By Vicki Friedman
Everybody loves to be in the Top 25, and Atlantic 10 fans will no doubt love this Top 25, a primer of storylines to follow for the 2013-14 season. We start with:
Soaring Flyers: If you thought the 2012-13 Flyers were something to gush about – and considering their 28-3 mark and fourth straight trip to the NCAA Tournament, they were – expectations this season are even higher. The Flyers boast two A-10 preseason first teamers in Andrea Hoover (12.9 ppg, 5.5 rpg) and Ally Malott (10.7 ppg, 6.6 rpg) and a recruiting class ranked No. 20 by All-Star Girls Report. Speaking of rankings, the Flyers are No. 14 in the season’s first AP poll, the first time Dayton has been rewarded with a preseason national ranking.
Said Coach Jim Jabir: “Expectations are good. I’ve been in a program where there have been no expectations, and this is a good kind of pressure. The kids are excited about it. We’re created an environment that expects excellence, and that’s a tribute to our kids and coaches.
Flying high at point: Point guard Sam MacKay is the lone starter who graduated from that dominant Dayton team, but Jabir is confident in Kelley Austria and freshman Celeste Edwards filling that role. “Losing Sam MacKay is not easy, but we’re hopeful that Kelley can step in. Celeste is a lot like Sam. We never saw her as a true point guard, but she’s got a lot of confidence, a little swagger and reminds me of Sam – not afraid to pull a shot, not afraid to pass.”
Can St. Joseph’s return to the NCAA Tournament? Coach Cindy Griffin thinks so. The Hawks stunned Dayton in the semifinals of last year’s A-10 Tournament en route to a one-point defeat of Fordham in the championship. Griffin said St. Joseph’s will need to replace Chatilla van Grinsven (14.9 ppg, 10.4 rpg) by committee. Three starters return, including 6-0 junior Natasha Cloud, the Most Outstanding Player of the 2013 A-10 Championship. Redshirt junior Ashley Robinson, who started 12 games last season, is recovering from surgery on a torn labella and is expected back in December.
“We’re very old and we’re very young,” Griffin said. “We don’t have a middle group. The kids that are back are the kids who had a taste of the championship, and they’re showing the younger kids the way.”
Can Fordham build on its magical 2012-13 season? The Rams, 26-9 a year ago and runners-up in the A-10 championship, thrived in Coach Stephanie Gaitley’s second season. They won a postseason game for the first time since 1980, finished with more than 20 victories for the first time since the 1993-94 season and won more games in the Atlantic 10 than ever before. While leading scorer Marah Strickland has graduated, three starters return including A-10 preseason first-teamer Erin Rooney (13.9 ppg, 5.3 ppg) and All-Rookie selection Samantha Clark (8.4 ppg, 6.5 rpg). With six new players including St. John’s transfer Mary Nwachukwu, Gaitley is thrilled her team got a jumpstart on its chemistry with a summer trip to Australia and New Zealand, home for Rooney. “I wanted our kids to get a feel for the culture and the sacrifices she’s made going back and forth,” Gaitley said. “Plus we got four games under our belt.”
Can Duquesne emerge from its bridesmaid role? First-year Coach Dan Burt thinks so. Duquesne’s 24 wins set the best single-season winning percentage in program history (.774), and the Dukes played in their fifth straight WNIT. Burt, an assistant for the team for the last six years, recruited all but one player on this team and spent much of preseason working on the Dukes’ communication via teambuilding exercises, and credits his players for emphasizing the weight room over the summer. And if you haven’t heard of the“Whoa Show,” that would be A-10 preseason first-teamer Wumi Agunbiade (13 ppg, 7.2 rpg) and Orsi Szecsi (8.6 ppg, 4.9 rpg). “The ‘Whoa Show’ is something they created when they were freshmen,” Burt said. “They were roommates, best friends, and you can’t talk about one without the other. I owe a lot of my career to them to be frank. The Whoa Show has worked very, very hard to become leaders and to communicate effectively with their teammates.”
Oh, Canada!: The Dukes are particularly excited about a Dec. 1 meeting with Notre Dame, and not just for the opportunity to test themselves against one of the nation's best teams. The neutral-site contest will be played in Toronto, and Duquesne's roster includes four Canadian players - Agunbiade, senior forward Oditte Odisho, junior center Jose-Ann Johnson and freshman guard Brianna Thomas. The venue for the contest is the Mattamy Athletic Centre, which was formerly known as Maple Leaf Gardens when it served as the home of the National Hockey League's Toronto franchise for nearly 70 years.
Circle these dates: The Duquesne-Notre Dame showdown is just one of the sexy, potential resume-boosting non-conference games involving conference teams. Others include St. Bonaventure at defending national champion UConn (Nov. 24), Fordham at Penn State (Nov. 10) and California at George Washington (Nov. 15). In addition, St. Joseph’s is one of 16 teams in the Preseason WNIT.
Welcome back, Genevieve Okoro: The off-the-charts leaper averaged 10.3 ppg and 11 rpg in her first six games last season before an ACL injury sidelined her for the remainder. Okoro wears a brace on her left knee and was only recently cleared for full contact, but Coach Michael Shafer is happy about what he sees. “She’s still jumping up in the middle of crowds,” he said. “The biggest thing is confidence. Gen needs to fall down to realize she can get back up.”
At the same time, we’ll miss you, Becca: One of the most brilliant careers in A-10 history ended prematurely, as Richmond senior Becca Wann will not play basketball. For the last three years, Wann has excelled at two sports – soccer and basketball. Twice she was the A-10 Player of the Year in soccer, where her 34 goals place her second on the Spiders’ all-time scoring list. Initially set to return as Richmond’s leading rebounder and an A-10 third team preseason pick, Wann will forgo her final season of basketball due to a concussion that also ended her soccer career. “This is a humbling end to one of the greatest Spider stories,” Shafer said.
Giddyup, Rams! Shaka Smart’s “Havoc” meet Marlene Stollings’ “Fury.” Seven new faces on VCU’s roster excite the second-year coach whose up-tempo, offensive style of play promises to produce big numbers for the Rams. Indeed, Robyn Parks wants to leave a legacy at the school after a breakout season that saw her lead the Atlantic 10 in scoring with 18.7 ppg. The good news is Parks will have plenty of help with Jessica Pellechio returning after a terrific freshman campaign that saw her produce 11.3 ppg. VCU boasts eight newcomers, seven of them freshmen, who comprise the 38th best recruiting class in the nation.
Welcome, Patriots: George Mason is the newest school in the Atlantic 10, and Coach Nyla Milleson is in her first year coaching the program after six successful seasons at Missouri State. “We’re making progress; we’re getting better every day,” said Milleson, whose Patriots will benefit immediately from two transfers, 5-7 guard Taylor Brown (Georgetown) and 6-1 forward Sandra Ngoie (Georgia Tech). “Those two are our glue,” Milleson said. “Taylor is a special player, not just only from a playing standpoint, but she’s a great person, a quiet leader. Sandra could be a real mismatch. We’re playing her at a 4, but she can step out and really shoot it.”
Experienced Colonials: Coach Jonathan Tsipis is only in his second year coaching George Washington, while Danni Jackson, Megan Nipe and 6-2 forward Brooke Wilson all return for their fifth. The three graduate students opted to remain on a George Washington team that will get a lift when Clemson transfer Jonquel Jones, a 6-4 forward, who averages nearly a double-double in eight games for the Tigers, is eligible second semester. As for Tsipis, he’s feeling at home at GWU. “It’s a lot more fun this year,” he said. “I don’t feel like I have 13 freshmen.”
Trio of transfers: Coach Jeff Williams promises a new look at La Salle, which will benefit from three transfers in Leeza Burdgess (Pittsburgh), Alicia Cropper (Providence) and Khristin Lee (Alabama). All three were starters at their respective schools; Burdgess was eligible last year but sat out due to a broken foot. “Those three players will bring leadership, and I think that’s what we’ve been lacking in my first three years here,” Williams said. “They competed at a high level, so they bring a great deal of intensity to practice, which we’ve been lacking. They bring a winning attitude. Our chemistry is tremendous right now, and it’s because of those three kids.”
Home cookin’: St. Louis Coach Lisa Stone welcomes the youth on her team – six freshmen and two sophomores – and is particularly pleased that two of her recruits are local. Sadie Stipanovich – daughter of former Indiana Pacer, Steve – favored volleyball over basketball until her junior year at St. Louis’ Westminster Christian. “Initially, I was recruiting her cousin, Sidney, who went to Penn,” Stone said. “Sadie ended up being someone we fell in love with because we see her upside. She’s battling for a starting position.” Ditto for freshman Erin Nelson, a 5-10 forward from Ballwin, Mo. “She’s a scorer who is learning there’s two ends of the floor,” Stone said. “She’s like lightning in a bottle.”
Best ever Bonnie?: The rebuilding process continues for Jim Crowley at St. Bonaventure, which has eight freshmen or sophomores on its 11-player roster. The Bonnies welcome back one veteran standout in 3-point shooting ace Chelsea Bowker, who sat out all of last season with an injury. And their youth core includes a potential breakout star in sophomore forward Katie Healy, a player Crowley said could become among the best ever to play at St. Bonaventure. Even so, expectations aren't exactly high for the Bonnies, who were picked to finish ninth in the A-10. But this is nothing new for these guys. Two years ago, St. Bonaventure responded to being tabbed to wind up seventh in the A-10 by going undefeated through the conference regular season and crashing the NCAA Tournament's Sweet 16.
From walk-on to starter? Olivia Jakubicek, a 5-10 freshman from Cary-Grove High in Cary, Ill., is battling for a starting position with the Billikens. “This kid is really awesome; she uses her body really well,” Stone said. Jakubicek’s sister, Claire, the all-time leading scorer at Cary-Grove, is a redshirt sophomore forward at Indiana.
Leading the way at UMass: Encouraged by a promising preseason, Coach Sharon Dawley likes the leadership shown by the Minutewomen, singling out three players early on. She calls junior guard Emily Mital the team’s spiritual leader noting, “She’s smart, savvy and mature. She’s been through the ringer for two years.” Nola Henry, a 5-7 guard, will be the floor general with 16 starts under her belt already. Said Dawley, “She has quite a bit of experience for only being a sophomore.” And then there’s 6-0 forward Kim Pierre-Lewis, the emotional leader, who has dropped 57 pounds since last season. “This is life-changing for her,” Dawley said. “In 30 years of coaching, I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Healthy at last: Key injuries and youth were among the reasons Rhode Island ranked last in offense a year ago. “We didn’t have a point guard to get us going,” Inglese said. “The kids had to scrap and grind for those points.” This season redshirt freshman Kallie Banker will run the show, healthy after missing last season after a concussion. The youth remains – nine on the roster are either freshmen or sophomores – but Inglese dubs this year’s team “experienced youth.”
Two are new: Nyla Milleson is a veteran coach, who is 10 wins shy of 300 career victories in 13 years. But it’s her first season at George Mason after spending her career in the Midwest. The Kansas State graduate was the first head coach at Drury University, where she earned five straight NCAA Division II tournament appearances with one national runner-up finish. She spent the last six years at Missouri State, leading the Lady Bears to three WNIT appearances.
Dan Burt, the top assistant at Duquesne for the last six years, takes over for the Dukes. Burt calls the job at Duquesne “a dream come true.”
Fab freshman: It wouldn’t be a surprise if many of the best players in the A-10 this season were freshmen. Dayton’s Andrijana Cvitkovic, a 6-3 center, received 65 scholarship offers, Jabir said. “She’s going to be a great player for us,” he said. Cvitkovic and VCU’s Camile Calhoun, a 6-foot guard/forward, are both ESPN Top 100 recruits. Richmond’s Shafer sees a cross between Becca Wann and Abby Oliver in freshman guard Olivia Healy. “She’s a big strong athletic guard who has no fear,” he said. St. Joseph’s Griffin touts 6-1 forward Jessica Pongonis as a freshman who will add depth to the Hawks frontcourt, and Fordham’s Hannah Missry is the leading three-point shooter in New Jersey high school history.
Transfer in the wings: Olivia Bresnahan (Florida State) will be eligible following the fall 2013 semester for Duquesne. Think Burt isn’t excited about the 5-11 junior guard who played in 60 games for the Seminoles? “She’s eligible the moment final exams end on Dec. 18,” he said. “I know the exact date and time.”
Welcome to Richmond: When it’s all said and done, all 13 teams will convene at the Richmond Coliseum for the Atlantic 10 Tournament on March 5-9. The coaches are giddy about playing on a neutral court in a storied building in a city that embraces basketball. After a play-in game on Wednesday, the tournament continues with four first-round games on Thursday followed by quarterfinals on Friday and semifinals on Saturday televised by CBS Sports Network. Sunday’s 11 a.m. championship game will be broadcast on ESPNU.
Going dancing: How many Atlantic 10 teams will make the NCAA Tournament? If history gives any indication, at least two and possibly three. With Dayton and St. Joseph's receiving invitations, the 2012-13 season marked the 11th straight year the A-10 has received multiple NCAA bids. In six of those years, the league has sent three teams to the Big Dance. In addition, the conference sent five teams (Butler, Charlotte, Duquesne, Fordham, Richmond) to the WNIT for the fifth straight year.
Who's No. 1?: Unlike the team race, where Dayton is the clear favorite, the top player honor appears to be wide open. The handicapping starts with the three returning All-Atlantic 10 first teamers - Duquesne's Agunbiade, Dayton's Hoover and Fordham's Rooney. But VCU's Parks, Dayton's Malott and St. Joseph's Erin Shields head a talented cast of returners poised to challenge for the top spot. And with so many impact transfers, freshmen and other newcomers set to tip off, who emerges as the league's best player figures to be one of the most intriguing subplots of the 2013-14 campaign.
Lights, camera, action!: Can't make it to a game? Fans can still check out plenty of action as Atlantic 10 teams will make 32 national television appearances during the 2013-14 season on ESPN, CBS Sports Network and the league's newest TV partner, NBC Sports Network. The three networks combine for more than 200 million subscribers nationwide.
Virginia-based Vicki L. Friedman is the co-creator of LadySwish, a blog dedicated to the 13 Division I basketball teams in the state.