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.

Thursday’s Three Things To Know: Drexel’s historic comeback, Arizona survives, Houston doesn’t

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1. DREXEL COMPLETED THE BIGGEST COMEBACK IN DIVISION I HISTORY

Drexel trailed Delaware 53-19 late in the first half on Thursday night.

They won 85-83.

Both of those things are 100 percent true and 100 percent happened.

2. ARIZONA WON WITHOUT ALLONZO TRIER … BARELY

No. 14 Arizona was forced to play without Allonzo Trier on Thursday night at Oregon State after Trier tested positive for a banned substance again. The Wildcats led by 12 points in the first half, but Wayne Tinkle’s club slowly but surely chipped away at the lead. They were ahead with less than a minute left with OSU missed two wide-open threes on the same possession before a pair of Rawle Alkins free throws forced overtime.

Alkins — who finished with 16 points on the night — took over in the extra frame, but if there is anything that we learned in the 45 minutes that Arizona played without Trier available on Thursday, it’s that they are going to struggle to win games if they do not have their second-leading scorer available.

3. TUBBY SMITH FINALLY BEAT A RANKED TEAM

Tubby Smith has been crushed throughout his tenure with Memphis, and deservedly so. The Tigers are not selling tickets and are not competing at a level that is expected of that program in the post-John Calipari era. That said, they aren’t terrible. On Thursday night, Memphis beat No. 23 Houston in FedEd Forum — Smith’s first win over a ranked opponent since he took over the job — to alleviate some of the heat that has been directed his way this season.

Houston, on the other hand, is probably pretty safe when it comes to inclusion into the NCAA tournament at this point, but they sure have had a weird seven days. It started with a win over Cincinnati, then turned into a 21-point win at Temple and concluded with a loss to Memphis. Such is life in the AAC, I guess.

Ford leads No. 22 Saint Mary’s past Pepperdine, 75-61

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MORAGA, Calif. (AP) — Jordan Ford had 18 points and a career-high 10 rebounds, and No. 22 Saint Mary’s rolled to a 75-61 victory over Pepperdine on Thursday night.

Calvin Hermanson scored 14 points and Tanner Krebs added 12 for the Gaels (26-4, 15-2 West Coast Conference). Jock Landale scored 10 points and grabbed six rebounds.

Ford shot 7 for 11 from the field and 4 for 6 from 3-point range and fell two points short of tying his career scoring high.

Saint Mary’s remained one game behind Gonzaga (26-4, 16-1), a 77-72 winner at San Diego, in the WCC with one regular-season game to play. The Gaels can earn a share of the WCC regular-season title with a victory at home against Santa Clara and a Gonzaga loss at BYU on Saturday.

Saint Mary’s point guard Emmett Naar, who injured his left ankle late in the first half against Portland on Saturday, started and had three points and six assists in 14 minutes, most of those in the first half.

Trae Berhow and Knox Hellums each scored 13 points for Pepperdine (4-25, 1-16).

Ford had 14 points and six rebounds in the first half, when Saint Mary’s built a 46-26 lead.

Pepperdine guard Eric Cooper Jr., who averages 13.2 points, did not make the trip because of a shoulder injury. Udenyi Amadi started in his place.

BIG PICTURE

Pepperdine: The Waves lost their eighth straight game and are locked into sole possession of last place in the WCC. Pepperdine will be the No. 10 seed in the upcoming conference tournament.

Saint Mary’s: The Gaels won their second straight after losing back-to-back games to Gonzaga on Feb. 10 and San Francisco on Feb. 15. Saint Mary’s had won a school-record 19 straight games before falling to Gonzaga.

UP NEXT

Pepperdine hosts Portland on Saturday in its WCC regular-season finale. The Waves fell 85-76 in overtime at Portland on Feb. 1.

Saint Mary’s hosts Santa Clara on Saturday in its final WCC regular-season game. The Gaels beat the Broncos 81-57 on Jan. 11 at Santa Clara.

Thornton, Rivers lead Memphis past No. 23 Houston

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Jimario Rivers and Raynere Thornton each scored 21 points, helping Memphis beat No. 23 Houston 91-85 on Thursday night.

Rivers also grabbed nine rebounds and Thornton made four 3-pointers as Memphis (17-11, 8-7 American Athletic Conference) earned its third straight victory.

Rob Gray had 30 points and seven assists for Houston (21-6, 11-4), which entered the Top 25 this week for the first time this season. Armoni Brooks and Corey Davis Jr. each scored 15 points.

The Cougars led 43-37 at halftime, but they shot 32.3 percent from the field in the second half. The Tigers made 54 percent of their shots while rallying for the victory.

Memphis went ahead to stay with a 22-8 surge that made it 76-68 on Mike Parks Jr.’s basket with 6:28 remaining. The Tigers closed it out at the line, making 29 of 36 attempts for the game.

Houston had won five in a row. It went 18 of 20 at the line.

BIG PICTURE

Houston: The Cougars, one of the best 3-point shooting teams in the conference, went 4 for 15 from beyond the arc in the second half. They also surrendered their most points this season.

Memphis: Leading scorer Jeremiah Martin left in the first half with a lower body injury. Thornton picked up the scoring after the break, scoring 19 points in the second half.

UP NEXT

Houston: Entertains East Carolina on Sunday.

Memphis: Travels to UConn on Sunday

No. 6 Gonzaga rallies to beat San Diego, 77-72

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SAN DIEGO (AP) — Killian Tillie scored 17 points, Rui Hachimura added 16 and No. 6 Gonzaga beat San Diego 77-72 on Thursday night to clinch at least a share of the West Coast Conference title.

The Bulldogs (26-4, 16-1 WCC) defeated the Toreros (17-12, 8-9) for the eighth straight game and for the 19th time in their last 20 meetings.

Olin Cater III led San Diego with 21 points.

After trailing at halftime and falling behind by eight points in the second half, the Bulldogs didn’t seize the lead until midway through the second half, when Tillie’s 3-pointer made it 52-51.

It was a back-and-forth affair from there, with the Toreros relying on their stingy defense to slow the up-tempo Bulldogs. But Gonzaga had too much firepower and was helped by four straight free throws from Hachimura when taking the lead for good with four minutes remaining.

Gonzaga demolished San Diego in last year’s visit by 58 points. The Bulldogs built an early six-point lead in this one but San Diego bounced back, tying the score at 27 with five minutes left on the first of three straight 3-point baskets by Carter. When he hit his second one, San Diego had a three-point advantage, its first edge since the game’s opening bucket.

Tyler Williams’ mid-range jumper gave San Diego a 35-30 lead and it was 37-34 at halftime. San Diego finished the first 20 minutes by converting 4 of 7 3-point shots.

BIG PICTURE

Gonzaga: When Gonzaga fell behind early in the game, it was the first time it had trailed in four games. … The Bulldogs have earned at least a share of the WCC title in 17 of the past 18 seasons and 18 of the last 20. … Gonzaga is the only team in the nation with seven players to score at least 20 points in a game this season.

University of San Diego: The highest-ranked team the Toreros have beaten is No. 14 UCLA in the 2002-03 season. … Forward Cameron Neubauer was honored before the game on senior night.

UP NEXT

Gonzaga is at BYU on Saturday night.

San Diego is at San Francisco on Saturday night.

Carsen Edwards scores 40 points, No. 9 Purdue beats Illinois 93-86

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CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) — Carsen Edwards scored career-high 40 points and Dakota Mathias added 18 to help No. 9 Purdue outlast Illinois in a 93-86 victory on Thursday night.

The Boilermakers were without their second-leading scorer Vincent Edwards but had no problem scoring.

Purdue shot 58.3 percent from the field and 47.8 percent from beyond the 3-point line. Edwards and Mathias each had four from behind the arc.

There were eight lead changes in the first half, highlighted by two big runs. With just under 10 minutes left Edwards stole the ball and went down for a huge dunk to spark a 17-6 run for the Boilermakers. The Illini responded with a 10-3 run to close out the half trailing 43-38.

Illinois stayed within striking distance the rest of the game, but ultimately Purdue’s size and Edwards scoring were too much. The sophomore scored 25 of his points in the second half, including a monstrous dunk on Trent Frazier with just under seven minutes to play.

The Boilermakers also outrebounded the Illini 33-20.

Leron Black led Illinois with 28 points, notching his fourth-consecutive 20-point game.

BIG PICTURE

Illinois continues to struggle in close games. The Illini have now lost 10 games this season by single digits.

After losing three straight games, Purdue has reestablished itself in the Big Ten with two close victories over Penn State and Illinois. The Boilermakers are one win away from tying the second most victories in school history.