HILADELPHIA — In the eyes of Atlantic 10 Conference men's basketball coaches and media, there's virtually no question as to who should finish No. 1.
But after that, it's anyone's guess. The University of Massachusetts was picked to finish second in the East Division, but yesterday at First Union Spectrum, coaches agreed that only Temple seems to tower atop an otherwise tightly bunched pack.
"There doesn't seem to be much question of who should be first," St. Joseph's coach Phil Martelli said with a tip of the cap to Temple, which returns nearly everyone from the team that reached last season's NCAA East Regional final. "But somebody's got to finish second, too."
In the East, coaches and participating media predicted it would be UMass, which is trying to put last year's 14-16 season (9-7 in the A-10) behind it. UMass coach Bruiser Flint, encouraged by the spirit his team showed in Wednesday's 103-97 preseason victory over the California All-Stars, accepted the vote but knows his team will have to prove it on the court.
"Must have been our fast-break game," he quipped when asked about the No. 2 East ranking. "Our up-tempo style."
Using that style, UMass hopes to stay ahead of St. Bonaventure (which received the only one of 42 first-place votes not given to Temple) and St. Joseph's. St. Joe's returns nearly everyone from last year's 12-18 team, while adding highly regarded transfers Marvin O'Connor (Villanova) and Bill Phillips (William & Mary).
Rhode Island and Fordham, each in transition with new coaches, rounded out the East vote in the fifth and sixth spots.
St. Bonaventure features shot-blocking wizard Caswell Cyrus and point guard Tim Winn, and has added former UMass star Tyrone Weeks to its coaching staff.
"A big part of coaching is building relationships with the players, and Ty is doing a good job with that," Bonnies' coach Jim Baron said. "He's been there himself. He can share their sentiments."
Springfield fans will get an early look at Temple Nov. 26, when the Owls — a legitimate Final Four contender in most national polls — meet Indiana in the Hall of Fame Tip-Off Classic at the Civic Center.
"It will be my first time at the Hall of Fame," said Temple coach John Chaney, whose 605 wins in 27 years (including 380 in 17 seasons at Temple) have aroused talk that he someday be enshrined. "I'll feel special about being there, and we plan to go up to have the time to do the pregame stuff, like visiting the hospitals and so forth."
The West Division favorite is Xavier, which lost several star players but returns forward Darnell Williams, who is healthy again after missing last year with knee surgery. La Salle was second, its highest preseason ranking since joining the league in 1995.
George Washington, which must replace departed A-10 Player of the Year Shawnta Rogers, was voted third, picking up eight first-place votes in the process. Dayton, Virginia Tech and Duquesne followed.
There are three new coaches in the league: Jerry DeGregorio, who faces a rebuilding job at Rhode Island; former NBA coach Bob Hill at Fordham; and Ricky Stokes at Virginia Tech, which will leave the conference after this season and join the Big East.
UMass guard Monty Mack, currently sidelined by a stress fracture in his left foot, was named to the preseason All-Atlantic 10 first team. He joined fellow first-team members Donnie Carr (La Salle), Juan "Pepe" Sanchez (Temple), and Bevon Robin (Fordham), all guards, and Temple forward Lamont Barnes.
No other UMass players were named to any of the first three teams, but Mike Babul was a preseason selection for the all-defensive team. The senior forward is currently day-to-day with a back problem, and missed Wednesday's preseason opener.
"I hurt it last Thursday, took three days off and tried to practice Monday," Babul said. "It felt pretty good at first, but then I did something to it again. I just don't want to come back too early and injure it again — I want to be 100 percent for the season."
HILADELPHIA - Keep the preseason college basketball publications away from Temple coach John Chaney - and keep them far away from his players.
He doesn't like reading that other point guards are better than Owl floor general Pepe Sanchez, and he certainly doesn't like hearing about the high expectations surrounding his team.
"If the players don't listen to you guys," Chaney said to a crowd of media members surrounding him at Thursday's Atlantic 10 media day, "they could be a pretty good team. If I could just put muffles over their ears and stop them from listening to that dumb radio (expletive), they'd be fine.
"But you can't do that. I'd like to. I'd like to lock 'em up and put a monitor on them. What do they do with jailbirds?" he asked nobody in particular, continuing one of his characteristic rants. "They put them things on them to keep track of what they're doing every minute of the day. That's what I'd like to do. But you can't do that, you can only hope they're buying what you're selling. I hope that's what they're doing and not listening to other people."
But like it or not, there is plenty of hype around the Owls, and the Atlantic 10 piled on some more Thursday. Temple received 41 of a possible 42 first-place votes in the A-10 East in the preseason poll released Thursday at the Spectrum.
"My job is to make sure my kids know my goal is to make it to the NCAAs," Chaney said. "All of those other people are saying we're in the Final Four or the Final Eight. I want to get into the NCAA first."
The University of Massachusetts was picked second in the East, followed by St. Bonaventure, which had the other first-place vote. Rhode Island and Fordham rounded out that half of the conference.
UMass coach Bruiser Flint didn't put too much stock in his team's predicted position.
"You know me. I like to be finished last," Flint said. "A lot of it is reputation. The only team you can really pick a place for is Temple. They're just going to be better than everybody else."
Xavier grabbed 30 first-place votes to finish first in the A-10 West, followed by La Salle, George Washington (eight first-place votes), Dayton (two), Virginia Tech (two) and Duquesne.
The top-ranked Owls were well represented on the preseason all-conference teams as well. Seniors Sanchez, who led the league in assists and steals, and power forward Lamont Barnes were on both the first team and the all-defensive team. Junior Mark Karcher was on the second team, while rookie forward Alex Wesby made the rookie team.
Minuteman Monty Mack, La Salle's Donnie Carr and Fordham's Bevon Robin, who all averaged more than 17 points per game last season, joined the Owls on the first team.
UMass forward Mike Babul was on the all-defensive team.
Opposing coaches were singing the Owls' praises.
"Temple is clearly the best team in the league," said first-year Rhode Island coach Jerry DeGregorio. "Their backcourt is experienced. I don't care how much pressure you put on Pepe Sanchez, he will not turn the ball over. You're not going to shake that kid."
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Many preseason magazines are tabbing Michigan State All-American Mateen Cleaves as the nation's best point guard, but Chaney isn't having it.
"Pepe is the best point guard in this country," Chaney said. "Somebody somewhere put a magazine in my face with this guy from Michigan State, Mateen (Cleaves), who averaged about eight or nine turnovers last year and they got him down as the No. 1 (point guard). He only goes to his right. I don't mean to down the kid, but I don't give a damn, I just think Pepe is the best in the country, bar none. I sure expect him to make it to the next level. Print that."
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Three coaches will make their A-10 debuts this season. Former San Antonio Spurs coach Bob Hill took over at Fordham, while Jerry DeGregorio (Rhode Island) and Rickey Stokes (Virginia Tech) will begin new eras at their respective schools.
The two Rams teams (URI and Fordham) appear to be going in different directions.
Defending champion Rhode Island lost three-fifths of its starting five, including NBA lottery pick Lamar Odom. Add that sixth-man Ed Brown is ineligible and has left school and, well, welcome to the head coaching ranks.
"The road has been a little bumpier than I thought, but 90 percent of what's happened, I've expected," said DeGregorio, who has remained positive. "Our motivating factor is to defend our A-10 Championship. The expectations may be low in the preseason publications, but to our staff and our players, that is still our goal."
Fordham, on the other hand, appears ready to end its lease on the conference's cellar. Hill's background gives the program instant credibility. The return of Robin and last year's Most Improved Player Alejandro Olivares give the Rams a solid nucleus.
Since he was hired in July, Hill has been on the recruiting trail and still is learning about the Atlantic 10.
"In the last 15 years in the NBA, I haven't followed any college basketball that closely," Hill said. "I've spent a lot more time worrying about our recruiting than the rest of the league. I know the league is very solid, but to be honest I haven't studied it as much as I need to and will be doing."