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.

Report: Western Kentucky’s Lamonte Bearden staying in 2018 NBA Draft

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Western Kentucky guard Lamonte Bearden will stay in the 2018 NBA Draft after hiring an agent, according to a report from ESPN’s Jeff Goodman.

The 6-foot-3 Bearden just completed his redshirt junior season with the Hilltoppers as he averaged 11.8 points, 3.4 assists and 2.3 rebounds per game. A slippery guard with good size, Bearden shot 47 percent from the field and 82 percent from the charity stripe while also getting in the passing lanes for 1.7 steals per game.

Although Bearden has good size and athleticism at lead guard, his perimeter jumper has been inconsistent during his college career. He was 31 percent from three-point range (a career high) this past season. Starting his college career at Buffalo, Bearden helped lead the Bulls to the NCAA tournament before opting to play in Conference USA for Western Kentucky.

The Hilltoppers will certainly miss Bearden’s presence in their backcourt as the program has seven new players signed for next season.

USC makes a statement landing Class of 2019 four-star forward Isaiah Mobley

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USC ended a strong week of recruiting with another major statement on Friday afternoon as four-star Class of 2019 forward Isaiah Mobley pledged to the Trojans.

The second major Class of 2019 commitment for USC during the week, the 6-foot-9 power forward joins five-star big man Onyeka Okongwu. The Compton Magic teammates should be able to help replace the loss of Bennie Boatwright and Chimezie Metu, with Mobley playing the skilled, floor-spacing Boatwright’s role and Okongwu providing the interior energy of Metu.

Having two highly-touted big men commit in the same week is huge for USC. And it looks like the start of even bigger things in a continually-evolving SoCal recruiting war against Pac-12 rival UCLA.

Landing both Mobley and Okongwu is significant for the Trojans for a number of reasons. As previously mentioned, both come from the famous Compton Magic grassroots program that runs on the adidas Gauntlet. While landing AAU teammates from a regional program is common for high-major programs of USC’s stature, the commitments signify that the Trojans are the ones with the biggest pull with the Magic at the current moment.

And the Magic used to get raided by UCLA.

In the past few years, the Bruins signed T.J. Leaf, Ike Anigbogu, Jaylen Hands and Jalen Hill from the Compton Magic. Now, it’s USC who looks to be in the driver’s seat recruiting the program.

The Trojans aren’t done, either.

Newly-hired USC assistant coach Eric Mobley is the father Isaiah Mobley, as well as five-star Class of 2020 big man Evan Mobley. As Rivals national recruiting analyst Eric Bossi noted in his story about Isaiah, “Barring something strange happening, look for the younger Mobley to join his brother and father by committing to USC within the next two weeks.”

That would mean the Trojans would have landed three top-30 caliber big men in the span of a few weeks. That allows the USC coaching staff to recruit other positions extremely hard. Outside of Kentucky, USC has arguably the best future recruiting status of any program in the country.

The Trojans have taken full advantage of UCLA letting go popular assistant coach David Grace. The Bruins are still pulling in top-100 prospects, as evidenced by Grant Sherfield and Jaime Jaquez’s commitments in the Class of 2019, but losing two Magic kids in a week to a rival has to sting.

Considering where USC was last fall with the FBI investigation, who saw this type of recruiting swing coming? Other programs involved in the investigation like Arizona, Auburn and Oklahoma State have landed solid recruits. They also haven’t pulled in nearly the high-level talent that the Trojans currently have committed.

Even amidst the uncertainty surrounding the FBI investigation, USC is still pulling in elite talent while beating local rivals. It’ll be fascinating to see if the Trojans can continue to recruit at this level as they try to fill out the rest of an important recruiting class.

USF signs Oklahoma State transfer Zack Dawson

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USF landed a major addition on Friday as the school announced the signing of Oklahoma State transfer guard Zack Dawson.

The 6-foot-3 Dawson is a former consensus top-100 prospect coming out of high school as he’ll have to sit out the 2018-19 season due to NCAA transfer rules. A native of the region, Dawson will have three years of eligibility remaining once he’s able to play again.

Dismissed from Oklahoma State on Dec. 14 for violating team rules, Dawson averaged 4.4 points and1.6 assists per contest as he only suited up in five games for the Cowboys. Once Dawson is eligible to play for USF, he gives the Bulls a potentially dynamic backcourt along with rising sophomore guard David Collins.

“We are excited to welcome Zack back home to Florida as a member of the Bulls family,” USF head coach Brian Gregory said in a release. “He is a dynamic and versatile guard who can impact the game in a variety of ways. Zack comes from one of the best high school programs in the state, South Miami High School, so he immediately brings a championship attitude here to the University of South Florida.”

This is a really nice pickup for the Bulls, as they utilized a local transfer to help bolster the roster. Landing top-100 kids out of high school is going to be tough until USF boosts its basketball credibility. But getting a former top-100 player on the transfer market is a solid approach to building the Bulls into a respectable threat.

Michael Porter Jr.: ‘I’m the best player in this draft’

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The more I think about it, the more that Michael Porter Jr. is becoming the most interesting prospect at the top of the 2018 NBA Draft.

As a high school senior, he was considered by many to be the top player in the class, a 6-foot-10 combo-forward with a lethal three-point shot, NBA dunk contest athleticism and the versatility to, one day, be a multi-positional defender that would seamlessly fit into fit into the modern NBA.

But his one and only season at Missouri was derailed by back surgery, and that has allowed the rest of the class of 2017 to shine while we have focused on everything else that comes with drafting Porter. The reputation that he had for the majority of his high school career of being soft. The intel that was coming out of Missouri, that he was cocky and arrogant and something of a bad teammate. Questions about whether or not he is truly a wing or a four, more like a more athletic Lauri Markkanen.

When the only thing that we’ve had a chance to see this season is an out-of-shape Porter struggling in postseason games, it shouldn’t really be a surprise that his hype train has derailed.

“I know without a doubt that I’m the — I played against all these guys, they’re all great players — but I’m the best player in this draft,” Porter told ESPN. “And I just can’t wait to show what I’m capable of.”

And therein lies the conundrum for any team drafting him.

I have little doubt that Porter is going to be able to score and score a lot in the NBA. I think he and Bagley are the safest bets to average 20 points at the NBA level before their rookie contract runs out.

But putting up points and playing on winning basketball teams are not one and the same. For a ten-year stretch after his rookie season, Rudy Gay averaged at least 17.2 points while making the playoffs once during that stretch. Is that what Porter is going to turn into at the next level? Or will be find a way to become the kind of NBA defender his athleticism says he should be and, by the time he signs his first contract extension, end up the player that Paul George is?

The mitigating factor here is that Porter is going to do a fantastic job in every interview he has. He’s an intelligent, charismatic and articulate kid that is going to be able to sell himself. The red flags that he has aren’t going to show when he’s sitting down in front of NBA general managers.

They would have shown up — or been written off — if there was a season’s worth of game-tape available, but there isn’t. What that means is that scouts are going to have to decide whether or not Porter, who by all accounts had a very impressive senior season in high school, is that player or the one that had the reputation for being soft for years before that.

And all of that is going to come after the doctor’s have a chance to examine his back to see if the surgery he underwent fixed what was wrong, or if this is the kind of situation where a recurrence is likely.

The result is the widest range for any player at the top of the draft.

He could sell someone on taking him as a top four pick. He could also slide his way down to the Knicks at No. 9 or the 76ers at No. 10.

Which is what makes him the most interesting prospect at the top of this draft.

P.J. Washington ‘definitely going back to school’ without first round guarantee

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Kentucky forward P.J. Washington is one of the handful of players that currently finds themselves in the tenuous position of having their name in the NBA draft pool without having a clear picture of where, exactly, they are going to end up getting picked.

Will they be a late-first round pick? Will he be an early second round pick? Will he even be drafted at all?

Washington told reporters at the NBA combine this week that, if he’s a first round pick, he’ll be heading to the NBA. If he only gets a second round guarantee, he’ll be returning to school.

As we detailed last week, getting selected in the second round does not mean a player is destined to end up being broke his first year out of school. In the last six drafts, only one college player picked in the top ten picks of the second round (31-40) did not receive a guaranteed contract. In the 2017 NBA Draft, every college player selected in the top 50 received a guaranteed deal of at least one year, and Thomas Bryant was the only player whose one-year guaranteed deal was at the league minimum.

That doesn’t mean that Washington should leave Kentucky if he’s going to be a second round pick. If he returns to school, becomes a 42 percent three-point shooter (and can make free throws) and proves that he’s more versatile defensively than he was his year, then he could move up into the first round in a weaker 2019 draft.

It’s a risk for him, financially, to leave after this year if he doesn’t get that first round guarantee. It’s also a risk to return to school, where the best-case scenario isn’t always what happens.

I don’t envy the decision he has to make, but I am glad that Washington will have every chance in the world to be informed about the decision.