Atlantic 10 Season Preview
Who, besides Xavier, wants it?
by Jon Jaques / @JJaques25
Defending Conference Champion: Temple
Defending Regular Season Champion: Temple/Xavier
4. St. Louis
6. Rhode Island
9. La Salle
11. St. Bonaventure
12. St. Joseph’s
13. George Washington
Summary: For a league that was touted as much as the Atlantic-10 was throughout last season and ended up with the sixth-highest conference RPI in the country, to have only three teams (Xavier, Temple, Richmond) make the NCAA Tournament had to be a disappointment. At different points throughout the year, at least three or four others momentarily seemed like contenders (Rhode Island, Dayton, Charlotte, maybe Duquesne) but ended up being pretenders and fell off down the stretch. Before you tell me that this was due to the overall strength and depth of the conference (you’re right), let me say that for the Atlantic 10 to be considered a true power conference once and for all, a school outside Xavier must solidify itself as a basketball program and make the transition from cute NCAA story to reliable Sweet 16 participant. Until then, the Atlantic 10 remains in the tweener stage of conference development: definitely a class above mid-majors but not invited to the BCS table yet.
Xavier, like Gonzaga in the WCC and Butler in the Horizon, is a given as favorite in the A-10. Losing Jordan Crawford will not hurt as much as it seems on the surface, since nearly everyone else returns to form an experienced and probably more unselfish Musketeer squad. After that, last year’s main contenders Temple and Dayton look to be in good shape. Temple, with Lavoy Allen and Juan Fernandez back, should be considered a favorite this season after being predicted to finish in the middle of the pack last year (shows you how much these things mean), and Dayton, lucky to still have coach Brian Gregory (who would have been on a short list at Michigan State if Tom Izzo had made the mistake of taking the Cavs job) has a lot to prove after fizzling down the stretch and being snubbed on Selection Sunday. Now firmly established as one of the top conferences in the country (BCS or not), the A-10 should be able to add at least one NCAA Tournament team to their total from last March.
Team on the Rise: I.e. Who is this year’s Richmond? Chris Mooney’s Spider program’s ascent culminated in last year’s 26-9, NCAA Tournament season, and if one team in the A-10 is ready to make that jump this year, it’ll be Rick Majerus’ Saint Louis squad. The 11-toed, one-eyed stepchild of the A-10 (seriously…this may be the greatest example of schools that are blatant geographical misfits in their conference. Then again, this summer’s conference realignment mess has thrown 10 or 12 new schools into this category), Saint Louis has been quietly improving for the last couple of years, and anything less than an NCAA Tournament berth would be a disappointment. Last season, Rick Majerus’ team exceeded everyone’s expectations with gritty defense (finished with impressive 11-5 conference record), and with an improvement on O-ffense (as Majerus might say), the Billikens could be dancing for the first time since 2000.
Team on the Decline: While it may be hard for Richmond to duplicate last year’s success, Rhode Island may be the team that suffers the biggest drop off in terms of wins and conference standing. Jim Barron’s team looked like it may finally get over the ghost of Jim Harrick last season and make the Big Dance for the first time in 11 years, but a few too many head-scratching losses down the stretch put a dent in an otherwise solid resume. While there is plenty of talent returning from last year’s NIT Final Four participant, highlighted by do-it-all senior forward Delroy James, the Rams may not have enough to keep up with a constantly evolving conference that should be even more competitive than last year. With last year’s top teams still strong and St. Louis emerging as a possible contender, unless there is a renewed commitment to defense in Providence (Rhode Island allowed opponents to shoot 46 percent last season), the Rams may struggle to match last season’s fourth place finish.
Underrated Player: Fordham is unquestionably the worst team (by far) in the A-10, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have one of the league’s top talents hidden on their roster. Chris Gaston posted remarkable averages of 18 points and 11.4 boards per game as a freshman last season. If he adds a decent three-point shot to his already versatile game (made only 2-22 attempts from beyond the arc), the Newark native should give rookie coach Tom Pecora one of the most dangerous players in the conference. A player of the year type season from Gaston might even help Fordham earn a conference win this season, something that eluded the Rams during their forgettable ‘09-10 campaign.
Keep an eye on: Whether a team other than Xavier can advance past the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Even if a conference like the A-10 earns more tourney berths than a BCS league like the Pac-10, it will never eclipse larger leagues until more teams prove they can consistently do damage in March. Fran Dunphy has done remarkable things at Temple since replacing Jon Chaney, but after the lopsided first round loss to Cornell last March (man, that feels good to write) the ‘stache is still looking for his first tournament win with the Owls. Dayton was everyone’s mid-season favorite last year until an epic collapse sent it to the NIT (where they recovered to earn the oxymoronic “disappointing NIT title”), and Richmond’s breakout season was ended by St. Mary’s in the first round as well. All three of these teams are expecting big things this season…the question is whether any of them can take the next step, as Xavier has clearly done, to legitimize the claim that the A-10 is a legit power conference.
Jon Jaques is a former starter for the Cornell Big Red and current forward for Israel’s Ironi Ashkelon club.