PITTSBURGH — In the preseason Atlantic 10 basketball poll released Wednesday, Duquesne was picked 13th. There are now 14 teams in the A-10, but being picked 13th in a league with 10 in the name is never a good look.
The Dukes are coming off a 17-17 season, but lost a couple of four-year starters in the backcourt in Derrick Colter and Micah Mason. That’s probably why the conference’s prognosticators are down on the Dukes.
Head coach Jim Ferry has some younger players that he thinks are the real deal, though, and transfer Tarin Smith and freshmen Mike Lewis and Isiaha Mike will get chances to spark the Duquesne offense.
But in this year’s A-10, the seniors are the story. The conference is in something of a Goldilocks spot when it comes to keeping players around.
The higher-profile leagues have to deal with one-and-done departrures and other players leaving early for the NBA. The smaller schools are losing graduate transfers by the bucketload to bigger schools.
The A-10 is finding ways to keep kids around, though, and it’s going to make for a deep pool of talent in the league in 2016-17. Of the preseason all-conference teams released Tuesday, there are no Dukes — and just one sophomore — again showing the value of upperclassmen.
“I think you’re going to see a great year for the conference. You might see a better year this year than you’ve seen the last two,” Rhode Island coach Dan Hurley said. “Any time this league is older, obviously, it bodes well. It’s not a one-and-done league or a two-and-enter early. … Whenever the league is old like this, it bodes for a really, really tough conference schedule and then, I think, a lot of postseason teams — NCAA and NIT.”
Virginia Commonwealth head coach Will Wade has a unique perspective. He first came to the A-10 as an assistant with VCU when the Rams joined the league in 2012. He then spent two years as a head coach with Chattanooga in the Southern Conference.
Wade’s Rams went 14-4 and lost in the conference finals to St. Joseph’s a year ago. It was an eye-opening season for Wade from a competitive balance standpoint.
“It’s a tough league, and especially a year like this when everyone has veteran guys, it’s going to be a slugfest a lot of nights,” Wade said, and he doesn’t think it’s happened by accident, either. “I think more schools are investing a lot more in men’s basketball to try and get good. I think the road games are a lot tougher than they were maybe when I was here before. … I think more fanbases care now. Not saying they didn’t care before, I just think it’s elevated a little bit more. I think that makes it tough.”
That progress isn’t just about competing with one another inside the conference, either. It’s been a part of a top-down directive from commissioner Bernadette McGlade. McGlade is entering her eighth season at the helm of the A-10 and the commitment to improving the landscape of the conference has her calling card.
“When I first took this job in 2008, the Atlantic 10 had plenty of room to grow at that point and never really had a strategic plan and a vision that was committed to writing. That was one of the first charges I had,” McGlade said. “We use that strategic plan. That’s when we made decisions to move [the conference tournament into pro arenas], make the commitment to scheduling guidelines for men’s basketball, make a commitment for the way that we [travel] for our student-athletes.”
That first five-year plan has expired and McGlade and the conference’s athletic directors are working on another one, this time with a focus on facilities improvements and other ways to move the A-10 toward the top of national relevance.
“[It] outlines some expectations for competitive operating standards,” she said. “We expect our institutions to uphold the responsibilities of what it takes to be a nationally ranked conference.”
So while the Dukes are projected to take a step back as far as conference ranking, it’s germane to note that the progress being made around them has been significant. That will make Ferry’s rebuilding job this year more difficult, but the payoff in the long run could be greater, as the A-10 continues to raise its national profile.