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Atlantic 10 season gets under way with 16 teams

With the final Atlantic 10 season for Temple and Charlotte overlapping with the first one for Butler and Virginia Commonwealth, 2012-13 is on track to be a unique season in what figures to be a very tough 16-team conference.

With A-10 play about to begin, I asked 16 media members who cover the conference to predict how the league race would finish. Here’s a look at the league based on those results.

1. Virginia Commonwealth (12-3)

Preseason Poll: Third

Notable results: VCU lost to Duke, Missouri and Wichita State, and beat Memphis.

Vs. UMass: Feb. 14, Richmond, Va.

Notes: The Rams are the top team among those also receiving votes in The AP Top 25. They lead the nation in steals per game at 13.47. They’re the A-10’s highest scoring team at 78.5 points per game and second in fewest points allowed at 59.3. Troy Daniels set an A-10 record Wednesday with 11 3-pointers against East Tennessee.

2. Butler (12-2)

Preseason Poll: Sixth

Notable results: The Bulldogs beat Marquette, North Carolina and Indiana, and lost to Xavier (in a nonleague game scheduled before Butler joined the A-10) and Illinois.

Vs. UMass: March 7, Mullins Center.

Notes: The fact that Butler, which is ranked No. 14 in the AP Poll, isn’t atop this list is surprising. The Bulldogs have won nine straight and boast as many notable wins as anyone outside of Duke. Arkansas transfer Rotnei Clarke has been as good as advertised with 16.3 points per game.

3. Temple (10-3)

Preseason Poll: Fourth

Notable results: The Owls are the only team to beat Syracuse. Their three losses came to Kansas, Duke and Canisius.

Vs. UMass: Feb. 16, Mullins Center.

Notes: The Owls, who have stood up well against one of the nation’s strongest nonconference schedules, will be battle-tested as they try to close their tenure in the A-10 with a title. Khalif Wyatt is among the conference leaders in scoring at 16.2 points per game, while Scootie Randall has come back from last year’s knee injury to average 12.5 points and 7.5 rebounds per game.

4. Saint Louis (11-3)

Preseason Poll: Second

Notable results: The Billikens beat Texas A&M and New Mexico, and lost to Santa Clara, Kansas and Washington.

Vs. UMass: Thursday, 9 p.m., Chaifetz Arena, St. Louis

Notes: The Billikens just got senior point guard Kwamain Mitchell back from a foot injury which should help fortify them for conference play. The Billikens have kept the hard-nosed defense of late coach Rick Majerus under Jim Crews and lead the A-10 with 55.0 points per game allowed.

5. Saint Joseph’s (8-4)

Preseason Poll: First

Notable results: Beat Notre Dame, but fell to Florida State, Creighton, Villanova and Fairfield.

Vs. UMass: Feb. 9, Mullins Center

Notes: The Hawks haven’t quite lived up to preseason expectations, but they still have the pieces to challenge in the Atlantic 10. Carl Jones (15.6 ppg) and Langston Galloway (15.0) are among the league’s top 10 scorers, while C.J. Aiken leads the A-10 with 3.1 blocked shots per game.

6. UMass (10-3)

Preseason Poll: Fifth

Notable results: UMass lacks a signature win and lost to N.C. State, Tennessee and Miami.

Notes: The Minutemen haven’t produced a defining result — either a signature win or a bad loss — yet. They’ll need to win some games against the league’s top teams to have a shot at making the NCAA tournament.

7. La Salle (10-3)

Preseason Poll: Seventh

Notable results: The Explorers lost to Central Connecticut, Miami and Bucknell, and beat Villanova in overtime.

Vs. UMass: Jan. 30, Tom Gola Arena, Philadelphia

Notes: With a talented and veteran roster, this was supposed to be the year La Salle took a big step toward the top. So far, the Explorers haven’t done enough to stand out. They’ll get plenty of chances in league action.

8. Dayton (10-4)

Preseason Poll: Eighth

Notable results: The Flyers beat struggling BCS conference teams Boston College and Auburn, as well as Alabama and Murray State. They fell to Colorado, Weber State, Illinois State and USC.

Vs. UMass: Feb. 23, Mullins Center

Notes: Like the Minutemen and Explorers, Dayton heads into conference play looking for a defining win. Senior point guard Kevin Dillard has been terrific averaging 15.0 points and 4.9 assists per game. Junior big man Devin Oliver leads the conference in rebounding at 8.6 per game.

9. Xavier (7-6)

Preseason Poll: Ninth

Notable results: Beat Butler, but lost to Pacific, Vanderbilt, Cincinnati, Wofford, Tennessee and Wake Forest.

Vs. UMass: March 2, Mullins Center

Notes: After starting the season 7-2, the Musketeers looked like they might outperform the expected rebuilding year, but they have lost four straight. Freshman Semaj Christon has been a bright spot with 13.4 points and 4.8 assists per game, while senior forward Travis Taylor is a candidate for the conference’s most improved player with 11.8 points and 7.4 rebounds per game.

10. Charlotte (12-2)

Preseason Poll: 12th

Notable results: The 49ers best win is over Davidson. They fell to Miami and Florida State.

Vs. UMass: Feb. 2, Charlotte, N.C.

Notes: It’s hard to tell if the 49ers’ record is the result of improvement or the 299th toughest schedule in the nation. Senior Chris Braswell remains one of the conference’s top big men at 12.5 points and 6.5 rebounds per game, while freshman Willie Clayton is already one for the league’s best rebounders at 7.3 per game.

11. Richmond (10-5)

Preseason Poll: 10th

Notable results: The Spiders beat struggling Wake Forest and lost to Minnesota, Kansas, George Mason, Davison and Ohio.

Vs. UMass: Jan. 27, Mullins Center

Notes: The Spiders are the league’s best 3-point shooting team at .399, but have struggled to rebound. They’d lost three straight before beating Air Force Wednesday and will have to raise their level of play to be successful in conference.

12. St. Bonaventure (7-6)

Preseason Poll: 11th

Notable results: The Bonnies fell to low-majors Canisius and Arkansas State and don’t have a noteworthy win.

Vs. UMass: Feb. 20, Reilly Center, St. Bonaventure, N.Y.

Notes: The league’s defending champs hit conference play on a three-game losing streak. They’re among the league’s worst in field goal percentage defense, allowing teams to shoot .441 from the field, including .380 from 3-point range.

13. Duquesne (7-7)

Preseason Poll: 16th

Notable results: The Dukes have four low-major losses — Albany, North Dakota State, Robert Morris and Louisiana-Lafayette — in addition to their win over West Virginia.

Vs. UMass: Jan. 17, Mullins Center

Notes: The Dukes’ high point was beating the Mountaineers on Dec. 11, but they have lost three of four since. Duquesne is back in familiar rebuilding mode after jettisoning successful coach Ron Everhart. Its 72.7 points per game allowed are second-worst in the league.

14. George Washington (6-7)

Preseason Poll: 13th in the preseason

Notable results: The Colonials fell to Youngstown, Mount St. Mary’s and Bradley, in addition to four BCS conference teams. They have no wins over teams with winning records.

Vs. UMass: Jan. 19, Mullins Center

Notes: The Colonials lost four games to BCS conference opponents and have struggled against any reasonably strong teams. They’ve been solid defensively allowing 61.2 points per game, but have struggled to score (64.5).

15. Rhode Island (5-8)

Preseason Poll: 16th

Notable results: Beat Auburn, Vermont, Georgia State, SMU and Brown, lost to four BCS conference school and perennial mid-major power St. Mary’s.

Vs. UMass: Feb. 6, Mullins Center; March 9 at Ryan Center, Kingston, R.I.

Notes: With a strong recruiting class on the way next year, coach Danny Hurley’s team is expected to get better soon. After playing a tough nonconference schedule, they could pull an upset or two this season if they can improve on their conference worst 60.8 points per game.

16. Fordham (4-11)

Preseason Poll: 14th

Notable results: The Rams beat Penn, Princeton, Siena and Monmouth, but have lost to programs at all levels.

Vs. UMass: Sunday, Rose Hill Gymnasium, Bronx, N.Y.

Notes: The return of senior Chris Gaston, who missed six games with a knee injury, has helped. The Rams have gone 3-3 over the last six games with the forward in the lineup. Being competitive in the conference seems like a long shot.

MY TOP 10 — 1. Duke, 2. Michigan, 3. Louisville, 4. Arizona, 5. Indiana, 6. Kansas, 7. Syracuse, 8. Minnesota, 9. Gonzaga, 10. Missouri.

For the rest of my Top 25 visit the College Hoop Week Guide on the UMass Sports Blog at GazetteNET.com.

GAME OF THE WEEK: No. 1 Duke at No. 20 N.C. State, Saturday, noon — The nation’s No. 1 team figures to have its hand full.

TOUGHEST WEEK: Minnesota — The Gophers are at No. 12 Illinois on Wednesday and at No. 5 Indiana on Saturday.

ATLANTIC 10 GAME OF THE WEEK: Saint Louis at Temple, Saturday, 6 p.m. — Two teams that figure to compete for the regular season title square off early.

NEW NICKNAME PLEASE: Clemson — In a league with quite a few unique nicknames (Terrapins, Demon Deacons, Tar Heels) Tigers is particularly forgettable. Nicknaming it the Refrigerators after alum William Perry seems unlikely.

The Clemson Rangers are one of the school’s most popular student organizations, which sets out to “challenge students physically and mentally, promote self-confidence, increase leadership capability, increase military knowledge, and promote overall professionalism and integrity” according to its website. While that’s generally the opposite of the basketball program’s approach to scheduling, Rangers makes a solid nickname that nobody in Division I is using.

ON THE ROAD TO — A team with at least four losses winning the Atlantic 10.

Matt Vautour can be reached at mvautour@gazettenet.com. Follow UMass coverage on Twitter at twitter.com/GazetteUMass. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage.

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