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.