From top to bottom, the Atlantic 10 is among the deepest and most experienced conferences in college basketball this season.
The conference has welcomed Virginia Commonwealth and Butler to the party, increasing the number of the teams it has to 16, the most it’s ever had. Both the Bulldogs and Rams made Final Four trips two seasons ago and only add more assurance to the league’s rapidly growing rise.
As the season soon begins, here’s a rundown of some storylines and what to expect from the A-10 in 2012-13.
Is Saint Louis the team to beat?
Contrary to the A-10’s preseason poll, which placed St. Joseph’s first, many consider Saint Louis to be the odds-on favorite to win the conference – and for good reason.
Last season, the Billikens finished second in the A-10 in the regular season, made the NCAA tournament and nearly upset No. 1 seed Michigan State to advance to the Sweet 16. Leading scorer Brian Conklin has graduated, but SLU still returns six of its top seven leading scorers on a team loaded with experience.
Despite that fact, however, the Billikens will need to get over a few obstacles in order to return to their 2011-12 form and beyond. Senior Kwamain Mitchell, the team’s second leading scorer last season and one of the early candidates for this season’s A-10 Player of the Year, fractured his left foot in the offseason and isn’t expected back for at least a month. SLU will need to make up for the absence of Mitchell’s production in the first few weeks of the season to avoid a string of non-conference losses that could potentially hurt its postseason aspirations.
The Billikens will also have to go through this season without coach Rick Majerus, who is taking a leave for medical issues. Jim Crews, an assistant who was hired prior to last season, will need to fill the shoes of one of the country’s most respected head coaches.
Butler, VCU try to fit in
As mentioned, the A-10 made a pair of big changes over the season in adding Butler and VCU to the mix. But will both teams’ previous success in mid-major conferences translate to success in their new league?
The Bulldogs, led by coach Brad Stevens, are coming off what they would consider a down year in making the College Basketball Invitational tournament after two consecutive trips to the national championship game in 2010 and 2011.
Butler will surely aim to get back to that point, but the road will be a lot tougher in the A-10 than in the Horizon League, where the Bulldogs were champions for the last five seasons. Butler was picked sixth in the A-10’s preseason poll and will likely be in the race for the conference title near season’s end.
Rotnei Clarke is the player to watch. The senior guard was named to the all-conference second team, but could very much find himself on the first team by season’s end. He didn’t play last year due to NCAA transfer regulations after his move from Arkansas, where he was one of the Razorbacks’ best players, averaging 15.2 points per game and an exceptional 43.8 percent from 3-point range. He’ll pair with freshman guard Kellen Dunham, a Top-50 recruit, in what should make as one of the best backcourts in the country.
As for VCU, the Rams have lost star player Bradford Burgess, but return most of a roster that was very close to reaching the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament last season. VCU is a very balanced, experienced squad highlighted by guard Juvonte Reddic and big man D.J. Haley.
In three seasons under coach Shaka Smart, the Rams are 84-28 – but that all happened when they were a member of the Colonial Athletic Association, a much less talented league than the A-10. VCU will find that out quickly, and its adjustment into such a different conference will determine its success in its first season as a member of the A-10.
Temple prepares for final A-10 run
Somewhat lost in the shuffle amidst all of the excitement and buzz surrounding the A-10 this season is Temple, a team that has for so long been a staple in the conference and will have its final run in the league this year before leaving for the Big East.
The Owls will have a bit of a sour taste in their mouths after having a very promising 2011-12 season go downhill rather quickly in March. They received the No. 1 seed in the A-10 tournament before falling to UMass in the quarterfinals and then ultimately falling to South Florida in the NCAA tournament, ending their season.
Now, Temple, which has made the NCAA tournament the last five seasons, will enter 2012 with a little bit of a chip on its shoulder. The Owls were ranked fourth in the league’s preseason poll. They lost Ramone Moore, Juan Fernandez and Micheal Eric to graduation, but return seniors Khalif Wyatt (17.1 ppg in 2011-12) and Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson to a team that will need to mix in some new pieces in order to get back to A-10 supremacy.
Will St. Joseph’s be as good as advertised?
St. Joseph’s only finished eighth in the A-10 last season, but enter 2012 with perhaps its biggest expectations since Jameer Nelson and Delonte West carried the team to the national spotlight in the early 2000s.
The Hawks were selected to finish first in the conference, and while they are certainly talented enough to do so, how they handle the pressure will ultimately determine their success.
SJU returns all five starters from last season’s squad that made the National Invitation Tournament, including Carl Jones (17 ppg) and Langston Galloway (15.5 ppg). Sixth man Ronald Roberts, Jr. (10.9 ppg, 5.9 rpg) will also be a key factor for the Hawks.
Experience, like many teams in the conference, will be what drives this team to a promised land that they could very well make, but they will have to channel a hype that they haven’t had to deal with at the collegiate level for quite some time.
Stephen Hewitt can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @steve_hewitt.