New coaches off to different kinds of starts in the Atlantic 10

Seldom does an entire conference see a “rebuilding year,” but when two flagship programs (VCU and Dayton) lose head their head coaches as well as strong classes of seniors, the entire league may take a dip.

That’s what we’re seeing this year, but not necessarily just because VCU and Dayton aren’t up to their normal standards. Teams like Richmond, George Mason, Davidson and George Washington have taken slight steps back. This has allowed La Salle, Massachusetts, and most notably, Duquesne, to emerge as unexpected winners in games that would normally go to the opposition in previous years.

When looking at the A-10 this year, it’s important to note how good each new head coach has been, especially given the weapons, are lack thereof, that he has at his disposal. Let’s break down each of the 4 new coaches and grade their performances in the league thus far.

Keith Dambrot, Duquesne, A+

I’ll say this: I couldn’t expect Dambrot to have done any better thus far given what he has at his disposal. We’re talking about a team that lost a strong class of seniors as well as stud freshman Isiaha Mike and others to the transfer market. Dambrot almost lost sophomore Mike Lewis II, but the up-and-coming guard decided to stay put with the Dukes; he’s turned out to be one of the backbones for Keith Dambrot in his first season at Duquesne.

So here comes Keith Dambrot from Akron, a guy that had little to work with coming in, a plethora of freshmen with no collegiate experience, and a team that was picked to finish 14th in the conference. Fast forward to the start of 2018, and Keith has Duquesne tied atop the A-10 standings with Rhode Island at 3-0. It’s tough to think of a much better scenario if you’re a fan of Duquesne.

The most exciting part about watching Duquesne this year may not be the players themselves; Keith Dambrot is always fired up on the sideline, no matter what the score or whether or not things are going his way. He coaches with energy that is contagious, and you can tell his players have bought in. Not just that, but Duquesne has a rising star in Eric Williams Jr., a freshman that’s averaging 14.7 points and 9.9 rebounds a game. Talk about the future of this program, Duquesne has future stars as well as a coach who is getting wins in A-10 play.

Matt McCall, Massachusetts, A

Matt McCall has been a program favorite since stepping foot on campus, and there’s good reason for that. His success on the basketball court has come during a season where Massachusetts has had to get, well, creative. Following the loss of Jaylen Brantley prior to the start of the season, McCall had fewer than 10 players to work with on his roster, and that includes walk-ons. It’s now January, and the Minutemen have secured wins over Georgia, Providence, and Dayton in the always-daunting UD Arena.

To be fair, McCall and company have had their fair share of head-scratching losses as well. At home against George Mason and on the road against Quinnipiac were tough pills to swallow. Then again, we have to keep in mind the limitations of this team, and the Minutemen were picked to finish 12th but have certainly looked more talented than 12th throughout the 2017-18 season. Credit Matt McCall for getting crafty, making different lineups work, and finding ways to secure some big wins. Next year will be a lot of fun in Amherst.

Mike Rhoades, VCU, B+

All things considered, I’ve really come to like Mike Rhoades and what he’s doing in his first year as VCU’s head coach. Maybe I’m being a bit generous with this grade, but the Rams have not been short on talent since Rhoades has arrived. He’s helped immensely on the recruiting trail, and of course, bringing along stud point guard Marcus Evans from Rice will certainly be a plus for VCU come the 2018-19 season.

The Rams have come close to winning some big games, but OOC play was definitely a bit frustrating for Ram fans. Having opportunities to beat Texas, Michigan, Marquette, and Virginia don’t come around too often, and failing to grad a big win before conference play makes VCU’s path to an at-large windy and difficult. However, Rhoades has not slipped up at all, and his recent win over La Salle was a big step forward for this program. The Rams did not want to leave Philly 0-2, and it looked like that might be the case following a tough first half in Gola Arena. VCU’s head coach made halftime adjustments though, and the Rams pulled out a pretty big victory.

Anthony Grant, Dayton, D+

My harsh grade for Anthony Grant comes not because he hasn’t produced wins (that’s going to happen in a year after losing Scoochie Smith, Kendall Pollard, Kyle Davis, and Charles Cooke), but rather because he just hasn’t made smart decisions during games this year. As a head coach, your job is to play the right players and draw up winning plays. Anthony Grant has failed to do both on multiple occasions. Albeit, Dayton has had some great halves of basketball this year, but then it goes away from what’s working and starts losing any sort of lead.

Xeyrius Williams, likely Dayton’s most highly-touted player heading into the season, has seen a lot of time on the bench this year, and Josh Cunningham, the guy who has become Dayton’s best player, isn’t touching the ball nearly as often. Dayton has become a “live and die by the three” type team this year, and that really has never been its identity. 34.3% of UD’s points have been from three pointers this year (99th nationally), and the Flyers haven’t ranked in the top 100 in that metric since the 2011-12 season (and mind you, Archie Miller’s Dayton teams have never really been “big” either).

So while Dayton has gotten good contributions from its freshmen and has seen some signs of improvement as the season has progressed, it’s going to need some help from its coach to avoid a losing record in conference play. To me, that means fewer guys just standing around the three point line and more looks inside. If Cunningham looks to establish himself early and often in the post, the Flyers can start cutting to the hoop and making easier baskets. I believe Anthony Grant will turn things around, but it’s been a rocky start.

Grant Labedz is a college basketball superfan who loves the entire sport but definitely has favorites in the A-10 and the Big Ten. He has written for ...