College basketball conference previews: Atlantic 10
With the start of college basketball season less than a month away, we're previewing each team in nine conferences. Using a statistical projection system developed by economist Dan Hanner and SI's Luke Winn -- read more about it here -- we've projected the conference standings and the top seven scorers from each team. Today we look at the Atlantic 10, which sent six teams to the NCAA tournament last season.
Projected Conference Race
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Coach of the Year: Shaka Smart, VCU
Without a team projected for a dramatic turnaround (keep an eye on Rhode Island, though), the best bet is the man at the helm of the new top-of-the-A-10 stalwart. Amazingly enough, Smart has never won a conference regular season title or been named its coach of the year. This seems like a good season to check both boxes.
Player of the Year: Treveon Graham, VCU
The lone returning player from last year’s all-conference first team, Graham is a strong, physical scorer who draws ample fouls attacking the basket and is also one of the A-10’s best rebounders on the defensive end. The best player on the best team is your player of the year frontrunner.
Freshman of the Year: Jared Terrell, Rhode Island
VCU’s Terry Larrier -- a 6-foot-8 wing who can shoot -- may be the A-10’s only top-50 recruit, but it’s Terrell, a consensus top-75 prospect himself, who seems ready to make the most impact right away. The 6-3, 220-pound Massachusetts native, who first committed to Oklahoma State, could start immediately and stand out for his defense and physicality.
Each team's outlook in 68 words or fewer
The case for the Rams, the lone team with two preseason all-conference first-teamers, is easy to make. Forward Treveon Graham is everybody’s favorite for A-10 player of the year, while nonpareil nuisance Briante Weber returns to run the point and spearhead VCU’s signature HAVOC defense. Although Juvonte Reddic’s size may be missed inside, emerging sophomore Mo Alie-Cox should help fill the void and earn VCU’s first A-10 crown.
The good news: Double-digit scorers Jordan Sibert and Dyshawn Pierre are back from last season’s late-blooming Cinderella, which boasted the most efficient offense in A-10 play. The bad: Three other starters aren’t. But coach Archie Miller still has enough to build a contender, especially if center Jalen Robinson can find consistency as a starter. Pierre is a darkhorse for POY.
Shooting guard Derrick Gordon, who became D-I’s first openly gay men’s player when he came out in April, will likely take on a bigger role in the Minutemen’s uptempo attack, which lost relentless star Chaz Williams. And keep your eyes on the frontcourt, where senior Cady LaLanne provides strong rebounding and shot-blocking and athletic classmate Maxie Esho should take kindly to his first starting role.
A strong quartet of juniors -- guards Joe McDonald and Kethan Savage, swingman Patricio Garino and forward Kevin Larsen -- will make for an exciting next two seasons in Foggy Bottom. The 6-6 Garino earned third-team all-conference honors while rebounding from knee surgery; Larsen is a big body (6-10, 260) with nifty post moves. The backcourt’s health and a young supporting cast will be key.
The Kendall Anthony (5-8) and ShawnDre’ Jones (5-10) backcourt is undersized but also lethal: Anthony scored 20-plus points in eight of the Spiders’ final 12 games last season, while Jones came on late in his freshman season with 25- and 18-point nights vs. GW and VCU. If they avoid last season’s injury bug, the Spiders could push for a tourney bid.
Danny Hurley is quietly stocking quite a cupboard in Kingston, led by southpaw star-in-the-making E.C. Matthews -- a 6-5 wing who averaged 14.3 points as the A-10’s top freshman last season. Classmate Hassan Martin (league-best 2.5 blocks per game) and senior Gilvydas Biruta make for a solid forward duo. The Rams will need to cut back on their turnovers after having the most in the A-10 last year.
Senior forwards Jerrell Wright (13.3 ppg in 2013-14) and Steve Zack (9.5 rpg) are the givens. The Explorers’ season may be made or broken by new faces at guard: Auburn transfer Jordan Price, Georgia Southern transfer Cleon Roberts and redshirt freshman guard Amar Stukes. If nothing else, Price (39.0% from three) and Roberts (38.5%) should sharpen what was an uncharacteristically poor outside attack last season.
Several key cogs are gone from last season’s underrated, effective offense. To fill the void, junior Dion Wright will need to go from strong sixth-man to quality starter and more strides will be needed from seven-footer Youssou Ndoye, whose offensive game has begun developing to complement his defense. The recovery of combo guard Jordan Gathers from offseason hip surgery will also be pivotal.
Last year’s A-10 newcomers had a debut to forget, going 4-12 while dropping a series of close games. Now the Patriots must replace their top two scorers. Wing Jalen Jenkins and guard Patrick Holloway (41.1% from three) will slide into more featured roles and Georgia Tech transfer Julian Royal will provide a boost. Inside, 6-8 rim protector Erik Copes anchors a defense in need of improvement.
Out go five senior starters who reached three straight NCAA tournaments; in come six freshmen. The few holdovers with real experience -- namely guard Austin McBroom, the team’s fifth-leading scorer last season -- will be leaned on heavily and Villanova transfer Achraf Yacoubou should provide shooting. But Jim Crews will need to congeal the newbies into the usual stout Billikens defense to grind into the league’s top half.
SoCon legend Bob McKillop left the conference with one last title, but his adjustment to the A-10 will be made difficult by the loss of three starters, including two-time SoCon Player of the Year De’Mon Brooks. Tyler Kalinoski (11.0 ppg, 5.0 rpg in 2013-14) is a versatile, veteran guard, but the overall lack of experience and higher level of competition will make for a challenging transition -- for now.
Combo guard Micah Mason was the nation’s most efficient offensive player as a sophomore, hitting 56 percent of his threes and maintaining a 5.69 assist/turnover rate. If the Dukes are to make noise in the A-10, Mason will need to maintain his stellar efficiency while inheriting a larger role. And the defense, which ranked 11th in conference play and 273rd nationally, will need to tighten up.
The Hawks gave eventual champion UConn its biggest scare last March. Unfortunately, with three senior starters gone from a short rotation, Phil Martelli will have a much less experienced squad on his hands this season. Forward DeAndre Bembry should build on a strong freshman campaign on both ends, but without clear secondary scorers, it may be tough for Saint Joe’s to break out of the A-10’s middle third.
The Rams have alternated seven- and 10-win seasons in Tom Pecora’s four years in the Bronx. What’s encouraging from last year’s 10-winner was Fordham’s most efficient overall offense since 2006; what’s discouraging is that it was the A-10’s second-least efficient attack in league play. Four starters return, including volume scorer Jon Severe and efficient forward Ryan Rhoomes. But how high can the same Rams climb?