With the Bottom Six out of the way, it's time to take a look at the teams that challenged for the conference title last year. In this group are perennial contenders Temple, a fresh off the Sweet 16 Richmond team, and the team everyone loves to hate, Dayton. While the A10 isn't considered a national power, the teams near the top are always a threat to beat nearly any BCS school.
It's worth remembering that Xavier's 15-1 storming last year left them only one game ahead of Temple and two ahead of Richmond. Duquesne even made things interesting before eventually fading. Assuming that conference play will again be a milk run is a trap Musketeer fans seem all to willing to fall into. Here's a look at the teams that could keep six in a row from happening.
Ah, the Flyers. More even than UC, I enjoy a good thrashing of Dayton. Last year Xavier beat Dayton twice, once behind some clutch free throws, and once behind Tu Holloway. Archie Miller takes over for the comically hapless Brian Gregory this year as the Flyers look to jump back into the thick of things. Juwan Staten, inarguably the most talented UD coming back this year, joined Aaric Murray at West Virginia and left the Flyers with a gaping hole. Replacing Staten will be SIU transfer guard Kevin Dillard (12.3 ppg, 5 apg). Dillard will be spreading the ball between Paul Williams (8.4 ppg) and the supremely talented Chris Johnson (11.9 ppg, 6 rpg). Josh Benson will add some help up front, but the big men return no one who averaged more than four a game.
Bottom Line: Help is on the way next year according to most national publications. This year, however, could get ugly. The Flyers could win 20 again is all the pieces fall right and 6'9" freshman Alex Gavrilovic is an immediate contributor. If he struggles and Luke Fabrizius remains mostly useless, it could be a long year in the Gem City.
St. Bonaventure Bonnies (16-14, 99, 122, 4th, @ X Jan 14)
Andrew Nicholson (20.8 ppg, 7.3 rpg). Any conversation of the Bonnies begins and ends with their brilliant forward. Nicholson deserved better last year when Bonaventure crashed out in the A10 tournament, and he may get it this year. Da'Quan Cook scores a bit but is better known for his lockdown defense, Demetrius Conger (10.5 ppg, 5.5 rpg) forms the rest of a frontcourt that finished a very respectable 74th in the nation in block% last year. Juco transfer guard Eric Mosley will play alongside Michael Davenport (11.1 ppg, 4.9 rpg) in a Bonaventure backcourt that's backed with decent depth.
Bottom Line: How good is Andrew Nicholson? If he plays at his usual excellent level and his teammates fill in around him, this team could surprise. The Bonnies absolutely must have production from their big gun though, because talented role players are still only role players.
George Washington Colonials (17-14, 145, 106, 8th, @ GW Feb 1)
George Washington returns exactly one starter from a mildly surprising 10-6 teams last year. that might not usually be a problem for a team, but Mike Longergan has only seen his team since September. The one returning starter, Tony Taylor (15 ppg, 4.6 apg), is player and Lasan Kromah returns after missing an entire year with a sprained foot. That settles the scoring, but GW played some pretty appalling defense last year, finishing 209th in effective FG%. Nemanja Mikic (43.6% from 3pt) is a 6'8" gunner who joins grinders Dwayne Smith and David Pellom down low.
Bottom Line: Scoring won't be an issue for this team. Keeping the other team from scoring almost certainly will be. The problem with allowing a high field goal percentage is more than just allowing points. It also means your team is playing slowly and allowing high percentage stickbacks (189th in allowing offensive rebounds). If freshmen bigs John Kopriva and Jonathan Davis play the defense they supposedly can, 10-6 is possible again. However, if GW doesn't tighten up the defense they are going to lose a lot of very entertaining games.
Duquesne Dukes (18-12, 88, 108, 9th, @ X Jan 11)
Joel called Duquesne "paper tigers" last year, and they proved to be exactly that. Duquesne simply didn't do things that good teams do to win games. They didn't rebound well (336th in offensive rebound % allowed), didn't make free throws (62.5%) and didn't have the height they needed (322nd in effective height). What the Dukes did do was play defense. Actually, they played suffocating defense, finishing 45th in the nation in defensive efficiency and making steals on an astonishing 13.7% of opponents possessions. Impressive numbers, but the Dukes lost their top two rebounders and don't have anyone on deck to fill the hole.
Bottom Line: Duquesne plays the kind of defense that coaches fall asleep dreaming about. Unfortunately (and you can see this analogy coming), the rest of their game is borderline nightmarish. Basketball games are won between the shoulders down in the paint. The Dukes simply aren't tough enough to hang. Paper tigers then, paper tigers now.
Richmond Spiders (27-7, 41, 90, 5th, @ X Feb 25)
Richmond was good in 2010, but still managed to come out of nowhere in 2011. A great run ended in the Sweet 16 with the Spiders the last A10 team standing. That was the good news. The bad news for Spiders fans is that Kevin Anderson, Justin Harper, Dan Geriot, Kevin Smith and Kevin Hovde all left. If those names seem familiar it's because they were instrumental in setting the program's record for wins in a four year period with 91. Only one player who averaged more than 20 minutes, Darien Brothers (7.6 ppg), returns. Chris Mooney recruited well, but replacing 50 points per game was never going to be easy.
Bottom Line: The run of tournament appearances stops at two. Richmond will be lucky to crack the top five with an unsettled rotation, very little experience, and leading rebounder, Darius Garrett, who averaged 4.1 per game. Richmond is now where Xavier was a few years back, close, but not consistently there yet.
Temple Owls (25-7, 30, 13, 2nd, @ Temple Feb 15)
One team that is consistently there is the Temple Owls. If anyone can take the title out of the hands of the Musketeers, it's Temple. The Owls lost Lavoy Allen but return Juan Fernandez (11.2 ppg, 4.1 apg) for his 12th year of eligibility, Scootie Randall (10.7 ppg, 4.7 rpg), Mike Eric (7.1 ppg, 5.9 rpg), Khalif Wyatt (10.1 ppg) and Ramone Moore (15.2 ppg, 4.2 rpg). That's a lot of talent back from a team 54th in offensive efficiency and 38th in defensive efficiency.
Bottom Line: Temple is the only team in the conference that can actually claim to compare to Xavier in terms of talent. The backcourt is loaded, the frontcourt is down a bit, but is still talented, and both parts of the squad are deep. What Temple doesn't have is Chris Mack pulling the strings and they certainly don't have a player like Tu Holloway. On the back of that, call the Owls good, but second fiddle again.