Originally Published: August 6, 2013

Five Biggest Offseason Storylines

By Myron Medcalf | ESPN.com

George MasonKim Klement/USA TODAY SportsBest known for its run to the Final Four in 2006, George Mason joins a restructured A-10.

1. The new Atlantic 10: Get your notecards ready for this one. Things have changed in the A-10. Again. For a moment or two, the league seemed positioned to shed its standing as one of the nation's top gray conferences: not necessarily one of the top six, but definitely not a mid-major league, either. But then Butler (after just one season) and Xavier bolted for the new Big East. Temple left for the American. And Charlotte joined Conference USA. Desperate for some new blood, the league invited George Mason. Got that? Four gone, one new squad for a total of 13 teams (with Davidson joining next season). The good news for the conference is that it's still relatively strong, if not as deep as previous years. La Salle, Saint Louis and VCU should warrant top-25 consideration in the preseason polls. For fans (and sportswriters), however, it might take some time to grasp realignment's impact on this league.

2. John Giannini signs extension: After La Salle reached the Sweet 16 in March, rumors about Giannini's future began to circulate. The Explorers' coach told reporters the buzz was fabricated, but it certainly seemed reasonable to consider him a possible target after he'd led the program to its first NCAA tournament appearance since 1992 and its best run in it since 1955. Minnesota, UCLA, USC, Rutgers and other high-major programs possessed spring openings that Giannini could have filled, but the extension he signed with La Salle in late April ended that chatter. The move gives his program the stability it needs to build off last season's surge. The Explorers should be league contenders again. Ramon Galloway is gone, but three double-digit scorers -- Tyreek Duren, Tyrone Garland and Jerrell Wright -- return. Giannini has the tools to repeat 2013's postseason triumph, or even top it.

Jordan Sibert
Peter G. Aiken/USA TODAY SportsAfter a year at Ohio State, Jordan Sibert headed west on I-70.

3. Jordan Sibert gets fresh start at Dayton: When he joined Ohio State's 2010 recruiting class, Sibert was ranked 82nd in the ESPNU 100 and even higher by other sites. But the 6-foot-4 wing got lost within the Buckeyes' vast talent pool (3.0 points and 11.4 minutes a game in 2011-12) and decided to transfer to Dayton last year. The Flyers lost top scorer Kevin Dillard (15.3 PPG) so they need an explosive player who can consistently get to the rim. Maybe Sibert can play that role. His ESPN.com high school scouting report described him as a player with "exceptional athleticism." Sibert told the Dayton Daily News that he felt like he was "just another number" at Ohio State, but he could be a star for Archie Miller's program. Here's his chance to prove it.

4. VCU searching for new leader: Shaka Smart might possess the most skilled team of his tenure. Juvonte Reddic, Treveon Graham, Briante Weber and Rob Brandenberg return. And Florida State transfer Terrance Shannon (7.9 PPG, 5.6 RPG in 2012-13) will be eligible to compete this season. Plus, former top-100 recruits Mo Alie-Cox and Jordan Burgess will be available in 2013-14 after sitting out last season due to academic issues. There are few questions about VCU's talent level. But who will lead? Darius Theus was the heart of the program and the team's assists leader last season. Troy Daniels contributed on some of the best teams in the program's history. The Rams don't have a complete leadership void. They have multiple candidates. But someone on the roster must assume that role if this squad intends to fulfill its vast potential.

5. UMass loses Jesse Morgan: Derek Kellogg's program appeared to be the A-10's dark horse as the summer approached. Star Chaz Williams (15.3 PPG, 7.3 APG, 2.0 SPG) returned after considering the NBA. That was major news for a program that won 21 games and finished 9-7 in conference play last season. With former Western Kentucky standout Derrick Gordon (11.8 PPG, 6.7 RPG in 2011-12) eligible, this team has some notable pieces. Morgan (13.4 PPG in 14 games in 2012-13) would have elevated the team even more, but he suffered an ACL injury midway through last season, and he withdrew from school in April, a decision that reportedly was linked to disciplinary actions. With Williams' sidekick, Terrell Vinson, gone, Morgan could have given UMass a significant boost in its bid to finally return to the NCAA tournament and fight for the A-10 crown. It's a major loss for the team.

Best-Case/Worst-Case Scenarios

By Eamonn Brennan | ESPN.com

Dayton

Best case: The Flyers have always been competitive, both under former coach Brian Gregory and current coach Archie Miller. What they've lacked is consistency, particularly on the defensive end. If promising sophomores Dyshawn Pierre and Jalen Robinson can do enough to maintain this team's efficient offensive output, and Dayton shores things up on defense (incoming freshman small forward Kendall Pollard could factor here), Miller's third year might yet provide the March breakthrough. A more forgiving conference schedule will help.

Worst case: The loss of seniors Kevin Dillard and Josh Benson might hurt most on the Flyers' already-shaky defensive end; Benson was one of the best shot-blockers in the conference. If that portion of Dayton's game doesn't improve, another inconsistent, .500-ish season is the likely outcome.

Duquesne

Best case: Considering the struggles at Rhode Island and Fordham, finishing dead last in the A-10 last season took some doing. But Duquesne did it, going 1-15 in league play, and the best case in Jim Ferry's second season as coach involves a nudge up to respectability, if not relevance.

Worst case: The dreaded, rare zero-win conference season. Perish the thought.

Fordham

Best case: The Rams weren't much better than the Dukes, but they do have the prospective advantage of youth -- all but two contributors last season were freshmen or sophomores. (And the lone senior, leading scorer Chris Gaston, was an inefficient possession magnet.) Building from that foundation is the goal.

Worst case: Youth is nice, but whether any of Fordham's young pieces can elevate the program is a huge question.

George Mason

Best case: With former coach Jim Larranaga pushing Miami to the hoops elite, and former Patriots forward Luke Hancock playing a star role in Louisville's national title run, 2012-13 was a bittersweet year for George Mason fans. The good news? The Patriots escaped the struggling Colonial in time to join the more prestigious, albeit weakened, Atlantic 10. With a handful of seniors, Paul Hewitt's team should be able to transition fairly well, but the best case still feels well short of a tournament berth.

Worst case: Stasis. The Patriots finished ranked No. 131 in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency rankings last season. With many of the same players returning and minimal help on the way, the added nightly challenge of a better league could make a repeat of last season look far worse to the untrained eye.

Isaiah Armwood
MCT/ZUMA Press/Icon SMIAfter transferring from Villanova, Isaiah Armwood had a quietly effective season at GW.

George Washington

Best case: The Colonials were a sneaky-tough out last season thanks primarily to their defense, which was top-50 quality for most of the year. The problem was offense, but if a crop of sophomores plays more fluidly, senior shot-blocking beast Isaiah Armwood and GW could be one of the season's surprise stories.

Worst case: No matter how well Armwood protects the basket, it won't matter much if the Colonials keep turning it over on more than 23 percent of their possessions -- one of the highest rates in the country last season.

La Salle

Best case: La Salle was a fun offensive team that never quite got there defensively, but some sizzling play in March (and a few favorable matchups) took the Explorers from the opening round in Dayton to the Sweet 16. Senior Ramon Galloway is the only notable loss to contend with; everyone else is back, promising forward Steve Zack will return from injury, and an A-10 title should be coach John Giannini's realistic goal.

Worst case: La Salle has a crop of intriguing guards waiting to take over for Galloway, but the fact remains that the senior put up an efficient offensive performance -- and made scores of key plays -- while consistently dominating the ball. Can fellow usage maven Tyrone Garland maintain that consistency? If not, will La Salle be the same offensive team? If the Explorers squander the giddy momentum swelling around this once-proud, long-dormant Big 5 program, that's the worst possible outcome.

Massachusetts

Best case: UMass loved to run these past two seasons, which made sense, given the quick-twitch skills of generously listed 5-foot-9 point guard Chaz Williams. Expect more of the same this season, minus senior forward Terrell Vinson. If lanky 6-9 junior Raphiael Putney puts it together, the Minutemen might turn their preference to play as fast as any team in the country into a decided strategic advantage.

Worst case: At the end of the day, if you finish ranked 82nd in points per possession and 115th against (as UMass did in 2012-13, per Pomeroy), hitting the 70 possessions per game mark is less a tactic than a stylistic preference.

Rhode Island

Best case: It only translated into three conference wins, but if you look closer at Rhode Island's 2012-13 effort, you see an undermanned team that frequently pushed superior opponents to the brink. Coach Dan Hurley still has a long way to go with this program, but with a hard-working foundation in place, the Rams could get a nice boost in its reputation.

Worst case: Wins and losses aren't really the barometer here, but with so many close games against good teams in league play, the Rams had to feel like they left something on the table last season. Doing so again in Hurley's second year would be brutal, whether the final league record is better than 3-13 or (gulp) worse.

Richmond

Best case: Spiders coach Chris Mooney appeared close to completing his post-Sweet 16 rebuilding project last season, but his team was hampered by injuries for huge swaths of the campaign. If everyone can stay healthy, and if Rhode Island can add some defense (incoming freshman forward Josh Jones has earned high marks from scouts here) to their already-excellent offensive play, a return to the tournament is well within reach.

Worst case: If the newcomers can't nudge Richmond closer to above-average -- or if the Kendall Anthony/Derrick Williams/Cedrick Lindsay trio doesn't collectively improve on the defensive perimeter -- it again will be difficult for the Spiders to set a consistent night-to-night baseline.

Saint Joseph's

Best case: Everything finally comes together. Two years ago, coach Phil Martelli's young team was full of promise. Before last season, when it returned all five starters, it was picked to win the A-10. That never happened, as a group of promising juniors (Ronald Roberts, Langston Galloway, C.J. Aiken) plateaued, and rumors of discord emanated from Hagan Arena. Second chances are rare in life, as the cliché goes, but this definitely qualifies.

Worst case: This team is what it is. There's nothing wrong with that; if anything, calling last season disappointing has just as much to do with offseason perceptions (and our old-school obsession with a lack of turnover) as reality. It's hard to imagine this team actually regressing, even without senior leader Carl Jones, but after two almost identical seasons, what if the ceiling is already visible?

Dwayne Evans
AP Photo/Jeff RobersonSLU's leading scorer and rebounder, Dwayne Evans, is back to lead the Billikens.

Saint Louis

Best case: Saint Louis did its former coach (the legendary Rick Majerus) a great honor last season, persevering through his death in December en route to a 28-7 season and a No. 18 final adjusted efficiency ranking. Losing Cody Ellis and Kwamain Mitchell hurts, but getting Dwayne Evans, Jordair Jett, Mike McCall and Rob Loe back means the Billikens should be able to replicate most of 2012-13's brutally tough defensive work -- and maybe make an even deeper tournament run this time around.

Worst case: One can't simply wave away the losses of Ellis and Mitchell, both team leaders and stalwart defenders (Mitchell, in particular, who was utterly ruthless against opposing ball handlers). Evans looks primed for a monster offensive year, but can SLU replicate last season's success if the defense dips?

St. Bonaventure

Best case: The Bonnies were almost a mirror image of George Washington last season -- perfectly capable on offense, downright putrid on defense. With their most frequent offensive contributors gone, maybe the best case for coach Mark Schmidt's group is a season that builds around some defensive principles as part of a multiyear reformation project.

Worst case: Barring some surprise explosion from players stepping into larger roles, or some equally surprising defensive leap, it will be almost impossible for Schmidt to replace guard Eric Mosley's high volume (31.4 percent shot rate) and efficiency (117.3 offensive rating), to say nothing of fellow departed senior Demitrius Conger (who posted a 116.9 offensive rating while playing 90.3 percent of his team's available minutes). A step back seems almost inevitable; the worst case is a significant one.

Virginia Commonwealth

Best case: For all of the attention VCU's ingeniously branded "HAVOC" defense received last season, the Rams were actually better on offense, where they mixed a lethal cocktail of easy turnover points with 3-point shooting. Losing Troy Daniels and Darius Theus is a knock in both cases, but if the Rams become less dependent on forcing turnovers (while still forcing lots of turnovers, don't get me wrong) they could simultaneously maintain last season's impressive success and be less stylistically vulnerable come tournament time.

Worst case: Last season, VCU was the best in the country at making other teams cough up the rock, better even than eventual national champion Louisville. But when the Rams didn't force a turnover, their defense was woeful. If this trend continues, and the loss of Daniels reduces offensive potency in more conventional games, coach Shaka Smart may have to slightly recalibrate before he can engineer another deep tournament run.

Five Freshmen To Watch

By Myron Medcalf | ESPN.com

Jordan Burgess, VCU: Academic issues kept Burgess off the floor last season, but he was allowed to practice with the team as a partial qualifier. Burgess, ranked 96th in the 2012 recruiting class by ESPN.com, gives Shaka Smart a talented 6-foot-5 wing who enhances the HAVOC defense with his size and athleticism.

Tanner Lancona, Saint Louis: Coach Jim Crews picked up one of the league's steals when Lancona, a former Washington State signee, chose the Billikens over multiple high-major programs. The 6-8 forward averaged 19.0 PPG and 11.0 RPG as a senior star in California. Lancona could make an immediate impact.

E.C. Matthews, Rhode Island: Coach Danny Hurley has acquired a multitude of young building blocks at URI since he accepted the job last year. Matthews, a four-star prospect on ESPN.com, is one of the top incoming prospects in the Atlantic 10. The 6-4 wing could be the anchor of the Rams' future.

Jon Severe, Fordham: The reigning Mr. Basketball in the state of New York picked a struggling program in part because he wanted to stay home. He had offers from Kansas State, Pitt and West Virginia after averaging 21.6 PPG his senior prep season. The 6-2 guard could be a game-changer in the Bronx.

Dayshon Smith, Dayton: Meanwhile, this Bronx native attracted high-major offers from Providence and Illinois before signing with coach Archie Miller's program. Smith is a big, savvy point guard who matured toward the end of his prep career, which is why he drew so much late interest.

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