The top of the Atlantic 10 has already made some noise this season, with new kid Butler combining with traditional conference power Temple to spring some national wins. Butler beat Indiana and Temple knocked off Syracuse. So it’s the Bulldogs and Owls that will begin our overview of Atlantic 10 basketball, as league play tips off about the same time this article goes online.
Butler: The Bulldogs are led by point guard Rotnei Clark, who provides both senior leadership and some serious offensive punch. He averages 16 ppg and can get it done off the dribble and from behind the arc. He’s joined by a developing pair of wingmen in freshman Kellen Dunham and sophomore Roosevelt Jones. Both are double-digit scorers. The ultimate key to this otherwise smallish team will be the play of 6’11” Andrew Smith. The senior is averaging 11 points/5 rebounds per night. The scoring is fine, but the boardwork has to improve if Butler is going to win this league.
Temple: Athleticism is the story of the day for the Owls, with Scootie Randall, Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson and Anthony Lee being high quality forwards that combine to average 33 points/21 rebounds a night. Khalif Wyatt gives quality work running the offense, scoring and distributing. I think Temple is the best team in the Atlantic 10, but the one weakness that could sink them is a lack of three-point shooting. At the very least, some underdog will get hot on a couple occasions and outgun from three. But over the long haul of the conference schedule, Temple’s talent will prevail.
CONTENDING FOR THE DANCE
The Atlantic 10 can typically count on multiple bids to the NCAA Tournament, and even getting four teams is a reasonable hope, especially now that the league has ballooned to 16 overall. The downside to that? There are a whole lot of teams that are fairly close to each other, making for a competitive race. All of these teams should have March Madness in their mind and a few could sneak up on Butler and Temple.
Virginia Commonwealth: The darlings of 2011 again made the NCAA last year and won a game. Like Butler, they’re a newcomer to the Atlantic 10 and the Rams have the horses to compete. VCU is heavily oriented to the perimeter, with Trereon Graham and Troy Daniels leading the way, and Daniels providing the three-piont shooting. The depth is there to play any pace, but while Juvonte Reddic does a good job down low, with 14/7 per game average, he needs some help.
St. Joe’s: It’s been a disappointing non-conference year for a team that closed strong last season and brought everybody back. But even in disappointment, St. Joe’s still beat Notre Dame and Phil Martinelli has a well-balanced team. Langston Galloway and Carlo Jones can each handle the ball and score in the backcourt, with C.J. Aiken and Ronald Roberts being a quality post duo. A little bit better three-point shooting would be nice, but even without that, this team can be better than what they’ve shown and I expect to see it in conference play.
Charlotte: The personnel doesn’t impress you, but the only losses are to Miami and Florida State, so it’s tough to say for sure how good the 49ers are. Chris Braswell is a solid presence at forward, and freshman Willie Clayton is rebounding. If some backcourt offense can be pieced together, Charlotte has enough wind at its back to get into the NCAA.
St. Louis: Rick Majerus’ sad passing cast a shadow over the non-conference season. Now the Billikens will try and make run in honor of their late coach. They beat a good New Mexico team on New Year’s Eve. The leader of the team is Mike McCall, the little 6’0” guard who’s lights out from downtown and a deep frontcourt is led by Dwayne Evans and Cody Ellis. Ultimately, St. Loo wins from behind the arc. Ellis can step out and hit the three, as can McCall’s running mate, Jordair Jett. The risk is that what the three giveth, the three taketh away on nights when the touch is cold. St. Louis, like St. Joe’s, doesn’t have a lot of room for error in the push for an at-large bid after a slow start. The difference is that the Billikens might be cut some slack by the Selection Committee because of the unfortunate circumstances surrounding some early losses.
UMass: An intriguing team with arguably the league’s best guard in Chaz Williams, who knocks down 15 a night and averages seven assists, along with chipping in a few rebounds. At 5’9”, he’s the closest thing to Rajon Rondo that we’ll see in college basketball. Jesse Morgan is a quality running mate in the backcourt. The Minutemen have four players on the frontcourt, all of whom are doing just enough to be decent. If one or two step up and start grabbing eight boards a night, this team can make some noise.
LaSalle: The talent is there in the backcourt, with Tyreek Duren and Ramon Galloway each being very good at sticking the ball in the hole and both go to the glass well for their size. The Explorers need more like them, because sophomore Jerrell Wright is a lonely warrior underneath. LaSalle could compete with a similar type team in VCU, which is why I’m keeping them on the radar. And while the wins over Villanova, Nebraska and Penn State aren’t dazzling, they’re enough to tease.
These are programs with a history of winning and enough talent to think they could get on a run. Realistically, they’ll play the regular season for the NIT and the conference tournament for a longshot NCAA bid.
Xavier: It’s purely out of respect for their recent past as a contender, that the Musketeers get to stay this high. They’ve lost to teams like Wofford and Pacific, and this year a loss to Vanderbilt is terrible. But beyond Xavier’s tradition of winning, they do have a decent frontline, led by senior forward Travis Taylor. If a rebuilt backcourt of freshman Semaj Christon and sophomore Dee Davis can get rolling, so can Xavier.
Dayton: The Flyers actually have most of the pieces, with Kevin Dillard and Vee Sanford providing backcourt punch and Devin Oliver leading a respectable frontcourt. The problem is that the Flyers’ history of winning is accompanied by still underachieving, they lack three-point shooting and they’ve lost teams like USC and Weber State.
Richmond: Losses have piled up for the Spiders early on, and they’re barely over .500, so the prognosis isn’t great. But Darien Brothers, a guard who scores 16 ppg and hits more than half his shots behind the arc is great. And his running mate, Kendall Anthony isn’t far behind. Get them some frontcourt help and they’ll start winning. And get them hot for a tournament weekend and they could shock at the end of the year.
WAIT TILL NEXT YEAR
St. Bonaventure: The Bonnies sent center Andrew Nicholson, the Atlantic 10’s best player the last two years to the pros, and there’s nothing up front to replace him. Demetrius Conger, the wing player averaging a 14/7 is all that’s left.
Duquesne: Losses to Albany, North Dakota State, Robert Morris and UL-Lafayette tell you what you need to know. There aren’t even any good three-point shooters to give fans hope of that one magical night against a favorite when all the shots fall.
Rhode Island: Xavier Munford averages 18 ppg, and maybe trying to get him the scoring title should be the goal for the season.
George Washington: Isaiah Armwood is a nice scorer and rebounder at forward, but he’s a lonely man in the nation’s capital.
Fordham: The one team that’s already sunk, Fordham is 4-11. Oddly, they are the one team in this group with the talent to at least do a little more. Chris Gaston has been a good forward in this league for a couple years now, and sophomore Ryan Canty is getting after the glass. Branden Frazier can score and distribute in the backcourt. I won’t say “watch out for Fordham”, but they could win a few games.