With Atlantic 10 play set to tipoff tomorrow night, fans from southern New England, west through Philly and Ohio and all the way down through Virginia are waiting in great anticipation for what’s left in store. Let’s take a minute to reflect on what’s already passed us by.
As inevitably is the case year in and year out, some teams have pleasantly surprised while others have disappointed, failing to meet expectations, however big or small.
Some team’s time is now, while another’s is clearly a year or so away. With teachers around the country taking a step back from the grade book during the holiday break, I’ve decided to do the honors myself by providing a grade book below, critiquing each of the 16 Atlantic 10 teams.
The number in parentheses next to each team represents the Strength of Schedule as of Jan. 8.
So without further ado…
Butler (42): A
In their first non conference slate of games as members of the Atlantic 10, the Bulldogs solidified themselves as perhaps the conference’s top dog. Having faced the likes of Marquette, UNC, Illinois and Indiana, all away from the friendly confines of Hinkle Fieldhouse, Brad Stevens’ club posted a record of 12-2. Sharpshooter and Arkansas transfer Rotnei Clarke leads a balanced offense which boasts five different players averaging more than nine and a half points per game. After wins against then No. 9 UNC and then No. 1 Indiana, it seems that the Bulldogs’ loss at Xavier back in mid-November was more or less a fluke.
Charlotte (276): B
Sure, the 49ers were victorious 12 out of 14 times — but unfortunately for Charlotte fans, the 276 in the S.O.S. column jumps out a lot more than does the 12 in the win column. In fact, Charlotte’s two best chances at earning a marquee win came against Miami and Florida State, both of which turned out to be the Niners only losses. With Second-Team All-Atlantic 10 selection Chris Braswell paired with freshman Willie Clayton, and Pierria Henry playing alongside Demario Mayfield for the second straight year, the 49ers offer a formidable front and backcourt. We’ll have to wait until they play better competition to see just how formidable the team can be, however.
Dayton (89): B
Dayton is a difficult team to put a finger on. Picked to finish eighth in the Atlantic 10 preseason polls, the Flyers will in all likelihood sit smack dab in the middle of the standings when March rolls around. To this point, however, Archie Miller’s group has looked solid. I hesitate to issue a B+ because the Flyers played only two true road games en route to a 10-4 non conference record. Led by First-Team All-Atlantic 10 selection Kevin Dillard, Dayton put up 81 in a win over defense-first Alabama before holding Preseason All-American selection Isaiah Canaan to just 4-14 from the field in a win over now 11-3 Murray State.
Duquesne (106): B
While the 7-7 record doesn’t scream celebration, consider that of the Dukes’ seven losses, two came at the hands of Pittsburgh and Georgetown, two of the better teams in the Big East, and two came against Albany and North Dakota State, two teams which ought to compete for their respective conference titles. Also keep in mind that the Dukes lost four of their top five returning scorers. It’s going to take time, but once first-year head coach Jim Ferry is able to recruit the types of players that fit his system, Duquesne is going to cause fits for opposing teams.
Fordham (154): D+
There’s not too much to be excited about if you’re a Fordham fan. The Rams did challenge themselves in the non conference, playing at Pittsburgh, at Harvard, at Lehigh, at St. John’s, at UConn and at Ole Miss, but were hardly competitive, losing by an average of 19.2 points in said games. To make matters worse, the Rams were only able to win four of their remaining nine games against much lesser talent, finishing its non conference slate at 4-11. First-Team All-Atlantic 10 selection Chris Gaston continues to do all he can, averaging 14/7, but it’s becoming painfully obvious that he has little to no help year in and year out.
George Washington (177): C-
After two months of basketball in which the Colonials hardly looked more impressive than did Fordham, you have to wonder if 13th was too generous a seed to issue George Washington in the preseason A10 standings. GW finished 6-7 and faced only two teams really worth mentioning, three if you want to include 10-3 Rutgers. In addition to the Scarlett Knights, GW played at Notre Dame and hosted Kansas State, losing by 17 to the Irish before teasing the home crowd for 39 minutes in an ultimate three-point loss to the Wildcats. The Colonials rebound the ball well but are not nearly efficient enough offensively to compete in the A10.
LaSalle (131): B
To quote former Arizona Cardinals coach Dennis Green, 10-3 LaSalle in all likelihood is what we thought they were. They’re a solid team that puts up a lot of points, will likely win upwards of 18 games and finish right around where they were picked in the A10. They weren’t challenged all that much in the non conference but did take down Villanova and Iona before falling to Miami in what could have been another solid win. Ramon Galloway is one of the A10′s best scorers and he and Tyreek Duren form one of the better backcourts in the conference.
Massachusetts (76): B
Despite finishing the non conference with 10 wins and a respectable S.O.S., I can’t give the Minutemen much higher than a B because of how inconsistent they’ve looked. UMass started the year strong with a solid win over Harvard before limping to the finish line against a depleted Providence team and getting blown out of the building against then No. 6 NC State. Chaz Williams and company can score in bunches but have not proven to be able to do so efficiently, as the Minutemen fell to Tennessee and Miami, both games you’d like to see a team expected to finish atop the A10 win.
Rhode Island (45): C+/B-
First year head coach Dan Hurley says he has never in his life appreciated winning as much as he does now, and here’s why. At 5-8, consider that Rhode Island welcomed back only five players from last year’s dismal 7-24 team, it has relied on a junior college transfer in Xavier Munford to carry the scoring load, its taken on a schedule far beyond it’s capability and has still managed to win four of its last six games, all this after pushing Ohio State for 30 minutes on a neutral court back in mid-November. So sure, 5-8 doesn’t seem all that sexy, but consider all the obstacles overcome and a C+/B- seems well earned.
Richmond (206): B-
The Spiders more or less went about their business in the season’s first two months. They fell at Minnesota and at Kansas, both to be expected, while taking down much lesser talent in finishing 10-5. Despite the 10 wins, however, I shudder to award UR much higher than a B- because of what they did against Ohio, George Mason and Davidson, the latter of which was certainly a winnable game. Losing to Ohio is nothing to be ashamed of, but a 25-point loss – albeit without Cedric Lindsay – is one of which to be leery.
Saint Joe’s (79): C/C+
If we’re having this conversation two weeks ago, Saint Joe’s may have been a C-. Three straight wins over Iona, Drexel and Morgan State, however, have bumped the Hawks closer to respectability. What makes the Hawks’ 8-4 mark such a disappointment is Joe’s preseason expectations. Picked to win the Atlantic 10, veteran head coach Phil Martelli welcomed back his entire starting lineup from last year’s 20-win team. A dozen games in, though, and Saint Joe’s has fallen to Fairfield, less-than-dominant Florida State and Villanova, and got embarrassed at Creighton. An early overtime win over Notre Dame still gives hope to Hawks’ fans thinking their team can compete atop a competitive A10.
Saint Louis (88): B+
Off the court, the Billikens have had to overcome a far greater battle than they’ll ever have to overcome on it. Because of health complications, head coach Rick Majerus was forced to step away from the game and on Dec. 1, the legendary coach passed away. In his place, Jim Crews has led Saint Louis to an 11-3 mark which includes impressive wins over Texas A&M and then No. 20 New Mexico. I hesitate to give the Billikens an A, however, because they’ve only played one true road game, a five-point loss at Washington.
St. Bonaventure (196): C
Contrary to Saint Joe’s, if we’re having this conversation two weeks ago, the Bonnies are probably earning somewhere in the B- range. Nobody expected Mark Schmidt’s club to be anything special this year – evident by it’s A10 preseason rank of 11th – after the departure of first-round draft pick Andrew Nicholson. In the early going, however, St. Bonaventure, led by wings Demitrius Conger and Chris Johnson, took care of business when it should have and hung tough against the likes of Canisius and Ohio. In it’s last three, however, three chances to raise some eyebrows, the Bonnies have fallen to NC State, Iona and Colorado State by an average of 19.7 points.
Temple (29): A-
Every year, Temple seems to lose significant pieces yet manage to be one of the more dangerous teams in the country. After bidding farewell to Juan Fernandez, Ramone Moore and Michael Eric, Fran Dunphy’s team has raced out to an 11-3 start, with its only losses coming at the hands of Canisius — coached by old A10 foe Jim Baron — then No. 2 Duke and No. 6 Kansas. A lock-down defensive team, the Owls took down then No. 3 Syracuse at Madison Square Garden. If there are any concerns heading into A10 play, it’s that the Owls struggle collectively from long range and in the half court are far too often Khalif Wyatt or bust.
Virginia Commonwealth (52): A
If there’s any team ready for conference play, it’s Virginia Commonwealth — 12-3 overall, the Rams have won nine in a row, including a recent win over Lehigh and double-digit wins over Alabama and Belmont. We all know the defensive pressure that has made head coach Shaka Smart famous and opposing coaches sick to their stomachs, but this season, VCU’s defensive intensity has been matched with fine offensive execution. The Rams do a terrific job of sharing the ball and currently rank in the top-30 in the country in points per game. Having challenged themselves in the non conference, VCU has lost to only now No. 23 Wichita State, then No. 5 Duke and then No. 13 Missouri.
Xavier (71): C
Just as Butler’s loss at Xavier has proven to be more or less a fluke, Xavier’s win over Butler has proven to be more or less a fluke. Like the Bonnies, the expectations weren’t high for Xavier this year, after the departure of Tu Holloway and Kenny Frease to graduation and Mark Lyons and Dez Wells to transfer. After beginning the year at 7-2, the Musketeers have lost four in a row heading into conference play. With three of their top four scorers being underclassmen, including a promising backcourt of Semaj Christon and Dee Davis — who average 23.4 points and 8.6 dimes between them — it seems the Musketeers are still a year away from being competitive again in the A10.