By Kevin Sweeney
The A10 was destined for one-bid country for much of the 2019-20 season, with just one top-60 KenPom team (VCU) that had any hope of an at-large. Fortunately for the conference as a whole, the Rams went down early in the A10 Tournament, opening the door for a second bid that Saint Louis would eventually claim. That shouldn’t be the case this season, with what appears to be a much stronger league from top to bottom and three clear preseason bubble teams.
#1. VCU– The Rams were over 50 places worse in KenPom offensive efficiency than any other at-large team last season, yet still didn’t sweat too much on Selection Sunday thanks to an elite defense that helped the Rams win 25 games. With a healthier Marcus Evans running the show and the introduction of Na’Shon “Bones” Hyland to the mix in the backcourt, VCU should improve on the offensive end. Watch for potential breakout star Vince Williams, who had trouble finding minutes last season thanks to the Rams’ depth but has major upside.
#2. Dayton– The return of Obi Toppin, now projected to be a first-rounder in early 2020 mock drafts, has injected major optimism in Flyer country. With six of seven rotation players back and the addition of four transfers to the mix, UD has the depth and talent to potentially sneak into the top 25 in 2019-20. After losing just four games by more than seven points last season, the added depth could be the difference.
#3. Davidson– Virtually every high-major team would take a starting backcourt of Jon Axel Gudmundsson and Kellan Grady– a dynamic duo that truly can do it all. Gudmundsson’s elite playmaking ability and Grady’s ability to score at three levels are made even more dominant thanks to Bob McKillop’s crisp offensive system. The Wildcats pretty much run it back– the growth of shooter Luke Frampton and big man Luka Brajkovic will determine the upside of this bunch.
#4. Rhode Island– The Rams have loaded up with talent for 2019-20, thanks to yet another strong recruiting class put together by David Cox to complement a strong returning core. A bounceback year for Fatts Russell will be necessary for URI to reach its ceiling– Russell was moved into an on-ball roll by Cox and struggled mightily, shooting just 22% from 3. It will be interesting to see if Cox elects to move Jeff Dowtin back to the point and free up Russell to score or if he continues the Russell PG experiment.
#5. Saint Bonaventure– The fact that Saint Bonaventure was one bounce away from the NCAA Tournament despite everything they lost from 2017-18 was nothing short of remarkable, and speaks to just how good a coach Mark Schmidt is. The now-sophomore trio of Kyle Lofton, Dominick Welch, and Osun Osunniyi is an amazing core to build around, and Schmidt followed that up with another good recruiting class headlined by a pair of versatile wings in Justin Winston and Robert Carpenter to add more talent to this group. If Osunniyi takes the step forward that some in Olean expect, this team has extremely high upside.
#6. Duquesne– Keith Dambrot has a star to build around at point guard in Sincere Carry, who averaged 12 points and almost 6 assists per game as a freshman. The Dukes could play more small lineups with Marcus Weathers at the 4 this season, ensuring talented young guards like Maceo Austin and Lamar Norman get consistent minutes. However, Dambrot adding UVU grad transfer Baylee Steele up front to a unit that already featured bruising big Michael Hughes.
#7. Saint Louis– A run through the A10 Tournament to earn the auto-bid to the NCAA Tournament made many forget that the Billikens were a disappointing team in 2018-19, thanks mostly to a horrific offense that was plagued by poor shooting and unforced mistakes. Losing the team’s two best 3-point shooters in Javon Bess and Tramaine Isabell won’t help. Older newcomers in EKU grad transfer Dujuanta Weaver and JUCO product Javonte Perkins each shot 36% from downtown in their previous homes, and consistent spacing from that pairing will be key. Freshman Gibson Jimerson also projects to help in the shooting department.
#8. George Mason– Dave Paulsen told me this summer that he believes this is the best team he has had since taking the GMU job, but the strength of this year’s A10 may not lead to that improvement translating to wins. Still, there’s reason for optimism in Fairfax despite the graduation of Otis Livingston thanks to the presence of star wing Justin Kier and the breakout potential of sophomore Jordan Miller. Miller was terrific down the stretch last season after burning his redshirt midway through the season, averaging over 10 points and 7 rebounds per game and wowing with his athleticism and versatility as a small-ball four.
#9. Richmond– A second consecutive 20-loss season brought roars for Chris Mooney’s job to a crescendo, with a group of fans even taking out a billboard demanding his removal. However, the longtime head coach retained his job, but some improvement must be shown this season. Getting Nick Sherod healthy and Blake Francis eligible should give this roster a nice shot in the arm, though it may not do much to help a defense that ranked 287th nationally in efficiency.
#10. UMass– After an incredibly disappointing 2018-19 that saw Matt McCall repeatedly question his team’s effort, McCall cleaned house, hiring three new assistants and retaining just six players before bringing in a 7-man recruiting class that should breathe new life into the program. It may take time, but I am a fan of the pieces McCall has brought in, namely Tre Mitchell, a top-100 recruit who is incredibly skilled for a big man. I’m also excited to track the emergence of sophomores Sy Chatman and Samba Diallo.
#11. George Washington– I refuse to doubt Jamion Christian given the job he did last season at Siena, helping the Saints more than double their win total despite losing their top six scorers from 2017-18. He should work similar wonders in due time at GW, and brought in some nice long-term pieces already. Freshmen guards Shawn Walker and Jameer Nelson Jr have significant upside, and junior shooting guard Maceo Jack should thrive in Christian’s 3-point-happy system. The return of Arnaldo Toro after an injury sidelined him last season provides a much-needed inside presence. Expect the Colonials to be pesky this season.
#12. La Salle– The Explorers were a tough out by late in Ash Howard’s first year with the Explorers, but the loss of Pookie Powell will be tough to overcome. Freshman PG Ayinde Hikim starred in prep school, and there’s a good chance he takes the reigns from day one. Meanwhile, watch out for young wings Jack Clark and Sherif Kenney, both of whom possess major potential.
#13. Saint Joseph’s– The SJU roster was absolutely gutted following the firing of Phil Martelli this offseason, and it will take time for Billy Lange to get it back where it needs to be. Charlie Brown going pro early along with up-transfers by Jared Bynum (Providence) and Fresh Kimble (Louisville) leaves Lange with perhaps the worst backcourt situation in the league, with Delaware transfer Ryan Daly the only guy who projects as a starting-caliber player right away. It could be a rough year in Philly.
#14. Fordham– Fordham had its young star in Nick Honor. Then, like every other recent young Fordham star, he transferred up, departing the Bronx for Clemson. That leaves Jeff Neubauer in quite the pinch, with a roster that lacks talent and few ways to add more of it. Jalen Cobb should have a big year, but there’s just not enough here.
All-Conference First Team:
- Jon Axel Gudmundsson (Davidson)
- Jeff Dowtin (Rhode Island)
- Marcus Evans (VCU)
- Obi Toppin (Dayton)
- Grant Golden (Richmond)
Player of the Year: Obi Toppin (Dayton)
It’s hard to go against the defending player of the year in Gudmundsson, but to me, no player in the conference impacts the game like Toppin. His combination of size, skill level, and athletic ability draws so much attention from opposing defenses, opening up so much for the rest of the UD offense. If reports that he has improved as a shooter are true, there’s simply no way of stopping him.
Breakout Player: Osun Osunniyi (Saint Bonaventure)
One could make a case that Osunniyi already had his coming-out party down the stretch in 2018-19, leading a defensive resurgence by the Bonnies with his elite instincts and length at the rim. Once inserted into the starting lineup for good on January 9th, SBU went 14-6 down the stretch and ranked 29th nationally in adjusted defense per T-Rank. The next step is continuing to improve his offensive game, and I’m optimistic about his touch around the basket allowing him to become a stronger offensive force.
Newcomer of the Year: Tre Mitchell (UMass)
Winning an award like this takes equal parts talent and opportunity, and Mitchell has both. The 4-star recruit, who held a host of high-major offers before choosing the Minutemen, should immediately step into a featured role on offense for Matt McCall’s bunch. Mitchell is a force on the block with the skill level to play out on the perimeter at times, with the biggest area needing work being to continue to improve his body. After averaging over 23 points and 9 rebounds per game on the team’s international trip to the US Virgin Islands, it’s clear that Mitchell will have a chance to put up massive numbers from the get-go in Amherst.