Atlantic 10 Conference Preview: Is it finally Rhode Island’s time?

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Beginning in September and running up through November 11th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2016-2017 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the Atlantic 10 conference.

Rhode Island and Dayton may both end up in the top-25 to begin the season. That should give a good indicator on how strong the Atlantic 10 should be this season. Outside the Rams and Flyers, the A-10 offers a host of competitors – remember, this was a conference that had a three-way tie for first place last season – that should contend for NCAA Tournament bids. A year after the A-10 saw Saint Joseph’s forward DeAndre Bembry selected in the first round of the NBA Draft, the league could end up having the nation’s leading scorer in Davidson senior guard Jack Gibbs. The 2016-17 season should be another notable one for the 14-team league.

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW:

1. Mike Lonergan Fired: The biggest story of the offseason was Mike Lonergan, who led George Washington to an NCAA Tournament appearance and an NIT Championship in five seasons, being removed as head coach following reports of alleged verbal and emotional abuse of players. The athletic department announced that Maurice Joseph, 31, was named as the interim coach just eight days before the season began.

2. E.C. Matthews Back: E.C. Matthews’ junior season lasted a grand total of 10 minutes. The 6-foot-5 guard tore his ACL in the opener, which stunted the Rams’ hopes of earning the program’s first NCAA Tournament bid since 1999. Matthews, who averaged 16.9 points per game as a sophomore, will rejoin a backcourt that includes juniors Jarvis Garrett and Jared Terrell.

3. Transfers: Several Atlantic 10 teams should benefit from transfers this season. Dayton, who saw transfer Charles Cooke (James Madison) emerge as an all-conference guard last year, welcomes in Josh Cunningham, a former top-100 recruit who logged 30.3 minutes per game for Bradley during the 2014-15 season. He has the versatility to play both the three and four for the Flyers, an area of they need to fill after the departure of Dyshawn Pierre. Jared Sina, the Seton Hall transfer, should take over the point guard role for George Washington. Stanford Robinson, the former Indiana guard, adds depth to Rhode Island backcourt that includes E.C. Matthews, Jarvis Garrett and Jared Terrell. St. Bonaventure, a darkhorse in the A10, adds Matt Mobley, who poured 17.2 points per game as a sophomore at Central Connecticut State, to a backcourt headlined by Jaylen Adams.

La Salle was the biggest benefactor of transfers. The Explorers added high-major transfers B.J. Johnson (Syracuse), Pookie Powell (Memphis) and Demetrius Henry (South Carolina) to a roster headlined by former transfer Jordan Price (Auburn).

4. Travis Ford Returns: Travis Ford took UMass to the NIT twice, ending as the runners-up in 2008, before taking the job at Oklahoma State. Nine years later, Ford is back in the Atlantic 10, this time taking over the rebuilding job that is Saint Louis. The Billikens were once the team to beat in the A-10. Ford will look to return to that status quickly. He has quickly made a presence on the recruiting trail by landing top-60 Jordan Goodwin.

5. NBCSN: More than 25 Atlantic 10 regular season games will be aired on NBCSN. That doesn’t include the A-10 second round and quarterfinals. All of these games will be streamed on NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports mobile app. The full schedule can be seen here.

MORE: 2016-17 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 11: Jack Gibbs #12 of the Davidson Wildcats celebrates a basket against the St. Bonaventure Bonnies during the Quarterfinals of the Atlantic 10 Basketball Tournament at the Barclays Center on March 11, 2016 in New York, New York. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
(Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

PRESEASON ATLANTIC 10 PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Jack Gibbs, Davidson

The 6-foot senior guard has a chance to lead the nation in scoring this season following a junior campaign which ended with him posting 23.5 points per game. During the 2015-16 season, Gibbs scored 30 or more points nine times and dropped 41 points twice — one of those games was a non-conference contest against Charlotte with Davidson great Steph Curry in attendance. He’ll log the same amount of minutes this season (35.5 per game in ’15-16) and will be tasked with making plays for the Wildcats on most possessions, so expect big numbers from Gibbs again this season.

MORE: 2016-17 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

THE REST OF THE ATLANTIC 10 FIRST TEAM:

  • Jaylen Adams, St. Bonaventure: The 6-foot-1 junior averaged 17.9 points, 3.7 rebounds and 5.0 assists per game, while shooting 44 percent from 3-point range.
  • Tyler Cavanaugh, George Washington: One of the most impactful transfers from a season ago averaged 16.8 points and 7.6 rebounds per game, while shooting 51 percent from the field (42 percent from three) and 83 percent from the free throw line.
  • Charles Cooke, Dayton: The James Madison transfer averaged 15.6 points per game, leading the Flyers during the 2015-16 season. His 3-point percentage jumped from 30 percent to 40 percent in his first season at Dayton.
  • E.C. Matthews, Rhode Island: A candidate for Atlantic 10 Player of the Year, Matthews tore his ACL 10 minutes into this past season. The 6-foot-4 lead guard averaged 16.9 points during his sophomore campaign.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW:

  • Mo Alie-Cox, VCU
  • T.J. Cline, Richmond
  • Hassan Martin, Rhode Island
  • Jordan Price, La Salle
  • Josh Cunningham, Dayton

BREAKOUT STAR: Jarvis Garrett, Rhode Island

E.C. Matthews was ruled out for the season with an ACL tear in mid-November. During his absence, Jared Terrell stepped into a starring role, averaging 13.6 points per game as a sophomore. With EC Matthews back, along with senior forward Kuran Iverson, Rhody will need to share the touches on offense. That’s where Jarvis Garrett comes into play. The 6-foot-1 floor general could become a catalyst for a program which is looking to snap an NCAA Tournament drought since 1999.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Maurice Joseph, George Washington

Typically this section is reserved for coaches on the hot seat. While Joseph’s career isn’t in a make or break situation in 2016-17, it is still a pressure-filled debut. Joseph has only been a full-time assistant for three seasons. He’s inheriting a program, amid controversy, that reached significant heights during Mike Lonergan’s tenure. In five seasons, the Colonials reached an NCAA Tournament — the first time since 2007 — and won the NIT Championship. The cupboard is far from bare for the Colonials, a team that has the talent to contend for another tournament bid.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING … : You don’t want to be in the same bracket as Rhode Island or Dayton.

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT : A sleeper emerging

Last season, three teams were tied for first place in the Atlantic 10. Dayton was a team many foresaw retaining its status atop the A10. But did anyone expected VCU (post Shaka Smart era) and St. Bonaventure to accompany the Flyers? This year, Rhode Island and Dayton both have the talent to make them fringe top-25 teams, but there is a host of programs that could contend in the A-10. You can’t look past Will Wade and VCU after his stellar debut season with the Rams. Same goes for Davidson in Bob McKillop’s 28th season at the helm. La Salle is another team to monitor throughout the year, especially if its high-major talent can mesh quickly. Will George Washington rally together following the offseason controversy? Can St. Bonaventure make it back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2012 behind the leadership of one of the league’s top performers in Jaylen Adams?

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR:

  • November 19, St. Mary’s vs. Dayton
  • November 29, Rhode Island vs. Valparaiso 
  • December 4, Florida State vs. George Washington (Verizon Center, Washington, D.C.)
  • December 6, La Salle vs. Villanova (The Palestra)
  • December 17, Kansas vs. Davidson (Kansas City, Missouri)
NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 14: E.C. Matthews #0 of the Rhode Island Rams looks on during a semifinal game against the Dayton Flyers in the 2015 Men's Atlantic 10 Basketball Tournament at the Barclays Center on March 14, 2015 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. (Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images)
(Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images)

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @CDiSano44

PREDICTED FINISH

1. Rhode Island: It feels like this has been coming for years, but 2016-17 should be the season the Rams claim the top spot in the A10 standings and advance to the program’s first NCAA Tournament in this millennium. EC Matthews, Jared Terrell and Jarvis Garrett comprise the best backcourt in the league, while Hassan Martin and Kuran Iverson hold down the fort down low.
2. Dayton: The Flyers return Charles Cooke, Scoochie Smith and Kendall Pollard among others. That said, there’s a lot of experience on this roster which is led by the league’s best coach in Archie Miller. Dayton boasted a top-15 defense last season, per kenpom.com, and retains one of the league’s biggest scoring threats in Cooke. Josh Cunningham, the Bradley transfer and former top-100 recruit, could have a big impact on the frontline, especially after Kostas Antetokounmpo was ruled ineligible.
3. VCU: Will Wade kept the program where his predecessor had left it in his first season back in Richmond. Gone is Melvin Johnson, the team’s leading scorer, but JeQuan Lewis, Jordan Burgess, Justin Tillman, Ahmed Hamdy-Mohamed and Mo Alie-Cox return, while the program welcomes in heralded recruit De’Riante Jenkins. VCU went from Havoc to half-court defense, but it was still one of the top defenses in the league. That should be the case again this season, especially with one of the conference’s top backcourt.
4. Davidson: The Wildcats return the best player in the league in Jack Gibbs. They also have a formidable frontline. Peyton Aldridge, who averaged 15.5 points and 6.5 rebounds per game last season, will be joined by transfer Will Magarity (Boston College). Davidson has always been an offensive-oriented program, but last season they dipped to sub-200 in the nation in defensive efficiency, according to kenpom.com.
5. La Salle: Dr. John Giannini has reinforcements coming in after a last-place finish in 2015-16. Three high-major transfers — Pookie Powell, B.J. Johnson and Demetrius Henry — join Jordan Price and a crew of juniors who logged a ton of minutes last season. If everything goes to plan, this could be a scary team come conference play.
6. St. Bonaventure: The Bonnies shared the regular season title last year, but had no NCAA Tournament bid to show for it. A redemption tour of sorts begins with Jaylen Adams one of the top guards in the league. The backcourt will be bolstered by junior Idris Taqqee and transfer Matt Mobley (Central Connecticut State), which should help the Bonnies combat the loss of Marcus Posley.
7. George Washington: GW’s offseason has been documented above, but the Colonials have talent. Tyler Cavanaugh is arguably the best big in the conference, leading a frontline that includes Yuta Watanabe and Harvard transfer Patrick Steeves. However, GW has lost Patricio Garino, Kevin Larsen and Joe McDonald, a trio that helped the program be balanced on both offense and defense over the last several seasons.
8. Richmond: The Spiders will look to bounce back from a 16-16 season behind the inside-out duo of big man T.J. Cline and guard ShawnDre’ Jones. Richmond’s defensive will need to return to form if the Chris Mooney’s team wants to contend.
9. George Mason: Otis Livingston II, one of several freshmen who had to play through mistakes last season, will lead the Patriots this year. After averaging 11.9 points and 3.9 assists per game, Livingston could be a breakout player in a backcourt that includes Marquise Moore and fellow sophomore Jaire Grayer.
10. Fordham: If you want to pick a deep sleeper in the A10, look at the Rams. Jeff Neubauer led the program to its first winning season in nine years. He returns A10 Rookie of the Year Joseph Chartouny and adds graduate transfer JaVontae Hawkins (Eastern Kentucky), who averaged 17.0 points per game last season.
11. Saint Joseph’s: The reigning A10 Player of the Year, DeAndre Bembry, went 21st overall in the NBA Draft. This is on top of Isaiah Miles and Aaron Brown graduating. The Hawks will look to Shavar Newkirk and Lamarr Kimble as leaders.
12. Duquesne: The Dukes lost their top four scorers from a season ago. Tarin Smith and Rene Castro will need to step into big roles to fill the offensive production of Micah Mason and Derrick Colter.
13. UMass: Donte Clark will score points for the Minutemen, but UMass fans should look to the future as Derek Kellogg reeled in the top recruiting class, headlined by DeJon Jarreau and Chris Baldwin.
14. Saint Louis: The Billikens hired Travis Ford, who is recruiting at a high level. He’s already landed a top-60 recruit. Saint Louis has a promising future with Ford at the helm.

Tennessee center Tamari Key out for season with blood clots

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee senior center Tamari Key will miss the rest of this season because of blood clots in her lungs, coach Kellie Harper said.

Doctors found the issue during testing. Key is expected to make a full recovery after treatment from University of Tennessee doctors, Harper said, adding that her sole concern is Key getting the medical care she needs to heal and return to full strength.

Key missed the first game of her career in a win Tuesday night over Chattanooga after playing her first 99.

“This is much bigger than basketball. We are so grateful that this medical condition was caught,” Harper said in a statement. “Our entire program will be right beside Tamari during this process and welcomes prayers and positive thoughts from Lady Vol Nation and beyond.”

The Lady Vols opened the season ranked fifth but currently are 5-5.

The 6-foot-6 Key from Cary, North Carolina, currently is Tennessee’s third-leading scorer averaging 8.4 points a game and averaged 4.2 rebounds per game. She started all 34 games as the Lady Vols reached their first Sweet 16 since 2016 last season and set the school record with 119 blocked shots.

Key had 18 blocks this season and 295 for her career, five away from becoming the eighth woman to reach that mark in Southeastern Conference history.

No. 7 Tennessee beats Eastern Kentucky, win streak hits 7

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tyreke Key scored 10 of the first 12 points of the second half and finished with 17, and No. 7 Tennessee overcame a sluggish first half and beat Eastern Kentucky 84-49 on Wednesday night.

“Tyreke is handling the ball now,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “That’s all new to him. He keeps getting better.”

The Volunteers (8-1) struggled in the first half but still built an 11-point lead over Eastern Kentucky (4-5) on the way to their seventh straight victory.

Key led Tennessee in scoring before leaving with a cramp in his right leg with 6:15 left in the game. Julian Phillips had 16 points and 10 rebounds, and Zakai Zeigler and Uros Plavsic added 13 points apiece. Olivier Nkamhoua scored 10.

“I’m still settling in,” said Key, a transfer from Indiana State who didn’t play last year while recovering from an injury. “This is a new role. I’m taking steps every day and keep learning.”

Eastern Kentucky, which came into the game averaging 83.5 points, was held well below that total due to 17% (6 for 35) shooting from long range and 22% (15 for 68) overall. Leland Walker led the Colonels with 13 points.

It was the seventh time this season Tennessee has held its opponent to 50 or fewer points.

“(Tennessee) is the best defensive team in the country,” Eastern Kentucky coach A.W. Hamilton said. “I think they’re the best team in the country.”

At one point in the first half, Tennessee was shooting 20% and still leading by 10 points. The teams combined to shoot 4 of 32 from 3-point range in the first 20 minutes. The Vols, who shot 24% (8 of 34), led 32-21 at the break.

“If we can’t make shots, can you find a way to win the game?” Barnes said. “When the shot’s not going in, find a way to play. The first thing we talk about is our defense.”

Tennessee shot 41 free throws. Phillips, a true freshman, was 7 of 10.

“(Phillips) has learned the pace of the game,” Barnes said. “I’m not sure there’s been a more effective freshman in the country (this season).”

POLL IMPLICATIONS

Since its early season slip against Colorado, Tennessee has had a steady ascent in the rankings. The Vols’ next two games – neutral site (Brooklyn) against No, 13 Maryland (Dec. 11) and at No. 10 Arizona (Dec. 17) – will go a long way toward justifying the No. 7 ranking.

BIG PICTURE

Eastern Kentucky: The Colonels’ run-and-gun style of offense had them averaging 83.5 points through their first eight games. They ran into a defensive buzz saw in Tennessee, which was yielding just over 51 points.

Tennessee: Santiago Vescovi sat out his second straight game with a shoulder problem. He is expected to be ready to play Sunday against Maryland. . The Vols have won seven in a row since their loss to Colorado.

UP NEXT

Eastern Kentucky: The Colonels host Boyce College on Saturday.

Tennessee: Take on No. 13 Maryland on Sunday at the Hall of Fame Invitational in New York.

Hoggard scores career-high 23, Michigan State snaps 2-game skid

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Matthew OHaren/USA TODAY Sports
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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A.J. Hoggard scored a career-high 23 points, Joey Hauser had 12 points and 15 rebounds and Michigan State beat Penn State 67-58 on Wednesday night to snap a two-game losing streak.

Michigan State (6-4, 1-1 Big Ten) avoided going .500 or worse after 10 games for the first time in 18 seasons.

Hoggard blocked an open layup with less than a minute to play and Hauser grabbed the rebound before being fouled and making two free throws at the other end for a 66-58 lead.

Hoggard, Hauser and Tyson Walker combined for 31 of Michigan State’s 32 second-half points.

The Michigan State defense allowed only one made field goal in the final five minutes. Penn State was just 1 of 9 from 3-point range in the second half after 7 of 18 before halftime.

Walker scored 10 of his 14 points in the second half for Michigan State. Hoggard, who entered third in the conference in assists at 6.3, had six rebounds, two assists and one key block.

Hoggard gave Michigan State 35-33 lead – its first since 4-2 – after back-to-back three-point plays with 59.3 seconds left in the first half. It was tied at 35-all at the break.

Seth Lundy scored 16 points and Jalen Pickett had 13 points, 17 rebounds and eight assists for Penn State (6-3, 0-1)

Michigan State hosts Brown on Saturday. Penn State, which hadn’t played since a double-overtime loss to Clemson on Nov. 29, plays at No. 17 Illinois on Saturday.

No. 7 Virginia Tech posts 9th straight win, beats Boston College 73-58

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BOSTON — Reigning Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year Elizabeth Kitley had 22 points and 12 rebounds, and Cayla King scored 16 on Wednesday night to lead No. 7 Virginia Tech to a 73-58 victory over Boston College, the Hokies’ ninth straight win.

Taylor Soule, one of two BC transfers on the roster for Virginia Tech (9-0, 1-0 ACC), added nine points and five rebounds. Soule scored more than 1,500 points and grabbed almost 700 rebounds in four seasons at BC, earning All-ACC honors three times.

Andrea Daley scored 15 points and Maria Gakdeng scored 14 for BC (7-4, 0-1). They each grabbed six rebounds.

Virginia Tech scored 17 of the game’s first 21 points and led by as many as 19 in the third quarter before BC cut the deficit to 10 in the fourth. Leading 64-54 with under three minutes left and the shot clock expiring, Kayana Traylor hit a 3-pointer for the Hokies.

Gakdeng missed two free throws for BC, and then Kitley scored from inside to make it a 15-point game.

Clara Ford, who also played four years in Chestnut Hill, pitched in 2 points in 2 minutes against her former team.

BIG PICTURE

At No. 7, the Hokies have the highest ranking in the program’s history. With the victory over BC, a 10th straight win against North Carolina-Asheville on Sunday would leave Virginia Tech in position to move up even higher should a top five team falter.

UP NEXT

Virginia Tech: Hosts North Carolina-Asheville on Sunday.

Boston College: Hosts Albany on Saturday.

Michigan’s Jaelin Llewellyn out for season with knee injury

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ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Michigan point guard Jaelin Llewellyn is out for the rest of the season with an injured left knee and is expected to have surgery next month.

Wolverines coach Juwan Howard made the announcement three days after Llewellyn was hurt in a loss to Kentucky in London.

Llewellyn transferred to Michigan from Princeton last spring and that seemed to lead to Frankie Collins transferring to Arizona State after a solid freshman season for the Wolverines.

Llewellyn averaged seven points, 3.3 rebounds and 2.8 assists in eight games at Michigan. He was an All-Ivy League player last season and averaged nearly 16 points over three seasons at Princeton.