Former Xavier captain Steve Wolf, a color analyst for CBS Sports Network and Fox Sports Ohio, spoke with me this week to help preview the Atlantic 10. Here's his scouting report on the league next season:
1. With Xavier rebuilding, Temple set to leave and Butler and VCU coming aboard, does it feel like the Atlantic 10 is experiencing a bit of a changing of the guard this season?
College Hoops Countdown, No. 8: Atlantic 10
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• A former Atlantic 10 player breaks down this year's league race
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SW: In the past, it was always the same teams at the top. You had Xavier who was perennially at the top and you had Temple. But now you look at it, and I think it's changing. You have two teams coming in from another league that are very similarly in consistency to the top A-10 teams Both of them have very good guard play and both are going to be in the top six or seven at the end of the year.
2. The consensus seems to be the six league title contenders are Saint Louis, VCU, Temple, St. Joseph's, UMass and Butler. Out of that group, who would be your preseason pick to win the conference?
SW: I'm really fired up about Phil Martelli's team this year. It's tough to play them at home, they have a really solid big guy in C.J. Aiken and I like their backcourt. Carl Jones, is a great scorer. I also love the big kid [Halil] Kanacevic, the transfer who came in there. So I like them, but you also have to look at Temple. Scoonie Randall didn't play last year but he's back. Khalif Wyatt, I thought was unbelievable. Saint Louis has some great players, but now they've lost Kwamain Mitchell for six weeks to a broken foot. He is really the straw that stirs their drink. I think they'll be there toward the end of the year, but that's a big blow and I don't know if they can salvage it. So I have to say I think Saint Joseph's is probably my favorite to win it. Then I'd look at VCU and Temple would be third in my mind. Saint Louis could go either way, but right now I'd say four and five between UMass and Saint Louis.
3. When you look at the rest of the league, is there a sleepr team you could see surprising everybody and cracking that top six?
SW: Out of the rest of the teams, I'm interested to see what Rhode Island will do. Rhode Island fell off the tracks last year. They weren't as bad as they played, but they had so much dissension, so many problems. Everyone knew [Jim] Baron was gone, but now they've got Dan Hurley in there and I love what he did at Wagner. You've got a coach who teaches fundamentals, you've got a guy, [Nikola] Malesevic, who's a good shooter, Ryan Brooks is a senior and is ready to play. So I think Rhode Island could be a sleeper. The other one may be La Salle. I liked them at the end of last season. They have a great point guard in [Tyreek] Duren. So I would say it's a pick'em between Rhode Island and La Salle.
4. Xavier obviously had one of the toughest offseasons of any team in the nation. Is this a rebuilding year for your alma mater and how long do you think it will take that program to get back to where it has been?
SW: When you lose, I think, 53 points a game with Lyons, Holloway and Wells and everyone, that's pretty big, but they're not going to be as bad as everyone projects. They're going to need to do it fundamentally. They're not going to overpower anybody or out-quick anybody, but they do have some good players. It depends if they all come together and say nobody thinks we're going to be any good. I remember last year, the second half of the year, nobody thought they were any good, yet at the end of the year, they get to the Sweet 16. I think Chris Mack works better in this type of atmosphere with a chip on his shoulder. I think he's better this way than as a front runner. But still it's going to be a tough year.
4. The player of the year race in the Atlantic 10 looks about as wide open as the league title chase does. Do you have a preseason pick?
SW: I think it's going to be Khalif Wyatt, Chaz Williams or Kevin Dillard. Those are the guys that are going to run the show. Now if Dayton doesn't play up to its capabilities or UMass falls apart early or Temple doesn't play up to snuff, then maybe you look at the big guy [C.J.] Aiken. How's he playing for Saint Joe's? If Saint Joe's starts playing great and he's dominating on the boards because there aren't a lot of big guys in this league, then maybe he's your guy. But if I had to pick, I'd probably pick Wyatt. He's a great player, and Temple always gets better and better as the year goes on. I think they'll be in the hunt.
5. Which Atlantic 10 arena do you think is the most difficult on opposing teams?
SW: There's three, right now, I think are tough. Xavier and Dayton are two of the tough ones and Saint Louis has become a really, really good home crowd. Now that they're winning, it's always packed. When they're playing well, that place is rocking. So I'd say those are the top three. Dayton is one of the best places in the country to play. It's very hard to play there. They love their basketball there.
6. If you could go back in time, what Atlantic 10 coach would you most like to play for?
SW: I love a lot of those coaches, but I'd have to say it would come down to Phil Martelli [Saint Joseph's] and Fran Dunphy [Temple]. I'd probably take Martelli because I think he's hilarious. Dunphy is such a good guy, but when he gets on the court, he's a different bird. He's a mild-mannered guy, but he's not mild-mannered in practice. So my choice would be Martelli because he's a little funnier, but Dunphy and Martelli are my two choices.