Top A10 storylines to watch in 2017-18:
1. Is the A10 a one-bid league this year? URI is likely the class of the league, and St. Bonaventure probably ends up in a familiar position – on the bubble. League powerhouses VCU and Dayton are rebuilding with new coaches, and while SLU is the most talented team in the league, they might not be quite ready yet.
2. Matt McCall (UMass), Keith Dambrot (Duquesne), Anthony Grant (Dayton) and Mike Rhoades (VCU) are the new coaches in the league, and Maurice Joseph at George Washington had his interim tag removed. That’s a solid influx of new coaching talent to replace power hitters Archie Miller and Will Wade, and Dambrot and McCall are immediate schematic improvement over their predecessors.
3. Travis Ford has reloaded at SLU after a rough first season. Ford has the Billikens stocked to compete with a slew of high-major transfers and the league’s best freshmen class.
4. Bob McKillop loses Jack Gibbs at Davidson, but the last time the Wildcats were this overlooked coming into a season was their first year in the A10. McKillop and his beautiful motion offense promptly posted the league’s best record.
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH:
1. Rhode Island– With one of the best, and definitely the deepest, backcourts in the league, URI is easily the favorite to repeat as A10 champs – but there are some holes to fill and a scheme change to sort out. Last season was shaping up to be one of the more disappointing seasons in all of quasi mid-major basketball, and Rhode Island seemed to have bottomed out with back-to-back home losses in mid February, the second of which was to Fordham. But from there the Rams didn’t lose again until the second round of the NCAA Tournament, and even then they had an 80 percent win expectancy at one point in the second half. This year’s Rams are loaded in the frontcourt but will have to replace Hassan Martin in the middle, the league’s most important defender. Danny Hurley has always operated under a two big scheme, but with Martin and Kuran Iverson having graduated, I don’t see a scenario that doesn’t have him operating out of a four-out base, particulary with a loaded backcourt headed by EC Matthews, Jared Terrell, Jarvis Garrett, Stan Robinson and Jeff Dowtin (and I didn’t even mention incoming three-star freshman Fatts Russell). Offensively, Matthews is the go-to guy as a 6-foot-5 wing who can get into the paint and draw a lot of contact. His jump shot only slightly improved in his first season back from a knee injury, and with teams willing to sag off him, that will have to improve. Terrell’s another penetrator with a streaky jumper, but he’s also the linchpin of Hurley aggressive, ball pressuring man-to-man defense. Few teams eliminate the 3-point line as well URI (although it has led to an exceptionally high foul rate), and Terrell is the key cog in that mindset. Robinson is a 6-foot-4 wing who had an under the radar stellar offensive season in his first year under Hurley after transferring from Indiana. Robinson can shoot a little, pass a little and penetrate off the bounce, but it was his defense that really jumped out. He posted the league’s third-highest steal rate in A10 play, and his athleticism and length allowed him to switch onto 1-4. It will be interesting to see what Hurley does at the point. Garrett is the veteran, but Dowtin performed so well in his stead while he was hurt and of course had the coming out party against Creighton in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Hurley could in theory run out dual point guard sets, but that would really take a toll on the defense and the glass, and simply put, Dowtin is the better shooter, steadier ball handler, and all around better player. Replacing Martin and Iverson’s shot blocking and rebounding on both ends is going to be a chore. Robinson will have to increase his glass work in the smaller lineup, and sophomore Cyril Langevine will of course have a much larger role. Langevine’s per minute rates on the glass and in rim protection are excellent, and he was fairly impressive filling in for Martin when he was hurt. Langevine has the sort of fast twitch muscle structure that makes his ability to get to missed shots seem preternatural. When Hurley has to match up with bigger frontcourts (of which there are few in the A10), Nicola Akele, Ryan Preston and Andre Barry are more than serviceable options in the frontcourt, and Akele gives Hurley a stretch shooting dimension on the offensive end. There are a few pressing issues for the Rams this year, namely if Langevine and company in the frontcourt can provide a reasonable facsimile of Martin and Iverson, but URI should rise a few ticks up the tempo leaderboard with a four-guard base lineup. All in all, the Rams should once again be the class of the A10.
2. St. Bonaventure– While URI has the deepest backcourt in the league, the Bonnies have the best with Jaylen Adams and Matt Mobley. Those two are good enough to carry Bona to a league title, but realistically, Mark Schmidt needs some production from a healthy Courtney Stockard on the wing and a new cast in the frontcourt. First, let’s get the Adams/Mobley superlatives out of the way. Adams posted the A10 second-highest assist and free throw rates, and the league’s fourth-highest steal rate. He’s an unreal penetrator from the top of the key and in Schmidt’s ubiquitous pick-and-roll offense. If there’s a knock, it’s his streaky perimeter shooting, and he shot just 32 percent from 3 in league games last year. Mobley, meanwhile, literally never leaves the court. He led the nation in percentage of minutes played, and went all 40 (or all 45 in one OT game) in 16 of the Bonnies’ 32 games. The dominance of Adams and Mobley on the ball can lead to some pretty poor spacing offensively, particularly since few, if any teams, ran more pick-and-roll action (I don’t have the numbers handy, so that’s based solely on the good ol’ eye test). To wit, the Bonnies as a team shot just 32 percent from 3 (albeit the 3 isn’t a big part of the offense with the penetrating Adams and Mobley). So what about the cast surrounding that dynamic duo? Well, there are quite a few question marks. Idris Taqqee returns on the wing, and while he’s the team’s best overall defender, he’s a remarkably poor shooter on the other end. He has to be able to shoot better than 25 percent from 3 as an outlet against over hedging Adams/Mobley. Nelson Kaputo is the most likely to spell Adams and/or Mobley when they need a rare breather, but after some academic issues, he fell out of favor with Schmidt last year. The thing is, he flashed some potential as a shooter his freshman year. If he can get some things figured out, he’ll be vital to keeping Adams and Mobley from running on fumes come late February/early March. The wing corps is deep but mostly unproven. LaDarien Griffin is the veteran of the group and an outstanding defender at 6-foot-6 in Schmidt’s sort of hybrid pack line/zone defense. (It’s not a bad defense in a league that didn’t shoot the 3 well as a whole, but I often wonder if he runs it because it’s actually the best defense against Adams/Mobley, thus they practice against it frequently, and thus have experience running it.) Griffin offered very little on the offensive end as a sophomore, so scoring might have to come from a couple of freshmen, Izaiah Brockington and Tshiefu Ngalakulondi. Both might be behind Courtney Stockard for minutes, who is finally healthy after back-to-back seasons with injuries, but Ngalakulondi’s length and athleticism makes him hard to sit, and Brockington is a pure scorer. I have a feeling Schmidt turns to the two freshmen sooner rather than later. The frontcourt basically has to provide some rim protection on the back end of the sagging defense and some rebounding – any offense is icing on the cake. Denzell Gregg did that last year, but he’s gone, and the options to replace him are filled with uncertainty. Amadi Ikpeze showed some promise as a true freshman post 5, but his per 40 rates don’t really jump off the page with the exception of his foul rate, and that’s in a bad way. Josh Ayeni was fairly useful as a pick-and-pop 4 in Schmidt’s offense, but he wasn’t strong on the glass, and he, too, fouled at an excessive rate. If Ikpeze and Ayeni can’t stay on the court, the Bonnies could be in some trouble, as the only depth behind them is raw Ndene Gueye, who is still recovering from an offseason shoulder injury. Adams and Mobley are a two-man team, but it’s better for the Bonnies’ long term chances this season if they can get some wing production and better spacing offensively and anything of note out of the frontcourt.
3. Davidson– Post-Jack Gibbs life begins for the Wildcats, but it’s generally a safe bet to trust in Bob McKillop, the architect of one the best motion offenses the game has seen (no hyperbole). However, last year’s offense was very un-McKillopian. Davidson posted the A10’s most efficient and second-most efficient offense in their first two seasons in the league. Last year the Wildcats plummeted to ninth, and overall it was the least efficient offense McKillop has had since the 2010-11 season. The offensive scheme creates a lot of open 3-pointers, and Davidson is almost always a top-25 3PTA rate offense, but last year they just didn’t hit enough of them, shooting only 34 percent in league play. Having a ball dominator like Gibbs usually tends to break an offense down into frequent iso sets, but not in McKillop’s offense, as the Wildcats had the 16th-highest assist rate nationally despite Gibbs leading the A10 in usage and shot rates. In short, I’m not buying into the theory that the ball movement might actually be better without a "primary ball handler," as the evidence doesn’t suggest it, and Gibbs was simply outstanding within the framework of the scheme. That said, having the offense filter through Peyton Aldridge is a good thing. Aldridge is a nightmare to defend, as at 6-foot-8 he’s too big for opposing 3s and his perimeter game is too potent for opposing 4s. He’s an outstanding shooter with a rapidly developing passing and ball handling game. He rarely leaves the floor, and while his ridiculous efficiency might dip as the primary option offensively, the offense could improve by filtering through him. McKillop’s offense doesn’t need a "true point guard," and with Jon Axel Gudmundsson, KiShawn Pritchett, Carter Collins and highly-touted frosh Kellan Grady all capable of handling the ball, McKillop has a lot of lineup versatility. Gudmundsson, Pritchett and Grady are all 6-foot-4, giving McKillop great size on the perimeter. With the plethora of ball handlers, Pritchett might actually shift down to the 3 this year in smaller lineups, especially early with some frontcourt injuries potentially limiting depth around the rim. Gudmundsson can do a little bit of everything, but his jump shot needs to go in more this year if Davidson is going to make as big of leap up the standings as I project. Grady is a high-scoring combo guard with a lethal jumper, and he’s probably the highest-rated recruit McKillop has ever had at Davidson. If he’s as good as advertised and fits into the scheme immediately, Davidson’s offense should look far more Davidsonesque. The seemingly always banged up frontcourt enters the season predictably banged up. Nate Ekwu and Will Magarity both had offseason knee surgery, though both are projected to be ready for the start of the season. Magarity is the key to the frontcourt as a rim protector, and his ability to play away from the rim alongside Aldridge is a matchup problem for basically every team in the league. A healthy Dusan Kovacevic could go a long way for McKillop, as he’s capable of being a legit back-to-the-basket scorer. I might be a little too high on a team that struggled offensively and is now without one of the best scorers in the country, but I’ll take my chances with a senior-laden McKillop roster.
4. VCU– VCU was forced to dip into the Shaka Smart assistant well once again after Will Wade took over at LSU. Mike Rhoades comes to Richmond after quickly turning a moribund Rice program into a CUSA contender with one of the most exciting offenses in the league. Rhoades is a definite "pace and space" proponent, but I have some concerns about the ability of his inherited roster to play that style. Last year’s Rams largely eschewed the 3, shooting it from deep at the 322nd-lowest rate and hitting just 33 percent of them. That said, the talent level of the Rams he inherits is high, and they were the second-most efficient offense in the league. His point guard, Jonathan Williams, is a speedy penetrator with plus passing skills. What he lacks is any semblance of a jump shot, hitting just one (!) the entire season last year. That’s a total departure from Rhoades’ lead guards at Rice, so a bit of a scheme adjustment will have to be made there. Williams is surrounded by talent off the ball, and a healthy De’Riante Jenkins will be able to showcase his athleticism on the wing in Rhoades’ up-tempo attack. Malik Crowfield projects as Rhoades’ best perimeter shooter with more minutes, and while three slashing transfers should see the opportunity to score in bunches. Khris Lane out of Longwood has unique skill set for his 6-foot-7, 250-pound frame, and Issac Vann is another long slasher out of Maine. Both Lane and Vann played in up[tempo systems, and while both are more comfortable attacking the rim in transition, both can shoot the ball from outside. Mike’l Simms is another shooter/slasher out of the JUCO ranks. He can score in bunches and could be used extensively if Rhoades wants to employ any sort of "havoc" defense. The frontcourt is headed by uber athletic Justin Tillman, who should thrive in Rhoades’ scheme and can initiate the break as one of the best rebounders in the country. Replacing Mo Alie-Cox defensively is going to be a tall order for Rhoades, but highly-touted frosh Sean Mobley brings more upside offensively but is a question mark as a rim protector at the high D1 level. I love the athleticism, depth and talent at VCU this year, but I’m not sure where Rhoades gets the shooting that his scheme relies on. Early season adjustments might be in order for the Rams to contend for an A10 title this year.
5. St. Joe’s– Few teams were decimated by injuries like Phil Martelli’s squad was last year, but if Shavar Newkirk can return to 100% soon, the Hawks are a sleeper title contender, and their .95 points per possession in A10 play should shoot up dramatically. With a healthy Newkirk and Fresh Kimble, Martelli has two scoring point guards, if rather poor shooting. Perhaps the addition of two stretch shooting bigs will open lanes up for Newkirk and Kimble, as Pierfrancesco Oliva returns from injury, and Taylor Funk comes in as a highly touted mobile four. Off the ball, Chris Clover is a talented slasher who gained some valuable minutes last year, but his efficiency left a lot to be desired. Clover often seemed hesitant with the ball, and wasn’t ready to be a go to scorer. With Newkirk and Kimble back, he could benefit from less defensive pressure. The wing corps is rich with talent, as Charlie Brown took advantage of the minutes void left by the all the injuries and established himself as a versatile defender and plus jump shooter at 6-foot-7. He’ll miss the first few weeks with a broken wrist on his off hand, but gives the offense a much needed shooter when he returns. James Demery returns on the wing as a 6-foot-6 slasher, but posted a woeful 86.9 ORtg in league play. Demery gets to the line at will, but converting at just 57 percent is ruinous for the Hawks offense. His .447/.273/.571 shooting slash line simply won’t cut it if a healthier Hawks squad is going to make a run up the standings and improve on the league’s second worst offensive efficiency rating. Defensively, I’ve discussed on my blog how Martelli has stuck with a sagging man to man mixed with a little 2-3 zone for the past few years. It bucks the analytic trend of taking away the three point line, and with the depth at the guard/wing positions, I’m not really sure why he continues to utilize it so frequently, particularly since he has an elite shot blocker in hyper athletic Markell Lodge to erase mistakes with a more pressure heavy perimeter. Lodge also shot 81 percent from 2 in league play, but mostly all on putback dunks. St. Joe’s is healthier, but does a return to health also bring a more efficient offense? The Newkirk/Kimble backcourt gets all the attention, but the return of Oliva and addition of Funk could actually be the key to the Hawks’ improvement on offense.
6. Dayton– Anthony Grant makes his return to the college game after a few years in the NBA as an assistant, and I’m curious to see if that experience brings a more spread, transition based offense. Grant’s teams at VCU and Alabama were generally employed some of the slowest tempos in the game, and were rooted in attacking off the dribble and pounding the ball inside. Grant also has a reputation as a good program builder, and with a team that loses 4 decorated seniors, those skilled will be put to the test early. Grant does inherit a pretty loaded frontcourt from Archie Miller, and his defensive scheme has always been heavily reliant on a shut down defensive frontline at the rim, allowing his guards to extend past the three point line routinely. The frontcourt is led by breakout candidate Xeyrius Williams, a highly efficient stretch threat (hit 45 percent from 3 in A10 play last year while posting the league’s third highest ORtg) and menace defensively at the rim with the ability to defend on the perimeter as well. He’ll play alongside Josh Cunningham, a plus rebounder and paint scorer when healthy. The backcourt has some fairly serious question marks. John Crosby spent two years backing up Scoochie Smith, but his per 40 rates are concerning, particularly in the turnover department. There’s a pretty good chance incoming frosh Jalen Crutcher is ensconsed on the ball sooner rather than later. Off the ball, senior Darrell Davis is going to be relied upon to provide more than spot shooting. Trey Landers will have to step up as a sophomore with Davis getting more defensive attention, as will freshman Jordan Davis, who has a reputation as a sniper from the perimeter. The wing corps has a big x-factor in Kostas Antetokounmpo. Flyer fans are praying he has a fraction of his brother’s skill set as a 6-foot-10 wing. Greek Freak the Younger is finally healthy as well, and it one of the more intriguing freshmen in the league. There are a lot of question marks in the backcourt, and this team could struggle to score consistently and efficiently (especially if Crosby doesn’t prove to be the answer at the point and Davis doesn’t develop any sort of off the dribble game), but Grant’s defense should take root immediately, making the Flyers competitive, but not likely a true title competitor.
7. Saint Louis– Travis Ford has quickly built a monster at SLU, and there’s potential here for a (near) worst to first turnaround for the Billikens- the ceiling is that high. Ford has three key transfers from high major programs eligible, and a highly touted local recruit coming in. The frontcourt should suddenly be a strength for Ford, as big bodied former Rutgers rebounder DJ Foreman should man the 5 (with talented freshman wide body Hasahn French), while a pair of 6-foot-6 wings in Javon Bess (Michigan State) and Adonys Henriquez (UCF), give Ford a lot of versatility at the 3/4. Ford will likely go with a four out look with lots of length around Foreman. Bess can do a little bit of everything on the floor, while Henriquez is going to be SLU’s most potent perimeter threat, along with leading returning scorer Davell Roby. Roby was an underrated A10 player on a bad team last year, hitting 41 percent from 3 in league play, getting to the line at a high rate, and posting the 10th-highest assist rate. Sophomore Jalen Johnson hopefully won’t be forgotten in the new rotation, as he posted a solid freshman season, and fits in with the positionless basketball movement as a 2/3/4 hybrid. Ford will likely stick with Jermaine Bishop on the ball, who was well on his way to posting the league’s top assist rate before a foot injury ended his season. He’ll certainly benefit from the sudden influx of talent around him. That influx of talent also means walk on Aaron Hines returns to a depth role after being pressed into service with Bishop’s injury. Ford’s biggest coup was landing local scorer Jordan Goodwin. Goodwin gives Ford an elite off ball scoring option. With length and athleticism at every position, SLU should see significant improvement on both ends of the floor, and this is a team built to run the floor, like Ford’s best teams in Stillwater, so a sizable tempo increase should be expected, as should a sizable win increase.
8. George Mason– Dave Paulsen nearly doubled GMU’s win total from his first season, in both league play and overall. Paulsen is underrated coach on the national level, but I’m having a hard time expecting much improvement in his third season at the helm in Fairfax. He has to replace one of the most "do-everything" guards in the country in Marquise Moore, as well as efficient frontcourt mainstay Jalen Jenkins. That said, the Pats project as one of the steadier programs in the league, and some of the teams I have above them (Davidson, VCU, St. Joe’s, Dayton, SLU) are either reliant on a return to health or an influx of newcomers, meaning there’s a lot of volatility in the league that could catapult GMU a few spots up the standings. The strength of Mason this year might actually lie with Paulsen’s lineup flexibility. Paulsen is probably one of the last coaches I would think would embrace the "pace and space" revolution, but his roster screams for him to continue with a 4 out base lineup like last year, led by a talented backcourt crew of Otis Livingston, Jaire Grayer, Justin Kier, and a stretch 4/5 duo of redshirt freshman AJ Wilson and true frosh Goanar Mar. We’ve seen that a smaller lineup from Paulsen doesn’t deter from his commitment to rebounding, and Grayer and Kier could pick up Moore’s departure in that regard. Livingston will be running the penetrate and kick action on the ball, and while Mason didn’t shoot a lot of threes (335th in attempt rate), Grayer and Kier both proved capable of knocking them down. Kier and fellow sophomore Ian Boyd are both lethal penetrators off side to side action, and converting free throws at a high rate is a staple of Paulsen’s offense. Grayer and Boyd are also both plus perimeter defenders, as is freshman Javon Greene. Veteran Daniel Relvao provides depth in the frontcourt, but could be squeezed out of a significant rotation presence by the bodies in the freshmen class- Wilson, Mar, and Greg Calixte. GMU is well coached and fundamentally sound, with a talented backcourt to boot, but they’re a safe floor, low ceiling option compared to the other upper/mid tier A10 teams around them.
9. Richmond– The Spiders’ season is already off to a rough start with Khwan Fore expected to miss up to six weeks with a tibial fracture. That’s a pretty devastating blow for Chris Mooney, who is trying to rework his modified Princeton offense without TJ Cline and ShawnDre’ Jones. Fore was Richmond’s leading returning scorer, and now the offensive load falls almost squarely on De’Monte Buckingham. The sophomore breakout candidate already had his hands full, as Mooney will be using him in the Cline role as the facilitator and focal point of his motion offense. In a "glass half full" approach, Fore’s injury will speed up the development of touted freshman point guard Jacob Gilyard, giving Mooney more lineup flexibility when A10 play begins and Fore is presumably healthy. Throw Nick Sherod and Julius Johnson into the backcourt mix as a developing shooters in a potential starting lineup of Fore and Gilyard as dual points with the explosive Buckingham in Cline’s role, and Mooney’s motion offense could once again be one of the most efficient in the league. However, the "one" in a four out base doesn’t readily appear when looking at Mooney’s roster, and this team could be a disaster waiting to happen defensively, especially with young faces trying to pick up Mooney’s intricate matchup zone. Sophomore Grant Golden, Chicago State transfer Jordan Madrid-Andrews, and frosh AJ Ford are the most likely to see extended minutes at the 5, but none inspire much early confidence as rim protectors or on the glass (with the exception of Madrid-Andrews, whose per 40 rebounding rates in the WAC were top notch). Offensively, the Spiders’ ceiling is high thanks to Buckingham, even with the departures of Cline and Jones and the early injury to Fore. Defensively, the Spiders might not be clicking until February, making them a sleeper candidate when the A10 tournament begins in March, especially given the relative unknown nature of the league as a whole.
10. La Salle– The Explorers will once again feature a talented backcourt/wing corps, but are also likely to be struggle defending at the rim again, especially with the sudden September departure of Demetrius Henry under unfortunate circumstances, if the reports about Dr. Giannini are true. Henry’s departure puts the Explorers in a similar situation to two seasons ago when Tony Washington was the only big on the roster. Washington saw a role reduction last year, but is still one of the best rebounders in the league on both ends if you go by his per 40 rates (ranking 8th in both offensive and defensive rebounding rate). Giannini does have two huge freshmen coming in, and Miles Brookins has eventual starter written all over with his size and athleticism combo. 7-foot-2 Cian Sullivan is more of a project, but his height will be relied upon immediately. The heart of the Explorers this year remains the Pookie Powell/Amar Stukes/BJ Johnson trio. Powell and Stukes give Giannini a dual point guard look to pair with one of the league’s best pure scorers on the wing in BJ Johnson. Johnson will have a blank check shooting wise with Jordan Price gone. Stukes was actually the better point guard of the on ball duo, but Powell and his pedigree got most of the attention. Stukes’ penetration and passing skills allowed Powell to serve as a perimeter shooting option more often than not. Senior Johnnie Shuler will likely fall even farther out of the rotation with the addition of 4 star point guard Jamir Moultrie. He’ll be aided by not having to worry about on ball responsibilities behind Powell and Stukes, and he could be an immediate contributor as a slasher in Giannini’s four out lineup. While the Powell/Stukes/Moultrie/Johnson tetrad has the potential to be explosive offensively, I don’t see where this team improves defensively, and that bar is set pretty low already. Last year’s team was 11th in defensive efficiency rating in league play, and with their best perimeter defender (Cleon Roberts) and interior defender (Henry) gone, they could be even worse. Two years ago with Washington as his only big, Giannini utilized a lot of zone. Unfortunately it was totally ineffective, and I’m not sure where he turns this year, unless the two freshmen bigs Brookins and Sullivan develop at lightning speed.
11. Fordham– With Jeff Neubauer’s frantic zone pressure scheme, the Rams can beat anyone in the league (witness wins at URI and at Rose Hill over VCU), or lose to anyone (witness losses to Sacred Heart, Manhattan, and at home to Duquesne). A not insignificant reason for the Rams’ poor finish to the season was simply due to injuries. Neubauer’s zone press, which produced the nation’s second highest turnover rate and steal rate, needs bodies – a lot of bodies. Neubauer lost a lot of offense from last year’s team, but returns the key to his defensive scheme in point guard Joe Chartouny. Chartouny led the nation in steal rate despite battling nagging injuries and some personal issues off the court, and he hit just under 40 percent of his 3-pointers in league play. His quick hands are the central pillar of the defense, but he’ll have to shoulder a bigger load offensively with the dearth of scoring options on the Rams’ roster. The most likely candidates to aid the backcourt offensive production are Perris Hicks, who makes his Fordham debut after being one of the many wounded last season. Former Oklahoma State commit Tre Evans could emerge as the best shooter for Neubauer this year, and could push senior Nemanja Zarkovic for minutes. While Evans/Hicks have more talent, Zarkovic knows the system defensively, and Neubauer will be reluctant to trade that off. On the wing, Cavit Havsa finished the season strong, and the 6-foot-4 Turk could be an underrated shooter in the A10 this year. Havsa is also a plus distributor when utilized in the high post. Senior Will Tavares similarly knows the system like Havsa, but has far less offensive upside. The frontcourt is experienced but thin. Prokop Slanina had an injury plagued first season as a Ram, but represents Neaubauer’s best rim protector on the back end of his pressure scheme. However, Chuba Ohams was something of a revelation defensively when injuries dictated that he be inserted into the starting lineup. His per possession rebounding numbers rate as the best of the frontcourt. A healthy David Pekarek gives Neubauer a potential floor stretcher. He showed offensive promise two years ago when healthy. Jesse Bunting probably has the highest "breakout" potential in the frontcourt, relatively speaking. His 10 blocks per 40 makes him easily the best potential defensive player in the paint rotation, and he showed some efficiency scoring at the rim last year. Neubauer has things turned around at Rose Hill, as simply being competitive on a nightly basis is a major step in the right direction, but the Rams still have a long trek to be contender relevant in the A10. That said, I’m sure a survey of A10 coaches would have Fordham high on the list of teams they dread preparing for.
12. Duquesne– After what was shaping up to be the most disastrous coaching search of the offseason, AD Dave Harper nailed it by luring Keith Dambrot over to Pittsburgh from Akron. While the roster turnover is typically significant after regime change, Dambrot did convince Mike Lewis to stay on, and he has All-A10 first team potential. Despite his slight frame, Lewis was a dominant off ball penetrator and scorer as a freshman, and shot 37 percent from 3 in league games. Led by Lewis, Dambrot’s backcourt is easily the strength of the team, with a hopefully healthy Tarin Smith and Rene Castro giving Duquesne two capable ball handlers. Smith has the potential to develop into one of the league’s better on ball defenders, and that’s a key aspect in Dambrot’s defensive scheme which really extends past the perimeter to redirect penetrators and shooters off the 3-point line. Under Dambrot, the Zips were annually a top 50-60 defense in limiting 3-point attempt rates. Unfortunately for Dambrot, his frontcourt left during the coaching transition, and that significantly hinders his defensive scheme on the back end, and offensively he loves to employ an inverted big, which he also doesn’t have this year. Jordan Robinson is likely to be the mainstay in the middle of the paint, and offers some hope for the Dukes to stay somewhat competitive on the glass. Frosh Tydus Verhoeven is the most intriguing addition to the frontcourt, as he’s the versatile offensive threat and rim protector defensively that Dambrot covets in one player (think Kwan Cheatham). Realistically, 6-foot-6 Eric James probably has to play much of the season out of position at the 4. With a slew of high major transfers slated to come in next year, Dambrot should have the Dukes on the path to relevancy in short order, but this year expect to see a lot of zone from the Dukes, an oddity for a Dambrot defense, but he simply doesn’t have the roster to play his scheme yet, and injuries are already taking a toll with Chas Brown and Marko Krivacevic already out until December.
13. UMass– It was one hell of an offseason for the Minutemen. Following the dismissal of Derek Kellogg, Winthrop’s Pat Kelsey was the head coach for all of 30 minutes before backing out, which left AD Ryan Bamford to turn to Chattanooga head coach Matt McCall, who was himself coming off one of the most dysfunctional seasons in all of D1. McCall was probably elated to hightail it to Amherst after last season, but Kellogg’s outstanding sophomore class left the program, as well as leading scorer Donte Clark. After the coaching transition finally settled, McCall received some devastating news, as Maryland grad transfer Jaylen Brantley would be forced to retire due to a heart ailment, and Rasheen Holloway, the centerpiece of this year’s rebuild, broke his thumb and will be out 4-6 weeks. Hopefully the injury doesn’t set back Holloway’s training regimen, as the massive center had worked hard to drop 30-plus pounds of excess weight. When Holloway is healthy, McCall could have a formidable frontcourt duo with him and Malik Hines. Holloway had fallen out of favor in Kellogg’s transition based attack, as he simply couldn’t get up and down the floor quickly enough. McCall will almost certainly reverse course, and filter offense through Holloway when he’s healthy. LuWane Pipkins could be a star for McCall this year, especially defensively, as McCall is a Billy Donovan disciple and uses the matchup man-to-man press often. Pipkins posted the country’s 38th-highest steal rate, but his speed and energy on the offensive end needs to be harnessed if he’s going to improve his efficiency numbers. Pipkins is a volume shooter, and he’ll have a green light until Holloway returns. Unique McLean could immediately fill in as Pipkins’ running mate off the ball, or the roles can be reversed, but he has ridiculous athleticism at the 2. McCall can also turn to CJ Anderson, a capable ball handler and plus shooter at 6-foot-5 to play the point, but the loss of Brantley likely keeps Anderson strictly on the wing. Khalea Turner-Morris is the most exciting frontcourt addition, and could be used as a dual post next to Holloway. Unfortunately he sprained his ankle in practice and is likely behind in his development. Despite the roster turnover during the Kellogg to McCall transition, the Minutemen still have a decent amount of talent, especially if Holloway can return to 100% and stay fit, and Pipkins can reign it in a bit offensively.
14. George Washington– It’s likely going to be a long season at Foggy Bottom. Yuta Watanabe returns for the Colonials, and he’s arguably the most important player in the league given the dearth of options around him. Watanabe is the league’s most talented overall defender, but he’ll have to dramatically increase his scoring (he did see a four ppg bump from last year) with Tyler Cavanaugh gone. Patrick Steeves and Arnaldo Toro return to the frontcourt, making that Maurice Joseph’s most complete unit once again. Both will be expected to pick up some offensive slack to keep defenses from simply swarming Watanabe. Toro is a ferocious rebounder with a limited offensive game, while Steeves has shown some promise since coming in from Harvard. South Florida transfer Bo Zeigler will have a huge impact for GW this year, as he can play 3-5 and should be second in scoring behind Watanabe. The backcourt is exceptionally young, with sophomore Jair Bolden the only returnee of note. Justin Mazzulla (brother of West Virginia great Joe) is the most likely immediate contributors of three freshmen guards. The incredibly versatile 6-foot-8 Watanabe will act as a sort of patch for a lot of holes in this GW roster, but they’ll eventually be exposed as A10 play wears on, especially in the backcourt.
FINAL OUTLOOK: URI looks like the class of the league again, but anything higher than an 8 seed seems like a stretch. This is shaping up to be a down year for the league, and unfortunately one bid seems like the most likely scenario. Bona, Davidson, VCU, and St. Joe’s are likely NIT teams, and Dayton, George Mason, Richmond, and SLU can have CIT/CBI bids if they want them.
A10 PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Jaylen Adams, St. Bonaventure
ALL A10 FIRST TEAM:
Jaylen Adams, St. Bonaventure
Peyton Aldridge, Davidson
EC Matthews, Rhode Island
De’Monte Buckingham, Richmond
Shavar Newkirk, St. Joe’s
ALL A10 SECOND TEAM:
BJ Johnson, La Salle
Yuta Watanabe, George Washington
Mike Lewis, Duquesne
Matt Mobley, St. Bonaventure
Justin Tillman, VCU