The Atlantic 10 was bound to have a hard time duplicating the success of the 2013-14 season, and that is exactly what happened. That reality is much less an indictment of the conference in 2014-15 than it is a reminder of how historically good the preceding season was. In the end, the results show a mixed bag of promise and concern for the conference heading into next season.
Davidson joined the conference and showed they have much more going for them than being the school that produced NBA MVP Stephen Curry. The Wildcats came seemingly out of nowhere to win the regular season title outright. Besides the fact that they were coming from the Southern Conference, they played a very soft non-conference schedule, so they weren’t exactly projected to make a grand entrance into the conference. But they kept on winning, having gained confidence with their non-conference wins. They were one of three teams to reach the NCAA Tournament, but the conference’s streak of seven straight years with at least one team in the Sweet 16 was snapped.
Dayton’s start was a mixed bag, but the Flyers turned a corner as soon as they dismissed Jalen Robinson and Devon Scott from the program following their arrest. While both were talented, and booting them left the Flyers without much size or depth, they won with who they had. They immediately went on an eight-game winning streak and never lost consecutive games the rest of the way.
Rhode Island grew up into a contender this season. They were in the race for the top for much of the season, and did a great job of not letting a tough loss or two early on slow them down. That, as much as anything, showed the growth of what was still a fairly young team. They were in the NIT this season, but they’re certainly aiming for the NCAA Tournament next season and there’s no reason to think they won’t be contending for a bid.
Besides that, VCU had a great run through non-conference play and started out well in conference. Then a terrible knee injury to Briante Weber changed everything. We will never know what the Rams might have done had this not happened, or had Treveon Graham not had to miss a few conference games with a bum ankle. Shaka Smart and his staff did a terrific job of getting the team to regroup and re-assert itself down the stretch, then win the conference tournament. It’s easy to forget that this was still a fairly young team, mainly because Weber and Graham meant so much to this team.
Last, but not least, there is Richmond. The Spiders have constantly been under the radar, and that was definitely the case this season. When they were announced as one of the last four teams out of the NCAA Tournament, and as such one of the top seeds in the NIT, some were surprised because they weren’t getting a lot of mention as a bubble team. They beat VCU twice in the regular season, including a double overtime thriller at the Robins Center in late February. They have become one of the steadiest programs in the conference.
There were down sides, though. UMass could never really get much momentum this season, though they showed some life in February. George Washington won the Diamond Head Classic, beating Wichita State in the final, but depth was at a premium all year and the Colonials hit the skids once they reached the toughest part of the schedule a few weeks into conference play. Saint Joseph’s, last year’s tournament champion, had a rebuilding year.
The bottom of the conference included a team that was both likely and unlikely to be there at the same time: Saint Louis. A year ago, the Billikens had a terrific run and were perhaps the best team no one was talking about. This year’s team was missing a great deal of production and experience from that team, however, and the fall was precipitous – right to the bottom. Meanwhile, Duquesne and Fordham are still fighting an uphill battle to climb towards the first division, while George Mason hit rock bottom.
Against that backdrop, it’s not all that surprising that there were a couple of coaching changes among the schools in that part of the standings. Fordham parted ways with Tom Pecora, replacing him with former Eastern Kentucky head coach Jeff Neubauer. George Mason fired Paul Hewitt, hiring former Bucknell head coach Dave Paulsen to take over.
Then there was perhaps the most surprising change, with one of the teams at the top. Shaka Smart finally found a job worth leaving for, as he took the head coaching job at Texas. Former assistant Will Wade, who spent the past two seasons at Chattanooga with great success, comes back to Richmond to replace him. It now brings us to an interesting question: can VCU sustain this early success, especially as we watch George Mason struggle out of the gates after making the same conference change? Next year, the Rams will look very different, and not just on the bench, as Weber and Graham meant so much to this team and they have lost arguably their most talented underclassman (Terry Larrier) to a transfer.
In fact, it’s worth noting that all three schools that changed head coaches face a question of that sort, although the situations are different. Whereas VCU came in and won right away, Fordham has never been able to get going as a member of the Atlantic 10, while George Mason is new but hasn’t made much of a splash in its first two years.
It’s all part of the mixed bag we see across the conference going forward.
The tournament opened up with a pair of six-point games, starting with Fordham knocking off George Mason 71-65, in what would prove to be Paul Hewitt’s last game as head coach of the Patriots, then Duquesne sent Saint Louis home with a 61-55 win.
The second round saw just one lower seed win, and it happened in the opener as La Salle knocked off UMass 76-69. VCU handled Fordham 63-57 in what would be Tom Pecora’s last game leading Fordham. St. Bonaventure took care of Saint Joseph’s 60-49, then George Washington coasted past Duquesne 73-55 to close out the day.
The quarterfinals began with a thriller, won on a buzzer-beater by Player of the Year Tyler Kalinoski as Davidson rallied to shock La Salle 67-66. VCU had lost twice to Richmond in the regular season, but this time they pulled out a 70-67 win to advance. A valiant effort by St. Bonaventure wasn’t enough in a 75-71 loss to Dayton, and Rhode Island beat George Washington 71-58 to close out the day.
In the semifinals, VCU handled Davidson 93-73 before Dayton had just enough to beat Rhode Island 56-52 in a game that was a sharp contrast to the opener.
That set up the championship game, where VCU made a strong run to end the half and take a seven-point lead into the locker room. VCU would then run the lead to double digits, but Dayton rallied to tie it at 43. VCU would regain the lead for good after that, though they never broke it open in a 71-65 win behind 20 points and 13 rebounds from tournament Most Outstanding Player Treveon Graham.
Player of the Year: Tyler Kalinoski, Davidson
Rookie of the Year: Eric Paschall, Fordham
Coach of the Year: Bob McKillop, Davidson
Defensive Player of the Year: Briante Weber, VCU
Chris Daniels Most Improved Player: Kendall Pollard, Dayton
Sixth Man Award: Shawn’Dre Jones, Richmond
Kendall Anthony, Sr. G, Richmond
DeAndre’ Bembry, So. F, Saint Joseph’s
Treveon Graham, Sr. F, VCU
Tyler Kalinoski, Sr. F, Davidson
Jordan Sibert, Sr. G, Dayton
George Washington won the Diamond Head Classic, beating Wichita State in the championship game.
Briante Weber nearly set the NCAA record for career steals before going down with a devastating knee injury.
Davidson received an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history.
The top three scorers were all sophomores and will all return next season.
George Mason junior Shevon Thompson was fifth in the nation in rebounding.
Rhode Island sophomore Hassan Martin ranked sixth in the nation in blocked shots with just over three per game.
What we expected, and it happened: VCU led the way. Sure, the Rams didn’t win the regular season title outright and didn’t exactly dominate when they were on top, but their non-conference success and early run in the conference set the standard for the rest of the conference this season. The injury to Weber was the worst kind of game-changer and leads to the end result being deceptive as to how good they were.
What we expected, and it didn’t happen: George Washington was supposed to be one of the standard bearers chasing VCU. Instead, the Colonials ran into trouble less than a month into Atlantic 10 play thanks to a lack of depth and were never really in contention.
What we didn’t expect, and it happened: Davidson won the conference outright in their debut. Taking nothing away from the talent, experience and coaching they had, no one imagined the Wildcats would do this making the leap from the Southern Conference.
Team(s) on the rise: Rhode Island. The Rams are sure to be one of the favorites next season as Dan Hurley has grown them steadily the last couple of seasons, and getting Memphis transfer Kuran Iverson eligible right away only helps.
Team(s) on the decline: It’s tempting to say Fordham, since the Rams not only had another tough year but also watched the Rookie of the Year transfer, but we’ll go with La Salle. The Explorers certainly haven’t fallen off a cliff, but they haven’t come close to the great year of two seasons ago, even just in the regular season. A Sweet 16 run isn’t necessary, but they haven’t been close to the NCAA Tournament since then and next season doesn’t seem likely to change that at first glance.
2015-16 Atlantic 10 Outlook
The conversation about favorites should start with Davidson and Rhode Island. The Wildcats lose the conference Player of the Year, but they return everyone else of significance. The Rams grew up a lot this year and return much of their core, though they will need to replace T.J. Buchanan’s intangibles along the way.
Dayton will miss Jordan Sibert, but returns most of the team that made it to the round of 32. They also get James Madison transfer Charles Cooke eligible, and he should help them right away, while big man Steve McElvene is intriguing after sitting out as a partial qualifier. Most importantly, they kept Archie Miller in town to run the show.
It gets more interesting after that. VCU still has talent, but will be very different. Richmond loses Kendall Anthony but returns other key players. UMass will miss Cady Lalanne, Maxie Esho and Derrick Gordon, but their younger players got better as the season went on, so they’ll be a wild card of sorts. George Washington will look a little different, but may have more depth. St. Bonaventure will continue to be a tough out, especially with promising point guard Jaylen Adams. La Salle brings back Jordan Price but loses their top frontcourt players and perimeter contributor D.J. Peterson.
Of the teams near the bottom, Duquesne could be the one most likely to make a move up in the standings. They lose Dominique McKoy, but have everyone else back.
The Atlantic 10 will still have a hard time duplicating what they did in 2013-14. That will be the gold standard for the conference, for now at least. That’s not a bad place to be, and a historic season is one any conference will chase.