Atlantic 10 Conference Preview: VCU And Butler Look To Challenge Perennial League Powers

Mar 16, 2012; Columbus, OH, USA; Saint Louis Billikens guard Kyle Cassity (23) and forward Cody Ellis (24) react to a three-point shot by a teammate against the Memphis Tigers during the second round in the 2012 NCAA men's basketball tournament at Nationwide Arena. Mandatory Credit: Greg Bartram-US PRESSWIRE

College basketball's largest conference for 2012-13 is also its most difficult to predict.

Let's get one thing straight right from the outset: neither one of us has any idea what's going to happen in the Atlantic 10 this season. The additions of Butler and VCU mean the league will have a Division-I most 16 teams this season, and of those teams about 10 seem capable of at least competing for a conference championship.

The A-10 sent four squads to the NCAA Tournament in 2011-12, and though the conference appears stronger overall this season, you have to wonder how much all of these similarly talented teams beating up on one another is going to hurt the league from the standpoint of potential at-large bids. Because of this, no league in America has more to gain or more to lose during non-conference play than this one. A couple of top 50 RPI wins in Nov. could very easily be the difference between NCAA and NIT for a squad with a conference record of 9-7 or 10-6.

The only safe bet as far as the Atlantic 10 is concerned is that it will be one of the most entertaining conferences in the country to follow this season. Unless you're the head coach of one of the teams in the league.

FINAL 2011-12 CONFERENCE STANDINGS

STANDINGS CONFERENCE OVERALL
Atlantic 10 W-L GB PCT W-L PCT STRK
Temple 13-3 -- .813 24-7 .774 L1
Saint Louis 12-4 1 .750 25-7 .781 L1
St. Bonaventure 10-6 3 .625 20-11 .645 W3
Xavier 10-6 3 .625 21-12 .636 L1
Saint Joseph's 9-7 4 .563 20-13 .606 L1
Dayton 9-7 4 .563 20-12 .625 L1
La Salle 9-7 4 .563 21-12 .636 L1
Massachusetts 9-7 4 .563 22-11 .667 L1
Duquesne 7-9 6 .438 16-15 .516 L2
Richmond 7-9 6 .438 16-16 .500 L1
Charlotte 5-11 8 .313 13-17 .433 L4
George Washington 5-11 8 .313 10-21 .323 L3
Rhode Island 4-12 9 .250 7-24 .226 L1
Fordham 3-13 10 .188 10-19 .345 L2

CONFERENCE TOURNAMENT CHAMPION

(4) St. Bonaventure defeated (3) Xavier (67-56)

NCAA TOURNAMENT RESULTS

Round of 64

(5) Temple lost to (12) South Florida (58-44)

(9) Saint Louis defeated (8) Memphis (61-54)

(10) Xavier defeated (7) Notre Dame (67-63)

(14) St. Bonaventure lost to (3) Florida State (66-63)

Round of 32

(9) Saint Louis lost to (1) Michigan State (65-61)

(10) Xavier defeated (15) Lehigh (70-58)

Sweet 16

(10) Xavier lost to (3) Baylor (75-70)

THREE BIGGEST OFFSEASON STORYLINES

1. Bigger and Better

With VCU and Butler joining the conference a year ahead of schedule and Charlotte and Temple both having to wait a season before making their moves, the Atlantic 10 will consist of a nation-high 16 teams in 2012-13. With the Rams and Bulldogs having both made the Final Four two seasons ago, it's not as if the league is sacrificing quality for quantity.

2. New York State of Mind

Beginning in March of next year, the Atlantic 10 Tournament will be played at the brand new Barclays Center in Brooklyn. The hope is that playing the tournament will help the A-10 from an exposure standpoint the same way playing its tournament inside Madison Square Garden helps the Big East. The conference will also be holding its annual media day in Brooklyn.

3. Perennial Powers Are Down

Xavier and Temple, probably the A-10's two most prominent programs, both appear poised to take at least a small step backwards in 2012-13. The Musketeers have won or shared 15 regular season conference championships over the past 28 seasons, and Temple's nine A-10 tourney titles are the most of any team in the league.

EARLY PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH

1. Saint Louis

I'll be perfectly honest, Billiken fans: I started this preview with every intention of picking Saint Louis to finish third or fourth in this conference. My rationale was that teams which thrived the season before thanks mostly to defense are difficult to trust, especially in a league as deep and unforgiving as this one.

SLU sits as the preseason favorite in this preview because the opposing case is just too difficult to make. They ranked 10th in the country in defensive efficiency last season, knocked off one of the trendiest Cinderella picks in the NCAA Tournament in Memphis, and then came within a couple baskets of stunning top seed Michigan State.

Leading scorer Brian Conklin is gone from that Billiken team, but every other major contributor is back. Kawain Mitchell (12.4 ppg) fully embraced Rick Majerus' system after being suspended for the 2010-11 season, and is more than capable of stepping into the go-to-guy role on offense. Mike McCall, Jordair Jett, Dwayne Evans, and Cody Ellis are also back, while big man Rob Loe will look to step up and shoulder some of the inside load left behind by Conklin's graduation.

2. VCU

Form a strictly aesthetic standpoint, I believe the Rams are the top team in the Atlantic 10. On paper, this the best team Shaka Smart has fielded at Virginia Commonwealth. Considering what his squads have accomplished over the past two seasons, that's saying something.

What's keeping VCU from the top spot is a lack of league familiarity. The Rams haven't played at a lot of these A-10 venues, they don't know a lot of these A-10 players, and they don't know a lot of these A-10 styles. They might just be good enough to win the conference anyway, but there's no question that these are factors which work against them.

VCU will continue to bring the havoc on the defensive end, where they forced turnovers per possession than any other team in the country last season. It's on the other end of the court where the Rams needs some answers. Smart only loses one key contributor, but it's leading scorer and top outside threat Bradford Burgess. The good news is that Bradford's little brother, Jordan, could easily end up being the most productive freshman in the conference.

A-10 veterans will get a good indication of what's to come from the league newbies when VCU plays three games against potential NCAA Tournament teams in November's Battle 4 Atlantis tournament.

3. Saint Joseph's

The Hawks return literally everyone from a team that won 20 games and nearly made the NCAA Tournament last season. Phil Martelli can rightfully claim the league's toughest frontcourt with Ronald Roberts (10.9 points/5.9 rebounds), Halil Kancevic (8.3 points/8.3 rebounds), and reigning A-10 Defensive Player of the Year C.J. Aiken (10.9 points/5.1 rebounds). The last member of that group might very well be the conference's top NBA prospect.

Martelli might not care to admit it, but this appears to be the best team he's had since the Jameer Nelson/Delonte West squad which ran the table during the 2003-04 regular season.

4. Massachusetts

It's hard to believe that the Minutemen haven't been to the NCAA Tournament since their string of seven consecutive appearances between 1992-1998. That could change this year thanks in large part to likely A-10 Preseason Player of the Year Chaz Williams, who averaged 21.8 points, 5.3 rebounds and 4.8 assists in UMass' run to the NIT Final Four last season. Derek Kellogg loses leading rebounder Sean Carter, but sophomore Cady Lalanne should be able to help fill that void so long as he stays healthy.

5. La Salle

You have to take a shot or two with your predictions when a conference is this wide-open, so here we go with the Explorers checking in at No. 5. La Salle hasn't made the NCAA Tournament in more than two decades, but that could change this season with a team that returns nearly everyone after winning 21 games last year.

Dr. John Giannini's group is young, but not inexperienced. Starters Ramon Galloway, Tyreek Duren, and Sam Mills are all back, as is sharp-shooting reserve D.J. Peterson. The addition of Virginia Tech transfer Tyrone Garland, who will be eligible in Dec., could also wind up making an enormous difference.

6. Temple

Fran Dunphy's Owls haven't finished worse than second in the A-10 in four years, but they also haven't had this much to replace over that span. Gone from last year's reglar season champs are leading scorer Ramone Moore (17.3 ppg) and perhaps the team's most reliable player in Juan Fernandez (11.1 ppg/3.8 apg). The team also lost reserve guard Aaron Brown to transfer. To make matters worse, the status of star returnee Khalif Wyatt - who was busted in an Atlantic City prostitution sting on the night of his 21st birthday back in June - is currently up in the air. Wyatt's trial was recently postponed and will begin on Aug. 21.

Still, Dunphy has enough young talent to ensure that the offseason blows don't result in a knockout. Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson and Anthony Lee are your quintessential Temple players (crazy tough), and should thrive when given additional playing time. West Virginia transfer Dalton Pepper and a healthy Scootie Randall should also help matters.

Their reign at the top of the league is probably going to end, but the Owls aren't going to roll over for anyone in their A-10 swan song.

7. Xavier

If ever there was a season for A-10 teams to exact some revenge on the league's flagship program, this would seem to be it. Chris Mack lost both leading scorer Tu Holloway and big man Kenny Frease to graduation, and then was dealt another unexpected blow when expected leading returning scorer Mark Lyons transferred to Arizona for his senior season. The result is a large amount of pressure on the shoulders of a lot of unproven players.

Mack will look for sophomore Dezmine Wells to emerge as the team's top offensive threat in 2012-13. Wells is a streaky shooter at best, but his burly frame makes him nearly impossible to keep out of the lane. Veteran frontcourt players Travis Taylor, Jeff Robinson and Towson transfer Isaiah Philmore should provide some stability. The talented freshmen duo of Semoj Christon and Myles Davis will compete for minutes right away.

If they didn't have "Xavier" across their chests, this team would probably be picked to finish at least two spots lower, but reloading is something the Musketeers have had success doing for the past 15-20 years. It would be a surprise if this squad overachieved to the point of competing for an A-10 title, but it certainly wouldn't be a shock.

8. Butler

After making back-to-back national title game appearances, the offense simply wasn't there for Butler last season. The Bulldogs averaged just 63.6 points per game, were the fifth-worst 3-point shooting team in the country, and missed out on the NCAA Tournament for the first time in six years.

To be blunt, I don't see those offensive woes changing drastically enough for this team to finish in the top 1/4 of the league. The addition of Arkansas transfer Rotnei Clarke certainly helps, but the tremendous outside shooter isn't multi-dimensional enough to carry this team on his back. Freshman Kellen Dunham is a top 100 recruit who can also light it up from outside. The problem is that someone has to be able to penetrate and create space for these guys to get their shots off, and it won't be the graduated Ronald Nored who spent the last three seasons running point for Brad Stevens.

Inside, Butler is actually more prepared to compete in the A-10 than you might think. Andrew Smith was the team's only double-figure scorer last season and has been a rock in the paint for two years. Khyle Marshall also returns after a solid sophomore season, and Stevens expects the burly but undersized Roosevelt Jones to emerge as one of the team's biggest stars in his second year.

It goes without saying that Butler's 2010 and 2011 teams would have been able to walk right into the A-10 and compete for a conference championship. It's not that this group will be overwhelmed by the upgrade in competition, it's that they simply aren't as good as the Bulldog teams that made those incredible runs in the big dance.

9. Dayton

The Flyers have been one of college basketball's biggest enigmas for what feels like the past decade. Every season you've been pretty much able to pencil UD in for one or two big-time upsets early in the season, about the same number of inexplicable losses, and then a disappointingly pedestrian performance in conference play that has them slightly on the wrong side of the bubble come early March.

If that's going to change for second-year head coach Archie Miller then he's going to need superstar performances from the senior duo of Kevin Dillard and Matt Kavanaugh. He'll also need a massive improvement on the defensive end, where UD allowed opponents to shoot almost 45 percent from the field.

10. Richmond

The Spiders return starters Cedrick Lindsay, Derrick Williams, Darien Brothers and Kendall Anthony, and should again be among the conference's most prolific offensive teams. Because of that talented core, anyone looking for an extreme sleeper pick to win the league would be well-advised to take a long look at Chris Mooney's squad.

11. St. Bonaventure

The Bonnies won 10 conference games and then nearly upset three-seed in the NCAA Tournament last season, but that was with league Player of the Year Andrew Nicholson, who now calls the Orlando Magic his team. Still, the cupboard isn't completely bare for Mark Schmidt. Second-leading scorer Demetrius Conger is back for his senior season and will have a nice supporting cast in Eric Mosley, Matthew Wright and Chris Johnson.

12. Charlotte

The success of Charlotte's final season in the A-10 before making the move back to Conference USA will depend heavily on the health of star forward Chris Braswell, who is currently sidelined with a broken foot. Double-figure scorer DeMario Mayfield is also back to spend another season on the wing. It's hard to envision the best-case scenario for the 49ers being anything other than finishing close to .500 in league play.

13. George Washington

David Pellom was expected to be the team's breakout star, but now he might miss the start of the season after suffering a wrist injury. GW's five-man recruiting class will try to step in and immediately try to make up for the loss of leading scorer Tony Taylor.

14. Fordham

You have to feel bad for Chris Gaston, who enters his senior season with career averages of better than 17 points and 10 rebounds per game, but has yet to play for a winning team (or anything close to a winning team). There simply isn't enough talent around Gaston for that to change in 2012-13.

15. Duquesnse

No A-10 team has had a more tumultuous offseason than the Dukes, who lost three players - including star T.J. McConnell - to transfer in March, and then fired head coach Ron Everhart. Everhart had actually had decent success (99-89, 46-50) in his six seasons at Duquesne, but a growing disconnect with the school board ultimately led to his ouster. Rebounding and post defense have to be summer focal points for new head coach Jim Ferry (Long Island), because this is probably the most undersized team in the league.

16. Rhode Island

Dan Hurley will get this program turned around, it's just going to take way more than one season. Expect Hurley to throw his talented youngsters straight into the fire. It might result in another single-digit win season, but it's still the best move for the future of the program.

EARLY PREDICTED ALL-ATLANTIC 10 TEAM

G Chaz Williams, Massachusetts
G Khalif Wyatt, Temple
G Ramon Galloway, La Salle
F Chris Gaston, Fordham
F C.J. Aiken, Saint Joseph's

ROOKIE OF THE YEAR: Jordan Burgess, VCU

PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Chaz Williams, Massachusetts

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