Last year may go down in college basketball history as the pinnacle of Atlantic Ten hoops. Four teams earned bids to the NCAA Tournament, three others qualified for the NIT, and one-who could forget Saint Joseph’s run-survived the regular season undefeated and advanced to the Elite Eight.
This year, rumors of the conference’s imminent demise are widespread. No A-10 team is ranked in any of the top 25 preseason polls, and no player is currently recognized on a national level.
Should things remain unchanged come spring, it would be a huge drop off for a conference that boasted the last two AP National Players of the Year and two Elite Eight teams last season.
“You look at all these young players in this league and you see the bounce will come back,” St. Joe’s coach Phil Martelli said. “It spiked last year, but these reports of demise are silly.”
Martelli’s Hawks were the most gutted of all, losing all-American guards Jameer Nelson and Delonte West, and A-10 Sixth Man of the Year Tyrone Barley. In all, 37 of 60 starters from last season return, but all ten first- and second-team all-conference players are gone.
George Washington coach Karl Hobbs, whose Colonials are favored to win the West Division, was incredulous that critics could contend that such successful programs will fall off so suddenly.
“You look around, and you look at the numbers,” Hobbs said. “Xavier has averaged 20 wins over the last eight years, and the past three years they’ve averaged 26 wins. Look at St. Joe’s. They’ve been an NCAA team the past two years and just went to an [Elite Eight]. Do you think all of a sudden Phil Martelli’s not going to win 20 games? That he’s not going to go back to the NCAA Tournament?”
Despite both coaches’ appeals, this year’s conference is devoid of the big names of 2003-04. La Salle forward Steven Smith has most likely taken Nelson’s spot as the face of the conference, but the Explorers are still mired in controversy that erupted this summer. Then-coach Billy Hahn was ousted and replaced in August by John Giannini, who went 125-111 eight seasons at Maine.
“That’s over, strange as it was, and you try not to think about that,” said Smith, who averaged 17.1 ppg last season. “Nothing about last season will affect this season. At least, it shouldn’t. We should be coming in fresh, same as any team. If you were at St. Joe’s, you won 30 games, but that has nothing to do with this year.”
While St. Joe’s and Dayton, last year’s regular-season division champions, will struggle to maintain that status, middle-of-the-road teams may emerge as the league’s elite.
George Washington and Massachusetts bring back all of their starters, while Rhode Island returns seven seniors, including preseason all-conference guard Dawan Robinson.
Temple, which finished with a 9-7 conference record last season, looks to capitalize on the power shift taking place within the conference. Forward Wayne Marshall is garnering legitimate preseason attention as a Rookie of the Year candidate. Guard Mark Tyndale could bring the outside shooting sorely missing from last season’s squad, and junior Mardy Collins has started every game since his arrival at Temple in 2002.
As every team struggles to define itself, the Owls look to vault from a barely .500 team back to the top of the league.
“I don’t think any team is going to have an electric year,” coach John Chaney said. “I think GW, with that fast-paced offense, has a chance to be on the rise. You don’t see teams like [St. Joe’s last year] nowadays, especially with teams playing tougher schedules.”
The consensus among the coaches is that each individual team’s success is trumped by the overall fate of the league.
“With the basketball programs in this league, there’s the possibility to do [big] things,” Dayton coach Brian Gregory said. “Because the tradition at so many of these programs is so rich basketball-wise, coaches in this league are so good.”
He added, “Outside of the time they’re playing against one another, they’re rooting for the league. If the rest of the league does well, we think that rises the level of all our programs up.”
Benjamin Watanabe can be reached at email@example.com.