Atlantic 10 preseason prediction: Why Dayton will win it all again

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Anthony Grant interview (Nov. 5, 2020)

Everyone slept on the Dayton Flyers last season — myself included. I picked them to finish second behind Virginia Commonwealth in the Atlantic 10 Conference. In the A-10 preseason poll, voters predicted Dayton would finish third behind VCU and Davidson.

Plenty of people thought the Flyers would be good. Few thought they would be great. No one figured they would be historically great, that they would win 29 games and finish 18-0 in the conference.

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Consider this a makeup call of sorts: I’m picking Dayton to win the A-10 regular-season championship in 2021. Most will pick Richmond or Saint Louis. I expect Dayton will be picked third in the preseason poll, which will be released Tuesday.

This will be the first preseason poll released before the schedule unless that comes out at the same time. More than three quarters of Division I teams, including Dayton, haven’t released a non-conference schedule two weeks before the season begins because of the uncertainties created by coronavirus pandemic.

In 25 seasons in the A-10, Dayton has finished better than its preseason position in the poll 12 times. It has finished worse 10 times. Three times, including the first two seasons it won the regular-season championship in 2016 and 2017, it finished right where voters expected it to finish.

The last two seasons, the A-10 preseason favorite has finished tied for sixth (Saint Louis in 2019) and tied for eighth (VCU in 2020). That shows you how difficult it can be to predict the race, and it’s a tough call this year, too. Dayton isn’t an obvious favorite because it has so many question marks in the front court. It is a team that could win it all, however, because it has a key ingredient in any team’s success: an experienced backcourt.

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The last two times I picked Dayton to win the conference in 2016 and 2017, it was an easy choice. I’ve covered the team for eight seasons now, and I make this pick knowing I’ll get called a homer, but I’ve been called worse. Also I didn’t put Dayton in my preseason Associated Press top-25 poll — I have a vote for the first time — so fans can love me and hate me at the same time. That’s all a sports writer can ask.

Anyway here’s my complete A-10 prediction and a short breakdown of each team with last year’s records in parentheses:

1. Dayton (29-2, 18-0): Senior guard Jalen Crutcher and redshirt senior guards Ibi Watson and Rodney Chatman all ranked among the top-20 3-point shooters by percentage in the A-10 last season. They’ll need to score even more this season because Dayton lost its leading scorer Obi Toppin to the NBA Draft and saw two other starters, Ryan Mikesell and Trey Landers, graduate.

Much of Dayton’s success will depend on redshirt senior center Jordy Tshimanga avoiding foul trouble and staying on the floor, redshirt junior forward Chase Johnson staying healthy and redshirt freshmen Zimi Nwokeji and Moulaye Sissoko having a significant impact.

2. Richmond (24-7, 14-4): I expect the Spiders to be better than Dayton when the season begins Nov. 25. That’s why I put them in my AP preseason poll. I think Dayton will need time to improve — especially inside the paint, where Nwokeji and Sissoko will be making their college debuts — but that its improvement will lead it to the A-10 regular-season title.

Richmond returns three players who ranked in the top 20 in the league in scoring: guard Blake Francis (17.7 points per game); forward Grant Golden (13.4); and Jacob Gilyard (12.7). If not for the season-ending ACL injury suffered by graduate student guard Nick Sherod (12.7) in October, I would have picked Richmond to finish first.

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3. Saint Louis (23-8, 12-6): The Billikens return all five starters, including three all-conference players: senior guard Jordan Goodwin (15.5); senior guard/forward Javonte Perkins (15.3); and senior forward Hasahn French (12.4).

4. Duquesne (21-9, 11-7): The Dukes have compiled their best-two year stretch in the A-10, winning 21 conference games the last two seasons. They have improved their A-10 record every season under coach Keith Dambrot after finishing last with a 3-15 mark in Jim Ferry’s final season. They return their top four scorers, including senior forward Marcus Weathers (14.3).

5. Davidson (16-14, 10-8): Senior guard Kellan Grady (17.2) is one of five players from the six-man all-conference first team returning this season. Toppin is the only player from that group the A-10 lost. Davidson also returns two other double-figure scorers: senior guard Carter Collins (10.0) and junior forward Luka Brajkovic (10.3).

6. St. Bonaventure (19-12, 11-7): The Bonnies named guards Kyle Lofton, Jaren Holmes and Jalen Adaway and forward Osun Osunniyi, all juniors, captains last week. Lofton (14.1) led the Bonnies in scoring last season, and they were in position to secure a top-finish finish for the third straight season until they lost four of their last six games.

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7. Massachusetts (14-17, 8-10): Sophomore forward Tre Mitchell, the A-10 Newcomer of the Year last season with 17.7 points per game, provides hope UMass can end a five-year streak of losing seasons in the A-10.

8. Rhode Island (21-9, 13-5): The Rams return one of the leading A-10 player of the candidates — senior guard Fatts Russell (18.8) — but lost two of their top-four scorers to graduation and saw three other players who would have been key returners transfer, including Jacob Toppin, the younger brother of the former Dayton star. He’s now at Kentucky.

9. VCU (18-13, 8-10): The preseason favorite last year at this time, VCU lost seven of its last eight games and finished under .500 in A-10 play for the first time in its eight seasons in the league. Sophomore guard Nah’Shon Hyland (9.0) is the only returning starter. Senior forward Marcos Santos-Silva (12.8) was the highest-profile player to transfer out of the A-10, choosing to play his final season at Texas Tech.

10. George Mason (17-15, 5-13): George Mason and Fordham were the only teams to win A-10 tournament games in March. They did that in the opening round on March 11. The tournament was cancelled the next day. The Patriots were 11-2 in non-conference play last season but never won more than one game in a row in A-10 play. Their top returner is senior forward A.J. Wilson (12.2), the third George Mason player in the last four years to win the league’s most improved player award.

11: Saint Joseph’s (6-26, 2-13): The Hawks posted their worst A-10 record last season under first-year coach Billy Lange despite having the league’s top scorer, guard Ryan Daly (20.6). He’s the team’s top returner as a senior in 2020-21.

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12. La Salle (15-15, 6-12): The Explorers improved by five victories overall in coach Ashley Howard’s second season but won two fewer games in the A-10. They return their leading scorer, senior guard David Beatty (10.7).

13. George Washington (12-20, 6-12): The Colonials won three more games in coach Jamion Christian’s first season than they did in the final season of Maurice Joseph’s three-year tenure. Their top returner is senior guard Maceo Jack (11.7).

14. Fordham (9-22, 2-16): Fordham won eight A-10 games in 2016 and has seen its win total decline the last four seasons.

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