To say the Atlantic 10 had an unusual season in 2007-08 would be the understatement of the century. The league raced to a phenomenal start in non-conference play with Massachusetts and Rhode Island stunning Syracuse, Dayton taking down Louisville in Freedom Hall and Pitt at home, and perennial A-10 powerhouse Xavier bullying their way past Kansas State and Virginia. Unfortunately, the conference season started, beginning the downfall for a team like Dayton. They finished with an impressive RPI of 31 due to their remarkable non-conference slate of victories, but failed to make the NCAA Tournament due to a flurry of devastating injuries and subsequent 8-8 record in the Atlantic 10. Rhode Island is another example of a team that found themselves in the Top 25 in November and an 11 seed in the A-10 tournament in March. Xavier ended up representing the conference well with their march to the Elite Eight.
1. Xavier Musketeers: Shocking, right? Coach Sean Miller and the Musketeers once again find themselves the near-unanimous favorites to win another Atlantic 10 title. The losses of key seniors and floor leaders like Drew Lavender, Stanley Burrell and Josh Duncan are subtractions hard to stomach, but Miller has enough talent returning to win the conference. The frontcourt will be led by two double-digit scorers, Derrick Brown and C.J. Anderson, who just may be the two best frontcourt players in the conference. Keep an eye on 7’0 freshman Kenny Frease in the middle as someone who will improve mightily with development. Replacing Burrell and Lavender in the backcourt isn’t an easy task, but Miller has a slew of point guards to work with. Jordan Crawford won’t be eligible till next season, but former Indiana mate Terrell Holloway is. Shooter B.J. Raymond and speedster Dante Jackson lead the way for Xavier, teaming up with Brad Redford, Michigan’s Mr. Basketball. A difficult non-conference slate will test this untested Musketeer core right out of the gate.
2. Temple Owls: The Owls over-achieved last season more than any other Atlantic-10 team, going from a middle-of-the-pack sneaky team to conference tournament champion under coach Frank Dunphy. The Owls will definitely miss their primary ball handler in Mark Tyndale, but return their best player: Dionte Christmas. Christmas is attempting to become the first three-time conference scoring champion in A-10 history after finishing with 19.7 PPG last season and shooting 37% from behind the arc. Three other starters return along with Christmas, including forwards Lavoy Allen and Sergio Olmos, the defensive shot blocker extraordinaire. Allen is more prone to be effective on the offensive end, where he finished with 8.1 PPG on an efficient 56% from the floor. Point guard is the one main concern. Dunphy is hoping either junior Luis Guzman or senior Semaj Inge to emerge in practice and take over for Tyndale. Temple could very well find themselves on the bubble by the time March rolls around.
3. Massachusetts Minutemen: The loss of coach Travis Ford to Oklahoma State stings, but the Minutemen found a capable replacement in Derek Kellogg, the former UMass point guard and recruiting mastermind at Memphis. That strong suit will be immediately put to the test in normally-barren New England high school basketball. Their best player and 19 PPG scorer, Gary Forbes, is gone, but Massachusetts returns two studs: blossoming Ricky Harris and outstanding senior point guard Chris Lowe. Lowe (6.3 APG) molded into one of the top point guards in the nation, finding three-point specialist Harris behind the arc enough times so he could drain 104 threes. Wake Forest transfer Anthony Gurley also helps immediately, but the offense will clearly revolve around Lowe finding Harris outside with the newly instituted dribble-drive motion offense, or doing most of the scoring on his own. The frontcourt is the clear weakness. It’s possible 7-foot Luke Bonner emerges as he becomes more aggressive inside.
4. Dayton Flyers: As I pointed out in the intro, Dayton’s season was a roller coaster ride last year. They went from defeating Pitt by 25 at home in December to needing to win their last three games just to finish .500 in the conference. Chris Wright appeared to be the next big-time Atlantic 10 player before breaking his ankle in the opener against Rhode Island and missing the rest of the regular season. Having Wright for a full season scoring and rebounding will boost the Flyers immensely. Losing star Brian Roberts hurts dramatically in the backcourt, so they’ll turn to an improved frontcourt at their strength. Marcus Johnson is a personal favorite, an athletic and long forward who could emerge as a 13-7 threat this season. Senior Charles Little took a step back last year and is hoping to repeat his double-digit scoring output of his sophomore year. Dayton won’t find themselves #14 in the nation any time this year (or 12th in the conference), and the NIT is a likely destination.
5. Charlotte 49ers: Coach Bobby Lutz has plenty to work with this upcoming season. He returns nine of his top ten players from a group that shocked Clemson OOC and beat Temple and Saint Joe’s. The one player missing happens to be their best from 07-08: Leemire Goldwire, who averaged 18.6 PPG last year starring at shooting guard. Rather than guards, Charlotte’s strength will be in the frontcourt this year. They’re led by a pair of senior forwards, Lamont Mack- who scored 15+ points in 11 of the final 17 games of last season (including 27 at defensively-strong Richmond)- and Charlie Coley- an athletic, scoring forward who also happens to be the team’s most capable rebounding presence. Charlotte has always focused on shooting plenty of three-pointers under Lutz’s tenure. They won’t have any trouble finding open jumpers with the focus on Coley and Mack, along with boasting hoisters such as newcomer Shamarr Bowden and junior transfer Rashad Coleman. While the frontcourt is strong, Lutz may have a difficult time finding an impact player in the backcourt this season.
6. Saint Joseph’s Hawks: Nick Calathes and Rob Ferguson shouldered 29 points and 12 rebounds per game last season for Phil Martelli and Saint Joe’s. Both are gone, so it’s up to all-league forward Ahmad Nivins to take over as a dominant big man for the Hawks. Nivins is a legitimate draft prospect with an exceptional offensive game facing the basket. To help Saint Joe’s contend for a postseason bid, Nivins will have to compliment his scoring with improved defense and rebounding. The backcourt will be led by two returning starters- Tasheed Carr and Darrin Govens. Carr is a strong candidate to improve on his 10.8 PPG from last season with his shooting potential and Govens is more of the steady point guard type. The strengths of Saint Joe’s will be Nivins, coaching, balance, and an impressive freshman class.
7. Richmond Spiders: Richmond and coach Chris Mooney defied expectations and finished in a tie for fourth in the conference, earning a trip to the CBI. Any plans for a postseason tournament were put in serious jeopardy when potential first-team forward Dan Geriot tore his ACL in a summer league game. This is an extremely tough blow for Mooney, who planned on Richmond to sneak up on Xavier, Temple and UMass in the conference. The Spiders do boast 2007-08 Rookie of the Year Kevin Anderson, an excellent scoring guard who also happens to be the team’s strongest passer and defensive player. They hope that sophomore guard Justin Harper can emerge and Richmond can surprise some folks in the Atlantic 10.
8. La Salle Explorers: Could La Salle be the dark horse of the conference? Not unless their defense improves under John Giannini, but they certainly have a chance. Losing the Atlantic 10’s all time leading three point shooter in Darnell Harris is a significant blow. Returning is super-athletic guard/forward Rodney Green, a quick and playmaking wing who led the team in APG and SPG along with 13+ PPG. Vernon Goodridge could be Newcomer of the Year in the A-10. The transfer from Mississippi State will prove a valuable compliment to sophomore Jerrell Williams in the paint. Local Philly star Devon White will see playing time immediately at the forward position.
9. Rhode Island Rams: Much like Dayton, URI’s season was a roller coaster ride. They began the year defeating three Big East schools, nearly knocking off BC on the road, and entering the Top 25 with a 19-3 record. They ended up losing to Creighton in the NIT. Coach Jim Baron has to be feeling some pressure. URI has never danced under his tutelage and have made the NIT just three times. Losing all-league forward Will Daniels doesn’t help. One of the top players for Baron this season will be Jimmy Baron. Yes, you guessed right, he is the coaches son. He drained 99 three pointers last season. Also leading the way is senior Kahiem Seawright, the team’s leading rebounder who must take on a bigger scoring load with Daniels no longer aiding the effort.
10. Saint Louis Billikens: Other than Kevin Lisch and Tommie Liddell, Rick Majerus and the Billikens are extremely young once again. They move to a new arena with less fanfare, and this could be a profound welcome to a team that finished last in the conference in scoring and managed just 20 points in a stunning loss to George Washington. Lisch and Liddell form a very strong backcourt, but Majerus knows he needs more from other pieces. He hopes freshman point guard Kwamain Mitchell emerges. I saw Mitchell in high school a few times and I think he can develop into a steady player for Saint Louis. An extremely young frontcourt appears to be the clear weakness.
11. Duquesne: Damian Saunders, a top A-10 newcomer last year, looks to emerge in a lean frontcourt
12. George Washington: 27-3 seems like decades ago; hopes ride with a healthy Taylor King at point guard
13. St. Bonaventure: Return of two starters and a promising class give hope to the future, present is ugly
14. Fordham: Rams lost all five of their starting seniors who finished just 6-10 in the conference
First Team All Atlantic-10:
G- Dionte Christmas, Temple
G- Ricky Harris, Massachusetts
F- Derrick Brown, Xavier
F- Chris Wright, Dayton
F- Ahmad Nivins, Saint Joe’s
Coach of the Year- Sean Miller, Xavier
Newcomer of the Year- Vernon Goodridge, La Salle
Sleeper Team- Saint Joseph’s Hawks
NIT- Temple, Massachusetts, Dayton, Charlotte