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2018-19 Atlantic 10 Preview: Turnover at the top creates wide-open league race

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Beginning in September and running up until November 6th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2018-2019 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the Atlantic 10 Conference.


Since sending a combined 11 teams to the NCAA tournament in 2013 and 2014, the Atlantic 10 has put just 12 combined teams into the tournament in the four years since.

In those four years, the league has been the target of more powerful conferences.

First, in realignment and expansion. More recently in pilfering head coaches like Shaka Smart, Archie Miller and, this offseason, Dan Hurley.

The conference was fortunate to get three teams into the Dance last year after a fluky A-10 tournament title run.

That mark may be difficult to repeat this year unless the top of the league exceed expectations.

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW

1. Turnover at the top

Predicting the contenders of the A10 in recent years hasn’t been much of a chore with the likes of Rhode Island, VCU, St. Bonaventure and Dayton fixtures at the top. This year doesn’t promise the same continuity. Rhode Island is down four starters and a head coach, VCU is still finding footing in the wake of Shaka Smart and Will Wade’s departure, the Bonnies lost their backcourt and Dayton is rebuilding since the loss of Archie Miller. The top crop this year features some familiar names that look to be back on an upswing like St. Louis and George Mason along with traditional contenders St. Joseph’s and Davidson, but the league doesn’t have any heavyweights and may be without much depth either.

Travis Ford (Ed Zurga/Getty Images)

2. Built Ford tough?

St. Louis has gone 29-37 overall and 15-21 in the two years since Travis Ford took the helm after eight years leading Oklahoma State, but this would seem to be the season when things could take a major leap forward. The Billikens are adding transfers Traimaine Isabell, Jr. (Missouri and Drexel) and Dion Wiley (Maryland) along with four-star recruit Carte’Are Gordon to a core that already included Javon Bess (all-A-10 defense), Hasahn French (all-A-10 rookie) and Jordan Goodwin (11.5 points and 7.5 rebounds).

Ford’s teams have always played defense, and he got the Billikens to buckle down on that end last year after struggling to do so in his debut season, but if St. Louis is going to win the A-10 and make some noise nationally, it’ll have to improve on offense. They went from being one of the worst offenses in the country in 2017 to merely poor last year based largely on hitting the offensive glass — a good idea when you’re one of the weakest shooting teams in the country. If the Billikens can hold the line defensively and make big a leap on the other end, they’ve got the talent to be quite good.

3. Davidson’s next star(s)

Every sweet-shooting guard Davidson ever has, from now until eternity, will likely have the unfortunate fate of being compared, or at least mentioned in relation to, Steph Curry. Such is life when an under-the-radar recruit evolves into a transformational, generational player under your watch. Fair or not, expect to hear plenty of Curry talk when it comes to sophomore Kellan Grady. The 6-foot-5 guard shot 37.2 percent from 3-point range and had a true-shooting percentage of 61.1 percent while scoring 18 points per game.

Grady, obviously, isn’t Curry, but he’s a damn good player with a potential NBA future. Before that, though, he’ll be tasked with helping get Davidson back to a second-straight NCAA tournament and compete for its first league title since 2015. He won’t be doing it alone, though, as Jon Axel Gudmundsson is back after a sophomore campaign in which he shot 40.6 percent from beyond the arc. They’ll both need to be at their best to replace Peyton Aldridge and the 21 points he scored every night.

4. Rhode Island rebuild

Dan Hurley took Rhode Island from eight wins in his first season of 2012-13 to a combined 51 wins and two NCAA tournaments the last two years. Now, though, he’s gone, off to Connecticut to try to return the Huskies to prominence, and so, too, are four starters off last year’s squad. Rhode Island bet on itself when finding Hurley’s replacement, promoting David Cox, who spent four years on Hurley’s staff (including two as associate head coach), to the first chair.

Cox also helped preside over a recruiting class that will be carrying a heavy load, but is well-regarded. It’s highlighted by top-100 forward Jermaine Harris and three-stars Dana Tate and Tyrese Martin. Returning guard Jeff Dowtin should help lead the way after averaging just under 10 points per game as a role player and lone returning starter, but the Rams have quite a bit of work ahead of them replacing the likes of Jared Terrell and E.C. Matthews.

Phil Martelli (Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

5. How high can healthy Hawks fly?

St. Joseph’s finished the year on a tear, winning seven of its last nine games and nearly upending Rhode Island in the A10 tournament. That, along with a fourth-place finish in the regular season standings, is an admirable season, but one in which the Hawks couldn’t have helped but wonder what might had been if Lamarr Kimble and Charlie Brown, who combined to play one game last season, had been healthy.

Both are now back to a team that sustained minimal losses from a season ago. Kimble, who broke his foot one game into the season, averaged 15.5 points per game as sophomore wile Brown put up 12.8 as a freshman before a broken wrist robbed him of 2017-18. Their return along with four starters, including Taylor Funk (11.8 ppg), means St. Joe’s has championship aspirations and eyes on its third NCAA tournament in six years.

PRESEASON ATLANTIC 10 PLAYER OF THE YEAR: KELLAN GRADY, Davidson

So now that we’ve previously established that Kellan Grady is not, in fact, Stephen Curry, let’s talk about what exactly he is.

Grady was a fringe top-100 recruit in the 2017 class, and picked Davidson over other A10 programs and more than a handful Power 5 offers. The decision to follow in his idol’s footsteps – the Boston native picked up NBA league pass as an 11-year-old to follow Curry’s rookie season – paid off in a major way during his own rookie campaign. He went for more than 20 in his first two games (hitting seven 3s in his debut), erupted for 30 on Christmas Day against Akron and then 39 in a three-OT thriller against St. Bonaventure. He did all that while playing aside A10 player of the year Peyton Aldridge, who, while being an excellent player, took 30 percent of Davidson’s shots while on the floor. His departure means more looks for Grady. That could mean that Grady’s stay at Davidson is one year shorter than Curry himself.

THE REST OF THE ATLANTIC 10 FIRST TEAM

  • JOSH CUNNINGHAM, Dayton: A former top-150 recruit who began his career at Bradley, blossomed in his junior year, averaging 15.6 points and 8.4 rebounds while shooting 64.6 percent from the floor.
  • OTIS LIVINGSTON, George Mason: The 5-foot-11 point guard from New Jersey put up 17.3 points per game last year for the Patriots.
  • LUWANE PIPKINS, UMass: The Minuteman went from 10.2 ppg as a freshman to 21.2 ppg as a sophomore thanks in large part to shooting 42.6 percent from 3-point range.
  • JAVON BESS, St. Louis: The Michigan State transfer emerged as a major contributor last year and could be even better with an improved team around him.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW

  • JEFF DOWTIN, Rhode Island
  • CHARLIE BROWN, St. Joseph’s
  • CARTE’ARE GORDON, St. Louis
  • JON AXEL GUDMUNDSSON, Davidson
  • GRANT GOLDEN, Richmond
Josh Cunningham (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

BREAKOUT STAR

Carte’Are Gordon is the rare top-75 recruit to call the A-10 home, which makes him interesting enough, but Gordon’s ability to do stuff like render a backboard to mere smithereens means there’s a decent chance your Twitter feed features a healthy helping of Gordon highlights, especially if St. Louis is the class of the conference.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE

Fordham isn’t exactly a traditional power or a program with exactingly high hoops standards, but the Rams have gone in the wrong direction the last two years under Jeff Neubauer. He posted a 17-win season after taking over for Tom Pecora, who had five-straight losing seasons, in 2016, but the Rams regressed to 13 wins in 2017 and down to nine last year. The recipe for improvement – unless you’re at Duke or Kentucky, which is decidedly not the case here – does not include eight freshmen on the roster, as Neubauer has this season.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING …

The Atlantic 10’s trouble continued without strength beyond the top, limiting it to three NCAA tournament teams if all goes well.

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT …

While the league may not have its historical depth, there’s plenty interesting with St. Louis, George Mason, St. Joe’s and others, but the excitement the A10 generates this year is going to come from Kellan Grady. He’s a potential superstar.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR

  • Dec. 22, St. Louis vs. Florida State
  • Dec. 29, George Mason vs. Kansas State
  • Dec. 8, St. Joseph’s vs. Villanova
  • Dec. 29, Davidson vs. North Carolina
  • Dec. 8, Dayton vs. Auburn
Otis Livingston II (Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

PREDICTED FINISH

1. ST. LOUIS: Year 3 under Travis Ford should bring the level of success the Billikens were hoping for when they became Ford’s post-Oklahoma State landing spot. With a solid group of returners meshing with talented newcomers, St. Louis should be the class of the Atlantic 10.

2. ST. JOSEPH’S: Phil Martelli’s group was competitive last year despite losing two of its top players for essentially the entire season. WIth Lamarr Kimble and Charlie Brown back and healthy, however, the Hawks should be in position to be more than a fly in the ointment – they should be among the A10’s best.

3. DAVIDSON: Replacing A10 player of the year Peyton Aldridge is no easy task, but coach Bob McKillop has a potential first-round draft pick in Kellan Grady, but also dynamic backcourt mates Jon Axel Gudmundsson and KiShawn Pritchett. There are frontcourt questions, but none loud enough to doubt the Wildcats much.

4. GEORGE MASON: Otis Livingston and Jaire Grayer (son of former NBA player Jeff) give the Patriotsa significant one-two scoring punch and Virginia transfer Jarred Reuter could help solidify a defense that struggled.

5. UMASS: It was a struggle for Matt McCall’s team in his first season in Amherst, but things are looking up in Year 2. Luwane Pipkins can get buckets with the best of them, but the Minutemen will need to clean up the defense to really make an A10 run.

6. ST. BONAVENTURE: The Bonnies won 13-straight to end the regular season and get an at-large bid before knocking off UCLA in the First Four last year, but the losses of Jaylen Adams and Matt Mobley means they’re due for a step back this season.

7. RICHMOND: The Spiders limped to the finish line last year, dismissed second-leading scorer De’Monte Buckingham and lost Khwan Fore to Louisville, but Grant Golden should be one of the best in the conference and keep the Spiders competitive.

Mike Rhoades (Darryl Oumi/Getty Images)

8. VCU: Star guard Marcus Evans suffered a second Achilles tear this summer, but is still hopeful to play this season. With his health in doubt, however, the Rams could be in for bumpy ride in Mike Rhoades’ second season.

9. DAYTON: Josh Cunningham leads a group of four returning starters that should make things better for Anthony Grant in his second season with the Flyers, though frontcourt issues could hold them back.

10. RHODE ISLAND: The Rams welcome a solid recruiting class and David Cox represents stability on the coaching staff, but Rhode Island’s losses are simply too much to suffer without ensuing struggles.

11. DUQUESNE: Keith Dambrot is counting on five Division I transfers to get things off the ground in his second season in Pittsburgh after a 13-year run at his alma mater Akron.

12. GEORGE WASHINGTON: Yuta Watanabe exhausting his eligibility would have been a tough blow by itself, but Jair Bolden transferring to South Carolina makes this an especially tough hill to climb for coach Maurice Joseph in Year 3.

13. LA SALLE: Ashley Howard had heaps of success across town on Jay Wright’s national championship staff, but he’s got a significant rebuild job ahead of him with the Explorers.

14. FORDHAM: Joseph Chartouny transferring to Marquette was a huge loss that will loom large for a Rams team that struggled mightily last year.

John Petty Jr. returns to Alabama for senior season

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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Alabama guard John Petty Jr. is staying in school instead of entering the NBA draft.

The Crimson Tide junior announced his decision to return for his senior season Monday on Twitter, proclaiming: “I’m back.”

Petty, the Tide’s top 3-point shooter, averaged 14.5 points and a team-high 6.6 rebounds rebounds last season. He was second on the team in assists.

Petty made 85 3-pointers in 29 games, shooting at a 44% clip.

Alabama coach Nate Oats called him “one of the best, if not the best, shooters in the country.”

“He’s made it clear that it’s his goal to become a first round pick in the 2021 NBA Draft and we’re going to work with him to make sure he’s in the best position to reach that goal,” Oats said.

Fellow Tide guard Kira Lewis Jr. is regarded as a likely first-round draft pick.

McKinley Wright IV returns to Colorado

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McKinley Wright IV will be back for season No. 4 with the Colorado Buffaloes.

The point guard tested the NBA draft process before announcing a return for his senior year. It’s a big boost for a Buffaloes team that’s coming off a 21-11 mark in 2019-20 and was potentially looking at an NCAA Tournament bid before the season was halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Wright was an All-Pac-12 first team selection a season ago, along with an all-defensive team pick. He and athletic forward Tyler Bey declared for the draft in late March. Bey remains in the draft.

“We’ve got unfinished business,” said Wright, who averaged 14.4 points and 5.0 assists per game last season.

Midway through the season, the Buffaloes were looking like a lock for their first NCAA Tournament appearance since ’15-16. Then, the team hit a five-game skid, including a loss to Washington State in the Pac-12 tournament. Simply put, they hit a defensive rut they just couldn’t shake out of, Wright said. It drove him to work that much harder in the offseason.

“This is my last go-around and I’ve got big dreams,” the 6-footer from Minnesota said. “I want to take CU to a place they haven’t been in a while. We want to go back to the tournament and win high-level games.”

The feedback from NBA scouts was reaffirming for Wright. He said they appreciated his transition game, movement away from the ball and his defensive intangibles. They also gave Wright areas he needed to shore up such as assist-to-turnover ratio and shooting the 3-pointer with more consistency.

He took it to heart while training in Arizona during the pandemic. He recently returned to Boulder, Colorado, where he’s going through quarantine before joining his teammates for workouts.

“The work I put in and the time I spent in the gym compared to all my other offseasons, it’s a big gap,” Wright said. “Last offseason, I thought I worked hard. But it was nothing compared to the time and different type of mindset I put myself in this year.”

Another motivating factor for his return was this: a chance to be the first in his family to earn his college degree. He’s majoring in ethnic studies with a minor in communications.

“My grandparents are excited about that. My parents are excited about that,” Wright said. “I’m excited about that as well.”

Wright also has an opportunity to take over the top spot on the school’s all-time assists list. His 501 career assists trail only Jay Humphries, who had 562 from 1980-84. Wright also ranks 13th all-time with 1,370 career points.

NOTES: Colorado announced the death of 95-year-old fan Betty Hoover, who along with her twin sister, Peggy Coppom, became fixtures at Buffs sporting events and were season ticket holders since 1958. Wright used to run into them not only on the court, but at the local bank. “I’ve never met anyone as loving and supporting and caring as those two,” Wright said. “They hold a special place in my heart. It sucks that Betty won’t be at any games this year. Maybe we can do something, put her name on our jersey. They’re two of the biggest fans in CU history.”

Jared Butler returns to Baylor

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Baylor got some huge news on Monday as potential All-American Jared Butler announced that he will be returning to school for his junior season, joining MaCio Teague is pulling his name out of the 2020 NBA Draft to get the band back together.

Butler was Baylor’s leading scorer a season ago, averaging 16.0 points and 3.1 assists for a team that went 26-4, spent a portion of the season as the No. 1 team in the country and was in line to receive a 1-seed had the 2020 NCAA Tournament taken place.

With Butler and Teague coming back to school, the Bears will return four starters from last season’s squad. Starting center Freddie Gillespie is gone, as is backup guard Devonte Bandoo, but those are holes that can be filled. Tristan Clark, who was Baylor’s best player during the 2018-19 season before suffering a knee injury that lingered through last year, will be back, and there is more than enough talent in the program to replace the scoring pop of Bandoo. Matthew Mayer will be in line for more minutes, while transfer Adam Flagler will be eligible this season.

Baylor will enter this season as a consensus top three team in the country. They will receive plenty of votes as the No. 1 team in the sport, making them not only a very real contender for the Big 12 regular season crown but one of the favorites to win the national title.

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As MaCio Teague returns, Baylor now awaits Jared Butler’s NBA draft decision

Butler is the key.

Baylor was one of college basketball’s best defensive teams last year. They finished fourth nationally in KenPom’s defensive efficiency metric, a ranking that dropped after they Bears lost two of their last three games to TCU and West Virginia. Where they struggled was on the offensive end of the floor. The Bears would go through droughts were points were at a premium and their best offense was a missed shot. Butler’s intrigue for NBA teams was his ability to shoot and to create space in isolation. He’s the one guy on the roster that can create something out of nothing for himself.

And now he is back to try and lead Baylor to a Final Four.

Arizona State’s Martin to return for senior season

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TEMPE, Ariz. (–Arizona State guard Remy Martin is withdrawing from the NBA draft and will return for his senior season in the desert.

“I’m blessed to have the opportunity to coach Remy Martin for one more season,” Sun Devils coach Bobby Hurley said in a statement Sunday. “Remy will be one of the best players in college basketball this year and will be on a mission to lead Arizona State basketball in its pursuit of championships.”

A 6-foot guard, Martin is the Pac-12’s leading returning scorer after averaging 19.1 points in 2019-20. He also averaged 4.1 assists per game and helped put the Sun Devils in position to reach the NCAA Tournament for the third straight year before the season was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Martin’s return should put Arizona State among the favorites to win the Pac-12 next season.

Martin joins fellow guard Alonzo Verge Jr. in returning to the Sun Devils after testing the NBA waters. Big man Romello White declared for the draft and later entered the transfer portal.

Hurley has signed one of the program’s best recruiting classes for next season, headed by five-star guard Josh Christopher.

Michigan State forward Xavier Tillman will remain in the 2020 NBA Draft

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In the end, Xavier Tillman Sr.’s decision whether or not to return to remain in the 2020 NBA Draft for his senior season came down to security.

A 6-foot-8 forward that averaged 13.7 points, 10.3 boards, 3.0 assists and 2.1 blocks this past season, Tillman was an NBC Sports third-team All-American a season ago. He’s projected as the No. 23 pick in the latest NBC Sports mock draft. He was the best NBA prospect that had yet to make a decision on his future until Sunday.

That’s when Tillman announced that he will be foregoing his final season of college eligibility to head to the NBA.

In the end, it’s probably the right decision, but it’s not one that the big fella made easily.

Tillman is unlike most college basketball players forced to make a decision on their basketball future. He is married. He has two kids, a three-year old daughter and a six-month old son. This is not a situation where he can bet on himself, head to the pro ranks and figure it out later on.

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He needs something stable, particularly given the fact that we are living in the midst of a pandemic that has put the future of sports in doubt, at least for the short term.

He needs security.

He needed to know that there would be a job for him in the NBA. Not a two-way contract. Not a spot on a camp roster or a chance to develop in the G League. Hell, there might not even be a G League next season. That was an option at Michigan State. He was living in an apartment with his family that was covered by his scholarship and stipend. He had meals paid for. He was able to take food from the training room home and have dinner with his family. He was able to get to class, to the gym, to practice and back home in time to do the dishes at night. He told NBC Sports in March that the school was able to provide him with $1,200-a-month to help pay for things like diapers high chairs. That was all going to be there if he returned to school. It was a great situation, one that lacked the uncertainty that comes with the professional level.

Because as much as I love Tillman as a role player at the next level, NBA teams do not all feel the same. The tricky thing about the draft is that it makes sense to swing for the fences on the guys that can be locked into salaries for the first four years of a contract. The Toronto Raptors took Pascal Siakam with the 27th pick and have paid less than $7 million in total salary in his first four years for a player that made an all-star team. Kyle Kuzma is averaging 16.0 points through three seasons and is on the books for $3.5 million in year four.

Tillman’s ability to defend, his basketball IQ, his play-making and his professional demeanor means that he can step into the modern NBA and do a job as a rotation player for just about any team in the league. But he doesn’t have the upside that other bigs in the same projected range have — Jalen Smith, Daniel Oturu, Jaden McDaniels, Zeke Nnaji — so there are teams that are scared off.

I don’t get it.

But Tillman’s decision to head to the professional ranks indicates that he does, indeed, feel confident in the fact that he will have gainful and steady employment next season. Since he would have walked at Michigan State’s graduation in May had it been held, that doesn’t leave much to return to school for.

The Spartans will now be left in a tough spot. There are quite a few pieces to like on this roster. Rocket Watts had promising moments as a freshman, as did Malik Hall. Gabe Brown and Marcus Bingham are both talented players. Joey Hauser had a good season at Marquette, and the early returns on freshman Mady Sissoko are promising. But this is going to be a young and unproven group.

Izzo has had less at his disposal before, but this is certainly not an ideal situation for Michigan State.