By Kevin Sweeney
There might not be a conference with more uncertainty from top to bottom than the A10. Roster turnover throughout the league has left us with no clear favorite and differing opinions on most teams. The A10 is deeper than it was last year, but the top of the league doesn’t have a clear at-large contender like Rhode Island was last season. That doesn’t mean the A10 will be a one-bid league this season, but it seems quite possible that the league will beat itself up in conference play and perhaps take a few off its teams off the bubble itself.
Here’s my sure-to-be-wrong best shot at projecting a league that will have extremely tight margins up and down the standings:
#1. Saint Louis
I’m reluctantly hopping on the SLU train. Ever since Carte’Are Gordon committed to the program, year 3 of the Travis Ford era has always been targeted as the year the Billikens take the next step. There’s high-major talent all over this roster, from versatile wings Jordan Goodwin and Javon Bess to the loaded frontcourt that features Gordan, Hasahn French, and DJ Foreman. The biggest thing that held them back was shooting, and the additions of grad transfers Tramaine Isabell (Drexel) and Dion Wiley (Saint Louis) will help in that regard. The spacing will never be ideal when playing with 2 non-shooting bigs as SLU figures to do, but the overall scoring talent, positional size, and experience should be enough to put the Billikens at the top.
#2. Saint Joseph’s
Health hasn’t cooperated with the Hawks the last 2 seasons. 2 years ago, Shavar Newkirk and Lamarr Kimble both went down midseason, derailing a promising season. Last season, it was Charlie Brown and Kimble who virtually missed the entire season due to injuries. SJU has to hope they are finally over the injury bug, and if they are, they have perhaps the league’s best roster. Brown was one of the league’s best freshmen in 2016-17, an athletic wing with great size and shooting ability, and Kimble stuffs the stat sheet from either guard spot if healthy. Throw in a trio of key rotation players returning in Taylor Funk, Pierfrancesco Oliva, and Chris Clover and 2 incoming guys in 4-star PG Jared Bynum and USF grad transfer Troy Holston, and you have an rotation that is versatile, athletic, and experienced, albeit not all that deep.
#3. George Mason
The Patriots basically run it back from an up-and-down 2017-18 campaign with one big addition: Virginia transfer Jarred Reuter. Reuter fits perfectly with the returning core– he provides a low-post threat that the Patriots didn’t have before, is a very good passer, and will get lots of one-on-one post looks with the guards spacing the floor around him. Otis Livingston returns for his senior season as one of the league’s best floor generals, and I’m excited about a sophomore jump from athletic forward Goanar Mar after a strong freshman campaign. GMU must improve on the defensive end, and while depth and size should help in that regard, it’s enough of a concern for me to keep them 3rd rather than 1 or 2.
#4. UMass– Dark Horse
Matt McCall did about as good a job as a coach can do in a 20-loss season in his first year in Amherst. With as few as 4 scholarship players at his disposal at times, McCall’s group competed every night, established a new culture around the program, and developed Luwane Pipkins and Carl Pierre into the program’s new dynamic duo. Off the floor, he got off to a strong start in recruiting, landing a well-regarded freshman class featuring top-150 recruit Samba Diallo. Depth will no longer be a problem, with 4 transfers becoming eligible along with the freshmen joining the fray. Of those transfers, I’m most excited about Jonathan Laurent, a transfer from Rutgers who plays that combo forward spot and will provide a lot of versatility along with some much-needed rebounding. The Minutemen may struggle to find the rotation that works best early in the year, but by March, this team could be scary.
The defending conference tournament champs, Davidson brings back the star-studded backcourt duo of Kellan Grady and Jon Axel Gudmundsson. However, they do lose one of the best players in program history in Peyton Aldridge, whose inside-out scoring presence made life easier for everyone on the floor. However, the Wildcats will still be stingy defensively and are one of the best-coached teams in America under Bob McKillop. They should be right in the mix for an A10 title once again.
This feels like a critical year early in the Anthony Grant tenure at Dayton after a disappointing year 1. While winning the conference may be expecting too much of a young team, the Flyers do have to show improvement after the program’s worst season in more than 10 years. Grant has a known star in tow in Josh Cunningham, a double-double machine poised for a big senior campaign. Meanwhile, youngsters Jalen Crutcher, Trey Landers, and Jordan Davis all showed promise in the backcourt, with Crutcher the clear point guard of the future. In comes a highly-regarded group of freshmen and transfers– 3 sit-out transfers, 1 JUCO product, and a pair of freshmen in Dwayne Cohill and Frankie Policelli who had multiple high-major offers. The X-factor is Obadiah Toppin, an uber-athletic forward who went viral this offseason playing in offseason pickup games with NBA stars and more than holding his own. Grant has assembled a lot of talent. Now he has to prove he can coach them up to an A10-contending team.
#7. Rhode Island
Despite an all-out effort to keep him, Dan Hurley departed URI for UConn this spring. His replacement is David Cox, Hurley’s lead assistant who has deserved a shot to run his own program for awhile. Cox was key in the recruiting efforts that assembled the A10’s most talented roster last season, and his hiring helped keep much of an elite 2018 class that had signed in the fall. That class, headlined by #80 recruit Jermaine Harris, will compliment a returning core featuring floor general Jeff Dowtin and scoring guard Fatts Russell. A Dowtin/Russell/Dana Tate/Harris/ Cyril Langevine starting 5 has a chance to be pretty dangerous.
This ranking will likely look low if Marcus Evans is fully healthy, but lingering concerns about his achilles leave major doubts about this VCU club. If healthy, the Rice transfer who followed Mike Rhoades to Richmond provides a dynamic scorer who can play either guard spot and would immediately be one of the A10’s elite players. Beyond Evans, the Rams have to take care of the ball better (or force a lot more turnovers) in year 2 of the Rhoades era. De’Riante Jenkins and Issac Vann are high-level talents on the wing, but someone will need to replicate Justin Tillman’s production up front.
Despite a sluggish end to the season, year one of the Keith Dambrot era was a big success. However, with 8 freshmen and 5 transfers joining the fray, it’s an almost entirely new-look Dukes club. “I think, first and foremost, it’s like a “second” first year,” Dambrot said in an interview with Pittsburgh Sports Now. “Because when you really analyze it, we only have two guys that played, and then if you add Kellon [Taylor], who we don’t get right away [because of football], so we have three, really. So, we just have to treat it like another first year.” The incoming group is talented, with 5 newly-eligible players at 6-9 or taller allowing Dambrot play with the size he likes to have and some high-major talents incoming at guard. The Dukes may be a year away with no seniors on the roster, but it wouldn’t take much for them to move up the standings.
#10. Saint Bonaventure
Coming off an at-large bid, the Bonnies have a completely different look this season. Jaylen Adams departs after being one of the most important players in program history along with backcourt running mate Matt Mobley. Courtney Stockard is back and primed for a big senior year as the team’s first option offensively, but beyond him, scoring options are thin. UNLV transfer Jalen Poyser comes with big expectations, but his numbers with the Rebels weren’t impressive and came in the worst UNLV season of my lifetime. I love the incoming freshman class that Mark Schmidt has coming in– Dom Welch is a talented scorer, and Putnam Science Academy duo Kyle Lofton and Osun Osunniyi both seem poised for excellent careers in Olean. That said, I expect some growing pains this year for SBU.
#11. La Salle
The Explorers get a new coach in Jay Wright disciple Ash Howard, and he’ll hope to bring some discipline to a talented by sometimes wild club left behind by Dr. John Giannini. Marquette transfer Traci Carter is a pure passer who should help this offense be more efficient and allow Pookie Powell to move into a pure scoring role. I really like the hire here, but it will take some time for Howard to bring in the guys he needs to contend.
Embattled Spiders head coach Chris Mooney has to find a way to win some games this year. I’m less optimistic than many with the departures of key cogs De’Monte Buckingham and Khwan Fore. A Grant Golden/Nick Sherod/Jacob Gilyard core is strong, but Richmond won’t have much depth or talent beyond that group. A finish in the bottom 4 may seal Mooney’s fate, but the Spiders have come out of nowhere before and with all the uncertainty in this conference, it wouldn’t surprise me if they did it again.
#13. George Washington
A pair of transfers in DJ Williams (Illinois) and Armel Potter (Charleston Southern) probably decide the fate of this team. Terry Nolan is a nice foundational piece, while Arnaldo Toro is a solid piece up front. But this team just doesn’t have the overall talent to stay out of the bottom of the conference, unless the former elite recruit Williams can live up to his high school billing. If he doesn’t, I’m not real sure how the Colonials put the ball in the basket.
Roster turnover year after year has stopped Jeff Neubauer from being able to establish any sort of momentum at Fordham. They have a solid frontcourt in place with Prokop Slanina and Ivan Raut, but the early departure of Joseph Chartouny leaves the backcourt in shambles. Freshman Nick Honor has earned rave reviews and may wind up starting at point guard, but Neubauer has struggled to consistently recruit at an A10 level. This doesn’t feel like the year the Rams break through.
All-Conference First Team:
- Luwane Pipkins– UMass (21.2 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 4.0 apg, .430/.426/.788)
- Kellan Grady– Davidson (18.0 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 1.9 apg, .501/.372/.804)
- Otis Livingston– George Mason (17.3 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 4.4 apg, .436/.382/.857)
- Eric Williams– Duquesne (14.3 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 1.6 apg, .392/.364/.740)
- Josh Cunningham– Dayton (15.6 ppg, 8.4 rpg, 1.7 apg, .646/.235/.691)
Player of the Year: Luwane Pipkins (UMass)
The popular choice here will be Grady, but I’ll roll with Pipkins. Perhaps no star did more with less around him than Pipkins did last year, scoring efficiently and creating shots for others despite the lack of talent around him. With UMass much improved, Pipkins should no longer fly under the radar as one of the nation’s elite guards, and his assist numbers should climb with more capable shot-makers around him.
Newcomer of the Year: Jarred Reuter (George Mason)
Other newcomers will almost assuredly average more points than Reuter, but no incoming player will have a bigger impact on his team. As I wrote above, Reuter’s presence changes the expectations for GMU, and he showed he was capable of playing the role I detailed during the program’s trip to Spain. Reuter was a productive role player at Virginia, but has a chance to be one of the conference’s best for Dave Paulsen and the Patriots.
Breakout Player: Fatts Russell (Rhode Island)
Fatts endeared himself to the casual hoops fan with his competitiveness and shot-making ability down the stretch last season. He performed admirably in his role as a bench scorer for much of the season, but battled inconsistency throughout. Now, he’ll be the first scoring option for the Rams. That’s a big adjustment. Russell has the talent to be that guy without a doubt, but he’ll have to be efficient and consistent for URI to finish in the top half of the A10.