If you thought the Big East was gargantuan, you should check out the Atlantic 10.
This mega-mid-major conference welcomes in Butler and VCU this season to pump the total number of teams in the league up to 16. There will be some teams taking their ball and moving along next season. But for this year the Atlantic 10 is the biggest league in the country.
It is also one of the best.
The Atlantic 10 is going to be one of the deepest leagues in the country. And I will be legitimately angry if less than six teams end up with invitations to the NCAA Tournament. St. Louis, Butler, Massachusetts, Temple, St. Joe’s, and VCU may all make cameos in the Top 25 this year and they can play with any team in the country. Add in quality second-tier teams like LaSalle, Dayton and Richmond, and every night in this conference will be an absolute battle.
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This conference is overflowing with experience and athleticism and should prove to be have one of the best title races in the nation. Here are my 2012-13 Atlantic 10 basketball predictions to help you with your college basketball picks (with the odds to win the Atlantic 10 in parentheses):
The Favorite: St. Louis (+200)
The Billikens were dealt a pair of tough blows in the offseason. First, Rick Majerus announced that he wouldn’t be up to the task of coaching this team through the season. Second, leading scorer Kwamain Mitchell broke his foot and will be out until after the holidays. If this team can get healthy and on the same page it has Top 20 talent. When Mitchell comes back he will make five three-year starters on the St. Louis roster. This is a veteran group that can defend for days and has the interior size to match up with the bigger, stronger BCS teams in the nation. Their year has gotten off to a rocky start. And the biggest X-factor for this team will be senior Cody Ellis. But if they can get settled once conference play begins this team will be a consistent winner.
The Challenger: Butler (+500)
I was all over the Bulldogs two years before the mainstream media fell in love with them. And then over the past two seasons I have been decidedly off the Butler bandwagon, as this became one of the more overrated teams in the country. But now that everyone has forgotten about the Bulldogs off their CBI season, I think there may be some value left on the bones of this team. And it starts with Rotnei Clarke. Clarke is a poor man’s Jimmer Fredette and is the best shooter in the country. He was a three-year starter and averaged over 15 points per game in his last two seasons in the SEC. He may average 25 in the A-10, and he will be one of the most enjoyable players to watch in the nation this year. If freshmen guard Kellen Dunham, a Top-50 recruit, is as good as advertised then the Bulldogs will have an exceptional backcourt. But I like this team because it also has size, experience and athleticism in the paint. Butler is going to find the sledding much, much tougher going through the Atlantic 10. But this also might bet the best team they have had in three years.
The Dark Horses: Massachusetts (+500)
I looked at three prominent college basketball preview magazines, and not one of them had UMass picked higher than fifth in the Atlantic 10 this year. I think that this team could actually be the deepest team in the league, and if they get off to a hot start – watch out. The Minutemen have four starters back from a team that went to the NIT Final Four, and they boast two other players with three years of starting experience. This is a team dominated by upperclassmen, and they have a high level of athleticism and energy. Point guard Chaz Williams is a blur and averaged 17 points per game last year. And what makes this team so tough is that they have a clear go-to guy surrounded by at least four other players that can take and make big shots. They are tough to guard and difficult to keep up with in their fast-paced approach. If you get on board this bandwagon, be sure to buckle up.
The X-Factor: VCU (+350)
VCU has won 27 or more games in three straight seasons and has finished with an RPI of 35 or better in the last two years. This program is legit. And despite losing its best player, Bradford Burgess, the Rams are as loaded as they have been at any point in the last five years. They were one shot away from the Sweet 16 last year despite having the ninth-youngest roster in the country. So this team has a lot of room to grow. But, like Butler, the Rams are making a bigger step up in class than most people realize. Yes, VCU has proven it can play with the best teams in the country. But the focus and solid play that a league like the A-10 demands is head and shoulders beyond even a quality mid-major league like the CAA. How quickly this group adjusts will determine their ceiling.
The ATS Machine: George Washington (+1200)
With so many “name” teams in this league I felt like I had to step outside the circle to find the club with the most value. George Washington won’t finish any better than eighth or ninth in this massive league. And that will only happen if they have a great year. But I think that this team is good enough to compete against – but not beat – the quality teams in this league. And the fact that the Colonels were so pathetic at the window last year (going 9-20 against the spread) means that the books are going to fatten up their spreads in league play even more. GW has four starters back from last year’s 10-21 nightmare, and they have two other guys that have three years of starting experience. They also welcome Villanova transfer Isaiah Armwood, who could be one of the league’s better big men. This team still does not shoot well (which is a problem). But they should defend and rebound just well enough to keep most games within the double-digit spreads they will most assuredly be facing.
The Disappointment: Xavier (NA)
This team is awful. They are just not going to be good at all. In any way. Xavier was one of the biggest underachievers in the country last year before a late flurry from a senior-laden group helped them sneak into the NCAA Tournament and advance to the Sweet 16. But their five best players, including stud guards Tu Holloway and Mark Lyons, are gone. There has been a load of offseason controversy surrounding the defections of Lyons and talented No. 3 guard Dez Wells. And all around this team has bad karma. This program has been a staple of the NCAA Tournament’s second weekend, making four Sweet 16’s in the last five years. But this season I don’t see them even getting an invite and I think it will take a major move to keep them out of the A-10’s bottom tier.
Temple (+650) – You can’t just lose a backcourt of Ramone Moore and Juan Fernandez and expect to remain a force in the league. Can you? The Owls still have prolific scorer Khalif Wyatt to build around. He is one of three players with three years of staring experience, including forward Scootie Randall, who is back from a 2011 lost to injury. Temple is also counting on West Virginia transfer Dalton Pepper to bring some spice to the backcourt and Boston transfer Jake O’Brien to provide some grit to the frontcourt. Temple has an abundance of athletes, and Fran Dunphy has an incredible system in place. This team will be in the hunt for another league crown before bolting for the Big East.
St. Joseph’s (+650) – St. Joe’s flashed some Top 25 potential last year while working through one of the toughest nonconference slates around. They beat fellow stud mid-majors like Western Kentucky (tourney team), Creighton (tourney team) and Drexel, as well as earned three BCS scalps (G-Tech, Penn State and Villanova). For a second year in a row this team welcomes back all five starters, and the Hawks are going to be ready to rumble each night. The only question with this group is whether or not guys like Carl Jones (17.0 points per game) and Langston Galloway (15.5 ppg) have another gear or if we’ve already seen the best that this group has to offer.
Richmond (+1000) – The Spiders are a tough team to predict. I had them pegged for a major letdown/rebuilding season last year and was right, as they went just 16-16. But even I was impressed with what this sophomore-dominated squad was able to do. Now they welcome back four double-digit scorers (three guards and forward Derrick Williams) and coach Chris Mooney will supplement them with a crop of redshirt freshmen that should step in and contribute. This is a dangerous team.
Dayton (+1200) – Two transfers are going to tell the tale for the Flyers this year. And if either of them can perform up to the level of last year’s stud transfer, Kevin Dillard, then this team will be just fine. Dillard is an excellent, do-it-all point guard and will be the team leader. Vee Sanford (Georgetown) and Matt Derenbecker (LSU) bring some needed athleticism and upside to the table. And with rehabilitated big man Josh Benson back in the fold, the group has a strong core. Unfortunately, senior center Matt Kavanaugh is out for the year. And that loss exposes the main weakness for this group: they have no depth. Archie Miller’s team will be feisty. But they don’t have enough to hang with the big boys.
LaSalle (+1500) – Last year’s Explorers were one of the most surprising teams in the nation. They went 17-9 against the spread and tallied their first 20-win season since 1992. They were one of the best shooting teams in the nation, nailing 40.6 percent of their three-point shots (No. 4 in the country), and featured one of the best mid-major backcourts around. Three double-digit scorers return from that backcourt. And while they will be hard-pressed to replace Earl Pettis, they will still be a feisty group. But the Explorers are still woefully thin in the post. And that unbalanced roster keeps their upside a bit limited.
St. Bonaventure (+1200) – The Bonnies are still basking in the glow of last year’s surprise (to the bobblehead media anyway) trip to the NCAA Tournament. But now they must move on into the post-Andrew Nicholson era. They aren’t devoid of talent. And if senior guard Michael Davenport is fully recovered from a sprained shoulder that cost him last season then he will fill in some of the scoring hole Nicholson left. But the fact is that this team was virtually a one-man gang, and now that Nicholson has left they are extremely vulnerable.
Charlotte (+1500 - Field) – This program has been spinning its wheels for the better part of a decade, and this year’s club doesn’t look all that promising. Center Chris Braswell and wing DeMario Mayfield can both play. But that’s about it. If veteran transfer J.T. Thompson can regain some of his former shine then this team will be decent in the paint. But they have little to nothing on the perimeter. And in a league this deep that just won’t fly.
Fordham (+1500 – Field) – It is tough to look at 10 overall wins and a 3-13 conference record and see progress. But the Rams are definitely heading in the right direction; those 10 wins were only two less than they had the previous three years combined. Senior forward Chris Gaston might be the best player in the country that absolutely no one knows about. He is a four-year starter that averaged 17 points and 10 rebounds for a bad team last year. Three other returning starters surround him, and if any of the newcomers can step in and perform this team could be a solid ATS earner and competitive the whole year.
Duquesne (+3000) – Two years ago the Dukes were showing signs of life and were one of the better bets in the country. But last year was a mess and now the roster is one of the worst in the league. This program took a gut shot when do-it-all point guard T.J. McConnell decided to transfer. But looking at the rest of the team, I can’t say that I blame them. Duquesne is in for a long year of getting pounded on the glass and on the scoreboard.
Rhode Island (+1500 – Field) – Dan Hurley is considered an up-and-coming coaching star. He will definitely have a chance to prove it with this flailing program. Hurley is making the jump from high school to college, and he and his brother Bobby will try to rebuild the Rams after a 7-24 debacle. The Hurleys have nothing to work with. Three starters that combined to average 24 points per game combined are back, and the rest of the roster isn’t exactly brimming with potential. This team is going to be a punching bag all season long.
Projected Atlantic 10 Standings:
1. St. Louis*
5. St. Joseph’s*
10. George Washington
11. St. Bonaventure
16. Rhode Island
*Projected NCAA Tournament Teams
Robert Ferringo is a writer and a professional sports handicapper for Doc’s Sports. He is considered one of the best college basketball handicappers in the country and has earned his $100-per-Unit clients nearly $43,000 in the last six years with his nonconference handicapping. He has produced four consecutive profitable seasons and five of six winning years overall. You can sign up for his college basketball picks and get more information here.