Checking In On… the Atlantic 10

Posted by Joe Dzuback (@vbtnblog) on January 6th, 2016

Joe Dzuback (@vbtnblog) is the RTC correspondent for the Atlantic 10 Conference.

Three Things We Learned in the First Weekend

  1. Davidson won’t repeat as the regular season champion. The Wildcats are 1-4 away from the Belk Arena so far, including their 97-85 loss to St. Bonaventure on Saturday. With away games still to come versus Dayton, George Washington, VCU, Richmond and Fordham, along with tough home games against VCU, Saint Joseph’s and George Washington, Davidson could lose as many as eight conference games over the next two months.

    Despite his elite coaching prowess, it doesn't look like Bob McKillop and Davidson will repeat at conference champs this time around. (Tim Cowie/

    Despite his elite coaching prowess, it doesn’t look like Bob McKillop’s team will repeat at conference champs this time around. (Tim Cowie/

  2. A strong defense, some unanticipated player development and a favorable conference schedule means Saint Joseph’s should follow its 6-1 December with a 7-2 January. The players appear to be “getting it” — meaning head coach Phil Martelli’s approach to the game — and it shows in the Hawks’ defense and team-oriented approach to offense. St. Joseph’s field goal shooting still needs to improve, but the team is already showing up in a number of midseason brackets. If all goes well this month, February’s schedule features a handful of more difficult games that will ultimately determine whether the team is a legitimate contender for the conference title.
  3. It was a 69-63 loss, but Fordham’s players and fans are optimistic. The road venue was the Smith Center in Washington, D.C., and the Rams, down 15 at the half, managed to climb back in and stay within three possessions of the Colonials through the remainder of the game. The players are buying into what first year coach Jeff Neubauer is selling, as Fordham carried a 9-2 record into conference play and is on track to win between six to eight Atlantic 10 games. If the Rams hit inside that window, they will post their first winning season since 2006-07. A winning program in the New York City metropolitan area provides a huge boost to the conference’s overall profile, and correspondingly, Neubauer’s recruiting.

All Things (Re)Considered

The first two months are now in the books and the hoped-for better composite record because of the high percentage of league-wide returning minutes and points scored did not materialize. George Washington’s win over Virginia in the first week of the season proved to be more of a tease than a trend. The Colonials have, however, emerged as a legitimate contender for the conference title and, having assembled a strong resume, are solid bid contenders for the postseason. The first six weeks of non-conference play produced an unusual number of surprises, meaning a second look at the season preview is in order.

With the improved play of Scoochie Smith and company, Dayton is right in the mix of things ... again. (Getty)

With the improved play of Scoochie Smith and company, Dayton is right in the mix of things … again. (Getty)

  • Dayton (RTC preview — #3; the A-10 coaches said #1) — When Dyshawn Pierre was suspended and given that Kendall Pollard has struggled through the season’s first six weeks, the coaches’ projected #1 looked overly optimistic. Between Scoochie Smith, a step forward from Kyle Davis and surprisingly strong debuts for redshirt freshman Steve McElvene and transfer Charles Cooke — not to mention that coach Archie Miller is a flat-out genius — the Flyers survived the early season turmoil to start conference play with a 10-2 record and five resume wins over (RPI) top 100 teams Monmouth (#17), Iowa (#23), Alabama (#35), at Vanderbilt (#41) and William & Mary (#45). Score one for the coaches, #1.
  • George Washington (RTC preview — T5; the A-10 coaches said #4) — Kevin Larsen, Tyler Cavanaugh, Yuta Watanabe, Pat Garino and Joe McDonald give coach Mike Lonergan the tallest starting five in the conference while Paul Jorgensen provides consistent offense as the first player off the bench. Jorgensen and Garino’s combined 40% conversion rate from beyond the arc have been a nice replacement for the departed Kethan Savage (transferred to Butler). GW’s 4-0 record versus (RPI) Top 100 teams, helped the Colonials become the first conference team to make both Top 25 polls. Circle Friday, January 15 as the Colonials will travel to Dayton for a game that should decide the #1 seed in Brooklyn come March. On second thought, #2.
  • Saint Joseph’s (RTC preview — #7; the A-10 coaches said #7) — The fastest playing squad in coach Phil Martelli’s 21-year tenure is also the best defensively since 2006. Offense is where the Hawks need to improve. While they have offset poor field goal shooting with a very low turnover rate and Isaiah Miles has emerged as the second offensive threat, Saint Joseph’s needs a legitimate third option and enough scoring from the arc to create room in the lane. An extra pass might help here, though from freshman Pierfrancesco Oliva’s assist rate, Martelli’s inside-out motion is producing some outside scoring. On second thought, #3.
  • Davidson (RTC preview — T1; the A-10 coaches said #3) — Offensively, this season’s edition looks a lot like the Stephen Curry teams, but lacking a stingy defense, the Wildcats will struggle to earn their second regular season championship in their second season in the Atlantic 10. The breakneck pace (76 possessions per game) will decline to the low 70s as the Wildcats will have to hunt more for their shots against conference defenses that understand their tendencies. McKillop’s squad is, including Saturday’s 97-85 loss at St. Bonaventure, 1-4 away from Belk Arena. There at least another 4-5 road losses on the slate. The coaches were closer to right about Davidson. On second thought, #4.
  • Virginia Commonwealth (RTC preview — #5; the A-10 coaches said #5) — Melvin Johnson has stepped into the senior leader role nicely; Mo Alie-Cox continues to control the offensive boards and live on put-backs (and fouls taken); Korey Billbury (fifth-year senior from Oral Roberts) is a pleasant surprise. However, Doug Brooks, Justin Tillman and Jordan Burgess are slow to get started. Point guard Ja’Quan Lewis’ turnovers continue to match his assists and his shot selection continues to be a work in progress. Wade must also figure out how to work JuCo Ahmed Hamdy Mohamed into his game plan. Most of October’s questions remain unresolved. On second thought, #5.
  • Rhode Island (RTC preview — T1; the A-10 coaches said #2) — A talented roster true, but three critical injuries prove the roster is too thin. Until coach Dan Hurley can recruit/develop a deeper roster, Rhody will continue to be a season away from joining the top level of the conference. If talented freshmen Christion Thompson and Nicola Akele, along with junior transfer Kuran Iverson and sophomores Jarvis Garrett and Jared Terrell, pressed to do more than expected this season can learn, Hurley will put a legitimate seven-deep rotation on the court next season. On second thought, #6.
  • Richmond (RTC preview — #4; the A-10 coaches said #6) — Terry Allen, Deion Taylor and TJ Cline give Richmond their best front court since rotation since Justin Harper and Dan Geriot anchored the Spiders’ 2010-11 Sweet Sixteen team. This squad will put points on the board. Getting defensive stops is another story. Against offensively challenged conference mates coach Chris Mooney’s roster should be able to stay ahead and squeeze out wins, but games against the better balanced squads however will be horse races. With a 64% conversion rate from the free throw line will make closing out difficult. Their games with VCU should decide who finishes #5 and who finishes #6 or #7. On second thought, #7.
Chris Mooney's squad can score with the best of them, but will Richmond's defense be its downfall? (USA TODAY Sports)

Chris Mooney’s squad can score with the best of them, but will Richmond’s defense be its downfall? (USA TODAY Sports)

  • St. Bonaventure (RTC preview — #9; the A-10 coaches said #8) — The local competition may be in a down cycle, but the Bonnies posted the best out of conference winning percentage in coach Mark Schmidt’s tenure. The roster is a familiar Schmidt formula — a few diamonds in the rough (Jaylen Adams, Dion Wright, Derrick Woods, Idris Taqqee), an overlooked local (Denzel Gregg), a promising Canadian (Nelson Kaputo) and a transfer/JuCo or two (Marcus Posley). The defense improved over last season’s solid effort, despite mediocre defensive rebounding (an area to improve in conference play). The question is how squeeze more offense out of the rotation. Posley, Adams and Kaputo are his three best scorers, but none is above 6’1″. Putting them on the floor together is problematic. Where they seed for Brooklyn may come down to their head-to-head games with Massachusetts. On second thought, #8
  • Massachusetts (RTC preview — T10; the A-10 coaches said #10) — The squad struggled through a 7-5 out of conference slate ranked (according to KenPom) in the bottom third of Division 1. The squad collected by coach Dereck Kellogg this season includes transfers, freshmen and returning veterans. Kellogg had more minutes and possessions to allocate than any other program in the Atlantic 10, and the this squad is still a work in progress. Jabari Hinds (senior, two years under Kellogg, transfer from West Virginia) and Antwan Space (fifth year senior from Texas A&M) have been pleasant surprises. Guard Trey Davis and Hinds are the leaders, but the next month will determine how far they will take the program this season. On second thought, #9.
  • Duquesne (RTC preview — T12; the A-10 coaches said #11) — The Dukes are 2-3 versus Top 100 (RPI) teams, a good sign for coach Jim Ferry at the beginning of his fourth season at Duquesne. Their record, 10-3 (0-1 conference), looks good, but remember the SOS is ranked #264 in the RPI. The confusion will be compounded through their first three games conference games, all versus upper division/elite teams. 1-2 would boost confidence within the Duquesne program, but it will most likely be 0-3. Duquesne has finished behind Fordham only once in Ferry’s tenure (his first), they won’t this season either. On second thought, #10.
  • Fordham (RTC preview — T12; the A-10 coaches said #14) — The Rams’ highest ranked opponent was the (#40) University of Texas-Arlington. Although they lost 77-72, the Rams drew confidence and ran the next nine games, beating cross town rivals Manhattan (#287, 87-64), LIU-Brooklyn (#284 89-84) and St. John’s (#189 73-57) before falling to Boston College (#214, 64-55) in the ACC-A10 doubleheader. Make no mistake, this team will not challenge for the conference title this season; even an upper division finish is a stretch. But coach Jeff Neubauer’s team will win at least five games in conference play, and that should be good enough to get them out of the cellar (where the Atlantic 10 coaches projected they would finish). Neubauer is two seasons (and three recruits) away from an upper division squad. On second thought, #11.
  • George Mason (RTC preview — #14; the A-10 coaches said #13) — Injuries to veteran guard Patrick Holloway and wing Marko Gujanicic have made a freshman-oriented roster even more freshmen-oriented. The Patriots, anchored by All-Conference defender senior Shevon Thompson, continue to be credible defenders. Offense is the problem as Paulsen and his staff search for scorers beyond Thompson. The senior takes 27% of the Patriots’ possessions, but his 30% turnover rate confirms that defensive planning versus the Patriots is way too easy. Poor shooting make junior guard Marquis Moore and freshman forward DeAndre Abram an inadequate Plan B, but that appears to be the best available this season. Poor overall team shooting, combined with turnovers and an inability to consistently get to the line will set a low ceiling for the Patriots this season. On second thought, #12.
  • La Salle (RTC preview — #8; the A-10 coaches said #9) — This is the worst defensive team Dr. John Giannini has coached in 10 years at 20th and Olney. Forwards Tony Washington and Yevgen Sakhniuk show promise, but neither can stay on the court long enough for the Explorers to control the low post. Giannini is forced to play a shorter lineup that cannot consistently get defensive stops. Guard Jordan Price was named to the preseason First Team — the squad has Atlantic 10-level talent. A six game losing streak means a 4-7 record (0-1 in conference) and a lot of unanswered questions. Breaking the downward spiral is Giannini’s challenge; a middle of the conference finish is slipping away quickly. For the Explorers, #8 (our projection) or #9 (the coaches projection) is a goal. On second thought, #13.
  • Saint Louis (RTC preview — T10; the A-10 coaches said #12) — The Billikens can play defense; the problem is putting points on the board. Field goal conversion rates are about average for Division 1 teams, but a terrible turnover rate limits the number of field goal attempts available to the Bills relative to their opponents. Coupled with poor offensive rebounding the Billikens will have to convert at a (much) higher rate than their opponent just to stay even. Through Tuesday the Billikens attempted 597 field goals to their opponents’ 653. While no one in coach Jim Crews seven man rotation handles the ball well, three are especially turnover prone, losing the ball on at least 20% of their individual possessions. The team is on track to finish last in the conference for the second consecutive season. St. Louis returns 80 percent of the possessions and minutes and 84 percent of the points scored from last season. How much more improvement can the staff and fans expect from this squad? The coaches’ #12 finish looks optimistic at this point (and RTC’s #10 very unrealistic). On second thought, #14.
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