It doesn't seem to matter where Shaka Smart and his VCU Rams make berth. Year in and year out the Rams just seem to win. In their first season as a member of the A-10 all they did was finish with a 27-9 record and a nice run in the NCAA Tournament. The backcourt will again be strong in Smart's turnover-based 'HAVOC' system but the real strength could be in the frontcourt where Juvonte Reddic resides. Getting big things from guards and the paint could spell doom for the would-be challengers in the league.
Don't go handing out the conference title just yet. Saint Louis is the defending regular season and conference champion and looking to build off a historic season with the help of four returning starters. The Billikens can hang with the Rams defensively and have plenty of all-league candidates of their own. Of course there is then La Salle, which made the most noise in the Big Dance last year with a surprising race to the Sweet 16. Leading scorer Ramon Galloway is gone from Philadelphia but the Explorers really shouldn't miss a beat assuming Tyreek Duren and Tyrone Garland continue to dominate in the backcourt.
Those three teams are the only squads left that made the NCAA Tournament from the league last year but that number has a chance of inflating this season. Massachusetts is the best breakout candidate. The Minutemen are led by one of the best scorers in the league in Chaz Williams and the team has got to be tired of pumping out 20-win seasons without much payoff. Richmond beat some of the conference's elite and was a 19-win unit last year and brings back a great deal of depth.
The transfer market was kind to George Washington a year ago when it landed Isaiah Armwood from Villanova and now the Colonials will hope to strike gold yet again with the addition of Maurice Creek from Indiana. That duo gives GW a fighting chance to be more than a competitive team in league action. Xavier Munford is the top returning scorer in the league and he will be at the forefront for a Rhode Island squad that looks to be a tougher out than last year's version, while Saint Joseph's has a solid nucleus to build around after a disappointing campaign in 2012-13.
The bottom third of the league has promise but it might be a few years before it is realized at most locations. Dayton and conference newcomer George Mason have the best chance at ascending the ranks rather than being bogged down in the depths. The Flyers have Matt Kavanaugh returning to help solidify a solid core and Sherrod Wright gives the Patriots a chance each time on the floor.
The Fordham Rams, Duquesne Dukes and St. Bonaventure Bonnies all have far more questions than answers to really expect much in what looks to be a rebuilding year all around.
CONFERENCE CHAMPION: VCU
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. VCU 2. Saint Louis 3. La Salle 4. Massachusetts 5. Richmond 6. George Washington 7. Rhode Island 8. Saint Joseph's 9. Dayton 10. George Mason 11, St. Bonaventure 12. Fordham 13. Duquesne
TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:
VCU: Turnovers and wins. That's was VCU does. Smart has become nationally recognized as one of the most inventive coaches around thanks to his unique defensive system that puts a premium on pressuring opponents. However, it might come as a surprise that the Rams were also the leading scoring team in the A-10 last year (76.9 ppg) as well as a team that forced more than 700 turnovers. Reddic (14.6 ppg, 8.1 rpg) and Treveon Graham (15.1 ppg, 5.8 rpg) are back to ensure the success continues. Reddic is an early frontrunner for conference Player of the Year thanks to his ability to score around the basket and clean the glass. That second skill is especially vital to a team that likes to get out on the break quickly. Graham is the leading returning scorer and at his size (6-foot-5) makes life extremely difficult for opposing defenders. Just that duo alone might make for a contender but the depth doesn't stop there. Ray Brandenberg (10.4 ppg) is another double-digit starter that returns to the roster. Brandenburg can really heat up from beyond the arc, especially in transition, and provides a healthy third scoring option. It isn't all good news for the Rams though, as Troy Daniels (12.2 ppg) and point guard Darius Theus (6.8 ppg, 4.8 apg, 2.4 spg) are gone. Replacing Theus won't be too tough, as Briante Weber (5.4 ppg, 2.7 apg, 2.7 spg) should fit in seamlessly.
SAINT LOUIS: Jim Crews really did a fine job in continuing what the late Rick Majerus built at Saint Louis. The Billikens followed up a 26-win campaign in 2011-12 with a school-record 28 wins last season as well as their highest national ranking since 1965. History may be about to repeat itself as three starters and a handful of important reserves are back from last year's conference championship squad. Dwayne Evans (14.0 ppg, 7.7 rpg) and his 6-6 frame will be back as one of the more versatile frontcourt performers in the league. Evans was really a two-way player as he led the team in scoring and rebounding. Mike McCall Jr. (9.3 ppg) started in all 35 games as well last season and is a strong shooter from long distance, as well as a willing passer. Jordair Jett (9.9 ppg, 3.2 apg) was a spark-plug off the bench and should see increased minutes with the likes of Cody Ellis and Kwamain Mitchell no longer around. Then there is Rob Loe, who is the third member of the team to have started in all 35 games a year ago. Loe averaged seven points and just over three rebounds per game but the 6-11 senior should be even more productive this year. Junior forward Grandy Glaze and Central Michigan transfer Austin McBroom will also fill in holes in the front and backcourts, respectively.
LA SALLE: Based on the trajectory the Explorers have been on of late, a third-place finish in the conference may be an insulting prediction. La Salle went 24-10 overall last year as it improved on its record from the previous season for the third-straight year. The majority of last year's squad is still intact, which means the Explorers may not just be settling for a Cinderella run to the Sweet 16 in March. Losing Galloway will certainly sting, but Duren (14.2 ppg, 3.3 apg) really makes the loss easier to take. Duren was just fine as the second option behind Galloway and now steps into the leader role. Garland (13.1 ppg) is another double-figure scorer that the Explorers will be able to rely on again. Garland started in just a single game but the speedy senior guard will more than likely be a full-time starter this season. More minutes should equal improved production. Sam Mills (8.0 ppg) isn't as flashy a player as Duren or Garland but he fits well in the up-tempo system that head coach John Giannini runs, as he can hit shots from long range at any time. The Explorers' four-guard scheme doesn't require a ton up front but Steve Zack (6.4 ppg, 6.4 rpg) is a solid anchor for the squad down low.
MASSACHUSETTS: In 2012 the Minutemen won 25 games and were relegated to the NIT. Last year the win total dipped to 21 and another NIT bid. This is the year they break out of that streak, or at least it needs to be. Williams (15.5 ppg, 7.3 apg) is about as guaranteed a lock for all-conference honors as there is in the league, but the 5-9 dynamo is entering his final year on campus in Amherst so the time is now for him. Williams' size doesn't bring him down in the slightest as he can score in a number of ways. His ball-handling and distributing skills are also unmatched. Williams also doesn't let up much on the defensive end, as he is a smart defender who collected two steals per game last season. Williams will be breaking in a new backcourt partner since Freddie Riley (8.8 ppg) has set sail. Filling the gap will be Trey Davis, who played less than 10 minutes per game last season but is an accurate shooter. Up front the Minutemen also must make some adjustments as Terrell Vinson (12.3 ppg) has left. However, Vinson was never much of a rebounder and Raphiael Putney (7.1 ppg, 4.6 rpg) and Cady LaLanne (8.4 ppg, 7.4 rpg) provide skill on the boards, as well as the ability to replicate Vinson's scoring.
RICHMOND: Depth is a luxury and the Spiders are lucky to have plenty this year. Even with leading scorer Darien Brothers (14.1 ppg) no longer making plays for them, the Spiders have three returning starters as well as some players that got game-time experience in 2013. Cedrick Lindsay (12.0 ppg, 3.1 apg) will assume the role of go-to scorer, though Kendall Anthony (11.5 ppg) and Derrick Williams (11.4 ppg, 5.4 rpg) will certainly in the mix when it comes to putting the ball through the net. Lindsay was the second-best scorer behind Brothers a year ago and did so despite playing through injuries. Williams was no stranger to injury issues as well, as he missed some time but is fully healthy now. Williams, and the team as a whole, need to step it up on the boards for the Spiders to have any hopes of challenging at the top. Last year the Spiders were one of the 10 worst rebounding teams in the country, bringing in only 28.8 boards per contest. Also needing to get his production to a better level in that department is Alonzo Nelson-Ododa. The 6-9 forward certainly has the size and with increased playing time the rebounds should come. Filling out the main rotation will be Wayne Sparrow (3.9 ppg), Deion Taylor (3.6 ppg) and Terry Allen (4.4 ppg, 3.4 rpg), who each played in all 34 games last season.
GEORGE WASHINGTON: The Colonials really struggled down the stretch last year with losses in seven of their last nine games. However, four of those setbacks were by single digits so there is clearly some optimism brewing in D.C. for the upcoming campaign. Adding Creek further amplifies the hope surrounding Mike Lonergan and his squad as he enters his third year at the helm. Creek saw his minutes slashed last year at Indiana and so he transferred. Creek averaged 7.2 points per game in his three years in Bloomington, including an impressive 16.4 in his freshman season. Creek will give the Colonials a nice backcourt option to counter-balance star Isaiah Armwood. After all this is still Armwood's team. The 6-9 forward came in last season from Villanova and made strong statements as a scorer and a rebounder, as he led the team in both categories (11.9 ppg, 8.8 rpg). Armwood was also a ferocious defender that protected the rim at an impressive rate, blocking 2.3 shots per game. Kevin Larsen (8.2 ppg, 5.0 rpg) is another returning starter that will team with Armwood in an imposing frontcourt, while Joe McDonald (7.5 ppg, 3.2 apg) will try to improve on his long-range shooting in his second season as a full-time starter.
RHODE ISLAND: It seems like a lifetime since the Rams were competitive but in actuality it has only been two seasons since they ripped off a four-year streak of 20-win campaigns. Last year was the first for URI under head coach Dan Hurley, who took over after Jim Baron led a 7-24 squad the year prior. The early returns for Hurley weren't impressive as the Rams managed to pick up just eight wins against 21 losses. Scoring was the biggest weakness for the unit as the Rams were dead last in the A-10 in scoring (61.6 pg) and field goal percentage (.400). Part of the issue was too often the Rams tried to get points off one-on-one situations rather than through ball movement, as they were also last in the league in assists (10.9 pg). Having Munford (17.4 ppg) back on the roster will help the Rams improve their scoring, but he isn't a distributor in any sense of the word. A prolific scorer that can get to the rim reasonably well, Munford still shot below 40 percent from the floor and rarely relied on his teammates. More efficiency from Munford is needed if the Rams want to contend. Joining Munford in the backcourt is point guard Mike Powell (8.9 ppg, 3.9 apg), who was the leader in assists but struggled as a shooter last year, netting less than 30 percent from the field. Jordan Hare (5.2 ppg, 4.0 rpg) is the best option up front.
SAINT JOSEPH'S: Last year was supposed to be the Hawks' time to reclaim their spot among the A-10's elite. That didn't happen and after an 18-14 overall campaign, which included an 8-8 league mark, the buzz surrounding the Hawks is much tamer, while the seat head coach Phil Martelli is on has begun to warm. Since the Hawks' magical run to a 30-2 record with Jameer Nelson and Delonte West in 2004 the Hawks have had 20 wins only three times, while earning an NCAA bid just once. Losing top performers like Carl Jones (14.7 ppg) and C.J. Aiken (10.4 ppg, 5.6 rpg) isn't likely to make Martelli's job any easier. However, all is not as the Hawks have a nice trio of returning starters to rely upon. Langston Galloway (13.8 ppg, 2.2 apg) is consistent both as a scorer and a distributor. Then there is forward Ronald Roberts Jr. (11.2 ppg, 8.3 rpg), who was the team's best player on the boards. He and Halil Kanacevic (8.5 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 1.7 bpg) will be formidable in the frontcourt. One of the two will need to step up as a defensive enforcer with Aiken, who averaged 2.6 blocks per game, no longer around. Chris Wilson (6.5 ppg) started in 22 games and is one of only four players to be back that played more than 10 minutes per game. Martelli obviously needs unproven talent to adapt quickly.
DAYTON: Archie Miller's second season as the head coach for the Flyers wasn't a good one. Yes, Dayton finished with a winning record (17-14), but for a team that is used to hanging up 20 in the win column every year, the production was clearly not up to par. After all, the Flyers had had at least 20 wins in five- straight seasons, including Miller's first, before last year. One reason to believe a turnaround could be in order is that the Flyers were an extremely efficient offensive squad, leading the A-10 and ranking 15th nationally in field-goal percentage (.475). More play like that coupled with better rebounding and defense could lead to better results. The return of Kavanaugh, who served a suspension last season, will help both on the boards and in stopping foes. The 6-10 senior averaged nine points and just under six rebounds per game in 2011-12 and will be a starter right away. He will join a threesome of starters from last year that are trying to fill the gap left by leading scorer Kevin Dillard (15.3 ppg, 4.5 apg). Devin Oliver (8.9 ppg) and Vee Sanford (12.3 ppg) are the players to watch in the backcourt and the two most likely to take up the mantle of go-to option. Dyshawn Pierre (8.8 ppg, 5.1 rpg) and Jalen Robinson (6.1 ppg, 5.1 rpg) will help shore up the frontcourt.
GEORGE MASON: This year the nation will get to see whether Sherrod Wright can be a big-time player in a more competitive conference or if he was just a big fish in the smaller pond of the Colonial Athletic Association. In fact the same could be said for the Patriots as a whole. The Patriots have won 20 games in five of the last six years, including each of the last three. Now that the likes of VCU, Saint Louis and La Salle have been added to the schedule, its time to prove that run of success was no fluke. The burden of keeping it going will fall heavily onto the shoulders of Wright. The 6-4 guard is more than capable of carrying the load as oftentimes last year he was the entire Patriot offense. Wright led the team in scoring (16.6 ppg) and was the only player on the squad to average in double figures. Not only that but Wright scored at least 20 points in 17 games, including back-to-back efforts in the final two games of the CBI finals against Santa Clara. Wright will be teaming with Bryon Allen (8.3 ppg, 4.0 apg) in the backcourt again. Allen is a much more willing passer and a decent scorer when called upon. Corey Edwards (4.9 ppg) is another guard with starting experience, while Jonathan Arledge (9.0 ppg, 4.8 rpg) and Erik Copes (5.9 ppg, 6.0 rpg), were the most reliable frontcourt performers.
ST. BONAVENTURE: With just a single starter and no real producers from the 2012 NCAA Tournament squad left in Olean, this year has all the makings of a disappointment for the Bonnies. Demetrius Conger (14.3 pg, 7.1 rpg), Eric Mosley (13.2 ppg) and Chris Johnson (12.6 ppg) were all that really kept the Bonnies in games last season and even so the team finished 14-15. All three are gone leaving the cupboard under-stocked for Mark Schmidt. Matthew Wright (7.3 ppg) is the only player to have started at least 20 games that is suiting up for the Bonnies again this year. Wright isn't a very versatile player though, relying heavily on shooting from beyond the arc, which failed him last season when he barely managed to make over 30 percent of his 3-point tries. Charlon Kloof (5.3 ppg) and Marquise Simmons (6.2 ppg, 4.9 rpg) will more than likely be the predominant forces as they get accustomed to life as full-time starters. During a five-game stretch in December last season Kloof scored in double figures in four games so he has upside as a potential go-to scorer. Simmons, a 6-foot-8 forward, had a pair of double-doubles and scored in double figures four times, though he failed to do so once over the last three months of the season. Youssou Ndoye (6.9 ppg, 4.9 rpg) will be in the mix up front as well.
FORDHAM: They say defense wins championships, a big reason why Fordham wasn't even able to win 10 games. The Rams were lit up for 76.1 points per game on 44.8 percent shooting last season, ranking last in the league in scoring defense. The returns on the other end were not much better, as the Rams, who finished a dismal 7-24 for their fourth season of less than 10 wins in five years, scored just 64.4 points per game. One of the only strengths of last year's squad was in rebounding, where it finished second in the A-10 (37.6 pg). With Chris Gaston (14.4 ppg, 7.5 rpg), who was both the leading scorer and rebounder, now departed, the Rams aren't likely to see much improvement, at least not right now. Jon Severe leads a large group of incoming freshmen for the Rams, who have just a pair of seniors on the roster. Branden Frazier (14.2 ppg, 5.0 apg) is one of those players and he gives the Rams their best chance at competing. Frazier was the only player to play more than 28 minutes per game last season and was not just a scorer but a passer as well, leading the team in assists (5.0 pg). Ryan Canty (6.0 ppg, 7.0 rpg) gives the team at least one player that can be counted on to crash the boards, but this is a team that is still building.
DUQUESNE: The Dukes topped Temple, on the road last season for one of the more impressive and improbable upsets of the year. That was the highest point the Dukes would reach as they lost the rest of their 15 contests in league play, while managing just eight wins overall. Not exactly a rousing start to the Jim Ferry era in Pittsburgh. Duquesne has a long history in the A-10, but also a long history of futility with zero NCAA Tournament bids since 1977 and only one year of 20 wins since then. Ferry has an excellent building block to in Derrick Colter. The sophomore guard should be around for awhile and that is excellent news as he led the team in scoring (13.5 ppg) and assists (5.2 apg) last year. Jeremiah Jones (7.7 ppg, 4.1 rpg) was also a consistent starter last year and he will be called upon to create a duo that will lead a largely inexperienced team. The Dukes lost Sean Johnson (11.5 ppg) and Quevyn Winters (9.6 ppg) and have 11 players below the junior class distinction. That means transfer players like Tra'Vaughn White and Dominique McKoy will not have to wait long to get playing time.