The Atlantic 10 falls somewhere between the mid-majors and the power conferences in college basketball. The league consistently gets multiple NCAA bids, so it’s at the very least on a par with the Pac-12, but there’s also no doubt it’s not seen as even a mid-level power conference, along the lines of the SEC. Whether the league can change that perception for the better this year is anyone’s guess, but they’re off to a good start. Xavier beat highly regarded Vanderbilt on the road. Dayton, a team without big expectations, beat Minnesota and Wake Forest, comparable opponents in their own conferences. And Rick Majerus’ St. Louis Billikens have topped them all, winning the 76 Classic in Anaheim over Thanksgiving weekend. St. Louis beat Boston College, Villanova and Oklahoma in succession, and also has a non-conference win over Washington. There are four separate BCS conferences Majerus’ team knocked off and it signals the potential for a good year in the A-10.
St. Louis is off to the hot start, but they will need some consistent frontcourt help to go along with guards Kyle Cassidy and Mike McCall. Xavier, the perennial power of this league has no such concerns. With seven-footer Kenny Frease manning the middle and still not at the ceiling of his potential in his senior year, the Musketeers have the chance to be a great team, as Frease combines with A-10 Player of the Year Tu Holloway in the backcourt. Off-guard Mark Lyons can take some of the pressure off Holloway and with Xavier it’s not about whether they are the favorite in the Atlantic 10, it’s about whether they can make a major splash on a national level. If the incoming freshman can provide a little depth, they have a chance.
Temple is off to a slow start, with a loss at Bowling Green going along with a more respectable defeat at Purdue, but the Owls should bounce back thanks to excellent perimeter depth. Juan Fernandez is a quality shooter, and he’s joined by Ramone Moore and Khalif Wyatt. The key to Temple’s success will be the play of 6’11” senior Michael Eric in the post. He has to assert himself on a nightly basis for the Owls to rise above the NCAA bubble.
The Notebook would regard Xavier as a clear favorite, Temple as an NCAA team and St. Louis has to be given some respect after what they’ve done on the floor. Duquesne has a chance for a run at March Madness. I thought the Dukes would be better last year, and they need help up front, but they have quality sophomore guards back in T.J. McConnell and Mike Talley to go with a good swingman in B.J. Monteiro. A date with intra-city rival Pitt on Wednesday promises an interesting test. Beyond this though, there is some serious rebuilding to do. Consider the following…
*Richmond, a part of the league’s upper-crust and regular NCAA participant, loses outstanding players in guard Kevin Anderson and forward Justin Harper, not to mention the supporting cast.
*UMass loses leading scorer Anthony Gurley and with head coach Derek Kellogg feeling some heat to do more than go .500, it could be a long season in Amherst.
*Charlotte has a top forward in Chris Braswell, but almost nothing else and second-year coach Alan Major is beginning the rebuilding process after a horrible year in 2011.
*LaSalle lost its best player, center Aaric Murray when he transferred to West Virginia.
*Fordham has another one of the league’s better forwards in Chris Gaston, but he’s going to get lonely there in the Bronx trying to carry the Rams by himself.
*Dayton’s been a good, albeit frustrating team for their fans as they tease in November and December and then fade in league play. New coach Archie Miller has to rebuild the team around forward Chris Johnson, a good scorer and rebounder.
*George Washington has the same combo of a new head coach—Mike Lonergan in this case—and one good building block. Here it’s Tony Taylor, one of the A-10’s best point guards after Holloway.
*Rhode Island lost everyone from last year and now they’re losing games left and right, already off to a 1-5 start.
Is anyone else left? St. Bonaventure and St. Joe’s have hope for good seasons. The Bonnies have 6’9” post man Andrew Nicholson, one of the best players in the league and he’s got help up front with Da’Quan Cook, and swingman Michael Davenport. They could be a real darkhorse, and I’d be higher on them, but an early loss to Cleveland State makes me worry that perhaps this program hasn’t reached the maturity level to win consistently. St. Joe’s has run with the big boys in the past (recall in 2004 they were the #1 seed in the East and reached a regional final) and has gone through a rough patch of late. Phil Martinelli rebuilt with underclassmen last year, finished the season on an up note and I would expect them to fight their way back to NIT level this season.
As for the NCAA Tournament, it looks like a Xavier-Temple-St. Louis league, but the positive is that trio could make a national splash.