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Conference Preview: Bottom Six

The non-conference schedule for college basketball teams is the headline grabber. It gives us Michigan State vs. UNC on an aircraft carrier, Xavier playing in the shadow of a volcano, and all sorts of contrived conference vs. conference showdowns. This year Xavier has loaded the non-conference schedule with a wide variety of teams. Perennial runners-up Butler, the semi-loathsome Robert Sacre and Gonzaga, and national powers Purdue and Vanderbilt all make appearances. (For our full breakdown of the non-conference schedule, click here).

After all the national attention heads east and Duke and UNC become the only two teams ESPN cares about, Xavier will jump into the conference part of the schedule. The Atlantic 10 isn't generally regarded as a national power, but that doesn't mean the Musketeers won't run into some stiff competition. Last year six teams fell to the bottom of the table. A couple of them look good to bounce back, while Fordham and Charlotte still look awful. Teams are included with last year's record and RPI, an updated KenPom rating, the coach/media prediction for that team, and when they play Xavier.

Fordham Rams (7-21, 252, 257, 14th. @X Jan 7)

The Fordham Rams are another have not on the college ball landscape. The Rams slogged to a 1-15 conference record and, like Charlotte, were destroyed by an inability to take care of the ball. Lacking a true point, the Rams threw Branden Frazier (11 ppg) to the dogs. His 3-2 assist to turnover ratio only told part of the story of a team that finished 271st in offensive efficiency. Despite being awful on offense, Fordham didn't recoup its losses on defense. The Rams defensive efficiency was 294th, as everyone from Tu Holloway to the paper tigers of Duquesne gutted their zone.

Bottom Line: The Rams added point man Fatty McMillan to help solidify their ball control problems, but they still aren't a good team. The A-10's leading rebounder Chris Gaston (15.9 ppg, 11.3 rpg) will continue to wage his own war against double teams down low until someone else demonstrates the ability to move a defense. Multiple wins are possible, but even that could be a stretch.

Charlotte 49ers (10-20, 225, 142, 11th. @X Jan 28, @Charlotte March 3)

Remember what I said about Xavier facing some stiff competition? Well Charlotte shouldn't be it. Alan Major returns four starters, but when your team went 2-14 in conference, that may not be a good thing. Luke Voncina will take over the point from leading scorer Derrio Green (13 ppg) after sitting out a year for various discrepancies in his Slovenian transcripts. Voncina will inherit an offense that had a deplorable turnover ratio of 21.8%, good for 263rd in the nation.

Bottom Line: Charlotte has some talent, they beat Tennessee last year while the Vols were seventh in the nation, and are quite capable of grinding out a win. Unfortunately for their supporters, "some talent" doesn't win in NCAA basketball. Chris Braswell (11.1) and Jamar Briscoe (12.5) provide some scoring punch, but the 49ers don't take good enough care of the ball for that to matter. Volume scorers like Green and Briscoe and a plethora of turnovers don't a good match make.

St Joseph's Hawks (11-22, 164, 121, 7th, @X Jan 18)

Anyone who followed us last year knows I can't stand the Hawks. CJ Aiken was selected by Fran Frischilla as one of the top defenders in the nation, on the back of his blocking an astounding 14% of his man's shots. Outside Aiken, however, the Hawks play abominable defense. The defensive efficiency mark of 107 landed them at a bottom scraping 259th in the nation. The Hawks return four starters and a core of four sophomores to a team that made a run in the conference tournament last year. Senior guard Carl Jones adds experience and 17 points per game to a backcourt that also added Chris Wilson, a touted point guard prospect.

Bottom Line: The Hawks are, disgustingly, going to be better this year. While seventh in the preseason rankings seems a bit of a stretch, they could make some noise. If Wilson and transfer Halil Kanacevic make some noise, St. Joe's and Phil Martelli could be back to their abhorrent best.

Saint Louis Billikens (12-19, 175, 62, 3rd, @X Jan 25, @StL Feb 28)

Saint Louis was an interesting team last year. Kwamain Mitchell and Willie Reed, both major contributors, were suspended early in the year. As the Billikens hopes for 2010-11 took a death blow, they developed the talent that has them as a vogue top three pick this year. Mitchell returns and instantly boosts one of the worst offensive teams (65 ppg) in the conference. Mitchell will slash when he can, which should boost Saint Louis FTA/FGA ration up from 296th in the country. Joining Mitchell in the backcourt will be Mike McCall (10.4 ppg, 3 apg) and Kyle Cassity (8.4 ppg). Toledo transfer Jake Barnett brings with him scoring ability (12.9 ppg) and long range (71 threes).

Bottom Line: Jordair Jett and his ridiculous hair still make it hard to take the Billikens seriously. Get past that though, because this team has some talent. The frontcourt isn't as good as the guards but could go four deep easily. There's not a clear cut third place team in the A10 this year, and Rick Majerus' boys may just sneak in there.

La Salle Explorers (15-18, 169, 217, 13th, @ La Salle Jan 4)

La Salle and Saint Louis tied in the conference last year. They won't this year. The Explorers lost leading scorer and rebounder Aaric Murray to West Virginia and two other starters also departed. Incoming transfer Ramon Galloway (10.7 ppg at South Carolina) will add talent to a pretty solid backcourt, but Murray leaves a huge hole up front. Tyreek Duren (9.8 ppg, 4.4 apg) and Sam Mills (43% 3fg) will join Galloway and Earl Pettis (9.1 ppg, 4.1 rpg) in the backcourt mix. In the frontcourt Devon White (4.2 ppg, 3.2 rpg) and newcomers Matt Lopez and Steven Zack will be behind the eight ball almost immediately.

Bottom Line: This backcourt on a team with an average frontcourt could mean trouble for the top two. White, Lopez, and Zack don't figure to be average though, and neither does La Salle. The Explorers will have to shoot from long range early and often to have any chance this year.

Massachusetts Minutemen (15-15, 151, 185, 12th, @UMass Feb 21)

In what sounds like a repeat of so many other teams, the Minutemen were also undone last year by their inability to handle the ball. UMass finished last in assists, next to last in A/TO ratio, and tenth in scoring. Incoming transfer Chaz Williams (7.1 ppg, 4.2 apg as a freshman at Hofstra) is being counted on to change that. Williams will have five upperclassmen with him to help share the load. Unfortunately, those upperclassmen aren't very good. Last year UMass was 321st in effective FG% and 341st(!) in 3PT%. Those numbers are atrocious, and don't bode well for a team returning most of the same players. With Anthony Gurley gone, this team could struggle.

Bottom Line: ESPN says the Minutemen could finish in the top four. I don't see it. A team that lost its best scorer returns no one who averaged more than eight a game. All of the overhyped point guard transfers in the world won't mean a thing when Xavier packs in the defense and dares the punchless UMass offense to beat them from deep.