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Atlantic 10 conference opener reactions

The opening Saturday of A-10 play was a day of surprises and affirmations for the league. The teams at the top generally ran the table, but the middle-of-the-pack is a cluster of question marks. Outside of St. Bonaventure and Rhode Island, and probably VCU, there is no Atlantic 10 team that is guaranteed to win 10 or 11 games before heading to Washington D.C. We’re in for an interesting season; here’s a look at some of yesterday’s highlights.

VCU has a chance to run away from the pack

At the start of the season, I wasn’t sure what to expect from VCU, and I’m still not entirely positive. However, I’m starting to see the Rams as the clear #3 in the conference, and its schedule really sets up favorably.

The Rams get to face Rhode Island and St. Bonaventure at home without returning to either site. On top of that, VCU gets to face Fordham, George Mason, Dayton, George Washington, and Richmond twice, and to be frank, every one of those teams is beatable on its home floor this season. VCU should run away from the middle of the pack and could finish with 12 or 13 conference wins, maybe even more.

What I’ve been most impressed with when it comes to VCU is how Justin Tillman has been able to exceed what were already very lofty expectations. The senior’s last few games have been absolutely incredible. Putting up 23 points and 14 rebounds against Fordham on Saturday was just the start to what should be an incredible Atlantic 10 season for the big man. Just look at his stats through VCU’s last 8 games.

That is most definitely “not bad.” Even further, one of the most surprising developments this season has been Tillman’s long range shot. He’s now shooting 47.2% from three point range, and that’s while making 17 on the year. This adds a completely different element to VCU’s offense. Tillman can now stretch the defense and force opposing bigs out to the perimeter. Watch how late Fordham is to recover when it finds out Justin Tillman is spotting up for a three. No one puts a hand in his face, and he knocks the shot down with ease.

Where will Dayton end up?

I get it. Dayton basketball has been a frustrating roller coaster this year, and even so, there haven’t been too many highs to ride. For one, young guys just need time to assimilate to college hoops. Anthony Grant has a roster of freshmen that are playing serious minutes and trying to get the feel for college hoops.

But at the same time, I’ve been kind of shocked with Grant’s decision-making as head coach. Xeyrius Williams, who, granted, hasn’t been having a great season, saw just 6 minutes of playing time against Duquesne yesterday. And out of the blue, AG puts walk-on Joey Gruden in the game who turns the ball over once and is unable to keep pace on defensive. The logic just isn’t quite there.

Dayton could end up being OK, but damn it, Anthony Grant needs to play his best players, even when they’re riding slight slumps. Here’s the most amazing stat to me: Josh Cunningham is only being utilized in 23.2% of possessions this season. For a guy that has a top 200 offensive rating in the nation, UD has to get him the ball and let him go to work. To put that in context, Trey Landers is involved in 19.0% of possessions this season.

La Salle is my sleeper pick in the Atlantic 10

The Explorers crashed Saint Louis on Saturday, and they did so without the help of B.J. Johnson. While the Billikens have their own roster limitations, it was incredible to see the Explorers get a dominating 83-60 win without one of the league’s best players. Pookie Powell stepped up big time, scoring 28 points, and even more so, Amar Stukes came in clutch with 20 points of his own.

In a league where the 4 spot looks wide-open, I might not sleep on La Salle to get the double-bye in Washington D.C. come March. This team has its 2 superstars, but it has also gotten surprisingly good contributions from a number of different players. I really like what this team has been able to put together.

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