The Other 26: The New A-10 Asserts ItselfPosted by IRenko on December 21st, 2012
I. Renko is an RTC columnist. He will kick off each weekend during the season with his analysis of the 26 other non-power conferences. Follow him on Twitter @IRenkoHoops.
When the A-10 added Butler and VCU to its ranks this past offseason, we knew that the two teams would strengthen the now 16-team conference. The two schools, each of which has had recent improbable Final Four runs, were expected to join the ranks of Xavier, Temple, St. Louis, and Dayton, and, along with a resurgent St. Joseph’s, UMass, and LaSalle, make the A-10 the deepest and, arguably, most exciting non-BCS conference in the country. But after the past week, it’s become clear that not only are these two programs going to add depth to the A-10, they may very well conquer it in their first year.
By now you know that Butler took down top-ranked Indiana 88-86 in a thrilling overtime win last Saturday. What was most surprising about the win, though, was how Butler did it. It wasn’t their vaunted defense, which gave up 1.13 points per possession to Indiana’s full-throttled attack — the second most this year for the Bulldogs and well above their averages during the Brad Stevens era. Rather, it was Butler’s efficient offense, which registered 1.16 points per possession. Part of that was their three-point shooting (11-24, 48.1%) with Rotnei Clarke leading the way (5-11). We have come to expect that from Butler, which often relies on the three-point shot as a great equalizer. But the more surprising, and perhaps more significant, elements of Butler’s offense were its willingness to attack the basket and its prodigious output on the offensive glass. Sophomore wing Roosevelt Jones led the attack, often exploiting a favorable matchup against Jordan Hulls, en route to 16 points on 6-10 shooting (no threes). And the Bulldogs rebounded nearly half of their own misses — 48.7%. To some extent, the Bulldogs took advantage of sloppy block-outs by Indiana, but this reflects a season-long strength and a marked shift from the early years of Brad Stevens’ tenure. In Stevens’ first four seasons, Butler never averaged an offensive rebounding percentage of more than 32.8 percent. But last year, the Bulldogs hauled in 35 percent of their misses, and this year, it’s up to 39.4 percent.
As impressive as Butler’s win was, VCU quietly made waves of its own this past week as they pummeled Alabama and Western Kentucky by a combined 51 points. In both games, VCU went for the kill early, jumping out to big leads on the strength of their Havoc defense. The Rams did not allow Alabama to score a field goal until 10:44 had elapsed, en route to a 33-18 halftime lead that they would convert into a 73-54 final score. Alabama finished the game with 18 turnovers — a season high, as it often is for teams facing VCU’s defensive pressure. Four days later, VCU suffered no letdown from its BCS beatdown, whipping on Western Kentucky, one of the Sun Belt’s top teams and last year’s Tournament participant. After jumping out to 15-3 lead, the Rams would head into halftime up 42-16, cruising the rest of the way to a 76-44 win. VCU forced a whopping 32 turnovers, including one on each of Western Kentucky’s first three possessions.
The old Bulldogs may be learning new tricks while the Rams thrive on the tried-and-true, but regardless of how they’re doing it, both teams have vaulted themselves to the top of A-10 heap. Don’t take my word for it, ask the computers. Any of them — Butler and VCU are the A-10’s two highest ranking teams in the RPI, Sagarin ratings, and Pomeroy ratings. The A-10’s mainstays have not distinguished themselves. Temple was routed badly by Duke in its first real competitive game of the year and just lost to Canisius at home by 10 points; Xavier is trying to replace five starters; St. Louis is trying to get their feet under them after losing their coach and then their star point guard to injury; and St. Joe’s, UMass, and Dayton have struggled to find consistency. As a result, there is a good chance that the A-10 will crown a champion it has never crowned before.
On to this week’s Top 10 and more …
Top Ten Rankings
Looking Back: Five Notable Results From The Week That Was
Several teams that are knocking on the door of our Top 10 rankings posted strong results this past week:
- Bucknell 74, LaSalle 66 — Bucknell continued to impress, knocking off LaSalle at home, a third quality win to add to their victories over George Mason and Purdue to start the year. While Mike Muscala has done most of the damage for the Bison, it was 6″7″ forward Joe Willman who was the most productive against LaSalle, as he notched 18 points on 9-13 shooting and added 8 rebounds. Bucknell went on to add wins over Saint Francis (NY) and Marist and now stands at 11-1. They’ll have a chance to continue to prove themselves, as they take on quality mid-majors Princeton and Loyola (MD) before a trip to Missouri on January 5.
- Wyoming 71, Denver 61 — Wyoming’s undefeated season lives on after a 10-point win over visiting Denver on Tuesday. Last year, the Cowboys were always a tough game because of their stingy defense. But this year, they’ve surprised everyone on the offensive end of the court. It was the same story against Denver, as Wyoming managed 1.29 points per possession, spurred on by 25 points from Luke Martinez (who hit 5-6 from three-point range) and 21 points from Larry Nance Jr. (who was a perfect 11-11 from the FT line). With two more winnable non-conference games left (against UCSB and SMU), the Cowboys could enter MWC play without a blemish on their record.
- Belmont 76, South Dakota State 49 — We expected South Dakota State to be strong this year, as they returned star point guard Nate Wolters and three other starters from last year’s NCAA team. But they’ve struggled, worst of all offensively, where they’ve gone from being one of the most efficient teams in the country to struggling to get the ball in the basket. That point was underscored in their bruising 27 point loss at Belmont, where the Jackrabbits managed just 0.74 points per possession on 27 percent FG shooting (including 14.3 percent from three-point range). And they don’t have much time left to figure things out. They have a tough road game at New Mexico’s Pit on Thursday before starting the Summit League season at North Dakota State, one of their top two rivals for the conference crown.
- UMass 85, Ohio 76 — UMass came into the season with high hopes after reaching the NIT semifinals last year and returning all of their key players this year. hey opened with decent wins over Harvard and Providence, but double-digit losses to NC State, Tennessee, and Miami left us wondering whether they had what it takes to secure a Tournament bid. On Wednesday, they got their at-large resume back on track with an 85-76 win over Ohio. In a game between two teams that love to get up and down the floor, the Minutemen erased a 12-point first-half deficit mostly behind a monster game by Jesse Morgan. The 6-5 junior wing scored 35 points on 12-18 shooting including 7-10 from three-point range.
- Illinois State 74, Dayton 73 — A stretch of three losses to Northwestern, Louisville, and Wyoming knocked Illinois State off our radar a bit, but a big win at Dayton on Wednesday has us paying close attention again. Jackie Carmichael, the Redbirds’ star 6-9 big man, scored 25 points and pulled down 12 rebounds to lead them to victory. Carmichael is the primary reasont hat the Redbirds are the nation’s top 2-point FG shooting team. He shoots 60.2 percent from inside the arc and averages 18.3 points per game. It will be fun to watch him match up against Carl Hall and Greg Echenique as Illinois State makes a run for a conference title.
Looking Ahead: Three Key Games to Watch This Week
Christmas Week is a slow one for college hoops, but here are five games that should whet your holiday appetite:
- Murray State at Dayton (12/22) — Over the next two weeks, we may finally get some insight into how good (or not) this year’s Murray State team is. They travel to Dayton on Saturday (and host Valparaiso a week later). The Flyers are coming off a narrow loss to Illinois State at home and will not take kindly to the idea of dropping two home games in a row. Isaiah Canaan versus Kevin Dillard will be a fun matchup to watch.
- Davidson at Drexel (12/22) — Drexel has just two more chances to get their season back on track before CAA conference play begins. The first is against Davidson at home on Saturday, and the second is a Big 5 home tilt against St. Joe’s on New Year’s Eve. The Dragons’ defense has been shockingly poor all season. It will get a stern test against Davidson this weekend. The Wildcats are top 25 in the country in offensive efficiency, and they are especially lethal from behind the arc, where they shoot 39.6 percent. Bob McKillop’s team will be looking for a strong start to a stretch of three competitive games to close out the non-conference season, as they travel to Richmond and play Duke next week.
- Saint Mary’s v. Northern Iowa (12/22) — Both are strong mid-major teams, but both have struggled to secure quality wins. In the Gaels’ case, that’s because of a fairly weak schedule, while in the Panthers’ case, they’ve had their chances but they haven’t converted, losing to Louisville, Stanford, Memphis, Iowa, and UNLV. Neither team So both teams head into Saturday’s matchup with something to prove. Both teams are heavily reliant on the three-point shot, though the Gaels have been much more efficient with it, knocking down over 40 percent of their attempts.
- Southern Mississippi at Wichita State (12/22) — Despite losing their coach and several key players from last year, Southern Miss got off to a hot 6-0 start, helped by the play of several JuCo transfers (Michael Craig, Dwayne Davis, Jerald Brooks). But then they dropped three straight to New Mexico State, Arizona, and Louisiana Tech. They’ll be the underdog in Saturday’s game at Wichita State, but if they can pull of the victory, they’ll have to feel good about the their overall non-conference performance heading into C-USA play.
- New Mexico at Cincinnati (12/27) — The Lobos will put their undefeated mark on the line in their toughest game to date, a road trip to Cincinnati. The key to victory may be getting to the line against Cincy, which features one of the nation’s top defenses. Defensively, the Lobos will have their hands full keeping the Bearcats off the glass, but they’re a strong rebounding team that may be up to the task. This game could tell us a lot about just how good New Mexico is.