Rhode Island looms large atop weaker Atlantic 10

By Greg Peterson  (VSiN.com) 

November 11, 2017 09:47 AM

The Atlantic 10 got three teams into the NCAA Tournament in March thanks to Rhode Island's late-season surge to win the conference tournament. Dayton and Virginia Commonwealth were the league’s top teams, but both are going through coaching changes that could cause a massive shakeup.

Dayton won the A-10 regular-season crown with a mark of 15-3 but got the short end of the stick in the NCAA draw. The Flyers drew Wichita State, which was comically underseeded as a 10, and were bounced. After Archie Miller led Dayton to four straight NCAA appearances, including an Elite Eight run in 2014, he left for the Indiana opening, and the school hired Anthony Grant to take his place.

Grant is a Dayton graduate who last coached collegiately for Alabama from 2009 to 2015 and ironically spent time as VCU's coach from 2006 to 2009. Grant's teams traditionally play strong defense and rebound, with 3-point shooting being optional. While the team's top three scorers are gone due to graduation, Grant managed to have none of his non-seniors transfer, which is very rare for an incoming coach.

Ryan Mikesell is the lone starter back from a year ago, as he had 5.7 points and 3.9 rebounds per game and was a willing 3-point shooter despite playing the five position often. Six-foot-4 guard Darrell Davis saw 17 starts last year, logging 5.5 points while having one of the most usual shooting splits in college basketball history. He made 38.5 percent of his 3s but just 23.8 percent of his 42 attempted two-point baskets. Xeyrius Williams was the team's primary sixth man with his 41.5 percent 3-point shooting. The 6-foot-8 forward had 8.2 points, 4.8 rebounds and 1.1 blocks per game as a sophomore.

This group should be joined by 6-foot-10 redshirt freshman Kostas Antetokounmpo in the starting lineup. He is the brother of Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo and has a similar game as he can make outside jumpers and has ridiculous athleticism for his size.

Grant's recruiting class is not highly rated, but has sneaky upside, and its led by 6-foot-7 Czech Republic native Matej Svobodawas the second-best scorer on his team's U-20 FIBA team. The top scorer was former Arizona standout Lauri Markkanen.

Dayton's run of NCAA Tournament appearances will likely come to an end given the losses to its starting lineup and it will take a year or two for the Flyers to adjust to Grant's coaching style. This is still one of the better teams in the A-10, though it is a conference that is down from recent years.

VCU must find a way to replace coach Will Wade and six of its top eight players from a year ago. It will be up to Mike Rhodes to attempt to get the Rams to their eighth straight NCAA Tournament.

The program has been playing a pressure defense, but that could change as Rhodes played more of a breakneck 3-point shooting offense style with a bit more of a relaxed defense. His Rice team had 52 more giveaways than takeaways last year and was 34th in the nation in 3-point shots attempted.

Rhodes will need to build this year's team around senior forward Justin Tillman, the team's main low-post presence with 12.2 points and 8.7 rebounds per game a year ago. The frontcourt figures to be controlled by Jonathan Williams, who had 8.3 points and 3.1 assists per game.

Rhodes found a graduate transfer in former Longwood forward Khris Lane, who can show the young guys the ropes and play the sort of style he likes. The 6-foot-6 undersized big man had 17.1 points and 7.3 rebounds per game in the Big South last year and is a willing 3-point shooter who made 33.7 percent of his shots from beyond the arc.

VCU's run of NCAA Tournament appearances is in great peril as Rhode Island is loaded for bear and the roster is going through wholesale changes. VCU should still be a team with a winning record and in the league’s top five, but it's highly unlikely this team is a part of the field of 68 unless the Rams win the conference tournament.

Rhode Island is the biggest beneficiary of the changes at Dayton and VCU. The Rams have an explosive backcourt returning and ended the year on fire.

The guard combination of E.C. Matthews and Jared Terrell is back after they combined for 27.5 points per game. Neither shot the 3 well, as the two collectively shot just over 34 percent from long range, which is why the team was 260th in the country 3-point shooting efficiency (33.2 percent).

Six-foot-4 sixth man Stanford Robinson is the team’s best 3-point shooter. He averaged 6.4 points and saved his best for last. In the Rams’ loss to Oregon in the NCAA Tournament, he was 10-for-12 from the floor for 21 points and averaged 8.8 points per game in the team's final 10 contests.

With the rest of the big men on the roster seeing virtually no playing time at all last year, it will be a guard-based team. This will not be the same dominant shot-blocking team from last year, but there is a ton of backcourt experience. It should be enough to get the Rams to the NCAA Tournament, whether they win the A-10 tournament or not, though they could be cutting it close if they need to rely on an at-large bid.

After St. Bonaventure was robbed by the selection committee of a bid to the 2016 NCAA Tournament, the team went 20-12 in 2016-17 with a talented backcourt, but not a whole lot else.

Senior guard Jaylen Adams should be the favorite to be the A-10 Player of the Year as he averaged 20.6 points, 3.7 rebounds, 6.5 assists and 2.1 steals a year ago. He has the services of his backcourt buddy Matt Mobley to lend a helping hand. The 6-foot-3 senior had 18.5 points, 5.8 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 1.6 steals per game and converted a team-best 37.9 percent of his 3s. Adams and Mobley combined to shoot 14.3 of the 18 3s per game the team attempted, the highest percentage for any duo of any team in DI basketball last year.

If this were a two-on-two League, St. Bonaventure would be a candidate to make the Sweet 16. Unfortunately this is five-on-five, but its big two has the chance to carry this team to 20 or more wins.

La Salle made great strides last season, going from a record of 9-22 to a 15-15 mark. With all of the shuffling at the top of the conference, coach John Giannini is hoping the team can make the NCAA Tournament for the second time in the past 26 seasons.

Leading scorer and rebounder B.J. Johnson is back for his senior year after he had 17.6 points and 6.3 rebounds per game as a 6-foot-7 stretch player.

Saint Joseph's had one of the biggest dropoffs of any team in the nation last year, going from a 28-win team that gave Oregon a fight in the second round of the NCAA Tournament to an 11-20 team that was hit hard by the injury bug. The team lost 10 of its last 11 games while all three of its top scorers missed the final seven games of the season.

Guard Shavar Newkirk was playing at a first-team all-conference level through 12 games with averages of 20.3 points, 4.8 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.3 steals while making 39.6 percent of his 3s. A knee injury ended his season, though he appears to be on track to start.

Saint Joseph’s, healthy and reloaded, is likely the biggest threat to Rhode Island in the conference. Coach Phil Martelli has always had a superstar player when his team exceeds expectations, and Newkirk certainly fits that bill. Do not count this team out for an at-large bid to the dance, either, as Martelli has a more experienced bench than he has ever had before due to all the injuries last year.

It was a tough season for Travis Ford at Saint Louis last year. The team had a 12-21 record as the roster was thin because most of the transfers he brought in had to sit out the 2016-17 season.

The leading scorer from last year, Davell Roby, is back after he had 11.7 points, 3.2 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game. Michigan State transfer Javon Bess is 6-foot-5 and will play the role of a wing player who does his damage inside the 3-point arc.

The frontcourt for this team is the best in the conference, and there isn't a close second. Elliott Welmer and Jalen Johnson both return after combining to average 15.4 points, 9.3 rebounds, 1.2 steals and 1.5 blocks per game as freshmen. Both are also very versatile, as they combined to convert 36.8 percent of their 3s.

This is a team with a lot of potential, but loads of youth as well. Saint Louis is a team that can threaten for an NCAA Tournament bid if everything goes right.

The A-10 has slipped and is in danger of being a one-bid league. VCU and Dayton are in transition and four teams in the conference have new coaches. Saint Louis and Saint Joseph's might be Rhode Island's toughest competition in the conference and both had at least 20 losses last season.

Greg Peterson’s Atlantic 10 Conference forecast:

1. Rhode Island

2. Saint Joseph's

3. Saint Louis

4. Dayton

5. VCU

6. St. Bonaventure

7. La Salle

8. George Washington

9. Davidson

10. Richmond

11. George Mason

12. Fordham

13. Massachusetts

14. Duquesne

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