2020 Atlantic 10 Men's Basketball Preview: Richmond Tops Preseason Poll for the First Time Ever
Following a week in March that left us in a world devoid of sports, many of our favorite leagues began to reemerge over the summer, providing closure and championships to many fans around the country. However, there remained one sport with no conclusion. Cancelled in the midst of conference tournaments around the country, college basketball was unable to crown a 2020 champion. As the country's top players leave their schools for next week's NBA draft, college basketball pushes on with it's season as normal as it can be.
In preparation for the 2020-21 Basketball season, I joined Atlantic 10's virtual media day, held this week on Zoom and featuring all fourteen head coaches, as well Commissioner Bernadette McGlade, as they talked about the challenges they face in creating a complete season that's as safe as possible for players, officials, and fans. Here's some of the biggest takeaways from the three days I spent at these conferences.
Each team's preview is in inverse order of the preseason rankings poll, which was released on the first day of the conferences, November 10th. According to the most recent AP poll, no Atlantic 10 team is in the Top 25, although some schools did receive votes. As the season progresses, I firmly believe that a few schools in this conference will move their way up into these rankings.
Commissioner McGlade's Conference
Logistics were the biggest conversation topic during Commissioner McGlade's Wednesday conference. In a sports world currently dominated by bubbles, constant testing, and empty stands, the Atlantic 10 deliberated for a long time how they will be conducting this season. While bubbles were considered for either the entire season, or for short periods of time during the conference tournament, the conference ultimately decided on keeping the schedule as normal as possible. Back-to-back games were limited to preserve competitive rivalries, as well as to prevent "mirror games," in which teams lose their ability to prepare for a second matchup.
While the schedule follows a similar format to years past, Commissioner McGlade ensured the media that finalizing said schedule was no easy feat.
"I don't even know if we could put a number on it," McGlade said. "We easily had ten, twelve, fourteen different combinations of schedules. We did little pods, big pods, bubbles. We pretty much ran the gamut."
While the schedule has been released, McGlade emphasized that it is flexible due to any future postponements or cancellations due to COVID-19. According to McGlade, this flexibility will also carry over to how the conference will select it's automatic bids to the 2021 NCAA Tournament, as a regular season-champion may not be able to compete in the conference tournament due to COVID restrictions.
14-Fordham Rams (Last year: 2-16 Conference, 9-22 Overall)
It's tough seeing my alma mater at the bottom of the preseason poll. However, it's not entirely surprising. Since taking control of the team in 2015, Head Coach Jeff Neubauer has failed to make a mark in the advancement of this basketball program in both on and off the court, and in the last year of his contract, this season may be his last chance to show why he deserves to stay in the Bronx.
In his presser on Thursday, Coach Neubauer expressed that his team will be fighting an uphill battle this season given the strength of their schedule, which he attributes in large part to the continued improvement of the A-10.
"There are no soft spots from a coaching standpoint on the schedule," Neubauer said. "You've got some of the greatest coaches in college basketball who have ever lived."
In terms of Fordham's strengths, look for their defensive prowess being the key factor in their success this season. Last season, Fordham ranked first in the conference, as well as tenth in the nation, in terms of defense, limiting opponents to 61.7 points per game. However, it was their imbalanced play that was their downfall, as they ranked dead last in points per game in the conference, with three point shooting being their key weakness.
13-La Salle Explorers (Last year: 6-12 Conference, 15-15 Overall)
Speaking of struggling programs, La Salle's 2020 season ended on a bit rockier of a road than other schools. Along with the cancelled postseason due to the ongoing pandemic, the explorers were hit with a bombshell this March when then sophomore decided to enter the transfer portal. Now a member of the Providence Friars, Croswell was a key piece in the explorers offense last season. According to Ken Pomeroy's college basketball ratings, Croswell led the nation in offensive rebounding efficiency.
This season, head coach Ashley Howard expressed the added difficulties of playing in a year dominated by this ongoing pandemic. According to Howard, an extended offseason was not as productive as he would have liked it to be, due in large part to the inability to practice as a team and create strict training programs during the summer.
However, Howard expressed optimism in his team's drive, highlighting their urge to get back out on the court in a more competitive atmosphere.
"They want to compete against somebody else," Howard said. "They're tired of beating up on each other every day at practice."
12-Saint Joseph's Hawks (Last Year: 2-16 Conference, 6-26 Overall)
Despite a disappointing 2019-2020, in which the Hawks finished with single-digit wins for the first time in 25 years, I believe that St. Joe's is in a pretty solid position to exceed their preseason projections this year.
The biggest piece in the Hawks' return is in star transfer Ryan Daly, after sitting out last season following his transfer from Delaware, in which he led in scoring twice, Daly looks to become the focal point of St Joes' offense. Luckily for Daly, that scoring responsibility will not be all his, as all five of St. Joes' leading scorers have returned for the 2020-21 season. In a conference free of the dominance of Obi Toppin, St. Joes is in a prime position to be a key upset team in the Atlantic 10.
According to Daly, Tommy Lange's style of coaching is well suited to his and his teammates' skill sets, providing a fast paced, high scoring style of play.
"We've got the horses to be able to get up and down faster and we've got two guards that are probably the top 5 athletic guards in the league," said Daly in his press conference.
11-George Washington Colonials (Last year: 6-12 Conference, 12-20 Overall)
GWU's basketball program is definitely one that is on the up-and-up. This steady progression of the program largely falls on their talented, young head coach Jamion Christian. Ranked 14th on ESPN's 40 under 40, a list of some of the best college head coaches under 40 years old, Christian detailed his vision for creating a solid program at GWU for years to come.
"One of the things that we don't do here is just add talent. We want to add the right kind of talent," Christian said. "I do have a philosophy of how we want to play, and I'm really happy that the guys we were able to add really fit that. We really fight for those guys that can fit how we want to play."
Aside from improving on the court, Christian emphasized increasing the power of his players to speak up off the court. Christian explained how important it is for these players to speak up and use their platforms to fight social injustices and inequality. This season, GWU will display a Black Lives Matter wordmark on their court.
"That's why you coach at GW. To be at a place where you can change the world one person at a time," Christian said. "I've got to start with my locker room and do a good job impacting them and hope they go out and impact others."
10-George Mason Patriots (Last Year: 5-13 Conference, 17-15 Overall)
As you can see from George Mason's conference record, as well as some of the other lower-ranked teams on this list, the A-10 was a pretty top heavy conference last year. With few upsets, it was pretty hard for a few of these smaller schools to make a bigger impact in the overall standing of the conference.
However, with seven key players returning to the Patriots roster this year, head coach Dave Paulsen believes that his team has a great shot at making a tournament bid this year. Due to the conference's emergence as one of the better basketball groupings in Division 1, the previous success of some of the larger schools might help propel some middle of the table teams into a tournament bid.
"I think it's [a tournament bid] a very legitimate goal for us this season," Paulsen said. "I think it's very possible that a fifth place team in the A-10 is an NCAA Tournament team."
While the departure of Justin Kier leaves this team without a true outright star, the cohesion that Paulsen has formed will be the key to their success. While the bulk of offensive production will fall on the backcourt of Javon Greene and Xavier Johnson, shooters like Jordan Miller will help keep this team diverse on offense.
9-VCU Rams (Last Year: 8-10 Conference, 18-13 Overall)
VCU has taken a bit of a backseat in the conference in recent years after being an occasional tournament rep for the A-10, due in large part to other schools around them simply getting much better. It doesn't look much better for them this season either, as all five starters from last year will not be returning with the program this year.
Head coach Mike Rhoades considers this season to be a somewhat transitional year, as he works to get this younger roster up to speed in an already deep A-10.
"Like [many] young teams with a lot of new guys, they don't know until they go through the fire a few times," Rhoades said in his presser. "We're trying to push that learning curve along quicker, but real game time is the greatest teacher, so we just need to those games."
In terms of how the team is looking in those practices, Rhoades praised his team on the pace with which the Rams have been playing, saying the team has plenty of players with solid chances to contribute in big ways. In terms of returning players for the Rams, Nah'Shon Hyland is going to be the key focal point in their scoring, being the returning player from last year with the strongest offensive performance in 2019-2020.
8-UMass Minutemen (Last Year: 8-10 Conference, 14-17 Overall)
Coming off of a season in which he won A-10 Freshman of the Year, and already with a preseason all-conference first team selection, sophomore center Tre Mitchell is going to be the focal point of this Minutemen team. Averaging 17.7 points and 7.2 rebounds per game, Mitchell is already making a name for himself and his school as one of the better big men in the country. In a conference that looks to be closing the gap this year from top to bottom, Mitchell's performance could be a key factor in securing the Minutemen a tournament bid.
Mitchell will be surrounded by a solid backcourt as well, as sophomore guard TJ Weeks will look to spend a lot more time on the court after a hernia operation limited him to just ten games last season.
According to head coach Matt McCall, currently in his fourth year with the team, their standing as eighth in the preseason polls has provided a major source of motivation for their 2020-21 campaign.
7-Davidson Wildcats (Last year: 10-8 Conference, 16-14 Overall)
The Wildcats will be firing on all cylinders this year, as head coach Bob McKillop enters his 32nd season behind the helm with several players he believes have reached all time highs in their development. Among those players in Hyunjung Lee, the sophomore guard from South Korea.
"Everything Hyunjung has, Hyunjung has earned," McKillop said. "That young man has an insatiable work ethic. He's team-oriented. He's got a terrific IQ for basketball."
McKillop went on to explain that Lee was not an exception to the strides this program has made. In his presser, McKillop explained how this is one of the most mature rosters he has ever coached.
"I walk into the practice court every day, and I have no fear of having any kind of problems from those guys relative to their attitude or their effort," McKillop said. "It's a remarkable experience as a coach to go their each day without any apprehension, uncertainty, or fear, with all things pointed towards having a joyful experience."
That work ethic can be seen in players like Luka Brajkovic, a junior forward who recently made headlines for working on his stamina by going on runs through his entire town in Austria with his father.
Aside from returning vets, McKillop expects his three key freshman, Sam Mennenga, Emory Lanier, and Grant Huffman to make key contributions on this Wildcats offense.
6-URI Rams (Last year: 13-5 Conference, 21-9 Overall)
While reading this preview, don't you find it weird how there are three schools in this conference all named the Rams? I guess it's just one of those things that can happen in college sports with teams sharing mascots, but I don't think it happens in any other conference with three schools sharing the same name. Anyway, I digress.
Rhodey has become kind of a fan favorite in the college basketball world with their recent rise to an occasional tournament bid, upsetting Creighton as an 11 seed in 2017. Since 2018, head coach David Cox has done a solid job of building upon the success of Rhode Island. According to Cox, maintaining the buzz around the school has been a key component in bringing in new recruits. Cox took time in his presser to ensure fans, and potential future commits, that their style of play will continue to be one of the more exciting in the conference.
"We still have the same focus. We still have the same goals. We are still going to play the same style of basketball," Cox said. "It's exciting to watch us play, to watch us compete."
Leading the charge of excitement is senior guard Fatts Rusell, who was most recently named to the watch list for the Bob Cousy award, an annual award that commends the top point guard in college basketball for the year. According to Russell, Rhodey has never looked better in terms of getting an NCAA tournament bid, and making it back is his number one goal as a senior.
"It's a feeling you want to have again," Russell said of playing in the tournament. "It's a great environment."
5-Duquesne Dukes (Last year: 11-7 Conference, 21-9 Overall)
With their highest preseason conference ranking in a decade, Duquesne looks to carry over their solid play from last year into a legitimate shot at playing through March. The steady rise over the past four years under Keith Dambrot has come to a head this year, as all five starters from last year return for another season. According to Dambrot, anything short of a tournament bid this year would be disappointing.
"We've put ourselves in the position to be a contender and now we have to mature emotionally and become a Championship quality team," Dambrot said. "It's as simple as that."
What was most impressive with the Duquesne players that spoke on media day was not only did they echo this sentiment, but that they expressed their desire for Duquesne to be a consistent contender for years to come. With wins now, players such as senior forward Marcus Weathers hope to bring more attention to their school and their program.
"We have to build day by day," Weathers said. "We're in the process of building those winning habits."
Weathers is going to be the focal point on a deep Dukes offense. Along with fellow senior forward Michael Hughes, the Dukes frontcourt makes just a part of a solid six-man rotation that could easily produce twenty wins this season.
4-St. Bonaventure Bonnies (Last year: 11-7 Conference, 19-12 Overall)
Just like the Dukes, the Bonnies have seen a steady rise in their basketball program that has culminated in one of their best preseason rankings in years. While 19-12 is modest for a lot of programs, it was exactly where the Bonnies want to be in their progression as a team, with nowhere to go from here but up. According to College Sports Madness, St. Bonaventure has won at least 18 games in each of the past seven seasons, and in a conference that has gown as competitive as the A-10 has, that's a pretty amazing milestone.
Coach Mark Schmidt was very optimistic in his Wednesday presser, claiming that his team can be competitive both in the A-10 and in non-conference play.
"We can compete with any league in this country," Schmidt said. "We have really good players. We have really good coaches. It's competitive. It's going to be another great season."
In preseason polling, two Bonnies have earned all-conference honors. Junior guard Kyle Lofton was named to the all-second team, while junior forward Osun Osunniyi was named to the all-defensive first and all-conference third teams.
Osunniyi, who has struggled with injuries for a large portion of his college career, was very happy with his progress on Wednesday, expressing his excitement for the first season in which he won't have to train with restrictions to his regiment.
"Excluding COVID, this was the first summer I was able to work without any restrictions to get stronger and work on my game," Osunniyi said. "Physically, I feel good. Mentally, you know, I'm in it. I'm ready to play."
3-Dayton Flyers (18-0 Conference, 29-2 Overall)
I've previewed some pretty good teams in this post, but now, we've reached the big boys. These last three teams, in my opinion, are pretty much tournament locks, and the three teams I think we'll see crack the Top 25 this year.
Even without Obi Toppin, Dayton looks really good, and with the cancellation of March Madness followed immediately by Toppin's departure for the NBA, Dayton has a lot to prove going into this season. Toppin was the source for a lot of spectacle plays, but I really think Dayton has the depth to continue their conference dominance.
Jalen Crutcher is the name to pay attention to this year. Last season, the now-senior guard was Toppin's right hand man, cruising to a solid 16.5 points and 3.3 rebounds per game. Performances like these are going to be crucial this year, in a conference that head coach Anthony Grant describes as incredibly deep.
"I think it's going to be a banner year for the A-10 in terms of the competition," Grant said on Thursday. "We all know once we get in conference play it's going to be, every night, a heckuva matchup, and really, really good basketball."
Without Obi, who will hopefully be playing for the Knicks this winter, I still think Dayton will enter Mid-March as Atlantic 10 Champions.
2-Saint Louis Billikens (Last year: 12-6 Conference, 23-8 Overall)
Saint Louis were an unexpected gem last season. After winning the conference tourney in 2019, the Billikens were off to a bit of a slow start in conference play last season, before ending the season on a five game winning streak, due in large part to their solid performance on the defensive end.
Things are looking pretty solid for the Billikens this season, with key stars in Jordan Goodwin and Hasahn French coming back for their senior seasons. When the going got tough last year, Saint Louis often looked to these guys to come up clutch in the scoring department. Goodwin understands his role on this roster, explaining in his presser that there aren't going to be any easy wins in this conference.
"You got to come out and play every night in this league, there's great teams on both sides," Goodwin said. "It's all about what you do on game night."
Head coach Travis Ford echoed Goodwin's statements, adding that Goodwin has grown into one of the most effective leaders he's ever coached, and how much of an impact that's going to have on this team moving forward.
"He may be the best leader I've ever coached," Ford said. "It is so contagious to everybody else. He holds other guys accountable. We practice the way he practices."
1-Richmond Spiders (Last year: 14-4 Conference, 24-7 Overall)
For the first time since joining the Atlantic 10 in 2001, the Richmond Spiders have taken the number one spot in the conference's preseason poll. However, one key injury could leave their high expectations easily defied.
In what was supposed to be a historic season for the Spiders, sophomore guard and Richmond native Nick Sherod will miss the season after tearing his ACL. Sherod's injury was sustained on October 15th during a team practice. In his Tuesday presser, head coach Chris Mooney assured the media that his team's depth will be able to meet preseason expectations even without Sherod.
"We really do have very good depth," Mooney said. "During the course of a season, especially THIS season, that's going to be very important for teams to be able to play a lot of guys."
Because of the necessity for deep rotations, Mooney expressed his excitement to see some of the incoming freshmen get more minutes than usual. For returning players, Jacob Gilyard and Blake Francis make for a stunning backcourt, while Grant Golden will make a case for one of the most versatile centers in the country. Golden's mobility and ability to sneak into the back door is going to be the key in getting him plenty of down low looks. A large portion of Richmond's points last season came from Golden's ability to lock down the paint, so don't look for that to change anytime soon.
I'll be covering the Atlantic-10 all season for House Enterprise, so check back once the season gets rolling for all updates in the most exciting conference in college basketball!