Player of the Year: Jaylen Adams, Sr. St. Bonaventure
Coach of the Year: Travis Ford, Saint Louis
Newcomer of the Year: Jordan Goodwin, Fr., Saint Louis
Freshman of the Year: Jordan Goodwin, Fr., Saint Louis
1. Rhode Island
See full preview: #34 in our Top-40 countdown
Key Returners: Justin Tillman, Jonathan Williams
Key Losses: JeQuan Lewis, Samir Doughty, Mo Alie-Cox
Key Newcomers: Khris Lane (Longwood transfer), Issac Vann (Maine transfer), Marcus Santos-Silva, Sean Mobley, Tyler Maye
Postseason Projection: 10 - 12 seed
Outlook: After Will Wade finished his cup of coffee at Richmond and bolted for a new head coaching gig in the SEC, VCU hoops announced that Mike Rhoades, longtime assistant under Shaka Smart, would be filling the Rams' head coaching vacancy. Rhoades comes over from Rice where he resurrected a traditionally forgotten basketball program into a relevant C-USA contender last season. The trademark of last year's Owls squad was a run-and-gun, high-octane offense that was must-see T.V. for any mid-major college hoops junkie. Rhoades' system meshed perfectly with a roster loaded with perimeter playmakers, which stretched out opposing defenses with 4-5 competent shooters on the floor at all times. The question is will Rhoades try to institutionalize his perimeter-focused, track meet style of offense right off the bat? Or will he ease into his brand of basketball over time as he brings in more of "his guys" to the program?
The good news it that he will inherit a Rams' roster that has no shortage of offensive firepower. Jonathan Williams returns as the undisputed lead guard after JeQuan Lewis graduated this offseason - Williams is a lightning-quick penetrator and excellent decision-maker with the ball in his hands. He'll be responsible for finding a trio of potent wing scorers in De'Riante Jenkins, Issac Vann and Khris Lane. Jenkins showed flashes of his bucket getting ability in brief stints early on last year, but was injury-ridden for most of the season. Now entering his sophomore campaign with much improved health, he's the obvious breakout candidate on this roster. Vann (Maine) and Lane (Longwood) each posted big time numbers against inferior competition at their prior schools - they can each score from all three levels on the floor and should generate mismatch opportunities against most A-10 opponents. Finally, the long and bouncy Justin Tillman is the Rams leading returning scorer and is one of the premier forward rim runners in the conference, which make him a perfect fit in Rhoades' breakneck tempo.
So while the transition to a faster style of play should be relatively seamless, the Rams are lacking the abundance of 3-point shooters needed to execute in Rhoades' system. In fact, over the past two seasons at Rice, the Owls attempted 41% of their field goals from downtown - compare that to the interior-reliant Rams who attempted less than 30% of all their field goals from 3-point range. It was probably a good thing VCU was dead set on getting the ball inside to score, as the Rams connected on just 33% from behind the arc, which ranked 2nd to last in the A-10. For as valuable as Jonathan Williams is on both ends of the floor, it's a mystery how effective he was a driver and facilitator, given he made literally one 3-pointer the entire season last year. Vann and Lane are both comfortable stepping away from the basket and pulling from distance, but both prefer to do their damage slashing from the wing and scoring inside the arc.
Malik Crowfield projects as the best pure shooter on the roster, but he certainly didn't torch the nets last season in limited action (shot 36% from 3). The wildcard could be JUCO newcomer Mike'l Simms, who came into his own toward the end of his time at Cowley Community College - the sophomore poured in 26 points a game over his final eight JUCO contests, headlined by a 45-point outburst against Pratt. He was an average 3-point shooter on a high volume of attempts last season, so perhaps he could emerge into a streaky, off-the-bench shooting option for VCU this year.
Bottom Line: Assuming Rhoades brings his free-flowing, fast-paced preferred style of play back to VCU, the Rams should have no problem putting points on the board this year - the question is will they do so efficiently. The answer will be determined by simply whether or not the Rams perimeter pieces prove they can knock down shots consistently.
The only other outstanding question is whether or not VCU's defensive unit will remain among the A-10's best, especially with centerpiece Mo-Alie Cox no longer roaming the paint. The advanced plus/minus statistics at hoop-lens.com indicate that they actually might be ok without him in the middle. In fact, the Rams were just as stout defensively with Cox on the floor compared to when he sat (refer to the identical 0.95 defensive PPP in the "Defense Selected Lineup" columns):
Pegged to replace Cox in the middle is Florida native Sean Mobley, who presents a much more polished and versatile scoring option than the bruising Cox. If the young, highly-regarded Mobley can hold down the defensive fort inside, the Rams should remain a top-50 defensive team, which should put them in position for their 8th straight trip to the NCAA tournament.
3. St. Bonaventure
Key Returners: Jaylen Adams, Matt Mobley, Idris Taqqee, Josh Ayeni
Key Losses: Denzel Gregg, David Andoh
Key Newcomers: Ndene Gueye (JUCO), Tshiefu Ngalakulondi, Izaiah Brockington
Postseason Projection: 11 seed - NIT
Outlook: While Rhode Island's backcourt may be the deepest unit in the A-10, the Bonnies' dynamic duo of Jaylen Adams and Matt Mobley is a nightmarish tandem for opponents to match up with. Adams will go toe-to-toe with the Rams' E.C. Matthews for player of the year after coming off a season in which he led the league in assists and finished 2nd scoring behind Davidson's Jack Gibbs. The scary thing is that as good as Adams was last season, he actually took a minor step back in his overall offensive efficiency, which was simply a byproduct of adjusting to more of a lead guard role after his former perimeter partner-in-crime Marcus Posley graduated prior to last year.
As cliche as the old saying goes, the Bonnies go as Adams and Mobley go. Looking at the four factors of offensive and defensive success, Adams and Mobley are largely responsible for what St. Bonaventure excels at as a team. Offensively, the Bonnies scored a quarter of their points from the charity stripe last year - only eight teams in the country relied more on scoring from the free-throw line - much of which is attributable to the relentless penetration of Adams and Mobley. Head coach Mark Schmidt knows exactly where his bread is buttered and constantly sends screeners toward his dynamic duo when they have the ball in their hands. Only three teams in the country ran pick-n-rolls on more possessions than the Bonnies did last year, the vast majority of which were spearheaded by Adams and Mobley.
However, as good as the two guards were individually, they actually weren't among the nation's most efficient PnR players, according to synergy.com's individual advanced player statistics. Combined, Adams and Mobley hovered right around a pedestrian ~1.00 PPP on possessions in which they were the lead ball handler in screen and roll action. While this is by no means poor, it somewhat limits the overall offensive ceiling of the Bonnies if Adams and Mosley aren't consistently generating their own offense, given the supporting cast around them appears to lack any other polished offensive scoring threats.
So while the "Adams and Mobley" show will be the sole focus of opposing scouting reports, there are two other key factors to keep an eye on this year:
1) Perimeter defense: As great as Adams and Mobley are on the offensive end of the floor, they aren't particularly fleet of foot laterally on the defense. This is especially problematic in Mark Schmidt's pack line-esque defensive scheme in which denying penetration is absolutely critical to getting consistent stops. Schmidt may have taken note of some of the defensive perimeter lapses last season as he opted to go zone more than he has in recent years:
2) Interior rebounding: Denzell Gregg was the Bonnies best all-around defender and two-way rebounder last season, which raises the question as to who will step into the defensive enforcer role. Idris Taqqee is a physical specimen at 6'4 200 pounds, but is limited by his lack of height. The onus will be on LaDarien Griffin, Josh Ayeni, Amadi Ikpeze and Ndene Gueye to rise to the challenge and solidify the interior rim protection and shore up the defensive glass.
Bottom Line: The known variables of Adams and Mobley alone should make the Bonnies legitimate NCAA tournament contenders in 2017-18. However, an over-reliance on Adams and Mobley is dangerous game to play for an entire season, so the health of Courtney Stockard will be a major factor in the St. Bonaventure's offensive balance. Before missing two years with a foot injury, Stockard was expected to a be a major contributor for Schmidt when he first arrived in upstate New York a few years back. If he can stay healthy and solidify his role as a reliable scoring and shooting option on the wing, it will open up a lot more space for Adams and Mobley to attack in the half-court.
4. Saint Louis
Key Returners: Davell Roby, Jalen Johnson, Jermaine Bishop
Key Losses: Reggie Agbeko
Key Newcomers: Adonys Henriquez (UCF transfer), Javon Bess (Michigan State transfer), DJ Foreman (Rutgers transfer), Rashed Anthony (Seton Hall grad transfer), Jordan Goodwin, Hashan French
Postseason Projection: NIT
Outlook: If you isolate talent from all other success-determining factors, projecting the Billikens to finish 4th in the A-10 is ludicrous. In fact, you could talk me into the notion that SLU has the most talent of anyone in the conference, including the clear-cut favorite Rhode Island. But as the basketball gods have taught us so very well over the years, there are simply too many variables in the winning equation to only consider talent and potential.
It's not even worth recapping last year's team because... well... the 2017-18 Billikens will resemble the Monstars compared to what Travis Ford had to trot out on the floor last year. A local St. Louis article from this offseason recapped just how maddening it was for Ford to watch his "scout team" in practice annihilate the "starters". That overqualified practice team was composed of Adonys Henriquez (UCF transfer) and Javon Bess (Michigan State transfer), both whom could easily start right away this season, depending on how loyal Ford is to rising sophomore forward Jalen Johnson. DJ Foreman (Rutgers transfer) was another member of that dominant scout team who will join prized freshman Hashan French in what should be a thick, physical, yet skilled front line unit. The arrival of this new wave of strength and toughness comes just in the nick of time as Reggie Agbeko - a one man wrecking crew in the paint last year - graduated earlier this summer.
The versatility of the aforementioned wings and forwards is endless. Ford will get a jolt of rim protection and rebounding with expected improvement from Johnson, along with the additions of French and Foreman. He adds a lock down defender who's been groomed under the Tom Izzo school of basketball for two years in Bess, along with yet another plus defender and potent long range shooter in Henriquez. So what's missing? Perhaps a lead guard who can bring all the pieces together?
Come on down Jordan Goodwin - the prized possession of Ford's highly regarded recruiting class, who currently sits just outside the top-50 of ESPN.com's 2017 freshman rankings. After cycling through a few point guard test runs in Jermaine Bishop, Davell Roby and Aaron Hines over the past two seasons, Ford finally has a lead guard blessed with the top-tier burst of quickness needed to consistently break down the first line of defense. The arrival of Goodwin may be the best thing to happen to Roby, who has continuously improved in each of his first three seasons and can now defer some of the ball handling responsibilities to Goodwin. If Roby can stay hot from behind the arc (he shot 38% from 3 last season), he might be the perfect off-guard fit to play next to Goodwin, Bess and Henriquez on the perimeter.
Bottom Line: Apologies in advance to the returning Billikens who displayed flashes of promise last season, particularly Elliott Welmer, but the advanced metrics indicate SLU was the worst team in the league last year by a significant margin. The 2017-18 prognosis is all about how the foreign parts mesh together, particularly on the offensive end of the floor. On an individual case-by-case basis, the Billikens should be one of the stingiest defensive units in the A-10, but the chemistry on the offensive end of the floor is the real question mark. If Goodwin can live up to his billing and quickly mature into the floor leader this team needs, SLU will compete with in-state neighbor Mizzou for one of the most improved teams in the country in 2017-18.
5. Saint Joseph's
Key Returners: Shavar Newkirk, LaMarr Kimble, James Demery, Charlie Brown
Key Losses: Brendan Casper
Key Newcomers: Anthony Longpre, Taylor Funk
Postseason Projection: NIT
Outlook: Phil Martelli was bitten not once, not twice, but thrice by the dreaded health bug last season. The biggest blows came against his two-headed backcourt of Shavar Newkirk and LaMarr Kimble at critical points in the season - Newkirk was the first victim in early January and Kimble went down a month and a half later in mid-February. Much like conference foe St. Bonaventure, the Hawks are highly leveraged on consistent production from their premier backcourt. Last season was supposed to be the coming out party for both Newkirk and Kimble, who were somewhat overshadowed two years ago when they deferred the playmaking and scoring responsibilities to a pair of bonafide wings in DeAndre' Bembry and Isaiah Miles. The perimeter duo seemed to be settling in nicely to an always effective dual-point guard system, with both Newkirk and Kimble co-leading the offensive attack while taking care of the basketball, typically an emphasis of Phil Martelli coached teams.
However, it was truly a tale of two seasons for each of the Hawks' lead guards. While Newkirk was excellent in a small sample size early on in the year, Kimble struggled to get buckets in an efficient manner. Despite being blessed with a sturdy frame which should give him the strength to finish through contact around the basket, Kimble converted just 50% of his shots at the rim last year, per hoop-math.com and only connected on 40% of his midrange jumpers. And when you factor in his subpar 32% 3-point shooting clip and high-usage rate, it's no mystery why St. Joes posted the worst effective FG% in the entire conference. Equally as responsible for the Hawks shooting woes was 6'6 wing James Demery's inability to score efficiently from anywhere on the floor. Demery's quick burst off-the-dribble allows him to get deep into the teeth of defense almost at will, but much like Kimble, struggled to finish his opportunities at the tin. And even Demery would draw enough contact to get a whistle, he often threw up bricks at the charity stripe (59%), which was problematic on a rather large volume of attempts (132 FTs).
If the three offensive alphas of Newkirk, Kimble and Demery can improve their efficiency this year, the rest of the supporting cast features some real nice pieces to complement the scoring of "the big 3". Charlie Brown is the notable breakout candidate after quickly emerging as one of the most valuable players on the Hawks last year. The 6'7 wing was immune to any such freshman growing pains, cashing in on a team best 38% from downtown and rarely, if ever, turning over the basketball. His length and hops helped him blossom into a reliable shot-blocker next to one of the premier athletes in the conference, rising junior Markell Lodge. A-10 opponents quickly found out that if you don't know where Lodge is on the floor, he will make you pay. On offense, he was a handful to keep off of the boards and on defense, his shot-swatting prowess was evidenced by a top-100 nationally ranked block rate. Down the stretch last year, Lodge, Demery and freshman Nick Robinson earned the starting nods at the 3, 4 and 5 spots respectively, but if Robinson's inefficient tendencies persist this season, expect him to step back into a reserve role with a slew of injured Hawks set to return this year.
Two key rotation pieces seeking bounce back seasons in 2017-18 are shooting guard Chris Clover and hybrid wing/forward Pierfrancesco Oliva. Clover certainly played his part in the Hawk's abysmal team shooting percentages last season, as he failed to make 30% and 40% of his attempts behind the arc and inside the arc, respectively. Oliva's multi-skilled game resembles that of a prototypical European swingman, but he's coming off a season ending knee injury after starting 30 games as a freshman on the A-10 champion squad back in 2015-16.
Bottom Line: Not to regurgitate the same point as mentioned in the St. Bonaventure preview, but the fate of the Hawks does lie in the sustained health and consistent on-the-court play of Newkirk and Kimble. While Demery also needs to improve his finishing, the combined usage of Newkirk and Kimble makes their efficiency critical to success on the offensive end. Defensively, Phil Martelli will continue to prioritize protecting the paint with a sagging man-to-man scheme, which he'll complement with a traditional 2-3 zone look at times. Saint Joes isn't concerned with generating a ton of steals but they certainly won't allow easy looks at the rim either, which means you typically need to make outside shots to beat them. And in a relatively poor shooting A-10 conference, Martelli will give his talented Hawks a chance to win night in and night out - that is, assuming they can stay healthy.
6. George Mason
Key Returners: Otis Livingston, Jaire Grayer
Key Losses: Marquise Moore, Jalen Jenkins
Key Newcomers: Goanar Mar
Postseason Projection: NIT - CBI/CIT
Outlook: There are plenty of "sexy" sleeper picks in the A-10 this year: LaSalle and their slew of guard/wing weapons; Dayton and their successful program cache (SLU's overload of new talent disqualifies them from "sleeper" consideration). But I'm betting on Dave Paulsen and his "boring" brand of basketball to vault George Mason close the top-5 of the A-10 standings this season.
By many accounts, Paulsen was considered a home run hire when he first came to the nation's capital a few years back - George Mason had just decided to cut ties with Paul Hewitt and chose to take a shot on an up-and-coming mid-major coach who had just transformed a sub-500 Bucknell team into a Patriot league powerhouse. When you look at Paulsen's teams over the past two seasons at George Mason, what's ironic is how well they've controlled the defensive glass despite often playing a smaller 4-out, 1-in lineup. Last year, 6'2 Marquise Moore was the 11th best rebounder in the country on a per minute basis, which epitomizes Paulsen's team-based rebounding principles - no matter how tall you are or what position you play, you WILL crash the boards. So while many teams would be gravely concerned with losing their lone contributing big from a season ago - in this case, Jalen Jenkins - I bet Paulsen and the Patriots barely bat en eye. It also helps that one of the top freshman in the A-10, Goanar Mar, will be stepping in right behind Jenkins to anchor this year's front court.
Unlike the more plodding Jenkins, Mar could emerge into a mismatch nightmare if Paulsen slots him at the 5. He possesses a skill set that resembles a wing/forward hybrid - he can handle in the open floor and shoot from distance, but his non-stop motor, length and physicality will allow him to hold his own down low against bigger bodies. Mar's fierce competitiveness and fearlessness jumps out at you when watching film from his days back in high-school and on the AAU circuit and while he may lack the height of a traditional 5, Paulsen's track record of developing bigs into consistent and efficient producers leads me to believe Mar and fellow freshman AJ Wilson may get a ton of run at the 5 - that is, unless Paulsen can wave his magic wand and transform Troy Temara and Daniel Relvao into competent bigs in their 3rd full collegiate season.
Assuming Paulsen stays true to his roots and plays only one true forward the vast majority of the time, the perimeter will feature four potent playmakers, spearheaded by Otis Livingston at the point. Livingston rarely left the floor last season for the Patriots and will see an even larger role this year with Moore graduating this summer. He'll jumpstart the drive-and-kick action on offense, which will feed into a trio of young, but rapidly improving multi-skilled guards in Justin Kier, Ian Boyd and Jaire Grayer. All three love to attack via dribble penetration in the half-court, but Kier and Grayer kept defenses honest last year with a prolific shooting display from downtown - combined, the duo cashed in on 39% of their 195 attempts from long distance.
Bottom Line: The reasons for my bullishness on the Patriots is quite simple - Dave Paulsen is one of the best sideline conductors in the conference and his stylistic defensive approach will always prevent the opposition from getting 2nd chance shot opportunities inside. So while rim protection is a valid area of concern, the length and athleticism of Mar and Wilson should limit A-10 opponents from scoring at ease inside. And with a potential nightmarish offensive attack that could feature 4-5 players on the floor who can all put it on the deck and shoot it from the outside, George Mason could be a tricky matchup once conference season rolls around.
Key Returners: Xeyrius Williams, Josh Cunningham
Key Losses: Scoochie Smith, Charles Cooke, Kendall Pollard, Kyle Davis
Key Newcomers: Jordan Pierce, Jordan Davis
Postseason Projection: NIT - CBI/CIT
Outlook: The 2017-18 season represents a new chapter in the history of the Dayton basketball program - four critical seniors depart, leaving new head coach Anthony Grant a clean slate to begin the rebuild. Before a recent stint in the NBA, Grant crafted some elite defensive squads in his collegiate coaching days at Alabama and VCU. He'll need to pull all the right strings to keep the Flyers defense among the A-10's best this year, especially with his best perimeter ball disruptors and interior rebounders graduating. Under Archie Miller, the Flyers were consistently strong at all facets on the defensive end, whether it be getting back in transition, controlling the defensive glass, protecting the rim or generating steals. The decorated senior class of Charles Cooke, Scoochie Smith, Kendall Pollard and Kyle Davis were instrumental in all of these domains, which means Grant will need to mold this year's roster - which is composed of ex-role players and inexperienced freshmen - into a lockdown defensive unit in just a short period of time.
Given none of the freshman class come to Dayton with high-end recruiting pedigree, it seems likely that the five lone upperclassmen will determine the fate of the 2017-18 Flyers. A pair of hip surgeries will sideline Ryan Mikesell for the season, but Josh Cunningham and Xeyrius Williams, along with some big-time bodies in the freshman class - Jordan Pierce, Obadiah Toppin and Kostas Antetokounmpo, should give Grant enough depth down low.
Williams was arguably the Flyers' most improved player last year who understood his role as an athletic stretch-4 offensively. With so much of the scoring production graduating this summer, "X" will need to assert himself as a more versatile threat on the offensive end. His team leading 43% 3-point shooting clip last year should open up shot fake and drive opportunities whenever he catches the ball on the wing this season. He's also the Flyers best returning shot-blocker and will need to cover a ton of ground defensively, especially playing next to the less athletic Cunningham in the middle. Cunningham's 2016-17 campaign was marred with injury struggles, which caused him to gain weight and lose some of the mobility and leaping ability he displayed as a freshman at Bradley.
So while the depth and upside at the forward position should be a point of strength for this year's Flyers, the backcourt is where the question marks lie. John Crosby flirted with transferring this offseason, but ultimately chose to return to Dayton where he will likely earn the starting nod at the point guard spot. Crosby has been widely inefficient in the early portion of his collegiate basketball career and has Shaq-sized shoes to fill stepping in behind Scoochie Smith. Joining him will be a trio of off-guards in Darrell Davis, Trey Landers and freshman Jordan Davis. The older Davis is the only proven member of this inexperienced perimeter unit and emerged into a consistent 3-point shooting threat as a junior last year. Similar to Xeyrius Williams, he was the benefactor of the defensive attention garnered by the likes of Scoochie, Pollard and Cooke, so how he responds to becoming a focal point of opposing defenses remains to be seen.
Bottom Line: There are certainly more talented teams than Dayton in the A-10 this season, especially at the guard position, but I'm betting on the institutional program success at the direction of Anthony Grant to keep the Flyers competitive. Expect the defense to be stingy all season long while the offense sorts out some kinks in the early going. Little brother of budding NBA star Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kostas - aka "the baby Greek Freak" - could blossom into a gem after sitting out last season. He made himself into a borderline top-100 freshman by the time he left high school, but monitoring his health will be a major focal point of the Dayton athletic staff all season long. If he can stay on the floor and show flashes of the unprecedented gifts his older brother was blessed with, there's simply no telling where his ceiling ends.
Key Returners: Peyton Aldridge, Jon Axel Gudmundsson, Will Magarity
Key Losses: Jack Gibbs
Key Newcomers: Kellan Grady
Postseason Projection: CBI/CIT
Outlook: Seeing Jack Gibbs go brings tears to 3MWs' eyes, as I'm sure it does for the rest of the Davidson faithful. The success for the Wildcats last year was predicated on Gibbs' ability to both score efficiently and create open looks for his others given the relatively unproven supporting cast around him. So without Gibbs acting as the catalyst this year, it's time for the next wave of Davidson guards to grab the torch and carry forward the long-lasting program tradition that Bob McKillop has built for almost 30 years. Those duties now lie on the shoulders on a promising perimeter tandem in rising sophomore Jon Axel Gudmundsson and 4-star freshman Kellan Grady.
"The Icelandic Axe" (3MW's proprietary nickname) was a pleasant surprise in his first full season of division 1 basketball. Despite playing more off the ball with Gibbs running the show last year, Gudmundsson proved to be a fungible asset in the backcourt and should see his role expand as he'll likely slide over to the point. Grady enters Davidson with a whirlwind of hype as one of the highest ranked recruits McKillop has ever brought in. He projects as a combo-guard and is touted as one of the premier shooters in this year's freshman class and should benefit from Gudmundsson's vision and unselfishness. Gudmundsson shot a subpar 33% from downtown last season, but I'd be shocked if that percentage doesn't creep up to the 37% range this year - if this pans out, the Wildcats should have a dead-eye shooting combo, which has become a trademark of McKillop's most successful teams in recent memory. Grady and "the Axe" both stand 6'4 and are blessed with above-average length for their positions, but Grady will need to add significant strength if he wants to avoid being a liability on the defensive end. Hopefully he follows the workout program of veteran off-guard and reliable glue-guy Rusty Reigel, who is a slab of muscle at 6'2, 210 pounds. He and wing KiShawn Pritchett got plenty of reps last year and both will asked to step in to more featured roles this season with Gibbs no longer in the picture.
The return of matchup nightmare Peyton Aldridge will be huge for the psyche of Gudmundsson and Grady. With Aldridge in the mix, the young backcourt duo won't have to carry a major share of the scoring burden, which should translate into higher efficiency on the offensive end. Aldridge has acted as Gibbs' safety blanket over the past few seasons after quickly emerging as one of the premier players in the A-10 last year. Now as a senior - and dark horse conference player of the year candidate - Aldridge will need to prove his worth as a go-to alpha offensively. His long 6'8 frame, silky smooth jump shot and sound handle make him a tough cover for most forwards in the A-10 and his maturation as a complete player was quite evident last season.
Will Magarity's arrival from Boston College proved to be a godsend for Aldridge - Magarity quickly asserted himself as the dominant paint patroller defensively which allowed Aldridge to guard more 4s, reducing his risk of accumulating fouls down low. And while Magarity struggled with his shooting stroke from behind the arc last season, both he and Aldridge are comfortable stepping away from the lane, which gives slower, more traditional bigs fits on the defensive end.
Outside of Aldridge and Magarity, the Wildcats frontline was rather thin thanks to a slew of untimely injuries. Nathan Ekwu is a physical specimen and top-flight athlete who took a major leap in his sophomore season back in 2015-16, but battled injuries for much of last year. Another once-promising forward in Oskar Michelsen experienced a similar regression last season, given his season high for minutes played in a game was equivalent to the number of games he started in 2015-16. And if those dynamics didn't put enough pressure on Aldridge, 6'10 sophomore Dusan Kovacevic had his freshman campaign cut short with a season ending leg injury.
Bottom Line: The key for the Wildcats will be the combined consistency of Gudmundsson and Grady as the co-lead guards in McKillop's motion-heavy offense. McKillop's teams are always heavily reliant on the 3-ball, so Gundmundsson, Reigel, Magarity and Jordan Watkins will all need to shoot it much more accurately than they each did a year ago. Defensively, the Wildcats are always fundamentally sound, so the question is always whether or not they have the horses to get stops against upper-echelon athletes. A resurgence from Ekwu could go a long way to bolstering the front line depth, but the Aldridge/Magarity pairing should be just fine this season. This year's Wildcat squad seems to have the right pieces in place to seamlessly reload after Gibbs leaves behind a stellar legacy at Davidson.
9. La Salle
Key Returners: Pookie Powell, B.J. Johnson, Amar Stukes
Key Losses: Jordan Price, Cleon Roberts, Demetrius Henry
Key Newcomers: Jamir Moultrie, Miles Brookins, Dajour Joseph
Postseason Projection: CBI/CIT
Outlook: La Salle was much improved last season after a rather disastrous 2015-16 campaign which culminated in a 4-14 league record, good for dead last in the A-10 standings. The Explorers found their mojo on offense with a 4-out, 1-in approach which was led by one of the most versatile players in the entire conference in Jordan Price. Price now graduates as one of the most decorated players in program history, leaving head coach Mike Giannini a major void to fill on the wing.
The returning depth at the wing position leaves a lot to be desired which implies the Explorers may even play smaller than they did a year ago, especially with the arrival of fringe 4-star prospect Jamir Moultrie. The D.C. native had offers from Georgetown and Georgia, but chose to play his collegiate hoops in Philadelphia in a system that appears to suit him perfectly. Moultrie is physically mature guard for his age who loves to drive it hard at the rim and while most recruiting sites label him as a point-guard, the presence of Amar Stukes and Pookie Powell - the incumbent co-point guards - should take the pressure of Moultrie as a ball handler and decision-maker as he adjusts to the speed of the college game.
While B.J. Johnson will get all the preseason ink and program front pages - and deservedly so given the leap he made last season - Stukes and Powell were actually the Explorers most efficient offensive players a year ago. Much like Moultrie's narrative, Stukes' bread-and-butter is attacking off the bounce, which typically creates an array of passing lanes for him to find open shooters. And while Powell appears to resemble more of a pure point guard, Stukes actually led La Salle in assists last year on a per possession basis. The slightly smaller Powell is also a competent penetrator and passer, but is a much more refined outside shooter, which will be critical for the Explorers' floor spacing this season. Given Price is now gone, and neither Stukes or Moultrie will terrify opposing defenses with their long range jumpers, Powell and Johnson will both need to be sharp from downtown this season to maximize floor spacing.
Price was supposed to be only notable loss from last year's team heading into the 2017-18 season, but that all changed earlier this month with the shocking announcement of Demetrius Henry's departure from the program. The ex-South Carolina transfer was the only viable interior defender and rim-protector for a team that was absolutely gashed inside last season. His explanation for why he left was rather eye-opening and certainly doesn't portray Giannini in a positive light (read the full story here):
“I was told by my coach that I was a negative influence to my teammates and it was best if I left the team. Which is a lie, but I decided to leave and just pursue basketball professionally.”
This leaves Giannini with essentially two options at the 5 - 5th year senior Tony Washington and behemoth 7'1 freshman Cian Sullivan. Washington started 12 games last season and posted exceptional per minute rebounding numbers, so expect him to eat up the majority of the minutes down low this year.
Bottom Line: There's no secret about it - La Salle's defense has been MIA for the past two seasons. Giannini knew he was facing an uphill battle back in 2015-16 when he had virtually no depth to work with, so to keep his main guys out of foul trouble he often played a "rope-a-dope" zone defense - something he had done only sparingly in prior years. So with some reinforcements entering the fold last season, along with one more year of strength and development for the returning core players, he went away from the zone operating under the assumption that he finally had the horses to play straight-up man effectively.
Welp, this one back fired. The Explorers were somehow worse defensively last season than they were two years ago and while they did improve as conference play progressed, they still have a ways to go to be taken seriously as a top-5 contender in the A-10.
Key Returners: De'Monte Buckingham, Khwan Fore, Nick Sherod
Key Losses: T.J. Cline, ShawnDre Jones
Key Newcomers: Jacob Gilyard, Tomas Verbinskis, Jordan Madrid-Andrews (transfer)
Postseason Projection: None
Outlook: The Spiders quietly put together one of the better seasons in the A-10 last year, finishing league play with a 13-5 record good for a 3rd place finish right behind Dayton and VCU. In retrospect, the 2016-17 team was probably Chris Mooney's best since the 2010-11 Cinderella squad that advanced all the way to the Sweet-16. The Spiders must now reload with a new crop of talent, especially with the untimely graduation of "Mr. Everything" T.J. Cline this offseason.
The countless mismatch opportunities all made possible by Cline is what made Richmond so tough to defend last year. The entire offense revolved around and ran through him, which makes projecting the roles of the returning players a tricky task. Rising sophomore De'Monte Buckingham is waiting in the wings to ascend to an all-league caliber player this season after routinely stuffing the stat sheets last year. Buckingham's "position-less" game has an eery resemblance to that of Cline and presents a tough task for opposing coaches trying to identify the right defensive assignment for him. The challenge for Buckingham now is to assert himself as the go-to option for a very young, but talented Richmond team.
In addition to a budding star in Buckingham, Khwan Fore and Nick Sherod are two more reasons to be bullish about the future of Richmond basketball. Fore and Sherod should be a formidable 1-2 punch in the backcourt, but much like Buckingham, they'll have to quickly adjust to a completely different offensive dynamic playing without Cline and ShawnDre' Jones. Together, Cline and Jones combined for ~9 assists a game last year, which means Fore, Sherod and highly-regarded incoming freshman Jacob Gilyard will have to step in to playmaker roles this season. Mooney has some lineup options to work with when you add Julius Johnson to the mix - I'd expect Gilyard to come off-the-bench to start the year, but if he can quickly mature into a reliable ball handler and facilitator, a lineup of Gilyard, Fore, Sherod and Buckingham at the 1-4 spots could be deadly.
However, similar to the narrative with La Salle, the Spiders have major question marks down low. Mooney could go with Grant Golden or Chicago St. transfer Jordan Madrid-Andrews to solidify the 5 spot, or he could experiment with one of many incoming freshman with Phoenix Ford and Tomas Verbinskis as the most qualified candidates. Solving this conundrum will be a pressing task for Mooney, especially if he wants to correct some of the defensive woes that lingered for much of last season. While Cline was an exceptional rebounder, he was not a particularly good interior defender or rim protector, a major reason why the Spiders' defensive efficiency slipped outside of the top-100 nationally in each of the past two seasons.
Bottom Line: With so many newcomers entering the mix this season, regression from last year feels inevitable. An interesting dynamic to track will be Mooney's approach on the defensive end. His patented matchup zone thrives off confusing opposing guards on the perimeter, but it requires exceptional communication to run effectively. The data indicates Mooney pulled back the zone a lot last season compared to 2015-16 (see below), so it will be intriguing to see how he balances multiple defensive schemes this year without a proven 5 and a ton of new faces who will need reps to master the matchup zone.
However, the potential potency of a Gilyard, Fore, Sherod and Buckingham lineup could certainly expedite the rebuilding process and make this prediction look silly by next spring.
Key Returners: Luwane Pipkins, Rashaan Holloway
Key Losses: Donte Clark (transfer), Dejon Jarreau (transfer), Tryn Flowers (transfer), Zach Lewis (transfer), Brison Gresham (transfer)
Key Newcomers: Jaylen Brantley (Maryland grad transfer)
Postseason Projection: None
Outlook: Despite hauling in one of the more promising freshman classes of the 2016 recruiting cycle, Derek Kellogg was shown the door this summer after the Minutemen stumbled their way to a 2nd to last place finish in the A-10 last year. After Kellogg was shown the door - and Pat Kelsey withdrew his name from consideration shortly after accepting the job early this summer - the two jewels of last year's recruiting haul (Dejon Jarreau and Tryn Flowers) and UMASS's leading scorer last season (Donte Clark) proceeded to follow, which left new coach Matt McCall with some massive shoes to fill in his first season at the helm.
Even though the exodus of talent certainly deflated the program's momentum this offseason, there are a few bright spots on the returning roster that should keep the Minutemen somewhat competitive in the A-10 this year. McCall was likely ecstatic when Luwane Pipkins and Unique McClean - fellow classmates of Jarreau and Flowers - opted to stay loyal to their UMASS commitment this summer. While McClean was forced to watch last season from the sidelines as a redshirt, Pipkins wasted no time turning heads in his first full season of college basketball. Despite his inefficiencies as a shooter and scorer, his game-breaking speed made him a perfect match with Kellogg's chaotic style of play. Pipkins was an absolute terror on the defensive end and few defenders proved they could stay in-front of him 1-on-1 with the ball in his hands. If he can refine his offensive game as a more efficient playmaker and shooter, a backcourt unit composed of Pipkins, McClean, Maryland transfer Jaylen Brantley should give McCall a sneaky good group of guards to work with.
The fascinating thing to watch will be how McCall chooses to use his bazooka-esque weapon down low in Rashaan Holloway. The 6'11 300-pound monster simply didn't integrate well into Kellogg's track meet brand of basketball, which ultimately caused him to lose his starting spot down the stretch last season. Over the last 5 games of the year, Kellogg was prioritizing more athletic options in Holloway's place, including Brison Gresham, Malik Hines and Chris Baldwin. With Gresham taking his talents elsewhere this summer, Hines and Baldwin will be the featured forwards for McCall this year. The question is how will he juggle the following options: 1) play one of them with Holloway on the floor, 2) play them both over Holloway, 3) play Holloway as the lone big 4) play either Hines or Baldwin as the lone big. Based on the assumption that McCall will likely slow down the pace this year, Holloway will have significantly more value under the new regime. The advanced plus/minus data at hooplens.com backs up this decision - the Minutemen were 0.04 PPP better with Holloway on the floor last season:
Bottom Line: McCall is fresh off a head-scratching year at Chattanooga in which the Mocs entered the season with lofty expectations, only to have their season defined not by wins and losses, but by internal locker room tiffs. Surely escaping that situation was a sigh of relief for McCall, but he'll be challenged right away at his new employer in a much more competitive league with a roster that is somewhat unproven. The main reason to be optimistic if you're a Minutemen fan is that Holloway's talents should be put to much better use than they were over the past two seasons. Despite his weight concerns, he is a unique asset and an absolute load to guard on the block, so look for McCall to thrust him in to a much more featured role offensively this season.
Key Returners: Mike Lewis II, Tarin Smith, Rene Castro
Key Losses: Emile Blackman, Isiaha Mike (transfer), Nakye Sanders (transfer)
Key Newcomers: Tydus Verhoeven, Marko Krivacevic
Postseason Projection: None
Outlook: The Dukes hit an absolute home run when they poached Keith Dambrot away from Akron to replace Jim Ferry, who was canned this March after a lackluster 5-year tenure in Pittsburgh. Dambrot built Akron into a premier mid-major program and currently has the 2016 and 2017 MAC coach of the year plaques resting on his mantle at home. He'll have far less to work with in his first season in Pittsburgh, but the future of Duquesne basketball is in good hands with Dambrot at the helm.
Dambrot inherits a relatively stout backcourt, led by one of the most under appreciated players in the A-10 in Mike Lewis. The only thing holding back Lewis from being a serious player of the year contender will be the Dukes irrelevancy in the conference standings. Hailing from Chaminade College Preparatory in St. Louis - a high-school powerhouse that produced the likes of David Lee, Bradley Beal and Jayson Tatum - Lewis quickly took the A-10 by storm in his first full season. He wasted no time asserting himself as the alpha-dog, leading the Dukes in scoring and minutes played while breaking the school freshman record for 3-pointers made in a season (63). His change of pace and body control with the ball in his hands is far more advanced than most players at his age and his smooth, consistent shooting stroke is reason to believe he's only cracked the surface of how good he can be. And with two proven ball handlers in Tarin Smith and Rene Castro set to join him again in the backcourt, Lewis can focus on what his team needs him to do - and what he does best - which is simply to get buckets.
The bad news is that Ferry's firing resulted in the exodus of two critical forwards in Nakye Sanders and Isiaha Mike, so it's anyone's guess as to who will step in and produce up front. The Dukes were already the A-10's worst defensive team last year, but the void of any reliable rim protection or rebounding upfront this season is especially problematic for Dambrot's preferred defensive style. At Akron, Dambrot featured an extended man-to-man defense which prioritized taking away the 3-point shot and funneled shots inside the arc where a stable of bonafide shot-blockers were waiting. So unless the guards can consistently deny dribble penetration, opposing teams may have a field day inside against a lackluster frontline - that is, unless Tydus Verhoeven, Jordan Robinson or Marko Krivacevic prove me wrong.
Bottom Line: With an excellent coach in-tact, along with a promising group of transfers set to become eligible next summer (Frankie Hughes, Marcus Weathers, Craig Randall, Tavian Dunn-Martin and Michael Hughes), the long-term prognosis of Duquesne hoops is shaping up to be rather promising. However, Dambrot is well-aware this new challenge will not be easy and has already heard the nay-sayers questioning his decision to leave a good thing at Akron. But as Lance Lysowski of DKPittsburghSports.com recently explained...
"Their skepticism is not unwarranted. Dambrot chose to take over a long-suffering program that won 10 games last season and has not reached the NCAA Tournament since 1977. It's the challenge he's always wanted."
Unless Lewis plays his way into NBA draft boards this season, the Dukes are a year away from being a serious contender in the A-10 in 2018-19.
Key Returners: Joseph Chartouny, Will Tavares, Prokop Slanina
Key Losses: Javontae Hawkins, Antwoine Anderson (transfer), Christian Sengfelder (transfer)
Key Newcomers: Ivan Raut, Tre Evans (JUCO)
Postseason Projection: None
Outlook: Fordham is always a thorn in the side of A-10 foes - just ask Rhode Island and VCU, both of whom failed to come away with a win when they visited Rose Hill Gym in New York City last season. Jeff Neubauer's high-risk, high-reward defensive style, which is characterized by relentless ball pressure and a never-ending pursuit of steals, explains how the Rams knocked off the two best teams in the A-10, but managed to lose to Sacred Heart and Manhattan as well. And with three of the top four scorers from last year's team gone, Neubauer will surely have to double down on his gambling defensive scheme to compete with the rest of the league's superior talent.
There are two plausible reasons to believe Fordham will step out of the A-10 gutter this season:
- The return of Joseph Chartouny: No one... literally, no one is better at taking the ball away from the other team than Chartouny. What's fascinating is that Chartouny isn't the most gifted athletically, but his lightning quick hands and savvy anticipation helped him swipe 3.2 steals a game, which led the entire country on per possession basis. Just his presence on the floor forces opposing guard to always stay on high-alert whenever they handle the ball in the backcourt. Chartouny's offensive game is rapidly improving as well, particularly as a passer and 3-point shooter. While he has a tendency to try and thread the needle with some of his passes, he has a true point-guard feel for the game and will once again be the catalyst to the Rams' offense this season. I'd bet on his efficiency improving this season, as long as he becomes a more consistent finisher around the rim and cuts back on his turnovers.
- Improved health of some key contributors: Bad luck in the form of untimely injuries certainly inhibited the ceiling for last year's squad. Highly-regarded JUCO transfer Perris Hicks was the first victim of the injury bug and was sidelined for his entire first season in division 1 basketball. His production at the JUCO level makes him a promising prospect heading into the 2017-18 campaign. Just two years ago at San Bernardino Valley College, Hicks averaged 17 points, 5 assists, and 3 boards a contest, earning him co-MVP honors in his collegiate conference. What's especially encouraging was his 40% 3-point shooting percentage during that 2015-16 season - if he can replicate that this year, it will be an enormous boost to a Fordham team that is completely starved for shooting, outside of Chartouny and potentially JUCO transfer Tre Evans.
Nemanja Zarkovic, David Pekarek and Prokop Slavania round out the other Rams players who spent the bulk of the 2016-17 season ailing on the sidelines. Slavania, in particular, has real upside potential after coming to Fordham with a relatively high recruiting pedigree. This trio, along with Jesse Bunting and Chuba Ohams should give Neubauer an array of options to work with at the forward spot - Will Tavares may even get some burn at the 4 if Neubauer wants to go super small.
Bottom Line: Chartouny was asked to do a lot last season, but may actually need to do even more this season to keep the Rams out of the basement of the A-10. There are no other proven scorers on the roster, unless Hicks or one of the hybrid forward/wings emerges as a reliable sidekick.
14. George Washington
Key Returners: Yuta Watanabe, Patrick Steeves
Key Losses: Tyler Cavanaugh, Jordan Roland (transfer), Jaren Sina (transfer), Kevin Marfo (transfer), Collin Smith (transfer)
Key Newcomers: Justin Mazzulla, Bo Zeigler (USF grad transfer)
Postseason Projection: None
Outlook: It's never a good sign when the top offseason story surrounding your basketball program involves a settlement over claims made against a former coach - in this case, Mike Lonergan - regarding the verbal abuse of players. While I can't speak to exactly what went on inside the locker room and behind closed doors, I do know 13 players left the program during Lonergan's 5-year tenure, implying something must've been off with the coach-player relationship dynamics. That's left new coach Maurice Joseph left to pick up the pieces and start over from scratch as he attempts to not only clean up the program, but rebuild the Colonials into a serious A-10 contender.
There are a few bright spots on the 2017-18 Colonials roster with no one shining brighter than Yuta Watanabe. Omitting Watanabe from the all-conference honors selection is simply a by-product of my bearish outlook on this year's George Washington team overall. The Japan native is one of the most complete players in the A-10, possessing a rare combination of fluidity and skill for someone with his size at 6'8. He loves to step away from the paint and attack slower bigs off the bounce with a long and deceptive quick first step, but he'll gladly pull it from deep if his defender sags off. He's undeniably the Colonials most valuable players on both ends of the floor (voted to A-10 all-defensive team last season) and will need to do more for his squad than just about any other team in the conference this season.
He'll be joined by two fellow forwards in Arnaldo Toro and 2nd year grad student Patrick Steeves' in the front court, both of whom have big shoes to fill with the departure of Tyler Cavanaugh (graduation) and Collin Smith (transfer). Similar to Watanabe's well-rounded game, Joseph has another stat-stuffer and versatile defensive weapon in USF transfer Bo Zeigler. Zeigler's game feels somewhat position-less, but he'll likely get some run at the 3 in order to carve out more minutes for Watanabe, Steeves and Toro.
The backcourt looks to be rail thin for MoJo this season, which should put give a trio of promising freshman guards - Justin Mazzula, Terry Nolan Jr. and Maceo Jack - plenty of opportunities early on. Jair Bolden is the incumbent point guard, who is coming off an inconsistent freshman campaign and will likely share ball handling responsibilities with Mazzula. The Colonials badly need a significant improvement in Bolden's outside shooting consistency or one of the freshman to emerge as a legitimate 3-point threat.
Bottom Line: From a defensive standpoint, the Colonials have some solid individual pieces that should prevent any catastrophic regression this season - but outside of Watanabe, an established playmaker or proven scorer are nowhere to be found on the roster. While most previews will have George Washington slated above the league's traditional doormats in Duquesne and Fordham, the Colonials appear to have far more holes on the offensive end.