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Monday, October 15, 2012
What I can't wait to see: Atlantic 10

By Dana O'Neil

Editor's Note: For two weeks, we're rolling out Blue Ribbon previews for every team in the country. We'll also have comprehensive preview coverage of the nation's top 10 conferences. As part of that, we're asking our writers to share what they're most looking forward to in each of those leagues. Let's start it off with the A-10 ...

How will the new generation of coaches fare?

This used to be a fairly seasoned bunch of wily elder statesmen coaches, what with Rick Majerus, Fran Dunphy, Phil Martelli, Jim Baron and Ron Everhart on the sidelines.

But with old coaches either moved out or moved on, the demographics of the league have shifted considerably. Currently 10 of the Atlantic 10’s 16 coaches are 45 or younger and include some of the brightest names of their generation.

With all of that attention, of course, comes pressure and expectation. I’m curious to see how the game’s "It" boys will handle all of that in a league that is especially deep and competitive this season.

Just how deep will this league go come March?

Basketball hasn’t scored a lot of wins in the realignment fiasco, but count the Atlantic 10 as a bona fide success story. Adding VCU and Butler makes a very good league potentially great this season.

You can easily make a case for no fewer than six teams earning NCAA tournament bids this year -- Saint Louis, Saint Joseph’s, VCU, Butler, UMass and, in its A10 swan song, Temple. That’s not counting pesky teams that are always dangerous to count out regardless of their makeup -- a la Xavier, Richmond and Dayton -- or rising programs such as La Salle.

As the Big East disassembles, reassembles and attempts to rebrand, its eastern bloc neighbor has stepped in as the conference to watch.

Can Saint Louis reach its expectations without Rick Majerus?

The game no doubt suffers without the personable and basketball savant on the sidelines, but how about the Billikens? A team that many expected to vie for the conference crown is now without its coach.

My money is on Saint Louis not missing a beat, and that’s not just based on a "win one for the Gipper" hunch.

The Billikens lose a great scorer and leader in Brian Conklin, but they return the nucleus of a team that broke through to the NCAA tournament a year ago. And in Majerus’ place, Saint Louis has the good fortune to lean on veteran Jim Crews, a solid coach who is smart enough to not try to reinvent Majerus’ wheel.

The silver lining in the awful news of Majerus’ health issues is that it happened well before the season, allowing Crews time to assert himself as the head coach and work with his players.

The real reason I expect the Billikens to soldier on, though, is because Majerus is their coach. His teams are known for being prepared, and while there isn’t any contingency plan for playing on while your coach handles serious heart maladies, you have to think that his single-minded approach will see SLU through.

Can Xavier keep its NCAA tournament streak alive?

Once considered a pseudo mid-major, Xavier, like Gonzaga, permanently removed itself from that list with its model of consistency. The Musketeers have made it to the tournament every year since 2005, even rallying in last year’s brawl-bruised season to keep the run alive.

This year, Chris Mack has so much work to do it's hard to envision how Xavier could make it back. Virtually the entire starting five has either graduated or been dismissed from the team. Travis Taylor, who averaged 14 minutes per game, is both the leading returning scorer and the most seasoned player.

Betting against the Musketeers always seems a bad idea, but this season, with so much work to do in a league with as much quality as this one, it’s hard to imagine how Xavier runs its mark to eight years in a row.

Is this the breakthrough year UMass fans have been waiting for?

Since Derek Kellogg returned to his alma mater in 2008, folks have been waiting for the glory years he enjoyed as a player to return to Amherst. Of course that would be a rather tall and ridiculous order, considering Kellogg went to the NCAA tournament four years in a row, including the Elite Eight, and won four consecutive Atlantic-10 regular-season and tournament titles as a player.

But this could at least be the year the Minutemen return to NCAA tournament relevance.

UMass rolled to the NIT semifinals last season, riding on the coattails of guard Chaz Williams. The Hofstra transfer averaged 16.4 points and 6.4 assists per game and is exactly the sort of bona fide star you can build something special around.

If Williams picks up where he left off (he upped his scoring numbers through the NIT to 21.8 per game), UMass might see itself on the big ticket for the first time since 1998.