Conference Catch-ups: Atlantic-10 Battle Royale

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Conference play is right around the corner, so to help you get out of that post-holiday haze, we’ll be catching you up on all the happenings in the country’s top 12 conferences. Here’s our Atlantic-10 Conference Catchup:

Favorite: Virginia Commonwealth
The Ram’s blend of experience, leadership, 3-point firepower and HAVOC defense is what sets them apart from the rest of the A-10.

Both Troy Daniels and Darius Theus were members of the 2010 Rams squad that lost to Butler at the Final-4 and are now the heart and soul of the Ram’s team. Juniors Juvonte Reddic, Rob Brandenburg and D.J. Haley have all been vital contributors during their time in Richmond. It seems like every season Shaka Smart loses 2-3 talented experienced seniors, only to see a new crop of leaders emerge from the underclassmen ranks. It has happened nearly every season since he took over in 2009. Sophomore Treveon Graham leads the team in scoring with 14.8-ppg and sophomore Briante Weber is the nation’s leader in steal percentage (8.67%).

The Ram’s patented “HAVOC” defense continues to give people fits and their offensive firepower goes unrivaled in the A-10. There are a handful of teams that could win the Atlantic-10, but VCU looks like the only team right now that should.
 
 
Contenders: The top of the Atlantic-10 is as deep as any conference in the country, even the Big-Ten. No team has been through as much as the Saint Louis Billikens have this season. They got a new coach, lost their best player to injury, and mourned the passing of Rick Majerus. But after losing three of their first six games, the Billikens have rattled off seven in a row, including a 14-point win over No. 20 New Mexico. Oh, and they’ve got their star player, Kwamain Mitchell, back from injury.

But we shouldn’t forget about Butler or Temple. In fact, the top four teams in the A-10 are all capable of making a deep run in the NCAA tournament. Rotnei Clarke has added the scoring threat the Butler Bulldogs desperately needed, and it showed in high-profile wins over Marquette, North Carolina and Indiana. The Bulldog’s frontcourt of Khyle Marshall and Andrew Smith has been as good as advertised.

Then there is Temple. The Owls are just a Canisius loss away from being talked about among the nation’s elite. Their only other losses were to No. 1 Duke and No.6 Temple. Plus they dominated No. 3 Syracuse at Madison Square Garden. They also have the conference’s best player in Khalif Wyatt.
 
 
Biggest Surprise: Charlotte
This isn’t really a surprise, since Charlotte ranks 292nd in strength of schedule and lost their only two non-conference games against BCS-conference teams. But at 12-2 heading in to A-10 play, the 49ers should be commended for winning all the games they should win and not slipping up against inferior competition. This team has enough experience and youthful talent to cause a scare in the A-10. Freshman forward Willie Clayton has the second best offensive rebounding percentage in the country (19.4%) and sophomore Pierra Henry ranks 9th nationally in steal percentage (5.82%). They deserve the recognition now because in a month they will start one of the most hellacious 6-game stretches of any team in any conference: at Temple, VCU, at Butler, at Saint Louis, Temple, and Dayton.
 
 
Biggest Disappointment: Saint Joseph’s
Considering the Hawks were preseason favorites to win the A-10, sitting at 8-4 with ugly losses to Creighton, Florida State, Villanova and Fairfield is troubling. What’s also troubling is the manner in which they lost. They were outclasses by Creighton on the road, lost their composure against Villanova and came up flat against a bad Florida State team and Fairfield. The Hawks have one of the most talented rosters in the A-10, and aside from an overtime win against Notre Dame at Madison Square Garden, they have not won any signature games.
 
 
Player of the Year: Khalif Wyatt, Temple
The senior guard leads the team in scoring with 16.1-ppg and was the driving force in Temple’s huge win against Syracuse. He scored 33 points on 8-for-17 from the field and a perfect 15-for-15 from the free throw in the Owls’ 83-79 win at Madison Square Garden. Aside from his six point performance against Duke, Wyatt is usually the best player on the court, which should bode well for the Owls as they head in to A-10 play.
 
 
Best Freshman: Semaj Christon, Xavier
The freshman guard has been the lone bright spot for the Musketeers, who have lost four in a row and sit at 7-6 with losses to Wofford and Pacific. Christon is a play-making guard who can score from almost anywhere and have stepped up in big spots, like on the road at Purdue, where he scored 25 points on 8-for-12 from the field. Unfortunately, he is being asked to do too much for a freshman, and is not getting the support from the front court that the team needs.
 
 
Three Predictions:

  • The A-10 Tournament in Brooklyn will be the best Championship Week Tournament. The A-10 is leaving Atlantic City in favor of the fresh digs at the Barclays Center in Brookyln. This conference is going to have multiple NCAA Tournament bids hanging in the balance come Championship Week, and with the Big East Tournament taking place on the other side of the bridge, there is going to be a lot of buzz surrounding Brooklyn.
  • An Atlantic-10 team will make the Final-4. This is one of the deepest conferences in the country. If VCU can escape league play with only minor scrapes and bruises, there is no reason to believe they can’t win six games in-a-row at a neutral site. Temple and St. Joseph’s have the talent to compete with any team in the country and Butler is still Butler, only now they Rotnei Clarke.
  • Xavier will not win the A-10. I know, I know. Not that bold of a prediction. But the Musketeers have dominated the conference for what seems like the last two decades. However with the addition of Butler and VCU, along with the team’s lack of depth and production in the frontcourt, the Musketeers will be on the outside looking in. Semaj Christon has been great, but the X-Men could really used a boost in play from their experienced leaders like Jeff Robinson and Brad Redford, but they aren’t getting it.

Power Rankings (* = tourney team):

1. Virginia Commonwealth*
2. Temple*
3. Butler*
4. Saint Louis*
5. Saint Joseph’s
6. Dayton
7. Xavier
8. UMass
9. Richmond
10. Charlotte
11. LaSalle
12. Duquesne
13. St. Bonaventure
14. Rhode Island
15. George Washington
16. Fordham

You can find Troy on Twitter at @TroyMachir

Quinnipiac set to hire Villanova assistant Baker Dunleavy as new head coach

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Quinnipiac will introduce Villanova assistant coach Baker Dunleavy as the team’s new head coach on Tuesday, a source confirmed to NBCSports.com.

Dunleavy has helped the Wildcats to a national championship and multiple Big East championships as the team’s associate head coach. A former walk-on for Villanova who transitioned into a director of operations and later an assistant coach, Dunleavy is the son of Tulane head coach Mike Dunleavy Sr. Baker’s brother, Mike Dunleavy Jr., is still playing in the NBA as well.

The 34-year-old Dunleavy has experience with a championship program at Villanova so it will be interesting to see what he can do running his own program for the first time. Quinnipiac hired Dunleavy to replace Tom Moore, who was fired after 10 years with the program.

The Bobcats went to an NIT and made a few other postseason appearances under Moore but the program has never been to the NCAA tournament since making the transition to Division I in the late ’90s.

Report: Duquesne hires Akron’s Keith Dambrot as new head coach

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Duquesne has hired Akron head coach Keith Dambrot to the same position, according to a report from ESPN.com’s Jeff Goodman.

The 58-year-old Dambrot has been head coach at Akron since 2004 as he’s helped the program to three NCAA tournament appearances.

The former high school coach of LeBron James at St. Vincent-St. Mary’s High School in Akron, Dambrot won two Ohio state championships with James before becoming an assistant coach at Akron in 2001. Dambrot eventually took over the head job over from Dan Hipsher.

Dambrot is reportedly getting a seven-year deal from Duquesne so the Dukes are making a major investment in him to turn around the basketball program.

Duke’s Christian Laettner shouts out North Carolina’s Luke Maye on Twitter after winning jumper over Kentucky

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Duke and North Carolina don’t have much in common.

But the historic college basketball rivals now have the distinction of earning late Elite Eight wins over Kentucky that involved a No. 32 making the winning shot.

Blue Devil legend Christian Laettner is famous for his 1992 buzzer-beater over Kentucky in the Elite Eight and he made sure to give some love to North Carolina sophomore Luke Maye after his own Elite Eight shot knocked out the Wildcats.

Rice’s Marcus Evans becomes one of top available transfers

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Rice sophomore guard Marcus Evans will transfer and play his final two seasons elsewhere, he announced on Monday.

The 6-foot-2 Evans has been a major scorer the last two seasons for the Owls as he averaged 19.0 points per game this season after putting up 21.4 points per game as a freshman.

With Rice head coach Mike Rhoades taking the VCU opening and the program struggling to consistently win, Evans seeking to play elsewhere should not come as much of a surprise.

Evans will have to sit out a transfer season before having two more years of eligibility but he should be one of the best options available this offseason. A proven scorer who has become more well-rounded this season, Evans could be a high-quality addition to any program this offseason.

A native of Chesapeake, Virginia, it will be interesting to see if Evans decides to play closer to home.

NBA Draft Stock Watch: Who has helped themselves in the NCAA Tournament?

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The term ‘prisoner of the moment’ is never more fitting than when weighing just how valuable an NCAA Tournament star turn is for a kid’s potential success as an NBA player.

We see it every year. Big tournament performances during deep runs in the dance is a great way to inflate draft stock while disappointing exits are an easy way to hurt it, even if it goes against the season-long data that is telling us something about a player. 

Who are the players that helped themselves the most this March? And who may have put a damper on their chances of hearing their name called early on draft night?

STOCK UP

Sindarius Thornwell, South Carolina: Thornwell has played his way into the discussion as a potential first round pick by leading South Carolina to the Final Four. He has the physical tools to be an excellent defender in the NBA, and he certainly has the toughness and physicality, but it’s his shot-making that is the game-changer for him. He shot 39.4 percent from three on the season and is hitting 43.2 percent from beyond the arc in the tournament, and while the knuckle-ball action on his jumper is concerning, at some point it’s fair to wonder whether or not his less-than-ideal form is less important than the fact that it goes in. Thornwell, who was the SEC Player of the Year this season, will be an interesting 3-and-D candidate come draft night, and the spotlight on him from averaging 25.7 points while leading the Gamecocks to the Final Four will only help.

De’Aaron Fox, Kentucky: Fox solidified his standing as a potential top five during the tournament. The red flags are still there — Can he make threes in the NBA? — but at the end of the day, the NBA Draft is about whether or not you want one guy or the other guy. This is a draft that is absolutely loaded at the point guard spot, and for the second time this season, Fox outplayed a guy that many have slotted above him, Lonzo Ball. In the Sweet 16, he put up 39 points, the most impressive individual performance of the tournament, as Kentucky skated by UCLA more easily than most of us expected. Ball should probably still be considered the better, but when you’re sitting in that room making those decisions, it’s not going to be easy to bypass the guy that bested him twice.

Jordan Bell, Oregon: Bell, a senior, has been one of the best defensive players in the country all season long, and never was that more apparent than when he went for 11 points, 13 boards, eight blocks and four assists against Kansas in the Elite 8. He totally changed that game, making Landen Lucas look like an eighth grader without any confidence and forcing the Jayhawks to miss a number of shots in the lane simply because they were aware that Bell could be lurking. He was probably worth a second round pick already, but that game very likely ensured that he will here his name called at some point on draft night.

Tyler Dorsey, Oregon: Dorsey is a shot-maker. That’s what he brings to the table offensively. He can score. He’s gone for at least 20 points in all seven tournament games — Pac-12 and NCAA — that Oregon had played this year, and he hit innumerable big shots in the process, including a game-winner against Rhode Island in the second round and a pair of absolute daggers against Kansas. Undersized scorers come a dime-a-dozen at that level, but Dorsey ensured that he will get a shot this spring.

D.J. Wilson, Michigan: Wilson has been one of the most intriguing prospects in college basketball this season given his size, athleticism and skill-set, and the attention that Michigan got as the darling of the conference tournaments and the first weekend of the NCAA tournament certainly didn’t hurt. I’m not convinced he’s in a position to be a first round pick, but I am certain that, if he opts to declare for the draft and sign with an agent, there will be a team willing to bet on the meteoric rise he had this year continuing.

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STOCK DOWN

Lonzo Ball, UCLA: With all the hype surrounding the Ball family heading into his showdown with De’Aaron Fox and Kentucky in the Sweet 16, you would’ve expected Lonzo, who has been terrific this season, to shine on the biggest stage. But that’s not how it went. He was completely overshadowed by Fox, who went for a career-high 39 points when they went head-to-head, bowing out of the tournament with nothing but a Sweet 16 to show for it. There’s a risk in making over-arching judgements on a player based off of one or two games when a season’s worth of data is telling you something else, but it is fair to note that Ball was outplayed in both of his matchups with another potential top five pick at his position.

Josh Jackson, Kansas: We’ve seen all season long what Josh Jackson can do on a basketball court, and one bad game where he got into foul trouble in the first four minutes is not going to change the way that scouts view his ability on the court. The concern with Jackson has nothing to do with basketball. It’s the off-the-court stuff, and it’s his temper. The biggest red flag surrounding him right now is an incident at a bar where he did more than $1,000 worth of damage to a person’s car. He got a few technical fouls this season. Against Oregon, he got into it with Duck players. Whether that affected his play, only Jackson will know, but it’s not all that hard to connect those dots. It’s easier to teach a 19-year old that cares too much to tone it down — the maturity that comes with getting older certainly helps — than it is to get a guy with no heart to be intense and tough, but that’s something NBA teams are going to have to consider when they decide whether to take Jackson in the top three of a draft this loaded.

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Justin Patton, Creighton: Patton is incredibly talented and loaded with promise, but after seeing the dip in his production once Mo Watson went out with a torn ACL — 14.0 points and 6.2 rebounds per game on a 74 percent shooting vs. 11.9 points and 5.8 rebounds on 61 percent shooting post Watson — is concerning. Throw in that he was totally underwhelming against an undersized front line of Rhode Island in a first round loss, and there will be questions asked about whether or not he is a guy that is worth a first round pick.

Luke Kennard, Duke: Kennard, by all accounts, had a terrific season. He’s a skilled scorer that can get his buckets in a number of different ways. He’s a lights-out shooter with an advanced array of moves to create space to get his shot off and a knack for scoring around the rim with both hands. But the concerns with him is whether or not he will be able to do so against guys that are as athletic and strong as NBA wings are. Picking a second round matchup with a South Carolina team loaded with those kind of defenders to have his worst game of the season wasn’t exactly ideal timing.

Josh Hart, Villanova: Hart does everything well, and he certainly proved throughout the season that he had improved on the things that he needed to improve — shooting, playmaking, ability off the dribble. But the concern with Hart is whether or not he’s going to be able to get his own shot when the guys he plays against are bigger, quicker, more athletic and just as tough as he is, and the way Villanova bowed out of the tournament — with Hart being unable to create a shot or draw a foul on a drive to the rim — is a perfect summation of the concerns NBA teams have about him.