* * *
The 2013-14 Atlantic 10 season slogan could be “New Faces in New Places” or better yet, “Old Faces in New Places”.
Temple, Charlotte, Butler and Xavier packed their bags for other conferences and moved on, while George Mason slides into the league and Davidson is on the way next fall. With former league powers Temple and Xavier departed, each Atlantic 10 team has set its eyes on additional league wins in a league that will prove to be more wide open than ever before. Consider this: The difference between finishing 6th (UMass) and 13th (George Washington) a year ago was just two games. Three teams finished 8-8 and three teams finished 7-9; parity at its best.
Last winter, Saint Louis overcame the passing of Rick Majerus to not only win the regular season title, but also capture the A10 Tournament title in Brooklyn. New-kid-on-the-block VCU entered the league and showed no signs of growing pains, tallying 27 wins, 12 of those within the confines of the ever-competitive A10. On the flip side, preseason favorite Saint Joseph’s flopped, finishing 18-14 (8-8) after losing at home to St. John’s in the NIT.
So what to expect this time around? VCU and Saint Louis return to their places at the top of the league to begin the season; each armed with an incredible defense, though both very different from one another. Newcomer GMU is one of the most experienced teams in the country and should compete for a spot in the upper-half of the table. La Salle returns its entire cast minus Ramon Galloway while UMass still runs Chaz Williams at the opposition each night. Both clubs are potential NCAA teams. The league is wide open from top to bottom while the only safe bets to make the NCAA field are VCU and Saint Louis.
Predicted Order of Finish in (roughly) 140 characters
1. VCU – Havoc returns after a 27 win campaign and a third round trip in the NCAAs. Treveon Graham and Juvonte Reddic are a formidable duo, and no team defends quite like VCU.
2. Saint Louis – After dealing with the loss of Coach Majerus, SLU honored him by winning the A10 regular season and tournament in Brooklyn. Dwyane Evans returns as the best forward in the league.
3. La Salle – The “last team in” ran to the Sweet 16 with an eye-popping backcourt. Encore? The Explorers return everyone minus Ramon Galloway and will be the hunted instead of the hunter this season.
4. UMass – Yes, Chaz Williams is still in school but the NCAA drought remains, now at 15 long years for the Minutemen. The senior could lead them back as his final act.
5. Saint Joseph’s – Losing Carl Jones may be addition by subtraction. Phil Martelli hopes his team is more cohesive this season. Galloway, RRJ and Kanacevic are tough… but are they enough?
6. George Mason – One of the most experienced teams in the country, Mason returns its starting five and boasts a great home-court advantage to make noise in the A10. Will the Patriots manage the A10 learning curve?
7. Richmond – Another ho-hum 19 win season last year for the ever consistent Spiders. Darien Brothers has graduated, but Cedric Lindsay and Kendall Anthony form a solid backcourt and Terry Allen is poised to break out.
8. Rhode Island – Expect URI to grow leaps and bounds this year. Rutgers transfer Gilvydas Biruta and nation’s No. 75 frosh E.C. Matthews are new faces who will impress, along with the league’s top returning scorer Xavier Munford.
9. George Washington – Isaiah Armwood is one of the league’s better forwards. Veteran IU transfer Maurice Creek joins him to provide leadership and mesh with a talented sophomore class.
10. Dayton – After a disappointing 7-9 conference season, Dayton looks to rebound. Point guard Kevin Dillard is gone, but big Matt Kavanaugh returns inside. Vee Sanford and underrated Dyshawn Pierre should energize UD Arena.
11. Fordham – Is this finally the year Fordham gains some traction? We say yes. Branden Frazier is underrated at guard and, along with an improving crop of forwards, could will his team to a five or six win A10 campaign.
12. St. Bonaventure – Expect a major step back for the Bonnies. Top three scorers have graduated and Mark Schmidt’s club is thin on bodies who have consistently produced in this league. Will fight hard for four league wins.
13. Duquesne – Rebuilding continues in Pittsburgh. Five freshmen and two sophomores make the Dukes ultra-green. Derrick Colter is a keeper but Dukes can’t hit the fast forward button on experience.
First Team All Conference
Guard – Chaz Williams, UMass. Dynamic scorer is relentless in the open floor and puts pressure on opponents at both ends. To max out individually and elevate his team, needs to attack without being too fast for his own good.
Guard – Tyreek Duren, La Salle. Slithery, seasoned point guard who rarely has an off-game. The most consistent performer in the league at his position.
Forward – Treveon Graham, VCU. Junior is dripping with talent, can beat you in the lane or with the deep ball. Will play more on wing with arrival of Terrance Shannon, plus Reddic, Alie-Cox, Guest and others. Bad news for opponents.
Forward – Dwayne Evans, Saint Louis. Forgotten Evans’ impact over the offseason? Then go watch the 2013 A10 Tournament again. Driven and dangerous on offense. Versatile with quickness to guard out high and core strength to battle down low on defense.
Forward – Juvonte Reddic, VCU. Big time paint presence who knows his role and plays it to perfection within the VCU scheme. Will thrive with added help inside.
Most Outstanding Player - Dwayne Evans, Saint Louis. Evans provided a glimpse late in the season of what to expect this year. That glimpse was 20 points and 9.7 boards over his final 10 games.
Coach of the Year - Shaka Smart, VCU. Smart should guide the league’s emerging flagship team to another special season and yet another NCAA berth.
Rookie of the Year - E.C. Matthews, Rhode Island. Scout.com’s No 75 recruit in the nation a year ago, the fluid, scoring guard will see major minutes at multiple spots for the vastly improved Rams.
Superlatives… Now Discuss.
Best Clutch Shooter - Sherrod Wright, George Mason.
Best Handle - Tyreek Duren, La Salle.
Best Rebounder - Dwayne Evans, Saint Louis.
Most Athletic - Ronald Roberts Jr., Saint Joseph’s
Best On-ball Defender - Briante Weber, VCU.
Best rising sophomore(s) you’ve never heard of until now - Mandell Thomas, Fordham; Kevin Larsen, GW
Top JUCO newcomer - Tra’Vaughn White, Duquesne.
Most Underrated – Cedric Lindsay, Richmond.
Team you don’t want to play in February - (tie) George Washington, Rhode Island.
Best homecourt advantage & game experience – VCU
Best Facilities – Saint Louis
Best Band - There is no debate. Click HERE.
Top three Impact Transfers -
Gilvydas Biruta, Rhode Island (via Rutgers) – Tenacious rebounder, multi-dimensional forward with all-league potential.
Derrick Gordon, UMass (via Western Kentucky) – Averaged 11.8 and 6.7 as a frosh two years ago at WKU. Should fit seamlessly into Derek Kellogg’s uptempo attack.
Maurice Creek, GW (via Indiana) - Veteran with enough miles left on the tires to make big shots and tutor promising sophomore nucleus.
Others to Watch: Terrance Shannon, VCU (via Florida State); Austin McBroom, SLU (via Central Michigan); Jordan Sibert, Dayton (via Ohio State); Ovie Soko, Duquesne (via UAB); DeShon Minnis, URI (via Texas Tech); Jarelle Reischel, URI (via Rice).
Who’s Playing when it counts ?
NCAA - VCU, Saint Louis, La Salle, UMass
NIT- Saint Joseph’s, George Mason
CBI – Rhode Island, GW, Richmond
* * *