Atlantic 10 Refresher: New look, same tenacity

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Atlantic 10 Refresher: New look, same tenacity

Coming into the 2013-14 season, it seemed doubtful the Atlantic 10 could come anywhere close to matching the level the league ascended to last season when a record five teams made the NCAA tournament, with all five advancing to at least the Round of 32.

The conference, after all, had to deal with the departures of Butler and Xavier to the new Big East, Temple to the American Athletic Conference and Charlotte to Conference USA, while it added only former CAA member George Mason. (Davidson is set to become the Atlantic 10’s 14th team in 2014-15).

But with league play set to tip off Wednesday, one thing has become clear: The Atlantic 10 remains a very strong conference. And for the league’s two Philadelphia programs -- La Salle and Saint Joseph’s -- that represents both a challenge and an opportunity.

“It really gives all of the teams a chance to really contend for postseason berths because every game you’re playing is pretty much a top 50 or a top 100 game,” La Salle head coach John Giannini. “There’s no way you’re going to finish high in this league and not be strongly considered for postseason play. Of course the challenge is that a very good team is going to finish in 10th or 11th, too. So things are about to get harder but we’re excited about the opportunity.”

While the league doesn’t have quite the same quality as it did last season, it still ranks seventh in the conference RPI, just behind the SEC and well ahead of the American, Temple’s new league. There are currently five teams in the top 50 of the RPI (Massachusetts, George Washington, Dayton, VCU and Saint Louis) and the A-10 is one of just two leagues in which five teams have 12 or more wins. It’s also one of six leagues in which every team finished .500 or better in non-conference play.

“I’m very proud of the performances of our teams -- not only in wins but whom they’ve beaten and where they’ve beaten them,” St. Joe’s head coach Phil Martelli said. “Certainly you’re setting up for an unbelievable conference competition.”

La Salle and St. Joe’s will face the best the conference has to offer right off the bat. The Hawks will have a particularly difficult challenge, hitting the road to face a dominant UMass team on Wednesday (7 p.m., The Comcast Network).

Led by diminutive point guard Chaz Williams (15.5 ppg, 7.7 apg), the Minutemen have been one of the biggest surprises in the country, winning 12 of their first 13 games to surge to No. 5 in the RPI and No. 19 in the AP Top 25 poll.

Well, maybe they’re not a surprise to everybody.

“They’re everything we thought they were,” Martelli said. “They’re a national team. They should be talked about nationally. They should have been talked about nationally going into the season. This is a wonderful, wonderful team with tremendous balance. And every coach will tell you college basketball goes through the point guard. Tell me one that’s better than Chaz.”

St. Joe’s has been getting some nice production of late out of its own starting point guard in junior Chris Wilson, who’s averaged 13.8 points per game over the last five contests -- all St. Joe’s wins.

With Wilson, DeAndre Bembry -- who Martelli called “one of the best freshman in the league” -- and steady seniors Langston Galloway, Ronald Roberts and Halil Kanacevic, the Hawks (9-4) boast a starting lineup that’s probably as good as any in the league.

But to finish among the top three or four teams in the league -- which might be enough to ensure the program’s first NCAA tournament berth since 2008 -- Martelli knows his team’s bench play must improve.

“We’re about what we thought we were,” the St. Joe’s coach said. “We need to really develop our depth. We haven’t had much success off the bench.”

Still, even without as much bench production as their coach might like, the Hawks’ only losses this season have come against relatively major programs (Creighton, LSU, Temple and Villanova). And to reel off five straight victories after the 30-point home drubbing the Hawks suffered to Big 5 rival Villanova on Dec. 7 has Martelli excited about the character of his team heading into league play.

“When you lose Philadelphia games, it’s more than just a loss,” Martelli said. “There’s a serious psychological blow that occurs. But the players deserve all the credit. They hung in, handled what they had to handle academically … and we’ve gotten better in practice.”

La Salle’s non-conference games didn’t go as well as St. Joe’s, as the Explorers enter Thursday’s A-10 opener vs. George Washington at Tom Gola Arena (8 p.m., NBCSN) with a 7-6 mark and a 130 RPI.

But like the Hawks, the Explorers certainly have the talent and potential to finish near the top of the league if things break right.

They’ll get an early indication of how they match up with the A-10's best when they face a George Washington squad, which is off to a blistering 12-2 start and ranks 25th in the RPI. Picked in the preseason to finish 10th in the A-10, the Colonials have already beaten Maryland and Creighton with their only loss coming to Kansas State.

“They’re tremendous quality of wins and record speak for themselves,” Giannini said. “They’re really big at every position. That size helps them in terms of rebounding and defense. And offensively they play really smart. They have great role definition.”

Coming into the season, La Salle figured to be a few notches ahead of George Washington on the A-10 ladder. On the heels of their run to the Sweet 16 and with all but one key player returning, the Explorers were picked to finish third in the league, behind only VCU and defending champ St. Louis.

And even though La Salle hasn’t been able to live up to its lofty preseason billing to this point, Giannini thinks the tide is shifting in part because of the improving health of star senior point guard Tyreek Duren.

“We only lost one key player in Ramon Galloway but yet our team’s very different,” the La Salle coach explained. “We really didn’t expect losing one player -- even a truly outstanding one like Ramon -- would impact us so much. But as we thought more about it, it’s almost like we lost Ramon and Tyreek. Tyreek has had plantar fasciitis since May and it’s only been in the last two, three weeks that he’s playing anything near his normal self.

“We’re really optimistic about our team right now largely because we see Tyreek getting better.”

Saint Joseph's signs 2 players to national letters of intent

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Saint Joseph's signs 2 players to national letters of intent

Saint Joseph's head coach Phil Martelli on Wednesday announced the signing of two players to National Letters of Intent during the early-signing period. 

Taylor Funk, a 6-foot-8 forward from Columbia, Pennsylvania, and Manheim Central High School, and Anthony Longpre, a 6-10 forward originally from L’Assomption, Quebec, and attends Glenelg Country School in Maryland, both signed their letters of intent and plan to enroll at Saint Joseph's in Fall 2017.

As a junior, Funk averaged 21.3 points and was a PIAA Class AAA All-State Third Team selection. His ability to score as well as shoot the three will make him a valuable asset to a young Hawks squad that features nine underclassmen. Funk enters his senior year at Manheim Central High School with 165 career threes.

Longpre, who has only been in the United States for two years, has been a major contributor at Glenelg Country School since arriving. He averaged 15.5 points in his sophomore year and followed that up by averaging a double-double (12.7 points, 10 rebounds) in his junior campaign. 

Martelli had nothing but praise for Funk and Longpre when discussing the recent signings. 

“Taylor and Anthony are welcome additions to a young group of terrific people," Martelli said in a statement. "They will add to the character of our team and program. Taylor is a skillful young player who embraced Saint Joseph’s at a young age. We greatly look forward to helping him pursue his dreams. Anthony’s game and basketball IQ are beyond his years. He has received exceptional coaching at a young age, which is something that excites me about the future.”

The Hawks (3-4) are in the midst of a four-game losing streak after opening the season 3-0. They take on Drexel in a Big 5 showdown at the Daskalakis Athletic Center on Sunday. 

5 potential candidates for Temple's head coach job

5 potential candidates for Temple's head coach job

The reality is still setting in for Temple fans as Matt Rhule, the beloved leader of the school’s football team who helped bring the program out of the doldrums and give it a sense of legitimacy, is no longer an Owl.

He’s now a Bear. A Baylor Bear, to be exact. 

Rhule on Tuesday morning accepted the head coaching position at Baylor University, a cold reminder in so many ways that college sports is a business (see story).

He reportedly received at seven-year deal after accumulating a 28-23 record in four seasons at the helm of Temple’s program and leading the Owls to this season’s AAC championship, the first conference title for the program since 1967 and just its second ever.

But Temple athletic director Pat Kraft and his administration have no time to let reality sink in. Their reality is that the search for a new coach has already begun.

So that begs this multi-million dollar question: Who are the candidates to take over for Rhule?

Kraft didn’t get into specifics when he met with the media Tuesday at the Liacouras Center, but he did share some of the criteria he’s looking for in a new head coach.

"It has to be a good man," Kraft said Tuesday. "You've got to be able to recruit this area. You've got to be really strong there.

"This is not just and X's and O's job. This is bigger. It's a vocation almost. It's about working with some really, really good young men and continuing to bring in really, really good young men.

"To find someone that dynamic is important. But at the end of the day, we just have to find the right fit for us. I think that comes with the evolution of our program and where we are and where we are on the national stage. That's important to the program. You need someone who's engaged in the community in the Philadelphia market. It's a competitive market."

So with that in mind, who are some candidates who could fit what Kraft is looking for? Let’s take a deeper look.

(Author’s note: I’d like to stress none of the following is sourced information from anyone within or close to the program. The following are people who I believe could be a fit based on what Kraft said on Tuesday.)

Joe Moorhead – Offensive coordinator, Penn State
After the incredible season the Big Ten champ Nittany Lions have put together, Moorhead was going to be a hot name in coaching circles no matter what. And now his popularity gets kicked up to another level with a local opening.

In his only year with the reins of PSU’s offense, Moorhead has masterminded a prolific attack that averages 36.7 points per game (third in the Big Ten, 25th in the nation) and he has worked wonders with sophomore QB Trace McSorely, who averages 258.8 yards per game through the air and has thrown 25 TDs compared to just five interceptions.

Moorhead does have head coaching experience, as he led FCS Fordham’s program from 2012 to 2015 (and beat the Owls in 2013 at the Linc.). After inheriting a 1-10 team, Moorhead compiled a 38-13 record at Fordham and turned the Rams into a FCS playoff regular.

So he has the local ties with PSU and has undoubtedly recruited this area during his time at Fordham and has familiarity with it. And he has a very good reputation.

But he has a really good thing going at Penn State right now. Is it something he wants to leave after just one season? Or can he bide his time in Happy Valley and wait for a Power 5 job to open up?

Al Golden – Tight Ends coach, Detroit Lions
You knew this one was coming, so let’s tackle it now.

Golden, the Owls’ head man from 2006-10 before he left for Miami, checks all the boxes on the list of things Kraft said he wants in a head coach. He obviously knows the area and how recruit it. Rhule is a disciple of Golden, so the transition would be almost seamless.

And Golden deserves another shot to be a head coach at the collegiate level after he walked into a no-win mess at Miami with sanctions the program dealt with from a booster scandal years prior. Golden went 32-25 with the Hurricanes, but that’s not good enough when you’re Miami.

This may not be the time for a return to Temple, however. He was the right coach at the right time in 2006 and was basically a miracle worker with some things he pulled off on North Broad Street during his tenure with the Owls.

But this is a much different job than it was in 2006. It’s in a much better place, thanks in large part to the work Golden started a decade ago. Kraft and his team now have some clout when it comes to finding a new head coach and may want to go with one with a bit more on his résumé.

That’s no disrespect to Golden in any means, but this just doesn’t feel like the right fit right now.

Phil Snow – Defensive Coordinator, Temple (for now)
Rhule and Snow are very close, so the odds of Rhule trying to entice Snow to Baylor are high.

And rightfully so. 

Look at the job Snow has done at Temple, leading a ferocious defense that’s produced stars such as current NFL players Tyler Matakevich and Tavon Young. This season, Snow’s group finished eighth in the nation in scoring defense with just 17.2 points allowed per game. That group was second in the nation with 145.2 yards allowed per game through the air. Only Michigan was better.

Snow has been well traveled throughout his career with stops at Boise State, Cal, UCLA, Arizona State, Washington, Detroit with the NFL’s Lions, Eastern Michigan and now Temple.

Snow is tremendously well-respected by his players and his peers. 

But would the 60-year-old Snow want to be a head coach at this point? It’s a question to ponder. And imagine what he could do with the type of talent pool Baylor and Rhule will be able to recruit from.

Ed Foley – Tight Ends coach, Temple
Speaking of tremendously well-respected, Foley has been at Temple for nine years now and has served on the staffs of Golden, Steve Addazio and Rhule. He’ll get his chance to run the show for at least a game, as he’ll be the Owls’ interim head coach for the Military Bowl against Wake Forest on Dec. 27 in Annapolis, Maryland.

Foley is as good of a guy as you’ll find in the college ranks. Anyone will tell you that.

But Foley’s only experience as a head coach at the college level came from 2004-05 at Fordham. When Foley came to Temple in 2008, it marked his first experience as a college coach at the FBS level.

Foley has seen it all while at Temple and has even spent time as the Owls’ recruiting coordinator, which will certainly stick out to Kraft when going through his list of candidates.

But this doesn’t feel like a fit for the long term. A more experienced head coach seems like more of a fit right now. But if the players rally around Foley, who knows? Anything is possible.

Charlie Strong – Former head coach, Texas
Now this is a mighty interesting possibility.

Strong was recently canned at Texas after going 16-21 in three seasons. Before that, he did a great job at Louisville, where he went 37-15 in four seasons.

He has a heck of résumé with coaching stops at Ole Miss, Notre Dame, South Carolina and numerous years at Florida before he went to Louisville.

He’s a man of values and can be demanding of his players. That’s just his style.

Strong may not be familiar with this area, but he’s dealt with all the muck that comes with coaching Texas, so the competitive Philadelphia market wouldn’t be anything new to him. And when it comes to recruiting, his name carries weight. He’s had to fight for some big-time recruits in the hotbed of Texas, so he would do just fine here.

And to think the former Texas coach going to Temple would be a step back is inaccurate. This is not the Temple of old. There is legitimacy here now and Strong would add a whole new dimension of legitimacy to the program.

The question is whether Strong would want to come to North Broad Street. He got a massive buyout (reportedly around $11 million), so he may not want to coach again right away. But if he does, he’ll have offers from other schools, which means the Owls will have to pay up for his services. But the investment could be worth it.