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.