Atlantic 10 Teams Hungry for League Play to Start Saturday
By Patrick Stevens
Rhode Island and St. Bonaventure were perceived as
Quality showings in nonconference play have only bolstered the profile of both programs.
Rhode Island picked off a pair of Big East teams in the early stages of its schedule, upending a ranked Seton Hall squad in the Preseason NIT and then handling Providence to claim an in-state rivalry game at home. Perhaps most impressively, both victories came without preseason all-Atlantic 10
St. Bonaventure played without a veteran star of its own early in the season, with senior guard Jaylen Adams missing the first six games due to an ankle injury. But the Bonnies beat Maryland in the Emerald Coast Classic despite his absence. Once Adams returned, he helped spark St. Bonaventure’s first victory over Syracuse since 1981 and the first-ever for the brown & white in the Carrier Dome.
Those aren’t the only teams in the league to secure name-brand triumphs in the season’s early stages. Massachusetts defeated both Georgia and Providence to get the Matt McCall era off to a solid start, while George Washington and La Salle own victories over Temple, which was No. 1 in the RPI when La Salle handed the Owls their first loss. Saint Louis snagged a triumph over Virginia Tech in the 2K Classic, while VCU handled California in the Maui Invitational.
Those results came against the third-rated strength of schedule in the nation by conference. And they suggest the Atlantic 10’s league schedule, which begins with a seven-game slate on Saturday, will be every bit as competitive as it usually is. As each team’s 18-game schedule gets underway, it’s worth taking a look at each as part of a midseason reset.
With Matthews healthy, Rhode Island (8-3) is poised to make a run at a second conference title in a row. The Rams are 7-0 at home and open league with a pair of games in Kingston -- against George Mason and La Salle.
Dan Hurley’s team thrives in part because it forces takeaways (12th nationally in defensive turnover percentage, according to KenPom.com) but also takes care of the ball (No. 24 nationally in turnover percentage). Stanford Robinson has 30 steals, which ranks second in the conference. Jared Terrell is averaging a team-high 17.8 points and ranks fifth in the conference in the category.
Adams has predictably provided St. Bonaventure (10-2) a lift since his return, averaging 18.2 points, 4.3 rebounds
The Bonnies have won 10 of 11, but after Saturday’s date with Massachusetts will play four of five on the road --- including a Jan. 13
The Rams and Bonnies are hardly the only teams with early-season accomplishments. Duquesne (9-4) rattled off a seven-game winning streak this month, its longest run since 2010-11. Eric Williams Jr., a 6-foot-5 freshman, is averaging a league-best 9.9 rebounds to go with 14.2 points, while Mike Lewis II has posted 16.5 points per game as the Keith Dambrot era has gotten off to an encouraging start in Pittsburgh.
VCU(8-5) is another team with a first-year coach, and the Rams bring a three-game winning streak into Saturday’s visit from Fordham. Justin Tillman, a preseason All-Atlantic 10 selection, has lived up to his billing and ranks fourth in the conference in both scoring (17.9) and rebounding (8.3). He also ranks fifth in the A-10 with a .560 field goal percentage. Jonathan Williams is averaging a league-best 6.7 assists.
Also playing well as league play commences is George Washington (7-6), which has won five of its last seven. Senior guard Yuta Watanabe (14.1 points, 7.0 rebounds, 2.0 blocks per game) has settled into a central role on offense, while point guard Jair Bolden has made considerable strides as a sophomore. They rank first and third, respectively, in the league in minutes played. Efficient forward Patrick Steeves has also thrived of late, winning A-10 Co-Player of the Week last week, along with Adams.
Massachusetts (7-6) has gained its footing after a slow start, winning four of its last five as it adjusts to McCall. Sophomore guard Luwane Pipkins averaged 23.5 points in the victories over Providence and Georgia, and he ranks third in the league with a scoring average of 18.2 points for the season. Point guard C.J. Anderson is second in the conference in assists (5.8), while center Rashaan Holloway is shooting 62.1 percent from the floor.
Despite a short-handed roster, Saint Louis (7-6) enters its conference opener at La Salle above .500. The Billikens have leaned heavily on guards Javon Bess (13.6 points, 6.5 rebounds per game) and Jordan Goodwin (11.8 points, 6.8 rebounds) and enjoyed their best nonconference record in three years.
Anthony Grant’s first Atlantic 10 game as the coach at Dayton (6-6) comes Saturday at Duquesne. The Flyers have gotten stellar production from junior Jordan Cunningham, who was a regular contributor two seasons ago before missing much of last year because of injury. He’s back to being a force in the paint for Dayton, ranking second in the A-10 in rebounding (9.8) and first in field goal percentage (.698).
George Mason has no seniors and no players listed at taller than 6-8. Still, the Patriots’ eight-man rotation has helped it to a 6-7 start as it enters its Atlantic 10 opener at Rhode Island. Junior guard Otis Livingston II surpassed the 1,000-point plateau for his career earlier this season, and junior Jaire Grayer and sophomore Justin Kier have both taken steps forward as key cogs for a scrappy Mason bunch.
There’s a case for B.J. Johnson as
Davidson (5-6) heads into its conference opener at Richmond after playing well while winning its final game at the Diamond Head Classic. The Wildcats, who rank fourth nationally in turnover percentage, gave New Mexico State a good run in their opener and later handled Akron. Peyton Aldridge is averaging a league-best 21.8 points, while freshman Kellan Grady (15.0 ppg) and sophomore Jon Axel Gudmundsson (14.9 ppg) also play prominent roles in one of the Atlantic 10’s best offenses.
Joseph Chartouny is averaging 3.7 steals per game for Fordham (5-7), which has alternated wins and losses each time out since Nov. 19. Senior Will Tavares ranks ninth in the A-10 in scoring at 16.8 points a contest. The Rams will look to get off to a good start in league play, with three of their first five coming at Rose Hill Gym.
For the second consecutive year, Saint Joseph’s (5-6) has experienced some lousy injury luck. Lamarr Kimble is out for the rest of the year, while Charlie Brown (broken wrist) has yet to play but could be back soon. The Hawks have been competitive in nearly every game, and Shavar Newkirk (17.7 points per game) and Joseph Demery (16.6) both rank in the top 10 in the conference in scoring.
Richmond (2-10) will look to reverse its fortunes as it begins its 18-game league slate. The Spiders already have one of the conference’s feel-good stories in
Saturday’s opening slate also includes an NBCSN triple-header to start the season. The A-10’s TV partner will air the Fordham-VCU game at 12:30 pm, the UMass-St.
Patrick Stevens is a freelance writer working in the Washington, D.C. area. A former sports reporter for the Washington Times, he has been a contributor to Atlantic10.com for the past four years. Follow him on Twitter at @D1scourse.