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.
Since last week it is safe to say that Kansas State, Purdue, Iowa State and Mississippi State are virtual locks to make it into the NCAA Tournament. With just one regular-season game left for most of the power conference teams, who is close to making themselves a lock for the tournament?
Northwestern: They missed their chance, two of them in fact. In the past eight days the Wildcats have dropped two gut-wrenching games to some top Big Ten competition. First came a 67-55 overtime loss to Michigan State last Tuesday, and then tonight they lost a 75-73 heartbreaker to Ohio State. Just one of those losses may have been Northwestern over the top. To make it even worse, both of those games were at home, and the committee won’t give them many excuses for those games. There is still some hope left, however. Their regular-season finale is at Iowa, and that is obviously a must-win. Then they need to win a couple games in the Big Ten tournament, with hopefully one of them being against one of the five ranked Big Ten teams. This is a team everyone wants in the tournament, but at just 7-10 in conference right now, they are about out of chances. Feb. 29 status: Out
Miami: The Hurricanes got lucky. Their starting center Reggie Johnson only had to miss one game after NCAA violations. This puts Miami in a good position. They beat Florida State on Sunday, but a loss to NC State did them no favors. Miami now needs to beat Boston College this weekend, and then not get upset in the ACC Tournament. One upset and they are out. That’s how much Miami is on the bubble right now. Feb. 29 status: In
Connecticut: I definitely can’t figure out the Huskies. At this point I would say their resume doesn’t warrant an at-large bid. After that buzzer-beater win at Villanova, I thought the Huskies had a shot at turning things around. They lost a close one against Syracuse, and came back from that with a loss at Providence. No really, Providence. They have now lost nine out of 12 games, and the committee certainly won’t like that. They play a Pitt team this weekend that is playing better ball than them at the moment. A couple wins in the Big East tournament will be a must, but they don’t have a Kemba Walker to save them this year. Feb. 29 status: Out
Texas: Simply put, the Longhorns are hanging on by a thread. They continue to beat the teams they should beat (Texas Tech and Oklahoma most recently). A win at Kansas this weekend will make them a lock, but that will be a tough one. Assuming they lose that one, they will be 19-9 with a similar situation as Miami — right on the edge. There will be no room for error in the Big 12 tournament. A loss early on and there bubble will be burst. Feb. 29 status: In
South Florida: Their win over Louisville tonight may have put them over the top. Now they need to just not lose early on in the Big East tournament. But even with a first or second round loss, it will be hard for the committee to not give the fifth place team in the Big East an at-large bid. They have played arguably the easiest schedule in conference, but with wins over tourney teams Cinci and Louisville within the past three days, they seem to be in good shape. Feb. 29 Status: In
Colorado and Oregon: These two teams play each other tomorrow in what may be the biggest Pac-12 game of the year. Both teams look to be out at the moment, so whichever team loses will likely not have a shot at the NCAA’s. The winner may just be able to position itself as one of the last teams in to make it. The Pac-12 should get four times in the tournament — California, Arizona and Washington all seem like good bets to make it. No chance this conference gets five teams in, so that’s why the Colorado-Oregon game tomorrow is a must-win on both sides.
Xavier: The Musketeers have not played up to potential all year, going just 9-6 in the Atlantic-10. Non-conference wins against Vanderbilt, Purdue and Cincinatti are all solid, but they are 0-3 against the top two teams in the conference (Temple and Saint Louis). They have swapped between wins and losses there last 8 games, but those non-conference wins still hold. As long as they don’t lose early in the conference tournament they should be in a position to grab one of the last at-larges. Feb. 29 Status: In
St Joseph’s: I’m not sure if both the Hawks and Musketeers can both make it in. St. Joes had a big win vs. Temple over the weekend, but still will need a little help to get in. Their biggest non-conference win of the year game against Creighton. They lost their only game of the year to Xavier, and a 9-7 conference record won’t go well with the committee. If they run into Xavier in the A-10 tournament, that could be a win-and-you’re-in game. Feb. 29 Status: Out