2013-2014 Season Preview: Atlantic 10: VCU’s Havoc to top the new-look league

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All month long, CBT will be rolling out our 2013-2014 season preview. Check back throughout the day, as we’ll be posting three or four preview items every day.

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

The Atlantic 10 was not immune to conference realignment, as five teams have moved either in or out of the conference this season with a sixth team (Davidson) joining the A-10 for 2014-2015. The conference lost Butler after its one-year stint, as well as Charlotte, Temple and Xavier. For all the losses the conference still fields VCU — a top-25 team to start the season — and several teams that have expectations of going to the NCAA tournament, including La Salle, Saint Louis and UMass. The conference has a lot of momentum following a year that saw all five bids advance, and despite the losses of four programs, the Atlantic 10 has another promising season on the horizon.

REALIGNMENT MOVES

IN: George Mason
OUT: Butler, Charlotte, Temple, Xavier

FIVE THINGS TO KNOW:

1. Despite the losses, the league is still strong: The conference is down, but not out after losing two of the five teams that secured NCAA tournament bids last season. If you take the four departing schools out the equation, the Atlantic 10 still had five teams that finished in the RPI top 100 last season, and that’s before you take into account the expected improvement of Rhode Island, Dayton and George Washington.

2. The league’s best coaches stayed home: Shaka Smart and VCU came to terms on a new contract that keeps him on the Rams’ sideline through 2028. La Salle and Dr. John Giannini reaching an extension as well, and Saint Louis removed Jim Crews’ interim tag. Those are three of the best coaches in the league, which is a good sign for the future of the conference.

3. UMass got their star back: UMass point guard Chaz Williams had a chance to skip his senior year and play in Turkey, though decided to return because of unfinished business both in the classroom and on the court. That’s enormous news for Derek Kellogg, as Williams is one of the best point guards in the country and a huge part of the Minutemen’s attack.

4. Guards. Lots and lots of guards: The back courts in this conference will be great to watch, especially the teams at the top of the league. We know about VCU’s guards and La Salle’s back court is no longer a secret thanks to their Sweet 16 run, and Williams is joined by Western Kentucky transfer Derrick Gordon at UMass this year. Rhode Island, St. Joe’s, Dayton, St. Louis. There’s plenty of back court talent here.

5. The Atlantic 10 has its games on the NBC Sports Network this year: 25 regular season games can be seen on the NBC Sports Network. The full schedule of games can been seen here.

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PRESEASON ATLANTIC 10 PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Chaz Williams, UMass

Coming off another productive year, the senior point guard has one more shot at an NCAA tournament. He averaged 15.5 points, 4.2 rebounds and 7.3 assists per game last season as a junior, and this year will have familiar pieces and new weapons to utilize. Cady Lalanne and Raphiael Putney return in the UMass front court and Western Kentucky transfer Derrick Gordon is eligible after sitting out last season. Williams can not only grab player of the year honors, he can also advance UMass to the Big Dance for the first time since 1998.

THE REST OF THE ATLANTIC 10 FIRST TEAM

  • Tyreek Duren, La Salle: Leading the La Salle perimeter attack this season after a junior campaign averaging 14.2 points a game
  • Dwayne Evans, Saint Louis: The senior forward helped the Billikens capture the A10 title with 14.0 points per game and 7.7 rebounds.
  • Juvonte Reddic, VCU: Shaka Smart will look to Reddic to man the VCU frontline. The senior forward shot 57 percent from the field a season ago, grabbing 8.1 rebounds per game.
  • Xavier Munford, Rhode Island: The Rams are looking to make the next step in the rebuilding process and Munford can help in his last season at URI. With Munford is the top scorer returning to the conference this season.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW:

  • Isaiah Armwood, George Washington
  • Derrick Gordon, UMass
  • Treveon Graham, VCU
  • E.C. Matthews, Rhode Island
  • Tyrone Garland, La Salle

BREAKOUT STAR: Tyrone Garland, La Salle

Garland, who transferred into the program from Virginia Tech, was a lightening bolt for John Giannini’s team last season. His “Southwest Philly Floater” is the reason they made it to the second weekend of the Big Dance. But with Ramon Galloway gone and graduated, Garland’s role for the Explorers will have to expand. If they are going to make a push for the A-10 title, Garland will need to have a big season. We expect just that.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Derek Kellogg, UMass

Kellogg is under pressure this season, but he isn’t necessarily on the “hot seat”. Kellogg is now in his sixth season and is still looking to take his alma mater back to the NCAA tournament. UMass was on the wrong side of the bubble this year, but with the returners he has the Minutemen have realistic chances to be one of the 68 teams come March.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING … The league lost Butler, Temple and Xavier and still got five teams into the tournament.

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT: The guard play in the league. Seems like everyone has an all-conference caliber player in their back court.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR:

  • November 12th: LSU at UMass
  • November 12th: VCU atVirginia
  • November 26th: Saint Louis at Wisconsin
  • December 1st: Wichita State at Saint Louis
  • December 15th: La Salle at Villanova

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW:  @CDiSano44

PREDICTED FINISH:

1. VCU: Shaka Smart returns Treveon Graham and Juvonte Reddic, two all-conference caliber players. The Rams a couple pieces in their back court, but there is still plenty of depth on the roster. Point guard play, and the new hand-checking rules, will be the keys to their season.
2. UMass: Five A-10 teams received bids to the tournament last March, but the Minutemen were on the outside looking in. This season UMass has a favorable conference schedule — home games against La Salle, Saint Louis and VCU — which could help them finishing higher in the conference standings.
3. Saint Louis: The Billikens return leading scorer Dwayne Evans, as well as Mike McCall, Jordair Jett and Rob Loe, who were key components to Saint Louis’ top scoring defense in the A-10 a season ago.
4. La Salle: The Explorers made the deepest run in the tournament of any conference team last spring, but lost Ramon Galloway, the team’s leading scorer. Tyreek Duren and Tyrone Garland return to lead La Salle’s perimeter attack.
5. Richmond: Darien Brothers is gone, but the Spiders have the next three top scorers from a season ago back in the mix this year.
6. Rhode Island: Dan Hurley is still building up that URI program, and this is the season they can make the jump. The Rams add Gilvydas Biruta from Rutgers and have a freshman tandem of Hassan Martin and E.C. Matthews in the lineup this year to go along with Xavier Munford, who poured in 17. 4 a game in 2012-2013.
7. Dayton: Archie Miller’s team should improve even without Kevin Dillard. Matt Kavanaugh returns from suspension and Devin Oliver, Vee Sanford and Dyshawn Pierre all return as starters.
8. St. Joseph’s: Phil Martelli’s team finished 10th in the conference a season ago after being pegged as the preseason favorite. This year, three seniors — Langston Galloway, Ronald Roberts and Halil Kanacevic — will lead the Hawks.
9. George Mason: The newcomers to the the conference returns a lot of talent from last year’s 22-win team, including Sherrod Wright.
10. George Washington: Eight freshmen or sophomores are on the roster. Isaiah Armwood provides a nice player inside, and Mo Creek joins the team from Indiana.
11. St. Bonaventure: Roster features a lot of newcomers to go along with seniors Charlon Kloof, Matthew Wright and Marquise Simmons and junior Youssou Ndoye, though none of them averaged double figures last year.
12. Fordham: Jon Severe, a three-star recruit and Rivals150 in the Class of 2013, should be fun to watch for Fordham.
13. Duquesne: Jim Ferry is still putting the pieces in to place, but does have Derrick Colter coming back after a strong freshman season in the Dukes’ back court.

No. 1 Gonzaga reaches first Final Four with win over No. 11 Xavier

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It took 18 long years, but after Gonzaga exploded onto the national scene with a Cinderella run that came one possession short of the Final Four in 1999, after the program followed up that run with back-to-back trips to the Sweet 16 as a double-digit seed, after 19 straight trips to the NCAA tournament marred by moments of unfathomable heartbreak, the nation’s preeminent mid-major success story is finally headed to the Final Four.

What will the ‘Gonzaga is overrated’ crowd say now?

Armed with a roster that included a pair of blue-chip guards in their back court, a trio of high-major transfers and a McDonald’s All-American and future first round pick coming off the bench, Mark Few knocked off No. 11 seed Xavier, 83-59, on Saturday night to win the West Region and punch his first ticket to the final weekend of the college basketball season. Nigel Williams-Goss led the way with 23 points, eight boards and four assists and Johnathan Williams III, who was named the region’s Most Outstanding Player, added 19 points and nine boards as Gonzaga buried 12 threes and jumped out to an early lead they would never relinquish in a game that never felt like it was in doubt.

And with that, the monkey on Mark Few’s back is now gone.

“It means everything that we could deliver for guys like this,” Mark Few said after the game. Few had been the winningest NCAA tournament coach without a Final Four on his résumé. “They believed in us when they came. This is what we wanted to do and set out to do, and these guys were unbelievable. I could not be happier for all these guys, all our former players and all of Zag Nation.”

Whether or not that monkey was deserved is a fair question to ask. Gonzaga has had an incredible amount of success in the NCAA tournament. They’ve won at least one game in 16 of the 19 NCAA tournaments, including this year, that they’ve been a part of, including five of the six years in which they were a double-digit seed. In 13 of the previous 18 NCAA tournaments they played in, they advanced as far or further than their seed suggested they should have. Only five times did they lose to a team that was seeded lower than them. They’ve won 17 WCC regular season titles and 15 WCC tournament titles during that span.

What they’ve done, the consistency of the success that they’ve had, is not something done easily.

And it’s not something that should be overlooked when you consider where this program was in the early 90s. When Few was hired as an assistant coach in 1990, Gonzaga was thought of as the worst job in the WCC. The program, located in Spokane, Washington, which isn’t exactly a hotbed for recruiting, had never been to an NCAA tournament. The school didn’t even have a weight room for the team.

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“Players would sign out sweats and jerseys at the beginning of every school year and turn them back in nine months later,” wrote Yahoo’s Jeff Eisenberg earlier this week. “Sneakers were the only gear players received new, but obtaining a fresh pair typically required proving the old ones had a hole in the bottom.”

Within five years, Gonzaga was in the NCAA tournament. Within nine years, they had won the league and reached the Elite 8. Within 15 years, the school opened up a sparkling, $25-million, 6,000-seat arena, chartering flights for road games and recruiting trips.

Today, Gonzaga is arguably a top ten program in the sport

It is, quite literally, college basketball’s best rags-to-riches story.

They shouldn’t need this to justify their standing in the sport. Few shouldn’t need this to legitimize himself as something more than a coach feasting on a conference that can’t compete.

“My legacy is I guess built on a lot of other things,” Few said on Friday. “It’s built on the respect my players have for me and how they feel about they were treated and coached and developed and all that.”

“I’m schlepping along right now like vastly far behind my father who is 54 years a Presbyterian minister, man. He’s saved thousands of souls. He’s helped hundreds and thousands of people through all their tough times, you know. And that’s kind of the legacy that I’m looking at.”

But that’s not how our sport works.

March means everything.

If you can’t win on the biggest stage, if you don’t have that level of success when all eyes turn to college basketball, then everything you did during the previous four months is written off.

It’s not fair.

But that’s just how it is.

And now, nearly two decades removed from their introduction into the national consciousness, Gonzaga’s detractors no longer have that leg to stand on.

WATCH: Xavier scores a basket off the ground, Macura’s buzzer-beater waved off

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Xavier, the No. 11 seed in the West region, needed a few break to go its way in order to stay with top-seeded Gonzaga in the first half of the Elite Eight matchup from San Jose on Saturday evening.

Just before halftime, the Musketeers got the ball to bounce their way. Literally. Gonzaga’s Johnathan Williams and Xavier’s RaShid Gaston battled for a rebound. Williams inadvertently spiked the ball off the basket, off himself and off the backboard for a two-board bucket for Xavier.

The bucket was awarded to Gaston. It was two of Gaston’s five first half points.

Less than 30 seconds later, J.P. Macura tried to top Gaston’s unlikely field goal with a bank shot of his own. Following a bucket from Nigel Williams-Goss, Macura heaved a three-quarters court at the buzzer. However, after reviewing the play, it was waved off.

The Zags led 49-39 entering halftime.

Mike White and Frank Martin square off for a Final Four berth, as unlikely as it may be

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NEW YORK — Frank Martin is at South Carolina for one reason: He and his boss did not get along when he was at Kansas State.

There were other factors at play — South Carolina had an opening, he was offered a raise, he is back on the East Coast — but at the end of the day, Frank Martin is probably still coaching in Manhattan, Kansas, if his athletic director hadn’t forced him to hold star forward Jamar Samuels out of a second round NCAA tournament game against No. 1 seed Syracuse in 2012 after accepting a wire transfer of $200 from his former AAU coach.

“Please don’t ask me any questions on it,” Martin said after the game, his displeasure over the decision hidden about as well as Gregg Popovich hides his disdain for sideline reporters. “Because I had nothing to do with the decision. Any questions pertaining to this matter, please direct to John Currie, my boss.”

Why else would Martin, who had been to four NCAA tournaments and an Elite 8 in five years as the head coach of the Wildcats, jump ship for a program that had been to four NCAA tournaments since 1974 and had never won back-to-back NCAA tournament games? When the Gamecocks hired Martin, they were coming off a 10-win season where they finished dead last in the SEC.

It wasn’t exactly a destination job when Martin took over.

And Mike White may have had it worse at Florida.

Regardless of the sport, the hardest thing to do in coaching is to be the guy that replaces The Guy. Billy Donovan, with his two national titles and four Final Fours and ten total SEC championships, was unequivocally The Guy. Those are the shoes that White, who had never been coached an NCAA tournament game until he squared off with East Tennessee State on March 16th of this year, had to fill.

On Sunday night, in the unlikeliest region of this NCAA tournament, one of those two men will rise to the pinnacle of their profession, winning their way to the Final Four, a place not everyone thought was a possible when they signed their contracts.


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If Frank Martin didn’t win this season, if he had missed the NCAA tournament for the fifth consecutive season after taking over in Columbia, it would have been time for us to start wondering just how long he was going to last.

He didn’t save his job by winning 25 games and earning a No. 7 seed on Selection Sunday, but he certainly kept himself from having to answer some tough questions heading into next season. Going five years without a tournament appearance at a Power 5 school is not the best way to earn a contract extension, even at a school like South Carolina, which doesn’t exactly have much in the way of basketball tradition.

“I dreamt of South Carolina being in this moment,” Martin said. “But I don’t go about my job every day acting like we’re getting there right now, this is the day, this is the year.”

The difference now is that this may actually be the year for the Gamecocks, but it certainly didn’t look that way a month ago, when, as Martin puts it, “we slipped a little bit.” It started with a four-overtime home loss to Alabama where the Gamecocks mustered all of 86 points. They would go on to lose three of their next four games and entered the NCAA tournament having lost six of their last nine games, their offensive efficiency dipping into the 150s on KenPom.

Put another way, South Carolina didn’t have the look of a team that was getting ready to take the college basketball world by storm.

They had the look, frankly, of every SEC basketball program not named Kentucky or Florida: Good enough to make noise in their league but not good enough to put together a run in a tournament featuring the best basketball programs in the sport. That characterization of #SECBasketballFever may not be fair, but it’s the truth. There’s a reason everyone is surprised by the presence of three SEC programs in the Elite 8, that the league is one win from Kentucky away from fielding half of the Final Four, and it’s not because the conference has made a habit of outperforming their already-middling expectations.

Florida, however, doesn’t fall into that same category, and that’s part of the reason that White was is such a difficult spot when he took the job over. The Gators have won national titles. They were in the Final Four in 2014; senior point guard Kasey Hill played in that game. They expect to win in Gainesville, even if they only pay attention to those wins once football season comes to a close, and Donovan is the one to thank for that.

“I always said ‘poor guy,'” Martin joked. “Whoever replaces Billy. Oh my God, poor guy.”

To his credit, White says that he hasn’t thought about the bigger picture, what it means to be replacing a future Hall of Famer, what it means to be able to maintain the success of a program with annual Final Four aspirations. The job is the job, whether you’re replacing a guy that got fired or a guy that left to coach Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.

He does, however, concede that the job wasn’t quite as easy as it may seem from the outside. Before he was even introduced as Florida head coach, White got Donovan on the phone to talk about the team that was about to be his, and Donovan told him precisely what he was going to be dealing with.

“I inherited a group that struggled under a Hall of Famer, that Coach Donovan struggled with,” White said, “and told me that I would struggle with, in terms of some entitlement and some immaturity.”

“They have come a long way. We have developed, our guys have developed, they have really matured. Some of it is natural, some of it is just natural maturity because sophomores are juniors now and juniors are seniors. … And then some of it is a little bit abnormal.”

“Mike’s been unreal,” Martin said. “He’s got those guys playing through his eyes. That’s powerful stuff.”

The result is that just two years into his tenure with the Gators and in the first NCAA tournament that he’s ever been a part of, White has a chance to get to his first Final Four.

Just like Martin.

And on Sunday, one of them will be headed for Phoenix.

As unlikely as it may be.

Indiana hires Dayton head coach Archie Miller

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Indiana is expected to hire Dayton head coach Archie Miller, the school announced.

The deal will be for seven years, according to The Vertical. Miller had spent the last six seasons as the head coach at Dayton, getting to four straight NCAA tournaments, including the Elite 8 in 2014, while winning the last two Atlantic 10 regular season titles.

Miller had been targeted by seemingly every high major program with an opening since he reached the Elite 8, but similar to Shaka Smart when he left VCU, Miller simply waited for the right job to come long.

Indiana is the right job.

There had been some speculation that Miller wouldn’t want to take Indiana, that his dream job is Ohio State and that the idea of coaching in a fishbowl like Bloomington is not something that would be all that appealing to him. But Indiana is an elite job. It’s the kind of opening that happens once every four or five years, and if Miller had said no to the Hoosiers now, it’s very possible that an opportunity like this wouldn’t come along for years, if ever.

This hire is surprising, not because it’s the wrong hire — I think they got this right — but because Indiana actually made the right decision.

The overwhelming sentiment since Tom Crean was fired was that UCLA head coach Steve Alford would be named the next head coach at Indiana because the Hoosiers wanted an “Indiana Guy”. Alford was born in New Castle, he played at IU for Bobby Knight, he won a national title with the program. The goal was to get the Indiana fan base back, a fan base that was so estranged from the program that Indiana had to play an NIT game on the road as a higher seed because they were reportedly afraid of allowing ESPN’s cameras to see the empty seats.

But just because a hire appeases the fans doesn’t make it the right hire.

Miller was the right hire.

If they really want to get the fans back, winning is the best way to do it. Archie is as good of a bet to win at Indiana as anyone.

Elite 8 Preview: Saturday’s picks, predictions, betting lines and channels

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So Friday got good.

If Zak Showalter’s game-tying three and subsequent discount double-check wasn’t enough, we had Canyon Barry’s chasedown block and, well, this game-winner from Chris Chiozza.

And all that came after De’Aaron Fox took out what felt like a season’s worth of frustration out on Lonzo Ball.

What is on tap for tonight?

No. 1 GONZAGA (-8) vs. No. 11 XAVIER, 6:09 p.m., TBS: Someone is going to be making their way to the Final Four for the first time on Saturday night, as Xavier’s Chris Mack and Gonzaga’s Mark Few square off for the right to play on the final weekend of the season.

And in a way, this is the perfect Final Four game. Both the Zags and the Musketeers are basketball schools in basketball leagues. They come from outside the power structure and have head coaches that have spurned jobs from within the power structure to remain there. They are built for a run like this, even if they were both overlooked on the way here.

Xavier was obvious. Playing without Edmond Sumner and Myles Davis, the Musketeers just haven’t been the team that they were supposed to be this season. That’s why they lost six straight games in February, but things have turned around in March, as Trevon Bluiett has put the program on his back and willed them to the Elite 8. Gonzaga is the opposite. They went 29-0 to start the season, but they have yet to be accepted as a legitimate title contender by most of the people that watch the games.

My guess on Saturday night is that the Zags make their statement and emphatically get into the Final Four.

PREDICTION: Gonzaga (-8)

No. 1 KANSAS (-7) vs.  No. 3 OREGON, 8:49 p.m., TBS: This matchup is a lot tastier on paper than it is likely going to end up being on the floor. As good as Oregon has been this season, they are, essentially, Kansas light. They play two lead guards together and they play small-ball, with a natural wing lined up at the four.

The problem?

The Kansas guys are just better. Josh Jackson is a better player than Dillon Brooks. His length and athleticism should give the Oregon star fits. Frank Mason III and Devonte’ Graham are better than whatever combination of Payton Pritchard, Tyler Dorsey and Dylan Ennis the Ducks opt to use.

And, for that matter, no team is playing better right now that they Jayhawks, who beat Michigan State by 20, Purdue by 32 and became the first team to score 90 points in their first three NCAA tournament games since 1995. I think that trend continues on Saturday night.

PREDICTION: Kansas (-7)