ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — The Atlantic 10 has a new conference tournament site and is without its most recognizable face as it tries to become relevant nationally again after placing only one at-large team in the NCAA tournament the last two seasons combined.
The league held its annual media session yesterday at Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall, where it will hold its tournament the next two seasons as it hopes to draw more fans with the event in the entertainment venue.
The most notable person missing was John Chaney, who retired after 24 seasons at Temple. Former Penn coach Fran Dunphy is now in charge of turning the Owls back into an A-10 and national power.
“In the end, it is just something your heart tells you to do,” said Dunphy, who passed on numerous overtures from bigger programs while leading Penn to nine NCAA tournaments the past 14 seasons. “It’s an opportunity to take another look at who you are as an individual and what you might be able to accomplish. I think the Temple people just made me think I could do a very good job there.”
Xavier was picked to win the league, garnering 59 out of 64 votes among reporters. The Musketeers were followed by Massachusetts (four first-place votes), Saint Louis, Charlotte (one first-place vote) and George Washington, respectively.
GW, which is vying for a program-record third straight NCAA tournament appearance, did not place any players on the all-conference first team. The Colonials, who had a 16-0 record during the A-10 regular season last season, lost four starters after J.R. Pinnock left early and is now playing in the NBA for the Los Angeles Lakers.
GW had two players on the second team in point guard Carl Elliott, the lone returning starter, and Maureece Rice, the A-10 Sixth Man of the Year last season. Coach Karl Hobbs will have to replace the entire frontcourt after the graduation of Pops Mensah-Bonsu (in camp with the Dallas Mavericks), Mike Hall (with the Washington Wizards) and Omar Williams, who is not playing this season after breaking his foot over the summer.
“When you look at the league overall, I think this is going to be the most competitive the league has been since I have been here,” said Hobbs, entering his sixth season at Foggy Bottom. “Everyone pretty much has a veteran team coming back. It is going to offer us a unique look this year because we are going to break in some new guys.”
The Colonials will likely replace the talented trio in the starting lineup with 6-foot-9 senior Dokun Akingbade, who redshirted last season, 6-8 sophomore Rob Diggs and Regis Koundjia, a 6-foot-8 senior. Cheyenne Moore, a 6-5 forward who sat out last season after transferring from Clemson, could be a key reserve.
GW is one of several teams hoping to be in position for an at-large bid after the A-10 has struggled to get extra teams in lately.
It placed four teams in the NCAA’s as recently as 2003-04 when St. Joseph’s and Xavier advanced to the Elite Eight. Dayton and Richmond also made the tournament that season. In 2004-05, only GW made the tournament with the league’s automatic bid. Last season, the Colonials got an at-large bid as Xavier won the A-10 tournament.
However, GW would have been the league’s lone representative had it not been upset in the A-10 tournament.
“I think you have to have three or four teams that dominate the league,” UMass coach Travis Ford said. “You have to have three or four teams that at the end of the year have 10 conference wins or more. We didn’t have that last year. Last year, we all beat up on each other. That’s doesn’t help get teams in the tournament.”
The league also hopes improved schedules and some big nonconference wins will help boost the overall RPI and result in better news on Selection Sunday.
At one school, wins and losses are not much of a concern. Duquesne is still dealing with the aftermath of five players being shot on campus coming home from a party Sept. 17. The most-serious victim was Sam Ashaolu, who is recovering in a Pittsburgh hospital after the suffering multiple gunshots and still has bullet fragments in his head.