Checking in on… the Atlantic 10

Posted by Joe Dzuback (@vbtnblog) on January 7th, 2015

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.

Changing of the Guard

The BCS conferences may have soaked up most of the ink spent covering conference realignment, but the Atlantic 10 has undergone three realignment-triggered makeovers in the last decade. The long term triumvirate of flagship programs — Massachusetts, Temple and Xavier — were divvied up by the bigger fish, resulting in a conference footprint that has stretched far away from its New England, Middle Atlantic and Rust Belt roots, now creeping southward into North Carolina and westward to the Mississippi River. Temple, along with the football-playing remnants of the Big East, formed the American Athletic Conference, while Xavier, along with Butler (who paused for a cup of coffee in 2012-13) joined up with the basketball-first schools of the Big East. The Atlantic 10 in reaction brought in Charlotte (which has since returned to the C-USA), Davidson, Virginia Commonwealth and St. Louis. The three Philadelphia members — La Salle, Saint Joseph’s and Temple — gave the conference a Philadelphia-centric feel through the 1990s and 2000s, as at least one of the three schools took (or shared) the regular season title (or the tournament title) in 10 of their last 15 seasons together. As Temple and Xavier took their leaves to greener pastures, Virginia Commonwealth and St. Louis (with a challenge from resurgent Massachusetts) have stepped into the vacuum.

Could Mike Lonergan and George Washington truly challenge VCU for the conference crown? (Getty)

Could Mike Lonergan and George Washington truly challenge VCU for the conference crown? (Getty)

Non-conference returns hinted change was at hand, and the games of the conference’s first weekend offer a tentative confirmation. Consider that St. Bonaventure soundly beat Massachusetts, an NCAA Tournament last season, 69-55 in Amherst. Rhode Island, whose 29-63 record over the past three seasons was the nearly the mirror opposite of host St. Louis (81-23), beat the Billikens 65-53 at Chaifetz Arena (where the Bills have a 36-10 record over the last three seasons). Davidson opened its inaugural season in the Atlantic 10 with a resounding 81-67 win over visiting Richmond even as George Washington broke its road skid with a 64-60 win on Hawk Hill. Virginia Commonwealth is still the team to beat. Shaka Smart‘s program returned to the Top 25 this week in both national polls, coming in at #20 in the AP and #21 in the USA Today/Coaches polls. VCU will, however, have to contend with new challengers, two schools south of the Mason-Dixon line and two from the northern and eastern edges of the footprint, as the Rams try to win the conference title in their third season as a member.

A-10 News & Notes

  • Mike Lonergan‘s junior class at George Washington, heralded when it first put on the Colonial uniforms two seasons ago, have matured enough to take the Diamond Head Classic over Christmas Week. The neutral court wins had to be big confidence boosters for the team, as the win on Saturday at Saint Joseph’s suggests. With his latest freshman class (Yuta Watanabe, Nick Griffin, Darian Bryant, Matt Cimino and Anthony Swan) also looking good, Lonergan is building his program for the long term.
  • Davidson‘s Bob McKillop shows no signs of winding down his 26-season tenure at the North Carolina liberal arts college, as his freshmen class (Peyton Aldridge, Nathan Ekwu, Oskar Michelson and Jordan Watkins) includes the kind of taller, more athletic players typical of Atlantic 10 programs.
  • Results for Rhode Island and St. Bonaventure hint that these two programs are again on the rise, but the subtle inference from last weekend’s results is that should the trend established by Virginia Commonwealth, George Washington and Davidson continues shift in power away from Philadelphia and the metropolitan Middle Atlantic to the south, near Washington D.C., Richmond and the Charlotte.

Five Games to Catch This Week

This is the first full week of conference play. Given Saturday’s results, several programs that were underestimated by conference coaches last October — notably, Davidson (#12), Rhode Island, and St. Bonaventure (#10) — have emerged as teams to follow more closely as legitimate candidates for bye seeds in Brooklyn (and maybe more?). On the downside, Dayton, Massachusetts and Richmond have all had problems, and this week’s action could tell us whether coaches Archie Miller, Derek Kellogg and Chris Mooney  are finding solutions.

  1. Davidson at Virginia Commonwealth (Wednesday 1/7 – 7:00 PM ET) — With this early face-off between two conference heavyweights, the rest of the A-10 will get to see how the North Carolina newcomers handle Shaka Smart’s trap and press HAVOC defense. Bob McKillop’s backcourt does not turn it over and shoots very well (and frequently) from the outside, but at 5’11”, both point guard Jack Gibbs and off guard Brian Sullivan give inches away to the Rams’ duo of Briante Weber (6’2″) and Mel Johnson (6’3″). Wildcats’ small forward Tyler Kalinoski will have to pick up his play a bit to get Gibbs some good looks from the outside, while VCU’s front court rotation of Mo Ali-Cox, Treveon Graham and Terry Larrier should provide quite a learning experience for Davidson’s freshmen Payton Aldridge and Nathan Ekwu.


    Tonight marks an outstanding matchup between two of the elite coaches in college basketball as Davidson and VCU tangle. (AP)

  2. Dayton vs St. Bonaventure (Thursday 1/8 – 7:00 PM ET, CBSSN) — The Bonnies, coming off of a surprise road win over UMass last weekend, host the Flyers in Olean. Mark Schmidt’s squad has come along very quickly, and his frontcourt rotation — Youssou Ndoye (7’0″), Dion Wright (6’7″) and Denzel Gregg (6’7″) — should be a handful for Archie Miller’s 6’6″ pair, Dyshawn Pierre and Kendal Pollard. Ndoye is a force on the boards but a so-so shooter, but this could be a big night for the senior. The backcourts are more evenly matched, but with the loss of a third player in three weeks — fifth-year senior Ryan Bass out for the season with concussion-related symptoms — Miller is down to eight scholarship players and a very short frontcourt.
  3. George Washington at La Salle (Saturday 1/10 – 12:30 PM ET, NBCSN) — The Colonials, at 12-3 overall and 2-0 in the Atlantic 10, present the second of the league’s three strongest bids for the NCAA Tournament. They are 1-3 in hostile environments, though, and the Tom Gola Arena is not a friendly place to visitors. This will be a defensive struggle, as both teams guard well without fouling. Mike Lonergan will rely heavily on his four juniors to control the pace and offense, and the shooting guard match-up between GW’s Kethan Savage and La Salle’s Jordan Price could turn the contest. If Jerrell Wright answers the call here, forward Patricio Garino (or freshman Yuta Watanabe) will be challenged.
  4. St. Bonaventure at Richmond (Saturday 1/10 – 3:00 PM ET,) — Richmond is in a slump that St. Bonaventure will have to exploit if Mark Schmidt’s squad has hopes of finishing in the upper division of the conference. The Spiders do not play consistent defense, as Richmond is 3-5 in games where their opponents’ eFG% is greater than 50 percent. Even in games where the Spiders field goal efficiency is better than their opponents ( as in games versus Old Dominion and James Madison) they still lost both contests. Rebounding, normally not an issue for Richmond (Chris Mooney’s system values defense over the boards), was a factor in those two losses. St. Bonaventure has a dominant rebounder in Youssou Ndoye and guards who can get into the lane in Marcus Posely and Jaylen Adams. Senior guard Kendall Anthony, sophomore Shawn’Dre Jones and Trey Davis will have their hands full.
  5. Virginia Commonwealth at Rhode Island (Tuesday 1/13 – 7:30 PM ET,CBSSN) — The low post (Mo Ali-Cox/Hasan Martin; Treveon Graham/Gilvydas Biruta) and the wings (Jordan Burgess/E.C. Mathews) are evenly matched, but the differences in the backcourt (advantage: VCU) and home court (advantage: Rhode Island) should keep this one close throughout. Rhode Island, mentioned in the same breath as VCU, GW, Davidson and Dayton when NCAA bids are discussed, needs the resume win that VCU can provide, something it was not able to produce in November and December.
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