Saint Louis forward Dwayne Evans returns for senior season as reigning Atlantic 10 champion Billikens hope to fend off VCU and La Salle on road to potential repeat. (Photo courtesy of USA Today)
Our "32 In 32" series continues its run through the elite mid-majors of the nation, leaving the Missouri Valley and going to a league we are fortunate to cover year-round through our affiliation with Fordham University, that being the Atlantic 10.
Just like the Valley and many other leagues this offseason, the A-10 was affected by the massive realignment; and will be again next year as well, as a field of thirteen goes to the post, to use some horse racing parlance, now that George Mason has defected from the Colonial Athletic Association. Barring any raids from the Big East or other leagues, the number will increase to fourteen once Davidson departs the Southern Conference on July 1st. In the meantime, here's how we see the A-10 unfolding going into its tournament at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn:
1) VCU - Shaka Smart loses point guard Darius Theus and shooting guard Troy Daniels, but remains deeper and more talented going into this season as the Rams continue to frustrate opponents with their patented "Havoc" defense and unmatched enthusiasm of their fan base and pep band. Senior forward Juvonte Reddic is a probable preseason first team all-A-10 selection, and will get the services of graduate transfer Terrance Shannon as a frontcourt partner after his transfer from Florida State, with another likely first team all-A-10 honoree in Treveon Graham reprising his role as the best swingman in the conference on the wing, where he has a chance to average between fifteen and seventeen points per game on his best effort. Smart prides himself on VCU's perennial guard depth, and the Rams have mounds of it yet again behind senior Rob Brandenberg and reigning A-10 Defensive Player of the Year Briante Weber, who enters his junior season with a spot in the starting lineup now permanent for the native Virginian. Jordan Burgess, whose older brother Bradford was an integral part in VCU's Final Four run three years ago, is finally eligible, and the freshman will join sophomore Melvin Johnson as the third and fourth guards coming off the bench, which should also receive increased contributions from junior forward Jarred Guest.
2) La Salle - The last A-10 team left standing in the postseason last year after defying critics and massive odds to reach the Sweet 16 as a No. 13 seed, the Explorers return nearly everyone from last year's roster for an encore, save for Ramon Galloway. Nonetheless, Dr. John Giannini will get the most out of an athletic four-guard attack that is anchored by a pair of seniors from Philadelphia, point guard Tyreek Duren and swingman Tyrone Garland, whose "Southwest Philly floater" propelled La Salle past Mississippi and into the West regional semifinals, where they were defeated by eventual Final Four participant Wichita State. Sam Mills, who shot 38 percent from three-point range while maintaining an assist to turnover ratio of nearly 2:1, is the third senior in the Explorer guard trio, with junior D.J. Peterson serving as the sixth man after having a change of heart when he initially decided to transfer. Up front, the duo of juniors Steve Zack and Jerrell Wright creates one of the most physically imposing interior presences in the A-10, with each capable of averaging a double-double per game this season.
3) Saint Louis - Last season, the Billikens honored the memory of their late former head coach, winning the A-10 championship just three months after Rick Majerus' tragic passing. Head coach Jim Crews was rewarded for his efforts with both the A-10 Coach of the Year award and removal of the interim tag from his title, but now must find a way to replace two of his most dynamic scorers after Cody Ellis and Kwamain Mitchell graduated. On the bright side, Saint Louis retains the frontrunner for A-10 Player of the Year honors in senior forward Dwayne Evans, the Most Outstanding Player of last year's A-10 Tournament following a season in which he averaged fourteen points and nearly eight rebounds per game. In Mitchell's absence, defensive wizard Jordair Jett will likely run the point while Mike McCall reprises his role as the Billikens' lethal weapon shooting guard on the heels of shooting 40 percent from three-point range last season. Canadian forward Grandy Glaze needs to improve his offensive production alongside 6-11 senior Rob Loe up front, while swingman Jake Barnett will see increased minutes during life after Ellis.
4) Massachusetts - Derek Kellogg had the Minutemen on the NCAA Tournament bubble last season after a surprising run to the A-10 Tournament semifinals, but missed the field of 68 and instead saw his UMass team suffer an upset loss to Stony Brook in the opening round of the NIT. Gone are swingmen Terrell Vinson and Freddie Riley after the two graduated, but all-world point guard Chaz Williams has a strong supporting cast both in the backcourt and on the wing, as Western Kentucky transfer Derrick Gordon is eligible for his sophomore season, while Raphiael Putney comes back for his senior season to provide an underrated stat-filling performance night in and night out. Up front, 6-10 junior Cady Lalanne will again be among the A-10's most efficient forwards, and Maxie Esho will come close to averaging double figures, but remember this name: Sampson Carter. The senior forward averaged over six points and four rebounds per game last year, but provided a stable interior presence that will give Lalanne more room to create opportunities not just for himself, but everyone on the UMass front line as well.
5) Rhode Island - Prior to replacing Jim Baron at the helm of the Rams, Dan Hurley guided Wagner to a twelve-win improvement in his second season in Staten Island, taking the Seahawks from 13-17 to 25-6. After going 8-21 in his debut season in Kingston, the colorful Hurley is poised to experience a similar meteoric rise to postseason contention with this year's Rhode Island squad, which adds three transfers to a returning backcourt of senior Xavier Munford and junior point guard Mike Powell. Junior Gilvydas Biruta, who played for Hurley at St. Benedict's Prep before spending his first two collegiate seasons at Rutgers under disgraced ex-coach Mike Rice, comes to the front line alongside Rice expatriate Jarelle Reischel, and the two will join 6-10 sophomore Jordan Hare; who should have a breakout season in his second campaign, up front. Expect Mike Aaman and T.J. Buchanan to have considerable impacts on the bench alongside X-factor Deshon "Biggie" Minnis, who arrives after sitting out last season following his transfer from Texas Tech. Hurley's strong ties to the New York area were prevalent in his recruiting efforts this offseason, with his biggest pickup being 6-7 Staten Islander Hassan Martin of Curtis High School.
6) Richmond - After a shocking A-10 Tournament loss to Charlotte that was memorable for the uncharacteristic meltdown of head coach Chris Mooney in the final seconds, the Spiders managed to win a game in the CIT while also preparing for what should be another successful season with a likely trip to the postseason on the horizon. Despite losing Darien Brothers to graduation, Richmond returns point guard Cedrick Lindsay for his senior season, with 5-8 sharpshooting dynamo Kendall Anthony back for his junior campaign as Lindsay's running mate after connecting at a 43 percent clip from three-point range. Up front, Greg Robbins has graduated, but burgeoning big man Derrick Williams is back for his senior season, with sophomore Deion Taylor likely joining the starting lineup at Robbins' former spot on the wing. Pay close attention to Alonzo Nelson-Ododa, who should become one of the most dominant shot blockers in the A-10 after registering 62 rejections as a freshman a year ago.
7) Saint Joseph's - Phil Martelli's Hawks were the preseason pick to win the A-10 last year, but struggled through an 18-14 season that ended with a heartbreaking home loss to St. John's in the opening round of the NIT after Sir'Dominic Pointer's buzzer-beating jumper. Since then, Carl "Tay" Jones has graduated from Hawk Hill and C.J. Aiken decided to take his talents to the professional level, leaving Langston Galloway as the primary option offensively as the marksman enters his senior season. With Jones' departure, Chris Wilson will make a bigger impact as the starting point guard as he goes into his junior campaign, while Ronald Roberts and Halil Kanacevic become double-double per game players in their final seasons in Philadelphia. The biggest key for St. Joe's will be their bench, and if Daryus Quarles, Isaiah Miles and Papa Ndao can increase their offensive outputs, the Hawks will be right in the thick of the championship picture.
8) George Mason - Paul Hewitt enters his third conference in four years as the Patriots join the A-10 from the Colonial Athletic Association. With all five starters returning, not to mention four of their top five reserves, George Mason will be vastly underrated in their new league, and senior shooting guard Sherrod Wright could challenge for first team all-conference honors if he resembles anything close to his sixteen-plus points per game. In addition to Wright, senior point guard Bryon Allen brings an assist to turnover ratio of greater than 2:1 with him into the A-10, while combo guard Corey Edwards and outside shooting extraordinaire Patrick Holloway will keep the Patriots in games as long as their shots manage to go in consistently. Up front, junior Erik Copes is on the precipice of a breakout season alongside Jonathan Arledge, with Johnny Williams serving as a deceptively strong third power forward for Mason. Seton Hall transfer Anali Okoloji and Serbian import Marko Gujanicic would start on some other teams in the A-10, but the depth in Fairfax is so abundant that they continue to contribute in a reserve capacity.
9) Dayton - Now in his third year at the helm after Brian Gregory left the Flyers for Georgia Tech, Archie Miller is still searching for the same winning combination that his older brother Sean honed to perfection for almost a decade in the A-10 with Xavier before moving to bigger and better success at Arizona. Senior guard Vee Sanford, once trapped on a deep bench at Georgetown before transferring, will help provide a spark now that point guard Kevin Dillard has graduated. Sanford will help mentor 5-11 sophomore Khari Price, who is the heir apparent at the point guard position this season, while Devin Oliver and Dyshawn Pierre are the primary facilitators up front alongside 6-9 sophomore Jalen Robinson. All three of Dayton's forwards are candidates for breakout seasons, and if any of them manage to approach double-double averages, the Flyers will finish much higher than the No. 9 spot.
10) Fordham - There usually isn't much optimism around Rose Hill going into the start of a season given the Rams' struggles over the years, but all signs point to this year finally being the one in which Tom Pecora turns the corner after one of the hardest schedules in the nation, coupled with the youth of his roster, contributed to a 7-24 record when some thought Fordham could approach .500 last season. Ironically, the Ram frontcourt is stronger and deeper despite losing program great Chris Gaston to graduation, with junior Ryan Canty capable of a breakout season if he can stay healthy alongside sophomores Ryan Rhoomes and Travion Leonard, both of whom have improved by leaps and bounds since the Bronx's A-10 representatives walked off the court victorious against St. Bonaventure in March. Pecora's trademark three-guard offense will once again establish itself early and often, with senior Branden Frazier anchoring a backcourt that includes rising star Mandell Thomas as he enters his sophomore season, and New York's Mr. Basketball as well in the form of Brooklyn native Jon Severe; who comes to Fordham by way of Christ the King High School in Middle Village, and has already drawn comparisons to Providence guard Bryce Cotton, who led the Big East in scoring last season. On the bench, Bryan Smith is fully recovered from a broken hand as he goes into his junior year, while Chris Whitehead and Antwoine Anderson should make noticeable impacts if they are able to play right away, and freshman Manny Suarez has earned positive reviews from Pecora for his skill as a stretch four up front. If Canadian import Jermaine Myers can improve his ball handling, Fordham's guards; coupled with their underrated and deceptively strong forwards, just might bring a winning culture to Rose Hill sooner rather than later.
11) George Washington - Mike Lonergan loses Lasan Kromah after he joined Kevin Ollie as a graduate transfer at UConn, but the Colonials retain Villanova expatriate Isaiah Armwood for one more season, and he comes back on the heels of averaging nearly twelve points and nine rebounds per game a year ago. Danish sophomore Kevin Larsen will alter shots naturally with his 6-10 frame alongside Armwood up front, and while Joe McDonald and Indiana graduate transfer Maurice Creek take care of business in the backcourt, remember this name: Patricio Garino. As a freshman last season, the 6-6 native of Argentina averaged over eight points and three rebounds per game, but made his biggest impressions on the defensive end with over two steals per contest. Look for Garino to become a household name this season as George Washington's game-changing X-factor.
12) Duquesne - Jim Ferry found a pleasant surprise during his first year in Pittsburgh, and it came in the form of point guard Derrick Colter, who averaged over thirteen points and five assists per game en route to a spot on the A-10 All-Rookie team. Joining Colter in the backcourt will be Jerry and Jeremiah Jones, (no relation) who enter their senior and sophomore seasons, respectively. Picking up the slack on the front line will be UAB transfer Ovie Soko now that he is eligible, with 6-11 freshman Darius Lewis a candidate to see significant minutes as well.
13) St. Bonaventure - Each of Mark Schmidt's three leading scorers has graduated, leaving Canadian shooting guard Matthew Wright as the focal point of the Bonnies' offense as he enters his senior season. In the paint, 6-8 senior Marquise Simmons and seven-footer Youssou Ndoye should have frequent opportunities to better their combined 13-point, 10-rebound averages, while Charlon Kloof and Jordan Gathers will see mounds of opportunities alongside Wright in the backcourt. Pay close attention to freshman Denzel Gregg, a highly regarded 6-7 swingman by way of the prestigious St. Thomas More program that should make a name for himself quickly as he becomes St. Bonaventure's most recognizable recruit since Andrew Nicholson.