CIO… the Atlantic 10 ConferencePosted by Brian Goodman on February 28th, 2013
(ed. note – this week’s column does not factor in Wednesday night’s action, which saw Saint Louis beat Saint Joseph’s, Richmond defeat George Washington and Dayton top Charlotte.)
- Saint Louis Breaks Out – The Billikens evicted Butler and Virginia Commonwealth and decisively took sole possession of the conference penthouse last week. On Tuesday Saint Louis hosted Virginia Commonwealth, the team that paced the conference from virtually the opening week and ranked #24 by the AP the previous Monday. The Bills pummeled the Rams by 14, 76-62, handing coach Shaka Smart’s squad the worst defeat of their season. With barely 48 hours to celebrate, the Billikens packed their bags and traveled to Hinkle Fieldhouse to play #15 ranked Butler on Friday night. Saint Louis held on to defeat the Bulldogs by 4, 65-61, and hand Butler only their second defeat at home this season. At 10-2, SLU sits atop the conference with a half-game lead (one fewer loss) over second place Virginia Commonwealth.
- Conference Difference Margins, Week 8 – The difference margin continues to divide the conference roughly in half; nine teams have positive margins, seven teams have negative margins. The paradox is that the Atlantic 10, much like many conferences in parity, the number of teams with a 0.500 record or better numbers 11 (or 69% of the conference membership). For a power conference this parity (if the top of the conference was strong enough) could, in effect, “pull” a middling team or two into the NCAA tournament. Is the A-10 strength of schedule enough to yield a fifth or sixth bid?
Reviewing the numbers (from Ken Pomeroy’s kenpom.com site – the conference results through Monday February 25) gives us a few things to consider:
- The difference margin adds greater definition to Saint Louis’ breakout last week. At +0.156, the margin is half again larger than that of their nearest rival (Virginia Commonwealth). To this point Saint Louis is in a class by itself. A rocky out of conference run will most likely keep the Bills’ NCAA seed in the #4 to #6 range, probably deceptively low.
- The teams are forming a series of well-defined tiers, many of which are consistent with the conference records earned so far. Note the Virginia Commonwealth/Butler grouping, distinct from the Massachusetts/Xavier/Temple tier.
- Duquesne and (yet again, unfortunately) Fordham have “lost touch” with the rest of the conference. The difference margins for the two lowest ranked teams suggest they are no longer competitive with their 14 conference mates. Temple’s loss to Duquesne on February 14 becomes all the more puzzling and damaging to the Owls’ post season prospects.
- Charlotte’s record says “even”, but the difference margin suggests the 49ers have been susceptible to blowouts. A look at the schedule reveals a tendency to lose big on the road Miami, Richmond, Saint Louis). Not the kind of credential one wants to present to the Selection Committee.
- Dayton maintains a positive difference margin (+0.013) widely at variance with their losing record (4-8). A Pythagorean Winning Percentage calculation suggest the Flyers should be closer to a 0.500 record (or 6-6, since they have played 12 games). They are, however, so far underwater that it is likely the Flyers will “run out of games” before they can get to a 0.500 record (8-8 given their 16 game conference schedule).
With 75% of the conference games on the books, winners and losers are sorting out quickly. Saint Louis survived the scheduler’s version of “Heck Week” to emerge as the clear favorite to take the regular season conference title. Only twelve teams get tickets to Brooklyn, and aside from six at the top and three at the bottom, not one of the seven in the middle is “safe”. Records shown are current through games of Tuesday, February 26.
- Saint Louis (22-5, 11-2 #19 USA) – Coach Jim Crews’ squad survived their trial by fire last week, logging two strong wins over #2 (VCU, 76-62) and #3 (Butler, 65-61). Keep winning and they will have the #1 seed in the Atlantic 10 Conference tournament. Crews made his strongest case to have the “interim” tag removed from his title, but some in the Billiken fan base might be more comfortable if he had a few well regarded prospects signed for next season. Of the four remaining games, the season-closer at La Salle should be the closest, but Xavier and Saint Joseph’s, two wrong-side-of-the-bubble conference foes, are capable of pulling the upset.
- Virginia Commonwealth (22-6, 12-3, #25 USA) — The Rams were hammered by Saint Louis (76-61) last Tuesday, but exacted revenge by (possibly) bursting Xavier’s bubble, 75-71, Saturday. No question the Rams are in the Dance, but the seed (ranging from #8 to #9 at this point), can move down as well as up. Shaka Smart must have his team ready to host Saturday’s showdown with Butler (right now the Rams are favored by Kenpom) in a game that should decide who gets the #2 seed in Brooklyn. Beating Butler would give VCU a two game cushion in the loss column, but closing out the season at bid-hungry Temple offers the distinct possibility that they could garner only 12 conference wins.
- Butler (22-6, 9-4, #21 USA) – Butler destroyed hapless Duquesne Tuesday, but finished the week 1-1 when they could not hold serve versus Saint Louis on Saturday (65-61). The Bulldogs are now a game in the loss column behind VCU. They can get that back, but will have to beat the Rams in Richmond to secure the tiebreaker for the #2 seed to the conference tournament. The loss cost coach Brad Stevens’ squad a seed or two in the NCAA field (by the reckoning of bracketologists the Bulldogs will be seeded somewhere between #4 and #5 right now). Point guard Rotnei Clarke and glue-guy Roosevelt Jones will need to take care of the ball better than they did versus Saint Louis. Between them they committed nine of Butler’s 14 turnovers, two coming in VCU’s 10-2 run to open the second half when the Bills took and kept the lead.
- La Salle (19-7, 9-4) – La Salle and Temple will share Philadelphia’s Big 5 honors this season, the first Big 5 title for the Explorers in this millennium. The Explorers have largely secured their first at-large NCAA bid in two decades. Dr. John Giannini’s squad has three more games to play, two of which (Duquesne and George Washington) should be fairly uncomplicated affairs. The road trip to Saint Louis to finish the season however, looks a bit tougher. Assuming two more wins, La Salle, with a one win advantage over Temple and Xavier, should secure no worse than the #4 seed with chances at #3 (or even #2) if VCU and/or Butler – both have slightly tougher finishing schedules – falter.
- Temple (19-8, 8-5) – The Owls cling to right side of the bubble going into the last three games of their conference schedule. First, however, they have to contend with Detroit in hastily rescheduled game from the New Year’s blizzard that blacked out most of the east coast. The Titans are 19-10, second in the Horizon League and hungry for an NCAA bid themselves. The Owls will be the hunted Thursday night in an improvised Bracket Busters matchup. After Detroit, the Owls will have a dangerous Rhode Island that already caught Saint Louis on an off night, followed by Fordham. They will finish by hosting Virginia Commonwealth in what might become a one game playoff for the #4 seed. Note to the curious, La Salle has the tie breaker over both Butler and VCU, while Temple has the tie breaker over La Salle.
- Xavier (16-11, 8-5) – Check box #1 on the list; the Muskies squeezed out a win over the Memphis Tigers Tuesday night. Welcomed as it is, it does not put them in the bubble conversation, much less anywhere near the “last eight out”, but it does give Xavier’s resume a much needed win over a ranked team (#19 going into the game…we will see where they are Monday). Coach Chris Mack’s team will have to dispose of next up Massachusetts (at the Cintas Center) and then follow with wins over Butler (Cintas Center again) and Saint Louis to get into the last eight out conversation. That would give the Musketeers 19 wins (11 in conference play) going into Brooklyn and should they run to the finals, give the Selection Committee something to think about. Stay tuned.
- Massachusetts (17-9, 7-6) – The Minutemen, much like Saint Joseph’s, have to deal with the unfulfilled expectations. Coach Derek Kellogg may well look back over the week of February 14 through 20 where the Minutemen dropped three games and disappeared from the bubble conversation. They have three games remaining on their conference schedule and Kellogg could log his second consecutive 20 win regular season. The team just has to get by Xavier, Butler and then Rhode Island. Prospects for picking up one more loss before the conference tournament however are pretty good, as both X and Butler have incentives to win. Another NIT run is likely, particularly if UMass can string together a few wins at the Barclays Center next month.
- Charlotte (18-9, 6-7) – Of all of the Atlantic 10’s teams, February has been the cruelest to coach Alan Majors’ team. The 49ers entered the month locked a three way tie for first place with Butler and VCU. A 2-4 month has dumped them off the bubble and somewhere in the middle of strong conference, trying to muddle through to the conference tournament. Multiple game suspensions to begin the season were not helpful, but losing J. T. Thompson so soon after DeMario Mayfield was indefinitely suspended has left the team looking for scoring and defense. The 49ers close out their season home stand with Dayton, then take to the road for their last three games. Projections suggest they should go 2-2 and finish with an 8-8 conference record, their best in the Alan Major Era.
- Richmond (17-11, 7-6) –Chris Mooney’s squad beat Fordham to move back to 0.500 in conference play. The remaining schedule favors a 0.500 or better finish for the young team which would mark an improvement over last season’s finish. With home games versus George Washington and Duquesne (two teams that have a combined 3-9 road record – GWU is 3-3) and a road game in Dayton (the Flyers are 4-2 in conference games at UD Arena this season), the chances are excellent the Spiders will take two (at least), which leaves the road game with cross-town (and conference) rival Virginia Commonwealth as the only true longshot. Mooney’s version of the Princeton eschews offensive rebounding, but their defensive rebounding has to improve. Allowing opponents second chances on 37% of their misses undermines the Spiders’ shot defense (which is generally about average).
- Saint Joseph’s (15-11, 6-7) – For the second consecutive season the Hawks began the season with high hopes, but stumbled in conference play. They may still finish the season with a 0.500 or better record, go to the conference tournament in Brooklyn and most likely garner a post season invitation (to a tournament not named NCAA), but preseason expectations of a conference title will not happen this season. For the dean of the A-10 coaches, Phil Martelli, this has to be frustrating. This is the most promising group of players assembled on Hawk Hill since 2004. Most of the squad will return next season for one last try. As for this 2013, the four last games have (realistically) three possible wins. That would match last season’s conference win total.
- George Washington (12-14, 6-7) – With six wins, the Colonials have already exceeded their conference win total from coach Mike Lonergan’s first season (5), and the newcomers – transfers and freshmen, favored with time and possessions — have led the way. Freshman Joe McDonald’s outside shooting (not a big part of his offensive repertoire to be sure) has declined in conference play, but his penchant for driving the lane, a part of Lonergan’s offensive scheme, has yielded more trips to the line and boosted his offensive output. With four games left, GWU’s best opportunity for another win comes when their last opponent, Dayton, visits on March 9.
- Dayton (15-12, 5-8) – The Flyers were a win away from the NCAA Tournament last March in Archie Miller’s first season as a head coach. The prospects at this point are not a bright, as avoiding exclusion from the conference tournament is the immediate item on the agenda. Saint Bonaventure, ranked just above them in the conference standings, visits on March 3, so the plan, run the table and secure the tie breaker over the Bonnies, is available. Almost too easy to be true, consider that they have two more road games and their conference record away from UD Arena this season is 0-6 (with a difference margin of -0.1516, comparable to Duquesne’s overall difference margin…), the prospects are hardly guaranteed.
- Saint Bonaventure (13-13, 6-7) – The conference tournament will include the top 12 finishers, and the Bonnies would like to grab that last ticket to Brooklyn. They have contributed to their own cause with a 4-3 record in February that includes close overtime losses to Richmond and La Salle. Those might earn them an easy #12 spot in the difference margins “standings”, but wins and losses are the measure of success; they have to secure at least one more win in their last three games (and hope Dayton does not run the table). Their last three opponents, Charlotte, Dayton (at Dayton) and Fordham, hold at least one win, and they can settle it head-to-head by beating Dayton on March 6.
- Rhode Island (8-18, 3-10) – On paper, Rhody was a team that should have struggled to win three games all season, forget about three wins in conference play. Not this conference. Not this season. Coach Dan Hurley has proven he can motivate, as no amount of game planning or game management could have yielded three conference wins out of this collection of players. Is there a fourth win lurking in URI’s last three games? The difference margin, having slid to -0.085 through 13 conference games, suggests there is not, but should Massachusetts, faced with injuries and elimination from NCAA consideration, may be vulnerable to a late season letdown. They visit Kingston on March 9. Hurley’s next challenge will be to recruit. His roster will drop to nine at the end of this season, he has two two signees (so far) to replace them. Although he also has two transfers ready to suit up next season, he needs more…and better if he wants to move Rhode Island up in the standings next season.
- Fordham (6-22, 2-11) – Although the Rams’ conference win total keeps them out of last place, coach Tom Pecora cannot see this as progress. The difference margin (see above) confirms what the coach’s eyes no doubt tell him game after game, that Fordham is not competitive with the rest of the conference. Losing all-conference forward Chris Gaston for large portions of the season has contributed to the Rams’ slide, but going into the season there was cause to believe the roster had more talent and experience than any in the coach’s three year tenure. That talent upgrade has not translated into wins however, and that has to concern the coach…and the athletic administration.
- Duquesne (8-19, 1-12) – Coach Jim Ferry is playing for next season with Derrick Colter, Jeremiah Jones and Quevyn Winters (along with senior Sean Johnson) drawing a large portion of the available back court and wing minutes, an even higher percentage than earlier in the season. The Dukes lack of competitiveness with the rest of the conference gives the coach, in his first season at the Pittsburgh, some hints on what he needs to find in the off season – front court players. The present complement, primarily sophomores and juniors, have had little impact either on the scoreboard or the backboard.
The start of conference play means great matchups/games every week. The schedule maker gave the fans and TV some very intriguing games for this first week.
- Memphis vs. Xavier (Tuesday February 26, 6:00 PM, ESPN2) – This game looked better in mid-August. A win would not vault the Musketeers back into the NCAA conversation, the resume has too many ugly losses, but the A-10’s standing would improve with a win, and in the days leading up to Selection Sunday that may help conference bubble-riders La Salle, Temple and Charlotte. The Tigers will go inside and look for second chance opportunities, both are strengths for Xavier’s defense. Dee Davis and Brad Redford shoot threes for Chris Mack, a sometime problem for Memphis’ defense. Yeah, it could happen…
- Butler vs. Virginia Commonwealth (Saturday March 2, 12:00 PM, ESPN2) – Brendon Mulvihill will put a few stars on this one for this weekend’s Set Your DVR column (… right Brendon?), but the Bulldogs have had road problems this season, racking up four of their five losses outside of Hinkle this season. Even the road wins (conference wins anyway) have been tight, which means this game will probably come down to the last two or possessions. Keep track of Butler’s turnovers, VCU’s defense works best if their opponents get a shot off on less than 70% of their possessions.