The Atlantic 10 has, in recent years, been the plaything of the Xavier Musketeers. Last year marked the first season in recent memory in which the Musketeers didn’t lay claim to either the tournament or regular season crown, and that only because of a stuttering start to conference play that coincided with a little altercation you may remember. This year, the landscape has changed. Rather than plowing through such stalwarts as Fordham, Duquesne, and Rhode Island on their way to the crown, the Atlantic 10 winner will have to defeat VCU, Butler, and, for one more year at least, Temple. The Musketeers don’t figure to be much a factor in the championship race this year, but that doesn’t mean this season won’t be a good one.
Rhode Island- Last year was not one that Rams fans will look back on with fondness. 11 year veteran coach Jim Baron, finally, got the sack, the team won seven games, and only five players are returning. Dan Hurley has taken over the team and, with the help of his brother Bobby, looks to get them back on the right track. With only three scholarship players coming off the bench, URI is incredibly thin. They complement that by not being very talented in the starting five. JuCo transfer Xavier Munford will start right away, as will freshman Jordan Hare. Joining them will be holdovers Mike Powell (8.7ppg, 3.5apg), Nikola Malesevic (11ppg), and Andre Malone (9.3ppg).
Strength: Rhode Island is really a nice place and Dan Hurley is an up and coming coach.
Weakness: Brutal schedule, bad team, no stars, no depth. Outlook: Last place.
Richmond- The Spiders RPI dropped from 33 to 131 last year, but it is hard to blame Coach Chris Mooney. Justin Harper and Kevin Anderson left and the team struggled to adjust without its two best players. Despite that, there were a great many positives for Richmond faithful. Darien Brothers (14.6ppg, 89%FT) led a backcourt full of talent. 5-8 Kendall Anthony shot 42% from deep on his way to 13ppg, and primary ballhandler Cedrick Lindsay shot poorly (39%) but took care of the ball exceedingly well. This year Coach Mooney will rely heavily on that backcourt to get the Spiders back to the postseason. The frountcourt is the question mark in Richmond, where Derrick Williams gets all he can out of his 6-6, 270lb frame (11.2ppg, 5.6rpg), but no other players are proven.
Strength: The guards. All three guards can handle the ball and initiate Richmond’s intricate offense without trouble. Weakness: The frontcourt is unproven, smallish, and doesn’t have the bodies to bang with larger teams. Finesse only gets you so far, and it doesn’t get you rebounds.
Outlook: Not there yet, but not far away. The core will remain in place after this year, so the Spiders are on the rise again.
St. Bonaventure- Last year’s unexpected conference tournament winners lost their best player, and one of the best the Atlantic 10 has ever seen, when Andrew Nicholson graduated. That takes a lot of the shine off the fact that the Bonnies return eight players who averaged 10+ minutes per game, and three starters. 6-6 Demetrius Conger (12.1ppg, 6.2rpg) will lead the team, with Matthew Wright his apparent wingman. Wright, however, averaged 6.8ppg on a truly miserable .351/.778/.317 shooting line. That kind of gunning will cripple a team that doesn’t have Nicholson to bail it out anymore. Beyond that, it’s anyone’s best guess.
Strength: Conger is a very nice player who will get a chance to showcase the full range of his ability.
Weakness: Matthew Wright could volume shoot the Bonnies out of a lot of games. There may be talent here, but it is all very unproven.
Outlook: Things will begin well with the banner hanging, after that it is all downhill.
St Joe’s- I can’t stand the Hawks, Phil Martelli, that entire family of gangly white kids that played there, or the gimmicky mascot. That said, I think the Hawks are coming back to the ascendancy in the Atlantic 10. CJ Aiken is an absolute monster in the middle, blocking nearly four shots per game to lead a team that blocked over seven a game. Carl Jones (17ppg, 3rpg, 3apg), Langston Galloway (16ppg, 5rpg), Halil Kanacevic (8.3ppg, 8.3rpg, 3.7apg), and Ron Roberts (10.9ppg, 5.9rpg) that returns intact. Actually, the entire roster returns intact.
Strength: A starting five that compliments one another nearly perfectly and absurd athletic ability.
Weakness: Very smug, extremely easy to hate. Basketball wise? Not hardly anything.
Outlook: Appallingly rosy. If the Hawks don’t win the thing, they’ll be right in the mix.
Saint Louis- A quick aside: don’t let yourself get massively large. The staff of Banners on the Parkway (there’s two of us, but staff sounds nice) runs consistently and makes sure to get in at least one half marathon a year. Rick Majerus, by all accounts a gregarious, affable, intelligent, and likable man, is losing his very public battle with his weight this year. That battle can end only one way. Losing Majerus will have a huge impact on the Billikens season. The big man routinely outmaneuvers his opponents and makes adjustments on the fly (see last year’s second game against Xavier) that win his team games. This year, Saint Louis will be missing that advantage. On the court, though, the Billikens are still loaded. Brian Conklin, one of those annoying, grinder type players that always seemed to make a play, has graduated, but Kwamain Mitchell (12.4ppg, 44%FG) headlines a returning group that includes Mike McCall (7ppg, 2.4apg), Dwayne Evans (7.9ppg, 7.3rpg), Jordair Jett (Waka Flocka hair), and Cody Ellis (10.1ppg).
Strength: Mitchell is a real stud whose numbers are artificially deflated by the grinding pace Saint Louis plays. He and McCall can control games. The Billikens defense will be stingy again.
Weakness: Not having a dominant big man will hurt Saint Louis against teams that can pound.
Outlook: Saint Louis was very, very close to the conference title last year. They will be again.
Temple- For years the Atlantic 10 has come down to Xavier and Temple. While the rivalry has never been particularly acrimonious, both teams have certainly always been aware of the other. Now, Temple is on the way out for the formerly greener pastures of the Big East. Juan Fernandez has graduated and, presumably, head for the nursing home, but the Owls return a load of talent. Khalif Wyatt is touted some places as a possibility for player of the year, and even repeating last year’s line (17.1ppg, 3.2rpg, 3.2apg, 2.2spg) would put him in the running. Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson is the lone remaining major contributor, and his defense makes his nine plus points per game so much the more important.
Strength: Continuity of approach and Khalif Wyatt.
Weakness: A lot of unproven players will need to contribute for the Owls to succeed. The talent is there to do that, but chemistry is another matter.
Outlook: In the last year Temple and Xavier share the Atlantic 10, it doesn’t look like either will win.
VCU- The Rams just flat get after opponents. It’s hard not to love the swagger that Shaka Smart seems to demand his teams play with and the way that they feed off of it. VCU led the nation in turnovers per game caused, turnover margin, steals, and opponent turnover rate. The Rams never, ever stop attacking the ball. Leading the way defensively is Briante Weber, a guard who averaged a staggering 4.6 steals per 40 minutes last year. Juvonte Reddic is the leading returning scorer with 10.3ppg, but only Troy Daniels (10ppg) joins him in double figures.
Strength: Defense. If you like watching one team unapologetically attack the other for 40 minutes, you are going to love the Rams.
Weakness: You aren’t ever going to win 2-0. VCU doesn’t do a whole lot of scoring, either in transition or the half court.
Outlook: Will go as far as the murderous defense takes them. That could be a very long way.
1. UMass 2. St. Joe’s 3. Saint Louis 4. VCU 5. La Salle 6. Butler 7. Temple 8. Xavier 9. Dayton 10. Richmond 11. George Washington 12. Charlotte 13. St. Bonaventure 14. Fordham 15. Duquesne 16. Rhode Island