Don’t sleep on the Atlantic 10: The league that has sent at least three schools to the NCAA Tournament in five of the last six years had a top five team last winter in Dayton and a top 10 NBA draftee in Obi Toppin.
While no A-10 is in either Preseason Top 25, three are receiving votes at this time. And while there’s no Toppin in the league, the two schools in the D.C. area as well as the two who share the Commonwealth’s capital are far from devoid of talent.
Let’s see how the local A-10 quartet stacks up.
George Washington — Last year: 12-20 overall, 6-12 in the conference. Preseason Poll: 11th in the league. Most recent NCAA appearance: 2014.
The Colonials are in their second year under Head Coach Jamion Christian, and even though they lose leading scorer Armel Potter to graduation and top rebounder Arnaldo Toro to transfer (St. John’s) the Colonials bring back five of their top six players.
“If we play how we’re capable of playing it’s going to be a lot of fun for a lot of people,” Christian said at the A-10 Virtual Media Day. “I think when you get a group of guys who love playing with one another, who have a great passion, who have a skill set and whose talent compliments one another anything can be achieved.”
Big things are expected of sophomore forward Jamison Battle. The 6-foot-7 forward led the team in three-point shooting last winter while ranking second in rebounding; with Toro gone, he’ll have to shoulder the load on the boards.
George Mason — Last year: 17-15 overall. 5-13 in the conference. Preseason Poll: 10th in the league. Most recent NCAA appearance: 2011.
It looked as if the drought would end last winter as the Patriots got off to an 11-1 start with their only defeat coming at a ranked Maryland, but Mason hit the wall with injuries and wound up playing in the First Round of the Conference Tournament for the first time since Head Coach Dave Paulsen’s first season in Fairfax back in 2016.
Even with the loss of Justin Kier’s transfer to Georgia, Paulsen returns a veteran unit (six of the top seven scorers are back).
“You want to have versatility,” Paulsen said. “So maybe you can play a little bit bigger at times and maybe you can play a little bit smaller at time, and I think we have some of that.”
Now in his sixth year at the helm, Paulsen will enjoy the fruits of his recruiting and development. Two seniors will provide the foundation: guard Javon Greene led the Patriots in scoring last winter and was voted Preseason All-Atlantic 10 Third Team, while forward A.J. Wilson (the team’s top rebounder and shot-blocker) was picked to the All-Defensive Team as well as Third Team All-conference.
“I think that we now have legitimate A-10 level length,” Paulsen said. “Not just at one or two positions, but at the vast majority of positions.”
VCU — Last season: 18-13 overall, 8-10 in the conference. Preseason Poll: 9th in the league. Most recent NCAA appearance: 2019.
The Rams are in unfamiliar territory, being picked in the bottom half of the A-10 and coming off of their first losing record in league play since 2000 when they were in the CAA, and Mack McCarthy was roaming the sidelines in the inaugural season of the Siegel Center.
Head Coach Matt Rhoades looks to turn the new expectations upside-down.
“Last year we were picked first and at one point we were 17-6,” Rhoades said. “There were teams like Davidson, Richmond, Dayton and Saint Louis: they had great years and were rolling late — why can’t that be us this year?”
While the bulk of his rotation has turned over, Rhoades can build around sophomore guard Nah’Shon “Bones” Hyland who was voted Third Team All-Atlantic 10.
“Every night you’re playing against a great team with great coaches and great players in a great venue,” Rhoades said. “In the end, it’s how you’re playing throughout the year and how you’re competing and where you’re moving to.”
Richmond — Last season: 24-7 overall, 14-4 in the conference. Preseason Poll: 1st in the league. Most recent NCAA appearance: 2011.
The Spiders were on the bubble last year, with many of the “bracketologists” punching their ticket to the Big Dance heading into the Atlantic 10 Tournament that was canceled after two games. But even with the disappointment of a lost opportunity, the 2019-2020 season was one of redemption for Richmond after back to back losing campaigns.
And they bring everybody back this winter — well, almost everybody: senior guard Nick Sherod was lost for the year with a torn ACL.
Still, Head Coach Chris Mooney has point guard Jacob Gilyard running the show on both ends of the floor; the senior ranked third in Atlantic 10 last winter in assists while leading the league in steals. He’s a Preseason All-Defensive as well as First Team All-Atlantic Ten pick.
Guard Blake Francis (his 18 points per game paced the Spiders last winter) and forward Grant Golden (the Winchester, VA native has a shot at reaching 2,000 career points this season) are the other players to watch. But Mooney knows this won’t be a cakewalk, and not just because last year’s preseason favorite VCU stumbled to a sub-500 conference mark.
He looks around at teams like UMass, Rhode Island and Davidson buried in the early preseason expectations and recalls his league’s reputation as giant-killers. Sometimes A-10 schools eat their own.
“When you have those kinds of teams that aren’t preseason top five, you can tell this is an incredibly talented deep impressive conference,” Mooney said. “And I think we’ll see that throughout the season.”
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