday. The versatile forward brings a lot to the table, demonstrated by the way he led a thin-roster to the NCAA Tournament a year ago. He needs practice and game time right now. But watch out for the impact he has in February and March.
Dayton was voted the favorite to win the conference in the preseason and nothing has changed after an impressive non-conference performance that included two huge wins. They will only get better as Pierre can be reintroduced into the lineup. Archie Miller’s squad lacks a conference player of the year candidate, but they might be better for it. A very balanced attack has resulted. Defensively, they have wreaked havoc on opposition with their length. Though the key contributors are young, this might be their best chance at an extended run in the NCAA Tournament should Miller move on to greener pastures.
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.