Conference Preview: Atlantic Ten

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We are not that far removed from the time when the Atlantic Ten was able to argue, with a straight face, that it was as good a conference, if not better, than the Big East.  Unfortunately for the conference, the Big East schools re-asserted themselves and have relegated the A-10 back to a “second tier” conference behind the power leagues.  That does not mean, however, that this conference is not capable of producing teams that are able to make deep March runs.  Last season, the A-10 only put three teams in the Big Dance, none of which got beyond the first weekend.  VCU (10 seed) and St. Joseph’s (8 seed) each won a single game before falling, while Dayton (7 seed) fell in the Round of 64 to eventual Final Four team Syracuse.  The A-10 put three teams in the NIT (Davidson, George Washington and St. Bonaventure), one team in the CBI (Duquesne) and one team in the CIT (Fordham, making their first postseason appearance in 24 years).  The top postseason performance in the conference came in the NIT, where George Washington cut down the nets as champions.  Everything has fallen apart, however, for the Colonials in the offseason leading to the recent termination of head coach Mike Lonergan under allegations of verbal abuse of his players.

This season, like last, appears to be one in which the A-10 will be a 3-4 bid league at best.  Dayton returns a ton of their talent, even if the team will be playing with heavy hearts following the tragic offseason passing of center Steve McElvene.  VCU is always dangerous, as is Davidson with star Jack Gibbs leading the way.  The biggest improvement should come from Rhode Island, where head coach Dan Hurley welcomes back star player E.C. Matthews.  Matthews went down for the season due to an ACL tear in the team’s very first game last year.  He is healthy and ready to go, and should be able to lead the Rams back to the Big Dance for the first time since 1999.  Finally (and it seems we do this every year), we again will be keeping an eye on Fordham as a dark horse.  Jeff Newbauer just may be the guy to finally turn things around in the Bronx as he builds off of last season’s successes.

Predicted Order of Finish

1. Rhode Island – E.C. Matthews is healthy, four starters are back, this team was top in the conference defensively last season, and possible A-10 Rookie of the Year Mike Layssard joins the roster.  How can they not be picked first?

2. Dayton – If Rhode Island ends up snake-bitten again the way they always seem to, Dayton is right there.  Scoochie Smith, Charles Cooke, and Kyle Davis will give the Flyers dominance in the backcourt against most teams they play.  The team is trying to get over the absolutely tragic offseason passing of big man Steve McElvene, and will need to rely on Josh Cunningham and Kendall Pollard in the frontcourt.

3. VCU – The Rams will remain tough to beat, especially with the inside duo of Mo Alie-Cox and Justin Tillman.  They will need to find some outside scoring, however, now that Melvin Johnson and Korey Billbury are gone.

4. Davidson – Just having Jack Gibbs alone on the court would be enough to keep the Wildcats competitive.  Adding in Peyton Aldridge, who averaged 15.5 points and 6.5 rebounds per game last year, makes them that much tougher.  If the Wildcats can improve on the defensive end, there is no reason they will not at least be on the bubble come Selection Sunday.

5. Fordham – As we seem to do every year, Fordham is again our dark horse pick to make some noise in this league, even if not quite to the NCAA bid level.  The Rams have a potent backcourt with 2016 A-10 Rookie of the Year Joseph Chartouny and Eastern Kentucky transfer Javontae Hawkins.  The team is lacking in height down low, and will need to find a way to get rebounding production.  If they do, do not be surprised to see them this high in the final standings.

6. St. Bonaventure – The combination of Jaylen Adams (17.9 points per game last season) and Central Connecticut State transfer Matt Mobley (17.2 points per game last year) will give the Bonnies a strong backcourt, but it will be tough for them to replace Dion Wright down low.

7. La Salle – Most of last year’s team is back, including 19.2 points per game Jordan Price, and several key transfers are being added in.  The Explorers should be vastly improved over last season’s 9-22 record.

8. Richmond – The Spiders still have a lot of scoring punch with ShawnDre’ Jones and T.J. Cline, but they need to get a lot better defensively if they want to improve in the standings.

9. George Washington – Tyler Cavanaugh is one of the league’s top players and Seton Hall transfer Jaron Sina should make a big impact.  This team would probably have been picked at least four spots higher in the standings but for the off-court mess surrounding the September dismissal of head coach Mike Lonergan.

10. George Mason – Year 2 of the Dave Paulsen era should be a better one, especially with sophomore Otis Livingston II only expected to get better.  The Patriots are still probably a year or two away from contending for the upper division, but appear to be on the right track.

11. Massachusetts – The Minutemen will get solid scoring outputs from Donte Clark and Canisius transfer Zach Lewis, but this still looks like a rebuilding year.  The good news in Amherst is that Derek Kellogg’s six-man recruiting class has been ranked in the top 30 nationally.

12. Saint Louis – New head coach Travis Ford will certainly have his work cut out for him with three of the top five scorer’s gone from a team that lost 21 games.

13. St. Joseph’s – How do you make up for losing DeAndre Bembry, Isaiah Miles and Aaron Brown?  You don’t.  This looks like a clear rebuild year for the Hawks.

14. Duquesne – This could be a long season for the Dukes with Micah Mason and Derrick Colter gone.  The team will need to rely on a pair of graduate transfers, Emile Blackman from Niagara and Kale Abrahamson from Drake, to lead the way.

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