Thursday , Apr , 01 , 2010 C.Y. Ellis

College Basketball Preview – Atlantic 10 Conference

*** College Basketball Preview – Atlantic 10 Conference ***

The Sports Network

By Pat Taggart, College Basketball Staff Writer

OUTLOOK: Sometimes conferences expand simply to add programs, as the move is
more about quantity than quality. That is not the case with the Atlantic 10,
however, as one of its new teams, Charlotte, comes in as the favorite to win
the league title. The same can’t be said for fellow newcomer Saint Louis,
although the Billikens have had solid seasons in the not-so-distance past and
could do well in the new setting. George Washington and Xavier are both strong
picks to reach the NCAA Tournament, while Philly neighbors Temple and Saint
Joseph’s always seem to finish near the top of the standings regardless of the
roster. Dayton has been an A-10 power in recent years, and UMass has a couple
of big-time performers in the fold. Fordham is a team that has served as a
perennial doormat, but the program is clearly heading in the right direction.
The same can’t be said for La Salle, which has brought in a poor recruiting
class. Teams such as Richmond, Rhode Island and Duquesne figure to struggle
this season, but all three appear to be in better shape than St. Bonaventure,
which shows no sign of leaving the basement any time soon. Don’t be surprised
if at least four teams from this conference reach the Big Dance.

CONFERENCE CHAMPION: Charlotte

PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. Charlotte; 2. George Washington; 3. Xavier; 4.
Saint Joseph’s; 5. Temple; 6. Massachusetts; 7. Dayton; 8. Richmond; 9.
Fordham ; 10. La Salle; 11. Saint Louis; 12. Rhode Island; 13. Duquesne; 14.
St. Bonaventure.

TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:

CHARLOTTE: The 49ers won 21 games last season and jumped out to a big lead
over NC State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. After allowing that
advantage to slip away, players such as Curtis Withers are undoubtedly eager
to get back to the tourney. Withers is a senior power forward who averaged
18.0 ppg and 8.1 rpg a year ago, and he has to be considered one of the
favorites to capture A-10 Player of the Year honors this season. The 6-8, 245-
pound bruiser is special because of his ability to score effectively both
inside and from out on the perimeter, skills that have him on all NBA radars.
The only other returning starter for the club is Mitchell Baldwin, a solid
guard who will be asked to increase his scoring output this season. De’Angelo
Alexander, an Oklahoma transfer, is slated to start at guard, and Leemire
Goldwire will be the other backcourt starter. If senior E.J. Drayton proves to
be a solid complement to Withers on the front line, Charlotte will benefit
tremendously.

GEORGE WASHINGTON: The best front line in the A-10 may reside at George
Washington, as Pops-Mensah Bonsu, Mike Hall and Omar Williams combine to make
one formidable unit. Mensah-Bonsu wisely decided to return to school after
flirting with the NBA, and he wants to prove that he can sustain the
outstanding play that he exhibited early in 2004-05 for this entire season. He
averaged 12.6 ppg a year ago, and Hall added 10.6 ppg and 8.0 rpg to the mix.
As for Williams, he posted 9.5 ppg and is certainly capable of improving that
number. Carl Elliot brings a distributor to the backcourt, and J.R. Pinnock
the only non-returning starter mentioned, is actually the top returning scorer
with 13.4 ppg. Last season, the Colonials were the surprise of the league (and
the nation for a while), but this group has gone from hunter to hunted. Now
it’s time for Karl Hobbs and his team to prove that they are ready for the
challenge.

XAVIER: Xavier has been a regular in the NCAA Tournament in the recent past,
so the fact that the squad did not even earn an NIT berth a year ago was
surprising. Youth can be blamed for the down season, but the good news is that
the eight top scorers for the Musketeers are back in the fold. Four are
double-digit performers, including explosive sophomore guard Stanley Burrell.
As a rookie, the 6-3 wing player racked up 12.7 ppg and proved capable of
scoring in a variety of ways. Dedrick Finn is the club’s playmaker, and he
makes up for a lack of size with tremendous quickness. Up front, the trio of
Justin Cage, Brian Thornton and Justin Doellman are capable of rivaling the
group over at GW. Thornton has battled injury but is one of the top frontcourt
performers in the league when healthy. Cage posted 11.1 ppg on 57.4 percent
shooting from the floor last season, and Doellman added 10.9 ppg despite his
39.6 percent efficiency from the field. Last season, the Musketeers were
beaten by the likes of Fordham and La Salle. Don’t expect the same this year.

SAINT JOSEPH’S: Dwayne Jones is gone. So is Pat Carroll. Without a strong
interior presence or a proven scorer, Saint Joseph’s has many questions to
answer as this season begins. But Phil Martelli is still running the program,
so expecting a major drop-off by the Hawks would be foolish. Dwayne Lee brings
stability to the backcourt, as he will run the team with poise and confidence.
Chet Stachitas averaged 10.8 ppg a year ago on nearly 40 percent shooting from
behind the arc, and it will be interesting to see if he can exceed that level
of production with constant hounding by defenders. Players such as Robert
Ferguson, Abdulai Jalloh and Ahmad Nivins have proven nothing but now have the
opportunity to shine. The club will likely favor a slower game this season
than in recent years, but an emphasis on relentless defense won’t change.

TEMPLE: There is no player in the league who means more to his team than Mardy
Collins, the Temple standout who led his club in scoring, rebounding, assists
and steals in 2004-05. Back for his senior year, the 6-6 combo guard is an
obvious candidate for A-10 Player of the Year honors, but his goal of reaching
the NCAA Tournament will depend on the contributions of his teammates. Center
Wayne Marshall has the size to dominate (6-11, 285), but he developed slowly
last year and now must emerge in this, his junior season. Forward Mark Tyndale
averaged 12.5 ppg and 5.5 rpg as a freshman and is the man most likely to
serve as the frontcourt’s top offensive option. Dustin Salisberry shot under
60 percent from the foul line last season, an unacceptable percentage for a
starting guard. Collins doesn’t shoot fouls well either, and that is
concerning considering that Temple will likely be involved in several close
games.

MASSACHUSETTS: Travis Ford takes over the reigns of the UMass program, and he
has some quality pieces in place. Start at the forward position where Rashaun
Freeman brings an undeniable degree of tenacity to the court and a 6-9 frame
to back it up. Freeman averaged 15.4 ppg and 7.8 rpg a year ago while shooting
better than 50 percent from the floor, and it would not be surprising at all
to see his name on the A-10 First Team at season’s end. He is joined by 6-5
swingman Maurice Maxwell who scored 11.4 ppg in 2004-05, and Stephane Lasme
who added some much-needed weight and has tremendous skills. In the backcourt,
Art Bowers must improve his inconsistent shooting, especially since freshman
Chris Lowe is the backcourt’s other likely starter. The fact that not a single
senior exists among the five projected starters can be viewed as either
positive or negative, but clearly the program is headed in the right
direction.

DAYTON: There is not a single player on the Dayton roster that strikes fear in
the hearts of opponents, but the Flyers play extremely well as a unit under
the guidance of head coach Brian Gregory. He recently signed a contract
extension that will keep him with the program through 2013, a sign of the
school’s commitment to its coach. Warren Williams will run the team from the
point guard position, and the senior brings a great deal of leadership to the
floor to make up for a lack of overwhelming physical skills. Brian Roberts
shot a blistering 43 percent from behind the arc as a freshman, and he will
undoubtedly be a marked man by opposing defenders. The team’s leading
returning scorer, and lone double-digit performer on the roster, is senior
forward Monty Scott. He registered 11.1 ppg in 2004-05 and will be counted on
for both leadership and production this time around. If sophomore frontcourt
performers Norman Plummer and Chris Alvarez can develop quickly, Dayton will
be competitive. As it stands, however, a NIT berth is the best this team can
hope for.

RICHMOND: Chris Mooney is in as head coach of the Spiders, and with him comes
the Princeton-style offense that is predicated on ball movement and back-door
cuts. For this team to be successful, the frontcourt duo of Kevin Steenberge
and Jermaine Bucknor must lead the way. Steenberge was just a rookie a year
ago but managed 12.6 ppg and 6.0 rpg while shooting a strong 56.9 percent from
the field. As for Bucknor, he scored 10.7 ppg and will attempt to improve that
mark in his final campaign with the Spiders. Aside from those two players, not
a great deal of proven talent exists on the roster. Gaston Moliva, Monty
Sanders and Oumar Sylla scored a combined 4.7 ppg a year ago, as Sylla is a
transfer from Valparaiso who sat out in 2004-05. The backcourt appears weak at
first glance, and Richmond could be in serious trouble considering the
importance of good guard play in close games.

FORDHAM: Dereck Whittenburg has breathed new life into the Fordham program,
and the players no longer expect to lose every time out. The Rams may have the
league’s top trio comprised of Marcus Stout, Bryant Dunston and Jermaine
Anderson, all of whom were double-digit scorers a year ago. Start with
Dunston, a 6-8 bruiser who racked up 14.9 ppg and 8.6 rpg in 2004-05 as a
freshman. Outside of Steven Smith at La Salle and Curtis Withers at Charlotte,
there is not a better forward in the A-10 than Dunston. As for Stout, he
posted 13.6 ppg as a rookie last year despite shooting under 40 percent from
the field, but a year of experience should lead to better efficiency and a
better scoring average as well. Anderson netted 12.7 ppg as a junior, and he
is accurate both from the foul line and from beyond the arc. If the Rams can
cut down on turnovers and find someone to help Dunston rebound, a winning
season is possible.

LA SALLE: After last season, everyone thought star forward Steven Smith would
skip his senior year in favor of the NBA. That didn’t happen, and Smith
returns 20.3 ppg and 8.5 rpg to the La Salle lineup. The possible first-round
draft pick is not alone in regard to scoring talent, as the Explorers return
two other double-digit performers. Jermaine Thomas brings 14.1 ppg to the mix,
and Darnell Harris returns after averaging 11.3 ppg in 2004-05. Mike St. John
is a solid forward who can score and rebound. After the rape scandal that
rocked the program last year, head coach John Giannini is trying to put the
pieces back together. He had a tough time recruiting and therefore must rely
on incumbents. Sure, Smith will keep La Salle competitive, but the Explorers
can not hang with the league’s elite. The good news for Giannini is that he
recently had his contract extended through 2010, so he will have plenty of
time to build a winner.

SAINT LOUIS: The Billikens led Conference USA in scoring defense the last two
seasons, and with a lack of scoring punch on the roster, defense will be more
important than ever this year. The fact that no returning player for Saint
Louis averaged more than 6.9 ppg a year ago is downright scary. Ian Vouyoukas
posted 6.9 ppg and 5.4 rpg in 2004-05, and it remains to be seen how much
better he can be. The hope among the coaches and fans is that highly-touted
recruit Tommie Liddell can live up to his billing. An explosive slasher,
Liddell can score with the best of them and has the court awareness to
distribute effectively. Dwayne Polk will also be counted on to provide some
scoring punch. The 5-9 guard showed promise as a freshman and should play with
more confidence this season. Regardless, the Bills figure to struggle quite a
bit.

RHODE ISLAND: Last season, standout guard Dawan Robinson was forced to
redshirt because of injury. This year he was supposed to be back in the fold
for his senior campaign, but he has been suspended indefinitely from non-
academic and non-medical team activities. The suspension, which reportedly
stems from a fight and subsequent arrest outside a bar near the URI campus,
has a minimum term of 60 days and will be lifted on November 24th at the
earliest. Without Robinson’s 15.1 ppg, the Rams may struggle mightily. Senior
Jamaal Wise, who also was forced to sit out last season because of injury,
will be back in the lineup. Considering that not a single returnee averaged
8.0 ppg or more a year ago, Wise will be expected to carry the bulk of the
load. Don’t expect this team to build a great deal of confidence early on, as
the non-conference schedule is brutal. Overall, this Rhode Island squad will
score a couple of upsets this season, but the losses will greatly outnumber
the wins.

DUQUESNE: The fact that four starters are back in the fold for the Dukes has
to be viewed as a positive. Offensively, it all starts with Bryant McAllister,
who averaged 16.1 ppg as a junior. He will undoubtedly face a great deal of
attention from opposing defenders all year long, so players such as Kieron
Achara and DeVario Hudson must be able to score consistently. Achara is a 6-9,
255-pound F/C who posted 11.5 ppg and 6.7 rpg as a sophomore while shooting
51.5 percent from the field. He is joined on the front line by Hudson, who
tallied 8.1 ppg and 5.3 rpg as a rookie and has plenty of room for
improvement. The Dukes were horrendous at the defensive end last year and
rarely got to the foul line, two major reasons that they finished a dismal
6-22 overall. A few more wins are possible this time around, but not many.

ST. BONAVENTURE: The good news for the Bonnies is that this year’s team can
not possibly be any worse than the squad that went a horrendous 2-26 a year
ago. With Ahmad Smith in the lineup, there is at least some reason for
optimism. The senior averaged 14.2 ppg and 6.2 rpg a year ago, and the
versatile performer also dished out 3.5 apg. If he can improve his sub-par
free throw shooting, Smith will undoubtedly rank among the top scorers in the
league this season. Wade Dunston averaged 11.6 ppg in 2004-05, but the
swingman shot just 37.6 percent from the field, including 29.7 percent from
behind the arc. Clearly, those numbers must be better for SBU to show
improvement. Even if those two players raise the bar on last year’s numbers,
the Bonnies seemingly have no chance of reaching double figures in the win
column.