The Atlantic 10 is gearing up for another compelling season, hoping to maintain their (justified) place as an upper-tier college basketball conference.
As many as seven teams vied for NCAA tournament recognition at various times last season, but ultimately, three teams (Xavier, Temple and Richmond) went dancing while another (Dayton) captured the NIT crown.
The expanded field this season is a positive for this conference and any less than four participants in this year's Madness will be disappointing.
Here is a brief look at some of the players hoping to lead their respective teams to the promised land.
Kevin Anderson - Richmond Spiders
Reigning A-10 player of the year, Kevin Anderson will merit strong consideration for the award again this season.
He led the Spiders in scoring (17.8 PPG), assists and steals last season and will need to have another big season for Richmond to contend at the top of the league. After earning second team all-conference honours as a sophomore, Anderson was a first-team pick a year ago.
He is the first Spider to win the POY award since Richmond entered the league in 2001-02.
Chris Wright - Dayton Flyers
Wright, too, was an all-conference second team pick as a sophomore and a first-team pick last season.
His numbers are good—14 PPG and seven RPG—but they need to be better if the Flyers hope to compete in the A-10.
Wright has been pegged as an NBA-type athlete for his entire career, but he needs to develop a better overall game and be more of a leader this season to prove that these assertions are justified.
Damian Saunders - Duquesne Dukes
Another returning first-team all-conference pick, Saunders does it all.
In addition to scoring 15 points per game and hauling in 11 rebounds, Saunders led the conference in blocks and steals en route to earning Defensive Player of the Year honours, the first Duke ever to win the award.
He also led the conference with 20 double-doubles and will be a force on what could be a sleeper team in the A-10. Anything close to the numbers he posted last season puts him at the top of the list.
Aaric Murray - LaSalle Explorers
Murray was as advertised as a freshman, despite the turmoil and disappointing results for the team overall.
He averaged 12.2 points and 6.6 rebounds per game, and was second behind Saunders with over two blocks per game. Murray helped the Explorers establish themselves as one of the better rebounding teams in the conference as well.
This season, with the departure of top scorer Rodney Green, more will be asked of Murray. If he steps up, he could be a dominant player in the A-10.
Kwamain Mitchell - Saint Louis Billikens
The leader of the Billikens surprising jump to the top echelon of the A-10 last season, Mitchell was a second team all-conference pick a year ago.
He teams with Wilie Reed (whose name could be in here too, I suppose), to form a solid inside/outside duo for Saint Louis, who return every significant contributor from a year ago.
Mitchell averaged nearly 16 points a game last year and shot a decent 45 percent from the field, second on the team to Reed’s 59 percent.
The Billikens won’t surprise anyone this year, but Mitchell could possibly guide them to the NCAA tournament.
Lavoy Allen - Temple Owls
The fourth of five first team picks that return, Allen is a complete player at both ends.
He averaged a double-double (11.7 PPG, 10.8 RPG) for the Owls, who won the A-10 tournament for the third year in a row.
Defense is the staple for Temple, so it is difficult to predict offensive numbers for Allen. However, if Michael Eric continues to develop, Allen could get some more one-on-one offensive opportunities. I don’t know if it is in the offensive scheme, but I would like to see him get more touches and get to the foul line (only 2.6 per game last season) more often.
Chris Gaston - Fordham Rams
The fifth returning all-conference first-teamer, Gaston was also the Freshman of the Year, averaging 18 points and 11.4 rebounds per game.
Okay, Gaston won't lead them to the promised land. Working against him is the fact that the Rams were winless in league play last year and while they obviously can’t go down, any more than four or five wins would be surprising.
Gaston is an exceptional talent that has been asked to do everything, a little much for a sophomore on a team with decidedly less talent than almost all in the conference. So much so, in fact, that he committed nine turnovers in three separate games last season.
If he gets some help, Gaston will be someone to watch.
Shamari Spears - Charlotte 49ers
Spears was a little under the radar (and just a little) last year and was third team all-conference pick in his first year with the 49ers.
Averaging 16 points and six rebounds per game, Spears teamed with freshman Chris Braswell to give Charlotte a formidable front court presence.
This season, Spears could improve on those numbers. Charlotte returns key players at key positions and could be a very dangerous team.
If the 49ers find their way into the top five of the league, Spears will likely be the driving force and will merit strong consideration for POY.