Originally Published: October 15, 2012

No Longer Top Dogs, A-10 Newcomers Blend In

By Andy Katz

BROOKLYN, N.Y. -- Had Butler stayed in the Horizon League, the Bulldogs would have been picked to win the conference.

Had Virginia Commonwealth stayed in the Colonial Athletic Association, the Rams would have been the choice there, as well.

Instead, VCU was picked third in the Atlantic 10. Butler sixth.

During the recent A-10 media day, VCU coach Shaka Smart and Butler coach Brad Stevens were just another two coaches. There was no special place for them to sit, no perks, no treatment reserved only for them. Butler and VCU were a coup for the A-10, but now it's time to earn their place.

Smart and Stevens have been wooed by higher-paying schools and the Big Six conferences. But both have remained and both bumped up to a higher-level conference, to a place where multiple at-large bids should be a given. Each coach is comfortable in his own skin, with who he is and where he lives.

"You hope you find a place where you're comfortable, where you can achieve all your dreams," Stevens said. "We shouldn't take a backseat to anyone. VCU has done it, too. We've talked all the time that what's right for one person may not be for another."

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AP Photo/Nick WassAndrew Smith and the Bulldogs shift from the Horizon favorites to just another A-10 contender.

Butler returns Andrew Smith, who should be one of the top big men in the conference. He didn't make any of the three preseason A-10 teams, but the headline names on the Bulldogs' roster -- Arkansas transfer guard Rotnei Clarke and freshman Kellen Dunham -- don't have the experience of Smith.

"We weren't the favorites in 2008-09 because we had to start three freshmen and two of them happened to be NBA players," said Stevens of Gordon Hayward and Shelvin Mack. "We were picked sixth to start this season. It's a whole lot of fun playing with a chip on your shoulder."

Stevens said his No. 1 concern is to make sure his teams don't wear down in March. The Bulldogs dealt with a different type of grind in the Horizon. The competition may not have been equal, but the pressure to win every game was even more intense, especially for two days in March.

"The last 12 years, every win in conference didn't mean anything, yet every loss was incredibly harmful," Stevens said. "Some wins hurt your computer rankings. Now look at our last four games -- Saint Louis, at VCU, at UMass and Xavier. Those are games that are going to catapult you into the postseason at the end of the day. We get a shot in January, February and March and I'm really looking forward to that. It's hard, but that's what we signed up for."

Like Butler, Virginia Commonwealth wasn't going to stick around in its conference without being able to play in the postseason. Neither conference was going to change its bylaws, so VCU and Butler sped up the departures to the A-10 by a year.

"For me it was simple," Smart said. "I didn't want to go into a locker room and say we can't compete in the postseason. If we were going to make a move, it had to be immediate. I think all of the players and fans are happy we did.

"Ask me in January and February and hopefully I'll have the same answer. This league is deeper with it being better at the top, middle and bottom. We've got our work cut out for us."

VCU returns key players like Juvonte Reddic and Briante Weber and adds Melvin Johnson. The Rams, like the Bulldogs and new league mates Xavier and Temple, also play one of the tougher nonconference schedules in the A-10 -- led by a Battle 4 Atlantis field that practically guarantees three games against probable postseason teams.

"We've got a chance to compete for the championship with what we have coming back," said Smart, who chose to stay put instead of going to Illinois in the offseason. That was before he knew the Rams were making this quick move to the A-10.

"I like it here," he said. "It's a great place to be. I love the players we have. The fans are passionate. We've sold out 18 consecutive games and all the tickets for this year. That shows the passion and intensity and that's where I want to be, where winning matters."

Bonnies Out To Prove They Have Staying Power

By Andy Katz
BROOKLYN, N.Y. -- St. Bonaventure had a first-round NBA draft pick last season -- the only first-round pick in the Atlantic 10.

And the assumption is that Andrew Nicholson defined the Bonnies and was the reason they finished 10-6 and tied for third with perennial power Xavier before winning the A-10 tournament.

Not so fast, says SBU coach Mark Schmidt.

"We weren't a one-man team last year," he said. "The perception was that we were."

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Don McPeak/US PresswireAfter a surprising run to the NCAA tourney, Mark Schmidt wants to keep momentum going in Olean.

The Bonnies had depth, though. Demitrius Conger, Eric Mosley and Chris Johnson give this team as much experience as any team outside of Saint Louis and Saint Joseph's. And Michael Davenport is back after being out with a shoulder injury.

Yet, St. Bonaventure is picked 11th in the preseason.

So much for respect. The perception is that last season was a one-hit wonder -- and that doesn't sit particularly well in Olean, N.Y.

"These players want to prove that they weren't a one-man show," Schmidt said. "These players want to prove that they're good. You're always as good as your seniors."

Conger, Davenport, Mosley and Johnson are all seniors this season, along with Marquise Simmons, back from an injured Achilles. Toss in sophomore Youssou Ndoye and the Bonnies have the pieces to be a surprise -- again.

And don't underestimate the changes that come with making a spirit-lifting NCAA tournament appearance.

Suddenly, the Bonnies have money.

"We got more money, we can charter flights and we can buy games," Schmidt said. "And I got a seven-year extension."

The Bonnies play at Ohio on Nov. 28. Schmidt said in the past they would've been on the bus for eight hours and miss three days of class. Now the Bonnies will practice at home, fly to Athens, then return after the game -- missing just one day.

"Chartering means you're not going to wear down as the season goes along," Schmidt said. "I don't know how we did it last year with the success we had."

St. Bonaventure also bought guaranteed games against Bethune Cookman and The Citadel. So where did the money come from?

"I don't know," Schmidt said. "I don't ask. I said, 'Great. We don't have to take a horse and buggy anymore.'"

They also don't have to get creative during the recruiting pitch. A conference title and a first-round draft pick makes it easier to sell recruits on the Bonnies.

"Now it's not a dream," Schmidt said. "We did it."

Finally A Rebuilding Season At Xavier?

By Andy Katz

BROOKLYN, N.Y. -- No Mark Lyons. No Dez Wells. No Tu Holloway.

That's why it's no surprise to see Xavier picked ninth in the A-10, but it's still a surreal position to be in for a program that has been at the top of this conference for so long and is coming off yet another Sweet 16 appearance.

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AP Photo/Al BehrmanTravis Taylor (4.5 ppg) is the leading returning scorer on an XU team that lost its top five scorers.

But in truth, ninth might actually be kind. Who knows what is going to happen with the Musketeers? The assumption is that Xavier never disappoints, but no one really knows with Lyons off to Arizona, Wells at Maryland and Holloway in the professional ranks.

"Every year is a challenge whether you're predicted first or last," XU coach Chris Mack said. "We'll be younger and have two guards primarily handle the ball that didn't play as much in Dee Davis [11.1 minutes a game last season] and [freshman] Semaj Christon. But we have chemistry in our locker room. We're excited."

Mack also thinks the ninth-place prediction is a positive reflection of the better-than-ever depth of the league.

"What it says is a lot about the other teams in the conference," he said.

Give them credit: The Musketeers didn't shy away in scheduling again, despite what looks to be a transition season. Xavier will still play Butler twice (one of the games is a previously scheduled nonconference game), Memphis, Vanderbilt, Kent State, at Purdue, at Tennessee and of course Cincinnati.

"The kids we get at Xavier, they want to play high-profile games," Mack said. "We want to challenge ourselves. That's what we want to do as a program. We don't want to back off. There's no turning back of who we want to play and what we want for our basketball program. We're excited about it."

Interim Crews Aims To Keep Saint Louis Rolling

By Andy Katz
BROOKLYN, N.Y. -- Jim Crews took a walk with his wife, Kim, earlier this week and started to reflect on the past three years.

They talked about his exit from Army's coaching job in 2009 after seven seasons. He mentioned how much he enjoyed working on the basketball court in Carmel, Ind., when a friend asked him to help with elementary school kids. He said how much he enjoyed a brief stint doing some broadcast work for the Big Ten Network.

Then he pointed out how much fun he had last season when Rick Majerus called him in a pinch to join his Saint Louis staff after assistant Alex Jensen left for the Cleveland Cavaliers' Development League team right before the start of practice in October 2011.

"It wasn't the best-laid plans, but I've liked it all," Crews said.

Now he is facing his most unique situation by far.

Crews is the interim head coach for Saint Louis, named Aug. 24 after Majerus had to take an indefinite leave of absence to undergo evaluation and treatment for a heart condition.

The Billikens return the core of a team that went to the NCAA tournament last season and beat Memphis before losing to Michigan State. Saint Louis was picked second to Saint Joseph's by one first-place and two overall votes in the Atlantic 10 media day poll.

To read the rest of Katz's report on SLU and interim coach Jim Crews, click here.

Philly Still Plays Central Role In A-10 Hoops

By Andy Katz
BROOKLYN, N.Y. -- The storylines are aplenty in the Atlantic 10 this season, led by Saint Louis trying to recover from Rick Majerus' absence and the arrival of mid-major darlings Butler and VCU to create the greatest depth in the league's history.

But what I learned at A-10 media day earlier this month is that the overriding theme this season is all about Philadelphia.

The conference office fled the heart of the league for southern Virginia awhile back, but in this season, the league center will be back in Philly.

Saint Joseph's is the preseason pick to win the title with five starters returning, potentially completing Phil Martelli's long, arduous climb back up to the top after his glorious run to the Elite Eight in 2004.

Elsewhere in the City of Brotherly Love, La Salle was the overwhelming selection by the league's coaches when they were asked by ESPN.com which team will be a legitimate sleeper to be in the hunt deep into February.

Oh, and no one wants Temple to leave.

The Owls, who have been at the heart of the conference since its inception, are off to the Big East next season. Charlotte is leaving too as the 49ers head to Conference USA. But Charlotte is no Temple.

The Owls' departure is sort of like when a close childhood friend had to move to a new school. The good friends, like St. Joe's and La Salle, know they'll still see TU around, but it won't be the same.

"On a personal level, my best friend in coaching is Fran Dunphy,'' Martelli said of the Temple coach. "To not interact with him here, on the phone talking about various league issues, that will be very different. Temple has served this league with such a positive fashion from top to bottom.''

To read the rest of Katz's report on the three A-10 Philly teams, click here.


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