Player of the Year: Kellan Grady, So., Davidson
Coach of the Year: Travis Ford, SLU
Newcomer of the Year: Marcus Evans, R Jr., VCU (if healthy - if not, Tramaine Isabell, R Sr., SLU)
Freshman of the Year: Jermaine Harris, Rhode Island
Key Returners: Kellan Grady, Jon Axel Gudmundsson, KiShawn Pritchett
Key Losses: Peyton Aldridge, Oskar Michelsen, Will Magarity, Rusty Reigel
Key Newcomers: Luke Frampton (redshirt), Luka Brajkovic, Mike Jones, Nelson Boachie-Yiadom, David Czerapowicz
Outlook: After struggling mightily through a decent non-conference schedule (losses to Hawaii and Appalachian State, best win was over Akron), the Wildcats bottomed out in the KenPom rankings at 114th following an ugly 54-51 slog of a win over St. Louis. They were 6-7 (1-1), seemingly headed for a second straight season of mediocrity in Peyton Aldridge’s final season, when suddenly, a switch flipped. They won their next three games by 27 (on the road), 27, and 30 (on the road), launching a 2018 campaign that culminated in a conference tournament championship and narrow loss to Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament (which featured one of the most insane backdoor covers in recent memory, for those that got the early UK -6 or -5.5 lines):
Aldridge and a cadre of role players depart, but Davidson returns one of the best backcourt duos in the entire country to run Bob McKillop’s intricate motion offense. Kellan Grady and Jon Axel Gudmundsson will be stars, and if the rest of the roster can slot into roles behind them (KiShawn Pritchett is the most likely third banana), the Wildcats will be extremely difficult to beat.
The offense has had the luxury of multiple smooth-shooting bigs over the past couple of seasons, but unless Pritchett plays a lot of power forward, that may not be the case this year. Dusan Kovacevic can shoot it, but he’s struggled mightily with injuries, and Luka Brajkovic might not physically ready for the D-I game right off the bat (though his shot is pure). That means Nathan Ekwu, also returning from injury, will play a more physical frontcourt role, and Grady and Gudmundsson will face more attention on D. In response, McKillop will run them off all kinds of screens, drawing attention and allowing easy cuts for teammates against distracted defenders. Pritchett’s passing as a 6’6 wing/forward makes this even more deadly.
A ton of Davidson sets will include something similar to this screenshot - a jumble of players near the free throw line with the ball on the wing, allowing for random cuts, pops, and post seals that make the offense hard to predict:
In that photo, Grady (31) is screening, but he'll immediately have the option to curl around to the top of the key or flare weak side. The freedom given to the offensive players makes it nearly impossible for the defense to anticipate movements.
As good as the offense can be, Davidson needs to tighten the screws on defense. That statement has been a broken record about McKillop’s teams over the past nine years, having only finished in KenPom’s Top 120 once over that span (92nd in 2017). He’s consistently recruited cerebral shooters over lanky athletes, already limiting the team’s defensive ceiling, and while the youngsters offer some potential options, this team will likely be best served repeating the trend of its predecessor: more zone.
Per Synergy, the Wildcats played no more than 9% zone from 2013-2017 (including a miniscule 2% of the time in the 2016-17 season), but that number rocketed up to 25% of the time last year. The switch coincided with the Wildcats’ season taking off. This piece from Roger Rubin at The Athletic (subscription, sorry - most relevant point below) pointed out how switching to a 2-3 changed Davidson’s season:
“We’d played some tough teams, but we felt we needed something different. We implemented it in the Akron game, did not use it in the first conference game with Richmond, but we’ve used it ever since…it’s the first time in a number of years that we’ve had the length at every position.” – Coach Bob McKillop
With tall guards in Gudmundsson (6’4), Grady (6’5), Carter Collins (6’3), Luke Frampton (6’5) and Michael Jones (6’4), the Wildcats can once again throw out length all over the court (Pritchett and Ekwu are no slouches as athletes, either), meaning the 2-3 is likely here to stay. If that means the defense is as good as it was during A-10 play last year (ranked third in the conference, per KenPom), then the Wildcats will once again be a threat for the league title.
Bottom Line: The Wildcats probably have two of the league’s best five players in Grady and Gudmundsson, and given McKillop’s tremendous coaching, expect the offensive execution to be pristine. If the zone helps the defense into respectability once again, Davidson is an A-10 title favorite and a threat to win a game or two in the NCAA Tournament.
2. St. Louis
Key Returners: Jordan Goodwin, Javon Bess, Hasahn French, DJ Foreman, Elliott Welmer (back from injury)
Key Losses: Jalen Johnson, Davell Roby
Key Newcomers: Tramaine Isabell (Drexel), Carte'Are Gordon, Luis Santos (South Florida), Dion Wiley (Maryland), Fred Thatch, Ingvi Gudmundsson
Outlook: Let’s avoid any newsworthy controversies, shall we? After a tumultuous 2017-18 season that saw several promising transfers never set foot on the court due to a Title IX investigation, SLU hits the reset button in Travis Ford’s third year. It does so with overflowing optimism, as Ford has stocked the talent cupboard full of promising weapons, both in the form of incoming recruits and transfers. From top to bottom, this is likely the most stacked roster in the league, and if Ford puts the puzzle together correctly, the Billikens could be dancing in March for the first time since 2014.
Of course, with all of the buzz about the newcomers, the most important roster note is the return of Jordan Goodwin from suspension. Goodwin was one of two players to actually have a positive point differential when on the floor (fellow sophomore Hasahn French was the other), per Hoop Lens. He’s a do-it-all point guard who sets the tone on both ends of the court – he’s a physical rebounder from the guard spot, a strong passer, and a dogged on-ball defender. He’s the only true scholarship point guard on the roster (Drexel grad transfer Tramaine Isabell can also play there in a pinch, but he may be best suited attacking from the wing), making Goodwin’s presence on the court paramount. Together, Goodwin and French were massively impactful as freshmen, basically the difference between a top tier A-10 team when they played together (+13) and a cellar dweller when they didn’t (-19):
They’ll continue to be two of the most crucial pieces on the team, representative of the team’s big, physical, athletic identity.
Recognizing the pieces on his roster (and lack of depth), Ford played at a grinding pace last year (337th in tempo), opting to play in the halfcourt and assault the rim via drives and the offensive glass. Despite now having a ton of depth, this rim-running style should continue to bear fruit – French is a monster, and he’ll be joined up front by DJ Foreman, Top 100 freshman Carte’Are Gordon, USF transfer Luis Santos, and back-from-injury Elliott Welmer, forming an incredibly potent frontcourt that could simply overwhelm most of its A-10 counterparts with size and athleticism.
The Bills will also be potent putting the ball on the floor – Goodwin and Javon Bess are big guards who can bully defenders, and Isabell is a devastatingly quick driver who excels at finishing through contact. The major offensive concern is going to be shooting, as Bess and Goodwin were abysmal from deep last year, Fred Thatch is another power guard, and Demarius Jacobs is more of a lanky athlete than a shooter. A lot will fall on Maryland grad transfer Dion Wiley as the only proven perimeter threat, and Icelandic freshman Ingvi Gudmundsson (yes, brother of Davidson's Jon Axel) may see the floor early, too, if he shows a pure jumper.
Defensively, the incredibly stout front line should again play a pivotal role, as French, Gordon, and Santos are all capable shot-blockers. That will allow the vast array of guards to extend on the perimeter, harassing the opposition the same way that Ford’s best Oklahoma State teams did (Goodwin = a dime store Marcus Smart). The Bills will lock down the defensive glass through sheer size alone, and if Ford stresses the importance of taking away the three and forcing teams to decide between inefficient two-point pull-ups and challenging the Gateways to the Glass inside (yep, that’s what I’m calling the frontcourt), the D should be comfortably in the Top 75. Ford will always mix in some zone and a bit of pressing (he showed a trapping 1-3-1 at times last year, utilizing the length he has at guard), possibly less of the former and more of the latter now that he has myriad lineup options.
Bottom Line: SLU’s cup runneth over with talent (I figured a Bible reference for a Jesuit school was appropriate), and in this league, that’s usually enough for a Top 3-4 finish. The way that talent all fits together is intriguing, as well, with some shooting to complement the absolute brute force paint onslaught that will resemble an Atlantic 10 version of Kentucky. If Travis Ford doesn’t over-coach this team, a conference title is definitely within the realm of possibility, and the NCAA Tournament is twinkling in the distance.
3. St. Joseph's
Key Returners: Lamarr Kimble (back from injury), Charlie Brown (back from injury), Pierfrancesco Oliva, Taylor Funk, Anthony Longpre, Chris Clover
Key Losses: Shavar Newkirk, James Demery, Nick Robinson (transfer)
Key Newcomers: Troy Holston (South Florida), Jared Bynum
Outlook: Will it ever stop? St. Joe’s has been crushed by injuries for two consecutive seasons, derailing potential A-10 contenders before they could ever really get going. Shavar Newkirk went down early in 2016-17, eventually followed by his point guard counterpart, Lamarr “Fresh” Kimble, and Pierfrancesco Oliva missed the entire season due to a knee injury. Then, Kimble managed only one game in 2017-18 before succumbing to the very same injury, a broken fifth metatarsal in his left foot. Of course, that was one more game than promising sophomore Charlie Brown got to play after fracturing his wrist in mid-October, and just like that, the Hawks were down two key pieces one game into the season. Despite that, they still clawed to a 10-8 league record, and with those two back healthy this year, there’s reason for optimism in northwest Philly.
Martelli is widely known for his conservative, paint-clogging mix of man and zone defenses, sacrificing turnovers and guarding the three-point line to take away drives, the offensive glass, and chances at the free throw line. The offense also rarely turns the ball over and eschews the offensive glass, so transition chances are few and far between, as well. To beat them, you need to hit jumpers – bricky opponents like Fordham will struggle, and that defensive scheme helps explain one of last season’s most baffling results – St. Joe’s 30-point demolition of Rhode Island at URI, in which the Rams shot 3/29 (10.3%) from deep. The scheme helps compensate for the team’s lack of shot-blocking, as big men Taylor Funk, Oliva, and Anthony Longpre aren’t vertically explosive. Redshirt sophomore Lorenzo Edwards has some burst to his game, but he’ll likely see limited minutes due to how important the other three bigs are to the team’s offensive style. By the same logic, a bounceback season from Markell Lodge (who started every game in 2016-17 but then barely got on the court last year) appears unlikely, as well.
That offense will look to score in two steps: first, they’ll get the ball to Kimble and play in transition, hoping to get a few quick lay-ups or easy jump shots for Kimble himself, Brown, Chris Clover, and South Florida transfer Troy Holston. Freshman point guard Jared Bynum is only 5’10, but he’s a blur in the open floor, and he’ll allow Martelli to play two PGs at times (something that worked well when Kimble/Newkirk played together). If that fails, they’ll run an inverted offense in the halfcourt featuring the shooting of Funk, Oliva, and Longpre, often playing through Oliva up top or at the high post. That allows them to utilize his passing and making the opposing big men uncomfortable out on the perimeter. Longpre started late in the year for size purposes, but when Oliva and Funk played together, the Hawks became a wrecking ball:
Obviously, the main differentiator is the offense – those two simply open up the court better than the ones with Longpre, despite his 38% shooting from deep at 6’10. Martelli will have to best determine how to manage the big rotation, but it’s clear that the passing/shooting combo of Oliva and Funk should be given a heavy dosage of minutes.
Bottom Line: At some point, the Hawks are bound to have a fully healthy contingent of players, as this string of bad luck would border on outrageous if it continues. Kimble is a very good floor general, the injuries have actually helped the team develop depth on the roster, and the skilled bigs should be tough matchups for most opponents. The Hawks have an upside in the league’s top 3, but even if the injury bug stays away, the offense may not be able to progress enough to sustain that team performance.
4. George Mason
Key Returners: Otis Livingston II, Jaire Grayer, Justin Kier, Goanar Mar, Ian Boyd, Greg Calixte, Javon Greene
Key Losses: In the words of Alicia Keys, ♫ No one ♫
Key Newcomers: Jarred Reuter (Virginia), Jason Douglas-Stanley, Jamal Hartwell, Jordan Miller
Outlook: The Patriots were a peculiar case in terms of outcome vs. performance last year. In predictive metrics, they were not very good – their 220th rank in KenPom placed them 13th in the 14-team Atlantic 10 (they were also 13th-best at Haslametrics.com and Sagarin.com), yet they went 9-9 in the league and earned the 5-seed in the A-10 Tournament through a series of tiebreakers. This led to them ranking 5th nationally in Luck, a statistic that [essentially] measures wins over expectation. Of course, it’s worth mentioning that they were one of the youngest (339th in experience) and thinnest (337th in bench minutes) teams in the country, so even if the luck evens out, Dave Paulsen’s squad still has plenty of room to improve.
Paulsen’s teams have taken on an extremely distinctive hue through his career, particularly on defense, where his man-to-man-centric scheme completely devalues forcing turnovers in order to stay in position to stop drives and dominate the defensive glass. The interior is a soft underbelly: opponents rarely got to the rim (25th-lowest share of attempts, per hoop-math), but they shot a blistering 65.7% when they got there (325th). That’s unsurprising given how small the Patriots have had to play lately – 6’5 Jaire Grayer spent half of his time at power forward last season, following a year where 6’2 rebounding monster Marquise Moore often manned that spot. The addition of burly Virginia forward Jarred Reuter and the continued development of sophomores Goanar Mar, Greg Calixte, and AJ Wilson should give Paulsen a more conventional frontline this year, which should only serve to make the compressed defensive scheme more effective. Grayer’s versatility on defense makes the small-ball lineup palatable when Paulsen wants to go back to it – undersized lineups with Mar at the five scored at 1.10 points per possession, compared to 0.97 for all other lineups – so expect to see that change-up at times when the offense is stagnant.
The offense matches the personnel – almost no post-up possessions (335th nationally in frequency), constant slash-and-kick motion that is often started with a pick-and-roll as an attempt to bend the defense. Point guard Otis Livingston is the initiator, a small but skilled PnR operator with a deadly outside shot. He rarely left the floor last year, and for good reason – per Hoop Lens numbers, the offense tanked when he hit the bench (0.92 points per possession without him). The hope is that freshman Jamal Hartwell can provide some backup PG minutes to help keep the team afloat when Livingston sits. Plus, Hartwell played at Fairfax County in California, and now he’s playing in Fairfax, VA, so he’s basically guaranteed to be a legend!
Grayer and Mar stretch the floor (and Javon Greene and Ian Boyd attempt to, though they need to actually make a few more shots), and big wing Justin Kier is another threat to get all the way to the rim and draw contact. Incoming freshman Jason Douglas-Stanley was a prolific scorer in New York City, and though he needs to add weight, his ability to shoot and get buckets may demand playing time right away, and classmate Jordan Miller may eventually be the next Grayer. Calixte and Wilson stay in their roles – finish any dump-off passes, crash the glass on both ends, protect the rim, etc.
Bottom Line: With another year of experience and some upgraded size and depth, George Mason has the potential to crack the league’s Top 3 (and even win it, in the rosiest of scenarios). They have a long way to go after the dismal 220 KenPom ranking, but it’s possible – even in their own league, SLU improved by 125 spots last season, and someone like Western Kentucky went from 232nd to 47th in a year. The outside shooting needs to improve drastically, but if it does, the Patriots could be dancing for the first time since Jim Larranaga took his talents to South Beach.
Key Returners: De'Riante Jenkins, Issac Vann, Malik Crowfield, Mike'L Simms, Sean Mobley
Key Losses: Justin Tillman, Jonathan Williams, Khris Lane
Key Newcomers: Marcus Evans (Rice), Corey Douglas (JUCO), Michael Gilmore (FGCU), PJ Byrd, Vince Williams, KeShawn Curry
Outlook: CAVEAT! This ranking is heavily contingent on the health of Marcus Evans, a possible all A-10 player, who had surgery on a torn Achilles in early June (recovery estimates are 4-6 months). Evans tore the other Achilles last July, but he was cleared to practice by the start of 2018 (so a recovery of about 5 months) - the injury concern is very real.
Caveat aside, this Rams roster is a strange mix. Following a largely underwhelming 18-15 (9-9) campaign as Rhoades implemented his style, the Rams will continue to shift towards a more perimeter- and transition-oriented attack. There’s a giant pool of off-guards/wings, a couple promising yet unproven bigs…and a seemingly cavernous void at point guard. Evans may play some there if healthy, and De’Riante Jenkins has solid vision as a big wing, but they’re both better off the ball, and the best case for the Rams is if freshman PJ Byrd seizes the job (either right away, or as the season progresses). Boyd is smallish, but he’s quick and a willing passer, meaning he should create opportunities for the bevy of wings, including Jenkins, Evans, Issac Vann, Malik Crowfield, Mike’L Simms, and freshman Vince Williams.
One oddity of the VCU offense last year was the inability to get to the free throw line. Rhoades’s teams thrived at this during his years at Rice, using a deadly transition attack to consistently get to the rim and draw contact. Evans in particular was prolific at this (he shot over 200 FTs in both of his seasons there), so once again, his health is a crucial pivot point on how the Rams will play. Primary interior scorer Justin Tillman is also gone, so VCU will need offensive emergence from at least one of Sean Mobley, Marcus Santos-Silva, or JUCO transfer Corey Douglas. FGCU grad transfer Michael Gilmore, who returns to VCU after initially being recruited by Rhoades four years ago (we call that a boomerang in the business world!), is more of a depth piece, although his mobility will fit right into the uptempo attack.
Defensively, Rhoades threw it back to the Shaka Smart days of fullcourt, Havoc-like pressure, employing his legion of perimeter players to constantly harass the opposition. Per Synergy, VCU pressed 30% of the time, 10th-most in the entire country, up from 20% during Will Wade’s final year in Richmond. He also re-emphasized man pressure (appropriate given the presence of Jonathan Williams as an on-ball terror), a shift from the more zone trap-heavy Wade style. Rhoades doesn’t necessarily press to force turnovers, though – he wants to eat into the shot clock, forcing tougher shots for the opponent as the timer dwindles.
One advantage this year’s defense will have: a bona fide shot-blocker patrolling the paint at the back of the press. Whether it’s a more-developed Santos-Silva or the shot-swatting extraordinaire Douglas, VCU should once again have a true anchor to the defense a la Mo Alie-Cox. That should embolden the rangy perimeter defenders to extend more onto shooters, challenging shots and forcing them to drive into the dreaded land of the midrange.
Bottom Line: Rhoades’s tenure started in neutral, as a team centered around a dominant paint force like Tillman didn’t really fit what he wants to do as a coach. With a more perimeter-oriented group and a pure scorer like Evans, the coach/roster fit makes a lot more sense, and if Evans actually is healthy for most of the year, VCU could crack the conference’s top tier and threaten for an NCAA bid. Unfortunately, I’m pessimistic about that chance because back-to-back Achilles tears is nearly unheard of, much less recovering from both.
Key Returners: Luwane Pipkins, Carl Pierre, Rashaan Holloway, Unique McLean
Key Losses: CJ Anderson, Malik Hines
Key Newcomers: Curtis Cobb (Fairfield), Samba Diallo, Jonathan Laurent (Rutgers), Keon Clergeot (Memphis), Kieran Hayward (LSU), Tre Wood
Outlook: After a wild coaching search last offseason that ultimately ended with a satisfying hire, this A-10 team finished near the bottom of the standings in 2017-18 while waiting for a plethora of transfers (including one from Memphis) to become eligible in 2018-19. Now, this team has those transfers, two stud returners (one in the backcourt and one in the frontcourt), and a strong incoming class around which they can build, and many pundits are picking them to climb towards the upper echelon of the league standings.
(If that sounds weirdly vague, go read the Duquesne intro, it will make more sense.)
Matty McCall came over from Chattanooga after Pat Kelsey abandoned the Minutemen at the altar, and although last year was a clear transition year (it didn’t help that colossal big man Rashaan Holloway missed more than half the season), the light at the end of that tunnel could be dazzling.
McCall’s Chattanooga teams were often very reliant on dribble penetration and feeding big men (did I mention that no Holloway for the A-10 schedule hurt?), a system in which point guard Luwane Pipkins absolutely thrived. Unfortunately, his tiny stature limited his finishing at the rim (only 50.3%, per hoop-math), and his efficiency suffered. With far more options to pass to, he won’t have to force as many shots at the rim – rising sophomore Carl Pierre, basically Deadshot from three-point range (47% on 195 attempts), was the only other true shooting option. While Pipkins’s box score stats may tail off a bit, he’ll be an even greater impact player by finding teammates. The arrivals of freshman Tre Wood and Memphis transfer Keon Clergeot should also allow Pipkins to take more breaks without UMass becoming a flaming diaper (-18 per 100 possessions without him!):
Pipkins is also a supremely pesky on-ball defender, so being able to let him go nuts and then rest him will also be huge on defense.
Along with Holloway as a post-up threat and Pierre from deep, this year’s roster has anything and everything in between. Jonathan Laurent is a versatile athlete who can play either forward spot, filling a void last year’s roster. The dribble penetration aspect of the offense should allow stud freshman wing Samba Diallo to thrive, a rangy lefty who can attack the basket off the dribble with either hand. He might start, or McCall could opt for more shooting with Fairfield transfer Curtis Cobb, another shameless gunner from deep. Two other guards, Unique McLean and Kieran Hayward (LSU transfer), have talent but will have to battle hard to earn minutes. Due to the glut of backcourt talent, expect to see some lineups with the thin Diallo downshifted to the nominal four spot in a four-guard look.
The (much) deeper roster will also allow McCall to play almost exclusively man-to-man, his defense of choice at Chattanooga. He had to play a little more zone last year to conserve energy and avoid fouls. This year’s team may also apply some pressure (he’s a Billy Donovan disciple), particularly given the quickness of Pipkins, the length of Diallo/Cobb/Laurent, and the size of Holloway to cover at the rim. They’ll switch a ton in man-to-man, extending out on the perimeter and funneling would-be scorers into the waiting arms of Holloway and Khalea Turner-Morris.
Bottom Line: The Minutemen roster is oozing with talent, but role allocation has to be a concern for McCall. He watched an uber-promising team basically self-destruct in the locker room during his final campaign at Chattanooga, opening up questions about his ability to get players to accept roles. He’ll have to prove himself this season, because as many as 12 players will want opportunities. If he figures it out, the sky is the limit, but there’s considerable downside as well. It reminds me of 2016-17 La Salle – the safe bet is in the middle.
7. Rhode Island
Key Returners: Jeff Dowtin, Fatts Russell, Cyril Langevine
Key Losses: Jared Terrell, EC Matthews, Stanford Robinson, Jarvis Garrett, Andre Berry, Dan Hurley (coach)
Key Newcomers: Jermaine Harris, Tyrese Martin, Dana Tate, Omar Silverio
Outlook: It’s a brand new era in Kingston, as Bobby Hurley’s brother moved 60 miles northwest to clean up Kevin Ollie’s mess. Up steps…Matt Cox? The writer for three-man-weave.com?? Wow, this is our big break! A Division I coaching position for one of our very own! Wait…what’s that? It’s actually DAVID Cox, former Dan Hurley assistant? Damn. I guess we’ll have to keep waiting…
Hiring the former associate head coach gives the Rams the luxury of maintaining program continuity for a team that has built steady momentum over the past two seasons, and although a decorated senior class departs, the talented and complementary backcourt of Jeff Dowtin and Fatts Russell should help usher in the new regime. Dowtin is a taller, skinny point guard who takes care of the ball and is a developing perimeter shooter. He’ll likely guard wings on defense, though, because the 5’10 scoring dynamo Russell will need to guard the opponent’s smallest player. He wasn’t always efficient as a freshman, but he’s an electric transition player despite his size that plays with raw emotion. The two formed a potent combination; when they played together last year, Rhode Island was +19 points per 100 possessions, compared to +7 per 100 in any other scenario:
Some of that was fueled by opponents’ unsustainably bad shooting from deep (27.7% is crazy low), but regardless, the duo is a potent combination for the future. Unfortunately, with the graduations of Jared Terrell and EC Matthews, the “Team Weight Room” moniker we’ve affectionately used for URI is no longer relevant.
Without such burly guards (and defensive whiz Stanford Robinson), Cox will need to determine if he’ll continue Hurley’s almost-exclusively man-to-man defense. The addition of an athletic freshman class should help; both big Jermaine Harris and wing Tyrese Martin appear likely to start, and both have good size for their positions. Harris should form a physical, bouncy frontcourt with returning shot-blocker Cyril Langevine, and although neither is tremendously skilled on offense, they’ll be stout pillars in the paint as finishers and intimidators. Martin is the scoring wing that the roster desperately needed, and his length should be an asset defensively, as well. Another freshman forward, Dana Tate, is a more versatile offensive weapon, and he got the “weight room” memo from the departing seniors.
A trademark of Dan Hurley’s defenses was how in-your-face they played on the perimeter. Last year’s team was especially switchy with Robinson or Matthews manning the nominal power forward spot, but regardless of personnel, the fact remained that the Rams wanted to make life difficult on the perimeter and run opponents off the three-point line. The rotations/switches may not be as sharp this year with so much youth in the rotation, but given the presence of Harris and Langevine, funneling the opposition to the rim once again seems like the smart option.
Bottom Line: With only three returning rotation players and a new coach, Rhode Island may face a bumpy road this year. The backcourt and strong freshman class should breed plenty of optimism as the year goes by, and if Cox proves to be an effective schemer and motivator, the dip outside of the cream of the A-10 crop could merely be a one-year hiatus.
Key Returners: Mike Lewis, Eric Williams
Key Losses: Tarin Smith, Rene Castro-Caneddy, Jordan Robinson, Tydus Verhoeven
Key Newcomers: Tavian Dunn-Martin (Akron), Brandon Wade, Sincere Carry, Frankie Hughes (Mizzou), Craig Randall (Memphis), Marcus Weathers (Miami-OH), Michael Hughes (Akron), Dylan Swingle, Gavin Bizeau, Austin Rotroff
Outlook: After a wild coaching search last offseason that ultimately ended with a satisfying hire, this A-10 team finished near the bottom of the standings in 2017-18 while waiting for a plethora of transfers (including one from Memphis) to become eligible in 2018-19. Now, this team has those transfers, two stud returners (one in the backcourt and one in the frontcourt), and a strong incoming class around which they can build, and many pundits are picking them to climb towards the upper echelon of the league standings.
If you’re reading this preview in order, that might sound familiar…and it should, because it’s word-for-word the exact same intro that I wrote for UMass. Both teams find themselves in extremely similar situations, so I felt like being lazy and only writing one intro, and you can’t stop me!
Keith Dambrot has re-energized the Dukes’ fanbase, and given the talent he’s quickly accumulated in Pittsburgh, the excitement is justified. Five transfers, seven freshmen, and two returning studs in Mike Lewis and Eric Williams form a promising core, and although there may be some early bumps in the road trying to blend so many new pieces (12 new dudes!), the potential for Duquesne to compete near the top of the A-10 is there.
Dambrot is a man-to-man coach through and through, rarely dipping his toes into the muddy zone waters, and although many of his guards are on the smallish side (Tavian Dunn-Martin is 5’8, and there’s a glut of 6’2-6’4 guys), putting them on bigger opponents won’t phase him. Some of his Akron teams struggled against dribble penetration, particularly against bigger guards, and that trend is likely to continue. Due to that, Swiss army knife Marcus Weathers should find minutes immediately with his size on the wing and defensive ability.
Akron traditionally had a giant hub in the paint to center its style around (7’0, 235-pound Zeke Marshall and 6’10, 295-pound Isaiah “Big Dog” Johnson come to mind), and Dambrot will have some choices there, as well. Michael Hughes followed him from Zip Nation, and four freshmen – Gavin Bizeau, Dylan Swingle, Austin Rotroff, and Amari Kelly - all have the requisite height. The 300-pound Swingle would throw back nicely to the days of Big Dog; despite his massive size, he has superb touch with both hands around the rim. Bizeau is thinner and more mobile, while Rotroff is kind of a blend between the two – both could probably play alongside Swingle in bigger lineups.
Dambrot teams typically make up for any shortcomings on defense with a prolific, three-point-heavy offense. His last three squads at Akron all ranked in the nation’s top 7 in 3-point attempt rate (3PA/total FGA), usually playing two point guards and placing a premium on floor spacing. With Dunn-Martin and freshmen Brandon Wade and Sincere Carry, Dambrot will have options, and both freshmen look ready to play right away (to my eyes, at least). That allows Lewis and Williams to focus on what they do best: scoring from the wing, particularly from the perimeter. The duo combined to shoot 36.6% from deep on 426 attempts, providing the spacing that Dambrot craves so that his point guards have more driving lanes to attack. Wings Frankie Hughes (Mizzou) and Craig Randall (Memphis) are two other scoring options, but both struggled mightily with efficiency at their previous stops, so hopefully the step down in competition gives them a boost.
Bottom Line: Like many teams that feature so much roster turnover, the range of outcomes for the Dukes is pretty wide. Dambrot has proven to be an effective mid-major basketball mind, though, and he has quickly assembled talent in just over a year on the job. With no scholarship seniors, this year may be the buildup to something truly special in 2019-20 – but in the meantime, the talent up and down the roster will be an extremely tough out for any A-10 opponent.
Key Returners: Josh Cunningham, Trey Landers, Jalen Crutcher, Jordan Davis, Ryan Mikesell (from injury)
Key Losses: Darrell Davis, Xeyrius Williams
Key Newcomers: Obi Toppin (redshirt), Jhery Matos (JUCO), Dwayne Cohill, Frankie Policelli
Outlook: After the program’s most successful stretch in 40 years (four NCAA appearances in five seasons, an Elite Eight in 2014, two A-10 championships), Dayton tumbled back to Earth with a 14-17 campaign. Turns out, losing your coach and four senior starters is enough to clip the wings off of…whatever sweet aircraft this guy is cruising in:
With Anthony Grant taking over his alma mater, he actually did a strong job of assembling talent in his first year (it helped that Archie Miller left Josh Cunningham, Trey Landers, and Darrell Davis behind). Like George Mason, Dayton was incredibly young (317th in experience) and had no depth (326th in bench minutes), with freshmen Jalen Crutcher and Jordan Davis stepping into the starting lineup for good around the start of the A-10 season.
He’s also added an excellent recruiting class this offseason –all three of freshman Dwayne Cohill, freshman Frankie Policelli, and JUCO transfer Jhery Matos can contribute right away, and adding Ibi Watson and Rodney Chatman as transfers is huge for the long-term health of the program. Finally, redshirt freshman Obi Toppin is academically eligible this year and Ryan Mikesell is healthy again after missing the season with two hip injuries.
All of that adds up to a much deeper roster full of athleticism and switchable wings, although sorely lacking in physical bigs beyond Cunningham (unless Toppin is ready to bang in the paint). After a semi-disastrous defensive season, the Flyers need all the agile defenders they can get. Grant added a zone to the team’s defensive menu last year (went from playing zone 1% of the time under Archie to 32% under Grant, per Synergy), but that zone got demolished: they had the 308th-best effective field goal percentage defense nationally, as teams feasted at the rim and especially from beyond the arc. The additions of the 6’6 Matos, 6’7 Mikesell, 6’7 Policelli, and 6’8 Toppin give the Flyers considerably more length and versatility up and down the roster, allowing them to more frequently challenge shooters.
Offensively, expect the Flyers to play inside-out through Cunningham, one of the country’s most efficient finishers and a matchup problem for most opponents due to his strength + quickness combo. Per hoop-math, he shot an outrageous 80.3% at the rim, demonstrating his tremendous ability to finish through contact and over size. He can face up and go by most bigs, often drawing double-teams, which should open up shots and driving lanes for Crutcher, Landers, Davis, Matos, and Cohill. Plus, Mikesell’s return means the Flyers can finally play four shooters around Cunningham, giving opponents the chance to pick their proverbial poison. Of course, the Flyers will actually need to make some of those shots after a frigid shooting season in 2017-18.
Bottom Line: Starting an all-freshman backcourt probably limited Dayton in Anthony Grant’s inaugural season, but with added experience and depth on the roster, the ceiling looks higher. Unfortunately, the middle of the A-10 is an absurd entanglement of improved and reloading squads, many of whom seem roughly equal to the Flyers on talent level. Relying solely on Grant’s coaching ability to make the difference makes me slightly nervous, but the Flyers have the upside of a Top 5 finish in the league.
10. St. Bonaventure
Key Returners: LaDarien Griffin, Courtney Stockard, Amadi Ikpeze
Key Losses: Jaylen Adems, Matt Mobley, Idris Taqqee
Key Newcomers: Jalen Poyser (UNLV), Osun Osunniyi, Melkisedek Moreaux (JUCO), Kyle Lofton, Dominick Welch, Alpha Okoli
Outlook: Following the departure of one of the nation’s best backcourts – not to mention St. Bonaventure’s first NCAA Tournament win since 1970 (small print: it was in the First Four) – the Bonnies face a daunting task this year. They do return tournament star Courtney Stockard and a solid supporting cast, but still, some regression is nearly inevitable.
Without the driving force behind their offense, the Bonnies may need to rely more heavily on their defense. Schmidt runs a modified pack line man-to-man, emphasizing keeping the ball out of the paint and forcing teams to beat them over the top. This scheme is usually best run by physical bigs and lanky guards who can bother shooters without extending too far past the three-point line.
First part: check! Between Stockard, LaDarien Griffin, and Amadi Ikpeze, the Bonnies return a stout starting frontcourt, and the additions of JUCO Melkisedek Moreaux and freshman Osun Osunniyi add depth (a rarity in Olean – 327th, 345th, 347th in bench minutes the last three years). The second part is a little more of a question mark (and something they didn’t totally have with Jaylen Adams and Matt Mobley, either). The freshman guard trio of Kyle Lofton, Dominick Welch, and Alpha Okoli will all have chances to play, ranging from 6’3-6’4, but the most likely starting backcourt is senior Nelson Kaputo and UNLV transfer Jalen Poyser.
That backcourt will also take over a significant responsibility on offense, as Adams and Mobley were one of the highest scoring duos in the country. The Bonnies’ offense revolves around the pick-and-roll and side to side ball movement, attempting to open driving lanes for the guards (and Stockard, as a versatile combo forward). Poyser should be a potent weapon after coming east from Sin City, but he’ll need to knock down more shots in his new environment. Teams that pack it in and cut off penetration can frustrate Schmidt’s scheme, as they typically don’t take many threes (they would struggle to score against themselves).
They’ll frequently attack in transition, and perhaps this year even moreso, given the graduation of their two primary scorers. Lineups with Stockard at the four will be especially dangerous in the open court, as he can grab and go off the defensive glass.
Bottom Line: After perhaps the best year of hoops in Olean in the past 40 years, the Bonnies face uncertain times. There’s some talent, particularly Stockard, Griffin, and Poyser, but the rest of the lineup features a lot of unknowns. Schmidt is a good coach with a consistent, repeatable defensive scheme, and it appears he has some pieces to plug into it. Given the addition of talent at schools like SLU, UMass, and Duquesne, though, it seems likely that St. Bonaventure fades into the middle of the pack this year.
11. La Salle
Key Returners: Pookie Powell, Isiah Deas, Saul Phiri
Key Losses: BJ Johnson, Amar Stukes, Tony Washington
Key Newcomers: Traci Carter (Marquette), Jack Clark, Ed Croswell, Jared Kimbrough, Cheddi Mosely (Boston U)
Outlook: La Salle, like many other teams in the middle of the A-10, is a wild card this year, though for different reasons. While many of the others have quite a bit of roster turnover or add a few potential high-impact transfers, the Explorers are a mystery moreso because of the intriguing change made at head coach. Dr. John Giannini was well-respected within coaching circles, but he seemed to lose momentum after his Sweet 16 run in 2013, never again finishing above .500 in the conference. In turn, La Salle swiped Ashley Howard off Jay Wright’s staff, bringing in a coach who has helped preside over the most successful program in the sport for the last three years.
Presumably, Howard will try to bring the same sense of ball movement, spacing, and positional interchangeability across Philadelphia, and he’ll have some solid backcourt weapons to play his Jalen Brunson and Phil Booth. Redshirt senior Pookie Powell and Marquette transfer Traci Carter can give Howard his dual point guards, two players who can create their own shot or distribute to others. They’ll set the ball movement tone, helping to run the pick-and-rolls that often initiate the Nova offense.
However (and this is a large however), the primary issue with implanting the Villanova style onto this roster is the lack of (effective) shooting. Powell, Isaiah Deas, and Saul Phiri were more than willing to fire from deep, but Deas and Phiri combined to shoot 29% on 242 attempts, while Powell wasn’t much better at 31.6%. Freshman Jack Clark is a bouncy athlete with a smooth shooting stroke who likely earns some immediate playing time on the wing due to his offensive game, and Boston U grad transfer Cheddi Mosely should also battle for a starting spot after shooting 36% on over 400 attempts in Beantown.
Even more glaring, though, is the lack of frontcourt shooting – part of what made Villanova so hard to guard was having players like Eric Paschall and Kris Jenkins stretching the floor while being able to combat bigs on D. Phiri spent some time at the four last year, but he’s very undersized at 6’4 (and again, he didn’t actually make shots). 6’10 Miles Brookins was solid in limited minutes last year, but he’s a center through and through, and freshman Jared Kimbrough (an undersized but physically imposing player) may force his way into the lineup. Based on the roster makeup, Howard may be forced to four guards a la Nardi/Lowry/Ray/Foye and figure out how to build a defense from there.
The Explorers will want to be a primarily man-to-man team, but Jay Wright always understood the value of mixing in some zone and some 1-2-2 token pressure to disrupt the offense’s rhythm. Clark or Deas would be a nice fit at the point of the 1-2-2, and if Howard does choose to play a lot of four-guard lineups, zone may make more sense to limit getting punished inside. The roster sorely lacks big wings/switchy defenders, another reason to lean more towards zone.
Bottom Line: Howard likely needs a couple years to truly infuse the Villanova style into north Philly, and unless the team’s shooting takes off in a major way, they’ll struggle on the offensive end. Howard may have to tweak the Nova style, instead focusing more on attacking closeouts rather than actually firing from three. Given his ties to the area and connection to a monstrously successful program, Howard seems like a home run hire, but he’ll need a couple years to get things going.
Key Returners: Grant Golden, Nick Sherod, Jacob Gilyard
Key Losses: De’Monte Buckingham, Khwan Fore
Key Newcomers: Jake Wojcik, Souleymane Koureissi, Noah Yates (Yale), Andre Gustavson, Tomas Verbinskis (redshirt), Bryce Schneider (redshirt)
Outlook: Let’s start with the elephant-sized spider in the room: the #FireChrisMooney movement is real, and it is rabid. Whether it’s on Spider forums, a Twitter account, or actual interviews on reputable A-10 websites, the portion of the Richmond fanbase that wants to see its coach launched to the Moon(ey) is out for metaphorical blood (I hope). Bringing back Mooney after last year was a complicated decision. In his defense, they were one of the youngest (343rd in experience) and thinnest (342nd in bench minutes) teams in the country, so the 12-20 record isn’t as egregious as one might think. Plus, he swept archrival VCU! On the other hand, two key players transferred (one of whom was dismissed), and Mooney has only made two NCAA Tournaments in 13 years. Starting over with a young, blank-slate roster might have made sense.
Regardless, he’s back, and he’ll need to scratch and claw this season to save his job. He’ll rely on a budding “Big Three,” the members of which are good enough to drag the Spiders to respectability on the offensive end. Skilled big man Grant Golden, point guard Jacob Gilyard, and burly wing Nick Sherod all bring complementary games to the table, but they’ll need some other diners to join them to avoid the meal being a complete waste. Everyone outside of those three is extremely unproven, meaning their burdens may be even larger than last season.
Mooney’s offenses traditionally play through a skilled big as a hub, and the freshman Golden did a wonderful job stepping in for Spider star TJ Cline. As he grows more accustomed to the speed of the game, his passing will continue to improve and open up more of the system. Gilyard and Sherod can both shoot, and each has potential as a driver due to his quickness and strength, respectively. Julius Johnson played some minutes last year, but he’s not an offensive weapon, so Mooney will look to newcomers like freshmen Andre Gustavson and Jake Wojcik (former SJSU coach Dave Wojcik’s son), Yale grad transfer Noah Yates, and redshirt freshman Bryce Schneider for supplemental scoring.
Even if the youngsters emerge as complementary weapons, Richmond has dire issues on the defensive end. The total lack of depth forced them to play even softer than normal, and the Spiders were crushed at the rim. Despite Golden’s best efforts, opponents shot an appalling 67.9% at the rim, per hoop-math, 12th-worst in the country. Because the Spiders often focus on running opponents off the three-point line, it was relatively easy to get to the rim via drive or post up (and easy to finish once there). Until Mooney tweaks the scheme or finds more players, that’s going to continue to happen.
Part of the issue was Mooney’s insistence on playing man-to-man despite lacking size and depth. The players had to avoid fouls to stay on the court, which in turn allowed for easy driving lanes and weak challenges at the rim. Unless more depth emerges – Mooney needs you immediately, Souleymane Koureissi and Nathan Cayo – the Spiders will be dangerously thin once again, so they may need to play zone more than just 10% of the time, as they did in 2017-18.
Bottom Line: Mooney has his work cut out for him, as he’ll be battling his own fanbase along with the traditional challenge of, ya know, trying to defeat other basketball teams. He’s brought young talent to campus, but too much of it hasn’t stuck around, and if this year’s young squad fails, the rain may wash this coach/Spider out.
13. George Washington
Key Returners: Terry Nolan, Arnalda Toro, Justin Mazzula
Key Losses: Yuta Watanabe, Patrick Steeves, Jair Bolden (transfer), Bo Ziegler
Key Newcomers: Armel Potter (Charleston Southern), DJ Williams (Illinois), Shandon Brown, Marcus Littles
Outlook: After taking over for Mike Lonergan with the “interim” label during a turbulent 2016 offseason, Maurice Joseph’s first year at George Washington was good enough (20 wins, 10-8 in the A-10) to earn a five-year contract at the school. Unfortunately, the first year following the dropping of that label was a little more of a struggle – the Colonials tied for 10th in the league, and star/most efficient offensive player Yuta Watanabe and others graduated. That leaves the program in flux, and although some talented newcomers join the fold, climbing the A-10 standings will still be a decidedly uphill battle.
Joseph has kept many of the same principles as his mentor, Lonergan (he played for him at Vermont, too), including a methodical, set play-oriented offensive attack that largely devalues the 3-pointer, and a mix of man-to-man and multiple zone looks defensively. That means execution is paramount to score efficiently, and although only three key players return, it does help that Armel Potter (Charleston Southern) and DJ Williams (Illinois) practiced with the team and learned the system. The system also means that they aren’t heavily reliant on a single point guard, so despite Jair Bolden’s transfer, the point guard-by-committee is still in good hands among Potter, sophomores Justin Mazzula and Terry Nolan, and freshman Shandon Brown.
Nolan is the team’s only player even semi-resembling a shooter, so Potter, Brown, and a developing Maceo Jack will need to hit some shots. More likely, and more fitting under Joseph, the offense will attack often in the midrange, where the Colonials took the 16th-highest percentages of their shots in the entire country last season. Williams, out of the famed Simeon High School in Chicago, will be a serious matchup problem in the A-10, a former Top 100 recruit who can slash to the rim off the dribble or pull-up from 15 feet. He’s probably the best athlete on the team and should feature heavily in GW’s end-of-season highlights. Plus, the interior duo of Arnalda Toro and Marcus Littles is going to be a load in the paint, as both players weigh north of 245 pounds yet possess decent touch inside.
Defensively, the loss of versatile forwards in Watanabe, Bo Ziegler, and Patrick Steeves will hurt, particularly when Joseph employs a 1-3-1 zone, a Lonergan favorite. Those three players were the Colonials best players on an on/off basis (though still ever so slightly negative), per Hoop Lens:
Taking over for Watanabe, Williams will be a terror at the top, but with a smallish roster aside from him (only Jack at 6’5 and freshman Mezie Offerum at 6’6 would classify as “long” for their positions), throwing a crosscourt pass won’t be nearly as difficult. Watanabe and Ziegler were also the team’s best shot-blockers, and although Toro and Littles will be presences in the paint, neither is a particularly vertically explosive player.
Bottom Line: Toro is likely the only non-transfer upperclassman to play major minutes, meaning GW is going to sorely lack Atlantic 10 experience. Potter and Williams help plug some holes, but transfer Band-aids can only do so much. Joseph’s aim should be throwing the freshmen and sophomores into the fire, allowing them to cut their teeth and hopefully develop into a cohesive unit, regardless of how rough it is (think the young Rick Majerus SLU teams). If that happens, then Joseph may yet make good on that five-year deal.
Key Returners: Prokop Slanina, Ivan Raut, Perris Hicks
Key Losses: Joseph Chartouny, Will Tavares, Cavit Havsa
Key Newcomers: Antwon Portley (St. Peter's), Erten Gazi (DePaul), Nick Honor, Tyrone Perry, Jalen Cobb, Onyi Eyisi
Outlook: In a year where it seems like nearly every prognosticator is pulling A-10 rankings out of a hat, Fordham consistently finds itself in the bottom two. Unfortunately for the Rams, that seems the most likely scenario following a 4-14 conference season and the departure of nearly every relevant backcourt player. Of course, when a team ranks 334th nationally in offense (per KenPom), some new blood certainly can’t hurt.
The strength of the offense will lie in the frontcourt, where Prokop Slanina and Ivan Haut (plus David Pekarek) return as solid face-up scorers who can draw opposing bigs out to the perimeter. Of course, neither of the two starters are known for their physicality, and as a result, the Rams were one of the very worst offensive rebounding teams in the country (350th in rate, to be precise). They weren’t much better on the defensive glass (322nd in D-Reb rate), so physical teams (or teams with average bigs, really) can punish Fordham in the paint.
The offensive creativity will be a major issue, too. Fordham ranked 10th in the country in percentage of possessions that ended via “spot up” (either catch and shoot or catch and drive), but with few returning threats in the backcourt, questions abound about who will do the slashing and creating. Nick Honor is the most highly-ranked among the newbies (and the best to my eyes as well), a stoutly-built 5’10 point guard who uses a variety of hesitations and pull-ups to create opportunities for himself. He should enjoy the space Slanina and Haut create, at the very least. Antwon Portley regressed as a sophomore at St. Peter’s, but with more confidence and offensive freedom, his wing scoring game should fit nicely. And Erten Gazi, a little-used DePaul transfer, is a shockingly good athlete (he's dunked "on" me at DePaul's Rec Center - is it really "on" me if I'm three feet below him?) who could provide some much-needed slashing. The remainder of the production will need to come from any of the other freshman guards, most likely Ty Perry and/or Chris Austin.
Jeff Neubauer’s calling card as a coach are his zone traps, constantly mixing up looks and making life difficult for opposing ball-handlers. The Rams played zone 45% of the time last year, 25th-most in the country per Synergy, and their ability to force turnovers (often without fouling) was their biggest collective asset. Joseph Chartouny’s transfer to Marquette robs Neubauer of his most dangerous weapon, but Perris Hicks will still be a nuisance, and the five freshman guards will all have chances to earn playing time if they show an affinity for the scheme.
Bottom Line: With such an incredibly young backcourt and very few lanky athletes with which to run his traps, Neubauer and the Rams are likely in for another long year. Slanina and Haut should give them a chance for some surprise wins on hot shooting nights, and if Honor and one or two of the other greenhorn guards are up to the A-10 challenge, Fordham can at least talk itself into a brighter future built around them and Haut.