Atlantic 10 basketball preview: The post-Shaka Smart era begins
Men’s Basketball is the flagship sport for members of the Atlantic 10, a tradition-rich conference whose schools primarily lie in and around the major metropolitan areas along the Eastern seaboard.
Last season it was the 7th best conference in Division I, per KenPom.com and the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI). A10 teams posted a 99-64 record against nonconference opponents.
The A10 has thrived in the NCAA tournament recently with players who exited high school a notch below the blue-chip level but remained in school four years and put on display their ability each March.
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From 2009 to 2012 before it joined the Big East, Xavier made three Sweet 16s and an Elite Eight in the NCAA tournament. Dayton reached the Elite Eight in 2014 and third round last year. LaSalle advanced to the Sweet 16 in 2012-13. Saint Louis reached the third round every year from 2012-14. And, of course, VCU won five games on a magical run to the Final Four in 2011 as a member of the Colonial. Half of the 14 current members have played in a Final Four in their rich basketball history.
Last season, three A10 schools earned NCAA tournament bids, including regular season champion Davidson, a first-year member, which earned an at-large bid for the first time in school history.
The conference has excellent younger coaches like Archie Miller (Dayton) and Dan Hurley (Rhode Island); wily veterans such as Bob McKillop (Davidson) and Phil Martelli (St. Joe’s); and rising stars like Will Wade, in his first season at VCU.
Dayton, which is 53-20 the last two seasons, is the official preseason favorite but the top half of the conference appears wide open.
“This year the league in general is about as strong as it been,” Dayton coach Miller said during the A10’s Media Day. “A few years ago we had six teams get in the NCAA tournament, and I’ll tell you there are at least six teams in this conference right now that feel that have a chance to make the tournament. To me it doesn’t matter if you finish one through five or two through seven, there will very little difference and that’s usually been the case every year. To me this year’s race will be as intriguing as any.”
Keep these questions in mind as the A10 strives to attain a handful of NCAA tournament bids yet again.
What happens to VCU now that coach Shaka Smart is gone?
For all that Smart did to elevate the Rams to the national spotlight - and he did plenty - the program has survived a coaching change before. Their climb began under coach Anthony Grant in the 2007 NCAA tournament, highlighted by an upset of Duke punctuated by Eric Maynor’s dagger jumper. Wade, a former Smart assistant, returns to Richmond to put his twist on the trademark HAVOC style of fullcourt basketball. The Rams should remain in the A10’s upper tier, relying on guard Melvin Johnson, imposing forward Mo-Alie Cox and Korey Billbury, a graduate transfer who averaged 14.4 points per game at Oral Roberts last season. Improving the halfcourt defense is a concern for Wade. While the Rams forced turnovers at the 11th best rate in the nation last season, they were 188th in effective field goal percentage defense (49.5 percent).
Which style will prevail?
A10 teams can adequately and quickly prepare for NCAA tournament opponents because they must handle a variety of effective styles to emerge from the conference race. Davidson, which returns projected terrific guards Jack Gibbs and Brian Sullivan was eighth in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency (116.8) last season, per KenPom.com. Rhode Island is built on defense. The Rams were ninth in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency (91.3) and eighth in effective field goal percentage defense (43.9). They also have two preseason all-conference selections in Hassan Martin and E.C. Matthews. Richmond, looking for its third NCAA appearance under coach Chris Mooney, plays a problematic matchup zone defense that forces long possessions and deliberately on offense, spreading the floor with long range threats.
Who is the A10’s best pro prospect?
DeAndre’ Bembry of St. Joe’s is a 6-6, 210 forward, who led the A10 in scoring in all games (17.7 points per game) and conference games (19.0 ppg) and rarely left the floor. His 38.6 minutes per game led the nation. He also averaged 7.7 rebounds. Bembry is dangerous from everywhere. He made 149 2-point field goals, 102 free throws and 50 3-pointers. A Charlotte native, via the Patrick School in New Jersey, he had 13 20-point games, six double-doubles and drew the respect of ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas.
SJU’s DeAndre Bembry led NCAA in minutes per game last year (38.6). On floor 95% of SJU minutes. Bembry is an underrated star, NBA player.— Jay Bilas (@JayBilas) November 2, 2015
How many NCAA tournament bids are likely?
Some of the A10’s postseason participation will be determined by its nonconference performance in November and December, although the conference schedule offers ample top-100 games that enable a team to enhance its resume. Dayton, Rhode Island, Davidson and VCU should be in the bracketology conversation all season. George Washington returns versatile forward Patricio Garino, who made the A10 All-Defensive team for the second time last season and started for Argentina’s National Team this summer. Colonials coach Mike Lonergan thinks Garino has a chance to make an NBA roster because of his defense. Richmond needs ShawnDre Jones to step in and fill the void created by the graduation of all-league point guard Kendall Anthony. Having Bembry on the floor means St. Joe’s always has a chance.
Is there a sleeper in the A10?
It's doubtful, as it pertains to contending for the title. The most reliable preseason ratings that are based on advanced statistics (KenPom, Sports Illustrated) recognize the clear divide down the middle of the A10 this season. And the preseason all-conference teams reflect that talent gap. Still, don’t be surprised if George Mason, under first-year coach Dave Paulsen makes a significant improvement after going 9-22 overall and 4-14 in the conference last season. The Patriots can match anyone in the frontcourt, starting with senior center Shevon Thompson, a double-double machine who shot 53.7 percent from the field last season. Paulsen will demand more structured guard play, which should lead to an improved turnover rate (21.9 percent, 322nd in the nation).