Atlantic 10 Preview: Rhode Island leads the way
Beginning in September and running up through November 10th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2017-2018 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.
Today, we are previewing the Atlantic 10.
The Atlantic 10 has consistently been one of the more competitive conferences in the country in recent years, with there not being much to separate the expected contenders from the teams in the middle of the standings.
While that should once again be the case in 2017-18, there does appear to be a clear favorite in Dan Hurley’s Rhode Island Rams.
URI, which won the A-10 tournament and nearly reached the Sweet 16 last season, has a deep, experienced backcourt but won’t lack for challengers either.
VCU, St. Bonaventure and two teams that struggled last season, Saint Joseph’s and Saint Louis, are among the teams that will also be in the A-10 contender conversation this winter.
Below is our breakdown of the Atlantic 10 heading into the 2017-18 campaign.
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FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW
1. Rhode Island is deep on the perimeter but has to replace the league’s best defender: Prior to last season Rhode Island had not reached the NCAA tournament since 1999, when a gifted 6-foot-10 wing nicknamed “The Package” (that would be Lamar Odom) hit a three at the buzzer to beat Temple in the A-10 tournament title game. Not only did Dan Hurley’s team end that drought, but the Rams knocked off Creighton and nearly upset eventual Final Four participant Oregon in the second round.
The question now for URI is what can this group do for an encore, and there’s no denying the fact that this team is loaded on the perimeter. E.C. Matthews, Jarvis Garrett, Jared Terrell, Stanford Robinson and Jeff Dowtin, five of the team’s top seven scorers from a season ago, are all back in Kingston for another run. Christion Thompson and freshman Darron “Fats” Russell will provide additional depth and competition on the perimeter, giving the Rams one of the deepest backcourt rotations in the country, never mind the Atlantic 10.
But there is a big question for this team to answer: how will they account for the losses of Hassan Martin and Kuran Iverson, with the former being the A-10’s best defender? In addition to grabbing 6.8 rebounds and blocking 2.4 shots per game, Martin scored 13.6 points per night as well. And in Iverson, the Rams lose a face-up four with range out beyond the three-point line.
Players such as Cyril Langevine, Nicola Akele and Andre Berry will have every opportunity to earn playing time inside, and if the bigs can rise to the occasion this is a team that can win multiple games in March.
2. Mike Rhoades looks to continue the run of success at VCU: At this point, it’s expected that VCU will be able to continue its run of quality seasons regardless of how many coaching changes the program goes through. Last season the Rams won 25 games, the 11th consecutive season the program has won at least 24 games. During this run the program has employed three different head coaches, with Anthony Grant starting the run and Shaka Smart and Will Wade following with successful seasons of their own.
Wade made the decision to leave for LSU in the spring, opening the door for former VCU assistant Mike Rhoades to make his return to the school after three seasons at Rice. After winning 12 games in each of his first two seasons, Rhoades led the Owls to 23 wins in 2016-17. How big of an achievement was that? Rice last won at least 20 games in a season in 2003-04, and it was just the program’s second 20-win season in 25 years.
Rhoades’ familiarity with the VCU program will help with the transition, as will the return of players such as forward Justin Tillman and point guard Jonathan Williams. VCU has some holes to fill, with JeQuan Lewis, Mo Alie-Cox and promising freshman Samir Doughty all moving on. But, if a freshman class anchored by forward Sean Mobley can chip in and former 4-star recruit De’Riante Jenkins takes a step forward contending for the A-10 crown is a realistic expectation.
3. Anthony Grant will look to do the same at his alma mater, Dayton: Speaking of coaches returning to a familiar environment, Anthony Grant is back in college basketball after serving as an assistant to Billy Donovan with the Oklahoma City Thunder the last two years. Grant is back at his alma mater, where he’ll look to build on the success the program enjoyed under Archie Miller’s direction. However, in order to do so Grant has some significant holes to fill in the rotation.
Four of Dayton’s top five scorers from a season ago, led by versatile wing Charles Cooke IV and point guard Scoochie Smith, have moved on. That means more will be asked of returnees such as forwards Josh Cunningham and Xeryius Williams and guard Darrell Davis, with point guard John Crosby having an opportunity to earn a major increase in minutes as a junior. Dayton adds a 6-member freshman class, which includes redshirt freshman Kostas Antetokounmpo who was declared ineligible to compete last season.
Antetokounmpo can be an immediate impact player for the Flyers and he’ll need to be, as Sam Miller is suspended for the fall semester and Ryan Mikesell will redshirt after undergoing two hip surgeries during the offseason. If the front court can get consistent contributions from players other than Cunningham and Williams, Grant should enjoy a good debut season at his alma mater.
4. Duquesne and Massachusetts have new coaches, and George Washington stabilized its coaching situation: In addition to VCU and Dayton, two other programs made coaching hires during the offseason while a third removed its coach’s interim tag. Duquesne may have made one of the best hires of the 2017 coaching carousel, landing Keith Dambrot after he made Akron a perennial contender for an NCAA bid in the Mid-American Conference. As for UMass, they’ve going the “rising star” route by hiring Matt McCall after Pat Kelsey changed his mind about leaving Winthrop. And at George Washington, Maurice Joseph’s interim tag was removed after he led the Colonials to a 10-8 record in A-10 play and 20 wins overall.
Which of these three coaches is in the best position to experience success in 2017-18? The answer may be McCall, even with the Minutemen having to account for the loss of leading scorer Donte Clark. Big man Rashaan Holloway and guard Luwane Pipkins both return, and grad transfer Jaylen Brantley (via Maryland) will be an asset as well.
At Duquesne, Dambrot’s roster features a guard in Mike Lewis II who was one of the conference’s best freshmen last season. But the loss of another All-Freshman Team selection, forward Isiaha Mike, hurts as the Dukes look to rebuild. And at George Washington, Joseph will have to account for the fact that three of the top four scorers from last season are gone, led by second team all-conference selection Tyler Cavanaugh. Yuta Watanabe returns, and the same can be said for Patrick Steeves. But this team will need to find consistent offensive options outside of Watanabe if they’re to match last season’s win total.
5. Saint Joseph’s is healthy, and Saint Louis has loaded up on quality newcomers: The Hawks and Billikens may be the two teams best positioned to make a major leap up the Atlantic 10 standings, given the players who will either return to the court or become eligible. Phil Martelli saw multiple players who were expected to be key contributors go down with injuries last season, including guards Shavar Newkirk and Lamarr Kimble and forwards Charlie Brown, James Demery and Pierfrancesco Oliva with Oliva missing the entire season.
Those players are all back, and in Newkirk the Hawks have a high-scoring guard (20.2 ppg in 12 games last season) who could work his way into the discussion for A-10 Player of the Year. Saint Louis’ situation is a bit different, with second-year head coach Travis Ford adding the conference’s best recruiting class to a group of transfers who are ready to go after sitting out last season. Guard Adonys Henriquez (UCF) and forwards Javon Bess (Michigan State), D.J. Foreman (Rutgers) and Rashed Anthony (Seton Hall) should be immediate contributors for the Billikens, and the same can be said for talented freshmen Jordan Goodwin and Hasahn French.
If forced to choose one of these schools to threaten for a conference title, the lean here is towards Saint Joseph’s. But if SLU’s newcomers can jell together, they’re just as capable of making some noise when conference play gets going in January.
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PRESEASON ATLANTIC 10 PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Jaylen Adams, St. Bonaventure
The Bonnies reached the 20-win mark for the second consecutive season, and Adams was a big reason why. As a junior the 6-foot-1 guard from Baltimore averaged 20.6 points, 6.5 assists and 3.7 rebounds and 2.1 steals per game. Adams won’t lack for scoring opportunities in Mark Schmidt’s system, with he and fellow senior Matt Mobley being the primary scoring options. If Adams can improve his shooting percentages (41.9 percent FG, 35.6 percent 3PT last season), look out.
THE REST OF THE ALL-ATLANTIC 10 FIRST TEAM
- E.C. Matthews, Rhode Island: Another year removed from the knee injury that ended his 2015-16 season in the opening game, Matthews should be the leader offensively for a talented URI squad.
- Shavar Newkirk, Saint Joseph’s: Newkirk only played in 12 games last season due to injury, averaging 20.3 points, 4.8 rebounds and 3.5 assists per contest.
- Peyton Aldridge, Davidson: With Jack Gibbs having graduated, look for the efficient Aldridge (20.5 ppg, 8.2 rpg) to have even more opportunities to put up numbers as a senior.
- Justin Tillman, VCU: Tillman’s return gives new head coach Mike Rhoades a talented front court option to rely on, with the junior averaging 12.2 points and 8.7 rebounds per game last season.
FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW
- Jordan Goodwin, Saint Louis
- Mike Lewis II, Duquesne
- Matt Mobley, St. Bonaventure
- Otis Livingston, George Mason
- Yuta Watanabe, George Washington
BREAKOUT STAR: B.J. Johnson, La Salle
Johnson, who began his college career at Syracuse, put up good numbers in his first season on the court for La Salle. In 29 games, Johnson averaged 17.6 points and 6.3 rebounds per game, shooting 44.9 percent from the field and 36.2 percent from three. But he did not make any of the A-10 all-conference teams at season’s end. That should change this season, with the 6-foot-7 wing being one of the conference’s top returning scorers.
COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Dr. John Giannini, La Salle
Don’t really think there’s a coach in the conference on the proverbial “hot seat,” given the moves that were made at George Washington, Duquesne and UMass last season. However, in the case of Giannini a better showing would be welcome as his La Salle program has posted losing records in three of the four seasons since reaching the Sweet 16 in 2013. The newcomers from a season ago having a year under their belts should help matters, even with Jordan Price out of eligibility.
ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING ...
Rhode Island can be a second weekend team.
I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT
The resurgence of programs such as George Mason, Saint Joseph’s and Saint Louis.
FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR
- November 13, Rhode Island at Nevada
- November 16, Saint Louis vs. Virginia Tech (Wounded Warrior Classic; New York, N.Y.)
- November 20-22, VCU at the Maui Invitational (opener vs. Marquette)
- December 2, Villanova at Saint Joseph’s
- December 2, Providence at Rhode Island
1. Rhode Island: Dan Hurley’s Rams are loaded on the perimeter, with veterans and underclassmen alike all competing for minutes led by E.C. Matthews, Jared Terrell and Jarvis Garrett. That being said, URI’s ceiling will likely be determined by the development of their front court with both Hassan Martin and Kuran Iverson out of eligibility.
2. VCU: Mike Rhoades is certainly familiar with the VCU program and its run of success. And while the Rams lost three of their top four scorers in JeQuan Lewis, Samir Doughty and Mo Alie-Cox, the returns of Justin Tillman and Jonathan Williams should help matters for VCU.
3. St. Bonaventure: In Jaylen Adams and Matt Mobley, the Bonnies have one of the best backcourt tandems in the country. They’ll score more than their fair share of points, but for St. Bonaventure to be a title contender they have to do a better job on the boards (251st in defensive rebounding percentage).
4. Saint Joseph’s: Everyone’s healthy right now for a team that was hit hard by injuries in 2016-17. If they can stay that way, with Shavar Newkirk leading four double-figure scorers who return, look for Phil Martelli’s team to be a A-10 contender.
5. Dayton: Anthony Grant takes over a program that Archie Miller led to four consecutive seasons of 24 wins or more. There’s still some good talent to work with, including guard Darrell Davis and forwards Josh Cunningham and Xeryius Williams, but replacing your top three scorers is a tough thing to do.
6. Saint Louis: Travis Ford will add multiple transfers to the mix, including guard Adonys Henriquez and forward D.J. Foreman, and freshman guard Jordan Goodwin is a significant pickup for the Billikens. If all of the players can work well together, the Billikens could be in line for a major turnaround after winning 12 games last year.
7. George Mason: Dave Paulsen’s done a good job of turning things around in Fairfax, with the Patriots coming off of their first 20-win season since 2012-13. Guards Otis Livingston II and Jaire Grayer should lead the way offensively, and Greg Calixte can be an impact freshman in the front court.
8. Davidson: The Wildcats lost Jack Gibbs, but Peyton Aldridge is back for his senior season. Also, it’s never wise to underestimate Bob McKillop and what he can do to put his players in position to be successful.
9. La Salle: Dr. John Giannini’s team struggled to establish consistency last season with so many newcomers eligible to play. That shouldn’t be as much of an issue this season, with B.J. Johnson, Pookie Powell and Amar Stukes being the most noteworthy returnees.
10. Richmond: Chris Mooney will have to account for the loss of his top two scorers from a season ago, most notably A-10 POY T.J. Cline. The good news is that guards Khwan Fore and De’Monte Buckingham are back, with the latter being one of the better newcomers in the A-10 last season.
11. George Washington: Having Maurice Joseph’s interim tag removed settles things in the nation’s capital. That being said, this is a group that lost three of its top four scorers from a season ago with senior Yuta Watanabe (12.2 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 2.5 apg) being the lone returnee.
12. Massachusetts: After a successful stint at Chattanooga, Matt McCall makes the move north looking to rejuvenate the UMass program. Donte Clark is gone, but Rashaan Holloway (10.4 ppg, 5.8 rpg) and Luwane Pipkins (10.2 ppg) both return.
13. Duquesne: Keith Dambrot, who built Akron into a perennial power in the MAC, has his work cut out for him in Pittsburgh. The good news is that sophomore guard Mike Lewis II (14.1 ppg, 2.2 rpg) is back after earning a spot on the A-10 All-Rookie Team.
14. Fordham: After winning 17 games in Jeff Neubauer’s debut season the Rams took a small step back in 2016-17. There’s the potential to bounce back, with junior guard Joseph Chartouny (12.1 ppg, 5.0 apg, 4.1 rpg, 3.2 spg) being one of the league’s best perimeter defenders, but he will need help.