Five breakout candidates next season and the players poised to go from good to great
The Atlantic 10 returns an army of known commodities in what looks to be another big season for the conference. A total of 10 All-Conference selections return, 12 if you include the All-Defensive team. Bembry, Gibbs, Price and friends will no doubt fill up the stat sheet starting this November, but what makes college hoops so fun is the attrition that not only forces us to say farewell to some fan favorites, but also hello to some stars in the making.
Below are a list of players I think are capable of having breakout seasons next year, as well as five players I think are poised to make the leap from good to great in next year’s A-10.
Donte Clark (UMass) – Clarke started 18 games for the Minutemen as a freshman and really finished the season strong, averaging 14.4 points over UMass’ last five contests including a 23-point performance in a season-ending A-10 tourney loss to La Salle. Derek Kellogg’s squad loses a TON of production including leading scorers Cady Lalanne and Maxie Esho, as well as surprise transfer, Derrick Gordon, the Minutemen’s fourth leading scorer. That’s a whole lot of points to replace leaving opportunity galore for Clark and teammate, Trey Davis. If it’s true players make their biggest jump from their freshman to sophomore season, expect big things from the Charlotte, NC native.
Charles Cooke (Dayton) – The Flyers will look to replace do-it-all scorer Jordan Sibert on a talented roster that will be led by the frontcourt tandem of Pollard and Pierre. The 6’5/6’6-ish guard from Trenton, NJ averaged over 14 points in his final season with the Dukes including a 20-point performance (all-be-it on a “high volume” night) against the Richmond Spiders. Cooke was a decent shooter at JMU but was able to boost his offense by relentlessly attacking the basket where he did a great job of getting to the line for the free ones needed to boost his true shooting percentage to a respectable 52.8%. Realistically the biggest breakout player on Dayton’s roster may be the guy brining up the ball for Cooke, returning point guard Scoochie Smith, but for that true surprise player vibe I’ll opt for the completely unknown to most A-10 fans and go with Cooke (yes, a different definition of “surprise”…get over it).
Justin Tillman (VCU) – Shaka Smart’s departure from VCU certainly sounds like a major loss for the Atlantic 10 but it could prove to be a blessing in disguise for Justin Tillman and fellow promising young big, Mike Gilmore, both of who were top-100 players out of high school. The reality is this: Shaka Smart loved small ball at VCU. Six (SIX!) traditional bigs transferred from VCU during Smart’s six seasons including four over the past three years. Even Wake Forest transfer, Jamie Skeen, who would go on to earn All-NCAA Tournament honors during VCU’s Final 4 run, averaged just 20.7 points per contest the previous season at VCU as a redshirt junior due to the presence of star center, Larry Sanders. Smart is gone, and as odd as it sounds, that could result in a major opportunity for Tillman who averaged just 12.3 minutes this past season as a freshmen. While he was in he was quite efficient however and posted an advanced analytics stat line that was virtually identical to Hassan Martin’s freshman numbers, a season that resulted in Martin being selected to the A-10’s All-Rookie team. I see so much Hassan Martin in Justin Tillman and expect a big sophomore season for Tillman under new Rams head coach, Will Wade.
Mike Gilmore (VCU) – See above. Will Wade has reportedly built a strong bond with the former ESPN No.77 2014 recruit and I expect will take the cover off this talent so he can take him for a spin around the A-10 neighborhood next season. Gilmore played a total of 157 minutes as a freshman under Smart but I think that changes in a big way next season. While he was in however he shot over 61% inside the arc and was one of the better rebounders in the conference defensively, up there with the likes of Lalanne, Thompson, Ndoye and Martin. I think realistically had Gilmore signed with most other A-10 squads he would have been a 2015 All-Rookie selection, but under the small-ball loving Smart really got buried on the bench in favor of four-guard lineups. Expect to see more Gilmore and Tillman alongside Mo Alie-Cox for next year’s Rams.
Jarvis Garrett (Rhode Island) – There are a handful of Rhody Rams to choose from to have breakout 2015-16 A-10 campaigns but I’m going with perhaps the deepest sleeper of the serious contenders by picking Garrett, 1) because that’s a little more fun for me and 2) dude looked really good as the season progressed. Odd stat but one worth noting: Garrett is the only returning Rhody Ram who had a higher assist rate than turnover rate. That will get you minutes and late in the season that’s exactly what Garrett got, averaging 34 minutes per contest through the month of March. During that time Garrett had 28 assists to just 11 turnovers for an 8.5 ppg, 4.7 apg line. If Rhody can improve a little on their 14th-placed A-10 three-point shooting offense, I like where that takes Garrett’s numbers during his sophomore campaign.
KNOWN COMMODITIES ABOUT TO BECOME A-10 FAMOUS
TJ Cline (Richmond) – If you’ve read this blog or our tweets the last few months you’ve probably gathered we are big TJ Cline fans. Last year he ranked tops on his team in effective field goal percentage and second in assist rate, which is why the guy makes the Spiders so much more dangerous offensively when he’s on the floor. At 6’8 240 Cline still managed to hit over 38% of his 129 three-pointers while connecting on over 60% of his attempts inside the arc, and that was during just his first season of Atlantic 10 play. Cline is a First-Team type of teammate and a key piece in Richmond’s march toward the top of the conference.
Dion Wright (St. Bonaventure) – St. Bonaventure actually led Dayton at the half in last year’s A-10 tournament before falling 75-71. Marcus Posley did Marcus Posley things by posting an impressive 26 points in that one but Wright was right there with him with 24 of his own on 10-11 shooting. As a junior his 13.5 ppg weren’t enough to grab A-10 All-Conference honors but I think a tough Bona team next year will wake people up to just how good this guy is. Fun stat: Wright shot over 60% from the field in 10 of his last 13 contests including a combined 72.5% (on 40 attempts) his final four games of the season. Yo!
Jordan Barham (Davidson) – 120.3 offensive rating (third in the A-10 last season behind teammates Kalinoski and Gibbs), 10th in the A-10 in defensive rebound percentage, seventh on the offensive rebound percentage, hit a ridiculous 59% from the field including 47% of his three-point attempts (all-be-it just 15 of em, but still…), yet we somehow never hear about him. I mean, isn’t that basically every coach’s dream? Jordan Barham, if you’re reading this, know that tonight Bob McKillop is laying next to Mrs. Bob McKillop in just a Steph Curry jersey and some boxer shorts (I’d imagine), dreaming about you and players like you.
Scoochie Smith (Dayton) – Scoochie Man took a big step forward last season including in March, finishing his 2014-15 campaign with a 16-point, 5-rebound, 4-assist line as the Flyers came up just short against Oklahoma. He’ll be the floor leader for a Dayton team that should compete for an A-10 title and with that a serious All-Conference candidate, one of at least three for next year’s Dayton Flyers squad.
Shawndre Jones (Richmond) – Last year’s Sixth Man of the Year will look to carry on the tradition of what has been a string of great guards for the Spiders when taking over for the graduated Kendall Anthony next season. As a sophomore Jones averaged 10.3 points and shot a stellar 37.6% from long range and will step into the role as UofR’s go-to guard now that Kendall Anthony and his 455 field goal attempts are headed elsewhere. Jones did a solid job of getting shots up last season but could see his numbers soar on what should be a very good Richmond team. I’ll be shocked if he averages less than 15 points next season, and on a team that should compete for a top-four spot, those types of numbers will make you a lot of friends on campus.