Can Butler win the A-10 title in their first season in the league?
The Atlantic 10's coaches and media believe new member Butler will finish sixth in the league, but I'll be very surprised if the Bulldogs don't do better than that.
True, the last time you saw Brad Stevens' team they couldn't buy a basket. In conference play the Bulldogs were the single worst shooting team from the field in the Horizon League. Now Butler's joined the A-10, and, with all due respect to the Horizon, the A-10 is a tougher conference. (The difference in quality between last season's A-10 and Horizon was about the same statistically as the difference between the Big Ten and Missouri Valley.) So why should we think Butler has any shot at finishing first in their new league?
Math, personnel, and the competition. Last season Butler made just 26 percent of their threes in conference play, a number so drop-dead awful that the Bulldogs are virtually certain to beat it this season whether they play in the A-10, Big Ten, or NBA. That's important, because perimeter shooting wasn't just BU's biggest problem in 2011-12, it was their only problem. Everything else was as it should be for a team competing for its league's title. A few makes from outside, and this team can look a lot better in a hurry.
As for personnel, Chrishawn Hopkins was dropped from the roster in September for a violation of team rules, and, clearly, replacing Ronald Nored's defense is a concern. But everyone else is back, and the Bulldogs add Arkansas transfer Rotnei Clarke. The ex-Razorback should give Stevens the perimeter scoring this team badly needs. Clarke's a career 42 percent three-point shooter, and, since it came from no fewer than 653 attempts launched as a major-conference guard, that impressive number is unusually trustworthy.
Lastly, the A-10 figures to have many good teams but no great ones. Butler's strongest competition could come from one of the following: preseason favorite Saint Joseph's, preseason No. 2 Saint Louis, longtime A-10 power Temple, or newcomer Virginia Commonwealth. Phil Martelli's Hawks are led by one of the most underrated players in the nation, junior wing Langston Galloway. The Billikens lost only Brian Conklin and Kyle Cassity from a team that reached the NCAA round of 32. Fran Dunphy's Owls project to have, yet again, an offense significantly more efficient than the A-10 average. And Shaka Smart's Rams could battle Butler for the title of best defense in the A-10.
Khalif Wyatt and Chaz Williams lead the race for POY
Who'll win A-10 POY? What a simple question! After all, a year ago everyone knew that Xavier's preseason first-team All-American, Tu Holloway, would be beat out for conference POY honors by Andrew Nicholson of St. Bonaventure, right? Oh, wait, no one knew that.
So I'll proceed with caution on this question, knowing my answer could look really silly come March. I'll go with Temple's Khalif Wyatt. Unfortunately for Wyatt, his only recent connection to the headlines was his arrest as part of a prostitution sting in Atlantic City last June. But I expect Wyatt to write new headlines with some stellar play on offense for the Owls. Another player to watch is Chaz Williams, the 5-9 point guard at UMass. And don't look past the aforementioned Galloway at Saint Joseph's.
The team that could surprise: UMass
This 2012-13 edition of the Minutemen promises to be the best team fans have seen in Amherst since Travis Ford went 23-9 in A-10 play over two seasons to win the job at Oklahoma State. I've already mentioned Chaz Williams, but he's not a one-man show. In fact head coach Derek Kellogg loses only Sean Carter from what was a very deep rotation last season. The Minutemen's strength is defense, but that's usually covered up by one of the fastest tempos in the nation. Don't let the final scores fool you: on a per-possession basis this UMass D was second only to Saint Louis last season in A-10 play. And while the offense was much less impressive, that can change this season if Cady Lalanne stays healthy and if Raphiael Putney delivers on the promise he displayed during a very good sophomore year.
Top newcomer(s): Brad Stevens and Shaka Smart
I'm supposed to pick a top newcomer, singular, but, I'm sorry, this one's a tie. What a coup for the A-10, to have the two rising head coaches whose names already come up in every major-conference coaching search. Together, Stevens and Smart have made three Final Four appearances. The other 14 A-10 coaches who'll appear on the sidelines this season have combined for zero trips to the Final Four. (Granted, that zero requires an asterisk. Phil Martelli and Saint Joseph's came within one possession of the 2004 Final Four. And obviously Saint Louis head coach Rick Majerus took Utah to the 1998 national championship game, but he's currently on leave of absence for health reasons. Get well soon, Coach!) Joining the A-10 is good for both the Butler and VCU programs, but it's also true that getting Stevens and Smart is good for the A-10.
NCAA bids: Butler, Saint Joseph's, Saint Louis, Temple, VCU, and UMass
The late 1990s were good times for the A-10, as the league put five teams into the NCAA tournament in both 1997 and 1998. That record still stands, but this is the year the conference finally rewrites the media guide and gets six bids. Mind you, that sixth team (I'm guessing UMass) is by definition almost sure to be a bubble team. And, sure, having a 16-team league helps this six-bid talk along. In effect the A-10 may end up claiming credit for bids that otherwise would have been won by the Horizon League (Butler) and the CAA (VCU). In any event, the A-10 should enjoy this rare combination of size and quality while it lasts: Temple leaves for the Big East next season.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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