Image: Atlantic 10/ESPN
We're back! The greatest conference in the greatest collegiate sport returns for the 2021-22 season, and actually on time this year! For the past few days, I've been able to get an inside look at all fourteen Men's Basketball programs in the Atlantic 10, learning about their goals and strategies for punching a ticket to March Madness.
Here are the biggest takeaways from all fourteen schools, presented in order of their preseason ranking from the bottom up.
Head Coach: Kyle Neptune (1st year HC)
2020-21 Record: 2-12 Overall, 2-11 Conference
Postseason: A10 First Round loss, George Washington 53-49
Key Players: Chuba Ohams, Josh Navarro, Darius Quisenberry, Antonio Daye
Top Non-Conference Games: @Manhattan (Nov. 12), @St. John's (Dec. 5), vs. Miami (Dec. 22 at the Barclays Center)
In their first year sans Jeff Neubauer, the new-look Fordham Rams will look to shake off the low expectations of years past under new Head Coach Kyle Neptune. In his media day appearance, Neptune outlined his plan to do so by hammering into his team a sense of "grit." Before they can effectively run a 4-out play or lock-down defense, Neptune wants to make sure that his Rams are paying as hard as they can.
"We want to walk off the court every game knowing that we were the tougher team," Neptune described. "Whether we win by 20 or lose by 20, we'll be happy as long as we are as tough as we can be."
In using this grit to rack up more than two wins this season, Neptune hopes to attract more talent from all around the East Coast to Rose Hill. Entering this season, Antonio Daye and Darius Quisenberry, two players Neptune recruited from the Transfer portal, will likely be focal points in his gameplan. Daye and Quisenberry's high tempo playstyle will complement the tough defense developed by returning players Chuba Ohams and Josh Navarro. Ohams, a graduate forward, was talked out of the transfer portal by Neptune to commit to a final year at Fordham.
13-George Washington Colonials
Head Coach: Jamion Christian (3rd year, 17-21)
2020-21 Record: 5-11 Overall, 3-5 Conference
Postseason: A10 Second Round loss, George Mason 73-59
Key Players: James Bishop, Ricky Lindo Jr., Qwanzi Samuels
Top Non-Con Games: @Maryland (Nov. 11), Boston University (Dec. 1)
Midway through last season, GW Basketball was drawing attention to itself in all of the wrong ways. After a 1-6 start, top players Maceo Jack, Ace Stallings, and Jameer Nelson Jr. all decided that they would opt out of the rest of the season. Following their Atlantic 10 exit in March, Jamison Battle entered the transfer portal. With such a major roster shakeup over the course of one season, fans and analysts were left questioning Jamion Christian's effectiveness as a head coach and as a leader.
Heading into this season, Christian recognized that team chemistry was in a bad place last year. However in 2021, the third year head coach described the team this year as in "a great place" mentally. Looking at last year as little more than a road bump, Christian seemed to instill a sense of understanding in regards to what this team was capable of, and the power that success in the Atlantic 10 holds in college basketball.
"You don't win games in the A-10 unless you have a high level of toughness and a high level of talent," Christian said. "We recognize our history, and where we've been over the last few seasons, but we also recognize our history that's great. We've had some tremendous moments in the A-10, where we've been the best, we've held that trophy."
Despite the outgoing transfers, the GW roster is filled with plenty of the talent that Christian describes. Named to the Preseason All-Conference Second Team, Junior Guard James Bishop will no doubt be the centerpiece of GW's gameplan. Averaging 19.1 points per game last season, Bishop has cemented himself as one of the premier scorers in the conference.
12-La Salle Explorers
Head Coach: Ashley Howard (4rd year, 34-52)
2020-21 Record: 9-16 Overall, 6-11 Conference
Postseason: A10 First Round loss, St. Joe's 72-66
Key Players: Jhamir Brickus, Sherif Kenney, Jack Clark, Anwar Gill
Top Non-Con Games: @Villanova (Nov. 28), @Temple (Dec. 1), Drexel (Dec. 21)
Despite a rocky first three seasons at the helm of the Explorers, the hype around Ashley Howard's La Salle team this year is as fresh as ever. In a year where Howard's tenure hinges on getting out of the lower half of the league, the Explorers are as well-equipped as ever for a solid run. Heading 2021, the main question surrounding La Salle's roster will be finding a balance between sharing the ball and letting their top players excel on a larger stage. While scoring efforts on the team were spread pretty evenly, the depth on this roster prevented any one player from taking charge and leading the Explorers to win.
In his appearance at Media Day, Coach Howard pinpointed solving this issue as a major goal this season, but also one that he thinks his team can accomplish.
"I think we have enough guys that talented enough to separate themselves and emerge," Howard explained. "But we gotta do it when our lights are on."
When looking at La Salle's roster, fans should look towards guards Sherif Kenney (junior) and Jhamir Brickus (sophomore) to lead the scoring effort. Kenney is a player that heightens La Salle's level of play whenever he is on the court, and his scoring should take a major tick up this season as he gets more looks from his teammates.
Head Coach: Keith Dambrot (5th year, 65-47)
2020-21 Record: (9-9 Overall, 7-7 Conference)
Postseason: A10 Quarterfinals loss, Bonaventure 75-59
Key Players: Toby Okani, Kevin Easley Jr., Leon Ayers III
Top Non-Con Games: Hofstra (Nov. 13), @DePaul (Dec. 7)
Another Coach making with a warming seat, Keith Dambrot has fielded solid teams in his time at Duquesne, but has struggled to take the Dukes over the hump towards being a serious Atlantic 10 contender. That being said, this team heading into 2021 seems to fully buy into his vision for success. Filling in for Dambrot at media day was Assistant Coach Charles Thomas, as Dambrot attended the funeral of his recently passed father. Even with the setbacks that the Dukes have faced over the past few seasons, Coach Thomas seemed as sure as ever that Dambrot could lead this team to success.
"[Keith] lives with a chip on his shoulder. If you watch his teams, that's how we play," Thomas said. "The chip is going to be there whether we're picked first or picked fourteenth. That's just how Keith Dambrot teams play."
Despite the chip that this team has, Thomas radiated confidence when talking about how this team has adjusted to some major roster shifts, including the departure of last year's star Tavian Dunn-Martin. To fill the void left by the graduated guard, incoming transfers such as Tre Williams from Indiana State could help breath new life into this team.
"He's going to be a bit more perimeter focused compared to Mike Hughes," Thomas explained. "Defensively, he's going to be changing every [play] if he doesn't block it. We're excited that we still got some rim protection. We were unsure at first, but with Tre we know we'll be ok."
In terms of the rest of the team, Thomas emphasized that Dambrot and the rest of the coaching staff has instilled a strong sense of camaraderie within this team, and that they've focused on coaching "basketball, not attitudes," which Thomas believes should result in some quality wins.
10-Saint Joe's Hawks
Head Coach: Billy Lange (3rd year, 11-41)
2020-21 Record: 5-15 Overall, 3-9
Postseason: A10 Second Round loss, UMass
Key Players: Taylor funk, Jordan Hall
Top Non-Con Games: Drexel (Nov. 17), USC (Wooden Legacy in Anaheim Nov. 25), @Villanova (Dec. 4)
The Hawks had a brief splash of life in the Atlantic 10 tournament, fueled in large part by Ryan Daly, who is now playing in the G League. However, this short, exciting run was one that punctuated a relatively uneventful season. Luckily for Billy Lange, his Hawks have kept that springtime energy and are ready to take on this season with a handful of exciting newcomers. In his media day presser, Lange described how they've maintained their mindset for so many months.
"They grew in their confidence in themselves, and more importantly, in each other," Lange described. "It helped in the spring, in the summer, then we added new guys, and it's helped in the fall. From that standpoint, we have taken steps. There are so many more steps we have to take, and I don't think we'll be able to take them until we share the experiences of real competition."
Players joining the Hawks this season bring a lot of size to this roster, most notably via
"I'm excited about the group, but I'm not anymore excited than I was when I got here two years ago. We're building this on the incredible foundation of the story of St. Joe's basketball."
In terms of foundation, The Hawks returning roster will no doubt be centered around Sophomore Guard Jordan Hall and Redshirt Senior Taylor Funk, who each earned themselves a spot on the Preseason All-Conference Second Team. With transfers Ejike Obinna and Charles Coleman adding some height and solid defending to their roster, Hall and Funk should have plenty of time to maintain the Hawks shooting prowess that we've seen in the past two years under Lange.
Head Coach: Matt McCall (5th year, 46-65)
2020-21 Record: 8-7 Overall, 6-4 Conference
Postseason: A10 Quarterfinals loss, Saint Louis 86-72
Key Players: Noah Fernandes, Kolton Mitchell, TJ Weeks, Javohn Garcia
Top Non-Con Games: Penn State (Nov. 15), Rutgers (Nov. 27)
Two big stories surrounded UMass heading into this season; their departures, most notably Tre Mitchell to Texas, and the possibility that the push to FBS Football could push UMass into a different conference. While McCall wasn't really able to answer any questions about conference realignment, he did give his thoughts on the large turnover that his Minutemen roster experienced this offseason.
While transfers can often be seen as a death blow to certain coaching tenures, McCall was confident that the players his staff brought in made up for who left and then some. In terms of what these additions can do, McCall was confident that his incoming transfers can put up some serious numbers.
"I imagine this team could have 5-6 guys in double figures every night."
Leading this scoring effort is Junior Guard Noah Fernandes. In terms of McCall's schemes, Fernandes is best fit to succeed within UMass' high tempo, shooting focused offense. Additions such as CJ Kelly, Michael Steadman, and Trent Buttrick further cement Umass' commitment to living, and possibly dying, by the three this season.
8-George Mason Patriots
Head Coach: Kim English (1st year)
2020-21 Record: 13-9 Overall, 8-6 Conference
Postseason: A10 Quarterfinals loss, Davidson 99-67
Key Players: Josh Oduro, DeVon Cooper, D'Shawn Schwartz
Top Non-Con Games: Stony Brook (Nov. 9), @Maryland (Nov. 17), @Georgia (Dec. 18)
Another very exciting hiring, Kim English begins his tenure at George Mason with a very exciting team at his disposal. In his first head coaching gig after six seasons as an assistant (Tulsa, Colorado, Tennessee), English is ready to hit the ground running at Mason. In terms of their non-conference schedule, English described building it around creating a challenge for his team. With schools like Stony Brook, Maryland, and James Madison early on, English hopes to set the tone early on for the competition his Patriots should expect. With non-conference play being a time for testing out schemes, English will look at this part of the season as a time to focus on building a strong defense.
"Offense is great, but we'll be able to depend on our defense and our rebounding night in and night out," English said. "We want to be disruptive, we want to force our opponents into tough contested shots, and we want to limit them to one shot [per possession]."
When building his vision, English looked to familiar faces to round out his roster via the transfer portal. Several players that played under English as an assistant at various schools can be seen on this year's Patriots roster. The most notable addition by English is no doubt D'Shawn Schwartz, a Senior Guard from Colorado who played under English for two years.
"I was with him when we first came to college. We were close when I left for Tennessee, and it was really tough to leave him," English said of Schwartz. "I stayed in close contact, and if we weren't playing in Tennessee I would watch him at Colorado. When he decided to move on it was a no brainer to target his experience, his talent, and his maturity."
Schwartz averaged 9.3/4.1/1.3 at Colorado last season, averaging 13.1 minutes per game. Schwartz will pair nicely with Forward Josh Oduro, who earned Preseason All-Conference Third Team honors.
7-Rhode Island Rams
Head Coach: David Cox (4th year, 49-39)
2020-21 Record: 10-15 Overall, 7-10 Conference
Postseason: A10 Second Round loss, Dayton 82-74
Key Players: Jeremy Sheppard, Makhel Mitchell, Makhi Mitchell, Ishmael El-Amin
Top Non-Con Games: Bryant (Nov. 12)(shoutout Zim and Tondo), Boston College (Nov. 17), @Providence (Dec. 4)
On paper, Rhody was too good of a team to go 7-10 in conference play, but in a season where paper meant jack squat for every team, Rhody obviously faced a few bumps along the way. Despite last year's standout Fatts Russell departing for Maryland, the Rams roster is filled with plenty of experience. When asked about the departure of Fatts, Cox made it clear that while he wishes Fatts the best, his absence will not underwrite this year's squad.
"I'm focused on this team this year," Cox emphasized. "We've got a number of guys with college experience, who have been through ups and downs in college, and are definitely able to lead."
In talking about the team's new identity, Cox described this year's Rams as one that is physical, can dictate on both ends, and is relentless on and off the ball. To do this, Cox will look to the backcourt combo of Jeremy Sheppard and Ishmael Lleggett. Cox described Sheppard as one of the team's strongest leaders, as well as a prolific scorer. At 6' 1, Sheppard is one of the most versatile guards in the game. Shooting 47% from the floor last season, Rhody's offense will run directly through Sheppard, either as the first option for a shot, or as the conduit to get the ball into the frontcourt to one of the Mitchell brothers.
Head Coach: Bob McKillop (33rd year, 607-372)
2020-21 Record: 13-9 Overall, 7-4 Conference
Postseason: A10 Semifinals loss, VCU 64-52, NIT First Round loss, NC State 75-61
Key Players: Hyunjung Lee, Luka Brajkovic, Sam Mennenga
Top Non-Con Games: @San Francisco (Nov. 13), Loyola Chicago (Dec. 22)
During their time in the A-10, Davidson has always found a way to be a sneaky competitor every season, with their 2018 Atlantic Tournament a shining example. The Wildcats exceeded expectations once again last year, clinching the third seed in the Atlantic 10 Championship via consistent solid play from Kellan Grady, Sam Mennenga, and Hyunjung Lee. Despite Grady's graduation and subsequent move to Kentucky, Head Coach Bob McKillop feels that his team has plenty of candidates that can make a major step forward this season.
"With his [Grady's] departure, we've had two guys that were secondary outlets in many of those situations that we went to Kellan in, those guys being Lee and Luka [Brajkovic.]," McKillop said. "Once inside, those guys can create quite an opportunity for us to get points. We can lean upon them to step into that role that Kellan left for us.
In terms of how this combo would look on the floor, McKillop described an one-inside, one-outside tandem that will be the centerpiece of Davidson's offense. The biggest question surrounding this decision is no doubt in Hyunjung Lee, and whether or not he'll be ready to take on such a prominent role in the rotation. However, should Lee face some pressure from opposing defenders, he'll have plenty of options in the wing to dump the ball to. New arrivals in Foster Loyer from Michigan State and Desmond Watson should help alleviate some pressure on the perimeter.
Head Coach: Anthony Grant (5th year, 78-41)
2020-21 Record: 14-10 Overall, 9-7 Conference
Postseason: A10 Quarterfinals loss, VCU 73-68, NIT First Round loss, Memphis 71-60
Key Players: Mustapha Amzil, Koby Brea, Malachi Smith, DaRon Holmes
Top Non-Con Games: Miami (Nov. 25), @SMU (Dec. 8), Virginia Tech (Dec. 12), Ole Miss (Dec. 18)
Dayton's media day presence could only be described as fiery. Right out the gate, Senior Guard Elijah Weaver was quick to criticize Dayton's fifth-place preseason ranking, confidently calling it disrespectful. When asked where he thinks the Flyers should be, his answer was clear.
"I feel like we're better than the four teams above us," Weaver said. "I feel like it's disrespectful, and it's motivating."
While plenty of fans and analysts were probably ready to debate this statement on Twitter, Toumai Camara, a Sophomore Forward who transferred from Georgia, described his new team as "underrated," which seems to be a much more fitting description of this year's Flyers.
When looking at what defines Dayton this year, the answer is no doubt their recruiting class. DaRon Holmes enters this season as the highest-rated recruit in the history of Dayton Basketball, ranked #47 in last year's recruiting class. In terms of skillset, Holmes is the complete package. A forward who is light on his feet, Holmes will get some solid looks down low and in mid-range opportunities. Holmes will develop his skillset over the next few years alongside Malachi Smith, who looks to carry the legacy left behind by his older brother Scoochie Smith, a Flyer from 2013 to 2017 who now plays pro ball in Serbia. With these hot new prospects, the competition for starting spots at Dayton will be as tough as ever, but if you're a Flyers fan, is that really a bad thing?
Head Coach: Mike Rhoades (5th year, 80-43)
2020-21 Record: 19-7 Overall, 10-4 Conference
Postseason: A10 Tournament Runners Up, NCAA First Round forfeit to Oregon (Covid)
Key Players: Ace Baldwin, Hason Ward, Marcus Tsohonis
Top Non-Con Games: @Vanderbilt (Nov. 17), The Battle For Atlantis (Nov. 24-26, First Round against Syracuse, could face Baylor as early as Second Round)
When VCU's unfortunate tournament exit was brought up for the first time at Media Day, Mike Rhoades seemed to brush it off with some humor. However, along with statements made by Keyshawn Curry and Levi Stockard, it's clear that their 2021 finish is a painful memory for the Rams, and something that will fuel this year's quest to win a conference championship.
Before any banners can be hung, VCU will have to figure out how to survive without Ace Baldwin. Baldwin, who suffered an Achilles tear in the offseason, is expected to miss VCU's entire non-conference schedule. Baldwin joins Jamir Watkins and Jarren McCallister on the injured list, both of whom will redshirt this season due to ACL tears. With Baldwin's injury, Coach Rhoades sees this as an opportunity to experiment with a younger backcourt, using several freshmen and incoming transfers to fill the gap Baldwin temporarily leaves behind.
"We have some freshman that we were going to bring along a bit slower, [but] that's not the case now," Rhoades said. "We're throwing them in the fire. At times they'll be great, at times they're gonna get burned, but through it all, we'll be together."
Washington Transfer Marcus Tsohonis will likely get a lot of minutes in Baldwin's absence. Tsohonis is a consistent three-point shooter who fits well into the high tempo offense that Mike Rhoades has built in his time at VCU. In terms of Freshmen, Jayden Nunn will likely get some considerable playing time, whose physicality can make up for any shooting woes he may experience in his first year in the NCAA. Backing up these prolific guards in the frontcourt include returning Forward Hason Ward, who will likely see some more looks down low as Coach Rhoades looks to spread the workload on this Rams team.
3-Saint Louis Billikens
Head Coach: Travis Ford (6th year, 89-65)
2020-21 Record: 14-7 Overall, 6-4 Conference
Postseason: A10 Semifinals loss, Bonnies 71-53, NIT First Round loss, Mississippi State 74-68
Key Players: Yuri Collins, Francis Okoro, Jordan Nesbitt
Top Non-Con Games: @Memphis (Nov. 16), Boston College (Dec. 11), Auburn (Dec. 18)
The past 12 months have not been kind to Saint Louis. After starting their 2020 campaign with one of the strongest non-conference performances from an A-10 team, the regularly ranked 2020-21 Billikens went on a month long Covid pause from December 23rd to January 26th, halting their momentum during one of the most crucial points in any college program's season. After returning to play, SLU never regained that momentum, settling for a spot in the NIT and the goal to hit the ground running in 2021, with Senior Star Javonte Perkins at the center of Coach Ford's game plan.
Then, the night before SLU was set to speak to the media, Perkins tore his ACL in an exhibition game against Rockhurst, ending his season before it even started. While their was definitely a devastated air around SLU's media day presence, Coach Ford emphasized that his team is capable of success even with Perkins missing this year, and that it would be a disservice to his star player to just give up without him.
"This is life. Sometimes it hits you square in the face," Ford explained. "How you handles these situations is really important, and the example we set for our players is as important as winning games, probably more important."
In terms of what this team could look like without Perkins, Ford suggested that their already up-tempo playstyle could speed up even more, as transfers Jordan Nesbitt (Memphis) and Francis Okoro (Oregon) bring their talents to SLU. As long as SLU can maintain their athletic poise, and sink crucial shots when they need to, they'll excel throughout non-conference play.
Head Coach: Chris Mooney (17th year, 288-231)
2020-21 Record: 14-9 Overall, 6-5 Conference
Postseason: A10 Second Round loss, Duquesne 67-62, NIT Second Round loss, Mississippi State 68-67
Key Players: Grant Golden, Jacob Gilyard, Nick Sherod
Top Non-Con Games: @Drake (Nov. 20), Maryland (Baha Mar Tournament, Nov. 25-27), NC State (Dec. 17, Neutral Site)
While Grant Golden's eligibility has become the butt of a long running A10 Twitter joke, the Forward's career in Richmond does feel like it's lasted way longer than normal. In his sixth year of eligibility, Golden and three other Richmond starters from last year return to the Robins Center to finish what was started last season. In what should be his last (no, really, he means it this time) season in a Richmond uniform, Golden will look to take the Spiders to an Atlantic 10 title alongside Senior Guard Jacob Gilyard, as well as Sophomore Guard Nick Sherod. In terms of this team's experience, Coach Chris Mooney couldn't be more confident in this team's experience.
"When you're younger, you don't realize how hard everybody plays, how good everybody is, how much people develop," Mooney said. "So for that, I think [our team's advantage] is the mental part. Your experience, your knowledge of the game, of the game plan, and your respect for everybody gets higher and higher."
Physically, Richmond ain't too shabby, either. In order for the Spiders too succeed, all returning "super-seniors" must remain at the top of their game. As long as Gilyard can stay lights out from shooting, Golden can remain a force in the paint, and the team overall can stay healthy, expect the Spiders to be a dangerous force in the Atlantic 10.
1-St. Bonaventure Bonnies (24 in AP Preseason National Rankings)
Head Coach: Mark Schmidt (15th year, 242-185)
2020-21 Record: 16-5 Overall, 11-4 Conference
Postseason: A10 Regular Season and Tournament Champs, NCAA First Round loss, LSU 76-61
Key Players: Kyle Lofton, Osun Osunniyi, Jaren Holmes, Jalen Adaway
Top Non-Con Games: Charleston Classic (Nov. 18-21), UConn (Dec. 11), Virginia Tech (Dec. 17)
It's not uncommon for coaches to compliment other programs in their league. In a sport where the success of your conference can possibly elevate your program through exposure and quality play, it makes sense for programs to uplift each other. However, when Dayton Head Coach Anthony Grant took some time to compliment Mark Schmidt's Bonnies, it was clear to everyone that the team Grant described was something special.
"When you look at the fact that St. Bonaventure won the league last year, made the NCAA Tournament, have all five starters back, the job that Coach Schmidt and his staff have done, and the caliber talent they have that I think they are a top 25 team in the country," Grant said in his presser.
While the compliment was unexpected, Grant hit the nail on the head in his analysis with the Bonnies. With all five of last year's starters returning, and with stars like Osun Osunniyi talking about how they're looking to impress pro scouts this year, expect the Bonnies to be firing on all cylinders this year. Not only will Bonaventure remain a favorite to win the A10 all season, but they could even make some noise on a national stage as long as they stay within the Top 25.
When looking at what makes this Bonnies team so dominant, we must look at what makes these five starters excel so much as a cohesive. At the point we have Kyle Lofton, a 6' 3" guard who has no problem leading Coach Schmidt's game plan at point. A versatile floor general, Lofton has excelled at the midrange game, but can also dish the ball out to perennial wing scorers in Dominick Welch and Jaren Holmes. Jalen Adaway serves as a more flexible shooting option anywhere on the court. Finally, Osun Osunniyi will look to continue his dominance in Atlantic 10 paints as the best blocker in the league. Talking to the media, Osunniyi feels that he's more confident in his offensive skillset than ever.
With all the hype around this team heading into 2021-22, Coach Schmidt maintained a relatively grounded mentality. Pointing to their loss to LSU as a humbling moment, Schmidt emphasized that the only expectations that matter are the ones they set for themselves.
"The goal is to get back to the tournament and try to advance," Schmidt said. "If we do get there, our goal is to get to the second weekend, to the third weekend. Now, we just have to embrace the number one seed, and see just how good we can be."
If you've made it this far, thank you! This season of Atlantic 10 basketball is poised to be one of the best in recent history, so whether you're a longtime fan or casual viewer, make sure you check out as much A10 hoops as you can this season. For more info on the Atlantic 10, be sure to follow me on Twitter @samjuan2878, and check back here each week as I bring you the latest updates from the most exciting conference in basketball!