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A look ahead: The 2014-15 Atlantic 10

We’re just a week past the official end to the 2013-14 college basketball season, some seven months until next year’s action, but that hasn’t stopped national pundits from looking ahead to next year’s early rankings and bracketology. On paper, things are looking good for the Rams, once again. ESPN ranked VCU No.14 in their “Way-Too-Early Top 25″, as well as seeded them a five seed in next season’s NCAA tournament, while RealGM’s returning production breakdown has the black and gold a spot higher at No.13 due to returning 70% of their minutes and the stingiest defense in the predicted top-25.

A quick look at what we know of next season’s A-10 (in order of 2013-14 final ranking)

1. Saint Louis (27-7, 13-4) – The Billikens will look very different from last year’s team, but will they reload like VCU’s 2011-12 team that lost four starters and immediately returned to the NCAA tournament, or is this the end of an era at SLU? Last season’s A-10 regular season champs went with a senior-heavy rotation (five senior starters) and because of that, will lose 75.3% of their scoring heading into next season. Their leading returning scorer, Austin McBroom, averaged 7.3 points in 21.5 minutes per game this past season. SLU brings in Villanova transfer Achraf Yacoubou as well as a six-man recruiting class headlined by three ESPN 3-stars. Outlook: Jim Crews has his work cutout for him in keeping the Billikens out of the bottom half of the conference next season.

Mo Alie-Cox impressed as a freshman but has the unenviable task of helping ease the loss of Juvonte Reddic next season.

Mo Alie-Cox impressed as a freshman but has the unenviable task of helping ease the loss of Juvonte Reddic next season.

2. VCU (26-9, 12-4) – As you just read, expectations will once again be high on Broad Street, as the Rams will return roughly 67% of their scoring from this past season’s NCAA tournament team. On top of that, VCU brings in their best recruiting class perhaps ever, ranked 15th nationally by ESPN due to three top-100 players including No.42, Terry Larrier, as well as a three-star recruit in Jonathan Williams who outranks all but one opposing team recruit. Mo Alie-Cox has been pegged by CBS Sports as one of their five breakout stars of the 2014-15 season, and will be relied upon heavily as a surprisingly efficient offensive player who happens to be one of the best returning shot-blockers in the Atlantic 10. VCU also returns the only First Team All-Atlantic 10 player in Treveon Graham, the odds-on favorite to be the Preseason A-10 Player of the Year. Outlook: Preseason No.10-25 team and an NCAA hopeful. Once again, expectations will be high on Broad St.

3. George Washington (24-9, 11-5) – Like VCU, GW returns some serious pieces from last season’s NCAA tournament team. While they lose leading scorer, Maurice Creek (14.1 ppg) and their top rebounder and shot blocker (not to mention third-leading scorer), Isaiah Armwood (12.7 ppg, 8.4 rpg, 1.5 bpg), they will also return a healthy Kethan Savage (12.7 ppg), who missed the majority of the Colonials A-10 season due to injury. Savage gives GW a capable backcourt player alongside point guard Joe McDonald to compliment what will be one of the A-10′s best starting groups thanks to bigs Patricio Garino and Kevin Larsen. GW adds four 3-star freshmen and Manhattan transfer, Ryan McCoy. Outlook: A-10 preseason top three and an NCAA tournament hopeful.

4. Saint Joseph’s (24-10, 11-5) – VCU’s first A-10 season saw a season sweep of the Hawks that included an A-10 tournament win, thus ending the then preseason No.1′s season. St. Joe’s repaid the Rams by doing exactly the same thing this past season, the final win coming in the Atlantic 10 Championship game. They got that final victory with a senior-led squad that saw limited bench play, and like SLU, that may come back to haunt them next season. The Hawks lose an extremely talented group in Langston Galloway, Ronald Roberts Jr. and Halil Kanacevic, a trio that accounted for roughly 60% of the Hawks scoring, 57% of their rebounding and 51% of their assists. The Hawks will bring in 6’5 West Virginia transfer, Aaron Brown, and a solid four-man (all 3-star) recruiting class. They’ll be led by one of the brightest young stars in the league, DeAndre Bembry, who’s posterizing dunk on Mo Alie-Cox in last year’s A-10 final was a statement type of play that put the league on notice. He’ll need a lot more of those plays to keep the Hawks toward the top of the league next season. Outlook: The Hawks struggled two seasons ago despite being picked to win the league. I think they could do the same after losing the heart and soul of last year’s A-10 championship squad.

5. Dayton (26-11, 10-6) – The Flyers were the final A-10 team to reach the field of 68 in this season’s NCAA tournament and the last to exit it as well, upsetting teams all the way to the Elite 8 where they would eventually be overwhelmed by top-seeded Florida. That momentum combined with returning 58% of their scoring including top scorer, Indiana transfer Jordan Sibert, should make them a top-three preseason A-10 pick. The Flyers bring in two three-star recruits including what should be one of the A-10′s better newcomers in 6’4 shooting guard Darrell Davis, but it’ll be the progression of the likes of Dyshawn Pierre, Jalen Robinson and the A-10′s best named player, Scoochie Smith, that determines the ceiling of next season’s team. All have shown flashes but for the most part have lacked consistency. Outlook: A-10 preseason top three, NCAA tournament hopeful.

West Virginia transfer, Jabarie hinds, could be one of the A-10's breakout players this season.

West Virginia transfer, Jabarie Hinds, could be one of the A-10′s breakout players this season.

6. UMass (24-9, 10-6) – The Minutemen were outstanding in the OOC but inconsistent in conference play, losing to the likes of George Mason and St. Bonaventure but were able to stumble there way into their first NCAA tournament appearance since the 1998 season. The Minutemen lost four of their last six games and have another big loss this season in the form of 5’9 (..listed height, which is extremely generous) do-it-all point guard, Chaz Williams. Williams joins 6’9 deep threat, Raphiael Putney and 6’8 forward, Sampson Carter (10.4 ppg) as the three starters gone from this year’s roster. Those three alone accounted for 45.8% of the Minutemen’s scoring this season, but were three of the Minutemen’s seven players who averaged 8.8 points or more per contest. With that, UMass returns double-double machine, Cady Lalanne, who will most certainly be one of the conference’s top returning bigs next season. Lalanne joins 6’8 forward Maxie Esho (8.9 ppg, 5 rpg) in the front court as great options for UMass’ top returning guards, Derrick Gordan (9.4 ppg) and Trey Davis (9.2 ppg), as well as who I expect to be one of this season’s breakout stars, West Virginia transfer, Jabarie Hinds. UMass brings in a three-man recruiting class headlined by 6’7 3-star small forward, Seth Berger. Outlook: They have the pieces but without Williams expect them to finish outside of the top three.

7. Richmond (19-14, 8-8) – The 2014-15 Spiders will look a whole heck of a lot like the 2013-14 Spiders as Chris Mooney’s club lost both seniors during the first half of conference play this past season. Derrick Williams left for personal reasons then Cedrick Lindsay saw his career shortened with a knee injury following his game at VCU. The young Spiders were average at best without leading scorer Lindsay, finishing 5-6 in their remaining A-10 games (that includes 1-1 in A-10 tournament action), but picking up those wins against teams ranking in the bottom six of the conference. The Spiders bring in five freshman as well as Niagara transfer, TJ Cline. I wouldn’t expect much from the freshmen with so many returning players that have logged some serious minutes but think Cline will fit in perfectly with Mooney’s system. The 6’8 forward averaged 7.9 points as a  freshmen at Niagara two seasons ago and took the majority of his shots beyond the arc. He’ll join two solid bigs in defensive specialist Alonzo Nelson-Ododa and the talented Terry Allen, not to mention the undersized but incredibly effective rebounder in the 6’5 Tre Davis. VCU’s rival has a number of talented pieces but the key to whether or not the Spiders can challenge for a top A-10 spot is in how Mooney utilizes his guards. Kendall Anthony and rising sophomore, ShawnDre’ Jones are two incredibly capable scoring guards but are generously listed at 5’8 and 5’10, a matchup nightmare on defense. Outlook: I could see them finishing as high as fourth or as low as seventh next season based on their current returning roster.

8. La Salle (15-16, 7-9) – Let’s be real, this past season was a major disaster for the Explorers. La Salle lost all of ONE player from a Sweet 16 squad (granted, their leading scorer, Ramon Galloway) and finished under .500 for the first time since the 2010-11 season. So with that, it’s hard to feel hopeful that Dr. John Giannini’s squad will fair much better after graduating four players this year including three of their top five scorers, including leading scorer, Tyreek Duren (15.2 ppg). Georgia Southern transfer, Cleon Roberts (6’5 180 lb guard), will hope to fill some of the void left by the graduation of three of La Salle’s better player of the past two seasons: Duren, Garland and Mills (all solid guards). Roberts averaged 8.7 points as a freshman in the Southern Conference, displaying a nice stroke from long range, connecting on 38.5% of his three-point attempts. He’ll make a major step up in weight class and could be leaned on early in a tough Atlantic 10 that has averaged 5.5 NCAA tournament bids since VCU joined the league. Jordan Price joins the team via Auburn, also 6’5 but at 230 lbs plays the forward position, coincidentally where he hit 38.5% of his threes as a freshman, like Roberts. Clearly Dr. John seems to be placing a high value on the deep ball from his incoming players that will compliment a front court of Jerrell Wright (13.3 ppg, 6.6 rpg) and Steve Zack (8.8 ppg, 9.5 rpg). Outlook: La Salle will explore the bottom of the conference next season after losing so much talent in the backcourt.

9. St. Bonaventure (18-15, 6-10) – Picked to finish 12th last season, the Bonnies somewhat exceeded expectations by going 10-4 in the non-conference before an inconsistent league schedule that saw losses to to likes of Rhode Island and Duquesne and wins over a fully-manned Richmond squad (by 14), UMass (by 13) and later a A-10 tournament victory over defending champ Saint Louis, thanks to this buzzer-beating 3-pointer. 

Gone is the talented senior backcourt of Matthew Wright (16.3 ppg, 3.2 apg) and Charlon Kloof (11.8 ppg, 5 apg) as well as 6’8 forward Marquise Simmons who posted a team high 59.5% field goal percentage and scored 8 ppg in his 22.4 minutes per contest this season, but the Bonnies return some talented pieces including one of the best returning bigs next season, the 7′ Senegalese center, Youssou Ndoye. Ndoye is a talented shot-blocker with a nice offensive game but often struggles to stay in games, averaging 3.1 fouls in 26.2 minutes per contest. He picked up four of those in just 22 minutes in the Bonnies loss A-10 tournament loss to St. Joe’s, helping the Hawks to turn a 29-29 halftime tie into a 67-48 win. The Bonnies return half of their scoring and have a growing star in Ndoye, but may find it tough replacing the leadership and clutch shooting of Wright. Outlook: While I love Ndoye’s game, he won’t be able to carry this SBU squad. Expect SBU to drop a notch this upcoming season baring an impact transfer season move.

10. Duquesne (13-17, 5-11) – Talented UAB transfer, Ovie Soko, was impressive in his one and only season with the Dukes (18.4 ppg, 8 rpg) but made just a moderate difference in the win column (+4 wins in A-10 play, +5 overall). He’ll graduate this offseason leaving talented sophomore Micah Mason the job of carrying the Dukes out of the bottom of the A-10 next season. Mason is undeniably the A-10′s best returning shooter, having hit a ridiculous 56% of his 116 three-point attempts this past season, and leading the nation, I repeat, the NATION, with a 152.7 offensive rating. With Soko’s departure Mason’s usage will most definitely increase, but will he be up to the job of leading a team? Soko is one of just two graduating players with the little-used Jerry Jones (4.8 ppg) moving on as well. Soko posted impressive averages last season but struggled to hit shots at an accurate rate. Can the Dukes increase their win total with Mason running the show or will they take a step back without the UAB transfer? Outlook: Duquesne returns a lot of players from a bad team. I don’t expect much improvement and see them finishing 10th or worse next season.

11. Rhode Island (14-18, 5-11) – Rhodie was expected to make a jump last season, predicted by CBS A-10 aficionado, Jon Rothstein, to finish sixth under second-year head coach, Dan Hurley, predicted ninth in the official A-10 preseason polls . Instead they only picked up an additional two wins from the previous season in conference play and proved they weren’t quite ready to join the A-10 heavyweights just yet. They’ll likely be a chic pick to make a big jump this offseason as well, losing just one player, Rhodie leading scorer, Xavier Munford and his 16.9 points per game. Atlantic 10 Co-freshman of the Year, E.C. Matthews (14.3 ppg) will be just a sophomore but URI’s returning leading scorer. He’ll join fellow freshman standout, Hassan Martin, and rising senior, Gilvydas Biruta as a talented core that showed flashes last season (wins over LSU, Dayton and a 1-point loss to SLU) but more often than not underachieved (losses to Mason, Duquesne and Fordham). Outlook: I think they finally make a jump, but only to the middle of the A-10, somewhere in the 6-8 range.

12. George Mason (11-20, 4-12) – Mason has been on a steady decline since their 2011 NCAA tournament appearance under former Final 4 head coach, Jim Larranaga, and despite an experienced roster were one of the A-10′s bottom feeders this past season under former Georgia Tech head coach, Paul Hewitt. Things won’t get any easier next season with the graduation of senior guards Sherrod Wright (15.6 ppg) and Bryon Allen (15.4 ppg), that is unless talented sophomore shooter, Patrick Holloway (8.7 ppg, 41.1% 3p%), can take a big step forward on a team that lost three A-10 games in overtime last season including two against A-10 regular season champ Saint Louis, as well as nine of their 12 conference losses by single digits. Mason returns a solid piece to next season’s puzzle in A-10 All-Rookie selection, Jalen Jenkins, who along with Holloway will be expected to carry the load for the Patriots. They also add former Rivals top-125 player, Georgia Tech transfer, Julian Royal. Royal didn’t make much of a dent during his two seasons of ACC play but at 6’8 225 with three years of college under his belt, may find better luck under the man who brought him to Atlanta before leaving for George Mason before Royal’s freshman season. Mason will bring in four freshman headlined by 6’6 small forward, Therence Mayimba. Outlook: While Mason was competitive this past season, I expect them to take a step back without Wright and Allen. Expect a 12-14th finish this upcoming season.

13. Fordham (10-21, 2-14) – It took Fordham head coach Tom Pecora three seasons before turning his former squad, Hofstra, into a contender in the CAA. After his fourth straight season as an A-10 bottom feeder, he may not have much longer to turn things around in the Bronx. Pecora’s 2013-14 edition matched his highest win total with the Rams at 10 wins but also finished with 20+ losses for the third season as head coach at Fordham. The Rams will return all of their production outside of leading scorer Branden Frazier (18.2 ppg) but have shown no signs of improvement in any season under Pecora. Outlook: In May of 2012 Fordham extended Pecora’s contract through the 2016-17 season, so we should know who’ll finish last in the Atlantic 10 for the next two years.

Davidson (20-13, 15-1) – Those records next to Davidson’s name may be a great indicator of how the Wildcats will fair in their first season of A-10 play. The Bob McKillop-coached group cruised through the SoCon with relative ease before being upset by Western Carolina in the conference semifinals this past season, but lost 12 of their 14 OOC games against a challenging schedule with games against the top of the ACC (UVA, Duke, UNC and Clemson) as well as a neutral court contest against New Mexico and a roadie at Wichita State. They also had losses to the College of Charleston, Drexel, Niagara and Milwaukee. The Wildcats will begin their first year of A-10 play after losing half of their scoring including the production of leading scorer, De’Mon Brooks (19 ppg), who hit 58.6% of his field goals this past season including a 45.2% mark from long range. He was the Wildcats’ leading rebounder as well at 6’7 230 lbs. Outlook: McKillup has some nice returning pieces in Brian Sullivan and Tyler Kalinoski as well some young sleepers in Jack Gibbs, Jake Belford and Jordan Barham. I think they do better than Mason faired in their first season and could see them finishing as high as seventh. However, their poor OOC showing last season paired with the loss of some of their top talent makes me think they realistically finish in the bottom half of the conference.

About Mat Shelton-Eide

VCU School of the Arts (BFA '07) and Center for Sport Leadership (M.Ed. '10) alumnus, Mat has followed VCU basketball since the Sunbelt days when he'd attend games with his father. Worked as a graduate assistant in the VCU Sports Information Department for the '09-'10 season, but has covered VCU basketball for VCURamNation.com since 2007. mshelton@vcuramnation.com @MatShelton