Tue Sep 06 09:00am EDT
Our week-long Atlantic 10 preview continues with conference projections and a look at the league's five most intriguing storylines entering the new season.
If North Carolina and Duke traditionally have maintained a grip on the first two spots in the ACC standings, then what Xavier and Temple have accomplished of late in the Atlantic 10 might best be referred to as a choke hold.
The Musketeers and Owls have finished no worse than first and a tie for second in the Atlantic 10 standings each of the past four seasons. The last time anyone besides Xavier won the league championship outright was the 2005-06 season when George Washington finished a perfect 16-0 in Atlantic 10 play.
Although Saint Louis, Saint Bonaventure and Charlotte should each be improved this year, there once again appears to be a clear gap between Xavier and Temple and the rest of the league. Temple returns four starters from a 26-win team that came within a bucket of the Sweet 16. And Xavier boasts a deeper, more talented roster than the one that finished 15-1 in Atlantic 10 play a year ago.
2. Which transfer will make the biggest impact?
While the departure of promising Dayton guard Juwan Staten and LaSalle big man Aaric Murray will diminish the Atlantic 10's star power next season, the conference did benefit from some incoming transfers as well. A handful of talented transfers will make their Atlantic 10 debuts this season including several who are capable of impacting their new teams' fortune.
The heir apparent to Staten at Dayton will likely be ex-Southern Illinois point guard Kevin Dillard, the 2008 Illinois Mr. Basketball who averaged double figures both of his two years with the Salukis. Saint Louis' woeful 32.6 percent three-point shooting should receive a boost from sophomore Jake Barnett, who averaged 12.7 points per game and sank more than two threes a game as a freshman at Toledo two years ago. And Xavier adds a pair of 6-foot-7 forwards who should see playing time, senior Andre Walker from Vanderbilt and junior Travis Taylor from Monmouth.
The Atlantic 10 school that may rely most on transfers, however, is Rhode Island, which welcomes former Virginia guard Billy Baron and former Auburn wing Andre Malone among the eight newcomers on next season's roster. Both won't be eligible until after the end of fall semester in mid-December, but both will bring scoring and perimeter shooting to a Rams program that must rebuild after the loss of Delroy James and several other standouts.
3. Will Kwamain Mitchell's return revitalize Saint Louis?
At this time last year, Saint Louis was expected to contend with the likes of Xavier, Temple and Richmond for the Atlantic 10 championship. Then disaster struck, relegating the Billikens to a 12-19 record that was coach Rick Majerus' first losing season of his illustrious coaching career.
Guard Kwamain Mitchell and center Willie Reed, St. Louis' two best players, both were lost for the season in October due to violations of the school's code of conduct. Reed has since turned pro but Mitchell took a redshirt year and returned, adding to the optimism that the Billikens could be Xavier's and Temple's top challenger this season.
All five starters return for Saint Louis, plus the team adds Toledo transfer Jake Barnett in addition to Mitchell, both of whom should help provide some firepower for a team that averaged just 63 points per game a year ago. Mitchell averaged 15.9 points and 3.o assists as a sophomore and Barnett tallied 12.7 points per game in his lone season at Toledo.
4. How far will Richmond fall?
Richmond fans better have enjoyed last year's memorable March because it may take at least a year for the rebuilding Spiders to contend for another NCAA tournament bid. Four senior starters including stars Kevin Anderson and Justin Harper are gone from a team that last year finished with 29 wins, captured the Atlantic 10 tournament and reached the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1988.
Merely finishing in the upper half of the Atlantic 10 would be an accomplishment this season, but that's an attainable goal if some of last year's role players emerge as capable scorers this winter. The most likely breakout star is lone returning starter Darien Brothers, a quick 6-foot-3 junior guard who averaged 7.5 points per game and shot 40.8 percent from three-point range.
Since Richmond's roster is devoid of proven scorers besides Brothers, the Spiders will likely have to rely on their defense to create offense. Expect Brothers, 6-foot-1 sophomore Cedrick Lindsay and 6-foot-6 senior Francis-Cedric Martel to ratchet up the ball pressure and attempt to force turnovers with their active hands and quick feet.
5. Can Andrew Nicholson lead his team to the NCAA tournament?
Andrew Nicholson established himself as one of the Atlantic 10's best players while posting 20.8 points and 7.3 rebounds per game last season, but team success continues to elude St. Bonaventure's ultra-talented 6-foot-9 senior. The Bonnies finished 16-15 overall and 8-8 in league play, another incremental improvement over the previous year yet not remotely close to NCAA tournament contention.
If Nicholson is going to add to his legacy by helping St. Bonaventure earn its first trip to March Madness since 2000, this year certainly represents his best shot. Nicholson is one of four starters who return from last season's team for the Bonnies, though the lone graduate was Odo Adegboye, who averaged 11.5 points and 4.5 assists per game and led the nation in minutes at 39 per game.
St. Bonaventure will plug either junior college transfer Eric Mosley or late signee Charlon Kloof in at point guard in place of Adegboye alongside double-digit scoring wings Demetrius Conger and Michael Davenport. The hope is that if either Mosley or Kloof make a seamless transition and Nicholson repeats his brilliance from last season, the result will be a top-four league finish, a 20-win season and a legitimate case for an NCAA tournament berth.
More conference previews from the Dagger:
ACC: Lessons from the pros keep North Carolina humble and hungry, ACC projections and storylines to watch, Ex-Wake Forest star Ish Smith scouts the league, Ranking the 15 best non-league ACC games, Q&A with Florida State junior Michael Snaer