(in predicted order of finish)
1. Xavier - The Musketeers were a dark horse to make a deep NCAA Tournament run last season before losing in the second round to Marquette, but they return perhaps the best backcourt in the country in Tu Holloway (19.7 points per game last season) and Mark Lyons (13.6), while center Kenny Frease has turned into a reliable big man after getting into better shape. As usual, Xavier will win games with defensive intensity and depth.
2. Temple - The Owls are once again picked to finish behind Xavier, but they will also be expected to reach the NCAA Tournament and perhaps are ready for an extended stay there. Lavoy Allen is the lone starter gone, meaning Temple is loaded with experience, led by senior guards Ramone Moore and Juan Fernandez, who combined for nearly 27 points last season. The Owls will be primarily a four-guard offense but big man Micheal Eric, who missed the final two months with a fractured patella, will stabilize the middle.
3. St. Bonaventure - The transition to respectability from those scandal-ridden days a decade ago is almost complete and BC alum Mark Schmidt is ready to take the Bonnies into the conference’s first division. Andrew Nicholson, a smooth-shooting 6-foot-9-inch forward, led the league in scoring last season (20.8). The question will be at point guard, but transfer Eric Mosley should help.
4. St. Louis - The time is now for the Billikens. Rick Majerus was supposed to resurrect this program, but has yet to reach the NCAA Tournament in his four seasons. The Billikens should be a factor in the conference, returning high-scoring guard Kwamain Mitchell from suspension and rebounder Dwayne Evans. Majerus is expecting something big from junior forward Cody Ellis, who has shown flashes of being a dependable starter.
5. UMass - Derek Kellogg is entering his fourth year and has just begun to shape the roster to his style. The Minutemen are deep, versatile, and athletic. The question is whether Hofstra transfer Chaz Williams can handle the role as floor general. What UMass lacks is real size, so Kellogg’s club will play pressure defense and push the ball on offense. While this team may not be reminiscent of the glory days of the mid-1990s, the Minutemen have enough depth to win their share of games.
6. Charlotte - Alan Major’s first season as coach featured injuries, suspensions, and academic ineligibility, but that adversity allowed the 49ers to gain experience. With some impressive newcomers and a veteran backcourt, Charlotte should improve on its 2-14 conference season. Guards Derrio Green and Jamar Briscoe can score, while two 6-10 big men - Mike Thorne and Ilija Ivankovic - will support a solid frontcourt.
7. St. Joseph’s - The Hawks were aided by a surprising run in the Atlantic 10 tournament last season, and coach Phil Martelli will reap the benefits of playing five freshmen in his rotation. Sophomore Langston Galloway flourished as the season progressed, while junior Carl Jones is the leading returning scorer and the unquestioned leader. St. Joe’s will be hard-pressed to compete with Xavier and Temple, but it should be a dangerous team come March.
8. Richmond - After losing four seniors to graduation, the Spiders are unlikely to repeat their Sweet 16 appearance from last season. While Chris Mooney has a lot of contributors returning, the lone starter coming back- guard Darien Brothers - averaged just 7.5 points last season. Richmond will have to rely on bench players to emerge, including underachieving forward Francis-Cedric Martel, who started half of Richmond’s games last season.
9. George Washington - The Colonials welcome coach Mike Lonergan after six seasons at Vermont, replacing Karl Hobbs, who was removed after 10 mostly successful seasons. Senior guard Tony Taylor is the GW leader and will be helped by Lasan Kromah, who missed last season with a foot injury. The Colonials aren’t big, but 6-6 forward Dwayne Smith is the workhorse in the paint.
10. Dayton - The Flyers are usually mentioned with Xavier and Temple as favorites to win the conference, but not this time. First-year coach Archie Miller has a rebuilding project on his hands with the departures of Chris Wright (graduation) and Juwan Staten (transfer), leaving Chris Johnson (11.9 ppg) as the lone major contributor. Miller will rely on Southern Illinois transfer Kevin Dillard to come in and excel immediately.
11. Duquesne - The Dukes have enjoyed moderate success the past few years, reaching a postseason tournament three straight seasons, but Ron Everhart will have an inexperienced roster led by sophomores T.J. McConnell and Mike Talley. There is hope that redshirt freshman Derrick Martin can make an immediate impact. If not, Duquesne will sink to the bottom of the conference.
12. Rhode Island - It’s going to take a while for the Rams to come together as coach Jim Baron is revamping the roster and going with six freshmen and two transfers in his rotation. Nikola Malesevic returns along with guard Jamal Wilson, but most of the hype is on freshman Jonathan Holton, who was a prep standout in Miami. Until those newcomers mature, it could be a long season in Kingston.
13. La Salle - The Explorers will have depth problems and coach John Giannini will rely on junior guard Ramon Galloway, a transfer from South Carolina. Tyreek Duren is the returning player with the most upside but he’s only a sophomore. Senior forward Devon White could be primed for a breakout year, but it still won’t be enough to push La Salle into the first division.
14. Fordham - At this point, the Rams are just trying to reach respectability after winning 12 games over the past three seasons. Fordham snapped a 41-game conference losing streak with a win over UMass in March, and that could provide momentum heading into this season. Chris Gaston is one of the best rebounders you’ve never heard of (11.3 per game, tops in the conference and fourth nationally), but he also led the Rams in scoring (15.9 points per game) as a sophomore. Branden Frazier was one of the A-10’s top freshman last season.