The Atlantic 10 has carved out a unique existence among D-I conferences. It can somewhat consistently produce national title contenders (Temple in the late '80s, UMass in the mid-90s, St. Joseph's in 2004), but yet more consistently has a woeful bottom end of the conference. The 2007 season featured the latter and without any of the former. The four worst teams had a combined non-conference record of 18-34 against a schedule that wasn't very imposing. On the other end of the spectrum, Xavier nearly did the conference proud in the second round of the NCAA Tournament before blowing a nine-point lead in the final four minutes against top-seeded, and eventual national runner-up, Ohio State.
Even though the overall strength of the conference should improve, there is no budding superpower similar to the A-10 greats of the past. The good news is that most of the conference's programs are healthy. La Salle and St. Bonaventure are still trying to recover from scandals that occurred in the past five years, and Richmond is struggling in the transition to the Princeton offense. Fans of the 11 other teams can all concoct a realistic scenario in which their team makes postseason play.
The Hawks return three starters from a team that was the most disappointing Martelli team since the 2000 edition. Most notable among the returnees is 6'9" junior Ahmad Nivins, who is a consistent scorer in part because he gets to the line with nearly unmatched frequency and shoots 68% when he gets there. Nivins was the only Hawk to make first-team all-conference last season, but his teammate, 6'10" Pat Calathes, is equally as effective. Calathes doesn't really fit into a traditional basketball role. Despite his height, he's not a center. He's an excellent passer and was one of just six D-I players who rebounded 20% of opponents' misses and assisted on 20% of his teammates' shots last season. The Hawks backcourt is still suspect. Point guard Jawan Carter, who was somewhat ineffective last season, transferred. Saint Joseph's adds Iowa State transfer Tasheed Carr, who should get the start at shooting guard, but keep in mind he posted an eFG% of 36.2 in his most recent season of D-I action.
Rick Majerus landed with the Billikens; that story dwarfs any other with this team. The scary thing is that there is some talent here for Majerus to work with. Junior wing Tommie Liddell made huge strides in his sophomore season (eFG% of 53.8, up from 41.2 as a freshman). Perhaps just as important is that every '07 regular who had eligibility remaining is coming back in '08. There was no housecleaning here--Majerus apparently likes the returning set of players. The Bills will miss center Ian Vouyoukas for his rebounding, but he never became the offensive force so many had hoped he would. One thing the new coach will work on is Saint Louis' inability to force turnovers; they were dead last nationally in that department in 2007.
In many respects it had to have been a tough offseason for the Musketeers, with fans wondering what might have been had their team been able to finish off the Buckeyes. Even though the X-Men lose three starters from a team that posted the ninth-best eFG% in the nation, they do bring back what should be the best backcourt in the conference in Drew Lavender and Stanley Burrell. In fact, Lavender should enter the discussion of the best point guards in the nation. Watch for 6'9" senior Josh Duncan to make a name for himself, also. Duncan was a starter for most of the season, but played sparingly over the last 15 games while nursing an ankle injury. If he stays healthy, he should be the team's leading scorer and the focus of opponents' game plans.
If you're looking for the next good story, it might be at Fordham. Dereck Whittenburg has guided the Rams to three, eight, nine and 10 conference wins in his four seasons, and it's not out of the question that a fourth consecutive season of improvement is ahead. Remember that this is a team that, before last season's 18-12 record, hadn't had a winning season since 1992, and had a 26-102 record in eight seasons of A-10 play before Whittenburg arrived. Last season's 10-6 conference record was as much the result of the A-10's step back as it was Fordham improving. With that said, the Rams return more personnel than anyone else in the conference, including all five starters. The offense was sluggish last season, so there will need to have serious improvement in that area to get this team to a point where it can chase an at-large berth.
The Rams' road to success in 2007 was just the opposite of Fordham's--it was built completely on offense. Senior forward Will Daniels established himself as one of the best offensive players in the conference. He was accurate on both two- and three-pointers and got to the line frequently while maintaining a respectable turnover rate. His most impressive performance was an efficient 21-point, eight-rebound game at Kansas. Jimmy Baron was one of the most accurate three-point shooters in the nation, connecting on 47.8% of his 203 attempts. Both are back, and the Ram offense should be in good shape. The defense was ugly in '07, however, ranking in the bottom 60 nationally in eFG%, turnover percentage and defensive rebound percentage. They gave up a ton of three-point attempts, which was a problem because opponents made them at a 37.9% clip (42nd-highest in the country).
Few things can be predicted in absolute terms in college hoops, but I'm going to make you one promise: Duquesne's defense will improve this season, and specifically their field-goal defense will improve. The numbers last season weren't pretty. Duquesne was last in the nation in raw defensive efficiency, surrendering 1.15 points per possession. Even adjusted for schedule, they had the 32nd-worst defense in D-I. They had the second-worst three-point percentage allowed and 10th-worst opponents' two-point percentage. Finally, their defensive rebounding percentage was third-worst in the country. Teams playing the Dukes made a lot of shots and rebounded their misses very frequently. Ron Everhart employed a frenetic pressing style of play out of necessity with a very short team. and that plan was a disaster on defense, although the trade-off for their offense may well have been worth it.
The Dukes will play a more conventional--and almost surely more effective--defensive style thanks to the addition of Northeastern transfer Shawn James. James led the nation in block rate during his freshman and sophomore seasons, and will give Alabama A&M senior Mickell Gladness a run for that honor this season. Coach Ron Everhart has another impact transfer in Kojo Mensah, who previously ran the point at Siena. All in all, this team looks a lot like Everhart's last team at Northeastern, with James and an ultra-high usage point guard (then it was Jose Juan Barea). Unfortunately, 6'6" forward Robert Mitchell, one of the most productive freshmen in the nation last season, opted to transfer, but the Dukes should still improve considerably. Like Fordham, this could be a long-time loser that makes some noise in 2008.
The first season of the Fran Dunphy era wasn't without its speed bumps. Well, speed bump isn't exactly the best way to put it. After years of a shot-clock-milking system under John Chaney, the Owls' pace approached 70 possessions per game last season, a tempo that put it in the top quarter of Division I. By comparison, Temple was among the 20 slowest teams in the country in each of the previous three seasons. Similarly, after years of bricklaying, the Owls shot the ball extremely well, posting an eFG% that ranked them 52nd in the country. Most thankful for Dunphy's arrival was 6'5" wing Dionte Christmas, who saw his own shooting rise from 36.8% to 57.3% (eFG) as he became the team's primary offensive contributor. What Dunphy could not improve on was Chaney's defense. In fact, the Temple defense was among the worst in the league. What Dunphy needed was some size up front, with nary a starter over 6'6" last season. Spaniard Sergio Olmos stands seven feet tall and could move into a starting role this season, but Dunphy has also brought in a couple of big freshmen who will see time.
Last season looked so promising around Christmastime when the Flyers were 10-1 and owning wins over Creighton and a Derrick Caracter-less Louisville. Consecutive lopsided losses to Pitt and UNC kicked off a 9-11 stretch to close the season, leaving Dayton shy of the postseason for the third straight year. When it went bad, it was on the defensive end. The Flyers were able to keep just five of their final 21 opponents below a point per possession, after keeping 10 of their first 11 opponents below that magic mark. Dayton returns three starters, including leading scorer and point guard Brian Roberts. They suffered a blow, though, when 6'7" forward Norman Plummer, an offensive rebounder extraordinaire, decided to play out his senior season at D-II Southern Indiana.
New faces will be relied upon in Amherst this season, as Travis Ford brings in a freshman class of, count 'em, six. The most intriguing of the group is 6'9" Papa Lo from Senegal. Lo will be asked to replace Stephane Lasme, who broke Marcus Camby's record for blocked shots in a career and finished with fourth-highest block rate nationally by rejecting 16% of opponents two-point shots while he was on the floor. Lo apparently has the ability to swat in large quantities as well, although he won't be able to replace Lasme's all-around game, which became more than respectable by his senior season. If none of the other freshmen are able to provide offense, a heavy load will fall on senior swingman Gary Forbes. One player not returning is point guard Tiki Mayben, who left UMass after his lone D-I season. Mayben's road to Amherst was an adventure in itself, as he had a rather checkered off-court past. On the court he didn't fare much better, producing a 2.3 turnover-to-made shot ratio, the highest for any player that made at least 30 shots last season.
Karl Hobbs faces a challenge this season trying to return GW to the glory of two seasons ago. Only shooting guard Maureece Rice is leftover from the 2006 roster that produced a 26-2 record. The offense will be built around Rice and junior forward Rob Diggs, who started 23 games last season. What was troubling in '07 was that the offense not only struggled to score points, but didn't score them as fast as Colonial fans have been accustomed to under Karl Hobbs. GW's pace fluttered around the national average at about 67 possessions per game. Also important is that for the second consecutive season, the Colonials significantly exceeded their Pythagorean expectation.
The situation at Charlotte is similar to the one at UMass: lots of freshmen are on the roster. The 49ers are approaching the season from the opposite direction of the Minutemen as they try to reverse course from a disappointing 2007. A team that was expected to challenge for the conference title instead flopped badly en route to a 14-16 overall record and 7-9 mark in conference. Though Charlotte loses six players from its eight-man rotation last season, they do bring back Leemire Goldwire, a guard who hoisted a bunch of three-pointers (231), and made a bunch also (39.4%). Goldwire was part of a system that was too dependent on the three last season, taking nearly half of its shots from beyond the arc. They hope to achieve more balance with the addition of 6'7" Charlie Coley, who was one of the more coveted JC players in the land last season.
More than half of the Explorers' minutes came from freshmen last season, so it was no surprise they took some lumps. They also paid a steep price for fouling, as opponents shot 75.4% from the line, the best figure in the nation. (It was bad luck, sure, but the A-10 was also an abnormally good free-throw-shooting conference.) On a more substantive level, the Explorers were the best offensive rebounding team in the league. Their three best offensive rebounders--Kimmani Barrett, Yves Mekongo-Mbala and Rodney Green--were freshmen and none was listed as taller than 6'7". Coach John Giannini loses one starter, but it was his most expendable one. This team should improve on its three conference wins from '07.
Richmond gets the honor of tipping off the 2008 season for all of D-I with a November 5 game against Maine. This will begin coach Chris Mooney's third season at Richmond. Season two was a rocky one with a very young team managing just eight wins. Mooney had to deal with the unexpected loss of 6'7" forward Gaston Moliva, who missed all but 28 minutes of the season due to an injured foot. Moliva will get a do-over for his senior season, providing the experience on a team that is expected to otherwise start four sophomores. Statistically, Richmond offers the stereotypical numbers for a Princeton-system. They play slow, shoot a lot of threes, are very accurate on twos and ignore offensive rebounding (they were dead last in the country with a 19.9 OR%).
The Bonnies hired Mark Schmidt from Robert Morris to replace Anthony Solomon as head coach. St. Bonaventure won a total of ten games over Solomon's four seasons in Olean, as the coach tried to rebuild a program in the wake of an embarrassing recruiting scandal. Now Schmidt will try to raise the program to respectability, although it's unlikely he'll see results in his first season. He has three starters from last season's team, but that isn't terribly important since the Bonnies really struggled in conference play, owning the worst offense and defense in the A-10. Schmidt's success will be based on who he brings into the program, and that starts with a five-man freshman class this season. Schmidt's tenure at RMU was marked by solid offense and poor defense, and that defense is what kept the Colonials from straying too far from the middle of the conference under Schmidt.
I have a few teams bunched up around .500 here, but you can bet that there will be a couple surprises in that pack, both in the positive and negative directions. The top of the conference doesn't seem too imposing, so the A-10 might be the best location to look for an intriguing story this season.
2007 Pythag % Returning 2008
Team Wins Minutes Prediction
Saint Joseph's 10.7 86.8 12-4
St. Louis 8.1 80.3 11-5
Xavier 13.5 56.6 10-6
Fordham 9.1 96.5 10-6
Rhode Island 8.7 82.9 9-7
Duquesne 5.5 71.5 9-7
Temple 8.6 61.4 9-7
Dayton 7.7 78.4 8-8
UMass 12.8 43.4 8-8
George Wash. 9.3 57.1 8-8
Charlotte 7.8 27.2 7-9
La Salle 4.5 71.9 5-11
Richmond 3.1 63.7 4-12
St. Bonaventure 2.7 46.8 2-14
Ken Pomeroy is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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