Just over a week ago I released my rankings of the “Best of the Worst”, taking a look at who I think will finish ranked 8-14 in this year’s Atlantic 10. Today I’ll be looking at the top half of the conference, but first, to recap teams 8-14.
8. Saint Joseph’s
11. George Mason
12. La Salle
14. Saint Louis
The biggest question marks of that group to me are La Salle, Fordham and George Mason. I think La Salle could finish anywhere from 8th to 13th, predicting that the frontcourt losses will really cause them to struggle after losing talented guard after talented guard the last few seasons. Dr. John Giannini’s squad should look at lot more like his Sweet 16 Explorers in style but I’m not sure they have anywhere near the level of talent to replicate that magical season, and therefor lean super pessimist in my ranking of the Explorers. On paper quite frankly there just isn’t much there in terms of proven production. Even the highly-rated Jordan Price worries me as a bit of an inconsistent volume guy who will now enjoy being the absolute main focus of opposing defenses. Hard to believe I am also a little too high on Fordham and George Mason, ranking them just 10th and 11th, but I guess I’m rolling the dice on what I think are some teams with decent potential this season (meaning potential to not finish in last). I encourage you to read my breakdown’s on both of them to see what exactly it is I’m smoking when it comes to my rankings of the Rams and Patriots.
On to the best…
No.1 – DAVIDSON
I honestly go back and forth on who’s really the best team heading into this season. I think truth-be-told all of Davidson, Rhode Island and a Dayton team WITH Dyshawn Pierre belong in this discussion while VCU and Richmond could be argued for the honor as well. Some think GW belongs in that discussion as well but I’ll get to my opinion on that later. So for now I gotta put last season’s regular season champs back at No.1. Yes, they fizzled in their last two games, getting absolutely ran out of the gym by both VCU and Iowa — and those games were after avoiding an upset loss at the hands of the La Salle Explorers — but I just really like what Davidson returns which is a ton of players who can all shoot the hell out of the ball. Tyler Kalinoski is obviously a big loss but even with that Davidson still returns a total of NINE players who had o-ratings of 100 or higher last season (let’s hope they play D this year as well). Davidson will also get Jake Belford back, a 6’9 piece to the Wildcat puzzle that has connected on 64% of his two-point attempts and 43% of his three-point attempts his past two seasons on the court — Belford had one 20-point game in his six games on the court last season and scored 10 points in 21 minutes at North Carolina. This will also be the Cats second season adjusting to this level of play which leads me to be they’ll be just as wild as always.
No.2 – RHODE ISLAND
LOVE the Rams, love em. They could just as easily be No.1 but I’ll let them start the season for me at No.2 because yes, the Rams lose some pretty decent players as well and I’m not sure those losses are being weighted quite as much as other losses around the league. Matthews, Martin and Terrell have the talent to lead this team to a title but also know that TJ Buchanan averaged 11 points for the Rams in their three kenpom top-100 wins last season and just five points in their eight top-100 loses. He was obviously more important to that team than just the stats as well. Gilvydas Biruta might be leaving Kingston as a bit of an underrated loss also, a player who averaged 8.1 points in just over 20 minutes per contest and checked in second on URI’s team in true shooting percentage (59.1%) and offensive rating (109.5), just behind Hassan Martin in both categories. That said, these guys are going to be damn tough and the scariest thing is they’ll basically return everyone the following year as well. They also added a serious deep threat in Four McGlynn, which address a major need from last season. Rhode Island will also benefit from an unbalanced A-10 schedule with home-and-homes against a gutted UMass team, a Saint Joseph’s squad looking to get back above .500 in conference, a middle-of-the-pack La Salle team that loses a ton of production including their beastly frontcourt duo of Zack and Wright, a Fordham team that finished 4-10 last season before losing their best player and their coach, and Dayton. In other words that should be eight very winnable Atlantic 10 games right off the bat whereas teams like Davidson, Richmond, VCU and GW all have to beat up on each other twice each season. Talent + favorable schedule = possible or even a likely A-10 regular season title, especially if Dayton loses Dyshawn Pierre. But I think if you look at RPI or kenpom ranking at the end of this season, Rhody probably checks in at No.2 behind Davidson.
There are two Dayton teams to rank this preseason. Dayton with Dyshawn Pierre is definitely a top-three team, maybe even the best team in this conference. However, if Pierre goes Dez Wells on the Flyers after being suspended for the first semester from the University without feeling he really received due process, that could drop the Flyers considerably. Assuming he returns for conference play the Flyers duo of Pierre and Kendall Pollard with breakout star Scoochie Smith, tough defender Kyle Davis and deadeye shooter Darrell Davis (45.2% from deep as a freshman), I love what Archie Miller is bringing to this season. Even without Pierre the Flyers are a very tough team but I think losing both Jordan Sibert to graduation and Pierre to whatever happens with him would really hurt the Flyers season (hurt for them doesn’t mean they are a bad team, it means they might have a tough time getting back to the NCAA tournament). Hard to lose your top-two scorers in this competitive of a conference — not to mention your leading rebounder — and stay on top. My gut says however the Pierre takes the semester off then returns for his final semester as a college baller full of piss and vinegar and takes his anger out on the league.
The Spiders seem to be the team getting the least amount of respect from preseason voters, from what I’ve seen at least, checking in at No.7 recently on City of Basketball Love (that’s crazy talk if you ask me). My guess is that has to do with their losses, namely Kendall Anthony and Alonzo Nelson-Ododa. Starting with ANO, the Spiders actually improved without the shot-blocking big on the court last season, going 7-1 in his absence, the lone loss a head-scratching road overtime disappointment at George Mason. They did however make up for that with a double-digit road win at St. Bonaventure the following game, followed by homes wins over both George Washington and VCU after that. They then went on to win at both Saint Joseph’s and UMass after that, then lost to VCU by three in their opening A-10 tournament game, a game Nelson-Ododa made he return in for a 0-point, 11-minute performance. Now moving on to Anthony. There’s no mistaking just how crucial he was to Richmond throughout his career, but the same could have been said for Cedrick Lindsay before him, Darien Brothers before Lindsay, Kevin Anderson before Brothers and David Gonzalvez before Anderson. Fact is Mooney always seems to have a breakout guard in waiting. If I may put my dork hat on for a second with a timely Star Wars comparison, think of Spider guards like Sith Lords, there’s always two…one master and one apprentice. This year it’s ShawnDre’ Jones’ time to play master while DeMonte Buckingham awaits in the Spiders 2016 recruiting class as an even scarier apprentice.
I’ll start my spiel on on VCU with a quick reminder: the Rams active roster includes four former top-100 high school recruits (Gilmore, Tillman, Burgess and Johnson), which is tops in the Atlantic 10. That doesn’t include Mo Alie-Cox, a 2015 Atlantic 10 All-Tournament selection or Korey Billbury, a guy who averaged over 14.4 points his past two seasons, not as a promising high school recruit, but as a D1 player going up against real college basketball players. Throw in some former 4-stars like JeQuan Lewis and incoming freshman Jonathan Nwankwo, and some other talented options and basically that roster is much more talented that people seem to realize, and that basically goes all the way down the roster (VCU has two top-100 freshman average under 13 minutes per contest last season). The Rams bring Will Wade back to Broad St. after taking UT Chattanooga from loser to winner, earning 2014 SoCon Coach of the Year honors along the way, a proven success as an assistant on VCU’s Final 4 team (Smart’s first hire at VCU) and as a head coach. The losses of Treveon Graham and Briante Weber are big on the court, but don’t forget VCU won four consecutive games in Brooklyn without Weber to win the Atlantic 10 title, taking out Richmond, Davidson and Dayton along the way, three teams that will be predicted to finish at the top of this year’s A-10. Yes, there are a lot of new pieces, but I caution against sleeping on the champs.
No.6 GEORGE WASHINGTON
Somehow I’m the jerk for ranking these guys 6th (that ain’t bad in this conference!). The thing for me really is I think GW is getting a preseason rankings bump simply for returning a large amount of players that went 10-8 last season. The Colonials certainly had a nice season, picking up a huge non-conference win over Wichita State and a promising road win over Pittsburgh in last year’s NIT, but they also went 2-7 against last year’s top-6 (currently this season’s preseason top-6), their two wins coming at home and in overtime, their losses coming in a 10.7-point average margin of defeat (they also lost to Duquesne by 16 points, which should never happen to any team who collects an official preseason first-place vote). They won’t be helped by their A-10 South schedule and those home-and-homes against Davidson (who swept them last year), Richmond (who they split with last year) and VCU (who beat them by 24 and 13 points last sesaon) and I’m very curious to see how they do without the services of second-leading scorer, Kethan Savage, one of the newest additions to the Butler Bulldogs. Wake Forest transfer Tyler Cavanaugh will hope to make a difference for the Colonials, a player that does a great job of drawing fouls for easy buckets at the stripe.
No.7 ST. BONAVENTURE
Marcus Posley, Dion Wright, Jaylen Adams. I love that trio and their ability to keep St. Bonaventure in the top half of the conference. I hate that the Bonnies and Atlantic 10 will be without Youssou Ndoye, all-around nice guy and shot-blocking machine, but if teams are getting bonus points for returning strong players you have to really reward Bonaventure for returning their top-two scorers in Posley (16.7) and Wright (13.5). I will say however that I think they go no higher than seventh and could realistically drop a few spots lower than that. The Bonnies really struggled with consistency last season, losing to the likes of Delaware and Maryland Eastern Shore early before picking up back-to-back wins over VCU and Davidson later in the season. Team Bona hit a bit of a hot streak late however to head into this season trending somewhat upward but did so against bottom-half teams. They did however nearly knock off A-10 runner-up Dayton, actually leading the Flyers with under two minutes to play before the Jordan Sibert show hit Brooklyn and ended the Bonnies season. I expect a very middle-of-the-pack year from the Bonnies but they’ll be a land mine for any team that has to play them and a ton of fun to watch.