|Shaka Smart and VCU are new to the A10 this year, as is Butler. The league is as good as ever now. (US Presswire)|
The A-10 is loaded this year. It's so loaded, in fact, that Xavier could finish in the bottom half of the league. With the addition of Butler and VCU, it's a conference that could legitimately get a half-dozen teams into the NCAA tournament this season. Brad Stevens and Shaka Smart will be far more relevant throughout conference play nowadays -- and the A-10 tournament should get plenty of pub since it's in the brand-new Barclays Center in Brooklyn. This could be a banner season for the Atlantic 10 -- all the way around.
Last year's regular-season winners: Temple
Last year's tournament winner: St. Bonaventure
Conference tournament: March 14-17 (Barclays Center, Brooklyn, N.Y.)
Ten best non-conference games:
1. Indiana vs. Butler in Indianapolis (Dec. 15)
2. Xavier vs. Cincinnati (Dec. 19)
3. Alabama at VCU (Dec. 15)
4. Gonzaga at Butler (Jan. 19)
5. Temple at Kansas, Jan. 6
6. Duke vs. Temple at the Izod Center in Newark, N.J. (Dec. 8)
7. Temple vs. Syracuse at Madison Square Garden, N.Y. (Dec. 22)
8. Saint Joseph's at Creighton (Dec.1)
9. New Mexico at Saint Louis (Dec. 31)
10. Miami at UMass (Dec. 1)
What I like: A-10's one-year circumstance, the new coaches, the best shooter in hoops.
Why: This is a loaded league, especially this year since Temple isn't off to the Big East until 2013-14. Commissioner Bernadette McGlade added Butler and VCU -- and there are already four of five teams that will have the opportunity to compete for an NCAA tournament bid. You've got Temple, Butler, VCU, Saint Joe's, Saint Louis and UMass in the top tier, but don't discount Dayton, La Salle, Richmond or even a young Xavier team. This year should be highly entertaining and competitive in a league that could set a record come March.
The coaching contingent -- With the addition of Brad Stevens and Shaka Smart, there is no shortage of terrific coaches in this league -- some old, some new. Phil Martelli and Fran Dunphy are the vets while guys like Stevens, Smart, Chris Mack, Archie Miller, Chris Mooney, Derek Kellogg, Dan Hurley and Mark Schmidt are all rising young coaches. You can't forget about guys like John Giannini, Tom Pecora, Mike Lonergan, Jim Ferry and Alan Major. This league is loaded with quality coaches.
|The Temple/St. Joe's intra-league rivalry will cease to be after this year, when the Owls go Big East. (US Presswire)|
Rotnei Clarke -- He's the best shooter in the entire country and he's back on the court after sitting out last season. Clarke only has one year left after spending three seasons at Arkansas, and he'll make the conversion to the point guard spot under Stevens. I can't wait to see Clarke at Hinkle Fieldhouse. It's the ideal marriage.
What I don't like: Rick Majerus' absence, a weakened Xavier, Temple's exodus.
Why: That Majerus will be spending much of the season in the hospital and not on the sidelines. I know he's got his detractors, but Majerus is going through some serious health issues and won't return this season -- and maybe won't return to the sidelines ever again. That's sad and we wish Majerus the best in his recovering from heart issues.
Xavier is down. Really down. The Musketeers lost Tu Holloway and Kenny Frease to graduation, then parted ways with Mark Lyons -- who will finish his career at Arizona. Then Dez Wells, the team's top returning player, was kicked out of school after rape allegations that never turned into anything more than allegations. Wells landed at Maryland -- and Xavier has landed towards the bottom of the league, an unfamiliar place for the Musketeers.
Temple is leaving. Dunphy and the Owls are in their final go-around in the A-10. In six seasons at the helm, Dunphy has a 134-65 overall mark, has gone to five consecutive NCAA tournaments and has finished either first or second in the league in each of the past five seasons. While the league is excited to add Stevens and Smart, Dunphy is one of the classiest and most underrated guys in the game.
Player of the Year will be: Khalif Wyatt (Temple). It's a safe pick. Dunphy is a heck of a coach and even though the Owls lost Ramone Moore and Juan Fernandez, Temple still has enough to repeat as the regular-season champs. Wyatt averaged 17.1 points per game last season and could put up 20 per contest this year.
The next best five:
And the five after that:
Best freshman: Semaj Christon (Xavier). Part of the reason is because the kid is talented -- and it's also because Chris Mack and the Musketeers are going to need him to be the focal point immediately after losing so much production in the offseason.
|BEST GUESS ON FIRST TO WORST|
|1. Temple Owls|
|Wyatt is arguably the best player in the league and Scootie Randall is back after missing last season due to injury. The Owls add a pair of impact transfers: West Virginia's Dalton Pepper and BU's Jake O'Brien. Dunphy's team isn't overpowering, but he's one of the most underrated coaches in the country.|
|1. UMass Minutemen|
|Derek Kellogg has one of the league's top point guards in diminutive Chaz Williams -- and he's got plenty of experienced guys around him. Raphiael Putney has matured and can be a factor and Cady Lalanne should step in after missing most of last season and be an upgrade down low over Sean Carter.|
|3. VCU Rams|
|Shaka Smart will have to replace Bradford Burgess, but he's got everything else back -- and it's more of the system that makes the Rams effective. Juvonte Reddick can be a double-double guy, Troy Daniels really shoots it and Briante Weber is a lock-down defender. There's also Darius Theus and Rob Brandenberg in the fold.|
|4. Saint Joseph's Hawks|
|Phil Martelli doesn't lose anything of note from a Hawks team that won 20 games last season. Carl Jones is a senior and can really score, C.J. Aiken gives the team a big-time shot-blocker and St. Joe's has a big-time shooter in Langston Galloway.|
|5. Butler Bulldogs|
|Brad Stevens & Co. could have won the title in their first season in the league -- if they had Chrishawn Hopkins. However, he was dismissed late in the summer and Butler doesn't have anyone else like him. The Bulldogs still have talent with Arkansas transfer Rotnei Clarke, Khyle Marshall and senior big man Andrew Smith. But they need someone who can make create for himself -- and Hopkins was that guy.|
|6. Saint Louis Billikens|
|I was so high on these guys -- before Rick Majerus' heart issues forced him to step away for this season and maybe forever. Then Kwamain Mitchell got hurt and could miss the start of the season. The Billikens could still win this league, but it'll be difficult without Majerus.|
|7. La Salle Explorers|
|John Giannini and the Explorers have everyone back except for Earl Pettis from a team that went 21-13 last season and tied for fifth in the league. Virginia Tech transfer Tyrone Garland will slide right into Pettis' spot and La Salle won't miss a beat.|
|8. Dayton Flyers|
|Archie Miller is one of the terrific young coaches in the country and while he doesn't have a ton of talent, he does have Kevin Dillard and Josh Benson is back from a torn ACL. Those two, along with transfers Matt Derenbecker (LSU) and Vee Sanford (Georgetown), should be enough to keep the Flyers in the top half of the league|
|9. Xavier Musketeers|
|The Musketeers lost as much as anyone in the country. Tu Holloway, Kenny Frease, Mark Lyons and Dez Wells, who was dismissed from school in the summer and landed at Maryland. Chris Mack may have a long year with a roster that isn't deep or nearly as talented as in usually the case at the Cintas Center.|
|10. Richmond Spiders|
|Chris Mooney lost a ton two years ago, but he's got a new talented group that's led by Darien Brothers, Derrick Williams, Cedrick Lindsay and Kendall Anthony -- none of which are seniors. That means the Spiders will be good this season and have a chance to compete for the title next year.|
|11. George Washington Colonials|
|The Colonials should be improved from Mike Lonergan's 10-win campaign, but this program still is a ways away from being a legitimate challenger in the league race. It'll be interesting to see what Villanova transfer Isaiah Armwood can add to a group that returns Lasan Kromah and David Pellom.|
|12. Charlotte 49ers|
|Alan Major is in Year 3 and the 49ers will need to improve on a 13-17 overall mark and a 5-11 league record last season. Chris Braswell is one of the league's best players and maybe Virginia Tech transfer JT Thompson can help. It's still difficult to imagine Charlotte cracking the top half of the league -- which is the next step.|
|13. St. Bonaventure Bonnies|
|Andrew Nicholson is gone. I repeat, Andrew Nicholson is gone. Demetrius Conger will have to step up his game and be a star in the league for the Bonnies to avoid taking a major free-fall.|
|14. Fordham Rams|
|Tom Pecora has senior big man Chris Gaston, but he'll need more help -- and maybe freshman Ryan Rhoomes can provide it.|
|15. Rhode Island Rams|
|Dan Hurley will get it done at URI, but it won't be this year. He brought in Gil Biruta (Rutgers), Jarelle Reischel (Rice) and DeShon Minnis (Texas Tech), but all three will sit out this season. Look for freshman Jordan Hare to be a bright spot this season.|
|16. Duquesne Dukes|
|Jim Ferry has a major rebuilding job. He inherited a program that lost its top player, T.J. McConnell, to Arizona, and also graduated B.J. Monteiro. Senior guard Sean Johnson will be the cornerstone, but he'll be a good player on a bad team.|
Previously in previews:
No. 8 -- Mountain West
No. 9 -- Missouri Valley
No. 10 -- Conference USA
No. 11 -- West Coast
No. 12 -- Western Athletic
No. 13 -- Colonial
No. 14 -- Horizon League
No. 15 -- The Ivy League
No. 16 -- Summit League
No. 17 -- MAC
No. 18 -- Atlantic Sun
No. 19 -- Sun Belt
No. 20 -- MAAC
No. 21 -- Patriot League
No. 22 -- Ohio Valley
No. 23 -- Big West
No. 24 -- SoCon
No. 25 -- NEC
No. 26 -- Big South
No. 27 -- Southland
No. 28 -- Big Sky
No. 29 -- America East
No. 30 -- MEAC
No. 31 -- Great West
No. 32 -- SWAC