Three years removed from their astonishing run to the Elite 8, Xavier looks as though they may be ready to make another deep run come March. They have one of the most balanced rotations in the country that will feature eight to nine players. Xavier returns three starters (seniors Justin Cage and Justin Doellman; and junior Stanley Burrell). Most importantly however for Xavier will be point guard transfer Drew Lavender. A former McDonalds All-American, Lavender is ready for a fresh start back in his home state of Ohio. Lavender’s amazing quickness and vision will undoubtedly increase Xavier’s team scoring numbers and lead to many open shots.
Junior Josh Duncan is probably the most gifted player on the team. He is a natural forward and has always played behind Cage and Doellman. It’s hard not to start him though and Coach Sean Miller will probably find himself using him at the five when opponents are undersized, allowing Xavier to play a more transition style of basketball. Xavier’s best true post player is senior Brandon Cole. He lacks a great offensive game but is solid on the defensive end.
Also look for incoming freshman Adrion Graves to contribute off the bench. He really came into his own as a senior in High School scoring 24 points a game.
The pieces are certainly in place for the Musketeers to grab their fourth Atlantic 10 title in seven seasons. They also have the non-conference schedule that will allow them to get those “quality wins” that are so important come March.
Post Season Prediction: NCAA Tournament
2) Saint Louis
In their first year as members of the Atlantic 10, Saint Louis was a pleasant surprise finishing the regular season with 10 wins and 6 losses. The Billikens will look to improve on that mark as their three leading scorers from last year return including A-10 Player of the Year candidate Ian Vouyoukas, and last years Newcomer of the Year Tommie Liddell. Vouyoukas, like George Washington’s Carl Elliott, withdrew himself from the NBA Draft after realizing he wasn’t quite ready for the next level. Billikens fans defiantly rejoiced. At 6’ 10” his game reflects the European style of play; extending beyond the paint as he can face up and shoot the mid-range jumper.
Liddell, while not really on the national radar coming out of high school, is a very aggressive player who was second on the team in rebounding despite being a guard. His shooting must improve however, as we was only a 40% shooter from the field, and 63% at thefree-throw line. Saint Louis also returns guard Kevin Lisch, the team's leading free throw and three-point shooter.
Coming into this season, it was clear to all A-10 teams to schedule tough if they want the committee to consider them for the NCAA Tournament. Saint Louis does not shy away from facing tough opponents this season. Their non-conference schedule includes a visit from national championship contender North Carolina, always competitive mid-major Southern Illinois, and Texas A&M, who is expected to hover around the Top 25 this year.
While it’s certainly a stretch, I’ll go out on a limb here and predict the Billikens make the NCAA Tournament (their first since 2000) as Vouyoukas wins conference player of the year honors.
Post Season Prediction: NCAA Tournament
3) George Washington
Last year, the Colonials were clearly the most talented and athletic team in the Atlantic 10. They were a well-oiled machine on the offensive side averaging 78 points a game going a perfect 16-0 in the conference. Unfortunately their soft schedule gave them an eight seed in the NCAA Tournament and an early exit at the hands of Duke in the second round. This year, while 60% of their offense has departed Coach, Karl Hobbs still has the weapons to produce a nice season.
Returning is Sixth Man of the Year junior Maureece Rice, and the versatile senior Carl Elliott. Rice, who may naturally be more of a wing player, will be counted on to run the offense. In only 25 minutes a game last year, Rice averaged just fewer than three assists, a number that is sure to increase as he will now be placed in a starting role. Elliott who tested the NBA waters this spring without an agent is a do-everything type of player. He averaged 11 points a game last year, and was also in the top ten in steals and assists. He will be looked on this year to continue his efforts on the defensive end, and become the teams go to player on offense.
After Rice and Elliott however, experience and depth become major issues. No player besides the two saw more than 20 minutes a game. The frontcourt has many question marks. Look for senior Regis Koundjia to be most ready to step into a starting role and produce.
This year’s Minutemen squad is probably the most intriguing in the A-10. After several dismal seasons in Amherst, UMASS may finally be ready to make the next step with second year coach Travis Ford and become a perennial contender in the conference. UMASS did show signs of significant improvement last year, as they had the highest rebounding margin in the conference, and forced their opponent’s to shoot only 39% from the floor.
Their most important player is senior Rashaun Freeman. He led the team last year in points and rebounding and has been a first team All-Conference performer the past two seasons. Expect him to contend for Player of the Year in the A-10. Complimenting Freeman in the frontcourt will be reining Defensive Player of the Year Stephane Lasme. The other returning starter the Minutemen will count on is point guard Chris Lowe.
While three starters return, the Minutemen will still need contributions from many of its incoming players. 2005 McDonalds All-American Tiki Mayben was all set to attend Syracuse last season, but was ruled academically ineligible. Syracuse decided not to honor the scholarship and he landed at UMASS. Ford is defiantly taking a risk on Mayben, but it’s a risk that could pay huge dividends this season. They also got Virginia transfer Gary Forbes who could land a starting role if he can become a consistent scorer.
It has been awhile since there was talk of UMASS contending in the Atlantic 10, but Travis Ford is an up and coming coach who has a lot of talent to work with this season. Having experience in Freeman and Lasme will be important, but finding a second or third option on offense will be what decides how successful this team will be.
Post Season Prediction: NIT
After finishing second in the Atlantic 10 last year, Charlotte will once again be a contender. Returning is smooth shooting De’Angelo Alexander, who is the league's leading returning scorer at 17 points a game. Along with Saint Louis’ Ian Vouyoukas he is the conference's top NBA prospect. He is a great three-point shooter, as he was 16th in the nation in three-point percentage last season.
The biggest problem Charlotte faces this year is replacing the shoes of Curtis Withers, a four-year starter who had a huge presence down low on both ends of the floor. Charlotte does however boast the conference's best recruiting class this year, with Junior College transfer Carlos Williams and local product swingman Charles Dewhurst.
But Alexander is the most important player to the 49ers success. He is a tremendous shooter, but must become more adept at creating his own shot, as teams will be keying on him all season.
Charlotte will be good, but not good enough to get an at-large bid in the tournament. They will be young and Coach Bobby Lutz will have some major teaching to do for his young crop of players.
Post Season Prediction: NIT
All Conference 1st Team
G: Drew Lavender (Xavier)
G: De’Angelo Alexander (Charlotte)
F: Bryant Dunston (Fordham)
F: Rashaun Freeman (UMASS)
C: Ian Vouyoukas (Saint Louis)
All Conference 2nd Team
G: Maureece Rice (George Washington)
G: Stanley Burrell (Xavier)
G: Carl Elliott (George Washington)
G: Brian Roberts (Dayton)
F: Josh Duncan (Xavier)