Atlantic 10 preview: Addition of VCU, Butler makes strong league even more formidable

Yahoo! Sports is breaking down each league for the upcoming college basketball season working backward from No. 31 to No. 1. Here's a look at our No. 8 league, the Atlantic 10.

If the ACC is basketball's biggest conference realignment winner because of the additions of Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame, then the revamped Atlantic 10 certainly isn't too far behind.

This season, the league welcomes newcomers VCU and Butler, two of the nation's glamor mid-major programs the past few years. Add those two to an already improving league that won't lose Temple to the Big East for one more season, and the result is a particularly formidable Atlantic 10 that lacks a truly elite team but appears to have at least a half dozen NCAA tournament contenders

Trying to pick a preseason Atlantic 10 favorite is a fool's errand this year because any of consensus the top six teams could make a legitimate case.

Is it VCU, which returns four starters from a team that fell one bucket shy of the Sweet 16? How about Saint Louis, which boasts Rick Majerus' most talented team but doesn't have Majerus to coach it? Or maybe Saint Joseph's, which has elite shot blocker C.J. Aiken and the league's best backcourt duo? Or perhaps Butler, which brings in Arkansas transfer Rotnei Clarke and freshman Kellen Dunham to fix last year's shooting woes?

The other two programs that can't be overlooked are Temple and UMass, both of whom are especially strong on the perimeter.

The Owls boast a stable of talented wings highlighted by the league's top returning scorer in Khalif Wyatt, but they'll need sophomore Will Cummings to develop at point guard and unproven frontcourt players to emerge. UMass is a year away from having its best team as a result of the impending arrival of Western Kentucky transfer Derrick Gordon, but Chaz Williams is good enough to make the Minutemen a contender this year if an interior scorer or two emerges.

All six of those programs received first-place votes in the Atlantic 10 preseason poll, with Saint Joseph's somewhat surprisingly edging second-place Saint Louis and third-place VCU for the top spot. The Billikens and Rams are probably the safest choices because they return so much from teams that went to the NCAA tournament and won a game last year.

Of teams outside the consensus top six, the most likely to surprise may be Dayton. With all-league point guard Kevin Dillard complemented by a frontcourt that includes a healthy Josh Benson, improving Matt Kavanaugh and LSU transfer Matt Derenbecker, the Flyers boast a nucleus perhaps good enough for a top four finish in previous years.

Notably missing from the conversation is Xavier, the Atlantic 10's flagship program for the past decade.

Thanks to the departure of Mark Lyons, Tu Holloway, Dez Wells and Kenny Frease and the NCAA half their recruiting class academically ineligible, the Musketeers will have an unusually threadbare roster this season. Their best hope is freshman point guard Semaj Christon leading a group of unproven veterans to a competitive season in a rebuilding year.

Best shooter: Rotnei Clarke, Butler. In three seasons at Arkansas, Clarke connected on 41.7 percent of his attempts from behind the arc. That's welcome news for a Butler team that was among the poorest shooting teams in the nation last season but figures to improve greatly in that area with the additions of Clarke and freshman Kellen Dunham.
Best playmaker: Kevin Dillard, Dayton. The nod goes to Dillard here slightly ahead of UMass star Chaz Williams simply because of the Dayton point guard's superior assist-to-turnover ratio. Both point guards led their respective teams in scoring, assists and steals last season, but Dillard averaged 6.0 assists per game and just 2.8 turnovers.

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Best defender: C.J. Aiken, Saint Joseph's. It's tempting to go with Briante Weber or one of VCU's other ball-hawking guards, but Aiken gets the nod here for his game-changing shot-blocking ability. The 6-foot-9 junior swatted away 3.5 shots per game last season, earning A-10 defensive player of the year honors and establishing himself as one of the nation's premier shot blockers.
Top NBA prospect:
Semaj Christon, Xavier. For a league with as many quality teams as the Atlantic 10, there aren't a lot of surefire NBA prospects to choose from this year. C.J. Aiken's shot-blocking and Khalif Wyatt's scoring give both a chance, but the selection here is Christon because of the Xavier freshman's size, skill and ability to run a team. He'll start right away at point guard for the Musketeers.
Best backcourt: Most of the Atlantic 10's top teams have an all-league-caliber guard in their starting lineup. Only Saint Joseph's has two. Between explosive Carl Jones (17.0 ppg) and versatile Langston Galloway (15.5 ppg), the Hawks have two of the six highest-scoring returners in the league last season. The depth behind them is unproven, but sophomore Chris Wilson is a good option off the bench at point guard.
Best frontcourt: Butler. In a backcourt-dominated league featuring numerous talented guards, most teams have questions up front. Butler's interior depth is a concern, but the starting duo of senior Andrew Smith and junior Khyle Marshall may be the class of the Atlantic 10. Both shoot a high percentage from the floor, rebound capably and play the solid interior defense we've come to expect from the Bulldogs.
Best recruiting class: Xavier. Chris Mack landed's No. 19 class nationally last season, a group that included Christon, outstanding perimeter shooter Myles Davis and talented power forward Jalen Reynolds. As with most things for Xavier this offseason, however, there's a catch: Both Davis and Reynolds were ruled academically ineligible for the 2012-13 season.
Coach on the rise: Dan Hurley, Rhode Island. Butler's Brad Stevens and VCU's Shaka Smart remain the hottest coaching commodities in the nation, but Rhode Island has another up-and-comer. Hurley, hired by the Rams last spring, built Wagner into a 25-win NEC contender in a mere two years. It will take longer to turn around Rhode Island, but Hurley has the Northeast recruiting ties to do it.
Coach on the hot seat: None. LaSalle's John Giannini and UMass' Derek Kellogg began last season with pressure to succeed, but the Explorers won 21 games and made their first postseason under Giannini and the Minutemen won 25 and made a deep NIT run. Barring a crash-and-burn from either of them, they should both have built up enough equity to remain in their jobs. Charlotte's Alan Major also needs to show some progress sooner or later, but it's tough to see him getting fired after just his third year with the 49ers.

New coaches: Dan Hurley, Rhode Island (Had been coach of Wagner); Jim Ferry, Duquesne (Had been coach at Long Island); Jim Crews, Saint Louis (Had been assistant under Rick Majerus);
Regular-season winner last season: Temple
Tourney winner last season: St. Bonaventure
League RPI rank in each of past 3 seasons: 2011-12: 7th ; 2010-11: 9th, 2009-10: 5th
NCAA bids the past three seasons: 10 (Xavier 3, Temple 3, Richmond 2, Saint Louis, St. Bonaventure)