Shaka Smart (right) may have his most talented team next season, including returning defensive leader Briante Weber. (Mike Lawrie/Getty)
It might be difficult for the Atlantic 10 to match next season what it accomplished in 2013-14, when it sent a record six teams into the NCAA tournament field. And after Dayton powered to the Elite Eight, the conference showed up Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, who wondered how any Atlantic 10 teams would fare in the “meat grinder” of the ACC. For a mid-major league, that blend of success with a pinch of told-you-so is perhaps as good as it gets.
Whether the conference will be as deep and formidable in 2014-15 is a question, as top-half programs from last season like Saint Louis, George Washington and St. Joseph's have some prominent holes to fill. Here's an early look at what's in store in the Atlantic-10 next season:
State of the champions
Through Feb. 22 of last season, Saint Louis had lost just two games – to Wisconsin, which eventually made the Final Four, and to Wichita State, which ran off 35 straight wins to start the season before losing to Kentucky in the round of 32. The Billikens had the look of a sleeper national contender ... and then the bottom dropped out, with three straight losses as part of a five-losses-in-seven-games swoon to close the season. And now Jim Crews will have to replace key players: The top four scorers from 2013-14 all graduated and the leading returning producer is sophomore-to-be Austin McBroom, who averaged 7.3 points in 21.5 minutes per game. The 2014 recruiting haul is sizable, with six newcomers, but there's not a four-star prospect or top-150 player. In order to contend, Saint Louis' returnees must smoothly transition into primary roles. But it's a daunting overhaul, for sure.
Saint Joseph's, meanwhile, was the conference tournament surprise, winning the event after starting as the No. 4 seed. There were significant losses here, too, as three of the top four scorers from 2013-14 graduated. The team will have to build around junior-to-be DeAndre Bembry (12.1 points, 4.5 rebounds per game) and senior-to-be Chris Wilson (9.1 ppg), but no one else who returns averaged more than three points per game. With a trio of three-star prospects arriving in the recruiting class, it appears the Hawks have more questions than answers at this stage.
VCU fell one win short of a league regular season title and one win short of a league tournament title but ought to have enough firepower on hand in 2014-15 to rectify either shortcoming, if not both. The team will rely heavily on Treveon Graham, who should be a conference player of the year frontrunner after averaging 15.8 points and seven rebounds per game last season. Third-leading scorer Melvin Johnson (10.4 ppg) also returns, as does arguably the most disruptive defensive force in the country: rising senior Briante Weber, who averaged 3.5 steals per game last season. Weber's steal percentage of 6.8 – a measure of how many opponent possessions ended in a steal by him – led the country. His 3.1 defensive win shares – a measure of how many wins were attributable to a player's contributions at that end – tied for seventh nationally. Added to the mix will be promising freshman Terry Larrier, the nation's No. 43 recruit per Rivals. Dayton returns leading scorer Jordan Sibert (12.2 ppg) among eight players who saw action in 30 or more games during a season that ended in an Elite Eight loss to Florida. Both VCU and Dayton seem equipped for strong runs next season.
Terry Larrier, VCU. There aren't too many McDonald's All-Americans dotting the recruiting hauls of Atlantic-10 teams. But VCU'sLarrier is the highest rated of the bunch, the only top-50 prospect to enter the league next season. He's 6-foot-8 and described by Rivals.com as a “tall jump shooter” with range to the three-point line. That size and that deep threat capability make him a mismatch waiting to happen, and while he likely won't be counted on for a central scoring role, VCU has had a place for three-point specialists in the past. Former guard Troy Daniels made 124 three-pointers (out of 149 total made field goals) in 2012-13. Larrier might not be nearly as prolific as Daniels, but he'll make an impact because the program knows how to maximize players with similar skills.
Jabarie Hinds, Massachusetts. In two years at West Virginia, Hinds started 59 of the 65 games he played in, averaging 7.4 points per game each year. As a point guard, his distribution level was startlingly low; Hinds dished out just 1.6 assists per game as a sophomore, seeing 22-plus minutes of action per night. But with Chaz Williams' graduation, the Minutemen have a hole to plug in directing the offense, given that Williams led the team in scoring (15.6 ppg) and assists (6.9 apg). Hinds and Derrick Gordon (9.4 ppg) should form a solid, veteran backcourt for a team that brings back five of the eight players who saw action in 30 or more games in 2013-14. The point production is a concern with two of the top three scorers gone, but if Hinds can be more of a distributor, buckets could follow.
Coach on the hot seat
Tom Pecora, Fordham. Pecora is a great guy and a great quote, but he's had four straight losing seasons at Fordham since arriving in 2010-11 after winning 55 percent of his games at Hofstra. The Rams are 9-55 in Atlantic-10 play during his tenure, and there will need to be significant signs of progress in Year 5 if Pecora wants to feel comfortable at the end of it. There is some hope for that; leading scorer Branden Frazier (18.2 ppg) graduates, but the next five top scorers all return, and they all played in 29 or more games a year ago. It's a bunch led by sophomore-to-be Jon Severe (17.3 ppg) and junior-to-be Mandell Thomas (11.9 ppg). Fordham seems capable of improvement. So if it doesn't show up in the win column, Pecora might not show up on the sideline the following season.