Nov. 7, 2012
By Vicki L. Friedman
Don’t count anybody out. That’s the level of anticipation that greets the 2012-13 Atlantic 10 season. Among the 16 teams comprising the league – which now includes newcomers Virginia Commonwealth and Butler -- six received first-place votes in the league’s preseason poll voted on by coaches.
Dayton emerged as the frontrunner with seven votes followed by Richmond and Charlotte, each with a vote apiece. Duquesne nabbed four of the votes, Temple one and defending regular season champion St. Bonaventure notched three.
So it’s a guess which team will hold the trophy on March 16 when the Atlantic 10 culminates with an historic championship game televised by the ESPN Networks in Brooklyn’s state-of-the-art Barclays Center? A handful of questions to consider:
- Will preseason favorite and defending A-10 tournament champion Dayton prevail despite losing four of its top six scorers?
- Can St. Bonaventure follow its most successful season in school history with another storied run?
- Will Richmond return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2005 behind all-league picks Genevieve Okoro, Becca Wann and Rachael Bilney?
- How dangerous is Charlotte, led by senior forward Jennifer Hailey, one of five starters back for the 49ers?
This much we know. The A-10 continues to evolve as one of the top conferences in the sport.
“We’re sending teams to the tournament year in and year out that are doing well,” said UMass coach Sharon Dawley. “You have lots of recruiting benefits because of the strength. We’re able to tell recruits we’re one of the top conferences now.”
“This conference deserves respect,” said first-year St. Louis coach Lisa Stone, formerly of Wisconsin and one of three new A-10 coaches along with Jonathan Tsipis at George Washington and Marlene Stollings at Virginia Commonwealth. “They’ve made a dent; they’ve knocked off big BCS schools. … The quality of coaching, the quality of players, this is not a mid-major conference in my opinion. It’s a BCS conference, particularly in basketball.
Dayton is the frontrunner, amusing to coach Jim Jabir who joked that “a team of Lilliputians” could have beaten the Flyers in a recent intersquad scrimmage. Then again, it’s not surprising everything’s not in place yet; the Flyers graduated seven seniors from a group that led the program to three straight NCAA Tournament appearances.
That the Flyers were still picked No. 1 speaks to the considerable talent still at Jabir’s disposal. While A-10 Rookie of the Year Andrea Hoover (10 ppg, 5.1 rpg) is the lone returning starter, Jabir has six freshman who are part of a recruiting class ranked 31st nationally. Add to the mix junior forward Cassie Sant and sophomore guard Ally Malott, and the elements seem to be in place for Jabir to fashion yet another A-10 powerhouse … eventually.
“We’ve been spoiled the last three years,” Jabir said. “We had a very, very mature group that could have coached at times, and it’s going to take some time to get back to the level where we once were.”
Richmond coach Michael Shafer knows about key losses; the Spiders graduated leading scorer Abby Oliver, who was No. 1 nationally in free-throw percentage, averaged 16.4 points and took the ball in her hands in virtually every clutch situation. But everyone else is back from a Spider team that finished 23-9 and is hungry for an NCAA berth after four straight WNIT appearances.
“The strength in our basketball team last year was our ability to share the basketball, and we still have that,” said coach Michael Shafer, whose Spiders were second only to Dayton in assists per game in the conference.
Shafer believes Okoro, in double scoring figures 17 times a year ago, can blossom into one of the best players in the league, and he is also excited about Wann, the dual-sport star who was named the league’s most improved player last season – a few months after she snagged the Atlantic 10’s Offensive Player of the Year award and a first-team All-America nod in women’s soccer.
Last summer, Wann earned a gold medal as part of the U.S. U-20 National Team that won the Women’s World Cup in Japan. This winter, the A-10’s basketball coaches are projecting Wann to be among the top 15 players on the hardwood.
“How many players are sitting here with a gold medal around their neck and are picked third team in basketball?” Shafer asked.
Charlotte returns the most experience, and Coach Cara Consuegra has high expectations for her second year as 49ers coach. She touted the summer work Hailey put in improving her footwork and strength and praised the leadership of seniors Amanda Dowe and Jai Forney while noting Hillary Sigmon made the league’s All-Rookie team.
“We put a lot of pressure on ourselves internally,” said Consuegra, whose team advanced to the WNIT Final Four in 2011. “Charlotte has consistently been a great team in the A-10 prior to me being here, and that is a tradition I want to continue.”
Duquesne and Temple were picked fourth and fifth, respectively. The Dukes graduated Alex Gensler, the all-time leading three-point shooter in school history, but return the league’s top returning scorer in Wumi Agunbiade and look to benefit from a three-game tour of Canada.
Also, after four straight WNIT appearances, coach Suzie McConnell-Serio would like to see Duquesne finally qualify for the Big Dance.
“We feel like we’ve been a bridesmaid, never the bride,” McConnell-Serio said.
Temple, which advanced to the third round of the WNIT last season, returns one of the youngest teams in the nation after graduating four of its top five scorers and bringing in six freshmen.
Coach Tonya Cardoza touted her team’s bigger, more athletic guards as a strength. An even bigger advantage figures to be senior Victoria Macaulay, a Preseason First Team pick and the team’s lone senior.
Given that Temple has gone 26-2 in regular-season conference games the past two seasons, one might expect the Owls to play the “no respect” card at being picked to finish sixth in 2012-13. Instead, the Owls appear to be energized by the modest expectations.
“I’m looking forward to being the underdog again,” Cardoza said. “This team has a chance to make a fresh start and really surprise a lot of people.”
St. Bonaventure did just that last season. After being picked to finish seventh in the preseason, the Bonnies ripped off an 14-0 conference regular season, posted an A-10 record-tying 31 wins and advanced to the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16.
But the Bonnies start anew minus Jessica Jenkins and Megan Van Tatehoven, both all-conference first-teamers last year. A third stalwart during last season’s magical run, senior forward Chelsea Bowker, was lost to season-ending ankle surgery.
The Bonnies six incoming freshmen show promise, and veterans Alaina Walker, Doris Ortega and CeCe Dixon were key contributors a year ago. This year, though, they must adopt even more significant roles.
“The difference is now they have to drive the car,” coach Jim Crowley said. “They were great passengers; now they’ve got to be able to drive the car, and that’s always a challenge.”
Saint Joseph’s hosts three rounds of the conference tournament and should benefit from a summer trip to Ireland, said coach Cindy Griffin. The Hawks have three eligible transfers in Chatilla van Grinsven (Colorado State), Natasha Cloud (Maryland ) and Kelsey Berger (Air Force) and four freshman to bolster a team that graduated four starters.
“We were battle-tested and a lot of good things emerged (from Ireland),” Griffin said. “The kids who were sitting out had a chance to get on the uniforms and play with St. Joe’s on their uniform as opposed to different schools they represented before, and the freshmen got integrated into the system. It was a great trip.”
LaSalle coach Jeff Williams brought in three transfers to complement first-team all-conference pick Brittany Wilson, whose 14 ppg last season make her the league’s second returning scorer. But 6-5 center Leeza Burdgess, formerly of Pitt, will miss the season due to a foot injury, a blow to an Explorer team eager to use her size. Burdgess led the Panthers in rebounding last season.
“Before she went down, I was thinking we could probably be in the top four or five in the conference,” said LaSalle coach Jeff Williams. “I still think we have enough to do some things, and I’m excited.”
Amy Waugh returns for her second season at Xavier and anticipates improvement on last year’s 8-20 finish. Additional maturity and depth should benefit the Musketeers, who have Tykiesha O’Neill back after knee surgery. McNeil averaged 18.6 ppg, 6 rpg and 6 apg at Chipola College during the 2010-11 season, also cut short by injury.
“The biggest thing for Ty right now is her confidence; she hasn’t played in a game in over two years,” Waugh said. “That part of it will take some time, but as each day goes on, she progresses more and more.”
Former Notre Dame assistant Jonathan Tsipis, whose George Washington team has three fifth-year seniors in addition to three traditional seniors, is pleased with the leadership they have shown.
“They bring such a maturity to our team, but at the same time, that understanding. They’re willing to do whatever I need them to do for us to be successful,” he said.
Saint Louis’ Stone takes over a program looking to improve on last year’s 11-20 mark, while Stollings, the reigning Big South Coach of the Year, moves over from Winthrop to head A-10 newcomer VCU.
The Billikens are down to nine players minus sophomore starting guard Jamesia Price (ACL), sophomore guard Morgan Johnson (lower leg) and junior Abby Willis (foot). Yet Stone is pleased with the enthusiasm of the cast she inherits.
“Our kids have embraced everything,” she said.
Stollings will rebuild a team that graduated the school’s all-time leader in scoring and rebounding, Courtney Hurt. Stollings’ up-tempo style led Winthrop to an 18-13 mark last season, and she plans to emphasize a similar offense at VCU.
“We’re certainly going to be working toward the style we want to play,” she said. “Our team is adapting to that style and has been very receptive to what we call a fun style of play.”
Former Horizon League member Butler is the other A-10 newcomer. Nine Bulldogs are either freshmen or sophomores, and junior Sarah Hamm, who averaged 11.1 ppg and led the team in rebounding, is out with an ACL injury. In all, just four players return from a group that finished fifth in the Horizon League a year ago.
Fortunately for the Bulldogs, an exciting trio of transfers - Daress McClung (Cincinnati), Taylor Schippers (Oklahoma State) and Liz Stratman (Xavier) – has potential to be significant contributors.
“They’ll give us a major impact,” Couture said. “Taylor will be our point guard and Daress will be one of our post players. And…Taylor, who just came out of the Big 12, understands the physical-ness of Division I basketball, and she’s such a good leader on the floor. So we feel really good about that.”
Stephanie Gaitley’s Fordham team returns 10, notably leading scorer Arielle Collins (11.1 ppg, team-high 99 assists), Abigail Corning (10.5 ppg, 5.2 rpg) and Charlotte Stoddard (7.5 ppg, 6.4 rpg) – all of whom started every game. Add to them the familiar name Marah Strickland, formerly of Maryland and South Carolina. In her two seasons with the Terrapins, the 6-foot Strickland etched her name in the record book among career 3-point field goals attempted and made.
“I think she’ll be one of the best 3-point shooters in the conference, and she’s a big guard,” Gaitley said. “The intangibles of her leadership and her fire -- she brings it every single day.”
UMass returns eight players but adds five newcomers, including transfer Kiara Bomben, a junior forward from Florida Gulf Coast. “We didn’t really have any speed last year,” Dawley said. “We really couldn’t get after it in the perimeter a whole lot. We got beat off the bounce quite a bit. Interjecting some speed helps us in that front.”
Coach Cathy Inglese is hopeful Rhode Island will stay healthy this year. The Rams, whose lone victory last season was over Providence, welcome back redshirt senior Lara Gaspar. Gaspar, who sat out last season with an Achilles tear, was one of several Rams to miss time during a frustrating season.
“I’m not looking to go from the bottom to the top automatically,” Inglese said. “It does take time, and each class you bring in has to be better than the one before. The class we brought in this year, I feel great about them. So I’m looking not to go from the bottom to the top, but at least to make a break and go toward the middle.”
And why not? As St. Bonaventure proved a year ago, in the ultra-competitive Atlantic 10, anything is possible.