Two of the women’s basketball team’s biggest challenges in the Atlantic Ten Conference dealt the Owls’ two of their most devastating losses last season.
After finishing among the top four in the A-10 last season, George Washington, Temple, Xavier and Charlotte again look to be the favorites to fight for the conference title. A preseason poll conducted by coaches and media, picked the Colonials to finish first, with the Musketeers and 49ers tying for second. The Owls were tabbed fourth.
Two of the Owls’ goals last season – earning the top seed in the A-10 tournament and winning the A-10 – were dashed by the Colonials and Musketeers in heart-break fashion.
Both Temple and George Washington entered their regular season finale with 13-0 conference marks. The Colonials squeaked by the Owls with a 56-53 victory to capture the top seed in the A-10 tournament.
“Anytime you get two teams, last game of the season undefeated, you wish most of your games in the conference were like that,” George Washington coach Joe McKeown said.
“It was great for our conference,” Temple coach Dawn Staley said. “It gave you bragging rights to be undefeated in the conference. It’s a rivalry.”
The Owls finished the season 25-8 (13-1, A-10) and earned the No. 2 seed in the A-10 tournament. In the semifinals, Xavier beat Temple, 54-53, and then won the A-10 title with a victory over Saint Joseph’s in the final.
The Colonials and Musketeers will carry the target on their back.
The Colonials finished with a 28-4 record and reached the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament.
“To go undefeated last year was a unique thing,” McKeown said. “Anytime you can go to the Final 16, go undefeated in any conference, it’s a great year.”
The Colonials return four starters from last season, losing only Kenan Cole. McKeown has nine juniors and seniors at his disposal and recruited just one freshman.
“You can only anticipate that they will be a lot better,” Staley said.
The player to watch on the Colonials is senior point guard Kimberly Beck. She averaged 11.3 points and a conference-best 5.3 assists per game last season and was named A-10 Defensive Player of the Year. She was one of three national finalists for the Nancy Lieberman Award, which recognizes the top point guard in Division-I.
“She’s one of the top point guards in the country,” McKeown said. “She does whatever you have to do to win. She has a great feel for what you need.”
Xavier enters the season as the reigning A-10 champions and with a crop of five freshmen. The team also boasts sophomores on the roster.
“I think we’re talented enough,” coach Kevin McGuff said. “It’s just a matter of trying to gain valuable experience early in the season.”
“I think its how quickly their recruits can step in,” McKeown said.
Last year, then-freshman Amber Harris stepped in immediately to average 16.3 points, 8.9 rebounds and a conference-leading four blocks per game. After earning A-10 Rookie of the Year and first team all-conference honors, McGuff expects his 6-foot-5 forward to be even better.
“She’s a great kid,” he said. “She had a great freshman campaign. She worked really hard in the summer to improve her strength. I expect her to be among the best players in the country for the next three years,” he said.
Despite losing five seniors, McGuff is focused on a similar result.
“Last year we jumped over the threshold winning that championship,” he said. “The goal is to defend that championship.”
Each of those three teams should be aware of Charlotte. After finishing 9-5 in the conference last season, the 49ers have a new coach and a good mix of all classes.
Coach Karen Aston is entering her first season, but said she learned a lot about her team during an August trip to Bangkok, Thailand while representing the U.S. at the World University Games.
“It does wonders chemistry-wise,” she said. “I think that it in itself was a huge head start for us getting to know each other,” she said. “My first impression is that they play hard. We have good leadership. It’s nice to go to practice every day.”
McKeown called the 49ers the “most underrated team in the country.”
Several coaches said the A-10 is underrated as a conference. Staley noted the conference placed three teams into the NCAA Tournament last season and said the possibility of four would break down the barriers preventing the A-10 from being one of the top conferences in the nation.
“That’s the thing that isn’t getting talked about in the media,” Aston said. “The league is starting to emerge as a very good league top to bottom. There is more parity.”
Pete Dorchak can be reached at email@example.com.