Remember when both George Mason and UMass were 10-3 entering conference play? Optimistic fans saw each team as much-improved, both giving fans of their programs a reason to believe their squads were back and a legit contender in this year’s A-10 race. The pessimists around the league however questioned the strength of each’s schedule in accomplishing those records and urged a cautious outlook when projecting their Atlantic 10 play. Well, with each passing game and now against familiar competition, we learn more and more about each team. Below is both an optimistic and pessimistic look at the Atlantic 10, giving fans reason for both hope and caution as their teams navigate the A-10 season.
1 – RICHMOND (11-6, 5-0)
Half full: The last time Richmond was 5-0 in conference play was back in 1989 when Poison’s “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” and Bobby Brown’s “My Prerogative” were No.1 singles. The Spiders’ prerogative so far this season has been an earned first place start as the only undefeated team left in A-10 play after crosstown rival VCU fell at Davidson on the same day the Spiders defeated Saint Joseph’s on the road. That makes three road wins to start A-10 play for the Spiders, a team that has looked dominant in conference play at times (and sometimes not so dominate, often within the same game). Freshman De’Monte Buckingham has looked sensational during the Spiders’ run and is averaging 16.6 points per game in A-10 play. In short, not only is Richmond 5-0, they have very much looked the part of a top A-10 team, suggesting this is a trend that could continue. Of Richmond’s six losses, three were to top-50 teams in very competitive games. A five-point road loss at No.103 Bucknell seems pretty forgivable as does a tough three-point home loss to Old Dominion.
Half empty: Some of the numbers suggest Richmond is playing a bit above themselves and are due for a regression to mean. The Spiders are shooting 58.6% inside the arc in A-10, 4% above their season average (fairly on par) but are a red-hot 41.7% from downtown, about 8% better than their season three-point average. Richmond’s opposing A-10 defenses so far have all ranked 219th nationally or below in three-point defense with three of those teams ranking 299th or worse. Richmond’s next three opponents all rank in the top-100 in three-point D, so we could see that regression sooner rather than later. The Spiders have also only played one team so far that currently ranks in the top half of the A-10, that team being a 3-2 St. Bonaventure squad they hosted without A-10 POY candidate, Jaylen Adams. They also defeated Saint Joseph’s without leading scorer Shevar Newkirk who will miss the remainder of the season. They have also consistently been one of the worst rebounding teams in the A-10, which one of these nights could haunt them.
2 – DAYTON (13-4, 4-1)
Half full: For starters, Dayton is 13-4 with three of their four losses coming to top-100 teams, two of which were away from UD arena, the other being a home loss to kenpom No.17 St. Mary’s by four points. Despite playing both Rhode Island and La Salle, two of the league’s top offenses, the Flyers rank No.1 in the conference in defensive efficiency, suggesting they will be a long night for most A-10 teams they face this year. Of Dayton’s 13 remaining conference games, only five are against kenpom top-100 teams, two of those games being played at UD arena. Four of the Flyers’ next six games are also at home, three of those six being against sub-200 teams, meaning the Flyers could help push the pace for the race for first if they can take down Richmond on Thursday (Dayton plays a tough road game at VCU the following Friday). Here’s the reality for Dayton: they are one of the most talented teams, are experienced, have one of the best coaches and are off to a strong start despite playing the toughest schedule among A-10 contenders so far. Dayton should be your conference favorite.
Half empty: Question: Charles Cooke and Kendall Pollard, what do they have in common? Answer: They are Dayton’s two most used players (28.8% for Cooke and 25.5% for Pollard in terms of usage percentage) and both have had injury issues this season, missing a combined nine games between the two of them. Injuries aren’t new for Pollard or Dayton as a team. Pollard had offseason knee surgery and missed a total of six games last season. Cooke has dealt with both wrist and back issues already this season. Both played at least 29 minutes in Dayton’s Duquesne demolition, but if you are a Flyer fan you almost have come to expect key injuries since Archie Miller has taken over as head coach (Kyle Davis is currently day-to-day with a sprained ankle). The Flyers have also struggled offensively since A-10 play has begun, checking in at 10th in the conference in offensive efficiency. Combine that with shaky offensive performances against St. Mary’s, Vanderbilt, Northwestern and Vanderbilt (in other words, against most good teams Dayton has played this season) and you can understand nights like UD’s 55-point performance in a recent road loss at UMass.
2 – VCU (14-3, 4-1)
Half full: The Rams are one of just two A-10 teams currently ranking in the top-four in A-10 play in both offensive and defensive efficiency, joining crosstown rival Richmond in that distinction. It’s a balance that VCU has seen the majority of this season however and what makes them one of the more dangerous teams in Atlantic 10 play. And here’s a stat I absolutely love: VCU is getting 46.5% of their attempts at the rim this season. That’s an insanely high number (UMass is the next closest team to the Rams in that regard at 40.4% while most others hover around 35%). What I like about that is night in and night out the Rams are taking a ton of very high percentage shots and hitting 59.3% of those in the process. That’s a number that typically translates much easier on a nightly basis than a team that survives off a large amount of threes attempted. The Rams had won eight straight games before dropping a six-point loss at Davidson, looking dominant in the majority of their A-10 contests. VCU also has a proven track record of finding themselves toward the top of their conference, be it in the A-10 or CAA before that, so expecting more of the same this season comes natural.
Half empty: VCU has played five A-10 games and won four of them, but all four have come against sub-100 kenpom teams, teams that now all reside in the bottom half of the Atlantic 10. The Rams have lost their only top-100 A-10 game, a loss to Davidson. VCU’s schedule ramps up considerably starting next Sunday when the black and gold host a La Salle team playing some of the best basketball currently in the conference, an Explorer group hot off an impressive road win at Rhode Island. Following that, the Rams will host both Dayton and Richmond, then travel to St. Bonaventure to take on a St. Bonaventure team that in many ways will resemble the Davidson team that just handed Will Wade’s squad an L (assuming Jaylen Adams has returned by that point, which should be the case). It’s hard for VCU fans to enter that stretch with confidence as the Rams are now just 2-3 against the kenpom top-100. VCU also has a very tough finish to their A-10 schedule, with three of their final five contests coming on the road at Richmond, Rhode Island and Dayton. Realistically VCU will probably need to win four of their next five contests to have a chance at winning the A-10. That will be tough.
2 – LA SALLE (10-5, 4-1)
Half full: Let La Salle remind you of just how important personnel is to a basketball team and how much better a coach looks with the right players. Last season’s Explorers ranked 279th in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency and just a year later check in at No.25. That’s light switch improvement. Wanna win games? Get yourself some players. Winning with transfers has been the Dr. John special in Philly and this year’s transfer group is putting the ball in the basket at an impressive rate. Five Explorers have posted 20-point games this season and 6’9 South Carolina transfer Demetrius Henry may be the league’s best rebounder. Put that collection of talent together and you’ve got a team that went from cupcake a season ago to legit contender in Pittsburgh this upcoming March.
Half empty: La Salle’s collection of talent looks a bit like an all-star team at times in the sense that they look sensational on offense while often times playing zero defense. La Salle ranks 251st nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency and have been one of the worst three-point defending teams in the country. I also think the Explorers dependence on the three is somewhat worrisome. 40.3% of La Salle’s shots this season have been from behind the arc, a strategy that is fun to watch when it’s working but you know what they say: you live by the three, you die by the three. Combine that with a poor defense and that could equal the occasional head-scratcher loss.
5 – RHODE ISLAND (11-6, 3-2)
Half full: Statistically there is a lot to love about this team and you can’t help but drool at that roster when seeing it on paper. Dan Hurley has assembled one of the better collections of individual talents in the Atlantic 10 and has arguably the most talented starting five in the conference. Rhody currently ranks top-three in A-10 play in both offensive and defensive efficiency despite taking on two of the league’s best teams in Dayton and La Salle. The Rams own the league’s best non-conference win, a 76-71 defeat of Cincinnati and have no bad losses, all of their six losses coming to kenpom top-100 squads, five of which were outside of Kingston. URI is favored by Pomeroy to win all but one of their remaining A-10 conference games, a one-point underdog at Davidson.
Half empty: The Rams are currently 1-6 against the top-100 teams they’ve played including 0-2 in the A-10. They also nearly dropped a home game to UMass this past weekend, a matchup that’ll see a round 2 in Amherst later this season. It’s really hard to ignore the Rams’ struggles against the good teams they’ve played and as talented as that roster is, a top-four finish could end up being more difficult than previously predicted based off a two-loss A-10 start with the games they have yet to play (Pomeroy has Rhody, Richmond and La Salle all finishing at 12-6 in conference play with St. Bonaventure just behind at 11-7).
6 – ST. BONAVENTURE (11-6, 3-2)
Half full: Jaylen Adams and Matt Mobley. End of discussion. For the sake of readability however I’ll continue the discussion. The Bonnies have one of the A-10’s most explosive offenses led by Adams and Mobley, one of the best guard tandems in the country. Both have hit 40% of their threes through this point in the season and they have shot a combined 235 of those suckers. As long as they are both healthy (which clearly has not been the case) the Bonnies have a chance of knocking off any team in the Atlantic 10. Mark Schmidt’s squad also boasts one of the nation’s 100 most experienced teams, checking in at 99th nationally in experience, a stat most teams find rather helpful in tough games in tough conferences like the Atlantic 10. Also working in St. Bonaventure’s favor is a manageable schedule going forward. The Bonnies have two games against SLU remaining on the schedule, get two against a SJU team without leading scorer Shevar Newkirk, play Duquesne twice and finish their conference season with a home game against a UMass team they already beat by double-digits on the road. Of Bona’s five remaining top-100 contests, two will be at the Reilly Center, both against teams (VCU and La Salle) the Bonnies play just once this season. That advantage could come in handy against two teams the Bonnies hope to be competing for toward the top of the Atlantic 10 standings.
Half empty: The Bonnies have zero top-100 (kenpom) wins this season and have also dropped games to the likes of Cansius and Little Rock. In short, this year’s St. Bonaventure team hasn’t done much to suggest they are capable of competing for a top spot in this year’s Atlantic 10, meaning a top-four finish may be their best-case scenario and that could even be a stretch. Add in Jaylen Adams health and a defense prone to taking nights off and it’s hard to see this year’s Bonnies being a true contender. Their offense is as good as any in the conference, but it may have to be on every night to do real damage in conference play. That has not been the case through five games.
7 – DAVIDSON (9-7, 2-3)
Half full: Four A-10 teams currently check in at 2-3 in conference play, but it’s the Wildcats who outrank the group thanks to a No.81 kenpom ranking. The Wildcats just pulled off their biggest win of the season by taking out VCU in a 69-63 home win and will look to follow that up with another tough win in Philly against La Salle (easier said than done). Bob McKillop and Co. have been an improved defensive team statistically and have held eight teams to under 70 points so far this season, something they did just six times all of last season (a total of 33 games). Add an improved defense to an offense that features Jack Gibbs and Peyton Aldridge and you stand to win some games. Four of Davidson’s seven losses were to top-100 teams, three of which came to top-30 squads including Kansas and UNC that the Cats hung with for at least one half of play. All-in-all I just think there may be some reason to believe Davidson is better than their record suggests and a recent home win over VCU should no doubt catch the attention of every opposing coach they have yet to play.
Half empty: Yes, they beat VCU, but they also lost at home to Fordham. The Wildcats have already lost two A-10 home games, the other coming against a red-hot Richmond team. Their other loss came in a close one to a GW team that is just 1-4 in conference play, meaning two of the A-10’s 1-4 teams have their lone wins coming against Davidson. If you lose to those teams, you stand to also lose many games to the top of the league and likely the middle as well. The Cats not only have to play the three A-10 teams that have already beaten them one more time — two will be on the road — they also have road games yet to play at La Salle, VCU and against a tricky UMass team, host Dayton and play Rhode Island twice. Fuuuuuuuck that. I have them penciled in for an at best 9-9 A-10 finish, but quite possibly going 7-11. Split the difference and let’s just guess 8-10.