2020-21 32×32: Atlantic 10 Preview

One could argue that no league needed non-conference games to be played in some form or fashion than the A10. The league has two clear at-large caliber clubs and more who could contend for one if things break right, and getting the opportunity to play some showcase games during November and December will be huge in maximizing how many bids the league gets. This league should be incredibly competitive top to bottom (except Fordham) and I can’t wait to see the action tip off.

  1. Richmond – Once earning billboards calling for his firing, Chris Mooney has come back from the dead to put together a group that should be one of the nation’s best mid-majors in 2020-21. The Spiders return all five starters from a 24-win team that beat Big Ten champs Wisconsin, which should be especially beneficial given the pandemic’s influence on summer bonding and practice time. It’s not just the talent that makes this group appealing: Mooney has struck a balance in finding a group that fits so perfectly together. Grant Golden is the quintessential Mooney Princeton offense big guy, Blake Francis’ ability to create offense for himself makes him the ideal backcourt partner for do-it-all floor general Jacob Gilyard. Plus, Nick Sherod and Nathan Cayo are more than willing to do the dirty work. What’s scary is the Spiders aren’t done adding: Tulane transfer Connor Crabtree is a prototype wing shooter, and former Wake Forest commit Djimon Bailey should also make an impact immediately. This group is deep, experienced, and incredibly skilled on offense. UR spending time in the top 25 would not surprise me in the slightest.
  2. Saint Louis – While much of the league moves more and more towards guard-heavy offenses with tons of spacing, SLU continues to play bully-ball under Travis Ford. And even if it’s not the most visually appealing product, it works: the Billikens have an at-large caliber group. This is another group that essentially runs it back: the team’s top five scorers return, and that’s not even including Gibson Jimerson, the talented shooter who was a revelation early before going down with a season-ending injury in December. A full season of Jimerson’s sharp-shooting ability has the potential to be game-changing for this offense: the dearth of other shooting options without a doubt impacted spacing and encouraged teams to zone up. With three established stars in Jordan Goodwin, Hasahn French, and Javonte Perkins already in tow, SLU simply needs guys who can step in a fill a role. Jimerson certainly fits that mold. The Billikens are such a tough matchup for opposing teams because of their size and physicality at every position, and the opportunity to essentially run it back is huge given the practice disruptions many have dealt with during the pandemic. This team should be at-large-caliber.
  3. Dayton – UD will without a doubt look different without Obi Toppin manning the middle, but this is still a talented enough group to have a shot at the top of this conference. Toppin’s ability to stretch the floor horizontally and vertically, handle the ball, and hit shots opened things up for everyone in what was the 2nd-best offense nationally per KenPom. Surprisingly, UD didn’t add a grad transfer to serve as a more direct replacement for Toppin’s role in the offense, leaving some combination of Florida transfer Chase Johnson (14 games in three seasons), Jordy Tshimanga, and freshmen Zimife Nwokeji and Moulaye Sissoko. While all four guys seem likely to have a role and are capable of producing, this won’t be a like-for-like switch and thus the offense will be HEAVILY driven by the backcourt and Jalen Crutcher. Crutcher is one of the best point guards in America, an dynamic shooter who plays with incredible confidence. He’ll have a heavier scoring load than a season ago, as will Ibi Watson and Rodney Chatman. The bottom line: not adding an experienced grad transfer in the frontcourt means more reliance on the unknown for the Flyers. I’m reading this as a vote of confidence from Anthony Grant in Sissoko (who earned positive reviews in practice last season) and Nwokeji. If those two step up, the drop-off from last season won’t be nearly as large as some expect.
  4. St. Bonaventure – This is where things get really messy, to the extent that ranking teams is something of a fool’s errand given how likely it is that tiebreakers will wind up separating teams. I’m bullish on Bona though, with the loaded class that reached the A10 title game in year one and won 19 games in year two continuing to mature. In a league of great point guards, Kyle Lofton doesn’t get enough credit: he’s one of the toughest guards in the country on both ends of the floor. Meanwhile, few big men nationally make as great an impact when on the floor than Osun Osunniyi, whose elite-level rim-protection prowess impacts every shot from in close. Add in three shot-making wings who are still getting better in Jaren English, Anthony Roberts, and Dom Welch, and you’re in business. Mark Schmidt has done a nice job making smart moves around the margins, like JUCO big man Jalen Shaw, who could be an upgrade over Amadi Ikpeze with his ability to block shots. Meanwhile, keep an eye on Justin Winston, whose upside is sky-high as an athletic frontcourt player in the mold of every perfect modern 4-man.
  5. Rhode Island – No A10 club faced an offseason more tumultuous than the one David Cox and Rhody dealt with. A troubling trend of transfers out of the program throughout the Cox era reached a crescendo with a pair of surprising departures: Tyrese Martin leaving for UConn and Jacob Toppin heading for greener pastures at Kentucky. But Cox stuck the landing by adding five transfers, four of whom have received waivers to play right away. Former top-50 recruit Jalen Carey joins from Syracuse, giving Russell and Jeremy Sheppard a potent partner in the backcourt. Makhi and Makhel Mitchell’s time at Maryland ended quickly, but adding a pair of former ranked recruits up front is well worth the risk for at program in URI’s world. Add in two-way wing Malik Martin, and the Rams now have more than enough talent to compete at the top of this league. The question for me surrounds chemistry more than talent: integrating all these new faces (many of whom expecting plenty of touches) will be a challenge, and the constant stream of departures since Cox took over makes me wonder if he is the type of coach who can piece together the puzzle. If he can, watch out: this team will be a whole lot of fun to watch.
  6. VCU – A close-to-consensus top 25 team last preseason, VCU enters 2020-21 with much different expectations following a very disappointing campaign. The offense didn’t make the jump many expected while the defense came back to earth, leading to a late-season collapse that saw the Rams lose 8 of 10 to close the year. With five of the program’s six top scorers a season ago departing, how will Mike Rhoades turn things around? It’s important to remember that this program has consistently recruited at a very high level, and that type of program depth makes rebounding from an ugly season like last year much easier. Bones Hyland is about as good a piece to start with as possible – the former top-75 recruit averaged close to 12 points per game while shooting 47% from 3 in the season’s final 15 games and posted the team’s best offensive rating among players in the regular rotation. Expect the offense to be built around him. From there, several have spoken highly about freshman combo forward Mikeal Brown-Jones, while young wings like Vince Williams and KeShawn Curry need to step up. Kansas State transfer Levi Stockard should solidify the frontcourt, though I’m tracking high-upside rim protector Hason Ward as a potential x-factor. It wouldn’t be stunning for this group to pull off a marked turnaround and compete for a title, and that’s the type of success expected every year at VCU. But there are too many question marks here to go much higher than 6th in the preseason.
  7. UMass – There are few teams I’m more intrigued to watch this season than UMass. Three straight seasons outside the top 150 nationally wasn’t exactly the way most hoped the Matt McCall era would begin, but he has assembled an incredibly talented (albeit young) roster built around A10 POY candidate Tre Mitchell. In conference games, Mitchell averaged 20 points and 8 rebounds per game while shooting 38% from 3, putting together arguably the best season of any non-one-and-done freshman in the country. It should be remembered, however, that Mitchell isn’t the only star from that freshman class: TJ Weeks averaged 15 points per game and established himself as a gifted wing sniper before missing the season’s final 21 games with a stomach issue. Two key adds should bolster the backcourt: Wichita State transfer Noah Fernandes is reunited with Mitchell, Weeks, and several other Woodstock Academy teammates to run the show in Amherst, while Brewster Academy product Javohn Garcia is widely regarded as one of the most underrated recruits in America thanks to his stellar play on the EYBL circuit last summer. That creates one of the better cores in the A10, and McCall also has plenty of options to round out the rotation. Some skepticism in McCall as a coach is warranted, and this is a very young team playing in a league that has traditionally been carried by veterans. But the intrigue around a team with this type of nucleus is warranted, and they are certainly a group worth tracking.
  8. Duquesne – This ranking is hard to feel great about, but speaks to my prior point about the inevitability of tiebreakers. This Dukes team certainly belongs in the same tier as 4-7, with 1-2 games possibly determining the difference between a double-bye and being stuck in the 8/9 game. For the first time in the Keith Dambrot era, it feels like there is real continuity here from last season – while teams with seven freshmen don’t traditionally fit that description, the team’s top six minute-earners are back. Among those is the forgotten man in the A10 point guard discussions: Sincere Carry. Carry’s is a high-level passer who rarely leaves the floor and plays with a toughness that perfectly matches Keith Dambrot’s mentality. When paired with excellent big man Michael Hughes and versatile wing Marcus Weathers, Dambrot has three smart veterans to build around. Can young pieces like Maceo Austin, Tyson Acuff, and high-upside big man Mounir Hima provide the necessary depth? If so, I’ll look dumb ranking the Dukes eighth.
  9. George Washington – Year two of the Jamion Christian era in Foggy Bottom will feature a roster that almost perfectly fits what Christian wants to do offensively. Christian wants to shoot threes at record clips and has assembled a roster of guys to do just that: Maceo Jack, Jamison Battle, and Siena transfer Sloan Seymour each have made 80+ threes in a season in their careers, and those three shooters will provide incredible spacing for Christian’s ball-screen-heavy offense. It also appears Christian has the point guard to run the show in LSU transfer James Bishop, a Baltimore native and former top-150 recruit whose dynamic scoring ability should be accentuated by the system. Will the Colonials’ 3-point reliance (at the expense of FTs and rebounding at times) come back to hurt them? Perhaps, though Christian told me this summer that the goal is to create matchups that other teams aren’t accustomed to dealing with – Saint Louis may be able to wreck GW inside, but GW may be able to hit 17 threes in 40 minutes. If nothing else, the team in “The World’s Most Powerful City” will be an interesting watch in 2020-21.
  10. Davidson – A tough team to peg, the Wildcats were analytics darlings (70th nationally in KenPom) despite going 16-14 with losses to Charlotte, George Washington, and Saint Joe’s. The numbers loved the offense, which KenPom’s efficiency numbers pegged as the 26th-best unit in the country. As a result, KenPom’s ‘luck’ metric pegged Davidson as 339th nationally in that department. Can Bob McKillop’s group get some better mojo this season? Figuring out how to replace star point guard Jon Axel Gudmundsson is step one. Having Kellan Grady play on the ball more often seems like the most likely option, especially with a talented shooting guard in Grant Huffman joining the fray along with a returner in Carter Collins. A pair of international products should boost upside tremendously– Hyunjung Lee looked like a future star at times, while New Zealand product Sam Mennenga is highly-regarded and should provide McKillop with another option up front with Luka Brajkovic. To me though, it comes down to Gray. Once an NBA prospect, Grady hasn’t taken the steps forward some expected throughout his career. Without Gudmundsson next to him, immense pressure is on to lead the way in his senior season. If he does, the Wildcats will be dangerous again.
  11. George Mason – The Patriots essentially run it back from a season derailed by a season-ending injury to star wing Justin Kier. All five starters return for Dave Paulsen’s group, hoping to improve on a group that was offensively challenged at times and faded fast after an 11-1 start. The hard-playing frontcourt duo of AJ Wilson and Jordan Miller is a nice place to start – Wilson finally broke out in 2019-20, posting a top-15 block rate nationally and impacting the game as a vertical floor spacer as well. Javon Greene can definitely score, and sophomore PG Xavier Johnson is the type of tough-minded competitor that Paulsen loves. But is there enough talent here to make a big move up the standings? Three freshmen might have a big say in deciding that: Tyler Kolek brings all kinds of craftiness and shot-making ability at the guard position and ranked 13th among all recruits in New England per NERR, while Otis Frazier brings energy and athleticism in bunches on the wing out of Mt. Zion Prep and combo forward Malik Henry comes from Texas with a good list of mid-major offers in hand.
  12. Saint Joseph’s – Impressive early-season performances that included wins against UConn and Bradley and good showings against Florida and Villanova had some quickly hopping on the Billy Lange train, but last season was always going to be a rebuild.However, Lange and staff are recruiting extremely well and I do believe will get things going there in due time. Lange certainly hopes he has two young building blocks in Cameron Brown and Rahmir Moore to take from the ugly 6-26 campaign, and Gonzaga transfer Greg Foster also joins the fray at the guard spot. The Villanova-esque style SJU will play under Lange, you need 4-5 really good guards to compete. We know Ryan Daly can play, and most expect Xavier transfer Dahmir Bishop to turn into a high-level piece in Philly to play the 3 and the 4. Can Foster, Moore, and Brown provide good enough guard play to set the tone? Getting back sharp-shooting forward Taylor Funk should also create some mismatches.
  13. La Salle – Year three is always a critical one, and Ash Howard enters such a year with a team that still feels like it is finding its way. The offense’s inability to create good shots and take care of the ball has hampered the Explorer’s in the Howard era, and jumps in efficiency from a pair of sophomores in Sherif Kenney and Ayinde Hikim feels really important for this offense to take a jump. Both Kenney and Hikim are bulldog-type guards: tough, competitive kids unafraid of attacking the rim, but have struggled with shooting and taking care of the ball. With Isaiah Deas and Saul Phiri gone, each will While losing offensive rebounding beast Ed Croswell to Providence does hurt, Indiana transfer Clifton Moore should be able to step into that frontcourt role well. With a league that is so deep, wins may be tough to come by.
  14. Fordham – There were rumors of Jeff Neubauer’s demise despite the pandemic this spring, but the embattled Rams HC survived for now despite an athletic director change. Getting Chuba Ohams back certainly helps: Ohams plays with great energy on the glass and around the rim, and is a menace in Neubauer’s pressing defense. From there though, the talent level just isn’t close to high enough at guard. Jalen Cobb, Josh Colon, and Ty Perry need to play better to help this team win consistently and revitalize an offense that was among the nation’s worst last season. If not, Neubauer may be searching for a job come April.

All-Conference First Team:

  • Jalen Crutcher (Dayton)
  • Fatts Russell (URI)
  • Jacob Gilyard (Richmond)
  • Hahsahn French (St. Louis)
  • Tre Mitchell (UMass)

Player of the Year: Jalen Crutcher – The many UMass fans who support my work will probably want me to go with Tre Mitchell here, but I can’t wait for Crutcher’s senior year at UD. It’s all on Crutcher now – as if leading the nation’s second-best offense wasn’t enough, now Crutcher needs to lead the way without Obi Toppin. I think he’s up to the task: his best asset is his willingness to take and make big shots, and I think the confidence he plays with will rub off on every Flyer player this season. Expect a huge year as Crutcher makes his case to NBA teams for next season.

Breakout Player: Bones Hyland – One could argue that Hyland’s breakout happened down the stretch of last season, but the Delaware native seems ready to absolutely explode for the Rams in 2020. We know Hyland can shoot and create shots, now we get to see how he fares running the show with Marcus Evans gone. Few players seem more important to their team’s success this season than Hyland, and all of Ram Nation will be watching keenly to see if he can live up to the hype.

Newcomer of the Year: James Bishop – Bishop feels a bit off the radar compared to other options typically mentioned for this award, but I expect his impact on GW to be gigantic. Jamion Christian (and assistant coach Graham Bousley, who works closely with the offense) run a system built for point guards to thrive: just look at the numbers Junior Robinson, Jalen Pickett, and Armel Potter have put up in the last three seasons. The spread ball screen looks boost assist numbers, and Bishop’s scoring ability will make him a huge threat scoring out of those looks as well. I truly believe he’ll have a tremendous year and a big reason for GW making strides in year two of the Christian era.

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