By Jon Rothstein
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FIVE QUESTIONS ENTERING THE ATLANTIC 10
1. HOW WILL SAINT LOUIS PLAY WITHOUT RICK MAJERUS?
Well — but the real question is how well? Before Majerus’ recent health issue that forced him to miss the upcoming season, the Billikens were looked at as the consensus favorite to win the Atlantic 10 and possibly be a threat to go deep into the NCAA Tournament. Now without their “mastermind” on the sidelines, there’s no real way to pinpoint how interim head coach Jim Crews will do with this veteran group. Here’s what we do know — most of the returnees played in the field of 68 this past March and Majerus has raved about the potential of 6-11 big man John Manning, who played sparingly last year as a freshman. With Manning and highly touted freshman point guard Keith Carter, Saint Louis is adding two talented players to a team that won 26 games last season. That alone should count for something.
2. WHAT WILL XAVIER LOOK LIKE?
A lot different than last year. The Musketeers are still really talented — but they’re also really, really young. Chris Mack will have five brand new starters after both Mark Lyons and Dez Wells unexpectedly departed after last season. Xavier does return a slew of talented reserves from last year in Dee Davis, Justin Martin, Travis Taylor, and Jeff Robinson but there’s no telling how any of those players will respond to expanded roles. Towson transfer Isaiah Philmore is an extremely talented prospect who should be in the mix for major minutes and all of the Musketeers’ freshmen —- Semaj Christon, Myles Davis, Jalen Reynolds, and James Farr will have a chance to earn large chunks of time. This will very much be a work in progress for Mack, who will really need all of November and December to find the right combination for the Musketeers before they hit the Atlantic 10.
3. CAN “HAVOC” WORK WITH REGULARITY?
We’re all going to find out really soon. Shaka Smart’s “HAVOC” style has made VCU national darlings during the past two seasons. Will it work in the Atlantic 10? To be determined. While the Rams’ opponents won’t be used to VCU’s relentless pressure, the quality of point guard play in this league will be vastly better than the CAA. Better point guard play means fewer turnovers and that could make it harder for the Rams to run away from their opponents. Still, Smart has his program on an upward trajectory and added a big time talent late in the summer in Top 100 shooting guard Melvin Johnson. Had VCU made one free throw last year late in the game against Indiana in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, the Rams would have advanced to the Sweet 16 and played Kentucky. For the record, we think this Rams outfit is deeper and hungrier than the group we saw last March. Are they better? We’ll talk about it in a few months.
4. WILL UMASS RETURN TO THE NCAA TOURNAMENT?
If they do, it will be because of Cady Lalanne. Derek Kellogg’s team won 25 games last season and reached the Final Four of the Postseason NIT while playing the majority of the year without Lalanne, who was sidelined in late December with a foot injury. If the 6-9 big man can play just above the level he did when he was healthy last season (6.7 PPG, 5.6 RPG), the Minutemen have a more than a legitimate chance of reaching the field of 68. UMass boasts one of the Atlantic 10′s best back courts with do-everything floor general Chaz Williams and Jesse Morgan, a burgeoning off guard who could be one of the league’s best defenders. Stretch forward Raphiael Putney made a major jump last year as a sophomore and Terrell Vinson figures to be primed for a big senior year. For a school that hasn’t heard their name called on Selection Sunday since 1998, Kellogg has to enter this season thinking he has a real chance to have his alma mater back in the NCAA Tournament.
5. WHO IS THE SLEEPER?
We’ll say both Richmond and Charlotte. The Spiders have a terrific perimeter with Kendall Anthony, Cedrick Lindsay, and Darien Brothers as well as a physical force inside in Derrick Williams. Chris Mooney is one of the better tacticians around and an influx of youth on the interior should give Richmond the depth it needs on the baseline to make a jump in the league standings. Charlotte meanwhile is in its final year in the league before leaving for Conference-USA and returns one of the best kept secrets in college basketball in forward Chris Braswell. With the addition of Virginia tech transfer J.T. Thompson and the return of DeMario Mayfield, Braswell should have a better supporting cast than he’s had in the past few seasons. Also keep an eye on 49ers freshman Willie Clayton, whose relentless approach will get him on the floor quite a bit in his first year of college basketball.
ATLANTIC 10 PRESEASON POWER RANKINGS
1. SAINT LOUIS
THE SKINNY: The Billikens will miss Rick Majerus but they’ve still got all the pieces.
2. ST. JOSEPH’S
THE SKINNY: This will be Phil Martelli’s best team since 2004.
THE SKINNY: There are three constants in life — death, taxes, and Fran Dunphy.
THE SKINNY: “HAVOC” hits the Atlantic 10.
THE SKINNY: Minutemen could reach NCAA Tournament for the first time in over a decade.
6. LA SALLE
THE SKINNY: Dr. John Giannini has all the requisites for a big time year.
THE SKINNY: A deep front court should help the Bulldogs transition to a new conference.
THE SKINNY: Chris Mooney returns his four top scorers from last season.
THE SKINNY: Virginia Tech transfer J.T. Thompson is the 49ers’ X-Factor.
THE SKINNY: Chris Mack will have five new starters after reaching the Sweet 16.
THE SKINNY: Point guard Kevin Dillard is terrific — but who will be his running mate?
THE SKINNY: Tom Pecora finally has a legitimate Atlantic 10 roster.
13. ST. BONAVENTURE
THE SKINNY: The Bonnies are in full transition mode after losing Andrew Nicholson.
14. RHODE ISLAND
THE SKINNY: Danny Hurley will get the Rams to do what his teams always do — overachieve.
15. GEORGE WASHINGTON
THE SKINNY: Villanova transfer Isaiah Armwood should have a big role.
THE SKINNY: It’s a complete rebuild in year one for Jim Ferry.
ATLANTIC 10 PRESEASON FIRST TEAM
Rotnei Clarke, Butler
Langston Galloway, St. Joseph’s
Khalif Wyatt, Temple
Chris Gaston, Fordham
C.J. Aiken, St. Joseph’s
ATLANTIC 10 PRESEASON PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Chaz Williams, UMass
TEN THAT HAVE WAITED AND WILL MAKE A MAJOR IMPACT
1. Rotnei Clarke, Butler (transfer)
2. Jeff Short, Fordham (red shirt)
3. Dalton Pepper, Temple (transfer)
4. Scootie Randall, Temple (red shirt)
5. Isaiah Philmore, Xavier (transfer)
6. Isaiah Armwood, George Washington (transfer)
7. Vee Sanford, Dayton (red shirt)
8. Tyrone Garland, La Salle (transfer)
9. Alonzo Nelson-Ododa, Richmond (red shirt)
10. Xavier Munford, Rhode Island (JUCO)
TEN BREAKOUT PLAYERS
1. John Manning, Saint Louis
2. Will Cummings, Temple
3. Treveon Graham, VCU
4. Briante Weber, VCU
5. Steve Zack, La Salle
6. Bryan Smith, Fordham
7. Jesse Morgan, UMass
8. Youssou Ndoye, St. Bonaventure
9. Chris Wilson, St. Joseph’s
10. Roosevelt Jones, Butler
TEN IMPACT FRESHMEN
1. Melvin Johnson, VCU
2. Jordan Burgess, VCU
3. Kellen Dunham, Butler
4. Daniel Dingle, Temple
5. Quevyn Winters, Duquesne
6. Keith Carter, Saint Louis
7. Semaj Christon, Xavier
8. Jalen Reynolds, Xavier
9. Myles Davis, Xavier
10. Jordan Hare, Rhode Island
TEN UNDER-THE-RADAR FRESHMEN
1. Jermaine Myers, Fordham
2. Treveon Leonard, Fordham
3. Derrick Colter, Duquesne
4. Quenton DeCosey, Temple
5. Khari Price, Dayton
6. Willie Clayton, Charlotte
7. Justin Tuoyo, VCU
8. Isaiah Miles, St. Joseph’s
9. Terry Allen, Richmond
10. Mike Aaman, Rhode Island
Who do you think will take the Atlantic 10? Be heard in the comments below…