Conference Catch-up: Atlantic 10
The Atlantic 10 is coming off a massive season in which five of its teams made the NCAA tournament and all five of them won at least one NCAA game. You’d imagine a year like that would be a springboard of sorts, but the A-10 is one of the conferences hardest-hit by realignment and will feature a distinctly different look this season. That doesn’t mean the conference won’t be highly competitive, as a lot of the remaining members could be solid this season. The A-10 may not have the name recognition or extended tradition at the top of the league this season, but don’t underestimate how tough the conference could be.
With Temple departing to the American Athletic Conference and Xavier and Butler heading to the Big East, the A-10 has lost two of its bellwether programs as well as one of last season’s sexy additions. The arrival of former CAA heavyweight George Mason helps alleviate some of that hit, but the league is going to have to build from within and rely on some of the traditionally smaller programs in the league to raise its levels accordingly. The talent may be there to do it, but some of these programs might not take full steps forward this season as the competitive depth of the league hits them.
Player to Watch
There may be better all around players on his team and in the league, but no one has the national buzz of VCU’s Briante Weber. Weber has led the nation in steal percentage in each of his first two college seasons, per KenPom.com, and he helps fuel VCU’s Havoc defense, which led the country last season in turnover percentage. With the departure of Troy Daniels and Darius Theus, there should be more minutes available for Weber. That may knock down his steal rate slightly, but if he can improve his accuracy from the arc, Shaka Smart would certainly take that tradeoff from his junior guard.
With Jim Crews now permanently in place and a lot of talent returning, it’s hard to pick against Saint Louis, even with the loss of senior point guard Kwamain Mitchell. The Billikens beat the Rams twice last season, including in the A-10 tournament title game, and have the style and personnel to protect the ball well enough to diminish the impact of VCU’s pressure defense.
If Saint Louis is tabbed as the favorite, VCU certainly should be mentioned in the same breath, especially with a year in the conference under its belt. Sweet 16 team La Salle also should be very solid once again.
This category could have a lot of answers. George Washington could take a major step forward and threaten the top tier of the league. Dan Hurley’s Rhode Island brings in a number of transfers and looks set to make a huge jump. UMass always tantalizes with its raw talent, but hasn’t yet found the consistency to make a legitimate run at an NCAA tournament berth. Is this the year in Amherst? Will Saint Joseph’s figure things out a year after a very disappointing campaign? How dangerous is Richmond? How will George Mason adapt to the new conference after a weird final season in the CAA? You get the point. The league’s depth will be a strong point once again this season.
Three Big Questions
1) How much will the realignment losses hurt?
In the short term, it’s a fairly significant issue for the league. Temple and Xavier were regular challengers for league regular-season and tournament titles and NCAA tournament participants. Xavier has an NCAA track record many other programs would envy. Butler should also remain very solid, even though it will have to get along now without Brad Stevens. It’s hard for any league to lose three of its better programs in one season. Maybe a couple years down the road, the league will have programs that can step in and fill those voids, but right now, it leaves the league lighter at the top, for sure.
2) How much will the new multi-network TV deal help the league?
The money the A-10 signed for with ESPN, CBS Sports Network and NBC Sports Network is paltry by top-tier basketball conference standards, but the added exposure should be a strong thing for the league as it tries to establish new brands as the conference leaders. More national exposure is always better than less, even if the national networks vary significantly in said level of exposure. While viewers may be getting numb to the growing number of TV choices, especially on Saturdays, the A-10 will still have the opportunity to establish itself through the quality of play of its best teams this season, and there’s a greater chance more people will see those teams thanks to the new TV deals.
3) How close to last season can this season be?
The league certainly has the quality of depth to be a threat to take three or more NCAA tournament bids, but the ceiling of potential will be determined by how well some of these rising nouveau powers do in nonconference play and whether the top of the league can create any real separation from the middle.