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Primer & Predictions for the Atlantic 10 Stretch Run

(Written for The Davidsonian in my capacity as sports editor.)

A year ago, the Atlantic 10 saw six of its teams included in the NCAA Tournament field, but this year, the conference is looking at between one and four bids. The bubble is chalk full of A-10 teams. The issue is part a drop-off in talent from last year and part a jump in parity. Top to bottom, the A-10 has become one of the best leagues in the country, but the selection committee usually doesn’t favor parity. Teams need to separate themselves in the end.

With George Washington losing five of their last six games, the Atlantic 10 has become a five-team race. The top five teams are all within a game of each other, and each team has five games to close out the regular season. VCU, Dayton and URI all sit at 10-3 in conference play, while Davidson and UMass lie a game behind.

So where does each of these teams stand as they head into the stretch run? Let’s take a look:

VCU (20-6, 10-3 in A-10)

Remaining Games: UMass, @Richmond, Dayton, @Davidson, George Mason (Predictions: win, loss, win, loss, win)
State of the Team: After losing defensive star and emotional leader Briante Weber to a season-ending knee injury, things looked bad for the Rams as they dropped three of four. But they appear to have righted the ship. Despite likely Conference POY Treveon Graham struggling to find his game after a series of ankle issues, VCU has found ways to get important wins over the last week with a more balanced approach. JeQuan Lewis has stepped up on the offensive end in an increased role, and while he is certainly not Weber on the defensive end, he still ranks 20th in the country in steal percentage. One has to figure Graham will break out soon too and explode for a couple 30-point games. Their remaining schedule is brutal though. Only George Mason at home in the regular season finale looks to be an easy win.
What they need to do to get into the NCAA Tournament: The Rams are pretty safely in the field of 68 at this point, as their win over Northern Iowa is looking even better now. But seeding wise, they’ll need to prove that the post-injury drop-off isn’t as drastic as it seemed two weeks ago. With a strong finish to the regular season and a couple wins in the Atlantic 10 Tournament, my guess is they’ll be looking at a 6 or 7 seed. But should they lose three of these last five games and go winless in Brooklyn, the Rams could find themselves uncomfortably back on the bubble. However, with two straight losses in the final over the last two years, Graham will be out to win this Atlantic 10 Tournament.
Predicted Finish in Atlantic 10: 13-5, tied 2nd overall.

Dayton (20-5, 10-3 in A-10)

Remaining Games: @Duquesene, George Mason, @VCU, URI, @LaSalle (Predictions: win, win, loss, loss, win)
State of the Team: Dyshawn Pierre has stepped up his game this year to move alongside streaky Jordan Sibert as Dayton’s top threats, and the two of them have Archie Miller’s squad peaking of late. However, they have proven very little about their ability to beat the top end of the conference. Against these other four top teams, Dayton is 0-2. Yes, you read that correctly; Dayton has had a very kind schedule thus far. So the road trip to VCU will be a daunting task for a team whose only road win since January 10 came at Saint Louis. I wouldn’t be surprised to see them lose three in a row to end the season. The trip to Duquesne this weekend could also prove a tougher test than many might think.
What they need to do to get into the NCAA Tournament: The sheer win-total for Dayton will look rather impressive at the end of the year, so as long as they win at least three of these games and win a game or two in Brooklyn, they should be in the field barring lots of upsets in other conference tournaments. Their win against Ole Miss is a good boost to the resume, and their credentials are also bolstered by their run a year ago, as silly as that may be. My guess is they’ll get in as a 10 seed, but I don’t think they’ll win a game.
Predicted Finish in Atlantic 10: 13-5, tied 2nd overall.

Rhode Island (18-6, 10-3 in A-10) 

Remaining Games: @George Mason, Davidson, @LaSalle, @Dayton, St. Joe’s (Predictions: win, win, loss, win, win)
State of the Team: URI has flown under the radar this year, but after a big win against UMass Wednesday night, they’re riding a surge of momentum. Hassan Martin has become arguably the best interior defender in the conference, and his offensive game only continues to get better. E.C. Matthews and Jared Terrell have provided some excellent guard play, and the two seem to have a knack for picking up their play when the other is struggling. Like Dayton, URI hasn’t really been tested (they’re only 1-2 against these other four top teams), but a tricky win at Richmond earlier this month spoke volumes about this team’s potential. The home game against Davidson will be a massive test of the Rams. A win in that game, and I think they can win the regular-season title outright.
What they need to do to get into the NCAA Tournament: This is a young squad that lacks the experience and the non-conference wins, but they would be hard to leave out were they to win the regular season title. I think they need five or six more wins, including in the conference tournament, to get in. But a key is a signature win that they currently lack. That could come at Dayton or in a conference semifinal. While I think they get in, I currently have them as my favorite for the conference tournament, which would give them an automatic bid of course.
Predicted Finish in Atlantic 10: 14-4, 1st overall.

Davidson (18-6, 9-4 in A-10)

Remaining Games: Fordham, @Rhode Island, GW, VCU, @Duquesne (Predictions: win, loss, win, win, win)
State of the Team: Few outside of Davidson, NC expected the Wildcats to be in this position, but here we are in late February and Davidson has a legitimate chance to win an Atlantic 10 title in their maiden season in the conference. As many teams have found out, Davidson is more than just a three-point shooting team. On Wednesday night, they found a way to beat GW on the road despite shooting under 25% from deep. With star point guard Jack Gibbs returning from injury, this team could be peaking at just the right team. The trip to Rhode Island and the home game against VCU are the two big ones. I don’t like the matchup with URI’s defense on the road, but if Brian Sullivan, Tyler Kalinoski and Gibbs are all on their games, Davidson can run the table in conference play.
What they need to do to get into the NCAA Tournament: Having joined the A-10 in part in hopes of earning an at-large bid, it would be a bitter pill to swallow if the Wildcats just barely missed the tournament after a season as impressive as this one. However, should Davidson win four of these last five and make a semifinal appearance in Brooklyn, the selection committee might just send an invitation to Coach McKillop’s squad. Davidson’s offensive numbers (7th most efficient offense in the country and the only team to score over 70 against likely #1 seed UVA) could help counteract the unimpressive non-conference schedule.
Predicted Finish in Atlantic 10: 13-5, tied 2nd overall.

UMass (16-10, 9-4 in A-10)

Remaining Games: @VCU, St. Joe’s, Fordham, Richmond, @GW (loss, win, win, loss, win)
State of the Team: After non-conference play filled with tough losses and a loss to St. Bonaventure in the A-10 opener, things looked bleak for the Minutemen. But since that loss, UMass has been as hot as anyone in the conference. Trey Davis becoming a more consistent scorer was exactly what this highly balanced team needed. Cady Lalanne’s interior play has also done wonders for the Minutemen, especially on the defensive end. If UMass can find a way to steal the game at VCU tomorrow, watch out. This is a team that knows how to win and has a kind final stretch of games.
What they need to do to get into the NCAA Tournament: They need to win the conference tournament. Or maybe they can run the table in conference play and lose in the final. Going 7-6 in non-conference play made their path much more difficult. However, a win at VCU would certainly grab the attention of the selection committee. Don’t sleep on UMass, but similarly, don’t hold your breath for a tournament bid.
Predicted Finish in Atlantic 10: 12-6, 5th overall.

This is set up to be a wild couple of weeks in the Atlantic 10. Check back here for further coverage and follow me on Twitter (@Klaus_Faust) for updates.

Who do you think will win the conference? Please comment below and discuss.


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Barham’s Huge Second Half Sees Davidson Squeak by GW on the Road

(Written for The Davidsonian in my capacity as sports editor.)

Boosted by the return of leading scorer Jack Gibbs ’17, Davidson (18-6, 9-4 in A-10) ground out a 65-63 against George Washington (17-9, 7-6 in A-10) for a huge resume-boosting win. The Wildcats trailed by 8 at the break, but a huge second half from Jordan Barham ’16 helped Davidson come back despite 8-33 shooting from deep.

On the road in Foggy Bottom, Davidson faced one of its toughest tests of the season against a talented George Washington squad that badly needed a win. After starting 6-1 in the A-10, the Colonials had lost four of five to push them to the edge of the bubble and were pumped up in front of their home crowd.

George Washington used a 13-0 run to take a 24-16 lead late in the first half as Davidson went over seven minutes without a point, and went up by 10 soon after. John Kopriva stepped outside to knock down a couple of triples while his frontcourt mate Kevin Larsen banged inside to great effect. The Wildcats found it difficult to create any sort of offense in the halfcourt, and were guilty of trying to force the ball inside because outside shots weren’t falling. Davidson missed 13 of their last 14 threes in the half. But despite the offensive struggles which produced their lowest scoring half of the season, Davidson only trailed 31-23.

Davidson took the lead almost immediately after the break by opening the second half on a 10-0 run, with eight points coming from Jordan Barham ’16, who sat almost the entire first half with two fouls. His insertion into the game relieved the pressure on Davidson’s shooters as he opened up the drive. Barham was tremendous in the second half as he pounded smaller defenders on the block. He finished with 15 points and 7 rebounds, with every point and all but one of the rebounds coming in the second half.

The game stayed close throughout the second frame. Up two with 22 seconds left, Davidson committed a backcourt violation, a play on which Brian Sullivan ’16 appeared to hurt his knee. The ensuing possession saw the Colonials miss a deep, contested three at the buzzer, with good defense provided by Gibbs on the perimeter.

Tyler Kalinoski ’15 and Sullivan combined to go only 3-19 from three. Kalinoski went 1-9 from the field in the first half, but in usual fashion, he made a couple of big shots in the second half, while finding many other ways to contribute. He finished with 11 points, 10 rebounds and 3 steals. And Sullivan too overcame his struggles to make a three that gave the ‘Cats a 63-57 lead with 2:20 to go.

Just before the first media timeout, Gibbs entered the game for his first action since January 17. Playing off the ball, the sophomore captain knocked down a three shortly after walking on the court and followed up with another from the corner not a minute later. Some wondered whether he’d need time to reacclimate, but Gibbs wanted to make sure there would be no such issue. His minutes were certainly limited, but he was on the court in the final minutes and finished with 11 points.

The game featured a stark contrast in playing styles. Where Davidson got the ball up the court quickly and looked for quick threes, the Colonials wanted to slow the pace and get the ball inside late in the shot clock. But the pace settled more in George Washington’s favor.

After shortening the rotation to only eight players in recent weeks, Coach Bob McKillop used 10 players tonight in the first half. In addition to Gibbs coming back into the rotation, Ali Mackay ’15 saw early minutes as Davidson tried to counteract George Washington’s advantage inside. But with Gibbs returning in an off-the-ball role, Jordan Watkins ’18 didn’t lose much of the playing time he’s earned in Gibbs’s absence, although Watkins appeared to hurt his shoulder on a foul in the second half.

Davidson will look to extend their winning streak against pesky Fordham on Saturday night in the last home game before the students go on March break.

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Wildcats Throttle Saint Louis in Convincing Rout

(Written for The Davidsonian in my capacity as sports editor. I will post everything I write on this blog as well as on Davidsonian.com)

Coming off a tough loss on the road at #20 VCU, Davidson bounced back nicely with a statement 89-54 win over Saint Louis (8-8, 0-3 in A-10) at Belk Arena. The win puts Davidson at 11-3, but more importantly, 2-1 in the Atlantic 10. Davidson led by as many as 38 points late in the second half.

Jordan Barham ’16 (career-high 21 points, 9 rebounds) had the ball in his hands a couple of steps behind the three-point line with 10:30 left in the game. Despite having taken only two threes all year, Barham elected to shoot. As many in the crowd cringed, the ball dropped through the net and Davidson led 66-38. Barham would knock down another triple a few minutes later. It was that type of game for the Wildcats, a game in which little seemed to go wrong.

“When [Barham] comes to play, he’s a huge spark for us,” captain Tyler Kalinoski ’15 said of his fellow guard after the game, “He’s the most athletic guy on the team. He can do so much for us defensively, rebounding wise and offensively, he creates mismatches. When he’s there for forty minutes, our team can sometimes be unstoppable.”

Battling against a Saint Louis defense that likes to limit possessions and force turnovers, Davidson controlled the pace from the opening tip, pushing the ball up the court at every opportunity. Jack Gibbs ’17 and Kalinoski carved through the lane with ease in the half court and found shooters and cutters all over the court. Davidson shot 55.2% overall and 54.5% from deep, besting their mark of 11.2 a game, which ranks second in the nation, with 12 threes today.

Gibbs was relatively quiet on the offensive end in the first half, taking only three shots, but he asserted himself in the second. In addition to his expert passing and vision that continues to lead to open looks for teammates, Gibbs showed off his ability to score off the dribble. Between his floaters and pull-up threes, Gibbs has developed an impressive offensive arsenal. Yet again, Gibbs didn’t turn the ball over despite having it in his hands possession after possession. He finished with 12 points, 5 rebounds, 8 assists and 0 turnovers.

Kalinoski continued to do a little bit of everything on both ends of the court, finishing with 11 points, 8 rebounds and 6 assists. With a transition three midway through the first half, Tyler Kalinoski became the 46th member of the 1,000 point club in Davidson basketball history.

The Wildcats were on fire early, leading 15-4 at the first media timeout behind three Brian Sullivan ’16 triples in the opening three and a half minutes. From there, Davidson used a 26-10 run to stretch the lead to 19 with five minutes left in the first half. But Davidson began to cool off late in the half. And the Billikens used an 11-2 run to cut Davidson’s lead to only 14 at the break.

For Sullivan, who’d been shooting the worst percentages of his career this year, the opening stretch of 14 minutes was one to remember. Sullivan made his first six shots overall, including four threes on his way to scoring 18 points in that stretch. He wouldn’t score the rest of the game, but those opening minutes set the tone for Davidson’s rout.

Saint Louis’s Malik Yarbrough, who came into the game leading the Atlantic 10 in points per game during league play at 22.5, was quiet for the start of the game, but asserted himself against Davidson’s inexperienced post players as the game wore on. Yarbrough finished with 18 points on 7-11 shooting in 26 minutes.

The Billikens struggled offensively when the ball wasn’t in Yarbrough’s hands, missing their first seven three-pointers and 16 of 19 overall.  They turned the ball over 9 times, and shot only 13-28 from the free-throw line. For a team that likes to get to the line as much as they do, their abysmal shooting from the charity stripe is almost comical.

The two-time reigning Atlantic 10 regular season champion Billikens lost all five of their starters to graduation this past year and have struggled as a result. They have made the 3rd round of the NCAA Tournament in each of the last three seasons, but it appears 2014-2015 will be the year that ends the streak.

After three ineffective games since Jake Belford’s season-ending injury, Peyton Aldridge ’18 showed signs in the second half that this slump will be brief. He knocked down a couple of threes and fought down low, helping Davidson to a 40-28 advantage on the boards.

“If you ask in our locker-room [how the players feel about the 11-3 start],” said Coach Bob McKillop, “I think you’ll get the response that we’re right on target with where we need to be.”

Davidson travels north to UMass for a Wednesday night game before heading to Richmond on Saturday evening. The Wildcats return home Tuesday the 20th for Black-Out Belk against Dayton.

For continued Atlantic 10 coverage, follow me on Twitter (@Klaus_Faust).


Atlantic 10 Conference Preview and Predictions

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.

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Davidson Wins Big in Season Opener

(Written for The Davidsonian in my capacity as sports editor. I will post everything I write on this blog as well as on Davidsonian.com)

The Davidson men’s basketball team opened their first ever season as a member of the Atlantic 10 with a 102-66 win against Catholic University at Belk Arena.

Tyler Kalinoski ’15 (19 points, 5-8 from 3) and Jack Gibbs ’17 (17 points on 7-9 shooting, 6 assists, 4 steals) were running the show for Davidson today. The two had complete command of the game and had their way on offense, especially in transition, where they looked to run at every opportunity. In the open floor, they showed off their vision, picking out teammates and pulling up for jump shots.

“Our guards got open and our big guys did a great job of running the pipe on fast breaks and because they did that, the defense sunk in and they gave us those open shots,” Kalinoski said.

Davidson began the game brightly enough, but it wasn’t until the defense got going that the offense began to take off in full. The Wildcats held Catholic without a field goal for a 12 minute stretch in the first half. That 29-9 run late in the first half helped Davidson pull away quickly. At the break, it was 47-23 Wildcats.

The second half was more of the same for Davidson, who were tremendous from deep. Kalinoski and Michelsen combined for seven triples in the opening ten minutes of the half. On the day, Davidson was 15-29 from deep. Everyone got in on the act in the end, and Davidson had 13 players get on the board, with a total of five in double figures.

“I was very pleased with the consistency of our performance from one to half to the other,” Coach Bob McKillop said after the game. “I liked the versatility that we presented, the different lineups we had, the minutes we distributed. I’m very, very pleased top to bottom of our roster in their performance today.”

Picked 13th out of 14 in the Atlantic 10 preseason poll, the Wildcats were out to prove the doubters wrong in the home opener. The big questions going into this season were about the play of the front court and whether the bench could provide any consistent scoring. Right from the start, the Wildcats went to battle down low. Davidson dominated the glass, albeit against a Catholic team that possessed no players over 6’7”. And from the bench, Oskar Michelsen ’18 scored 18 points in his debut, hitting six 3’s on only seven attempts, and Jordan Barham ’16 came in and attacked. Davidson’s bench totaled 51 points for the game.

On the whole, Davidson’s offense looks a lot different this year without De’Mon Brooks in the middle. The motion offense around the perimeter allows the Wildcats to spread the floor, and because all five players on the court are shooters, the defense can’t drop off anyone. Davidson is patient when swinging the ball, awaiting the moment when the defense makes a poor closeout or can’t get around a screen quick enough. When someone can catch and drive, or get the ball to someone on the block, the 3 point shooters are open in the corners. Kalinoski and Brian Sullivan ’16 were the two looking to drive off the catch in the half court, and everyone was knocking down the shots.

The freshmen all made a positive start to their Davidson careers. Peyton Aldridge ’18 (7 points, 11 rebounds) and Michelsen were particularly impressive, but Nathan Ekwu ’18 (10 points, 7 rebounds) also looked like he fit right in, highlighted by a thunderous block that sent Davidson down the court for a transition 3. The way Aldridge and Ekwu manhandled the undersized Catholic frontcourt says a lot about their respective abilities. More impressive though was Michelsen’s debut. His stroke from deep looks pure as silk.

“He [has] showed a remarkable feel for the game,” McKillop said of Michelsen’s transition to the college game. “It’s not about athleticism with us, it’s more about feel. And he really understands the flow of a game. I think he’s unselfish – he’ll make the extra pass – but you saw today, he made the shots and he’s not at all hesitant.”

“Our bigs did a great job attacking space and posting up,” Michelsen said. “Our guards did a great job of finding me on the arc and when you get a good pass to the pocket it’s pretty easy to shoot.

Jack Gibbs provided a pair of highlights as Davidson blew the game open late in the first half. All day he had been looking to push the ball, but he finally got free on two straight fast breaks . On the first, he drew two defenders before splitting them with a sweet, lefty bounce pass for an Aldridge slam. He took the second one on his own, powerfully spinning around a helpless Catholic defender for an easy layup. Gibbs has looked sensational thus far.

It will be vital to get Brian Sulllivan ’16 going soon, as the captain struggled shooting the ball all day. He contributed 7 assists, but he missed 10 of his 11 shots. The Wildcats didn’t need his scoring today, but his  contribution will be vital going forward.

The Wildcats next contest is Tuesday night at home against Campbell before #6 North Carolina travels to Charlotte for a date with Davidson at Time Warner Cable Arena next Saturday.