By Jon Rothstein
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FIVE QUESTIONS ENTERING THE ATLANTIC 10
1. WILL THE CONFERENCE BE AS COMPETITIVE AS IT WAS LAST SEASON?
Without question. The Atlantic 10 may have lost brand name schools like Temple, Xavier, and Butler, but everyone else in the league improved since the end of last season. Teams like Fordham, Duquesne, Rhode Island, and George Washington should be significantly better than they were a year ago, while George Mason joins the conference as a team capable of beating anyone they have to play against. VCU may be the Atlantic 10's clear favorite, but after that things are wide open.
2. HOW WILL LA SALLE HANDLE EXPECTATIONS?
The Explorers went to the Sweet 16 last season, but now for the first time under John Giannini they'll have to deal with being the hunted. While many believed that VCU or Saint Louis were more likely to advance deep into the NCAA Tournament last season, La Salle played their best when it mattered most and found themselves as one of the premier stories during March Madness. Giannini has a savvy, veteran team that should be more than up to the task that is in front of them. The Explorers will start three senior guards --- Tyreek Duren, Sam Mills, and Tyrone Garland along with two junior big men in Steve Zack and Jerrell Wright. Another name to watch on this team? Khalid Lewis. The Delaware transfer got bigger and stronger during his red shirt season, and should be La Salle's first player off the bench.
3. COULD LESS BE MORE FOR SAINT JOSEPH'S?
Quite possibly. The Hawks have had high expectations the past two years, only to finish short of their goal of reaching the NCAA Tournament. Gone is combo guard Tay Jones and skilled big man C.J. Aiken, but Phil Martelli returns a strong base with seniors Langston Galloway, Halil Kanacevic, and Ron Roberts. The biggest surprise for Hawks' fans may be freshman small forward DeAndre Bembry. The 6-6 wing is a terrific prospect that could have an impact in most BCS leagues --- he's that good. A high-level athlete with a tremendous nose for the ball, Bembry could go a long way in providing Saint Joseph's with some of the intangibles they've been missing over the past two seasons. Another name to remember? Kyle Molock. The point guard has had multiple knee surgeries over the past few years, but the Hawks' staff is cautiously optimistic that Molock can give them the type of pass-first floor general they've so desperately needed.
4. WILL RHODE ISLAND HAVE TWO OF THE TOP 10 PLAYERS IN THE ATLANTIC 10?
Absolutely. Xavier Munford is the conference's top returning scorer at 17.4 PPG, while Rutgers transfer Gilvydas Biruta is simply a volcano just waiting to erupt. The 6-8 Biruta averaged 9.7 points and 5.7 rebounds two years ago with the Scarlet Knights, and has worked relentlessly during his red shirt year to expand his perimeter game. With he and Munford, Rhode Island has the foundation to immediately become a factor in just Danny Hurley's second year in the Atlantic 10. Biruta will likely have the biggest impact of the Rams' transfers, but Jarelle Reischel (Rice) and DeShon "Biggie" Minnis (Texas Tech) are both capable players that will be integral pieces of Rhode Island's success. A real wild card for this team will be 6-4 freshman guard E.C. Matthews, who spurned several BCS schools to play for Hurley.
5. WHO IS THE SLEEPER?
Dayton. The Flyers lost six games last season by six points or less, and return several key contributors. Archie Miller's team will miss do everything point guard Kevin Dillard, but adds several key pieces including freshman floor general Dayshon "Scoochie" Smith, who could wind up being the Flyers' starting point guard. Ohio State transfer Jordan Sibert will also join the fold --- along with big man Matt Kavanaugh --- who was suspended for all of last season after averaging 9.0 PPG and 5.9 RPG during the 2011-12 campaign. Kavanaugh, Devin Oliver, and Jalen Robinson give Dayton a strong base in the front court, while Sibert, Smith, and Vee Sanford should round things out on the perimeter. Keep an eye on 6-6 sophomore Dyshawn Pierre, who shot an impressive 46.2% from three-point range last season as a freshman.
ATLANTIC 10 PRESEASON POWER RANKINGS
THE SKINNY: This could be Shaka Smart's most complete team.
2. SAINT LOUIS
THE SKINNY: The Billikens return a starting five that is a good enough to win the conference for the second consecutive year.
3. LA SALLE
THE SKINNY: Don't be surprised if Tyrone Garland leads the Atlantic 10 in scoring.
THE SKINNY: The back court of Chaz Williams and Derrick Gordon will be must-see TV.
THE SKINNY: Archie Miller's squad has all the requisites to make a jump.
6. RHODE ISLAND
THE SKINNY: The Rams will win 20 games. Book it.
7. SAINT JOSEPH'S
THE SKINNY: Hawks will have plenty of talent, but what about the chemistry?
8. GEORGE WASHINGTON
THE SKINNY: The addition of Indiana transfer Maurice Creek gives Mike Lonergan a formidable starting five.
9. GEORGE MASON
THE SKINNY: Paul Hewitt's team has the size and depth to adjust quickly to Atlantic 10 play.
THE SKINNY: Chris Mooney returns three of his top four scorers, but who replaces Darien Brothers?
THE SKINNY: Freshman guard Jon Severe is the Rams' most fabled recruit in a quarter century.
THE SKINNY: Jim Ferry is quietly building a capable Atlantic 10 program.
13. ST. BONAVENTURE
THE SKINNY: Andrew Nicholson is not walking through that door.
ATLANTIC 10 PRESEASON FIRST TEAM
Chaz Williams, UMass
Tyreek Duren, La Salle
Langston Galloway, Saint Joseph's
Dwayne Evans, Saint Louis
Juvonte Reddic, VCU
ATLANTIC 10 PRESEASON PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Dwayne Evans, Saint Louis
TEN THAT HAVE WAITED AND WILL MAKE A MAJOR IMPACT
1. Derrick Gordon, UMass (transfer)
2. Gilvydas Biruta, Rhode Island (transfer)
3. DeShon "Biggie" Minnis, Rhode Island (transfer)
4. Jarelle Reischel, Rhode Island (transfer)
5. Jordan Sibert, Dayton (transfer)
6. Matt Kavanaugh, Dayton (suspended)
7. Ovie Soko, Duquesne (transfer)
8. Tra'Vaughn White, Duquesne (JUCO)
9. Austin McBroom, Saint Louis (transfer)
10. Khalid Lewis, La Salle (transfer)
TEN IMPACT FRESHMEN
1. Jordan Burgess, VCU
2. JeQuan Lewis, VCU
3. Jon Severe, Fordham
4. E.C. Matthews, Rhode Island
5. Hassan Martin, Rhode Island
6. DeAndre Bembry, Saint Joseph's
7. Kyle Molock, Saint Joseph's
8. Dayshon "Scoochie" Smith, Dayton
9. Kendall Pollard, Dayton
10. Tanner Lancona, Saint Louis
FIVE UNDER-THE-RADAR FRESHMEN
1. Jordan Robinson, Duquesne
2. Manny Suarez, Fordham
3. Antwoine Anderson, Fordham
4. Marquise Moore, George Mason
5. Reggie Agbeko, Saint Louis
FIVE BREAKOUT PLAYERS
1. Kevin Larsen, George Washington
2. Maxie Esho, UMass
3. Melvin Johnson, VCU
4. Jeremiah Jones, Duquesne
5. Erik Copes, George Mason
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