|Kwamain Mitchell could find A-10 gold with St. Louis. (Matt Brown/SLUBillikens.com)|
Conference Champion: St. Louis
The Atlantic 10 is deep.With 16 teams, it has the biggest roster of teams in Division-I competition that will disappear when Charlotte and Temple leave next summer. But this year, size and talent-wise, the A-10 is the mid-major equivalent of the Big East. Traditional conference powers Xavier and Temple will be in the title hunt despite with their diminished power. Saint Louis can't be counted out of the mix after an NCAA tournament loss to Michigan State in which the Billikens were a popular upset pick. Butler and VCU — new additions from the Horizon and CAA, respectively — are automatically top-tier teams, too, after the memorable postseason runs both teams have made since 2010.
All of these teams are legitimate contenders to win the A-10 and there's no sure-fire formula to calculate a champion in October, but it's hard to bet against the Billikens, a team ranked 10th nationally in defensive efficiency in 2011-12. The loss of forward Brian Conklin marks a rare case in which little drop-off should be seen after the departure of a team's leading scorer. He averaged 13.9 points per game, just 1.5 more than Kwamain Mitchell.
Aside from Conklin, SLU returns every player important to last season's squad. The only potential detriment to the Billikens' success is the absence of head coach Rick Majerus as he sits out the season to focus on his ongoing cancer treatment. Interim head coach Jim Crews is familiar with the system in place after being an assistant in 2011-12, though, and his 24 years of head coaching experience could motivate the team if Majerus' health concerns somehow do not.
Dark horse Team to Watch: Saint Joseph's
Rarely can you call a team that posted a top-five conference finish in the season prior a dark horse, but Saint Joseph's is just that in a pool so deep. Every single player from last year's roster has returned.
Let that sink in: Every. Single. Player.
Even the conference's standing Defensive Player of the Year (C.J. Aiken — an NBA prospect) is back for his junior season. That kind of continuity can push a team past a more talented squad. The thing is, the Hawks went 20-14 and were a bubble team for most of the spring. Barring unforeseen circumstances, it should be safe to pencil Saint Joseph's into an NCAA tournament bracket right now and wonder if an A-10 championship precedes that bid.
Player of the Year: Chaz Williams, Massachusetts
The Minutemen's guard made an immediate impact upon taking the court last year, having sat out the 2011-12 season after making a post-freshman year transfer from Hofstra. Williams proceeded to average 16.9 points, 6.2 assists, 4.4 rebounds and 2.2 steals per game. He's the centerpiece of a team that could make a push toward the top of the conference and, if he can get his turnovers under control and continue on the trajectory he began last season, he'll be an easy pick for A-10 POY.
Newcomer of the Year: Jordan Burgess, VCU
Burgess is a wing who will make noise on glass and outwork bigger opponents in order to do it. His offense comes from the corners and along the baseline. VCU head coach Shaka Smart should work his brand of magic with the 6'5" forward. The things that will hamper his first-year peers — availability of playing time, offensive systems and so on — should not hamper Burgess, as VCU's top prospect is projected to find big minutes at the 4-spot.
Coach of the Year: Shaka Smart, VCU
Another crowded category, another bundle of candidates that should be worthy by the end of conference play. The roster stability at Saint Louis and Saint Joseph's potentially excludes Crews and Hawks head coach Phil Martelli from the running. If Butler has a bad year with its least heralded team in the 2010's, Brad Stevens is out, too. With his team on the upswing during its inaugural campaign, though, and projecting as a title favorite in a conference more difficult than the CAA, Shaka Smart winning COY is as close to a sure thing as there is in the A-10 this season.
Follow @BeatsDimesDrive on Twitter