By Jon Rothstein
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1. CHAZ, CHAZ, AND MORE CHAZ
Chaz Williams took the conference by storm in his first season in the Atlantic-10 and only figures to be more of a menace in 2012-13. Potentially the Preseason Conference Player of the Year, Williams should give UMass coach Derek Kellogg one of the league’s best back courts with he and talented wing Jesse Morgan, a 6-foot-5 wing who seemed to get better every team he took on the floor. If big man Cady Lalanne can stay healthy and form a potent baseline with Terrell Vinson and Raphiael Putney, the Minutemen should be in position to compete for a conference title and a berth to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in a quite a while.
2. EXPECTATIONS ON HAWK HILL
Phil Martelli may not want to admit it, but next year’s St. Joseph’s team may be the best one he’s had since Jameer Nelson and Delonte West took the Hawks to within one possession of the Final Four in 2004. This squad is loaded at just about every position headlined by a bruising front court trio of Ron Roberts, Halil Kancevic, and shot blocking machine C.J. Aiken, who averaged 3.5 swats per game last season. If southpaw point guard Chris Wilson can become steadier as a sophomore and alleviate some of the pressure on both Tay Jones and Langston Galloway, St. Joseph’s should be as good as any team in the league. Keep an eye on 6-foot-7 freshman forward Isaiah Miles, who should immediately be a rotation player thanks to his versatility.
3. HAVOC MOVES UP A LEVEL
VCU coach Shaka Smart has given opposing point guards nightmares the past few years with his full court “havoc” defense and it will be interesting to see how that approach works in the Atlantic-10 as opposed to the CAA. The Rams were a Top 25 team before joining the conference and have several key pieces returning from a team that probably should have beaten Indiana in the third round of last year’s NCAA Tournament. Power forward Juvonte Reddic should emerge as VCU’s offensive focal point and Troy Daniels, Rob Brandenburg, and Treveon Graham are all capable of being double figure scorers from the perimeter. The point guard duo of Darius Theus and Briante Weber will be the pivotal for the Rams in their defensive attack as they hope to make a major dent in their first season in the Atlantic-10. 6-foot-5 shooting guard Jordan Burgess was a consensus Top 100 recruit and should immediately be a factor.
4. MORE EXPOSURE FOR ROOSEVELT JONES
If you don’t know who Jones is now, you will after this season. A brute force at 6-foot-4 with unbelievable strength, Jones plays more like he’s 6-foot-8 and was terrific as a freshman for Brad Stevens, averaging 7.8 points and six rebounds per game. Stevens, who compared Jones to former NBA star Anthony Mason believes the combination of Jones and 6-foot-8 forward Kameron Woods gives the Bulldogs the type of toughness their going to need every night in the Atlantic-10. Butler’s front court is beyond solid with Khyle Marshall and Andrew Smith — two players that played in the 2011 title game against UCONN and Arkansas transfer Rotnei Clarke and newcomer Kellen Dunham should add plenty of offensive pop with their outside shooting.
5. LA SALLE’S LETHAL GUARDS
The Explorers will no longer be a secret after next season. Dr. John Giannini returns a slew of talented players from a team that won 21 games last season headlined by do everything point guard Tyreek Duren and versatile wing Ramon Galloway. Sam Mills is another double figure scorer that is back for La Salle along with D.J. Peterson, a 6-foot-5 guard that will be asked to fill some of the void Earl Pettis left behind once he exhausted all his eligibility. Giannini is also high on Virginia Tech transfer Tyrone Garland, a combo guard who will be eligible in December and Steve Zack, a sophomore post presence that will likely start up front next to burgeoning big man Jerrell Wright.
6. A NEW ERA AT XAVIER
Chris Mack may have lost four starters from last year’s team that fell in the Sweet 16 to Baylor but to think that the Musketeers are going to simply disappear would be a colossal. There likely won’t be one or two players that carry this team next season but Xavier has a semblance of parts that should keep them right in the thick of the conference race. Burly wing Dez Wells returns to anchor the perimeter and Dee Davis should more comfortable in the back court during his second year of college basketball. The Musketeers baseline is strong with veterans Travis Taylor, Jeff Robinson, and Towson transfer Isaiah Philmore. 6-foot-6 wing Justin Martin could be a factor because of his outside shooting and freshmen Semoj Christon and Myles Davis figure to be in the mix for immediate minutes due to a lack of experience on the perimeter.
7. TEMPLE’S SWAN SONG
The Owls have dominated the league since Fran Dunphy took over as head coach and their final season in the Atlantic-10 before they head to the Big East will have a different look than the last few at point guard. With the graduation of Juan Fernandez, sophomore Will Cummings looks to be the heir apparent as Temple’s floor general and he’ll be joined by a talented cast of wings, headlined by Khalif Wyatt, a burly guard who will likely be this team’s leading scorer. West Virginia transfer Dalton Pepper will also be eligible next season as will Scootie Randall, an offensive spark plug who missed last year due to injury. The key for the Owls will be if they get enough defense and rebounding up front from Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson and Anthony Lee — the likely starters at power forward and center. Temple also should expect big things from their two freshmen Daniel Dingle and Quentin DeCosey, both of whom should be capable enough to help the Owls immediately.
8. 30 MORE GAMES TO WATCH SAINT LOUIS
Rick Majerus was minutes away from pulling off a massive upset in the NCAA Tournament over Michigan State before narrowly falling to the Spartans. Still, the Billikens showed major strides last season and won 26 games while playing the type of unselfish basketball that reminds us why we fell in love with the sport in the first place. Do everything forward Brian Conklin is gone for Saint Louis but returning is lead guard Kwamain Mitchell as well as the feisty back court duo of Mike McCall Jr. and Jordair Jett. Cody Ellis and Rob Loe are two big men that both shoot over 35% from 3-point range while bruising forward Dwayne Evans could average close to a double-double with the right amount of minutes. Remember the name John Manning — Majerus loves him and has said he believes he’ll eventually develop into an all-conference type of big man at 6-foot-11.
9. THE DEPTH FACTOR
If you’re looking for games to pencil in as victories, this is the wrong league. Last season, the Atlantic-10 sent four teams to the NCAA Tournament while having eight teams win 20 games or more. The second half of the conference is also becoming a bear. Chris Mooney has a terrific back court at Richmond with Kendall Anthony, Darien Brothers, and Cedric Lindsay and Tom Pecora can say the same at Fordham with Branden Frazier, Bryan Smith, and a soon to be known scorer in Jeff Short. Archie Miller has Dayton on an upward trajectory and should be more than competitive as long as he finds a scorer to replace Chris Johnson. Throw in Danny Hurley starting a new chapter at Rhode Island along with Jim Ferry going from LIU to Duquesne and you can see why people are going to have a tough time finding victories when they look at their schedule.
10. BROOKLYN BOUND
All of college basketball is feeling the effects of the brand new Barclays Center in Brooklyn but the Atlantic-10 will have a different relationship with the building once the first conference tournament is played there next March. For years the Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden dominated New York City but now hoops junkies have a legitimate alternative. With the additions of both Butler and VCU, the Atlantic-10 could have as many as eight teams having something to play for as they head into the latter part of the season. Realignment had hurt certain conferences but not this one — the league is better and all of Brooklyn will have a chance to witness that starting in March of 2013.
Which team will rise to the top of the Atlantic-10 next season? Sound off in the comments below…