Five observations: Atlantic 10 media day

BROOKLYN, N.Y. -- Here are five quick observations from Tuesday's Atlantic 10 media day at the Barclays Center.

1. Virginia Commonwealth is the unanimous pick to win the Atlantic 10 this season.

That doesn’t hold a lot of sway with the Rams’ coach, who, when congratulated on the honor, quickly pointed out that his team was picked to win it last season.

It finished second.

And then Shaka Smart recalled a scene from the end of last season. His team was watching Saint Louis play UMass. If UMass wins, the Rams get a share of the Atlantic 10 regular-season crown. If the Bilikens win, they win the league outright.

“As one of our guys said, ‘And then Jordair Jett happened,'" Smart said. “I think we learned a valuable lesson from that, and it’s that you don’t want to depend on someone else to determine your fate."

That, more than the fuel from the NCAA tournament loss to Stephen F. Austin, is what will drive the Rams this season.

The Rams deserve to be picked to win the league. They deserve their Top 25 preseason ranking. But they also know that how you start in October really doesn’t matter much. It’s how you finish in March.

“I remember when I coached with Keith Dambrot at Akron, he’d always find a way to be mad," Smart said. “If you picked him first, it’s because the other teams wanted to put pressure on him. If you picked him too low, it’s because you disrespected them. I know everyone has to do all of these preseason prognostications, but really, no one remembers any of it."

2. It’s only been three years since Mike Lonergan arrived at George Washington, and in that short time, he’s elevated the Colonials from a 10-win team to an NCAA tournament game-winner.

From the outside, that’s a pretty quick turnaround. From the inside? Not so much.

“I think that first year, I gained 20 pounds," Lonergan said. “As a coach you get used to winning, and then you only win 10 games and it’s hard. I thought I could come right in and change the culture here, and I couldn’t. Now you look back and people say it’s only been three years, but I have to tell you, there are times it feels closer to five."

But Lonergan, whose team is picked to finish second, has found a smart and familiar recipe for quick success. He’s pounded the recruiting trail hard, butting up against his D.C. neighbors in Maryland and Virginia, but he’s also extended second chances to transfers.

He, like most coaches, is hardly a fan of the transfer rage plaguing college basketball, but -- there’s always a but -- in this case, transfers at times are the quickest means to an end, as Lonergan has learned. Last season, Villanova transfer Isaiah Armwood and Indiana’s Maurice Creek helped elevate the Colonials. This season, Tyler Cavanaugh, who comes to GW by way of Wake Forest, could be that guy.

“I don’t like the transfer thing, but you have to be able to take advantage of it when you can," Lonergan admitted. “Sometimes it’s a perfect fit, something that we need and they need and it can add up to an immediate impact."

3. When asked how good sophomore E.C. Matthews can be, Rhode Island coach Dan Hurley started out by saying, "Without putting too much pressure on a 19-year-old kid ..."

And then he continued.

“He has a chance to be one of the premier guards in college basketball before he finishes his career."

So much for no pressure.

But the truth is, Matthews is that good. He didn’t make the Atlantic 10 preseason first team (he was second team) and isn’t even a regional -- let alone a household -- name. But that’s more a byproduct of Rhode Island’s growing pains than Matthews’ abilities. As a freshman, the league’s rookie of the year averaged 14.3 points per game overall and 16.6 in league play, but the Rams won just 14 games.

All of that could very well change this season. With Matthews -- the top returning scorer in the league -- back, much more is expected of Rhode Island.

Ditto Matthews.

Hurley already has counseled his sophomore on what he expects will be an impending media glare and even on the agents he fully expects to come sniffing around.

That could swell plenty of people’s egos.

“If there’s a kid you can keep all of that away from, this is the kid," Hurley said. “When we sat down on his home visit, we told him everything we thought he could accomplish, and it’s coming to fruition. He knows there’s no need to change."

4. One look at DeAndre Bembry and you automatically think this must be a guy with a huge, oversized personality.

But the player who sports perhaps the best afro in college basketball is nothing like what you might think. In fact, he’s the opposite.

“If you hooked him up to a heart machine, it would be like this," said Saint Joseph’s coach Phil Martelli, motioning a flat line.

Martelli is counting on that even keel as he steers a young Hawks team this season. The team that won the A-10 tournament last season, down three of their top four scorers, will rely heavily on Bembry, a first-team preseason pick who averaged 12.1 points and 4.5 rebounds per game last season.

And Martelli thinks Bembry is more than up for the challenge.

“He’s unusual. He’s an old head with an old spirit," Martelli said. “And he’s actually grown since last year."

5. Some dribbles ... Smart considers himself a pancake expert. With time to kill (thanks to an early flight arranged by his punctual sports information director, Scott Day), the VCU coach stopped in a nearby diner for a bite to eat. He deemed the pancakes only a 4. When it was suggested that pancakes are too simplistic to be rated and that, in fact, all pancakes are mostly created equal, Smart scoffed. “They can be thin, thick," he said. “There’s definitely a difference." For the record, he prefers his flapjacks thin. ... Martelli made like Tiny Tim, hobbling around on a single crutch. The Saint Joe’s coach tore the meniscus in his knee and had surgery last week. ... Line of the day went to Richmond’s Chris Mooney. Mooney, the chair of the league’s coaches’ committee, was selected to give remarks at the luncheon, deadpanning that the practice where lunch was held was "not where they take coaches who have been kicked out of games at the Barclay Center." Mooney was ejected two years ago during an A-10 tournament game against Charlotte. He and his team were hit with three technicals (and eight Charlotte free throws) in 4.7 seconds.