Didn’t See That Coming, Five Atlantic 10 Surprises to Start the Season

Posted by Joe Dzuback (@vbtnblog) on December 9th, 2014

Joe Dzuback is the RTC correspondent for the Atlantic 10 Conference. You can also find his musings online at Villanova by the Numbers or on Twitter @vtbnblog.

  • Virginia Commonwealth’s Struggles — After a series of double-figure wins to start the season at 3-0, the Rams have hit a 2-3 slump because of defensive collapses. During the five-game window, Shaka Smart’s squad yielded an average of 1.2 points per possession, well above the Division I average (0.995 PPP). Two of those losses (to Villanova by 24 and Virginia by 17) were not competitive. The loss to the Wildcats represented the largest margin of defeat since they lost to Michigan by 25 in the 2013 NCAA Tournament. While Treveon Graham, Melvin Johnson, Briante Weber and Jordan Burgess are carrying the offense, field goal defense is down and fouling is up, trends that do not bode well for the Rams come conference play.

    After a hot start, Shaka Smart's squad has cooled a bit. (Getty)

    After a hot start, Shaka Smart’s squad has cooled a bit. (Getty)

  • Massachusetts Misses Chaz Williams — For a Minutemen squad which had only a single loss heading into conference play last season, collecting four defeats with four non-conference games still to play throws a damper on any postseason expectations. Derek Kellogg’s squad is riding a three-game losing streak that includes a truly disappointing letdown against Florida Gulf Coast from the Atlantic Sun Conference. With two of their remaining four games away from the Mullins Center (at Providence and at BYU) and vs. Iona, a well-coached MAAC squad, still to come, UMass could enter conference play with as many as five to seven losses, a definite RPI killer. Except for freshman Donte Clark, the guards and wing forwards are struggling with their three-point shot this season (26-of-90).

  • Dayton is Closing the Gap With VCU — Archie Miller’s squad has logged wins over major-conference members Texas A&M and Boston College en route to its 6-1 start. Starters Dyshawn Pierre, Jordan Sibert and Devon Scott are each off to solid starts, while sophomore forward Kendall Pollard, a rotation player who logged only one double-figure scoring night last season, already has three. Pollard has joined Sibert and Pierre as the offensive nucleus of this team. Upcoming games with Arkansas, Georgia Tech and Mississippi can help to repair the conference RPI if the Flyers can register some wins here. Pegged to finish second in conference play, the Flyers appear strong enough to challenge preseason favorite VCU for the conference crown.

    Dyshawn Pierre and Dayton look like legitimate conference front runners. (Getty)

    Dyshawn Pierre and Dayton look like legitimate conference front runners. (Getty)

  • Davidson is Better Than Expected — The A-10 coaches slotted the Wildcats in 12th place in the preseason poll, largely due to the loss of seniors De’Mon Brooks, Tyler Kalinoski and Tom Droney. Bob McKillop’s team, however, is off to a 6-1 start (decidedly better than their 3-4 start last season), leaving the rest of the league to wonder if Davidson will carry that momentum into the conference season. The Wildcats have already logged wins over Central Florida (AAC) and Charlotte (C-USA), and will also face Virginia and traditional rival College of Charleston before the start of conference play. Sophomore point guard Jack Gibbs and freshman Payton Aldridge have earned weekly mentions from the league office twice in the season’s first three weeks.
  • Fordham is Still Stuck in Neutral — Year five of Tom Pecora’s tenure on Rose Hill finds the Rams in a continuing struggle to escape the conference cellar. Pecora knows the city, having coached at Hofstra for eight years before moving uptown, and while he has attracted some talent to Fordham, he has been unable to establish any upward momentum in the program. The names and specifics change, but the result stays the same. Two seasons ago all-A10 second team forward Chris Gaston injured his knee and missed a month of action. Gaston returned to the lineup but never recovered enough to break the school’s scoring record or lead the team out of last place. This season, Pecora has enough backcourt depth, with sophomore Jon Severe, All-City freshman Eric Paschall, junior Mandall Thomas, senior Bryan Smith, freshman Antwoine Anderson and freshman Nemanja Zarkovic, to play a three- or even four-guard offense. Jon Severe, another well-respected recruit out of the New York City school system and 500-point scorer during his freshman season, left the team three games into the season. Pecora needs frontcourt help, but he only has a corps of freshmen (Manny Suarez, Christian Sengfelder and Dekeba Battee-Aston) to pair with junior Ryan Rhoomes.

Six Games to Catch This Week

Some power conference match-ups involving A-10 teams give the feeling that the invitational tournaments continue, except that all of these games this week will be played in hostile environments.

  • Rhode Island at Providence (Wednesday 12/10, 7:00 PM ET FOXS1) — One of the better intrastate rivalries on tap this season will pit an underrated Rhode Island squad against a Providence program revived and ready to make waves under Ed Cooley. EC Matthews and Hassan Martin should test LaDontae Henton and Tyler Harris’ shot defense. Gilvydas Biruta will have to cope with Providence’s low post rotation of Carson Desrosiers, Ben Bentil and Paschal Chukwu. The Friars have dropped two straight and Cooley has shuffled the backcourt rotation as a result, moving Kyron Cartwright into the starting lineup to give his team two ball-handlers. Junior Kris Dunn continues to work himself back into game shape, a critical factor for the Friars’ chances this year.
  • Duquesne at Penn State (Wednesday 12/10, 9:00 PM ET BTN) — Jim Ferry’s program gets a benchmark game. The Dukes’ schedule to date has been unimpressive (Bluefield State and Albilene Christian), more an extended warmup exercise… until last week (Pittsburgh) when the Dukes dropped a 14-point decision to the Panthers. Ferry’s undersized lineup (his tallest starter is 6’7″ L.G. Gill) will not be overwhelmed by Pat Chambers’ lineup (which features 6’7″ Ross Travis as it’s tallest starter). The Dukes’ chances will turn on their ability to stop 6’4″ guard D.J. Newbill, the Nittany Lions’ prolific scorer. Newbill has hit 40 percent of his shots from the three-point line this season and one of the Dukes’ bigger weaknesses is defending the three. Penn State will play several other conference members this week and next; this game should serve as a preview on how those teams will match up later in conference play.

    The return of talented Kethan Savage should be a big boost to GW's conference outlook. (DC Outlook)

    Will some home cooking be just what the doctor ordered for Kethan Savage and George Washington? (DC Outlook)

  • George Washington vs DePaul (Thursday 12/11, 7:00 PM ET FOXS1) — Perennial Big East cellar-dweller DePaul showed signs of life against Stanford last Sunday while GW struggled on the road at Seton Hall. Back in the confines of the Smith Center, will Kethan Savage find his shot? Will Joe McDonald find the balance between physical defense and over-aggression? Mike Lonergan’s junior point guard needs to stay on the court for the Colonials to have a solid shot at taking down the Blue Demons, and the Myke Henry/Patricio Guarino match-up should be interesting as the two squads are evenly matched at every position.
  • Dayton at Arkansas (Saturday 12/13, 2:00 PM ET ESPN2) — The Flyers will head down to SEC country for an important road game with the Razorbacks. Archie Miller will have to contend with an Arkansas defense that lives off of turnovers and miscues, much like the A-10’s own Virginia Commonwealth. His backcourt, manned primarily by Scoochie Smith and Jordan Sibert, will be tested, but with mobile forwards Devon Scott, Kendall Pollard, Dyshawn Pierre and Jalen Robinson, Miller should be able to develop passing schemes to break the press. Arkansas center Bobby Portis will be a problem – Miller has no one on the roster who can go toe-to-toe with him. Like many “press-first” systems, however, the Razorbacks have problems defending field goal attempts, and this is where Sibert, Pierre and Pollard can punish them.
  • VCU vs Northern Iowa (Saturday 12/13, 7:00 PM ET NBCSN) — The 7-0 Panthers might challenge Wichita State for the Missouri Valley crown this season, so this can be a resume game for VCU — or UNI — depending on the outcome. As mentioned above, the Rams need to get their defense in order, though. If they cannot get the turnover, they have to defend the shot (without fouling). Having a forward who can hit shots would also take some pressure off of Graham and Mel Johnson. In addition to VCU’s pressure defense, UNI will also have to deal with the Rams’ sixth man – a loud and intimidating Verizon Wireless Center on campus.
  • George Washington at Penn State (Sunday 12/14, 12:00 PM ET) — The second A-10 team to trek to State College this week, the Colonials will face a club in the early stages of rehabilitation under second year head coach, Pat Chambers. GW’s Mike Lonergan has to get the nucleus of his squad ready to play this important road game. Chambers will no doubt start a smallish, three-guard lineup topped out with 6’7” Ross Travis. If center Kevin Larsen starts quickly, Chambers will have to think about countering in kind with 6’9” Donovan Jack. Penn State’s size at the wing and in the backcourt should play to Lonergan’s preferences – longer wings and a strong low post presence. The opportunities to beat power conference teams is dwindling this season, so GW cannot afford to let one slip.
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