Monday, September 26, 2011

30 In 30: Atlantic 10

It will be more of the same for Xavier fans this season, as senior guard Tu Holloway will keep Musketeers atop Atlantic 10. (Photo courtesy of Sports Illustrated)

The next preview in our series is one of a league that actually made headlines earlier today. The Atlantic 10, already one of the best mid-major conferences in college basketball; and probably also among the most underrated, announced this afternoon that it would be moving its postseason tournament from its current location at the Boardwalk Hall arena in Atlantic City to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, effective in 2013. The arena in Brooklyn has yet to be completed, but it will host the Brooklyn (formerly New Jersey) Nets and select Long Island University basketball games when it opens late next year. Back to the subject at hand, the A-10. The move into the Big Apple should only strengthen the recruiting ability of coaches in what is already, arguably, one of the top ten leagues in the country; with fourteen teams you'll learn a little more about in what lies ahead.

1) Xavier - With all the talk about the Big East potentially going to pieces, this is one school that should be scooped up if and when such a move ever does occur. After the success the Musketeers have had under just five coaches in the last 25 years, (talk about continuity under Pete Gillen, the late Skip Prosser, Thad Matta, Sean Miller, and current head man Chris Mack) Xavier deserves the title of best mid-major school in the East, with Gonzaga holding the title in the West. Chris Mack's squad is always capable of making a long run in the NCAA Tournament, and this year is no exception. Led by senior guard Tu (formerly known as Terrell) Holloway and the best big man you've never heard of in seven-foot center Kenny Frease, Xavier also returns junior shooting guard Mark Lyons to join Holloway off the ball in the backcourt. The Musketeers also benefit from Monmouth transfer Travis Taylor's arrival, as Taylor regains his two remaining years of eligibility to join Frease up front. Taylor's high scoring and rebounding potential should offset the loss of Jamel McLean rather easily, and McLean's ten points and eight rebounds per game is a huge loss for the reigning A-10 regular season champions.

2) Temple - Not to be outdone is the Philadelphia story created by former Penn coach Fran Dunphy, who stayed in his own backyard to take over a program built into a winner by the legendary John Chaney. Last year, Dunphy guided the Owls into the round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament before bowing out against San Diego State; but if Temple is to revisit that success this year, they will need to do it without versatile forward Lavoy Allen after he was drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers. The good news for Dunphy, though, is that both of his other star players return for their senior seasons in the backcourt. A year ago, Ramone Moore and Juan Fernandez combined for over 26 points and nearly seven assists per game while shooting a collective 36 percent from three point range. In fact, it was Fernandez who hit the game-winning triple to defeat Penn State in one of the more exciting first-round NCAA Tournament games last season. Senior swingman Scootie Randall is also back, and he should make his presence known on the wing as he looks to have a breakout campaign.

3) St. Bonaventure - The Bonnies flew under the radar through most of the year last season, and picked up a dramatic road win against eventual NCAA Tournament participant St. John's early in December. Over the years, it seemed like forward Andrew Nicholson, who led the A-10 in scoring last season with nearly 21 points per game, has been around forever; and the 6-9 Canadian big man will be back once again for his senior campaign. Michael Davenport and Demitrius Conger also return to anchor the backcourt for the Rochester program, and senior Da'Quan Cook will join Nicholson up front as the Bonnies' fourth returning starter. Matthew Wright, a Canadian sharpshooter who shot 43 percent from three-point range in conference play last year, should be the man who replaces Ogo Adegboye as the third guard in Mark Schmidt's starting lineup.

4) Richmond - Chris Mooney has built the Spiders into such a contender to the point where he has declined several offers from higher-profile jobs to remain at the helm of Richmond, who rewarded him with a contract extension this past offseason when the Spiders won the A-10 tournament and advanced to the Sweet 16 as a No. 12 seed. The three seniors that were instrumental in getting Richmond there have graduated since, and replacing the likes of Justin Harper, Kevin Anderson and Dan Geriot is no easy feat. Mooney will attempt to get it done with sharpshooting guard Darien Brothers, a junior who is now the Spiders' top offensive player with the three seniors having departed. Senior forward Francis Martel should be a full-time starter this season, along with Darrius Garrett, who came up big in the clutch for the Spiders during their first-round NCAA Tournament game against Vanderbilt.

5) Dayton - The Flyers are almost always around the top half of the A-10 and usually in NCAA Tournament consideration until the last possible moment, and this year the status quo will come under a new leader. Brian Gregory, who built Dayton into the underrated threat they have been in recent years, has left for Georgia Tech; and was replaced by Archie Miller, whose older brother Sean solidified Xavier as an A-10 power before leaving for Arizona. The younger Miller actually has several pieces left over from the Gregory regime to work with, including senior swingman Chris Johnson and fellow fourth-year player Paul Williams, the Flyers' top returning guard. After years on the bench, forwards Josh Benson and Luke Fabrizius will finally get the chance to become full-time starters; and both are on the precipice of breakout seasons for a team that could once again be right there on the bubble come Selection Sunday.

6) George Washington - The Colonials are another one of those teams that has historically been a force to be reckoned with in the A-10, be it under Tom Penders, Mike Jarvis or Karl Hobbs. This year, GW picks up the services of former Vermont coach Mike Lonergan, who gets each of the top three players under Hobbs a year ago for at least one more year together. Senior guard Tony Taylor is just as much of a threat to pass the ball as he is to take it himself; and the point man will have a variety of options that include a rapidly developing Dwayne Smith at power forward, with Serbian import Nemanja Mikic on the wing. David Pellom, Bryan Bynes and Aaron Ware were all key role players for the Colonials last year, and each will be a bigger part of Lonergan's rotation this time around, with Pellom and Ware the likely options to start while Bynes serves the role of sixth man.

7) Saint Louis - Sometimes it's easy to forget that SLU is in the A-10 given its Midwest location, but everything about this team screams major program. From head coach Rick Majerus to the roster he has recruited, Saint Louis has gone about their business in a quiet way that has kept the program in contention perennially. All five starters come back for Majerus this year as well, led by junior Kwamain Mitchell, who was lost for the year last season due to a medical redshirt. Mike McCall was SLU's leading scorer last year, and will join Mitchell and Kyle Cassity in the backcourt while Dwayne Evans and Brian Conklin patrol the paint.

8) Duquesne - The other college basketball team in Pittsburgh will need to replace both of its leading scorers from a team that won nineteen games last year, (ten in conference) but marksmen B.J. Monteiro and T.J. McConnell are more than ready to pick up the slack for the Dukes after participating in the CBI for a second consecutive season. McConnell, a homegrown talent that is only a sophomore, could be one of the best guards that no one knows about this season. The reigning A-10 Rookie of the Year, McConnell averaged nearly eleven points and just under three steals per game, the latter good enough for fourth in the country, while shooting 50 percent from the field and 40 from beyond the arc. If you look at McConnell up close, his game resembles one of the great players in Division I last season who happens to share a last name with the second-year talent: Former Saint Mary's point guard Mickey McConnell.

9) Rhode Island - After the 2009-10 season, coach Jim Baron's name was thrown into a number of coaching vacancies for various major programs, but nothing materialized as he returned to the Rams and took them to a 20-win season. This time around, Baron will attempt to complete the encore without top scorer Delroy James, who was part of URI's winningest senior class that graduated this past year. Serbian small forward Nikola Malesevic, a 6-7 junior, will take over the reins of an offense he helped propel by shooting 46 percent from three-point range last season. After only playing sparingly last season, senior guard Jamal Wilson is ready to have a breakout season in the Ocean State. Since being inserted into the starting lineup for the Rams' final eight games, Wilson averaged over eight points and five rebounds; and should be a double-figure scorer with a full season under his belt.

10) Saint Joseph's - The Hawks' miraculous 2003-04 season in which they finished the regular season undefeated and reached the Elite Eight under guards Jameer Nelson and Delonte West now seems like a distant memory for longtime head coach Phil Martelli. However, St. Joe's is on the rise again this season with a team that returns four starters on what was the youngest incarnation of the Hawks in program history. Martelli's backcourt is strong once again with the return of junior Carl Jones, the team's leading scorer last season, and sophomore Langston Galloway, who shot 39 percent from long distance a year ago. Up front, a pair of sophomores will spearhead the effort on the glass, as forwards C.J. Aiken and former St. John's commit Ron Roberts welcome seven-foot newcomer Todd O'Brien to the paint.

11) Massachusetts - When I was growing up, the Minutemen were the team to beat in not just the A-10, but the Northeast as well. Of course, that was back in the mid-1990s, when a thirtysomething coach named John Calipari built his reputation with the trio of Marcus Camby, Edgar Padilla and Carmelo Travieso, who guided UMass to the Final Four in a 1995-96 season where they nearly went undefeated. Derek Kellogg is at the helm in Amherst now, and will look to junior guards Javorn Farrell and Freddie Riley to ignite an offense that averaged 66 points per game last season. Senior big man Sean Carter returns as well, and the 6-9 Carter is UMass' top returning rebounder.

12) LaSalle - The Explorers lose Aaric Murray to West Virginia after he transferred in the offseason, leaving LaSalle with just one senior on their roster. Ironically, that one senior transferred from the Big East, as former Rutgers guard Earl Pettis opted to play in his hometown of Philadelphia after two years with the Scarlet Knights and former coach Fred Hill. Fellow guards Tyreek Duren and Sam Mills are among the lone bright spots on a young LaSalle team, and will need to raise their contributions given the inexperience of the Explorers' big men.

13) UNC-Charlotte - The 49ers suffered through a forgettable 10-20 campaign last season that had their fans longing for the days of Brendan Plavich and his seemingly endless stream of three-pointers back when UNC Charlotte was an up-and-coming mid-major in Conference USA. This year, second-year coach Alan Major welcomes back four starters from last year's unit, led by senior guards Derrio Green and Javaris Barnett, with junior Jamar Briscoe to serve as a combo guard that can run the point with Green out of the lineup, or play off the ball alongside Green and the 6-7 Barnett. Chris Braswell returns up front after a sophomore campaign in which he was Charlotte's leading rebounder, and should see his chances to contribute on the glass increased with the transition of reserve forward KJ Sherrill into the starting five.

14) Fordham - Aside from the dramatic comeback against St. John's that had fans of the Bronx program storming the court at Rose Hill Gym, there weren't many other highlights for the Rams a year ago, an absolute tragedy considering how likable head coach Tom Pecora is and how much of a great in-game leader he has become through his many years at Hofstra. However, Pecora is building this Fordham program the same way he and his mentor Jay Wright did at Hofstra, with young metropolitan area players that he will coach up to become underrated diamonds in the rough. Take junior forward Chris Gaston as a prime example. A double-double per night player in each of his first two years, Gaston will attempt to become more of a small forward befitting of his 6-7 frame this season, a move that will add another facet to his already well-rounded game. Senior guard Brenton Butler, the lone fourth-year player on Pecora's roster a year ago, is gone; but the Rams' backcourt is still a rising unit led by sophomore point guard Branden Frazier and senior marksman Alberto Estwick. The third starter could either be 6-4 sophomore incumbent Lamount Samuell; or the latest in a long line of city prospects recruited by Pecora, a 5-10 guard from Lincoln High School named Devon "Fatty" McMillan, who has garnered rave reviews from nearly everyone that has attended a Fordham practice this summer. Senior forward Kervin Bristol is also back, and will join Gaston up front.

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