By Phil Neuffer, Associate College Basketball Editor
OUTLOOK: Conference realignment has largely been the domain of powerful BCS conferences in football but the Atlantic 10 made splashes this off season by expanding its already strong group of teams. In come two of the most successful mid-major programs of the past few seasons in Virginia Commonwealth, coming from the Colonial Athletic Association, and Butler, formerly of the Horizon League. The Rams and Bulldogs will get added into a conference that is arguably the best outside of the six power conferences, with such postseason stalwarts as Xavier, Temple and Dayton.
Last season however it was Saint Louis that really made noise, bouncing back from a 12-19 season in 2011 to a 26-8 mark and an NCAA Tournament berth. The Billikens also won in the first round of the NCAA Tournament and enter this season poised to make last season's success a trend. Temple may have something to say about that though with the return of prolific scorer Khalif Wyatt and the winning culture that head coach Fran Dunphy has instilled on North Broad Street. Xavier, as usual, also figures to be in title contention after the Musketeers won more games in the NCAA Tournament than any other team in the conference.
Don't leave out the newcomers though. Butler lost only one starter off of a 22-15 squad and added a lot to its offensive punch with Arkansas-transfer Rotnei Clarke, who will team with Chase Stigall in a talented backcourt. Guard-play will also be the key for Shaka Smart and the VCU Rams, which bring their relentless defensive pressure to the A-10.
Although not clear favorites, a number of other teams that figure to finish in the middle of the pack have the potential to be dark horse candidates for the conference crown. Massachusetts returns one of the best, if undersized, guards in the conference in Chaz Williams to a team that lost in the NIT Championship game. Saint Joseph's has a good core for Phil Martelli to work around and is coming off a solid 20-14 season. La Salle can shoot the lights out from anywhere on the court and with any improvement up front, could contend. Dayton as always will be a tough out especially with Second-Team All-Atlantic 10 guard Kevin Dillard running the show. Saint Bonaventure may have lost Andrew Nicholson, but the surprising Bonnies of 2012 won't be in free fall this season with players like Demitrius Conger still on campus.
Richmond and Charlotte both seem like boom or bust teams that could do exceedingly well if things fall into place or fall in the opposite direction if not. Charlotte has a nice 1-2 punch with Chris Braswell and DeMario Mayfield, while the Spiders have a number of skilled scoring guards like Darien Brothers and Cedrick Lindsay.
With so many quality teams it will be tough for those squads trying to rebuild from tough seasons a year ago to make the kind of progress that may be desired. George Washington lost its best scorer in Tony Taylor and a few other starters and will rely on some unproven players to increase the win total of 10 last season. Fordham may be headed in the right direction in the next few seasons but the Rams still have a lot to prove before finishes in the top of the conference can be expected. Duquesne has a new coach in Jim Ferry, replacing Ron Everhart, who got the team to three postseason berths in his six seasons. Rhode Island has very little depth returning to a team that won only seven games a year ago.
CONFERENCE CHAMPION: Saint Louis
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. Saint Louis, 2. Temple, 3. VCU, 4. Butler, 5. Xavier, 6. Massachusetts, 7. Saint Joseph's, 8. La Salle, 9. Dayton, 10. St. Bonaventure, 11. Richmond, 12. Charlotte, 13. George Washington, 14. Fordham, 15. Duquesne, 16. Rhode Island.
TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:
SAINT LOUIS: To say that Rick Majerus finally got Saint Louis back on the college basketball map would be an understatement. The Billikens rolled to a 26-8 overall mark, spent several weeks in the national rankings and got a berth in the NCAA Tournament where they advanced to the field of 32 for the first time since 1998. What Majerus' squad excelled in was defense, which should continue to be the team's gameplan this season. Saint Louis ranked eighth in the nation in points allowed per game (57.6 ppg) which made up for the team's 10th-best scoring offense (68.7 ppg). The offense may take a hit with leading scorer Brian Conklin gone, but the defense should remain just as potent. It is still unclear when go-to guard Kwamain Mitchell will return from surgery he had in October to repair a fracture in his left foot. The senior guard (12.4 ppg, 3.7 apg) is the team's leading returning scorer and also runs the point but is currently expected to miss up to six weeks. That could equate to a bumpy start to the season for Saint Louis. All is not lost though especially if players like Jorair Jett (6.5 ppg), Mike McCall (7.0 ppg) and newcomer Keith Carter can produce effectively out of the backcourt. Up front the Billikens are set with double-double threat Dwayne Evans. The 6-5 forward is a bit undersized for his position but attacks the glass well after averaging 7.9 points and 7.3 rebounds per game last season. He pairs with more traditional big man Cody Ellis (10.1 ppg, 3.4 rpg) to form a powerful frontcourt.
TEMPLE: When Fran Dunphy took over for legendary Temple head coach John Chaney in 2006 the program had lost much of the luster that had propelled Chaney to his prized spot among college coaches. Dunphy has regained that type of success for the Owls, who have transformed themselves back into one of the best mid-major programs in the country. Temple won't be able to lean on that mid-major power long though with a move to the Big East next season. For now Temple can try to go for its fourth A-10 title in the last five seasons and sixth straight NCAA Tournament appearance. That might seem like a tough task for a team that lost a number of important pieces like point guard Juan Fernandez, slashing winger Ramone Moore and ferocious center Michael Eric. However, while much has been lost, the Owls have regained some as well with the return of Scootie Randall. The 6-6 swing man can shoot from the outside and put the ball on the floor and get to the basket, but was red-shirted last season with a knee injury. In his last full season Randall averaged 10.7 points per game. Randall won't be the only scorer on the wings for the Owls who also return senior Khalif Wyatt. The 6-4 guard (17.1 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 3.3 apg) is a bigger guard that uses his size to create his shot and can heat up in an instant, as evidenced by his 22-point eruption in the Owls' upset win over Duke last season. Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson (9.2 ppg, 6.6 rpg) has developed nicely in the past few seasons and Anthony Lee (5.0 rpg, 5.2 rpg) will also be a strong presence on the inside.
VCU: Smart proved that his team that reached the Final Four in 2011 was no fluke as last year's squad came within two-point of the Sweet 16 in a 63-61 loss to Indiana in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. That loss capped off a 29-7 overall season that included a 15-3 mark against conference foes. Those opponents will be different this season as the Rams trade in the competition of the Colonial Athletic Association for that of the A-10. The transition shouldn't be too daunting for Smart and his group even as the Rams replace a key piece in Bradford Burgess. The leading scorer (13.4 ppg), Burgess will be sorely missed but there is still a great deal of talent and experience on the roster. Foremost among those returning is guard Darius Theus. The 6-3 senior (8.7 ppg, 4.7 apg) does an excellent job of running the point, while also being a key component in the Rams' up-tempo defense. That defense was especially potent last season, forcing 17.9 turnovers a game, while leading the nation in steals (10.6 pg). Theus will be aided by Briante Weber (4.9 ppg) in the backcourt along with three-point shooter Troy Daniels (10.0 ppg) and skilled scorer Rob Brandenberg (9.0 ppg). The interior was left largely intact with the two main contributors in Juvonte Reddic and D.J. Haley back. Reddic (10.3 ppg, 6.6 rpg) is the team's lead returning scorer and rebounder, while contributing effectively on defense with a team-high 47 blocked shots. At 7-0, Haley is a force up front with his size alone but must use that to increase his productivity (3.2 ppg, 3.9 rpg).
BUTLER: Like VCU, Butler is making the move to the A-10 after spending the last few seasons as darlings of the mid-major scene. The Bulldogs made five straight appearances in the NCAA Tournament from 2006-2011 including back-to- back trips to the NCAA Championship game, with both times ending in heart break. Still the Bulldogs would certainly trade for that type of success over last season's outcome. Even though the Bulldogs got a postseason berth with an invite to the College Basketball Invitational, Brad Stevens has made Butler a team for which anything short of an NCAA Tournament berth is a failure. Reclaiming a spot in the field of 68 will be tougher this season with the bump in competition from the Horizon League to the A-10. However, the Bulldogs lost only one starter from last season's 22-15 squad and also got a huge upgrade in Arkansas-transfer Rotnei Clarke. The 6-0 guard was a Second-Team All-SEC selection two seasons ago and scored more than 15 points per game in two seasons with the Razorbacks. Clarke will also make up for the loss of Chrishawn Hopkins, who was dismissed from the team in September. Chase Stigall (5.2 ppg, 2.1 rpg) will assume a larger role with Hopkins and Ronald Nored gone. The Bulldogs will also benefit from having their top scorer and rebounder from last season back on the front line in Andrew Smith (10.9 ppg, 5.2 rpg) and Roosevelt Jones (7.8 ppg, 6.0 rpg). At 6-10, Smith as the size to dominate, while Jones (6-4) is undersized but makes up for it with aggressive play on the boards.
XAVIER: Any discussion of teams in the mix for the A-10 crown always seems to have Xavier mentioned heavily and for good reason, as the Musketeers have made seven straight trips to the NCAA Tournament, have been ranked in the top 25 at some point in six of those seasons and are one of just four teams to make a run to the Sweet 16 in each of the last five years. Xavier's company in that feat (Kansas, Michigan State and North Carolina) speaks to how powerful the Musketeers have been. Last season's success came despite a swoon that came after the unfortunate incident during a rivalry game with cross-town rival Cincinnati in which the Musketeers lost five of six. Streaks like that weren't common for a team that finished 23-12 overall. Getting back to that level, or higher, will be a tough task for head coach Chris Mack with the departure of his top three scorers, including Tu Holloway (17.5 ppg, 4.9 apg). Semaj Christon, who played his high school ball nearby, is set to compete to replace Holloway with returning sophomore Dee Davis (1.9 ppg), who played sparingly last season. Neither will likely take on the same type of scoring load that Holloway did but will be marked as success if they can consistently feed the ball to open shooters. The Musketeers were ranked just ninth in the conference last season in assists per game (13.1 pg). The target of the majority of those passes will go to Dezmine Wells. The 6-5 swing man (9.8 ppg, 4.9 rpg) is the team's top returning scorer and rebounder and will be called upon to carry much of the offensive load this time around.
MASSACHUSETTS: Derek Kellog had his best season at the helm for the Minutemen last year. His squad finished with 25 wins, made a run to the A-10 conference title game and then advanced all the way to the NIT final before losing to Stanford 74-64. The 25 wins was the most since Travis Ford's final season in 2008. However, it did not lead to an NCAA Tournament appearance for the Minutemen. That drought has begun to get worrisome for folks in Amherst who have not seen an NCAA Tournament club since 1998, which is just three years removed from when Kellog was on the court as a player for the Minutemen. Could this be the season the Minutemen change that trend? If it's going to be, Chaz Williams will be the man that will lead the charge. The 5-8 guard (16.9 ppg, 4.4rpg, 6.2 apg, 2.2 spg) may not have a ton of size but that doesn't matter as he is clearly one of the best all-around players in the conference and far and away the most important piece to the UMass puzzle. Williams won't have to do it alone though with skilled big men Raphiael Putney (10.1 ppg, 5.9 rpg) and Terrell Vinson (9.9 ppg, 5.1 rpg) back to man the frontcourt. Putney had the edge in stats overall last season but Vinson played better down the stretch in terms of scoring with double figures in four of the final eight games. Jesse Morgan (9.9 ppg) will contribute with his ability to shoot from the perimeter.
SAINT JOSEPH'S: Things seem to be turning around for the Hawks, who posted their first 20-win season since 2008 last year. On selection Sunday the Hawks were one of a number teams that sat squarely on the bubble and although that bubble would burst for the Hawks, who failed to get an invite to the NCAA Tournament for the fourth straight season, getting back to winning consistently is a good first step in revamping a program that won 11 games in each of the previous two seasons. Phil Martelli's squad was a very effective, if not overly productive offensive team last season. The Hawks ranked at the top of the A-10 in shooting percentage (47.0) and third in three-point shooting (36.3 percent). Returning the bulk of the core from that squad should make things go smoothly. Langston Galloway (15.5 ppg, 4.5 apg) is the go-to scorer on the team even with Carl Jones and his 17-point-per-game average still on the roster. The pair will lead a high-powered offensive backcourt that should be able to keep up with any in the conference. The Hawks won't just be tough to guard on the wings though with a trio of post players that can score, as well as rebound. C.J. Aiken, a 6-9 forward, and Ronald Roberts, a 6-8 forward, are the two stalwarts. Aiken (10.9 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 3.5 bpg) is also a menace to would be scorers in the paint after he swatted a conference- high 3.5 shots per game last season. Roberts (10.9 ppg, 5.9 rpg) is a proven scorer off the bench but should fit seamlessly into the starting lineup if Martelli choose to use him in that capacity.
LA SALLE: For the first time in 20 years La Salle finished with 20 wins and a winning percentage above .600 last season. That was the best overall mark the team had ever had as a member of the A-10, which it joined in 1995. Increased competition will not help the Explorers regain that type of success especially with top scorer Earl Pettis (15.4 ppg) gone. Even without Pettis the offense should still be solid. The Explorers ranked third in the conference in points per game (72.9 ppg) last season and return there other top four scorers from that squad. The offense is a bit of a boom or bust type with the team living and dying by the three-point shot. Last season that strategy worked well for the Explorers who ranked at the top of the A-10 and fourth in the nation in three point field goal percentage (40.6). Ramon Galloway (14.1 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 3.5 apg) is the top returning scorer but provides much more than that with strong rebounding and ball movement from the wing. The former USC Trojan really improved his outside shooting last season knocking down 44.2 percent of his shots from beyond the arc, a career high. Tyreek Duran (13.2 pg, 3.4 rpg, 4.0 apg) is another Explorer that contributes in a number of ways while Sam Mills (10.6 ppg) can light it up from beyond the arc with the best of them, The list of long-range shooters doesn't end there with D.J. Peterson and his 48.0 percent shooting percentage from beyond the arc returning.
DAYTON: Another 20-win season was put in the books by Dayton last season, the fifth straight for the Flyers and the first under rookie coach Archie Miller. However with just 20 wins exactly the Flyers have now won fewer games than the previous season in three straight seasons. That is not the type of trend that normally ends with a quick turnaround back to the very top of the conference, especially with two more talented squads in the fold. Miller must find a replacement for departing forward Chris Johnson who capped off a stellar career at Dayton last season by leading the team in rebounding (6.4 pg) and ranking second in scoring (12.4 pg). Kevin Dillard (13.3 ppg, 6.0 apg) won't be able to make up for Johnson on the boards but the 6-0 point guard will surely be able to keep his high rate of offensive production up. Dillard ranked second in the A-10 in assists last season and was the Flyers' leading scorer as well. Dillard will be without one of his running mates from last season in Matt Kavanaugh. The formerly projected starting center (9.0 ppg, 5.9 rpg) was suspended for the season in late October and will leave a big hole in the middle. That opens up room for Devin Oliver (4.9 ppg, 5.0 rpg) and freshman Devon Scott to get time on the court to produce. Scott scored 17.5 points per game as a senior and at 6-8 is one of the biggest players on the roster.
SAINT BONAVENTURE: Nobody saw the Bonnies coming last season but time and time again Mark Schmidt's team did the unthinkable en route to a conference title and an NCAA Tournament berth. It was the first time the Bonnies had won 20 games since 2000 which also coincides with the last time the squad made it to the Big Dance. The Bonnies didn't just make it to the NCAA Tournament though as Schmidt's unit gave ACC champion Florida State all it could handle before dropping a 66-63 decision in the round of 64. Repeating that success may be just as impossible as replacing the player who fueled the Bonnies' run; Andrew Nicholson. The 2012 A-10 Player of the Year averaged a hefty 18.5 points and 8.4 rebounds per game en route to becoming the first player drafted in the first round from St Bonaventure since Bob Lanier. Nicholson's efforts also helped the Bonnies rank first in the conference in rebounding margin (+5.5) and second in scoring defense (65.0 ppg). Now Schmidt will need the players who filled in around Nicholson to step up. Demetrius Conger (12.1 ppg, 6.2 rpg) is the perfect candidate to at least attempt to replace that production. The 6-6 forward shot over 50 percent from the floor last season but is part of a very weak returning frontcourt. Charlon Kloof (6.4 ppg, 2.7 apg) and Eric Mosley (6.6 ppg) are solid enough in the backcourt on a team that brings back eight players from last season.
RICHMOND: The Spiders would more than likely appreciate a chance to remind people that VCU is not the first team from Virginia in the A-10 and not the first one to be in contention nationally recently either. The Spiders made back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances during the 2009-2010 and 2010-2011 seasons including a run to the Sweet 16 in 2011. However, Richmond is a year removed from those successes after finishing just 16-16 overall and 7-9 in conference play last season. Richmond was a team that really struggled offensively last season. The Spiders ranked ninth in the conference in points per game (69.0), 10th in field goal percentage (42.8) and 11th in assists per game (12.4 pg). The Spiders were also weak on the boards, ranking dead last in the conference (30.3 pg). There isn't a whole lot of immediately apparent help up front although freshmen Terry Allen (6-8) and Luke Piotrowski (6-11) will add size to a very undersized roster. The offense's strength will be from the outside. Darien Brothers (14.6 ppg) led the team in scoring last season and will be back again this season to provide a go-to scorer for the Spiders. Kendall Anthony (13.0 ppg) is the back after ranking second on the team in scoring last season. At 5-8 he may struggle against bigger guards but his ability to shoot is unquestioned.
CHARLOTTE: Alan Major hasn't been able to crack the code of the A-10 yet in his two seasons at the helm for Charlotte. The 49ers are just 23-37 in his two seasons as head coach, and have just one more chance to make a run in the conference before jettisoning for to Conference USA next season. Any chance at a surprise run up the standings could rest on the ankle of DeMario Mayfield. The junior guard put up solid numbers in his sophomore season (11.2 ppg, 7.0 rpg) but has been rehabbing a high ankle sprain in the off season and it remains to be seen when and if he will be back to 100 percent. If Mayfield can perform at the same level as last season he will add a nice scoring alternative to Chris Braswell. The 6-9 forward is a force inside scoring in bunches (15.6 ppg) while crashing the boards (7.6 pg) as good as anyone in the conference. Pierria Henry is the player to watch in the backcourt. Henry (7.2 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 3.4 apg) made solid contributions last season and was a menace on defense ranking second in the conference in steals (2.4 pg). Henry really needs to improve his offensive production as does the team as a whole. The 49ers ranked 12th in the A-10 last season in points (67.0 pg) and field goal percentage (41.2).
GEORGE WASHINGTON: For three seasons from 2004 to 2007 the Colonials were one of the premier teams in this conference with three straight NCAA Tournament appearances, including a run to the second round during a sparkling 27-3 season in 2006. Those days seem distant to the Colonials, who are coming off of their third season with 10 or fewer wins in the last five years. A 10-21 squad was not exactly what Mike Lonergan envisioned in his first season patrolling the bench for the Colonials. The squad's struggles were mainly offensive with the Colonials ranked second to last in the conference in scoring (62.0 ppg). Still George Washington was competitive for a 21-loss team thanks to some spirited play on defense with the team holding foes to 66.7 points per contest for a scoring margin of just -4.7. Getting the offense to improve is a tall task when you lose your top scorer, which Lonergan did with the graduation of Tony Taylor (13.1 ppg). The focus of the team will shift to the frontcourt with Taylor's departure. David Pellom (10.4 ppg, 6.1 rpg) is a dependable scorer and one of three players to average in double digits for the Colonials last season. Villanova-transfer Isaiah Armwood and international recruits Kevin Larsen and Nemanja Mikic will infuse some new blood up front. Both Larsen and Mikic played some high school ball in the states meaning their transition will not be as drastic. Lasan Kromah (11.1 ppg, 5.1 rpg) figures to be the best option in the backcourt.
FORDHAM: Finishing last in the conference certainly isn't a reason to celebrate especially in a basketball hot-bed like New York City. Still for Tom Pecora, the Rams actually progressed in his second season, winning 10 games overall which almost matched its total from the previous three seasons (11). The Rams are still a long way from contending with the squad having just one winning season since 1992. There are four starters back for the Rams, giving Pecora some experienced players to work with. Forward Chris Gaston will be called on to keep up his stellar play from last season. Gaston (17.1 ppg, 9.9 rpg) is a threat to put up a double-double night in and night out and can also protect the rim somewhat effectively (1.6 bpg). He was the leading rebounder in the A-10 last season and the only player to average more than nine boards a contest. Branden Frazier (11.7 ppg, 4.1 apg) is a solid guard that could turn into something more with some efficient shooting from the outside. Frazier, along with the rest of the squad. will also need to do a better job of setting up teammates for open looks after the Rams ranked dead last in the conference in field goal percentage (38.3) and second to last in assists (12.0 pg). Bryan Smith (9.6 ppg) is another decent scorer who needs to improve his offensive efficiency.
DUQUESNE: Even though Ron Everhart oversaw a real lift for the Dukes in his tenure with double-digit wins in six straight seasons, the longest stretch since a five-season streak from 1990 to 1995, his days were numbered in Pittsburgh after last season. It wasn't just double digit wins he brought, but four winning seasons which eclipsed the programs total from the previous 25 years. Filling those shoes at the end of the bench is Jim Ferry, who comes over after a 10-year stint at Long Island. Ferry inherits a team that lost two of its best players to transfer in T.J. McConnell (Arizona) and Mike Talley (Eastern Michigan) and two more to graduation in B.J. Monteiro and Eric Evans. The four combined to score 43.3 points per game for a Duquesne team that ranked fourth in the conference in scoring (72.6 ppg). So to say that Ferry has his work cut out for him would be an understatement. Still there are some pillars to rely on, especially Sean Johnson. The senior guard (13.5 ppg, 3.2 rpg) was the second best scorer on the team last season. Center Andre Marhold (5.1 ppg) also has a host of starting experience with 22 last season. Jerry Jones (6.4 ppg, 3.2 rpg) will have a bigger role to play after serving as a reserve last season, while newcomers and smaller role players from last year will need to step up as well.
RHODE ISLAND: It was an absolute free fall for the Rams last season. Rhode Island mustered only seven total wins after winning at least 20 in the previous four seasons. Jim Baron wasn't given a chance to resuscitate the program as he was fired after the second-worst win total of his tenure. The role of bringing the Rams back into contention will now fall to Dan Hurley, the former head coach at Wagner. Obviously a team that won only seven games will be a large rebuilding project but what makes matters worse is that the Rams have only eight players eligible to play. Worse still is that they are where Rhode Island actually excelled, ranking 21st nationally in rebounding (38.4 pg). The team took a major hit with the departure of Orion Outerbridge and Jonathan Holton, who combined to averaged 14.9 boards per game. That leaves a lot of production for top returning scorer Nikola Malesevic (11.0 ppg, 3.0 rpg) to try to replace. He will need the help of freshmen Jordan Hare and Mike Aaman, who need to grow up quickly to aid in that mission. Andre Malone (9.3 ppg) should be able to help take on some of the scoring load with increased play time, although he only played in 10 games last season. Mike Powell (8.7 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 3.5 apg) meanwhile will run the point and try to help the Rams improve from a last place finish in assists (11.2 pg).