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.”

La Salle suffers demoralizing loss to struggling UMass

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La Salle suffers demoralizing loss to struggling UMass

AMHERST, Mass. -- Zach Lewis scored a career-high 37 points, including six three-pointers, and Massachusetts pulled away from La Salle 84-71 on Sunday to snap a three-game losing streak.

Lewis, whose 37-point effort was the best for any player in the Atlantic 10 this season, hit nine of his 16 field goal attempts overall and was a perfect 13-for-13 at the free throw line. Dejon Jarreau added 20 points and four three-ponters for UMass (14-15, 4-12).

Pookie Powell hit five 3-pointers and scored 24 points, and B.J. Johnson added 20 points to lead La Salle (14-13, 8-8).

Both teams shot similar percentages and had similar three-point totals, but the Minutemen finished with a plus-14 advantage at the free throw line.

La Salle remained within striking distance but a 13-4 stretch for UMass midway through the second half pushed its lead to 63-51. The Minutemen kept the Explorers at arm's length the rest of the way.

Eric Paschall's game rounding out when Villanova needs it most

Eric Paschall's game rounding out when Villanova needs it most

Those on the outside are now starting to see what those on the inside of Villanova basketball program have seen for the last year and a half.

Eric Paschall can play.

Paschall on Saturday had the biggest game of his career -- at least his Villanova career -- with 19 points, six rebounds and two steals in the Wildcats’ Big East-clinching win over Creighton at the Pavilion.

With Darryl Reynolds sidelined since early February with a rib injury, the Fordham transfer has been starting and playing at a high level. But he was at his best Saturday when his team needed him the most.

Paschall was essentially a guard at Fordham, but with Reynolds out and Omari Spellman forced to sit out the year, Paschall has been playing a lot of the 5 for Villanova, and against Creighton, he effectively neutralized 6-foot-11 Blue Jays center Justin Patton, who managed just four points -- 9½ below his average.

"He's getting better, that's the biggest thing," teammate Josh Hart said of Paschall. "He's down there battling with Patton, a 7-footer, he's down there battling with 6-10, 6-11 guys just about every night, and he's battling and battling and we just tell him, keep working like that. That's more important to us than him going out there scoring 20.

"We know he's talented enough to score 20, you saw that (Saturday), but the way he's battling and the way he's not being frustrated and just keeps getting better, for us that's the best part."

Paschall averaged 15.9 points and 5.8 rebounds per game two years ago for the Rams, earning Atlantic 10 Freshman of the Year honors.

He was one of only three NCAA Division I freshmen who averaged at least 15.9 points and 5½ rebounds per game. The others were D'Angelo Russell of Ohio State and Jahlil Okafor of Duke, who are both now double-digit scorers in the NBA.

But to play at Villanova, you have to play defense, and that's where Paschall has shown the most improvement.

"Eric is developing as a Villanova basketball player defensively in terms of executing far better than anyone knows," coach Jay Wright said. "We know. When he's in the game, we are executing at a high level. We're just starting to see what he can do offensively, but in our program, you've got to be able to (play defense) first and he's been doing that all year.

"(He's) getting better and better, and today you just saw a glimpse of what you'll probably see next year, but you've got to get the basics down first, which he's done an incredible job of this year. It's like I tell you with Dante (DiVincenzo), these guys play against him in practice, they're not surprised when they see him do that, but I know everybody else is because they don't get to see it all the time."

It's not easy to transfer into a new program and get used to new players, a new coach, a new system, a new philosophy.

"It was a process," Paschall said. "The biggest thing was getting used to what they wanted, and that's defense and rebounding. That took some getting used to, but once I understood what they were looking for from me and what they wanted me to do, that just made it easy.

"The guys welcomed me with open arms. It's a brotherhood here and we're all brothers and they made me feel like I was a part of it from Day 1. It can be hard sometimes as a transfer coming in, but they made it easy. It's just a matter of focusing on my job."

Overall, Paschall is averaging 7.1 points and 3.8 rebounds per game and shooting 50 percent from the field in an average of 21 minutes a night. But during these last five starts, he's 21 for 32 from the field (66 percent) and is averaging 9.8 points per game.

"Eric, he came in knowing what coach wanted, knowing what coach’s philosophy is and how coach wants things, and he's come and in done what's expected," Jalen Brunson said.

'He's done a great job for us and we're extremely confident in him. It's hard coming in front a different school, coming in and learning a new system, learning the philosophy, but he's done a good job."

Paschall can play the 2 through the 5, so he gives Wright a lot of versatility.

His 19 points Saturday were his most as a Wildcat and his most in any game since he scored 21 for Fordham vs. George Mason on Feb. 18, 2015.

When asked about his role, he just pointed at Hart and Kris Jenkins.

"Just listen to these guys, making sure I have my head clear every game," he said. "They do a great job of telling me what to do during the games and having my attitude right during the games so I can just go out there play hard, play together, play smart, and that’s what I'm trying to do."

As thin as Villanova is -- Wright has played just six guys in his regular rotation since Reynolds got hurt -- Paschall has been a life-saver.

It's hard not to imagine how talented Villanova will be next year with Spellman, Paschall, Mikal Bridges, Phil Booth, Brunson and DiVincenzo.

But first, there's a game Saturday against Georgetown, the Big East Tournament in New York and then the NCAA Tournament.

"We see him getting better every day with his decision making," Hart said of Paschall. "Last year he definitely kicked our butt a lot when he was on the scout team.

"One thing we always had a question about was how was he going to fit in with just playing hard the way we play defense, and he's doing the best job, and he keeps getting better, and seeing him develop and seeing him grow has been amazing. Looking forward to seeing what he's going to do in the future."