Atlantic 10 Preview: New additions + returning talent = Luh-Oh-Ded

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Throughout the month of October, CollegeBasketballTalk will be rolling out our previews for the 2012-2013 season. Check back at 9 a.m. and just after lunch every day, Monday-Friday, for a new preview item.

To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. To look at the rest of the Conference Previews we’ve published, click here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.

You’ll be hard-pressed to find a conference race that will be more entertaining to follow than the Atlantic 10.

For starters, there are now 16 teams in this conference, which, with a 16 game league schedule, means that each team will only be playing one conference opponent in a home-and-home. You need to make up a game or two in the standings? Don’t count on winning head-to-head. You’ll have to hope someone slips up on the road. That, in all likelihood, will happen quite often, however, because of the 16 A-10 teams, six — six!!! — received a first-place vote in the preseason poll. Those six teams didn’t include Xavier, Dayton or Richmond, who are three of the best programs in the league.

I hope they already have clearly defined end-of-the-year tie-breakers.

Perhaps the most interesting story line involving the conference during the 2012-2013 season will be just how many teams they can get into the NCAA tournament, and that’s going to depend heavily on how well the teams in the league perform in non-conference play. If the top of the league can land some upsets over high-major (read: high-RPI) opponents and the bottom-feeders can avoid getting picked off by some low-major (read: low-RPI) foes …

I’ll put it like this: given some of the question marks in the middle of the bigger conferences, there are (at least) six teams in the A-10 that are, on paper, of NCAA tournament quality.

Five Things to Know

1. Rick Majerus won’t be coaching the Billikens this season: And he may never coach again due to a serious, potentially life-threatening health issue. As a team, this shouldn’t have a huge impact on the competitiveness of this group. (At least not as much as the broken foot suffered by Kwamain Mitchell.) This is a veteran group that spent a couple of years playing together. But, as the saying goes, games that are won by five points or less are won by coaching, and there are few in-game tacticians as well-regarded as Majerus. In a league as balanced as the A-10, a couple of possessions could end up being the difference between a first-place and a fourth-place finish.

2. UMass is back: The Minutemen’s entire history as a basketball program can, more or less, be tied to John Calipari and Marcus Camby. Beyond that, well, there isn’t much to talk about. This season, however, there will be. Chaz Williams, one of the nation’s most underrated point guards, returns to lead the way along with all but one member of last year’s rotation. Throw in Sampson Carter and Cady Lalanne, who were injured last year, and Derek Kellogg should have enough to make a run at an NCAA tournament bid.

3. What happened to Xavier?: The 2011-2012 season was saved when Xavier was able to make a run to the Sweet 16, thanks in part to Lehigh’s upset of Duke. The following offseason wasn’t. Tu Holloway and Kenny Frease graduated. Mark Lyons transferred to Arizona. Two recruits in this class were ruled ineligible. Talented 2013 recruit Chris Thomas decommited. Incoming transfer Isaiah Philmore was suspended for three games. Dez Wells was (wrongfully?) expelled. Not only will this be a tough year for the Muskies, but with the bad press of the brawl getting followed up with this kind of roster turnover, how long will the downswing last?

4. Temple and Charlotte will play their final season of A-10 ball: Next year, the Owls will be headed for the Big East, where their football program already began competing this season. Charlotte will be making the move to Conference USA, which, again, is a move driven by football.

5. Khalif Wyatt will be playing in Temple’s A-10 swan song: It was in doubt for a while for Temple’s leading returning scorer after the senior got busted for solicitation in Atlantic City, on his 21st birthday, no less. But the charges were reduced and head coach Fran Dunphy doled out what he felt was a proper punishment, so Wyatt and his 17.1 ppg will be on the floor for the Owls this year.

Impact Newcomers

1. Butler and VCU: We knew the conference was going to be tough after the 2011-2012 season ended, but when the departures of Temple and Charlotte created a need for the league, they courted two of the country’s most charming mid-majors. That courtship was not only successful, it happened quickly, as the Rams and the Bulldogs, both borderline top 25 teams this season, accepted the offer for immediate entry.

2. Rotnei Clarke and Kellen Dunham, Butler: Butler was a tough defensive team last season in the way that Butler always seems to be a tough defensive team. They’ll be next season as well, because, despite losing Ronald Nored to graduation, the Bulldogs return the majority of their young talent. Clarke, a senior transfer from Arkansas, and Dunham, a top 100 freshman, both address Butler’s biggest weakness from a year ago: perimeter shooting. Their role — particularly Clarke, who is making a transition to the point — became all the more important when Chrishawn Hopkins was dismissed from school.

3. Semaj Christon, Xavier: As much as Xavier lost, there are still some pieces on the roster — Justin Martin, Travis Taylor, Brad Redford, Jeff Robinson. Someone is going to have to get them the ball, and Christon — a four-star prospect that spent last season at a prep school — will have to be that guy. If the Musketeers are going to be competitive, he needs to live up to the hype.

4. Jake O’Brien, Temple: Temple has a couple of impact newcomers this year — Dalton Pepper, Daniel Dingle — but O’Brien may be the most important. A 1,000 point scorer at BU, O’Brien is a 6-foot-9 graduate transfer that may end up being the biggest player in Dunphy’s rotation.

5. Jordan Hare, Rhode Island: We knew that the Hurleys would make this program relevant. This season will be a bit of a holdover year, as the Rams are starting over with the new regime, but Hare, who was a top 100 recruit at one point in his career, headlines a solid recruiting class this season. With reinforcements coming next year — transfers getting eligible, more top 100 recruits coming in — the Rams are on the way up.

Breakout Players

1. Treveon Graham, So., VCU: Graham was very productive in limited minutes as a freshman, but what makes him such a trendy pick is that he plays the same role — big guard, can rebound at the four spot, hits threes — that made Brad Burgess so effective last season for the Rams.

2. CJ Aiken, Jr., St. Joseph’s: The Hawks bring back everyone from last season, which is part of the reason they were picked to win the conference, so there may not be an enormous increase in the numbers that Aiken produces. But I think Aiken will end up becoming a first round prospect, ‘breaking out’ in the sense that he becomes a more recognizable name nationally. He’s long and athletic, a terrific shot blocker and a 6-foot-9 combo-forward with three-point range.

3. Jerrell Wright, So., La Salle: The Explorers are the sleeper in the A-10, and Wright is a big reason why. After averaging 9.8 points and 5.6 boards in less than 20 minutes as a freshman, the 6-foot-8, 240 pounder returns as one of the only big men ready to play major minutes.

4. Cody Ellis, Sr., St. Louis: Usually, seniors aren’t the kind of players that will breakout. But with minutes opening up at the four thanks to the graduation of Brian Conklin and Kwamain Mitchell laid up with a broken foot, Ellis will be taking over the load as the Billiken’s primary scorer.

5. Khyle Marshall, Jr., Butler: I predicted Marshall would breakout last year, and I’m sticking with it. He’s talented, he’s athletic, and he’ll have more space inside with the floor spread by Clarke and Dunham.

Player of the Year: Chaz Williams, Jr., UMass

Williams averaged 16.9 points, 6.2 assists, 4.4 boards and 2.2 steals while shooting 41.9% from three a season ago. Only a junior, he clearly has learned how to thrive in Derek Kellogg’s system. UMass returns enough pieces this season that they could finish in the top four in the conference and have a shot at earning a trip to the NCAA tournament. If UMass does that and Williams repeats his performance from last season, he’ll deserve the Player of the Year award.

All-Conference Team

G: Chaz Williams, Jr., UMass*
G: Kevin Dillard, Sr., Dayton
F: Khalif Wyatt, Sr., Temple
F: Chris Gaston, Sr., Fordham
C: CJ Aiken, Jr., St. Joseph’s

Coach under pressure: Chris Mack, Xavier

This has less to do with basketball than it does everything else that’s gone on in his program. Between the brawl, the recruits that couldn’t get eligible, the expulsion of Dez Wells (again, unwarranted expulsion?), and the transfer of Mark Lyons, there aren’t a lot of bright spots in the Xavier program. This season has the potential to be one where Mack can showcase his coaching acumen, working with the bad hand he’s been dealt and getting this group to play above their talent level. But it also has the potential to turn into a dumpster fire, and if disaster strikes, I can’t imagine many folks in and around Xavier will be happy with a bottom-four finish in the league.

Predicted Finish

1. VCU: I believe in ‘Havoc’. VCU is really good at running their system, forcing turnovers and getting their opponents to play out of control. And the talent on the roster is good enough to succeed at this level.
2. St. Josephs’s: This is their year. They’ve had the talent, now they have the experience. Carl Jones, Langston Galloway and Halil Kanicevic deserved more of a mention in this preview.
3. Butler: With Hopkins on the roster, I think Butler would be up there with VCU as the best team in the league. But I’m not sold on Clarke being able to run the point. Losing Nored will hurt more than people believe as well.
4. St. Louis: They’d be No. 1 if Majerus was healthy. They’d be second if Kwamain Mitchell was. Tough breaks.
5. UMass: Williams is one of the most entertaining guards in the country, and this year he’ll have more help.
6. Temple: Temple as a lot of good wings and combo-forwards on their roster. I’m worried about the point guard spot as well as the post.
7. Dayton: Kevin Dillard is one of the most talented players in the league, but is there enough around him to push into the top six?
8. La Salle: The sleepers! The Atlantic 10 is so deep at the point guard spot that Tyreek Duren is criminally slept on.
9. Richmond: Chris Mooney is still in the rebuilding phase after losing Kevin Anderson and Justin Harper. He’ll get them there, but it won’t be this year.
10. Xavier: A talented freshman point guard leading unproven veterans? I’ll believe it when I see it.
11. Charlotte: Alan Major actually has a sneakily good roster at his disposal, headlined by an all-league caliber big man in Chris Braswell.
12. Rhode Island: Maybe my faith in the Hurleys is too strong, but I just don’t see a way they field a team that isn’t competitive.
13. George Washington: I think that Mike Lonergan will eventually turn GW into a competitive program in this league. But right now, he just doesn’t have the horses to stay in the race.
14. St. Bonaventure: Andrew Nicholson ain’t walkin’ through that door!
15. Fordham: Chris Gaston is a special player. It’s a shame that he’ll never have a chance to play on a relevant team in college.
16. Duquesne: With everything they lost — their star in TJ McConnell, their coaching staff — I can’t see how a school with no basketball history does anything different.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.

The Seven Biggest Final Four Storylines

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1. Gonzaga’s chance to win a national title: To me, this is the most fascinating part of the Final Four, and it’s not because Gonzaga needs to win to make the statement that they are an elite college basketball program. I don’t believe that to be true or a fair assessment of what they are right now. The Zags are a perennial top 15 team, they’ve reached 19 straight NCAA tournaments and won in 16 in those 19 dances, they recruit McDonald’s All-Americans that are talented enough to go one-and-done and they currently start an All-American point guard that began his career playing for arch-rival Washington.

They’re doing just fine.

What would make this story so incredible is the rags-to-riches ride that Gonzaga is on. 25 years ago, Gonzaga was thought of as the worst job in the WCC. They don’t have a natural recruiting base — Spokane is basically in Idaho, it ain’t Seattle — and there weren’t facilities in place to set that program apart from any other in the league. They didn’t reach an NCAA tournament until 1995, but by 1999 they were in the Elite 8, they reached the Sweet 16 in back-to-back years after that, and the rest is history. They went from a high school gym to an arena that holds 6,000 people and is a bucket-list destination for all college hoops fans. They went from not having a weight room to chartering flights for recruiting trips.

They went from the bottom of Division I to the pinnacle of the sport. Completing that journey with a national title would only be fitting.

2. North Carolina’s redemption run, Roy Williams one of the greatest ever?: One year ago, North Carolina was on the receiving end of one of the most soul-crushing title game defeats ever. In any sport. To erase a 10-point deficit in the final five minutes against Villanova, hitting a miracle three with 4.7 seconds left to tie the game, only to have it disappear with one Kris Jenkins jumper is brutal.

But the Tar Heels, despite losing Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson, are right back in the Final Four as the favorite to win the title. And if they do win, it may be time to start calling Roy Williams one of the greatest college basketball coaches of all-time. As in top five. Think about it like this: If Roy cuts down the nets again, he’ll have won three national titles in a 12-year span and become one of just six men — John Wooden, Mike Krzyzewski, Adolph Rupp, Jim Calhoun, Bob Knight — to win that many rings and one of just three to do so in the modern era of college basketball, since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985.

He’s won eight ACC titles in the last 14 years compared to Coach K’s three. He’s been to five Final Fours in the last 14 years and nine total, the fourth-most of all-time. Most think of Williams as a coach that just rolls the ball out there, but maybe it’s time we starting giving him credit for being one of the greatest to ever do it.

3. Frank Martin has South Carolina in the Final Four: While Gonzaga is the mid-major program in this Final Four, the “outsider” so to speak, the program that doesn’t belong here is South Carolina. The Gamecocks have little to no basketball history to speak. This is just their fifth Final Four since 1974. Prior to this season, they had never won back-to-back games in the NCAA tournament. They lucked into Frank Martin because this was a comfortable landing spot when he wanted out of Kansas State because he didn’t get along with his boss.

And now Martin, who is an underdog in his own right, is just two games away from winning a national title. Who would’ve thought that any of that was possible?

4. West Coast is back!: For the first time since 2008, we have a team from went of the central time zone playing in the Final Four; two, actually. That also means that we may end up getting our first national champion that’s further west than Kansas since Arizona won the title in 1997. Mike Bibby was the point guard of that team. His son was a freshman at South Florida this year. It’s been a while.

5. Dana Altman’s handling of the Oregon rape case: Altman probably should have been fired three years ago. The basics: days before the start of the Pac-12 tournament, three Oregon players — Brandon Austin, Damyean Dotson and Dominic Artis — were accused of sexual assault by a female student at the university. Two of those players played in the Pac-12 and NCAA tournaments, although Altman claimed he did not know details of the investigation — the allegations, the accused, etc. — only that there was an investigation, so he did not suspended his players.

Two months later, the graphic details of the allegations were released in a police report, and the three players were dismissed from the program. It also should be noted here than Austin was brought into the program despite having a previous sexual assault allegation hanging over his head, a fact that Altman also claimed ignorance of.

Altman will be asked about this.

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6. The one-and-done factories aren’t in the Final Four: Duke got bounced in the second round. UCLA and Arizona lost in the Sweet 16. Kentucky and Kansas went out in the Elite 8. Markelle Fultz, Dennis Smith Jr. and Jarrett Allen didn’t make the tournament. Miles Bridges and Jonathan Isaac lost in the first weekend and no one thought much of it. Given just how loaded this freshmen class was, i’s a pretty surprising result that there are no one-and-done stars in the Final Four.

There are a couple of freshmen that may have the opportunity to turn pro this spring — Gonzaga’s Zach Collins and North Carolina’s Tony Bradley — but those two played their way into being potential first round picks coming off the bench. They weren’t recruited as one-and-dones.

What does this say about the one-and-done culture?

Probably nothing beyond the fact that Kentucky lost on a buzzer-beater and Kansas played like Kansas State against Oregon. But it is worth noting.

7. Can North Carolina win a title while waiting for the NCAA to rule on them?: This is probably going to end up being the elephant in the room every time that Roy Williams steps up to the podium to speak this week. As you are probably well aware, the UNC athletic department has been mired in a scandal involving fake classes that helped keep athletes eligible for what feels like a decade. Due to legal battles regarding the Notice of Allegations, the case has been pushed back and pushed back and pushed back again. At this point, I think that the sun will burn out and Jim Boeheim will retire before we actually get an answer here.

Here’s the better question: If Williams wins a title this season, will this be his curtain call?

Kentucky fans flood Facebook page of official John Higgins’ company with negative reviews

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Unhappy with how John Higgins performed at his part-time job, Kentucky fans did their best trash him at his full-time gig.

The Facebook page of the referee’s Omaha-based roofing company was flooded by Big Blue Nation with negative comments and reviews after they were displeased with the official’s work in the Wildcats’ Elite Eight loss to North Carolina.

Not only did fans leave obviously fake and vulgar comments on the page, they also deluged it with one-star reviews to drive down its average significantly.

Once again, the Internet is struck by its proportionality problem. What could be considered a silly bit of online pranking by a small minority suddenly turns into an avalanche of nastiness that could do real damage to someone’s life, business and family, given the importance of social media for companies in 2017. It becomes cruel when it reaches a level like this.

When there’s so many general complaints about the state of officiating in college basketball, it’s also not helpful to do something like this to one of the referees generally considered to be one of the country’s best. It’s not exactly a glowing endorsement for prospective future officials to follow the career path if it brings this level of negative attention to you off the court.

Report: North Carolina to miss out on NCAA events through 2022 if HB2 not addressed by Thursday

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North Carolina is in danger of losing out on hosting NCAA events through 2022 if the state does not make changes to HB2, the controversial so-called “bathroom bill” by Thursday afternoon, according to the leader of the Greater Raleigh Sports Alliance.

“I have confirmed with a contact very close to the NCAA that its deadline for HB2 is 48 hours from now,” Scott Dupree, the head of the Greater Raleigh Sports Alliance, said, according to the Raleigh News & Observer. “If HB2 has not been resolved by that time, the NCAA will have no choice but to move forward without the North Carolina bids.”

“The NCAA has already delayed the bid review process once and has waited as long as it possibly can, and now it must finalize all championship site selections through spring of 2022.”

The NCAA, as it reminded North Carolina last week, is making its determinations on hosts for events from 2018-2022 this week. There was movement last week at the North Carolina statehouse for a compromise on the bill, but that apparently stalled out, the News & Observer reported, though there remain efforts to make progress on a pact.

Should lawmakers not reach an agreement in time, the state’s flagship basketball programs will be without an NCAA tournament home-court advantage that they have often enjoyed. HB2 just this past year moved the first and second rounds out of the state and to South Carolina, where No. 2 seed Duke lost to the seventh-seeded Gamecocks in their home state.

Clearly, there’s much more to consider here than NCAA tournament implications, but it’s another reminder of the economic impact the bill has made in North Carolina. This week, The Associated Press estimated it will cost the state $3.76 billion over a 12-year period.

Baylor’s Freeman to graduate and transfer

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Baylor is losing one of its contributors over the past three seasons.

Al Freeman, a 6-foot-3 guard, will graduate and transfer to another school, the Bears announced Tuesday.

“Al has been a tremendous student-athlete and made great contributions to our program over the last four years, and we’re thrilled that he’s going to complete his degree at Baylor,” Bears coach Scott Drew said in a statement. “He’ll always be part of the Baylor family, and we’ll be rooting for him as he continues his career.”

Freeman, who redshirted his freshman year due to a broken wrist, started 57 games during his career in Waco and averaged 8.6 points and 2.6 rebounds per game. He was a full-time starter as a sophomore, but made just 22 this past season and saw his minutes slashed.

As a graduate transfer, the Charlotte native will be immediately eligible at his next program for his final collegiate season.

Xavier sophomore Edmond Sumner declares for NBA Draft

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Xavier sophomore Edmond Sumner has declared for the NBA Draft and is expected to sign with an agent.

“First let me start by saying these three years at Xavier have been the best of my life,” Sumner said in a statement. “I have certainly been presented with some ups and downs but they have only served to make me a stronger person. This decision was very hard for me because of the love I have for X. After weighing my options with my family, I have decided to enter the 2017 NBA Draft, fulfilling a lifelong dream. I want to thank Coach Mack and the rest of the staff for believing in me and giving me a chance when no one did! I’ll always be grateful for that. Xavier Nation I will always love you!”

Sumner, a 6-foot-6 point guard with dynamic athleticism and first round potential that averaged 15.0 points, but he is coming off of a torn ACL that he suffered in January. He’s likely to be a second round pick in this year’s NBA Draft.

This is a big loss for the Musketeers, but it’s one that they planned for. After his eruption last season, most expected him to put his name in the draft this season.