I won’t pull any punches. We might be heading towards the worst Atlantic 10 season in recent memory. Despite sending three teams to the NCAA tournament, the league finished outside to the top 7 conferences in RPI for the first time since 2010-11 and outside the top 10 since 2005-06. After the top three, no team finished in the top 130 in RPI. To say the least, the Atlantic 10 had a massive gap between the top tier and really, anyone. That gulf will likely close somewhat this year, but not because the field will catch up. The elite teams that masked the lousy year with NCAA bids will likely decline while the teams likely to improve the most will start from near the bottom. One bid seems almost a given.
Of last year’s top three, Davidson seems most likely to carry the mantle. They lost the co-player of the year, but second leading scorer and super sophomore Kellon Grady could find himself in the all league first team conversation if not player of the year. He and Jon-Axel Gudmundson give the Wildcats a one-two punch I’m not sure any one in the A-10 can match. They’re my favorite but by no means is there consensus among other opinions I’ve seen. Rhode Island will find itself short a coach and two top players from last year’s run. They still have pieces in place like Jeff Dowtin and the 165 pound Fatts Russell, but they look like they’re heading towards a transition year as they move away from Danny Hurley. St. Bonaventure might need a rebuild, but thankfully they kept their head coach and notable magician, Mark Schmidt, after rumors connected him to more prestigious jobs. Schmidt will cobble something together between the current players and incoming class to at least maintain respectability. However, I don’t expect another trip to the dance.
There will be room for the bottom and middle to catch up but I’m not sure all of them will be ready. St Joe’s, who finished fourth despite their injury riddled season, might have the best chance to jump into automatic bid contention. Gone are Shavar Newkirk and James Demery, but three players who saw limited action will return. The scandal and the offseason decimated Saint Louis’ roster, but a pair of incoming grad transfer Dion Wiley and Tramaine Isabell will help offset the loss. Will they take steps forward? George Mason maybe underachieved overall even if they finished .500 in the league. They have some nice pieces returning from a team coming together at the end of the season.
Then, there are the two most interesting pieces of the league puzzle, UMass and Duquesne. Both have coaches who somewhat punted the first season on their respective jobs with a combined nine scholarships used on red shirt years for NCAA transfers. Both squads have key pieces coming in their second recruiting classes and both have a lot to gain from a down league this year. After finishing second to last, UMass have three transfers from power conferences, but Curtis Cobb from Fairfield might be the most interesting. The Minutemen have more players returning than Duquesne including Luwane Pipkins and thumper Rashaan Holloway and the highly regarded freshman Samba Diallo. With more of a veteran presence, UMass are seen as safer climbers. In all, they have seven new pieces to bring together. That’s a lot of questions about chemistry, but that will seem like nothing in a minute.
Duquesne’s in an even more harrowing situation and they literally added a whole new team this offseason thanks to Keith Dambrot scholarship magic. Twelve Dukes could make their debut for the school this year with a thirteenth player academically ineligible. Thirteen! That’s almost unheard of. The Dukes have three returning players who played a significant role last season. Fortunately, two are fringe all conference caliber in Mike Lewis II and Eric Williams Jr. The other is a D-I capable walk-on who has his scholarship hidden on the football side of the athletic department in Kellon Taylor. The Dukes had five transfers practice with the program who reportedly had to have separate training time because they beat up on the first team so badly. They have eight freshmen coming in. Eight! One is the ineligible James Ellis, but the other seven could conceivably contribute at some point this season. Of course, I would expect a redshirt or two mixed in.
UMass is in a tough spot with seven new players when it comes to developing system and chemistry. Duquesne has three lines worth of players and only three have played a real game together. I think both teams have a ton of talent, I really do. However, I’m not sure either’s time has come just yet. Both programs will have key players with transfer rust that often comes minus real game action for over a year. Some players work through the kinks better than others but likely both schools will have one or two guys perform a peg down from where they could be. Second, experience wins in the Atlantic 10, so UMass does have an advantage here with the seasoned Pipkins and Holloway. Duquesne doesn’t have a single senior, though Mike Lewis has seen a lot of mileage on his tires for a junior. In truth, even Duquesne’s transfers lack experience with Craig Randall serving as the lone upperclassmen. On top of that Duquesne has very little experience in the post. Marcus Weathers earned a hefty allotment of minutes as a freshmen in The U(OH), but Michael Hughes played only 143 minutes. To put that into perspective, seldom used Eric James saw the floor more often last season than Hughes did his first year at Akron. I beat this drum more often than any other drum, but big men take more time to develop. Hopefully with four guys in the class 6’9” or taller plus Taylor for 3/4 of the season and the transfers, Dambrot can determine how to best use those 80 minutes he’ll need at the four and five. That leads into another question, how do you determine who plays and how much? What combinations of players will yield the best outcomes? There might be a top of the Atlantic 10 line up that the Dukes’ coaching staff could assemble, but it may not manifest itself for a little while either because the players don’t know each other’s tendencies or the coaches don’t know who the players are. It will take time for both teams, but Duquesne has the steeper road up hill.
I hate that I’ve become the Duquesne naysayer, but it’s a lot to ask for everything to gel. Barring something dramatic, I promise my constant and resolute mission to dial back preseason expectations should end after 2018-19. What’s my best guess on how this year will materialize for the Dukes and Minutemen, you ask? Both will struggle against better teams in non conference and early in conference play. They’ll lose some games they shouldn’t lose, but by the end of January no one is going to want to face them and both teams finish in the top half of the league. This is a dual edged sword for the league. Sure, an inconsistent and a struggling program appears to have found a path towards progress and stability. However, this coming year neither team will bring much to the table in out of conference RPI while stealing some wins against teams much better on paper, maybe even bubble teams, late in the season. I think Duquesne and UMass can move way up the Atlantic 10 standings this year, but it will likely cost the league at least for one more year. The A-10 is likely a one bid league in 2018-19 anyway, but the Dukes and Minutemen will do their part to ensure it.