Atlantic 10 Basketball: Conference Offseason Checkup Part 1

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Atlantic 10 Basketball: Conference Offseason Checkup Part 1
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As fans of St. Louis University basketball know, it’s an understatement to suggest the Atlantic 10 conference has had its share of upheaval over the past few months. The A-10 has been victimized by a series of membership changes from many of the conference’s most prominent programs.

Butler pulled a “one-and-done” with the conference, joining for 2012-13 and then immediately bolting after one year to the Big East. John Calipari would be proud of the Bulldogs. 

Xavier followed Butler’s exit to the Big East, ending an 18-year marriage to the conference. Charlotte likewise left the A-10 for Conference USA, seeking success as a medium-sized fish in a small pond.

Arguably, the A-10’s biggest lost is Temple moving to the “old” Big East, now otherwise known as the American Athletic Conference. For more than 20 years, Temple and the A-10 went together as well as any school and conference in America.

I don’t particularly see why Temple would choose to affiliate in a conference with the likes of Southern Methodist, Memphis, Louisville, Cincinnati or South Florida. Oh wait, I remember. Football.

For Billiken fans, it’s just enough to know that the A-10 still exists, albeit in a slightly different form from what we saw only four months ago.

With that in mind, here is the first installment of our offseason checkup on the rest of the conference, starting with the four programs SLU will play in home-and-home conference matchups this season.

 

Dayton

SLU’s biggest conference rival, and geographically its closest A-10 competitor, Dayton has lately been on the wrong end of a south-bound spiral.

Since winning the NIT in 2010, the Flyers have seen their win totals decrease each subsequent year (from 25 wins in 2010 down to 17 last year). The team also failed to qualify for the postseason for the first time since 2007.

The Flyers recently saw two of their best players (Kevin Dillard and Josh Benson) graduate, while another important piece (Matt Derenbecker) has transferred. It’s easy to say that Dayton is quickly entering a rebuilding mode.

That’s the pessimist’s view.

The optimist will say that Dayton’s immediate future is bright. The team’s field-goal percentage last year (47.5) was the best in nearly a quarter-century. The program’s three-point success rate (38.4 percent) was the best in school history.

The team’s top three rebounders are all returning, and the Flyers look to have a young star in the making. Rising sophomore forward Dyshawn Pierre was not only a beast on the boards as a freshman last season (5.1 per game), he was more than capable at shooting it from outside (24-of-52 from three-point range).

If Pierre (6’6”, 210 lbs) hits the weights (and the smoothie bar) enough this offseason, he should start to fill into his frame and become a dominating force down low for the Flyers.

After losing the team’s best ball-handler (Dillard) and best shot-blocker (Benson), the concern is that Pierre will not have as many easy chances to score inside and out. Rising seniors Vee Sanford and Devin Oliver will have to take over from the loss of Dillard and Benson.  

Sanford was second on the team to Dillard last year in points and assists per game. Oliver led the program in both rebounds and steals last year. Between Sanford’s passing and scoring, and Oliver’s defense, reality says there will be a nice fusion for Pierre’s skills to shine.

 

Virginia Commonwealth

Havoc. Mayhem. Chaos. All of these words entered the A-10’s lexicon with last year’s addition of VCU. The Rams run a full-court pressure-style defense that lends itself to many turnovers and easy baskets on the offensive end.

Everyone knows that. What everyone might not know is that this Rams team looks even better than last year’s 27-win campaign that culminated with a second-place conference finish.

The Rams pretty much return the same team from last year, including all of their top scorers, rebounders, ball-handlers and defenders.

VCU had four players average double figures last year, led by Treveon Graham (15.1 per game) and Juvonte Reddic (14.6). Six Rams averaged 20-plus minutes per game last year. A seventh averaged 17 minutes. All but one return this year.

The Rams, however, have added a piece to their impressive arsenal. Having recently graduated from Florida State, power forward Terrance Shannon has decided to take advantage of a medical redshirt from 2011-12 and enroll at VCU for one final season.

Shannon (6’8”, 240 lbs) will be eligible to play immediately. He joins the Rams after his final season at Florida State where he was the Seminoles’ third-leading scorer (7.9 points per game), second-leading rebounder (5.9 per game) and team leader in steals.

Toughness and aggressiveness; more of just what VCU’s havoc needs.

 

Duquesne

The Dukes will go as far as rising sophomore guard Derrick Colter takes them. As a freshman last year, Colter was at the top of many of the team’s offensive categories, leading the team in points per game (13.5) and assists (5.2 per game) last season.

Colter (5’11”, 175 lbs) needs to improve his shot (38 percent from the field last year) and cut down on his turnovers (3.6 per game). His free-throw success rate (67 percent) could also use a bump. However, you could say all of that about almost any freshman point guard.

The problem for the Dukes is that Colter is the only known commodity on the team. Only three players return for this coming season for Duquesne. Nine scholarship players left the team last year–including five transfers and one player switched sports.

The Dukes expect immediate impact from senior Ovie Soko. The transfer from UAB, Soko (6’8”, 220 lbs) will be asked to provide double-doubles in large quantities, and quickly.

Also coming on board for Duquesne is Tra’Vaughn White, who led the nation in junior college scoring (25.9 points per game) last year.

White and Soko should alleviate the pressure on Colter to do everything, but it’s safe to ask whether White can perform similarly well against Division I talent, and whether Soko has a learning curve after a year away from game action.

It’s virtually impossible to predict with any certainty how the Dukes will do this coming year. Randomness suggests they cannot do any worse than last year (8-22 overall record, including 1-15 in conference).

I would expect the Dukes to begin to move into the middle of the A-10’s standings next year. Duquesne is, however, at least one more year away from serious contention in the A-10. But I would expect that the team will spoil several rivals’ plans this year for an easy road win in Pittsburgh.

 

George Mason

The Patriots are the newest member of the A-10, joining the league after 27 years in the Colonial Athletic Association. Being the new kid on the block, George Mason will be the unknown variable for the rest of the league. 

George Mason is riding a three-season streak of 20-plus wins, after finishing last year 22-16 (10-8 in conference), including a runner-up finish in the CBI tournament. 

The Patriots are an experienced team, returning all five starters this season. Playing on a comparably larger stage in the A-10 should not faze this senior-laden team.

The Patriots offense revolves around rising senior guard Sherrod Wright. As the team leader last year in points, minutes and three-pointers, Wright (6’4”, 196 lbs) will be asked for a repeat performance this coming season.

Wright averaged 16.6 points per game last year, topping the 20-point mark 17 times. He is a versatile scorer who can get his own shot, while grabbing a fair amount of rebounds (4.9 per game last year).

Opponents will also have to pay attention to rising senior guard Byron Allen. As the team’s primary ball-handler, Allen’s size (6’3”, 205 lbs) often creates mismatches for opposing teams. 

Allen led the Patriots last year in assists (4.0) and steals (1.3) per game, while sporting a better than 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio.

Also, keep your eyes on senior forward Jonathan Arledge. While averaging only 19 minutes of game action last year, Arledge (6’9”, 223 lbs) averaged 9.0 points and nearly five rebounds per game. Expand those numbers out over a game’s full 40 minutes, and it’s safe to expect Arledge to become a double-double type player in his senior year.

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