The Atlantic 10 shocked everyone last season by sending six teams to the NCAA Tournament a season ago. Now, the league will likely take a step back with much of its major talent gone from a season ago gone. But the Atlantic 10 in 2014-15 has plenty of Dayton potential — it’s a league full of sneaky contenders and proven winners. And as long as Shaka Smart is coaching his Rams to wreak havoc — behind the BEST PEP BAND IN THE LAND — than they will be in the mix. (Also, shout out to Paul Gotham and pickinsplinters.com. Paul covers the A-10 like a warm quilt. His site is a must all season long for A-10 coverage.)

14. St. Bonaventure Bonnies

Last Year’s Record: 18-15 (6-10)

This Year’s Projected A-10 Record: 3-13

Head Coach: Mark Schmidt

Key Players: Youssou Ndoye, Andell Cumberbatch, Iakeem Alston

Many St. Bonaventure fans believed that coach Mark Schmidt would bolt the program in the off-season to take the job at his alma mater: Boston College. However, Schmidt stayed, and he brings about a sense of consistency to the Bonnies program.

Schmidt has proven he can bring in enough recruits to be a tournament team, but this season is destined to be a rebuilding year.

St. Bonaventure loses both Matthew Wright and Charlon Kloof — two of the best players in the entire conference tournament a year ago — from a team that won only six games in the A-10. Now, they will need returners Andell Cumberbatch and Yousoou Ndoye to take major steps forward if they want to stay out of the basement.

In addition, JC transfers Iakeem Alston and Marcus Posley will get big opportunities to prove themselves, but it’s not reasonable to expect them to make a big enough impact for St. Bonaventure to be a surprise team.

With teams like Fordham on the way up, it might be a brief stop at the bottom of the league this season for St. Bonaventure.

13. George Mason Patriots

Last Year’s Record: 11-20 (4-12)

This Year’s Projected A-10 Record: 4-12

Head Coach: Paul Hewitt

Key Players: Jalen Jenkins, Patrick Holloway, Julian Royal

Rumors about Paul Hewitt’s seat being hot are running wild at George Mason, and if his employment is reliant on how well George Mason plays this season, Hewitt may be a goner.

GMU’s glory days under Jim Larranaga are far behind them, and they have struggled with the jump up in class from the Colonial to the A-10.  This year, they lose a couple of key players in Sherrod Wright and Bryon Allen from a team that wasn’t all that good to begin with.

In order to stay competitive, they will need young players like Jalen Jenkins to take the next major step up. The sophomore was effective in his rookie season but it remains to be seen if he can be a number-one option. If he can’t, it could be junior guard Patrick Holloway a starter from a season ago, or GT transfer Julian Royal.

If Jenkins and Holloway can become all-league level performers, Hewitt might save his job. If not, it could be another long twenty-plus loss season for the Patriots.

12. Davidson Wildcats

Last Year’s Record: 20-13 (15-1, Southern)

This Year’s Projected A-10 Record: 6-10

Head Coach: Bob McKillop

Key Players: Tyler Kalinoski, Brian Sullivan, Jack Gibbs

Like teams like Butler and  George Mason experienced, Davidson will likely take a little time to adjust to their big move to the Atlantic 10.

Still, there is no doubt that a coach as successful as Bob McKillop won’t be able to turn the league move into a positive, and bring in recruits that allow Davidson to be amongst the best teams in their new league.

For now however, Davidson is likely in for a season near the bottom. The Wildcats were tremendously successful last year (as they usually are) in the SoConn, but now they will have to move into the A-10 without the benefit of three starters from last year; including their best player, De’Mon Brooks.

If Davidson is going to be good this year, they will need to shoot the ball extremely well and play solid defense. Their top two players are returning starters Tyler Kalinoksi and Brian Sullivan who should bring about a solid bakcourt that can score.

The issue is, beyond them, McKillop doesn’t have much experience, and players such as Jack Gibbs, Peyton Aldridge, and Jordan Barham will need to adjust to their increased roles quickly.

Davidson will get there but it will likely be somewhat of a culture shock for them this season playing teams with the talent level of A-10 squads night in and night out.

11. Duquesne Dukes 

Last Year’s Record: 13-17 (5-11)

This Year’s Projected A-10 Record: 6-10

Head Coach: Jim Ferry

Key Players: Micah Mason, Derrick Colter, Dominique McKoy

Duquense will have to try and find a way to replace their all-world scorer Ovie Soko this season (18.4 ppg) but they return four other starters and could make some strides this season under head coach Jim Ferry.

Losing Soko will of course be extremely difficult for the Dukes, who won more games than anyone thought they could last year. Now, they’re still projected to finish last by several experts, but I believe they have more talent than that.

Micah Mason was the nation’s most accurate three-point shooter a year ago at 56 percent. That’s an insane number and we of course shouldn’t expect Mason to duplicate it, but still, when you have a perimeter threat like that you’re an extremely dangerous team. Mason is joined in the back court by Derrick Colter who has had over 100 assists each of the last two seasons.

The two frontcourt starters are Dominique McKoy who shot nearly 60 percent from the floor a season ago, and Jeremiah Jones a solid forward who can slide into several different spots.

Duquense won’t be able to break .500 because they will get partially exposed offensively without Soko. Still, they should be able to stay competitive because of the amount of experience they have returning.

10. Fordham Rams

Last Year’s Record: 10-21 (2-14)

This Year’s Projected A-10 Record: 6-10

Head Coach: Tom Pecora

Key Players: Jon Severe, Eric Paschall, Mandell Thomas

For the first time in a long time, the program at Fordham appears to be going in the right direction.

Tom Pecora was able to secure a huge recruit last season in Jon Severe and Severe did not disappoint. (Well, until now.) He averaged 17.3 points per-game and was one of the top scorers in all of the A-10 as a freshman. This season he is a potential POTY, and he is joined by another major recruit, Eric Paschall, to make up an explosive one-two punch.

Fordham still needs work on the rest of their roster however. Mandell Thomas is the third-best player and is a double-double threat, but beyond there there are a lot of questions.

Still, Fordham would be thrilled to win six or seven games in the A-10 after nearly two decades straight of near incompetence. With Severe and Paschall leading the way, this team could finally have turned the corner.

9. Saint Louis Billikens 

Last Year’s Record: 27-7 (13-3)

This Year’s Projected A-10 Record: 7-9

Head Coach: Jim Crews

Key Players: Austin McBroom, Grandy Glaze, John Manning

St. Louis was able to win 13 games in the A-10 last season behind a roster filled with senior leaders. Now, they have lost almost everything and Jim Crews will have to try and rebuild with what they have.

The only returner of particular note is Austin McBroom who was a key contributor off the bench a season ago. Now, McBroom  will have to take on a bigger role, potentially as the teams top scorer.

Big men Grandy Glaze and John Manning are two seniors who have been with the program through their success but were never needed to play major roles offensively. Now, they will both need to step up in major ways and it remains to be seen if they are able to shoulder that load.

Villanova transfer Achraf Yacoubu will be relied upon early and often to be a solid presence on the floor as well, but even he lacks any significant experience.

St. Louis is talented enough not to go form first-to-worst, but considering all that they’ve lost, a top ten finish here is a bit generous.

8. Saint Joseph’s Hawks

Last Year’s Record: 24-10 (11-5)

This Year’s Projected A-10 Record: 7-9

Head Coach: Phil Martelli

Key Players: DeAndre’ Bembry, Aaron Brown, Chris Wilson

Who would have won the NCAA Tournament had St. Joe’s held on to their late lead against UConn in the tournament’s first full round?

It’s a question we’ll never get the answer too, but the Hawks have likely spent the entire off-season wondering if they could have equaled the Huskies run had they pulled off the upset.

Even with the second round loss, it was a big season for St. Joe’s basketball, who won the A-10 championship at the Barclays Center. But like St. Louis, they now will have a lot to replace.

Three of the four top players for Phil Martelli’s team are gone from the program so now St. Joseph’s will heavily rely on sophomore DeAndre’ Bembry. Bembry was the A-10 Co-Rookie of the Year and now he will be the team’s go-to scorer. He shined late, especially last season and could be one of the best forwards in the league.

Chris Wilson is a senior guard coming back that brings some stability on both ends of the floor. West Virginia transfer Aaron Brown will come in and likely be the other starter, he should help Martelli maintain a solid scrorng punch.

Papa Ndao and Isaiah Miles bring about two more players with experience in the frontcourt, but they have never been needed to play this big of a role.

St. Joe’s has talent with Bembry and Wilson especially, but they simply have lost too much to duplicate last season’s success.

7. La Salle Explorers

Last Year’s Record: 15-16 (7-9)

This Year’s Projected A-10 Record: 8-8

Head Coach: John Gianini

Key Players: Jerrell Wright, Steve Zack, Jordan Price

No one is really sure what went wrong with La Salle last season. Coming off a Sweet Sixteen appearance in 2012, La Salle brought back their dynamic backcourt, but were totally unable to bring the same magic that they had two seasons ago. La Salle struggled in both out of conference play and in the A-10, and finished only 15-16 overall.

Now Tyreek Duren and Tyrone Garland have now departed, and La Salle will have to build instead around their bigs in 2014-15. Jerrell Wright is good place to start and the power forward is as good around the basket as anyone in the Atlantic 10. Wright is a potential double-double threat and can score in the post.  Steve Zack is the returning starter at center, and he too is a threat to put out a double-double on any given night.

Wright and Zack is where the offense will start, but Gianini is hoping his incoming guards will eventually become adequate replacements for what he lost from last year’s team. Amar Stukes is a Philadelphia kid like his predecessor that should be able to be a gritty tough defender, while Cleon Roberts and Jordan Price are two transfers that come in and should be able to fit in quickly.

La Salle might get better with some addition by subtraction, and if their guards are as good as Gianini thinks they are, La Salle could surprise people.

6. Richmond Spiders

Last Year’s Record: 19-14 (8-8)

This Year’s Projected A-10 Record: 9-7

Head Coach: Chris Mooney

Key Players: Kendall Anthony, Terry Allen, Alonzo Nelson-Ododa

Richmond started off strong in league play a season ago but fell apart at the end. Chris Mooney is hoping that late season skid will be a learning experience for his young players and they will come back with something to prove this season.

Despite losing Cedrick Lindsay, Mooney has enough on Richmond to be a bubble team that could sneak in to the NCAA Tournament. Point guard Kendall Anthony stands at only 5-8, but he is one of the quickest players in the country and can get to the rim and finish. He is the team’s best returning player at 15.9 ppg.

The frontcourt will be anchored by Terry Allen a do-it-all type of forward who can score when needed, rebound, pass, and defend. Other key contributors back for the Spiders are starting big Alonzo Nelson-Ododa, and bench players ShawnDre’ Jones, Trey Davis, and Deion Taylor. While five newcomers, including Niagara transfer T.J. Cline are all expected to get opportunities.

Richmond is still very young, but behind Anthony, they should be able to finish above .500 in a very tough Atlantic 10 this season.

5. Rhode Island Rams

Last Year’s Record: 14-18 (5-11)

This Year’s Projected A-10 Record: 9-7

Head Coach: Dan Hurley

Key Players: E.C. Matthews, Gilvydas Biruta, T.J. Buchanan

Rhode Island was unable to truly figure things out last season. They finished just 11th in the A-10 in points per-game and 13th in turnovers. Despite having one of the better scorers in the league in Xavier Munford, the Rams managed only five wins in conference.

Now, Rhode Island is poised to cut down on the mistakes and become a real threat in the Atlantic 10. The Rams got a year older and a year more experienced. While Munford is gone, Dan Hurley has enough other pieces to make a run this season.

E.C. Matthews was second fiddle to Munford a season ago but now, this is his team. Matthews was a co-Rookie of the Year in the A-10 and averaged north of 14 points per-contest. Now he will get even more shots and he should be able to be one of the top scorers in the league.

His backcourt mate T.J. Buchanan is ready to take the next step, and will have to for URI to be successful in the backcourt. Backups Biggie Minnis and freshman Jarvis Garrett will also help this team with their depth, a weak point last season.

Gilvydas Biruta is Rhode Island’s top threat in the low post and he is a capable post scorer and rebounder. Hassan Martin was also solid a season ago, and showed flashes of being a potential serious threat offensively. Backups of note include Jarelle Reischel and Jordan Hare, both of which have experience in their roles.

Rhode Island will have to score more and be more efficient offensively, but with Matthews leading the way, Hurley should be able to bring this team to the postseason.

4. Massachusetts Minutemen 

Last Year’s Record: 24-9 (10-6)

This Year’s Projected A-10 Record: 10-6

Head Coach: Derek Kellog

Key Players: Trey Davis, Derrick Gordon, Cady Lalanne

UMass was good last season, but maybe not nearly as good as a lot of people believed, as they were blown out in their first NCAA Tournament game against Tennessee.

Now, UMass will have to replace a ton of talent, but the returning players are looking to shake off the stigma that they were overrated.

The task will be handed to Derrick Gordon and Trey Davis in the backcourt. Both of which got a chance to play behind Chaz Williams last year, and now will get an opportunity to break out. Gordon excels defensively, while Davis will be more o fan offensive threat and handle the ball. They should be able to compliment each other nicely, and Kellog is hopeful they will adequately replace Williams. West Virginia transfer Jabarie Hinds sat out last year and could be an X-Factor for this team as well at the guard spot.

Down low Cady Lalanne is back and is one of the better bigs in the A-10. Lalanne is tough to move around at 6-10, 253 lbs. and he uses his strength and athleticism to bully his way inside. Maxie Esho will also be leaned upon as a point-forward who can penetrate and get to the basket.

Rumors of UMass’s downfall have been greatly exaggerated, and they should once again be at or near the top in the Atlantic-10.

3. George Washington Colonials 

Last Year’s Record: 24-9 (11-5)

This Year’s Projected A-10 Record: 11-5

Head Coach: Mike Lonergan

Key Players: Kethan Savage, Kevin Larsen, Patricio Garino

Last season was an absolutely monumental one for George Washington, as the Colonials established themselves as serious contenders in the Atlantic 10.

GWU finished tied for third in the loaded A-10 and grabbed a nine seed in the NCAA Tournament but fell to Memphis in their first game.

Even though George Washington loses key players Maurice Creek and Isaiah Armwood from last season’s surprise squad, they still bring back enough talent to contend once more.

George Washington has four players coming back that were starters a season ago including three double-digit scorers. The frontcourt is led by Kevin Larsen, Mike Lonergan’s 6-11 center, who is relentless on the inside, whether it is getting put-backs or bullying his way to the rim to get to the line.

Lonergan hopes that his incoming freshman can contribute as well in the frontcourt. They are led by  Anthony Swan who can step out and hit the jumper or play inside, as well as Matt Cimino a 6-10 big who has serious potential but needs to hit the weights more, and rare Japanese recruit Yuta Watanbe who is talented as well and could be a rotation player.

While the frontcourt is inexperienced outside of Larsen, GW’s backcourt has three players coming back who all saw significant time a year ago.

George Washington was 15-3 with guard Kethan Savage playing a season ago, but after he went down with a broken foot against St. Joseph’s, GW struggled the rest of the season going only 9-6. Now Savage is back at 100 percent and he should be the team’s leader. Point guard Joe McDonald also was injured late last year, but when healthy he is an important piece as he keeps GW’s offense rumbling and makes plays for others.

Slasher Patricio Garino might be George Washington’s most important player. He routinely was the Colonial’s best defender and offensively he put in over 12 points per-game as well.

Lonergan is building something special at George Washington, and his team should make it back-to-back tournament appearances this season.

2. Dayton Flyers

Last Year’s Record: 26-11 (10-6)

This Year’s Projected A-10 Record: 12-4

Head Coach: Archie Miller

Key Players:  Jordan Sibert, Dyshawn Pierre, Scoochie Smith

First it was an upset of Ohio State. Then it was a shocking win over Syracuse. Then came the grind it out win over Stanford.

Before you even knew what happened, Dayton was just one win away from the Final Four a season ago. The Flyers fell just short of becoming the fourth ever double digit seed in the Final Four as they were beaten by Florida, but still it was a magical run for Archie Miller and Dayton a season ago.

Make no mistake, Dayton doesn’t have the same team as they did a year ago. Devin Oliver, Vee Sanford, and Matt Kavanaugh are all recognizable names no longer with the program.  However, Dayton does return their top two players and has a plethora of bench guys ready to step up.

The team’s success this season will depend on the performance of Jordan Sibert and Dyshawn Pierre. Both of them became household names in the tournament last season, and now they are back once more to try to duplicate that success.

Sibert’s scoring ability and activity on the defensive end made him a perfect fit for Miller’s system. Pierre was as tough of a player as any in the tournament a season ago, and is a lock-down defender. The two of them will need to make up for Dayton’s lack of offensive fire-power by increasing their individual scoring efforts.

Aside from those two, Dayton will need other young players to step in to bigger roles this season. The first of which is Scoochie Smith who will now get an opportunity to be the team’s starting point guard. Smith was very solid as a reserve freshman last year, and he should be able to adequately run Miller’s offense.

Guard’s Kyle Davis, and freshman Darrell Davis will get minutes too. Kyle was voted the team’s best defender as a freshman last year, and Darrell was a finalist for “Mr. Basketball” in the state of Michigan and figures to be high impact newcomer.

In the frontcourt, Pierre will need assistance from big man Jalen Robinson who will get a chance to fill Kavanaugh’s spot in the starting five. Kendall Pollard saw minutes a season ago and pitched in a 12 point game against Stanford in the Sweet Sixteen, and center Devon Scott led the team in field goal percentage and started seven games (Scott was charged with domestic violence in the offseason, but won’t face jail time. It’s unclear whether or not he will be playing this season).

Miller play’s as many as 11 guys and expects everyone to come in and contribute. This year he has plenty of capable options to turn too with Sibert and Pierre continuing to be two of the better players in the Atlantic-10.

[caption id=”attachment_1766” align=”alignleft” width=”300”]Shaka Smart. (Photo from Wikipedia, eligible for re-use, CC) Shaka Smart. (Photo from Wikipedia, eligible for re-use, CC)[/caption]

1. VCU Rams

Last Year’s Record: 26-9 (12-4)

This Year’s Projected A-10 Record: 13-3

Head Coach: Shaka Smart

Key Players: Treveon Graham, Briante Weber, Melvin Johnson

Winning 26 games cannot possibly ever be considered a down season, but VCU had higher hopes than what ended up happening to them last season.

The Rams finished second in the A-10  regular season, but lost in the championship game to St. Joseph’s. Then in the NCAA Tournament, VCU was taken down in the second round by cinderella Stephen F. Austin. It’s a testament to how far Shaka Smart has taken this program that they are now considered the hunted instead of the hunters.

VCU has the best talent on paper this season in the Atlantic 10, and Smart should be able to take that talent, mix in some motivation based on last season’s disappointment, and turn it into an even better year in Richmond.

VCU has the benefit of returning their top player Treveon Graham from last season. Graham is the favorite in the preseason for A-10 Player of the Year and it’s not hard to see why. Graham scored in double figures in 32 of VCU’s 35 games last year. He led the team in scoring, was second in rebounding, and was one of their top defenders. Graham will be the backbone of this team and he could be seeing some national recognition by season’s end.

Point guard Briante Weber is back as well and he is great in the open floor and creates opportunities via his defense. Many believe he is the best defender in the country. He managed a phenomenal 121 steals last year and he is the leader of Smart’s “havoc” system defensively in trying to create turnovers. Melvin Johnson is the team’s top three-point threat and gets a lot of open looks through transition. He hit 66 triples last season and scored 10.6 points per-game.

Backcourt depth will come from JeQuan Lewis, a sophomore with good skills that fits Smart’s system, and Jordan Burgess who is another three-point threat.

The VCU forwards are a bigger question mark after the graduation of Juvonte Reddic. Sophomore Mo Alle-Cox is REALLY REALLY BIG with great physical skills, but still is working on his touch. Jarreed Guest is an experienced backup who may call for more minutes if he can develop his offensive game better.

Along with the returners, Smart is hoping his top-20 recruiting class will help fill out the frontcourt. Terry Larrier, Mike Gilmore, and Justin Tillman were all highly recruited big men who can step in right away. Guest and Alie-Cox will get first dibs, but the freshman could end up taking over those starting roles by season’s end.

VCU is once again deep, talented and athletic. They are also team of incredible unity. Teams such as George Washington, UMass, and Dayton have a chance to win the league, but VCU is the clear favorite behind the genius mind of Shaka Smart.

Ross Bentley (@ImRossBentley) is a contributor for The High Screen. He is a Graduate Sports Journalism student at Quinnipiac University and a graduate of SUNY Oswego.