It’s early, but based off what teams returned and how they’ve looked so far, I’m ready to declare contenders, pretenders and enigmas for this year’s Atlantic 10 title. Feels earlier to dive into that than previous seasons, but I feel ready, so let’s go.
The Flyers have — according to NBA scouts — the best player in the Atlantic 10 in Obi Toppin, back for his sophomore season and what will likely be his last season before turning pro. Back surrounding Toppin is almost every key piece from last season’s 13-5 third place Atlantic 10 squad, as well as a number of key transfers including Chase Johnson (Florida), Ibi Watson (Michigan) and arguably their best so far, Chattanooga transfer, Rodney Chatman (13 ppg, 5.3 ast). Take one of the conference’s most talented teams, make it more talented and surround them by a 13,000-fan home court advantage and you can guarantee Dayton is one of the top contenders for this season’s Atlantic 10 title.
Bob McKillop’s Wildcats stumbled a bit out of the gate in a lopsided loss against crosstown rival, Charlotte, but are still packed full of the talent that finished second in last season’s A-10, a team that defeated VCU in the only meeting between the two. Injuries have been a small annoyance for the Cats early, so expect them to be even better with a complete roster.
Rhody defeated the black and gold twice this past season including handing the Rams a Friday exit in last season’s A-10 tournament. Basically everyone from that team has returned and Rhody has added a Toppin of their own, freshman Jacob Toppin, younger brother of Dayton’s Obi Toppin. Toppin has looked promising, but it’s the Rams’ backcourt duo of Jeff Dowtin and Fatts Russell that will likely decide the ceiling of this year’s team, a ceiling I think is as high as an A-10 title.
The defending A-10 tourney champs fall into enigma category for me due to their losses, particularly with the graduations of Javon Bess, Tremaine Isabell and DJ Foreman. Only three players that logged minutes in last season’s A-10 tournament championship game are back for this year’s title defense and that was a team that finished just 10-8 during the regular season. Richmond native, Gibson Jimerson, is a fun freshman to watch, but I think overall the Billikens take a step back this season due to their losses, particularly with do-it-all Bess beginning his professional career. Saint Louis might surprise and compete for an A-10 title, but I tend to think they won’t.
The 3-0 Spiders are coming off a dominating win over Cal St. Northridge in which they took a ridiculous 37-point lead into the half prior to coasting to a 90-62 victory, but needed overtime to survive their previous two contests, home games against a St. Francis PA team VCU made easy work of and against a Vanderbilt squad picked to finish last in the SEC after going 0-18 in conference play this past season. I can assure you Richmond is an improved team over last season’s 6-12 A-10 finish. I’m just not sure they have the depth or enough defense to truly contend for an A-10 title. Still, I think the Spiders have enough offensive weapons to threaten if they can stay healthy. The return of Nick Sherod and addition of Blake Francis are huge for the Spiders, a duo that can easily combine for 50 on any given night, which when added to team leaders Jacob Gilyard and Grant Golden is a scary offensive group for opponents. However, having given up 90 points in two of their three games means these Spiders have to be on offensively almost every single night to truly contend for a title, which I’m not sure they’ll do.
The Dukes are tough SOBs with one of the best coaches in the league in former Akron head honcho, Keith Dambrot. After pulling out a 10-8 conference finish with basically all sophomores and freshman, I wouldn’t put it past Duquesne to really surprise this year and contend for a league title with a more experienced squad. The transfer of Eric Williams hurt, but 6’11 grad transfer, Baylee Steele, is a talented addition I think helps ease that pain. Five of Duquesne’s eight A-10 losses last season were by fewer than six points. The good news is four of those were to teams I have in my contenders list. The bad news though is those were losses to teams that are still in my contenders lists, ie teams that got better too. Curious to see if/how they get over the hump against those teams this season, but I’m bullish on this squad.
The Hawks shocked some folks with a nice road win over UConn and competed on the road at both Old Dominion and Loyola Chicago (leading both at halftime) before falling apart in the second in SJU’s two losses on the season. The Hawks have very much been a tale of two halves this season, even in victory, which ultimately leads me to believe they won’t be a true contender despite looking quite dangerous at times. I expect that inconsistency to follow them into A-10 play, winning games they perhaps shouldn’t and finding themselves on the losing end of similar situations.
I was extremely tempted to put this group in the enigma list, but do I honestly think they can challenge my contenders in winning more games in an 18-game schedule? Hell no. Here’s why: UMass is playing four freshmen signifiant minutes (starting two) and starting a sophomore who posted an 86.8 offensive rating last season (note: that’s not good). “But Mat, that’s a talented freshman group that was the highest rated class in the conference!”…says UMass fan. To which I reply, “UMass fan, I am a VCU fan. I’ve seen a ton of top-100 freshmen at VCU this past decade and I’ve seen eventual NBA players as freshmen at VCU and I’m here to tell you, your guys aren’t THAT good of freshmen to compete for a title in this year’s A-10”. I’d take VCU’s freshman class over UMass’ freshmen class all day every day and VCU’s freshmen class is our bench. So yes, I’m just not buying UMass longterm this season, but it is nice to see them at 3-0, right where the conference needs them.
Mason is off to a 5-0 start, their best starting record in a while, but have looked extremely shaky against inferior competition to what they’ll be competing with in the A-10. The Patriots needed overtime to survive Navy (kenpom No.297) in their home-opener, had a tough time against No.260 LIU, were locked in a battle most of the game against No.231 JMU and just barely escaped Loyola MD, all at home. Justin Kier’s return will make them less fun to play, but even with him they are no threat to compete for an A-10 title.
The Bonnies were picked to finish fifth in this season’s A-10 preseason poll, but with an injured Osun Ossuniyi, find themselves off to a 1-3 start that includes bad losses to Ohio and Siena. Ossuniyi is reportedly making progress and his return will most definitely help this team, but even with him you’re essentially needing two freshmen and three sophomores to go win you a league crown against some experienced groups that are much deeper than Bona has proven to be following the graduations of Courtney Stockard and LaDarien Griffin. They’re a year away from contending.
The Explorers offensive troubles from last season seem to have followed them into this new year and after seeing them struggle against both Iona (OT win) and Penn, I don’t see them competing consistently with the top teams in the conference.
Former VCU assistant, Jamion Christian, has two sub-200 losses as first-year GW coach and a 14-point loss at Towson. It’s going to be a loooong year in Foggy Bottom.
Fordham’s cupcake non-conference schedule is fooling no one. The Bronx Rams will play six more sub-200 (two sub-300) teams before opening A-10 play with a road game at the Siegel Center, none of which are true road games. They will not be prepared for the night of Thursday, January 2. Fordham will remain a pretender until they either start recruiting with Will Wade’s budget or relegate themselves to the Patriot League.