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Jeff Eisenberg

Atlantic 10 preview: Five storylines to watch next season

Jeff Eisenberg
The Dagger

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ur week-long Atlantic 10 preview continues with a look at the conference's five most intriguing storylines entering the new season.

Will the Atlantic 10 be even stronger than last season?

Skeptics often scoffed when Atlantic 10 coaches insisted their league should be viewed as one of the majors, but last season's success made it more difficult to dismiss those claims. The Atlantic 10 finished with the sixth-best RPI of any league, placing three teams in the NCAA tournament and sending four other squads to other postseason tournaments.

All that success might seem as though it would be difficult to duplicate, but there's reason to believe the Atlantic 10 might be better next season. Four of the five members of the first-team all-conference squad are returning and the league's top coaches rebuffed i

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nterest from bigger programs to remain with their respective programs.

The next step for the conference will be for a program besides Xavier to experience some NCAA tournament success, but at least five teams begin next season with legitimate hopes of a memorable March run. The Musketeers are always a threat, Temple and Richmond each expect to return to the NCAA tournament and Dayton and Saint Louis each have a chance to join them.

Can Temple finally win an NCAA tournament game?

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If every Atlantic 10 team besides Xavier is starved for NCAA tournament success, then Temple is the ideal symbol of that. Coach Fran Dunphy is 0-3 in first-round games with the Owls, a statistic made more painful by last season's one-sided opening round flameout against Cornell.

The good news for Temple is that this year's team ought to have an excellent chance to end that run of futility. The defending regular season champion Owls return many of the key pieces from last year's surprising 29-win team including third-leading scorer and top rebounder Lavoy Allen, standout guard Juan Fernandez and Atlantic 10 Sixth of the Man of the Year Ramone Moore.

One important loss Temple did sustain is 6-foot-4 guard Ryan Brooks, a second-team all-conference player and the Owls' leading scorer at 14.3 points per game. For a team that sometimes struggled to score efficiently enough, it will be crucial that players like Moore take advantage of the increased opportunity and pick up the slack.

Will Dayton handle high expectations better this season?

Think back to this time last year, and you may remember that the team favored to win the Atlantic 10 wasn't Temple, Xavier or Richmond. It was actually Dayton, which returned the core of a team that tested Kansas for a while before falling in the second round of the NCAA tournament the previous year.

The Flyers faded badly down the stretch with six of nine losses to miss the NCAA tournament, but they showed surprising mettle in defeating Illinois, Mississippi and North Carolina to win the postseason NIT. They also received good news this offseason when Brian Gregory rebuffed interest from major-conference programs and remained at Dayton.

Expectations again will be high at Dayton this season with the return of standout wings Chris Wright and Chris Johnson, the Flyers' two leading scorers a year ago. Dayton sustained heavy losses at guard with London Warren, Marcus Johnson and Paul Lowery all graduating, but the arrival of top 100 recruit Juwan Staten should help make up for their absence.

More from The Dagger's A-10 Preview
MONDAY: How Xavier rose from humble origins
TUESDAY: Atlantic 10 projections, five storylines to watch
WEDNESDAY: An ex-player forecasts the A-10
THURSDAY: 15 must-see A-10 games
FRIDAY: Q&A with Dayton freshman Juwan Staten

Can Saint Louis build on last season's success?

The lingering question in the wake of Saint Louis' unlikely emergence last season is whether the Billikens can build on that success now that they won't be sneaking up on opposing teams.

Despite fielding a team of almost entirely freshmen and sophomores, Saint Louis won 23 games last season, finished 11-5 in an unsually strong Atlantic 10 and advanced to the finals of the CBI Tournament. The team returns nearly intact next season, elevating expectations to the point that anything short of an NCAA tournament berth will be disappointing.

Saint Louis' defense was superb last season, but the Billikens need to improve their offensive efficiency and their rebounding to take the next step. Sweet-shooting guard Kwamain Mitchell, big man Willie Reed and forward Cody Ellis form an excellent nucleus that Saint Louis can build around.

Will Saint Joseph's freshmen make immediate impact?

Saint Joseph's hasn't been a national contender since the days of Jameer Nelson and Delonte West in 2004, but the Hawks had still been strong enough of late that last year's struggles were a shock. They lost 11 conference games and finished 11-20, their first sub-.500 record since the 1999-2000 season.

Although the loss of leading scorers Darrin Govens and Garrett Williamson seems to suggest another long season is ahead for Saint Josephs, there's reason for optimism as a result of some strong incoming freshmen. The freshman trio of C.J. Aiken, Daryus Quarles and Langston Galloway form the best recruiting class coach Phil Martelli has landed in years.

That group should eventually lead St. Joseph's back to the upper half of the league, but the Hawks' fate next season will depend on how quickly they can make the transition to the college level. If they make an immediate impact, St. Joseph's will improve in a hurry. If they experience growing pains, Hawks fans will have to be patient again.

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