1. Fordham Rams
Last Season: Fordham took a projected 11th-place pre-season finish and ran the table putting together their best season in 30 years — a 12-6 in-conference record setting a new school record. For the first time in a long time, there was a rowdy student section like Providence or Xavier. Fordham embraced long-time assistant Keith Urgo as head coach; his gritty, disciplined work ethic rubbed off on the campus in the best way. They walked away with three players winning spots on all A-10 teams and the A-10 coach of the year — who also happened to win the Joe B. Hall award.
Fordham finished the year 85th in adjusted defense (Kenpom), 53rd in adjusted tempo, and remained elite in rebounds per game (36.9), fourth in the conference. Led by a pair of graduate students, Darius Quisenberry posted 16.9 points per game and Khalid Moore came out of nowhere with 15.7 per game and 6.7 rebounds per contest. Kyle Rose was the top defensive option on the perimeter finishing third in steals and an all-defense selection. Moore was a third-team selection (and all-tournament), and Quisenberry made the second team, the most all-conference selection that Fordham had since the 2005-06 season — the last time they made it to the conference tournament semi-finals.
Instead of a Sean Miller-led Xavier team with a red-hot Josh Duncan, another Ohio foe continued to bedevil them in the Dayton Flyers. Fordham simply couldn’t overcome Toumani Camara shooting 92% from the field or a solid second half from DaRon Holmes, but they pushed all their chips to the center of the table and lost by 10. This was also where Darius Quisenberry scored eight points and injured himself in the second half. Moore did his thing with 24 and seven boards, Rostik Novistkyi added 13 of his own, but freshman Will Richardson kept Fordham afloat with 16 points on 4-7 shooting from three.
While the ending was what it was, they went down fighting which is all anyone could’ve asked for. Fordham comes into the preseason as one of the few A-10 teams who didn’t lose significant pieces to the portal. Besides their four graduating players, everyone else returned and they plugged holes. This is the best team Fordham will have since 2006-07 in terms of expectations — talent-wise it may be hard to argue over the Dunston and Stout era — this group has the potential to be the first one to hoist that A-10 trophy in March.
Returnees: Will Richardson, Angel Montas, Zach Riley, Abdou Tsimbila, Elijah Gray, Romad Dean, Antrell Charlton, Kyle Rose, Noah Best
Out: Darius Quisenberry, Khalid Moore, Rostik Novistkyi, Patrick Kelly
In: Japhet Medor, Jahmere Tripp, Joshua Rivera, Ogheneyole Akuwovo
Potential Strengths: Urgo’s charges will be great on defense and he wants to run. It’s the foundation that he believes in and has been building the two years since he arrived with Kyle Neptune. Returning personnel such as Rose and Abdou Tsimbila will challenge for the A-10 defensive player of the year, and anchor an experienced defensive unit. Every rotation piece had a positive defensive rating, with Rose leading with an absurd +3.8 and Tsimbila not far behind at +2.2 (minimum 200 minutes).
Elijah Gray and Romad Dean were negative but only at -0.2 and -0.5. They’re not far off from being plus defenders once their roles expand. Graduate transfer Ogheneyole Akuwovo will provide depth at center with his experience. He adds another frontline body that Fordham will need. In case you forgot, I’ll say it again: this coming season is one of the deepest that the A-10 has been with quality big men in some time. Fordham has enforcers and linebackers a plenty, so they’ll need all the size they can get. Richardson has elite speed both laterally and vertically which is key as he will be tasked to take on more offensive duties. He won’t have to do it alone as Urgo made sure he’s got helpers: Japhet Medor is a graduate transfer from UTSA who averaged 13.7 points, 3.8 assists, and 3.4 rebounds on 41% shooting. Like Richardson, Medor has power-six speed and a 40′ vertical at an even 6’.
Noah Best should be coming off his redshirt year to serve as a three-point shooter and secondary ball handler off the bench. Freshman Jahmere Tripp is expected to have a sizable role right away — he stands at 6’6” and is built like an NFL tight end with exceptional skills. Fordham added Lafayette transfer Joshua Rivera who made all-freshman and all-tourney in the Patriot League — look for him to add elite finishing and defense at 6 ’7”. Zach Riley and Antrell Charlton will also add to the deep guard rotation as they will provide veteran leadership in every facet of play.
The key to this is Angel Montas. He had knee problems that caused a redshirt season, but played in two games showing signs of promise. If he overcomes those hurdles, he could be a mainstay in the starting lineup with his physical gifts and bowling ball-like nature that he was recruited for.
Potential Weaknesses: Who will step up and lead Fordham’s offensive charge with their two stars gone? Many are appointing Will Richardson as the guy. He showed promise with a knack for the big stage as his A-10 tournament performance indicates. Going from 6.6 points per game to 13-15 is a mighty ask for a sophomore but it isn’t impossible. Charlton isn’t a score-first player, but 7.2 points per game needs to be closer to 10 as a senior. Rose also needs to get near 10 a game and shoot better than 32% from range.
You also have guys from last year that played sparingly: How much of a jump will players like Gray and Dean make? What will Montas’ role be and how much will they ask of him? Is Best going to have a role at all? The team has gotten a little younger in terms of who they will rely on to push the issue. Most of the older players are complimentary guys, with the likely exception of Medor, with this being the youth’s show. It certainly is a bold move to put the offensive burden on sophomores but no surprise Urgo is confident with his offensive personnel and is rolling the dice. In fairness, trusting your homegrown talent is the best way to build a sustainable program.
Three-point shooting was a project when Neptune first arrived (they shot 29% that year). Last year was an incremental improvement at 32% which was second to last in the conference. The big problem is that despite hitting the fourth most as a team (7.6 per game) and taking the third most in the conference (24 per game), the efficiency isn’t there. Richardson shot a ridiculous 41% from three, Moore was second with 35%, and everyone else was low 30s or high 20’s. Threes have to fall at more efficient rates if Fordham wants to be a true two-way team.
Are they going to win 25 games again? It’s a fascinating discussion to have. Besides St. John’s and possibly Tulane, Fordham should handle their OOC games while they squeeze an upset in along the way. Will they beat St John’s? I know everyone has that game circled on their schedules, but this is Rick Pitino and perhaps the most talented team they’ve had since D’Angelo Harrison. No question they’ll be competitive — beating them is not as simple, but if they play a close game that is a step in the right direction. Furthermore, the A-10’s competitive balance improved as a number of its teams can compete: Dayton, VCU, St. Bonaventure, George Washington, and Duquesne are all expected to contend next season. Most folks are high on St. Joseph’s —George Mason could sneak in as well— the A-10 is going to be more gnarly than last season. So long as they secure the double-bye, Fordham should be able to contend with the other teams in the top four.
Outlook: Last season was a smashing success for the program as “Urgonomics” reinvigorated life to show that Fordham can play in the A-10. I’ve seen many drinking the kool-aid, putting Fordham in the double digits, and then everywhere in-between. People will say this is territory bias — and maybe it could be — but I genuinely believe in this take. This season of A-10 hoops is so incredibly feeble than years past that some kind of madness is bound to happen. But as Phil Jackson once said, “You’re only a success for the moment you complete a successful act.” Fordham’s continuity will be a big part of what they achieve. The real question is where in the top four will they finish. My predicted top four —VCU, Saint Bonaventure, Dayton, and Fordham — can all win the conference for very different reasons. Can Fordham be in this race? I don’t see why they can’t (and won’t) be trying to go for it.