By Conor Gereg
With the exception of Conference USA, no other league has seen its cohort raided more often by larger conferences than the Atlantic 10. Seismic conference realignment fractured the natural geographic rivalries that tethered likeminded schools, rivalries fans came to enjoy were put on the shelf as schools moved to greener pastures and left conferences like Conference-USA and the A-10 scrambling to find replacement institutions. That comparison however is where the commonalities end when likening any league to a conference like the Atlantic 10.
A 14-team league made up of small private institutions and large public research universities, the Atlantic 10 is an annual multi-bid conference that, despite its turnover, continues to loom formidably in the NCAA basketball hierarchy.
This past season saw the A10 finish 8th among all 32 Division 1 leagues in the NET rankings, trailing behind the ACC and AAC for 6th and 7th place, respectively, and outpacing the WCC (9th) and the Mountain West (10th) among the top basketball conferences. Despite losing Xavier (2013), Butler (2013), Penn State (1982), Villanova (1980), West Virginia (1995), Rutgers (1995), and Temple (2013), among others, the league has remained an unflagging basketball-first collection of programs, consistently resilient despite these losses and poised to continue among college basketball’s best.
Entering this upcoming season, here are a handful of programs that appear well-situated to make noise in this season’s Atlantic 10.
Davidson – 16-14 (7th) – NET Ranking: 75
Having the potential Conference Players of the Year always helps when your school is looking to return to the NCAA Tournament. Kellan Grady offers just that for Davidson. Grady will enter his senior season with 1,626 points though his chances at catching Steph Curry’s 2,635 seem remote (Curry amassed this total in just three seasons). Despite the lofty expectations for Grady, who entered the program as a highly touted 4-star recruit, the Boston native has done nothing but produce, knocking down 50+ three-pointers in each of his three seasons at Davidson while shooting above 50% from two-point range throughout his tenure. Coach Bob McKillop, who has been at the helm since 1989, will have some help alongside his senior superstar as the Wildcats will lean heavily on Carter Collins who, like Grady, will enter his fourth season with sky-high expectations. The 6’3” guard took a seismic step last year, nearly doubling his offensive production which is key considering the pace the McKillop likes to play, building a team that makes a living with its speed and three-point production (1st in the A10 in 3-point percentage and 35th in the nation in total 3-pointers made). If these Wildcats see Grady and Collins take another step forward, the A10 title might run return to Davidson for the first time since 2015.
St. Bonaventure – 18-12 (6th) –NET Ranking: 122
Losing 4 of its first 5 games of 2019-2020 caused many fans to overlook the fact that the Bonnie’s went 12-2 over their next 14 games and finished the season with a Quadrant 1 win over Rutgers (strange but yes, beating Rutgers merited a Q1 win last year). Sustained success over isn’t rare for St. Bonaventure despite last year’s rocky start. Enter Coach Mark Schmidt, a career 300+ wins (229 of them at St. Bonaventure), and perhaps one of the nation’s most underappreciated coaches who has delivered four 20+ win seasons while at the wheel in Orlean. A pair of NCAA tournament appearances fails to speak to the consistent winning Schmidt has the Bonnies accustomed too, a trend that seems unlikely to halt anytime soon since nearly all significant pieces from last year’s group return, highlighted by sparkplug Kyle Lofton who led the team in both scoring (14.1 PPG) and assists (6.0 APG) but most importantly this team will have something that the best Schmidt coached teams possess: continuity. Four players logged 30+ MPG last year for this group and considering so much of this team comes back, The Bonnies have to be penciled in atop the A10. If 6’10” rangy Osun Osunniyi (Per 40 minutes: 14.3 points; 11.2 rebounds; 3.2 blocks) can continue to build his frame, there’s every reason to believe that this could be one of Mark Schmidt’s most talented teams top to bottom.
Saint Joseph’s – 6-26 – (14th) – NET Ranking: 240
Let’s not make this complicated: last season was the worst in program history. That’s saying a lot considering the rich past of Hawks basketball in Philadelphia. Last time St. Joseph’s failed to win more than 6 games? 1933. A program with a collection of 29 NBA pros and 23 NCAA tournament berths deserves better. Despite every data points suggesting the program’s nadir, 2019-2020 did see some highlights: beating UConn in mid-November at Gampel Pavilion, a game that still “haunts” Huskies Coach Dan Hurley, followed by wins over William & Mary (165 NET), a win at University of Pennsylvania (149 NET), and a surprise 73-72 victory over Davidson (75 NET). Philly native and incumbent Head Coach Billy Lange has the pedigree to make fans forget about last season considering his coaching pedigree as Jay Wright’s former right-hand man at Villanova and his time in the professional ranks while on staff with the 76ers. Lange will add a pair of incoming talents with prep school big man Anton Jasson (Napa, CA) and former consensus top-150 recruit and current transfer via Xavier, Dahmir Bishop. Bishop, a 4-star high-school talent, played sparingly for the Musketeers but will almost immediately be given the keys to Lange’s offense and the chance to return the Hawks back atop the A10. There’s nowhere to go but up in year two under Billy Lange.
UMass – 14-17 – (9th) – NET Ranking: 132
The Minutemen peaked just after the New Year, reaching as high as 118th in the NET following a 5-0 start to the season. This young UMass team showed that it can take care of business against lower competition (9-0) against Quadrant 4 teams but the group was shellacked by teams at the top , going 0-9 against Quad I programs. The Achilles heel for Matt McCall’s young group was a severe lack of interior toughness, outmuscled to the tune of only 32.5 rebounds per contest, landing for 309th in the nation. The good news? UMass returns former top-100 recruit and current center Tre Mitchell who led the team in both points and rebounds (17.1 PPG & 7.2 RPG). How about another reason for optimism? There’s reason to believe in junior forward Dibaji Walker taking the next step to bolster the wing and interior alongside Mitchell. In just 17.7 minutes per contest Walker showed he has the ability to contribute, averaging 20.6 points and 8.3 rebounds per/100 possessions. Coach Matt McCall, just 38, has yet to make the NCAA tournament since his first year in the profession when in 2015-2016 he took Chattanooga to the Big Dance following a 29-6 season. Enter year three and all signs point to McCall continuing his accent upward, again.
URI – 21-9 – (3rd) – NET Ranking: 57
Late February saw Rhode Island climb as high as 31st in the NET rankings, going 8-7 in Quad I and Quad II games. Ultimately David Cox and company found themselves very much in the bubble conversation entering March though this upcoming season the Rams may have even more reason for optimism. With the return of leading scorer Fatts Russell (18.8 PPG), and a team reputation for rebounding prowess (40th in the NCAA last season), this URI team may be able to climb higher than the third-place finish they achieved last year. The Rams will likely go smaller and look to beat opponents down the floor with Russell and his running mate, ECU and JuCo transfer, Jeremy Sheppard. On the interior Jermaine Harris has all of Kingston anticipating a major jump from the junior big man. A once heralded recruit, Harris has all the physical tools to make a leap toward conference stardom, and if he can, there’s reason to expect another tournament berth from this group. This talented trio should be enough for the Rams but Syracuse transfer Jalen Carey might augment this roster as he awaits word on possible immediate eligibility this season. Regardless of whichever way to NCAA rules on Carey’s eligibility, this team should be making yet another postseason appearance.