A-10 ShootAround: Looking for more national attention

Updated: August 6, 2008

AP Photo/Chris Carlson

Xavier proved to be the cream of the A-10 crop, winning 30 games and advancing to the Elite Eight.

Regular-season crash and burn?

After three seasons on the skids, the Atlantic 10 was on the verge of an explosive re-emergence last winter.

The marquee wins came in droves: UMass and Rhode Island won at Syracuse. URI and Dayton (topplers of Louisville and Pittsburgh) were ranked in the Top 25 for the first time in a generation. And Xavier beat Kansas State, Virginia and Auburn by an average of 29 points.

A-10 teams won three out of every five nonconference games, hurtling the league into the rarified air of the RPI's top five. Since the other two conferences that ended up with seven or more 20-win teams received seven (Big 12) and nine (Big East) NCAA bids respectively, five for the A-10 would have seemed a reasonable estimate.

Then the conference season started.

Previously overachieving programs began racking up injuries and losses. By the start of February, Xavier was the conference's lone Top 25 team. Outside the league, there was a general perception that something had gone horribly wrong in the A-10 -- or worse yet, that much of the early-season success had been some sort of mirage.

"There's a last hurdle we have to jump over to get to the level of prestige I think this league deserves," said Dayton head coach Brian Gregory, whose injury-riddled team finished 8-8 in the A-10 and was the highest RPI team (32) to miss the NCAAs. "Power leagues have great nonconference records, they have quality teams and quality wins. … The next step is for people to realize that when we get into our league schedule, when you put those quality teams against each other, those aren't bad losses. Those are good wins for the other teams."

Indeed, the Atlantic 10's downturn is more complicated than a simple crash-and-burn. The 2007-08 season was the first in which the league used a three-tiered schedule, designed to match programs of similar caliber twice while limiting top teams' exposure to the league's laggards. With too many good teams playing each other, the standings collapsed, as eight of 14 teams ended with records within two games of .500.

As a result, teams with impressive RPIs ended up with DOA Dance hopes.

"It just says a lot about the league," said Rhode Island head coach Jim Baron, who took a No. 11 seed into the A-10 tourney with a 7-9 record and settled for the NIT after a first-round loss. "It's a strong a league as it's ever been."

But a lack of blanket TV coverage meant that many of the contests that shaped the league went unseen by both casual fans and the NCAA selection committee. While top leagues are used to having all their games beamed coast-to-coast, key A-10 matchups were radio-only.

"Our exposure is not really maxed out yet," said Gregory. "One game in particular I can think of, there was a Xavier-Rhode Island game in mid-February [an 81-77 XU win]. If that was nationally televised, nobody would have walked away from that game saying anything other than 'Those are two NCAA-caliber teams.'"

New commissioner Bernadette McGlade has made TV a top priority. In addition to a package of games on ESPN, more league games will be on national cable than ever before, thanks to an increased partnership with CBS College Sports (formerly CSTV).

"We'll continue to grow and build our brand," said McGlade, who assumed the post in June. "The best way to let people see what the A-10 is all about is to improve our television exposure, to get into as many people's homes as possible. That's first and foremost on my list."

One thing is for sure -- as the Atlantic 10 goes forward, there will be no excuses.

"At the end of the day, you have to win," said McGlade. "If you go .500 in your league, it's a testament to how good your league is, but teams really have to work to somehow get over the hump."

Five Things To Watch in '08-09

Rich get richer
While a lot of member teams had their struggles in January and February, Xavier put the regular-season title away early. The Musketeers snapped off an 11-game winning streak against A-10 foes, compiled a 14-2 league record and was granted a No. 3-seeded Dance ticket despite a tourney semifinal loss to Saint Joseph's. From there, they defended their high bracket position with three straight wins before falling to UCLA in the West regional final.

Having to replace four of six top scorers off an Elite Eight team might seem like a time to rebuild. But in Xavier's case, it's a matter of the rich getting richer. Head coach Sean Miller, whose personal finances are fine with an extension that runs through the 2017-18 season, signed five stellar freshmen for 2008-09. The acquisition of Kenny Frease, a 6-11 center from northern Ohio who rated as the No. 10 incoming big man by Scouts Inc., represented a recruiting victory over Notre Dame, Pitt and Kentucky. Shooting guard Brian Walsh, the "best player in western Pennsylvania" according to Scouts Inc., will also join the Musketeers.

And there's more help on the way. In late July, Jordan Crawford came in after averaging 9.7 ppg for turbulence-addled Indiana as a freshman. Crawford will reportedly seek a waiver to begin his Xavier career immediately instead of sitting out the NCAA-mandated transfer year.

Improved recruiting
As the profile of the conference grows, so does the incoming talent level. Among the ESPN 100 list of the top Class of 2008 prep players in the country, seven will play for Atlantic 10 schools this fall. That's up sharply from a year ago, when a pair of A-10 recruits (Dayton's Chris Wright and Lavoy Allen of Temple) were named to the list.

In addition to Xavier and its standout newcomers Frease and Walsh, the Musketeers' bitter regional rival Dayton also increased its arsenal. Paul Williams, a shooting guard from the Detroit area, chose the Flyers over Cincinnati and Michigan and ranked as the No. 13 prospect at his position. Bruising 6-10 Josh Benson (the No. 30 power forward) attended Dunbar High, just a two-mile drive from UD Arena. Gregory credits Wright for "opening the door" to the city of Dayton after years of seeing its best recruits choose the Big Ten and Big East.

Also on the ESPN 100 list was the nation's No. 19 point guard, David Gibbs from The Master's School in Connecticut. He'll suit up for UMass beginning this season.

Principle offense
UMass also features the conference's lone new head coach this summer. Travis Ford parlayed 49 wins in two seasons and a deep NIT run into a lucrative contract at Oklahoma State, and the school found a replacement within a week. Derek Kellogg, who starred as a Minuteman point guard during the mid-90s glory days, was plucked off a Memphis bench where he spent eight years as an assistant to John Calipari.

One of Kellogg's first orders of business was to hire Vance Walberg, who left Pepperdine's head job midway through last season. Walberg is widely credited for pioneering the attacking "dribble-drive motion" offense that led the Tigers to within a hair's breadth of the national title this past April. Together, the innovator and one of the men responsible for popularizing it will pair up to make Amherst the dribble-drive capital of the East.

"We played a variant of Vance's offense at Memphis," said Kellogg. "I plan on doing the exact same thing here at UMass, those same basic principles. … They let us tell our kids, 'Just play basketball.' They can put the ball on the floor, they can create, and I feel like that's the greatest way to play."

Duking it out
Duquesne has been making a lot of noise on the court, going from three wins to 17 in just two seasons. But the Dukes can't seem to have a quiet offseason.

It's been almost two years since five players were injured in a campus shooting incident. Stuart Baldonado, who was shot in the arm, sued the school last year for failing to provide adequate security at the dance the players were attending. Earlier this summer, two other injured players, guard Kojo Mensah and big-man Shawn James, decided to forgo their senior seasons and signed with agents. Both went undrafted. In June, they also sued the school for security shortcomings related to the September 2006 shooting.

Furthermore, the separate lawsuits claimed that head coach Ron Everhart forced James and Mensah to practice before their gun-inflicted wounds healed. James contends that Everhart demanded the removal a doctor-prescribed boot during those practices. Everhart denied the allegations through local media.

Who cares about the term "mid-major"?
The league is clearly attempting to establish itself among the elite, and the top hot-button issue in the A-10 last year was the term "mid-major." In January, Xavier refused to accept a Web site's Mid-Major Player of the Week award for point guard Drew Lavender, and outgoing commissioner Linda Bruno made the rejection of the label a de facto league-wide policy.

But the new commissioner, who spent the previous nine years as associate commissioner of the very high-major ACC, isn't one to legislate semantics.

"The bottom line is that results speak for themselves," said McGlade. "I don't care what you want to call us … I'm not going to lose a lot of sleep over whether people use the 'mid-major' term or if they don't. I will lose sleep if they don't look at us and know our brand of A-10 basketball and realize that it's some of the best basketball in this country."

If I were commish …

The television contract is not good. The A-10 has no regular home on television where you know you'll find a game. The conference has to do a much better job of promoting the elite teams in this conference, especially Xavier, Saint Joseph's, Temple and UMass in the near future.

Also, the A-10 also moved its tournament to Atlantic City. It should stay there. The conference needs to find a permanent home to start building a tradition in its event.

Scheduling teams' three repeat opponents should be done without any subjectivity. It should be done by a computer so there is no bias.

And don't get me going on whether St. Bonaventure should be in the league.


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2008-09 Team Capsules

Atlantic 10
A run to the conference semifinals clinched the 49ers' first 20-win season in three years as Atlantic 10 members. The school showed its appreciation by signing head coach Bobby Lutz, who's led the program to eight postseasons (including five NCAA bids), to a contract extension that runs through the 2012-13 season. The next order of business is finding a replacement for sweet-shooting Leemire Goldwire and his 18.6 ppg, but Lutz might have an answer with newcomer Rashad Coleman, who turned down offers from Oklahoma State and Georgia Tech.

Rock-steady guard Brian Roberts graduated, along with 18.4 ppg, and was last seen on the Los Angeles Lakers' summer league team. But in addition to Dayton's sparkling recruits, the team is counting on a full season from last year's freshman phenom Chris Wright. The dynamic 6-8 forward averaged double-digit scoring and notched three double-doubles before suffering a severe ankle injury in January -- but he picked up where he left off 10 weeks later, shooting 58 percent from the floor in a pair of NIT games.

The Dukes serve as a good barometer for the league's rediscovered toughness -- a second consecutive seven-win overall improvement from 10 wins to 17 but a 7-9 league record and a second straight No. 10 tourney seed. Third-year head coach Ron Everhart hopes to offset his personnel losses with eight signings, a class highlighted by flashy 6-4 SG Melquan Bolding. The Notre Dame Prep (Mass.) product was ticketed for Louisville, but Rick Pitino had to break the commitment when he ran out of scholarships.

Last season's team couldn't keep the program's momentum going despite five senior starters. The six-win dip to 12-17 marked the first time since the 2003-04 season the Rams had a losing record in conference play. Fordham will rebuild around Jiovanny Fontan, a talented 5-11 point guard out of St. Anthony's (N.J.).

GWGeorge Washington
After three consecutive NCAA appearances, the Colonials dropped off the map in a hurry. Eleven conference losses added up to more than the three previous seasons' combined total, and GW's suspension- and dismissal-riddled campaign will be quickly and easily forgotten. The lone bright spot, Rob Diggs (13.9 ppg, 7.7 rpg), will return, and so should point guard Travis King, who missed 2007-08 after a knee injury last summer.

La SalleLa Salle
The Explorers returned to the A-10 tourney after a year off (only 12 of the league's 14 teams go to the tourney) and capped their improvement with an exciting first-round win over Duquesne. Sharpshooter Darnell Harris won the 3-point shooting contest at the Final Four in San Antonio before graduating. La Salle's longstanding beef deficiency will be emphatically addressed by 6-9 Brooklyn boy Vernon Goodridge, who spent two seasons on Mississippi State's bench before transferring.

Outgoing senior Gary Forbes and his considerable output (19.4 ppg and 7.5 rpg) has left town, but the backcourt heroes from UMass' run to an NIT runner-up finish are coming back for more. Senior point guard Chris Lowe led the conference in assists last season with 6.3 per game. Ricky Harris, who was the team's leading scorer in three of the Minutemen's four NIT games (including 27 in the final against Ohio State) will be around for two more years.

URIRhode Island
The Rams' NIT loss at the hands of Creighton was a microcosm of a season that began 14-1 and ended with eight losses in nine games. Rhody was up by 17 points against the Bluejays but lost 74-73 on a last-second shot. Prolific scorer Will Daniels and his 18.6 ppg will be missed, but Jim Baron has a blue-chip replacement in Orion Outerbridge. UConn, Kansas and Xavier were among the teams angling for the rangy 6-9 center, who opted to stay close to his Boston home.

The Spiders doubled their 2006-07 win total from eight to 16 last season -- with 10 underclassmen, no less -- but a key injury may end up putting the skids on their rapid rise through the A-10 ranks. Leading scorer and rebounder Dan Geriot (14.3 ppg, 5.5 rpg) suffered a knee injury in late July while playing in a summer tournament. The 6-9 forward will likely redshirt the 2008-09 season, putting increased production pressure on the backcourt of David Gonzalvez and Kevin Anderson, Richmond's other double-figure scorers from a season ago.

St. BonaventureSt. Bonaventure
The Bonnies have not made the 12-team A-10 tourney since 2005, and second-year head coach Mark Schmidt will need a lot to go right for that streak to break. All three leading scorers from an eight-win team have graduated, and three junior college signings will attempt to plug the gaps. One is Jonathan Hall, a 6-4 shooting guard who helped South Plains College (Texas) to a NJCAA DI national championship this spring, while earning the tournament's MVP award.

Saint Joseph'sSaint Joseph's
The Hawks' NCAA first-round loss to Oklahoma spelled the end of two fine frontcourt careers of Pat Calathes and Rob Ferguson (combined 29.4 ppg and 12.3 rpg in 2007-08). But the 6-9 Ahmad Nivins (14.4 ppg, 5.8 rpg), an explosive leaper who led the conference in shooting percentage with 64.7, will be a feared force as a senior. A walk-on to watch is point guard Michael Auriemma, the son of Connecticut women's head coach Geno.

St. LouisSaint Louis
Rick Majerus was a late hire last summer, but he somehow molded a patchwork roster into a winning team (16-15) despite the A-10's most anemic offense (60.1 ppg). Now we get to see what he can do with his own recruits. Along with 6-11 center Brett Thompson, the Billikens will feature six other new players. It's a class that includes power forward Brian Conklin and 5-11 point guard Kwamain Mitchell. Majerus found two keepers who will serve as key backcourt holdovers in Kevin Lisch and Tommie Liddell (combined 26.9 ppg).

The Owls' media guide last season featured 6-5 scoring dynamos Dionte Christmas and Mark Tyndale posed as boxers on the cover. The pair proceeded to claim the A-10 tourney championship belt and scored a combined 35.6 ppg throughout the season. Christmas, the conference's leading scorer last season at 19.7 ppg, will fight on as a senior, but Tyndale is gone. After the program's first 20-win season since the 2000-01 Elite Eight campaign, Temple locked up head coach Fran Dunphy until the 2013-14 season.

There's no understating the importance of point guard Drew Lavender to the Musketeers' 30-win season and Elite Eight run, especially his emotional leadership and willingness to play through injury. He, along with seniors Josh Duncan and Stanley Burrell are gone, but head coach Sean Miller will have an embarrassment of freshman riches in competition for the position. Terrell Holloway had signed with Indiana but was released from his commitment after Kelvin Sampson's resignation. Brad Redford won Michigan's "Mr. Basketball" award, and Mark Lyons chose the X over Washington and UNLV.

2007-08 Atlantic 10 Standings

Overall record A-10 record
Xavier* 30-7 14-2
Temple* 21-13 11-5
UMass^ 25-11 10-6
Saint Joseph's* 21-13 9-7
Charlotte^ 20-14 9-7
Richmond 16-15 9-7
Dayton^ 23-11 8-8
La Salle 15-17 8-8
Rhode Island^ 21-12 7-9
Duquesne 17-13 7-9
St. Louis 16-15 7-9
Fordham 12-17 6-10
George Washington 9-17 5-11
St. Bonaventure's 8-22 2-14
*NCAA tournament
^NIT berth

For all the A-10 news and notes, check out the league page.

Top Returning Scorers

Player PPG
Dionte Christmas, Temple, Sr. 19.7
Ricky Harris, UMass, Jr. 18.2
Kevin Lisch, Saint Louis, Sr. 14.6
Ahmad Nivins, Saint Joseph's, Sr. 14.4
Jimmy Baron, Rhode Island, Sr. 14.2

Top Returning Rebounders

Player RPG
Kahiem Seawright, Rhode Island, Sr. 8.4
Rob Diggs, George Washington, Sr. 7.7
Derrick Brown, Xavier, Jr. 6.5
Jerrell Williams, La Salle, Soph. 6.4
Damian Hollis, George Washington, Jr. 6.3

Final Shot

• Xavier may have been a surprise inclusion in ESPN.com's Prestige Rankings Top 20. But a closer look at the Musketeers' achievements over the years leaves no doubt they belong among the nation's finest programs. Xavier (17) was joined in the Top 20 by defending A-10 champ Temple (20). UMass (42) was the other A-10 representative in the Top 50. Prestige Rankings

• Can the Atlantic 10 send more than three teams to the 2009 NCAA tournament? Bracketology

• Missed the other conference breakdowns? Click here to check out the ShootArounds archive.