Men’s Atlantic 10 Preview

Perhaps the saying “steady wins the race” is not without truth.

In an age when stars abandon the college game for the NBA, the Atlantic 10 has retained 24 of the 35 starters that played in the NCAA and National Invitational tournaments last season.

With five teams making NCAA appearances in 1997, this year should be even more explosive (in order of predicted finish):

West Division

1) Xavier

The Musketeers, ranked No. 17 in the preseason Associated Press poll, will again be the Colonials’ greatest nemesis in the 1998-’99 season. With senior guards Gary Lumpkin (12.3 ppg) and Lenny Brown (14.7 ppg) having played together since high school, they run one of the most efficient backcourts in the NCAA.

Up front these guards will have the enviable task of setting up senior forward James Posey (15.3 ppg). And as good as this team should be on offense, its defense should be just as good. Allowing only 68 points a game last season, the Musketeers (22-8, 11-5 A-10) are ready to prove their loss in the first round of last season’s NCAA Tournament was a fluke. Coach Skip Prosser knows that with four starting seniors, it is now or never to produce.

2) George Washington

GW’s success will depend mainly on how smooth a transition Coach Tom Penders can make in replacing Mike Jarvis. Penders will implement a more up-tempo style to fit the athletic backcourt of senior Shawnta Rogers (14.7 ppg) and sophomore Mike King (13.2 ppg).

Up front, senior forward Yegor Mescheriakov (12.7 ppg) looks as though he might be the real deal but disappointed many with some spotty performances last season. This year will depend mainly on whether Mescheriakov can get his game in gear, whether King can become the go-to guy Penders expects him to be, and whether 7-0 freshman center Albert Roma can be a defensive presence for the Colonials (24-9, 11-5 A-10). Roma, a recruit from Spain, has the height that makes coaches drool, but at just 225 pounds he is a project with a huge upside.

So many question marks can make the Colonials a scary team if they ever hit their stride.

3) Virginia Tech

Second-year coach Bob Hussey had a young team last year and it showed in inconsistent play and the team’s share of losses. But freshman forward Rolan Roberts played like a man possessed. Filling the stat sheet with 13.6 points a game, 6.4 rebounds, 60 blocked shots and a 53.4 shooting percentage made him the Hokies’ most dangerous threat.

Virginia Tech has a hole to fill in the backcourt as sophomore point guard Jenis Grindstaff transferred. But the frontcourt should be strong. Though a sophomore, Roberts is undoubtedly the team leader, and with the 240-pound Russ Wheeler (9.6 ppg) roaming the paint, this team should be ready to tally some wins. Hussey also is excited about freshman recruit Dennis Mims. A 6-9 forward, Mims is touted as a versatile player. His demeanor and athleticism should be enough to take the Hokies (10-17, 5-11 A-10) beyond last season’s poor conference record.

4) Dayton

The Flyers will have to fill a massive hole in the frontcourt to stay competitive this season. Graduated forward Ryan Perryman and his 16 points and 12 rebounds a game will be sorely missed as the Flyers (21-12, 11-5 A-10) try to improve on an NIT second-round loss. They will definitely be competitive this year, but in order to win some of the close games, Coach Oliver Purnel will have to coax even more production out of center Mark Ashen (11.7 ppg, 5.6 rpg) and forward Coby Turner (13.3 ppg, 4.8 rpg).

5) La Salle

The Explorers were bad last year and this year they could be even worse. After 12 years, Coach William “Speedy” Morris – the winningest basketball coach in La Salle history – will face bleak prospects. Proponents of the Explorers (9-18, 5-11 A-10) say 10 of their players are 6-7 or taller, making them the tallest team in the A-10. (To that, the educated response would be that no one has ever said they wished 10 Shawn Bradleys were on their team. The bigger they are, the harder they fall.) La Salle does return junior guard Donnie Carr, one of the conference’s top scorers. But Carr must carry even more of the scoring load in the backcourt as guards Shawn “Red” Smith and Mike Gizzi graduated. La Salle will need forwards K’Zell Wesson (13.2 ppg) and Victor Thomas (11 ppg) to shoulder more of the offense.

6) Duquesne

The Dukes are in line for a rough year. Duquesne (11-19, 5-11 A-10) has only one player remaining – Kevin Shand – who scored more than seven points a game last year. And he only scored eight.

Losing three starters from last year, including leading scorer Mike James, will be devastating for the Dukes, who did not have a good recruiting class under first-year coach Darelle Porter. With little size up front, scoring responsibilities will – by default – fall on the shoulders of point guard Courtney Wallace (6.7 ppg). At 6-4, he has the size to overmatch some of his counterparts, but he lacks the polish and perhaps even the skill to be a star in the A-10.

East Division

1) Temple

The Owls (21-9, 13-3 A-10) are clearly a front-runner for the A-10 Championship. Led by forward Lamont Barnes (13.8 points per game) and guard Rasheed Brokenborough (11.8 ppg), coach John Chaney will sport six juniors.

Temple is ranked No. 7 by the AP. Of the three freshmen who are bidding for playing time, McDonald’s All-American Kevin Lyde might make the biggest impact. Red-shirted as a freshman, the 6-9 Lyde will most likely begin the season as the team’s starting center. That insertion will allow Barnes, who played center last season, to move back to his more natural power forward position, where he should become a nightmarish match-up for opposing teams.

And as always, Temple – with possibly an argument from Princeton – will be the toughest defensive team in college hoops.

2) Rhode Island

The Rams hold the distinction of being last year’s Cinderella team. With an underestimated coach in Jim Harrick and a potent offense that scored 78 points per game, URI (25-9, 12-4 A-10) surprised everyone with convincing wins all the way to the “Elite Eight.”

This year, with top players Tyson Wheeler and Cuttino Mobley gone, Harrick will put his faith in freshman Lamar Oden. Oden, who had eligibility problems last season, should be like a burst of lightning on the scene. With a forward’s body and a guard’s skill, he may be near impossible to stop. Oden is undoubtedly the most promising player ever to attend Rhode Island (No. 23 in the AP poll) and may be the best freshman in the country.

The team that was kept out of the Final Four by a questionable no-call on a steal by Stanford’s Mark Madsen in last season’s NCAAs may be a year or two away from equaling last year’s success.

3) Massachusetts

UMass is no longer the team that John Calipari built. Third-year coach James “Bruiser” Flint, has taken the Minutemen (21-11, 12-4 A-10) to the NCAAs the past two seasons and seems primed for a let-down.

The Minutemen’s hopes are pinned on the play of senior center Lari Ketner. Ketner, whose head does not always seem to complement his athletic potential, may leave his team and its fans reminiscing about the “old days.”

4) St. Joseph’s

The Hawks are the most enigmatic team in the A-10 this year. After reaching the NIT championship three years ago, and the NCAA “Sweet 16” in 1997, people began to take notice of Coach Phil Martelli’s program.

Last year however, the Hawks (11-17, 3-13 A-10) suffered losses at the point guard and center positions due to academic problems, leaving them with major holes to fill. After going 3-13 in the league, Martelli brought in guard Larry Jennings, who could restore St. Joe’s as the formidable program it had become. Still, it may be a year until this young team becomes a contender again.

5) St. Bonaventure

The Bonnies had some impressive wins last year against Rhode Island and Xavier. Such strong victories could be the stepping stone to better things this season.

Coach Jim Brown will put more of the responsibilities
on point guard Tim Winn’s shoulders (12.2 ppg), hoping he has the head to balance his own scoring ability while getting his teammates involved. If he can up his scoring and assist average and still get center Caswell Cyrus (10.3 ppg) the ball, the Bonnies (17-15, 6-10 A-10) may surprise some folks. The greatest problem this team faces, though, is stopping opponents with a defense that is generated by its offense.

6) Fordham

Answer: Bad. Question: The adjective that comes to mind when talking about Fordham basketball? GW coach Tom Penders’ old team has the unfortunate distinction of being the worst team in the East Division. Aside from guard Bevon Robin (18.3 ppg), the Rams lack consistent players.

On defense, the Rams (6-21, 2-14 A-10) allowed opponents to shoot 45 percent from the field and lost most of their games in nauseating fashion. Expect another long season for Coach Nick Macarchuk. How the Fordham Rams escaped the Patriot League to the “big time” of the A-10 is a question for the ages.

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