The Atlantic 10 celebrated 40 years in 2015-16, and it has seen a little bit of everything in the last year. In all, though, the conference looks to be in a very good place when it comes to the hardwood.
For starters, we saw Dayton and VCU remain among the conference’s elite. They were part of a three-way tie for the regular season title and were the top two seeds in the conference tournament. VCU had some growing pains in Will Wade’s first season at the helm, but they grew into a solid team that won an NCAA Tournament game.
We saw St. Bonaventure continue to be the plucky underdog over-achiever. Mark Schmidt and his staff continue to do a great job in Olean, tying for the regular season title this year. That deservedly earned Schmidt Coach of the Year in the conference and some talk of that award nationally.
Related to that, we saw a snub come NCAA Tournament time, which drew the ire of the commissioner. The Bonnies were left out of the NCAA Tournament, perhaps aided by being one-and-done in the conference tournament. That led commissioner Bernadette McGlade to put out a statement taking issue with them being left out, which grabbed plenty of attention and further got a conversation going about the selection process.
We saw a pleasant surprise in Saint Joseph’s emerge. The Hawks were thought to be a potential sleeper, a team that had a relatively non-descript 2014-15 season but returned some good pieces. They won their second conference tournament title in three years, won a dramatic game in the NCAA Tournament and nearly pulled off a big one in their second game.
We saw unpleasant surprises in Rhode Island and La Salle, albeit two different stories. The Rams, thought by many to be contenders for the top spot in the preseason, were racked with injuries starting right away, and they scrapped their way to a 17-15 mark. The Explorers, meanwhile, appeared to be trending downward some before the bottom fell out after they beat Dayton in the second conference game. They lost the next ten, which at that point meant they had lost 17 of 18, and never recovered.
We saw George Washington bring the conference some hardware in the postseason, winning the NIT. They are the first conference member since Dayton in 2010 to win it, and it marked the 19th time a current Atlantic 10 team reached the championship game.
When the season was over, we unfortunately saw tragedy. Dayton center Steve McElvene, who was fourth in the conference in blocked shots as a redshirt freshman, died suddenly on May 12 at his home in New Haven, Indiana. The news shook up the school and the conference, as you might expect. While he appeared on his way to a nice career, basketball takes a back seat to the human aspect.
Naturally, McElvene’s passing is one part of the “little bit of everything” that we would give anything not to have seen.
The bottom line result after all of this is that the conference had at least three teams in the NCAA Tournament for the ninth year in a row, had the NIT champion, and four teams won at least one game in their postseason tournament. Since 2007-08, every current member has been to at least one postseason tournament.
The conference is in such a good place overall, only one coaching change took place after the season. Saint Louis fired Jim Crews, replacing him with former UMass and Oklahoma State head coach Travis Ford. Several other coaches were thought to be strong candidates to take other jobs, but they stayed in their current one.
In keeping with the way the 2015-16 season went, the Atlantic 10 Tournament saw at least one win by a lower seed in each round, along with 15 being a key number. The opening round saw both lower seeds win, with No. 13 Saint Louis edging No. 12 George Mason 83-78 and No. 14 La Salle sending No. 11 Duquesne home early with an 88-73 win.
The next day, No. 9 Richmond took care of No. 8 Fordham 70-55 before No. 5 George Washington beat Saint Louis 73-65. No. 10 UMass scored another win for the lower seeds with a 67-62 win over No. 7 Rhode Island, then No. 6 Davidson closed out the day with the third 15-point game of the first six, a 78-63 win over La Salle.
The quarterfinals began with another 15-point game, No. 1 Dayton’s 69-54 win over Richmond, then No. 4 Saint Joseph’s had just enough to beat George Washington 86-80. One more 15-point game remained, which was No. 2 VCU beating UMass 85-70, then a great game closed out the day as Davidson knocked off No. 3 St. Bonaventure 90-86 in overtime, which might have sealed the Bonnies’ NCAA Tournament fate.
Saint Joseph’s won another for the lower seeds in the first semifinal, edging Dayton 82-79, then VCU took care of Davidson 76-54 to advance to their fourth championship game in as many years in the conference.
The championship game, a rematch of the one from two seasons earlier, saw Saint Joseph’s continue their strong play at the time, as they broke the game open in the second half, then held off a furious rally by VCU. The Hawks would regain momentum and take home their second championship in three years with an 87-74 decision behind 30 points from DeAndre’ Bembry and 26 points and 12 rebounds from Isaiah Miles, the latter of whom was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.
Player of the Year: DeAndre’ Bembry, Saint Joseph’s
Rookie of the Year: Joseph Chartouny, Fordham
Coach of the Year: Mark Schmidt, St. Bonaventure
Defensive Player of the Year: Hassan Martin, Rhode Island
Most Improved Player: Isaiah Miles, Saint Joseph’s
Sixth Man of the Year: Denzel Gregg, St. Bonaventure, and Jabari Hinds, UMass
Jaylen Adams, So. G, St. Bonaventure
DeAndre’ Bembry, Jr. F, Saint Joseph’s
Charles Cooke, Jr. G, Dayton
Jack Gibbs, Jr. G, Davidson
Melvin Johnson, Sr. G, VCU
- George Washington won the NIT.
- The conference RPI was seventh, aided by six teams in the top 75.
- VCU continued their run of making it to the conference championship game every year they have been a member, though they have been victorious just once.
- Saint Joseph’s went 16-4 away from Hawk Hill, including a 10-1 record in true road games.
- Fordham’s Joseph Chartouny led the conference in assists as a freshman, and by more than one per game over his closest competitor.
- George Mason was 14th in the country in rebounding margin.
- Richmond was fourth in the country in assist-to-turnover ratio.
What we expected, and it happened: Dayton and VCU were among the contenders. This was not a surprise as the Flyers and Rams – the latter even with a coaching change, to a familiar face – looked like two teams that should be in the running for the top.
What we expected, and it didn’t happen: Rhode Island was expected to contend, but E.C. Matthews tearing an ACL in the season opener was the first domino to fall. In light of that and a number of other injuries, that the Rams eked out a 17-15 mark tells you how good this team could have been and could be next year.
What we didn’t expect, and it happened: Fordham made a big jump in the standings in Jeff Neubauer’s first season. To be clear, the Rams didn’t exactly beat a bunch of NCAA Tournament teams, but they won games and got into the CIT, which is a big stepping stone and reason for some optimism in the Bronx.
Team(s) on the rise: Fordham. As noted, the Rams were a pleasant surprise this year, and Jeff Neubauer has given them a reason to believe. They did what they could do this year for a good starting point.
Team(s) on the decline: UMass. The Minutemen haven’t been able to match their NCAA Tournament year of two seasons ago and had a tough year in 2015-16. Next season doesn’t look that much better with two of their top three scorers gone, though there is hope with a very good recruiting class coming in and Canisius transfer Zach Lewis becoming eligible.
2016-17 Atlantic 10 Outlook
As was pretty much the case last year, we start looking at favorites for 2016-17 with Dayton, Rhode Island and VCU. Archie Miller has the Flyers consistently winning, and with Cooke leading a solid cast of holdovers, they should be right there once again despite some key personnel losses. Rhode Island knows how much an injury or two can change things, but the Rams have plenty returning as they get E.C. Matthews back from his injury. VCU will certainly miss Melvin Johnson, but they still return JeQuan Lewis, Mo Alie-Cox and Justin Tillman among others.
Those three will have plenty of competition. St. Bonaventure loses Marcus Posley and Dion Wright but returns Jaylen Adams, and they continue to find a way. Davidson has one of the real hidden gems in scoring champion Jack Gibbs returning to lead a good cast with a good coach. Then there are wild cards who were very good and lose a lot from a personnel standpoint – Saint Joseph’s takes a hit from the early departure of Bembry on top of Miles exhausting his eligibility, while George Washington loses a senior core, but they shouldn’t fall off a cliff.
The questions really come when you look further down this year’s standings. Duquesne made a postseason tournament, but can they keep up the momentum and at least reach the first division? Richmond still has some pieces to potentially regroup after a slump year. UMass will be young and talented, and may take some lumps at first. Fordham is on the rise, although year two is usually a big challenge for a coach. George Mason had their moments in Dave Paulsen’s first season at the helm and was very good on the boards, while Saint Louis has a new head coach and La Salle has to regroup.