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2023-24 Atlantic 10 Preview: Now or Never?

The 2023 NCAA Tournament marked the first time since 2005 that the Atlantic 10 was a one-bid league. The fulfillment of a prophecy from many pundits many years in the making, the A-10 went from a top mid-major conference to one without a single team in the 2022-23 end-of-year KenPom Top 50. As conference realignment stacks power towards the top, and non-conference scheduling becomes tougher than ever, the nearly 50-year old league enters this season with caution, but also confidence.

At their 2023 Media Day in Brooklyn this week, coaches and players from all 15 programs outlined their plans for success in 2023-24, both as individual programs, and as a group.

Hitting the Ground Running

Last season, the Atlantic 10 saw seven (kinda) new faces at media day. These coaches varied from rookie skippers (Keith Urgo at Fordham, Matt McKillop at Davidson), to conference returners (Archie Miller at URI, Fran Dunphy at La Salle), to a sophomore coach bringing his team over from another mid-major league (Drew Valentine at Loyola Chicago).

While many of these coaches had won at the highest levels of college basketball before taking on their current positions, your resume can only take you so far through the gauntlet that is the Atlantic 10. Assembling your staff, understanding your players, and implementing your vision for success is often a multi-year endeavor. A year after winning the Missouri Valley Championship in 2022, A-10 newcomers Loyola Chicago went 4-14 in their first Atlantic 10 regular season, 10-21 overall. According to Coach Valentine, his coaching staff took this past summer to refine their playstyle into something more akin to A-10 Champs of old.

“The MVC was all about being a Chameleon; how versatile can you be? How unpredictable can you be?” Coach Valentine explained. “This league is all about having a strong identity, believing in that identity, [and] bringing that to the floor.”

As Loyola looks to find their identity, programs like the Fordham Rams look to refine theirs and compound on last year’s success. Picked 11th in the 2022-23 preseason poll, Fordham finished last season 12-6 in conference play by priding themselves on defense, forcing an average of 13.8 turnovers per game. While the Rams lost both of last year’s leading scorers in Darius Quisenberry and Khalid Moore over the summer, Coach Urgo highlighted how much continuity the Rams have maintained in the offseason.

“We’ve got a lot of young guys with some great skill,” Coach Urgo said, highlighting sophomores like Will Richardson and Angel Montas as players who he expects to make a big impact. “We pride ourselves on the defensive end.”

Leading the defensive effort for Fordham is Kyle Rose, who earned 2022-23 All-Defense honors while averaging a career-high 1.8 steals per game.

Using the Portal

While continuity and experience are important traits for an A-10 Champion, that experience doesn’t always have to come exclusively from within the conference. Compounding on Coach Valentine’s comments regarding identity, St. Bonaventure Coach Mark Schmidt was clear in his presser on what effective use of the transfer portal can do for a program already in motion.

“In today’s game, you can’t win young,” Coach Schmidt said. “You’ve got to have a veteran team. You may disagree or agree with the portal or the NIL stuff, but it is here to stay. If you don’t adjust, you’re going to die."

When Coach Schmidt’s Bonnies won the A-10 title in 2021, production on both ends of the floor were spearheaded by third-year players Osun Osunniyi and Kyle Lofton. In 2021-22, all 5 of the Bonnies’ most frequent starters average more than 30 minutes per game. As Osunniyi and Lofton hit the portal that following offseason, Schmidt had to adjust by using less experienced and younger players much more frequently in the rotation. Bonaventure finished 2022-23 14-18, their first losing season since 2012-2013.

According to Schmidt, effective use of the portal allows a mid-major coach to take in players who have already succeeded under a compatible playstyle.

“You only learn by being put in those situations before.”

Notable incoming transfers for the Bonnies include Mika Adams-Woods, who averaged 9.1 points per game last season for the Cincinnati Bearcats.

The Importance of Scheduling

Along with the transfer portal, the ability to put together a quality schedule has become an essential tool for mid-major coaches. As MTEs, inter-conference challenges, and other marquee events dominate the non-conference window, mid-major schools are having a much harder time scheduling high quality opponents. Throughout media day, A-10 coaches were very open about how much the November-December window can make or break a team’s chances at earning an at-large bid. According to Rhode Island Coach Archie Miller, the first two months of 2022-23 left much to be desired, both from his Rams, and from the conference as a whole.

“We have to be ready to go out of the gates, not only for ourselves, but for our league,” Miller stressed. “We depend on each other.”

Duquesne Coach Keith Dambrot expanded upon this sentiment in his own presser, highlighting the importance of earning wins against teams in the Top 75 of KenPom and the NCAA NET rankings. According to Dambrot, when good mid-major teams are not given enough early opportunities to prove themselves on a national stage, they are often overlooked for at-large bids in favor of high major schools that finish in the middle of the table of their conference.

“It certainly doesn’t appear to be like when we were getting 6 or 7 [bids] out of our league,” Dambrot said. “Which in some ways is unfair, because a road win in the Atlantic 10 is just as hard as a road win in the Big 10, and 7-10 or 8-10 in getting you in the [NCAA] Tournament in the Big 10, and 13-5 is not getting you in the NCAA Tournament in our league.”

The Atlantic 10 hit their highest NCAA Tournament bid total in 2013-14 with 6 teams participating.

The Big Dogs

While the Dukes obviously aim for a successful November and December, preseason expectations have Dambrot’s squad focusing on much more than an at-large bid. Ranked 4th in the conference preseason poll, Duquesne is led by Preseason All-Conference First Team member Dae Dae Grant, along with Preseason Second Team and Preseason Defensive Team member Jimmy Clark III. Completing the first 3 spots of the A-10’s Top 4 are 1 Dayton, 2 VCU, and 3 St. Bonaventure respectively.

In their first season following Mike Rhoades’ departure to Penn State, the VCU Rams under new HC Ryan Odom look to shirk the idea that offseason departures hamper their chance to go back-to-back. Succeeding in spite of low expectations has been the norm for Coach Odom, as he led the UMBC Retrievers in their 2018 NCAA Tournament win over Virginia, the first victory of a 16-seed over a 1-seed in the history of the Tournament. In terms of expectations from the VCU administration and the community, Coach Odom welcomes the challenge.

“VCU is a place where the tradition has existed for a long, long time,” Odom explained. “When I first accepted the job, I didn’t really view it as an opportunity, it was more of a responsibility.”

While VCU looks to rebuild, top dogs Dayton look for 3rd-year players DaRon Holmes II and Malachi Smith to lead the Flyers to their first A-10 Tournament Title since 2003. Holmes, who saw significant jumps in almost every stat category in 22-23, enters the season on the Preseason All-Conference First Team and Preseason All-Defensive team. Smith, who missed a large portion of last year due to injury, was featured on the Preseason All-Conference Second Team. Despite significant departures for Dayton that include players like Toumani Camara and Mustapha Amzil, Flyers Head Coach Anthony Grant is positive that the chemistry between returning stars like Holmes, Smith, and Koby Brea are enough to set Dayton up for success in March.

“I think the thing that I’m excited about is [that] guys like DaRon and our veterans can provide that leadership to the young guys in terms of how we do things and what to expect,” Coach Grant explained. “Then you’ve also got a mix of guys that have experience playing college basketball, maybe at different places, but they understand what competing at the collegiate level is all about.”

Final Thoughts

In what the A-10 wants to be a bounce-back year, the consensus on if they can follow up last year with multiple bids stands firm at…maybe? Every team is aware of how they need to succeed early for themselves and the league as a whole. While there is a sense of collective success in non-conference play, it’s clear that the in-conference slate will be as contentious as ever. Will the 2022-23 season be the beginning of the A-10’s return to prominence, or will they be left in the dust of College Basketball’s ever-changing landscape?


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