Mercifully, college basketball has finally returned. In no particular order, here are 10 storylines to follow this season in the A-10.
1. How high is Rhode Island’s ceiling?
The Rams have the talent to challenge most teams in the country, and it’s not just about E.C. Matthews. Hassan Martin is a pro prospect in his own right, and Kuran Iverson should get NBA looks too. Take Matthews away (bad choice of words?) and Jarvis Garrett and Jared Terrell still form one of the league’s best backcourts. The first step will not be an easy one: breaking URI’s 16-year NCAA drought.
2. Is the sky the limit for at-large bids?
It’s likely that in addition to fighting for the league title, URI, Dayton (led by Scoochie Smith and Charles Cooke) and VCU (led by JeQuan Lewis and Mo Alie-Cox) will be in line for NCAA bids. There are also six other league teams in the initial KenPom top-100. Obviously this isn’t a nine bid conference, but three or even four at-large invites isn’t inconceivable.
3. How will George Washington shake out?
The Colonials have talent surrounding A-10 Player of the Year contender Tyler Cavanaugh. They also have postseason chops after winning the NIT last year. They should be good, but will the Mike Lonergan fiasco derail or galvanize them? Assistant Maurice Joseph was given the head job on an interim basis to smooth the waters.
4. Is La Salle being underestimated?
The league’s preseason poll pegged the Explorers at #7 and KenPom slotted them at #100. That’s not an NCAA tournament team. But no one in the A-10 brings in more talent, with transfers Pookie Powell, Demetrius Henry and B.J. Johnson joining a team that returns most of its contributors. This includes one of the conference’s best guards in Jordan Price. We’ll get a good sense of La Salle right away with a Big 5 match up against Temple on opening night.
5. When should Chris Mooney start to get worried?
The Richmond coach was a hot name after leading the Spiders to the Sweet 16 in 2010-11. He’s won 20 or more games just once in the five seasons since, including a 16-16 campaign last year. Mooney is a good coach that has proven he can run a successful program in his current setting. But his team this year will be heavily-reliant on three seniors - T.J. Cline, ShawnDre’ Jones and Marshall Wood - and another rebuild could start to make some anxious.
6. Is the impossible-to-resist Jack Gibbs comparison legitimate?
In short, no. Gibbs is not Steph Curry. But he’s one of the country’s best scorers on a team with a solid supporting cast (Peyton Aldridge, Jordan Watkins, Will Magarity). Last year he had massive scoring nights against good competition, like Dayton (31), VCU (34), St. Joe’s (35) and GW (31). He’s capable of doing this on any night, and the sort of viper other team’s won’t want to see in March. Watch him whenever there is a chance (but that may not be this weekend).
7. Guards on guards on guards.
We know that many don’t like the A-10 being referred to as a mid-major. But no matter the conference, the A-10 could challenge any league in terms of the sheer number of high quality guards. The list is long: URI’s Matthews and Garrett, Dayton’s Smith and Cooke, VCU’s Lewis, Davidson’s Gibbs, St. Bonaventure’s Jaylen Adams, Richmond’s Jones, La Salle’s Price, St. Joseph’s Lamarr Kimble and Shavar Newkirk, Fordham’s Joseph Chartouny, UMass’ Donte Clark and DeJon Jarreau, GW’s Jaren Sina and George Mason’s Otis Livingston II.
8. Is there a St. Joe’s 2.0?
The Hawks surprised most people last year with their run to the NCAA tournament. Will a team play a similar role this year? Dark horses could include La Salle and its infusion of transfers, UMass and its own batch of talented newcomers or a St. Bonaventure team led by Adams and primed for revenge after not getting an at-large last season.
9. Can Travis Ford reshape the league hierarchy?
Many A-10 offseason storylines have centered around Ford’s major recruiting wins, such as Jordan Goodwin (Class of 2017) and Carte’Are Gordon (Class of 2018). Five-star Illinois prep center Jeremiah Tilmon may be the latest haul after leaving the Illini at the altar on signing day. Recruiting is going swimmingly for Ford. If he can coach a depleted roster to more wins than is expected, it may be clear that a new threat is emerging.
10. Steve McElvene
When Dayton takes the floor Friday night against Austin Peay the Flyers will tragically be without Steve McElvene. The center passed away in May from a previously undiagnosed cardiac issue, and the team will pay tribute to him before the opener.