Sleepers: The best of the worst
The beauty of the offseason is that it’s that wonderful time of year when programs get to dream. As the year distances itself from March, hope builds in fans like a drug. New hires, transfers and recruits give a sense of optimism to all programs, especially those who have seen better times, an unfortunate temporary high that will soon give way to the harsh realities of non-conference play.
This offseason has had no shortage of drama for the Atlantic 10, from coaching hires to high-level transfers, there will be a slew of new faces across the conference, but for the sake of this article, we’ll focus on those in the bottom half of the conference.
To begin, I’ve gone ahead and ranked my clear top-seven, in no particular order. Those teams include (in alphabetical order as to not give away those rankings) Davidson, Dayton, GW, Rhode Island, Richmond, St. Bonaventure, and VCU. That is coincidentally the top-seven from last season as well as the seven teams I am most comfortable with finishing at least within the top-eight this season.
As for the rest, my rankings of the best of the worst are as follows:
Editor’s note: These rankings are based off talent/statistics and not schedule setup (due to the A-10’s unbalanced schedule). I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the final standings from 8-14 looks quite different from this, but I think in terms of RPI and kenpom ranking, this would be my best guess at the bottom half of the conference.
No.8 – SAINT JOSEPH’S
The Hawks return the vast majority of their production including A-10 Player of the Year worthy, DeAndre Bembry. Phil Martelli’s squad finished 10th last season but should benefit by massive turnover at UMass and La Salle, two teams that finished ahead of them. SJU was a roller coaster ride last season, beating Davidson only to suffer a loss to SLU immediately after, a head-scratching trend they would later repeat by upsetting Rhode Island before losing to Fordham in their following game. If these guys could shoot at all they’d be a much better team, but ranking 313th nationally (out of 351 teams) in effective field goal percentage, it’s hard to bet any money on that happening. Luckily they play a bit of defense so if the shots start to fall the Hawks could be on the rise, if only so slightly. But here’s the really good news: I voted Davidson No.8 in my bloggers poll last season and they won the regular season title, so congratulations ahead of time, Saint Joseph’s!
No.9 – DUQUESNE
Duquesne is basically the opposite of Saint Joseph’s and what I call “Davidson Lite”, meaning all offense with next to no defense. Here’s the thing about Duquesne that could give Dukes fans hope: they have a top-100 efficient offense (No.72 to be precise). The problem is defensively they are even worse than Saint Joseph’s, ranking 322 nationally this past season. But when you really look at Duquesne’s conference schedule last season you can maybe start to see what I see. They had one bad loss (at Saint Louis), a loss they would redeem twice later in the season including in the A-10 tournament and even threw in some spoiler wins over George Washington and Dayton. Against teams that return most of their players among this group, they faired very well, going 5-1 against everyone outside of La Salle and UMass (meaning SLU, Mason, Saint Joseph’s and Fordham), finishing their final 12 games of the season at 6-6. I think they get better because La Salle and UMass get worse.
No.10 – FORDHAM
Call me crazy, but I think the Rams might have fired Tom Pecora one year too soon (after I spent all last season saying why he should be fired). Had Pecora stayed, Eric Paschall might have transferred anyway but my guess says that’s probably not the case and Tom P. gets one more year with some real promising young talent. Either way, the Rams nearly knocked VCU out of last season’s A-10 tourney without Paschall’s services, actually leading that game with just over four minutes to play. Fordham won five of their last 11 games, with only one loss coming to a team I predict finishes below seventh this year (UMass). I love Christian Sengfelder but he’ll need more efficient play from guard Jon Severe (who’s 39.1% EFG% shouldn’t be allowed in D1 basketball) if he, Mandell Thomas and Co. want to make any real serious improvement over what’s been a consistently bad team.
No.11 – GEORGE MASON
Crazy right? George Mason at No.11? Ahead of UMass and La Salle? Is this dude crazy? Yes, yes I am (side note: they did beat La Salle last season and lost to UMass by just 4 points, so not all that ridiculous). And you know what else is crazy? It’s been 10 years since George Mason’s Final 4 season, and I think because of that — and the mystical college basketball power that comes with that — combined with Shevon Thompson, Jalen Jenkins, whatever all those other guys are called and whoever that new coach is (just kidding, I know his name is Dave Paulsen, and I know he’s a damn good coach, unlike Paul Hewitt who drove that program into the toilet), they are in for a BIG season…11th in the Atlantic 10! Glory days ahead!
No.12 – LA SALLE
This is tough and I had originally leaned UMass at this spot (by this point both teams’ fans will hate me so I suppose that’s a moot point) but will give the Explorers the Jordan Price bump. Maybe I eventually regret that but throw La Salle here based on an overall team defense that ranked 22nd nationally this past season — hard to overlook. That said, the losses of Jarrell Wright and Steve Zack are huge, not to mention Khalid Lewis and DJ Peterson for a combined production loss of 60 of La Salle’s 66 points in their A-10 tournament loss to Davidson. I know folks love Jordan Price but I have a very hard time believing he can carry a team any better than DeAndre Bembry could last season (Hawks finished 10th). They’ll be much improved the following season once a new crop of transfers becomes eligible but that does them no good during the 2015-16 campaign.
No.13 – UMASS
The good news is Derek Kellog has been recruiting his tits off, landing three total ESPN four-star recruits over the 2015 and 2016 recruiting classes, including the No.62 overall ranked player in the 2016 class, DeJon Jarreau. But like La Salle, that won’t help them this much after losing so much production including three of their top-four scorers (including their top-two) and three of their top-four rebounders (top-two again). I love Donte Clarke and Trey Davis but am still incredibly worried about losing so much talented beef down low. The Minutemen went from a 24-win team two seasons ago to a 17-win team after losing Chaz Williams, Sampson Carter and Raphiael Putney. I just can’t see them improving after losing three more of the best pieces off that team with the departures of Cady Lalanne, Derrick Gordon and Maxie Esho. They’ll be back, but I’ll be very surprised if it’s this upcoming season.
No.14 – SAINT LOUIS
Sorry Billiken fans, but I see another rough year ahead for SLU. You like to see improvement with a young team but Jim Crews’ squad lost their last four games of the 2014-15 regular season by an average margin of victory of 18.25 points, and that includes a 28-point home loss to Paul Hewitt’s George Mason (yikes!). They followed that up with a first round A-10 tournament loss to Duquesne. That ain’t growth. SLU’s offense was horrific last season (317th nationally) and their defense dropped from seventh nationally the 2013-14 season to 186th this past year. In conference play SLU checked in at dead last in offensive efficiency and in 13th on defense, just ahead of Duquesne who had the league’s fourth most efficient offense in A-10 play. SLU will have just one senior on this season’s roster and I just don’t see them climbing out of the cellar this year or anytime soon.