All of a sudden the Atlantic-10 Conference looks like a power conference. The arrivals of Virginia Commonwealth and Butler will bring a new sense of life into the conference for the 2012-13 season.
1. St. Louis:
A surprise team last year, most of last year’s Billikens will return, except of course head coach Rick Majerus, who is taking the season off for health reasons. Kwamain Mitchell should be one of the top scorers in the league, averaging 12.4 points a game in his junior season. Dwayne Evans, who averaged over seven points and seven rebounds a game last year, helping lead a defense that only gave up 57.6 points per game — eighth in the nation. Jared Drew, a talented freshman out of Indianapolis, will likely man that frontcourt with Evans. Expectations will be high with this St. Louis team, and they have the talent to be a top-15 team in the nation.
After back-to-back trips to the NCAA Championship game, Butler didn’t get an NCAA Tournament nod OR an NIT invite in 2011-12, forcing the Bulldogs to settle for the CBI. Butler should be improved this year, only losing point guard Ronald Nored off of last year’s team. Andrew Smith, who apparently is never going to graduate, is back for his senior year, and will anchor the inside after his 2011-12 year with 10.7 ppg and 5.7 rebounds per game. But the best player on this team could be Rotnei Clarke, an Arkansas transfer who was second-team All-SEC his junior year. He will be eligible this year, so look for him to lead the Bulldogs in scoring. Khyle Marshall and Roosevelt Jones will also be key players for Butler.
And here is the other newcomer, rounding out the top-three in their first year in the A-10. This is a very deep team, with no one star. They lost Bradford Burgess from last year’s team (13.5 ppg., 5.1 rpg.) but they will have his younger brother Jordan Burgess likely stepping up and making big contributions for his freshman season. A backcourt led by Darius Theus and Briante Weber will likely be the strength of this team, as thy helped force 17.9 turnovers a game last season — good for third in the nation. Their leading returning scorer is Juvonte Reddic (10.4 ppg.)
If the Owls do anything for the 2012-13 season, it will be because of Khalif Wyatt, who returns for his senior season after averaging 17 points a game last year. He appears to be a lock for First-Team A-10, as well as a potential All-American candidate. But Temple lost three of their starters from last year’s team that won the A-10, meaning this season they may be closer to the bubble, if not off the bubble. Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson and Anthony Lee will be two players the Owls will count on with the graduations of three of their key players, including Ramone Moore.
Even with losing Tu Hollowy, Kenny Frease and Mark Lyons, it’s hard to keep the Musketeers out of the top-five. The Musketeers will also have to cope with the expulsion of leading returning scorer Dezmine Wells. Helping to ease the graduations of Holloway and Frease will be freshman Semaj Christian and Towson transfer Isaiah Philmore. Xavier has made the NCAA Tournament every year since 2005, and this year will likely be the toughest year they have had to return.
6. St. Josephs
9. St. Bonaventure
10. La Salle
13. George Washington
14. Rhode Island
Khalif Wyatt: One of the best scorers in the conference, this two-guard averaged 17 points a game last year. He scored 22 points and had 5 steals when Temple was able to upset No. 3 Duke this year. The Owls simply need to give Wyatt the ball and let him do the rest. He had 12 games last year with less than 10 shot attempts, and that won’t be acceptable this year.
Rotnei Clarke: The Arkansas transfer could be the go-to-guy in the Butler offense his first year for the Bulldogs. He could already be the best shooter in the conference, averaging over 42 percent from behind the 3-point line and making nearly three 3-pointers a game in his three years at Arkansas. He averaged 15 points a game his last two years as a Razorback, and it would be a surprise to see him not duplicate that in a weaker conference this year.
Kwamain Mitchell: With leading scorer Brian Conklin graduated from St. Louis, Mitchell will need to step up his scoring from last year (12.4 ppg.). He’s the best player on the best team in the conference, so you’d think he belongs on this list. Not only is he a solid scorer, but his 126 assists led the team last year.
Chaz Williams: If UMass contends for an NCAA or NIT berth, it will be because of Williams. Probably the best point guard in the conference last year, Williams averaged 16 points and six assists. The Minutemen haven’t made the Big Dance since 2997, and Williams will need to up those numbers for them to have a chance.
Chris Gaston: He may play for one of the worst teams in the conference in Fordham, but you can’t ignore this double-double machine. Last year he averaged 17 points and 9.9 rebounds, but he may need to get his team some more wins to get on this list at the end of the season.
Coach of the Year: Jim Crews
Crews, who takes over for Rick Majerus this year, is no stranger to head coaching responsibilities. He is the former head coach of Evansville and Air Force, and has NCAA Tournament appearances under his belt. This year he has the task of replacing a coaching icon, who brought St Louis to the top of the conference. They should stay at the top of the A-10 this year, and if they do it should be Crews who takes home the hardware.
Player of the Year: Khalif Wyatt
There isn’t a standout, runaway favorite to win this award, so I’m going with Wyatt. Temple has the makes of a bubble team, and Wyatt will do everything he can to push the Owls to the Big Dance. He may have to take over games at times, but he is certainly capable.
No. 23 Louisville 77, West Virginia 74
-Wayne Blackshear made his debut (24 games in) four Louisville, and scored 13 points. While there was a lot to talk about in this game — we’ll get to it — that has to be the most encouraging part for Louisville fans. Blackshear obviously kept himself in basketball shape while rehabbing. The future is bright…. Now, talk about going in opposite directions. The Cardinals (20-5, 8-4 Big East) reached 20 wins and have won six straight now, while the loss is the Mountaineers’ (16-10, 6-7) have lost five of their last six. WVU led for most of the game until a Kyle Kuric 3-pointer and a steal-and-score by Russ Smith on the ensuing inbounds play gave Louisville a 73-71 lead with 2:17 left. Kyle Kuric would steal a Gary Browne pass inside to Kevin Jones with 10 seconds left, hit two free throws after being fouled, and Truck Bryant’s left wing 3 went begging as time expired.
Butler 52, Cleveland State 49
-A big win for the Bulldogs (15-12, 9-6 Horizon League), who really needed this just for confidence heading into crunch time and the Horizon League tournament. The Vikings (20-6, 10-4) had a shot at an at-large bid, but those hopes are dashed now. All a matter of who gets hot in the tourney. Butler held Cleveland State to 26.3 percent from 3-point range and forced 16 turnovers, all the while overcoming an 0-for-8 3-point day and shooting 38 percent on their own.
No.5 North Carolina 70, No. 20 Virginia 52
-It was a game in the first half, with the Tar Heels (21-4, 8-2 ACC) leading just 35-32 at the half. The second half made a lot of people believe that the Cavaliers (19-5, 6-4) might not be the team everyone expected, what with Mike Scott getting completely owned and UNC showing no ill effects from that tough loss to Duke. Tyler Zeller had 25 points and nine rebounds for the Heels, with John Henson (10 and10) and Harrison Barnes (14 and 11) notching double-doubles. The bigs were obviously the difference in this one. Mike Scott has been carrying the Wahoos all season and had 18 in the loss.
No. 2 Syracuse 85, UConn 67
-I’m not saying that UConn (15-9, 5-7 Big East) can’t bounce back from a game that they basically quit in at Louisville, but they didn’t start with a loss at the ‘Cuse (25-1, 12-1). Four players finished in double-figures and Andre Drummond has 13 points and seven boards in the loss. But they never could match up athletically with the Orange, which if you’ve seen the Huskies, shouldn’t happen. They’ve got as much talent and athletic ability as any team in the nation.
No. 4 Missouri 72, No. 6 Baylor 57
-The Tigers (23-2, 9-2 Big 12) got the sweep over the Bears (21-4, 8-4) on the season, and wow, they did it quick. This team is guard-heavy, and they ran on Baylor’s athletic big men in the second half, using a 17-1 keyed by three 3-pointers midway through the second half to propel them to the W. Phil Pressey had 19 points and four three’s in the game and Mizzou shot 50 percent from 3-point range (14-for-28). They bombed it. Baylor still has to figure out it’s identity, which is scary considering it’s identity. They have long athletic forwards who play essentially like swingmen in Perry Jones III and the Quincy’s (Miller and Acy) but seem inept at finishing down low, though Acy has improved. Most telling stat? They out-rebounded Mizzou 35-22.
No. 17 Florida State 64, Miami 59
-The Hurricanes (15-8, 6-4 ACC) didn’t necessarily hurt their at-large hopes with this loss to the Seminoles (17-7, 8-2), but if they don’t get in, this is one game that Jim Larranaga will look at and shake his head. Reggie Johnson was held to four points (which can’t happen) to go with six rebounds, which really was the difference being that the game was never more than a three-possession game late. Bernard James ha 18 points, six boards and four blocks in the win.
Vanderbilt vs. No. 1 Kentucky (9 p.m., ESPN)
-A lot of folks taking Vandy (17-7, 6-4 SEC) in this one, especially being at home in Memorial Coliseum and the magic that seems to ensue in big games there for the Commodores. Kentucky (24-1, 10-0) is still Kentucky, they still have Anthony Davis and his Stretch Armstrong arms. It’s going to be tough for Festus Ezeli to be effective by himself, they’ll really need guys like Steve Tchiengang to show up down low and 6-8 Lance Gilbourne to provide a mid-range to draw out Davis and Kentucky’s other lengthy bigs.
No. 15 Creighton vs. Wichita State (5 p.m., ESPN2)
-Just another day in the Missouri Valley Conference. Creighton (21-4, 11-3 MVC) is somehow surviving in the Top-25 despite losses to Northern Iowa and Evansville on the road. Granted, they’ll fall come tomorrow, but a win over the Shockers (21-4, 12-2) would not only help them stay in the rankings, but also go a long way to help their confidence and steady their at-large hopes. Which to me, is the best a conference win can do, being that teams see these opponents automatically every year. Wichita State has won three in a row after a loss at Drake.
No. 16 UNLV vs. No. 14 San Diego State (4 p.m, The Mtn.)
-This one is set for a classic. The Rebels (21-4, 5-2 Mountain West Conference) losing at Wyoming in their last game took some luster off this game, but it’s still a battle of Top-20 teams. The Aztecs (20-3, 6-1) have only lost one game since Dec. 4, a bad one at Colorado State, but other than that have been soaring.
No. 3 Ohio State vs. No. 12 Michigan State (6 p.m., ESPN)
-It seems like every week, the Buckeyes (21-3, 9-2 Big Ten) play the second-best team in the B1G. Whoever it is. This week, it’s Michigan State (19-5, 8-3). It’ll be Jared Sullinger vs. Draymond Green for the most part, but can any of the Spartan’s guards get past ball-hawking Aaron Craft? That will probably be a big reason if Tom Izzo’s bunch can get a win. Look for William Buford to have a big game for tOSU, he had a career-high 29 last game, a victory at Purdue.
Temple vs. Xavier (9 p.m., ESPN2)
-What do the Owls have to do to get some serious poll love? They’ve beaten Duke this season, have a KenPom rating of 30 and have won eight in a row after a bad loss to Richmond on the road. They’re 18-5 overall and 7-2 in the Atlantic 10 and also have wins over Wichita State and Penn, two teams deep in the NCAA Tournament conversation. They won’t help themselves that much with a win over the Musketeers (16-8, 7-3), but it would certainly make me look stupid if they took a loss. Chris Mack’s squad, on the other hand, desperately needs a confidence W, losing three of their last six.
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