By Chuckie Maggio, @ChuckieMaggio
The non-conference schedule is over in college basketball, and it’s time for the Atlantic 10 to begin conference play! These 16 games will make or break the season, separating the contenders from the pretenders.
There are no terrible teams in this conference. The A-10 is one of five conferences in college hoops with every team at .500 or better. No team has a losing record, which shows the parity they have the potential to display every Wednesday and Saturday night.
As St. Bonaventure coach Mark Schmidt said in the postgame interview after Saturday’s win over Cornell, the A-10 is one of the toughest conferences in Division 1. Which teams will pass the test? Let’s break them all down! (Note: Teams are ordered by non-conference record)
Massachusetts: UMass has the best record going into A-10 play at 12-1, with a loss to Florida State being its lone blemish so far. The most impressive win for the Minutemen came against No. 19 New Mexico. Not only did they beat the Lobos, they dominated them in a double-digit win, holding them to 39 percent shooting. Senior guard Chaz Williams is the player to watch, as he leads the Minutemen with 15.5 points a game and 7.7 assists.
Williams has impressed scouts with his smooth jumper, excellent decision-making and leadership ability. The Brooklyn boy just might lead his team all the way to the Atlantic 10 Championship game at the Barclays Center if his team keeps it up.
Saint Louis: The Billikens enter the conference slate at 13-2, the second-best mark in the A-10. Their only losses were to Top-25 competition, the Wisconsin Badgers and Wichita State Shockers, each by five points. Their best win out of conference was probably at Vanderbilt, but the other wins were against the likes of Rockhurst, Wofford and North Carolina A&T. That begs the question: is the record a proper indicator of this team’s skill level, or does it just inflate a middle-of-the-road squad?
Much of the burden to lead the Billikens and prove they are contenders falls on Dwayne Evans’s shoulders. Evans, a 6-6 senior forward, leads the team in points (14.9) and rebounds (6.0), with a 46.5 percent shooting percentage. The shooting numbers are down (he shot a shade under 55% last season), but no one is doubting his tremendous amount of skill; he leads by example on both sides of the floor.
The other leader, one who cannot be overlooked in any sense, is senior guard Jordair Jett. Jett leads the team in assists with six per game while also averaging 10.5 points, the true definition of a dual-threat combo guard. The leadership is outstanding, coach Jim Crews has done an impeccable job after taking over for the late Rick Majerus, and the Billikens should be just fine in A-10 play.
George Washington: The Colonials are 12-2 after playing a tough non-conference schedule and beating Maryland, Miami, and No. 20 Creighton. The impressive aspect of the Creighton win was the fact that they held superstar Doug McDermott, who averages around 25 points a game, to just seven points on 2-12 shooting. The defense is pretty good, only allowing 65 points a game and grabbing a shade under 11 offensive boards a contest as well. However, they have to be more consistent defensively if they hope to contend for the conference title.
They may have held McDermott to seven points, but a 7-8 Rutgers team scored 87 points on them and the 3-10 Maine Black Bears dropped 81. Defense wins championships, and theirs may not cut it. The offense, led by guard Maurice Creek, is very talented, however. Creek, a graduate student player who played two injury-filled seasons at Indiana, leads one of the most potent offenses in the conference with 16 points per game on 47 percent shooting.
Coach Mike Lonergan has had an excellent coaching career and has turned around a George Washington team that went 13-17 last season. The Colonials have a lot of potential, and now it’s time for them to get the results.
Dayton: The Flyers glide into the A-10 season at 12-3, with a win over the then No.11 Gonzaga Bulldogs and a one-point loss to the then No. 18 Baylor Bears. Junior guard Jordan Sibert and senior forward Devin Oliver are top-two in scoring, with Oliver leading the team in the rebounding category. Athletic sophomore Dyshawn Pierre has stepped up to complete Dayton’s Big Three, averaging 11.3 points and 6.5 boards on the year. While the 12-3 record is impressive, the defense has not been impressive. They are 139th in the NCAA in rebounding.
In the Atlantic 10, rebounding is everything. Its importance cannot be understated; you have to win the rebounding battle to win the game. They are also failing to share the ball–101st in Division I in assists. This team is very capable of going a long way this season, but they are far from the Flyers of old who used to dominate the conference en route to an NCAA Tournament berth. This team will need excellent coaching from Archie Miller’s staff to win the A-10 title, because they’re a team who might fall apart in the coming months if they don’t get it together.
VCU: The Virginia Commonwealth Rams were the favorites to win the conference coming in, and are still one of the top teams, but losses to Florida State, Georgetown and Northern Iowa have set them back a bit. Coach Shaka Smart’s team learned one thing in those defeats: they have to play better in the first half. If you head to the locker room at halftime down double-digits, like they did in the Florida State game, you need to have a near-perfect second half in order to come back and win.
The stats are not impressive either: 201st in the nation in rebounds per game, 178th in assists, and 262nd in field goal percentage. However, if there’s one team that can overcome their weaknesses, it’s the Rams. Juvonte Reddic is a Player of the Year candidate who no one expects to continue his inconsistent start, while Treveon Graham is one of the best rebounding guards in the NCAA.
Shaka Smart-coached teams always figure out ways to win- the 118-38 record doesn’t lie. His havoc defense and full-court press have the potential to slow down speedy teams like UMass and Saint Louis, and his fast-paced offense will run teams out of the gym. Never doubt Shaka’s Rams, as they are certainly have the horses to head back to the Final Four.
St. Bonaventure: The Bonnies won the most non-conference games since 1997 and have a 10-4 record, but not everyone is impressed with the Brown and White. In Jeff Borzello’s conference reset article for CBSSports.com, he named the Bonnies as one of the teams who are “already out” of NCAA Tournament contention, “barring a miracle.” He added on to his negative comments about the team by saying that the Bonaventure was the one team not as good as its record, writing, “Out of the teams with double-digit wins, there is one team that I expect to take a dip in conference play: St. Bonaventure.
The Bonnies are 10-4 heading into the Atlantic 10, but an upper-half finish in the league probably isn’t in the cards. They have lost to Buffalo and Siena, and the best wins are over Delaware and Iona.” While the Buffalo and Siena losses were bad ones for the Bonnies, I would say that Borzello is writing them off rather quickly. After all, in the UB game the Bonnies were without an injured Jordan Gathers for the entire game and lost Matthew Wright to injury for the stretch run.
It’s pretty early to write a team off based on two losses, one of which they were without two starters. Finally, St. Bonaventure’s excellent play on its home court cannot be overlooked. When the Reilly is rocking, it doesn’t take an expert to know it’s one of the toughest places to play. If Andell Cumberbatch continues to score in bunches, and Charlon Kloof continues his high level of play, the Bonnies will make some noise this year. Does that mean an NCAA berth? Not necessarily, and there are some big question marks, but to write a 10-4 team off before they’ve even played a conference game is rash, especially considering the other 10-win teams were each given high praise.
Saint Joseph’s: The Hawks have one big advantage going into A-10 play: they have the most experienced coach in the conference in Phil Martelli. But that’s probably their only advantage. St. Joe’s has a 9-4 record thus far, with losses to rivals Villanova (by 30) and Temple. Their last non-conference tilt was a one-point win over Denver. I repeat, Denver. A site has been launched by fans in an attempt to persuade administration to fire Martelli (www.philmustgo.com), and many students have bought in. This puts a lot of pressure on Langston Galloway, Ronald Roberts, Jr., DeAndre Bembry and Chris Wilson to save their coaches’ job and go deep into the conference tournament.
Galloway is the team’s leading scorer at 16.9 points per game, Roberts Jr. leads the rebounding category at 7.8 boards, and all four have averaged double-digits thus far. The Hawks didn’t exactly get the luck of the draw as far as scheduling is concerned, as they face UMass on Wednesday to kick off the A-10 action. The first three games (UMass, George Mason and Duquesne) are very important for St. Joe’s. A 2-1 start is ideal, but a 1-2 or 0-3 stretch would be more fuel to the fire for Martelli’s critics.
If your students aren’t behind you, home games can start to feel like road games or exhibition games pretty quick. Roberts Jr. is key. His shooting from the floor has been outstanding, as are his rebounding numbers. That domination in the paint is vital for the Hawks, and they’ll need him to be consistent as the year goes on.
Richmond: The Spiders have work to do in the Atlantic 10. They come into conference play at 10-5, with big wins over Delaware and Belmont and notable losses against Florida, North Carolina, Minnesota and Ohio. They’ve played a tough non-conference schedule which may give them an advantage going into the A-10.
Playing tight games against ACC competition can toughen up an Atlantic 10 team, especially with winnable games coming up. Like I said earlier, a 10-win team cannot be counted out at this stage, and the Spiders have enjoyed some excellent production from senior guard Cedrick Lindsay, who is averaging 18.6 points on 45.5 percent shooting from the floor. It was just three years ago that Chris Mooney took his team to the Sweet Sixteen. This year, they’ll have to play some smart basketball if they hope to make it to the NCAA’s again. Lindsay will be counted on to lead them there.
Rhode Island: The Rhode Island Rams are another young team with plenty of potential, coming into the A-10 at 9-6. Big wins against Brown and LSU gave them a winning non-conference record, but this team still has many question marks. The stats are rough: 268th in the country in points per game, 265th in assists and 243rd in field goal percentage.
They’ve already lost to A-10 foe George Mason and were losing to Saint Louis at press time. The one bright spot may be Xavier Munford’s play. Munford has been a high-energy, high-quality player for the Rams thus far, playing 34 minutes a game and averaging 15.8 points a contest. E.C. Matthews is a freshman to watch, with 12.1 points and 4.4 boards a game. The Rams probably won’t be a top team in the conference, but they will be entertaining to watch and are not a team to take lightly.
Duquesne: The Dukes come in at 7-5, but they’ve played a rather unimpressive non-conference schedule, with their best win coming against 7-7 Albany. Like Rhode Island, they are not devoid of talent. Ovie Soko, the 6-8 senior from London, England, has put up some big numbers this year, with 18.8 points and 8.8 rebounds. If he can put up 20 and 10 against Atlantic 10 competition, Duquesne will be in some games, but he can’t do it alone.
Tra’Vaughn White, a 5-10 junior guard, will need to step it up. He has produced offensively, with 13.4 points a game, but with the talented guards of this conference he will need to improve defensively, as well as the team as a whole. If Duquesne can shut down the leading scorers, play well for 40 minutes and surprise some people, I will be impressed. They just don’t seem to have the skill level to beat a Massachusetts or Saint Louis and go deep in the A-10’s.
Fordham: It’s been a surprise to some that the Rams (yes, there are three Rams in the A-10) have a winning record going into conference play. The team the pollsters had finishing last in the conference at the beginning of the season went 7-6 in non-conference games and even played Syracuse in the second half of game No. 2. This Rams team features three players: Jon Severe, Branden Frazier and Mandell Thomas. Severe, the leading candidate for the conference’s Freshman of the Year award, has averaged 36 minutes a game and 20 points per contest. This offense runs through him, which is a blessing and a curse for coach Tom Pecora’s team. Severe can light up the scoreboard, but Atlantic 10 coaches know exactly who to focus on now.
Running a defensive scheme primarily concerned with shutting down the focal point of the offense means Frazier or Thomas have to step it up, or else Fordham is on the losing side of the scoreboard. It will be interesting to see how the Rams react to the challenges they’ll face in the conference schedule.
La Salle: The La Salle Explorers have been the disappointment of the league so far. They went from the Sweet Sixteen a year ago to a 7-6 start in which they’ve lost to teams like Northern Iowa, Providence, Penn State and Manhattan that they should have beaten. The poor non-conference performance does not mean they’re dead in the water just yet, but they will have to have a stellar A-10 season if they’re going to be up there with the top-tier conference teams.
In order for that to happen, I’m looking for Tyrone Garland to step up. The senior guard leads the team with 13.8 ppg, but is only shooting at a 35 percent clip and is shooting too many threes for the good of the team. Tyreek Duren is the facilitator for the Explorers, but has to improve his shooting as well if Garland continues to clank shots off the iron. La Salle was top-three on everyone’s list, but there is no way they can make an NCAA run if they don’t start displaying some accountability and improving as a team.
George Mason: With all due respect to Paul Hewitt, it’s probably accurate to say the Patriots have not been the same since coach Jim Larranaga left for the Miami job. While they had consecutive 20-win performances when Hewitt inherited Larranaga’s players, this year they’ve struggled in a 7-7 start in their first year as a member of the Atlantic 10. Losses to Iona, Princeton, South Florida and Old Dominion have showed that these Patriots aren’t who they have been the past few years. It will take some work to get to the upper-half of the standings.
Bryon Allen and Sherrod Wright have done well, but another player has to step up, and that player just might be their 6-8 Serbian, Marko Gujanicic. Gujanicic. While he’s not averaging double-digits, he’s shooting pretty well from the floor and will get to the free-throw line more in conference play. Hewitt has a lot of coaching ability, with an appearance in the NCAA Championship Game on his resume (2004 vs UConn). His players just have to respond, and someone new has to break out. This team will compete as they improve, but it might be a rough first year with the Atlantic 10 competition.
In conclusion, this year has the potential to be a wild one in the Atlantic 10. The parity will be immense, the competition will be cut-throat, and college basketball fans will be treated to some exciting games.