Crews admittedly uncertain about Billikens’ chances in A-10 play

Jim Crews' young Billikens squad is one of several Atlantic 10 teams full of unknowns this season.

Peter Aiken/Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

ST. LOUIS — Following his team’s 70-55 loss to Vanderbilt on New Year’s Eve, Saint Louis coach Jim Crews was asked about his expectations for the Atlantic 10 Conference.

The veteran coach leaned back, took a breath and admitted he has no idea what to look for this season in the conference, which tips off league play on Saturday.

"I’m just trying to figure out what our team is like," he said.

It’s easy to understand the coach’s uncertainty. The freshman-laden Billikens are so young that it’s far too early to tell if they will develop into the kind of group that brought the past two Atlantic 10 regular-season championships to Saint Louis. 

The Billikens aren’t the only unknowns in the A-10, either. Questions abound around the conference: Who has the best chance of knocking off VCU? Who will succeed SLU’s Jordair Jett as conference player of the year? Will the conference ever be renamed to accurately reflect its number of teams, which is up to 14 after the addition of Davidson?

We can’t answer those questions but we can offer five trends to watch this season in the Atlantic 10, based on nonconference play.

1. Don’t look for six A-10 teams to reach the NCAA Tournament this year. Unlike last season, when rarely a Top 25 was released without an A-10 team, no team from the league has been ranked that high since VCU early in the season. That said, five A-10 teams — VCU, Dayton, George Washington, Massachusetts and Rhode Island — are ranked top 60 in the latest RPI ratings, and Davidson is listed at 69th. 

2. VCU, the unanimous preseason pick to win the league, still looks like the team to beat. The havoc-wreaking Rams (10-3), as usual, rank among the nation’s leaders in steals and — somehow — are fourth in the latest RPI ratings. VCU beat then-No. 23 Northern Iowa in double overtime and opened the season with a victory against Tennessee, but it also has lost to Old Dominion and by double digits to two other ranked teams it played.

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3. The schedule-makers were not kind to SLU. The young Billikens open conference play against three of the league’s tougher teams, playing host to Rhode Island in Saturday’s 2 p.m. opener before traveling to George Washington and Davidson next week. 

Rhode Island, a team on the rise under third-year coach Dan Hurley, owns a win over then-No. 21 Nebraska and will bring a three-game winning streak into Chaifetz Arena. George Washington scored the A-10’s most impressive nonconference victory when it beat then-No. 11 Wichita State in the championship of the Diamond Head Classic at Honolulu. 

League newcomer Davidson, coached for the 26th season by Bob McKillop, appears to have been underestimated when it was picked to finish 12th in the preseason poll. The Wildcats’ only two losses have come against Top 10 teams, including an 83-72 defeat at No. 3 Virginia earlier this week in which Davidson led by 12 in the first half. Davidson, which lost at Missouri in last year’s NIT, is averaging 86.3 points a game, second in the nation.

4. The Dayton Flyers, one of the five teams SLU will play twice, will be at a size disadvantage the rest of the season after coach Archie Miller booted 6-9 juniors Devon Scott and Jalen Robinson off the team last week. The two allegedly were involved in an incident during which they stole money out of a campus dorm. Without them, the Flyers list no one taller than 6-6 on their roster. Dayton (10-2), which began 2015 ranked 16th in the RPI, will host SLU on Jan. 17. 

5. The Richmond Spiders (7-6) have been the hard-luck team in the conference so far. Only one of its losses has been by as many as 12 points and it has lost its past two games at home in crushing fashion. In the past week, the Spiders fell 65-63 to Wake Forest on a last-second tip-in and gave up 11 unanswered points in the closing minutes to lose 59-58 to Northeastern. 

So, what can be expected from SLU? 

A winning record in conference play looks like a long shot, but after going 8-5 in nonconference, an overall winning record for the season is a reasonable goal. Considerable and consistent improvement will be needed, though.

Defense has been regarded as the Billikens’ strength, but they have allowed opponents to shoot 45.0 percent, which puts them last in the Atlantic 10. Offensively, the Billikens aren’t much better. Their averages of 61.2 points and 41.1 percent shooting rank 13th in the conference, ahead of only Saint Joseph’s. Individually, no Billikens player ranks top 25 in the A-10 in scoring average, rebounds or assists.

You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @StanMcNeal or email him at stanmcneal@gmail.com.