The Atlantic 10 held its annual media day on Tuesday, and for the second straight year, beat and national reporters met the conference’s thirteen head coaches at the Barclays Center, home of the Brooklyn Nets, Jay Z (though he sold his stake in the team, the arena will forever be associated with the rapper from 560 State Street), and the A10’s postseason tournament.
Despite the loss of Xavier and Temple (to the Big East and the American Athletic Conference, respectively), the A10 is still one of the nation’s top conferences, a league that boasts potential NCAA tournament participants like VCU, Saint Louis, and La Salle (and it’s foolish to discount the possibility that Massachusetts, Rhode Island, or George Mason also crack the field).
After speaking with nearly all of the coaches, below are several media day takeaways, and analysis of certain gameplan changes, personnel alterations, and expectations for the 2013-14 season.
Has George Mason been overlooked?
Paul Hewitt’s squad returns nearly 90 percent of the previous team’s minutes played, yet the Patriots were picked to finish eighth in the conference’s preseason poll. Fresh off an appearance in the College Basketball Invitational final, the Patriots have the potential to break into the league’s upper echelon. The squad’s top four scorers are back, and that doesn’t include Patrick Holloway, a then-freshman guard who showed a soft touch from deep (34%, and one of only two Patriots to attempt more than 100 threes), or Erik Copes, a once highly-regarded recruit who became more of an offensive presence on the block (while also dealing with lingering health issues) in ’13 . “There are some people [in the Atlantic 10] that don’t know them well,” says George Washington coach Mike Lonergan, “but I know their roster. They are a good team with a lot of seniors who are built for this year and can step right in. Their talent level is very high.” A key for Mason will be the continued pressure Sherrod Wright puts on opposing defenses. The guard, who was named to the preseason all-second team, drastically altered his game last season; while he was still a three-point threat (35%), nearly 15% of his possessions were isolation plays. This allowed Wright to frequently get into the lane and either convert in traffic or get to the free throw line — he drew more than six fouls per 40 minutes, attempting 233 free throws, which was more than his first two seasons combined.
Is there a leadership vacuum at Saint Louis?
While losing Kwamain Mitchell deprives Saint Louis of a seasoned ball-handler, the more significant departure may be Cody Ellis. The Australian big was known for his three-point shooting, but he was a phenomenal help defender; he limited his own fouls (roughly three per 40 minutes) while frequently drawing charges that would sap an opponent’s momentum. He was also a leader on the bench and court, and despite returning a senior-laden squad, coach Jim Crews isn’t sure who will rise to the occasion during that first practice after a frustrating loss. “It’s an enigma,” Crews says. “While we want everyone to lead as a team, we do put a demand on certain guys but we haven’t seen it yet and can’t explain it.” Rick Majerus recruited and taught the core — Dwayne Evans, Mike McCall, Rob Loe, and Jordair Jett — so while this may not be a pressing issue this season, it will be an interest when Crews faces his first rebuilding season in 2014-15.
Archie Miller’s two-pronged offensive approach
Dayton coach Archie Miller believes in the importance of offensive rebounds. The Flyers grabbed more than 35 percent of their missed shots during Miller’s first two seasons (a mark bested by only one other A10 team), but the coach stresses the 2014 squad will be his best rebounding team. “From a physical standpoint, we have a lot of different guys who can get inside and crash the offensive glass,” notes Miller. “We have a lot of guys who play big.” One of those is Dyshawn Pierre, who can slide between the small and power forward slots (when Miller uses a three-guard lineup) this season. The other three bigs whose focus will seldom stray from the offensive glass are Devin Oliver (who gained 30 pounds during the offseason), Matt Kavanaugh (who missed last year following a suspension for violating the school’s code of conduct), and Jalen Robinson, a 6-foot-9 sophomore who could be UD’s breakout player (in very limited minutes, his offensive rebounding percentage led the team). The interior work will, in turn, boost Dayton’s free throw attempts, the squad’s bugbear a year ago. Since departed Kevin Dillard was the only Flyer to take more than 100 free throws, Miller insists UD needs to get to the stripe: “How we play is really going to be about getting to the foul line, which, if we are doing our job, we should be there a lot.”
Chris Mooney’s height infusion
Chris Mooney’s Richmond squads are Dayton’s polar opposite. The Spiders eternally struggle to both secure and prevent additional possessions, and while Mooney isn’t going to alter his gameplan because his previous teams’ rebounding woes, he will benefit from the additional size Richmond’s frontcourt possesses in 2014. “We won’t sacrifice our ability to shoot and handle the ball,” claims Mooney, “but our big guys are so versatile, we can play more big lineups which will help our rebounding.” Alonzo Nelson-Ododa, a 6’9″ sophomore, will haul in a greater percentage of opponents’ misses with additional playing time, and also lessen the defensive burden of Derrick Williams — Nelson-Ododa was named to the A10’s preseason all-defensive team and excels using his athleticism and keen sense of timing to swat countless shots. The standout member of Richmond’s retooled frontcourt is Terry Allen, who Mooney effusively praised throughout media day. “For a guy his size [6’8″], Terry is an incredible ballhandler. He is going to be great player.” Allen used less than one-third of Richmond’s minutes, but grabbed an impressive 23% of opponents’ misses, and transformed himself this summer. “Terry combines versatility and strength, and he can score in many different ways,” says Mooney. If these sophomore bigs (along with Deion Taylor) can make UR competitive on the boards, the offensive balance may begin to tilt to the interior.
George Washington is primed for a leap
Want an Atlantic 10 dark horse contender other than Rhode Island? George Washington, a team picked to finish at the league’s bottom, has the potential for a breakthrough season. GW’s frosh quartet — Kevin Larsen, Patricio Garino, Kethan Savage, and Joe McDonald — used 45% of the team’s minutes, and combined with Isaiah Armwood and Indiana transfer Maurice Creek (a senior and grad student, respectively), coach Mike Lonergan has a weathered returning core that lost five A10 games by single digits a year ago. So how do the Colonials exceed expectations? One key is Larsen and Creek avoiding prolonged stays in the trainer’s room. “We can’t shoot much worse than last year,” Lonergan says, “and if Mo can stay healthy, it gives us another veteran who can shoot.” Larsen had a standout freshman year, but he was easily winded, the result of a preseason injury that caused him to put on weight last fall. “Kevin is in much better shape this year — he lost 18 pounds,” notes Lonergan. “His conditioning will make him a better rebounder, and I tell our guys that Kevin needs to get a touch every time because he has a good touch and is our best passer.” Lonergan admits GW will shy away from three-point attempts because their offensive strength is in the paint, but he does envision pairing Larsen and Creek on the same side of the court together: “Mo will draw defensive attention and teams will finally have to go over the top of our high motion offense.”
Is there space in Rhode Island’s crowded frontcourt?
Dan Hurley’s squad is arguably the Atlantic 10’s most physically imposing team. Four Rams stand 6’8″ or taller, and that is not including freshman Hassan Martin, who might spend much of his first Rhody season tethered to the bench. “We have several forwards who we feel can play the 4 or the 5 and be very productive,” claims Hurley. “We couldn’t say that last year.” A familiarity with Hurley’s system helps these bigs; Jordan Hare and Mike Aaman earned immediate minutes last season, Ifeanyi Onyekaba sat out but practiced with the squad, and Gilvydas Biruta, who also sat out and practiced, played under Hurley at St. Benedict’s. Even Hurley commented on the ease with which drills began in late September, joking, “Dealing with me every day now in practice isn’t a cold shower.” It remains to be seen which of the four will earn the majority of minutes — Hurley mentioned that while Onyekaba has been the best forward in practice the last several days, the other three have evolved offensive tools and offer URI’s backcourt a target in the post. Aaman could be the first to emerge because of his rebounding prowess; Aaman was the only Rhody to grab more than 10% of the squad’s misses and proved difficult to move once he camped in the lane. Hurley’s forceful inflection when discussing Aaman indicates the soph’s worth to the team: “Mike could only score over his right shoulder last year, but now he has a counter and can score over either. He’s also added 20 pounds while lowering his body fat so he is a valuable guy who should be ready to contribute in a very competitive position.”
Ronald Roberts’ new role
Ronald Roberts has appeared on too many highlight reels to be a breakout candidate, but the forward is going to have to tweak his game entering his senior season to account for the losses of C.J. Aiken and Carl Jones. Roberts only used 19% of Saint Joseph’s attempts in 2013, and teammate Langston Galloway needs help shouldering the scoring burden. Coach Phil Martelli has described Galloway’s game as beating the opponent softly, but Roberts’ skill set is anything but Downy. “During one of our games last year,” recalls VCU coach Shaka Smart, “Ron threw Juvonte [Reddic] out of the way and took the rebound from him.” Roberts’ aggressiveness is a byproduct of his length and core muscles, wrestling away rebounds from opponents for put backs, and while his appears hefty — Roberts’ body looks like muscles begat muscles — he can glide through the air, hanging longer than other players for dunks. Roberts won’t become a perimeter force, but as Chris Wilson told Josh Verlin of City of Basketball Love, the team expects to play at a faster pace this season, which will yield further transition opportunities for Roberts, not to mention sets that feature Roberts catching the ball while taking a dribble or two towards the rim (such as pick and roll or cut plays).
The continued maturation of Ryan Canty
One of the league’s biggest surprises was Ryan Canty. The 6’9″ Canty struggled to stay on the floor — seven fouls per 40 minutes — but when he was in the game, he was an extremely efficient rebounder, possessing a top 25 Ken Pomeroy ranking for both offensive and defensive rebounding percentage. But coach Tom Pecora still doesn’t know if he can depend on Canty as a regular contributor and not a player who, as Pecora explains, “…has the mindset of a defensive end.” When discussing the junior’s game, Pecora is very explicit in what he wants Canty to accomplish this season: “He has to be a guy who can make free throws, defend the post, set screens, and continue to come flying in from the high post to blow up plays and grab an offensive rebound.” Canty spent the summer refining his footwork but Pecora doesn’t think he will subsume Chris Gaston’s post possessions because he is still prone to turnovers and, as Pecora notes, “He gets so revved up and he has to realize early in game, you may have to give up a layup or take a charge instead of take every big time play, but that is a maturation thing.”
Massachusetts increases the pace
When coaches mention they want to play fast in the upcoming season, it typically doesn’t happen. Those magic words — “we are going to get up and down the court” — excite the fan base and help in recruiting, but by the time conference play begins, those teams are grinding out possessions. However, when the coach of a team like Massachusetts says he wants to increase the pace, it is noteworthy because Derek Kellogg has built his UMass squad into a transition-happy group. During the past five seasons, the 2013 team tied for the least possessions used per conference game, and Kellogg wants to force opponents on their heels again. “I wasn’t able to get the game going as fast as I wanted to last year,” explains Kellogg. “The league had a lot better guard play, but we are going to try to get our press going quicker and faster so we get as many possessions as I like to play with.” For Kellogg, that means urging his players to crash the defensive glass, something that didn’t often happen in 2013. “My big guys are in better shape this year, and I am going to make Sampson [Carter], Maxie [Esho], and Raphiael [Putney] actually go to the glass this year,” he says. Kellogg also insists his guards, including sub-6′ Chaz Williams and Western Kentucky transfer Derrick Gordon, who Kellogg claims is the team’s second best rebounder in practice, will sky for boards, which should help jumpstart the Minutemen’s break.
Matt Giles is a reporter for New York Magazine and has contributed to College Basketball Prospectus 2012-13, ESPN the Magazine, ESPN Insider, the New York Times, BuzzFeed, and Salon. You can follow Matt on Twitter @HudsonGiles.