Checking in on… the Atlantic 10

Posted by Joe Dzuback on January 23rd, 2014

Joe Dzuback is the RTC correspondent for the Atlantic 10 Conference. You can also find his musings online at Villanova by the Numbers or on Twitter @vtbnblog.

Bid Talk: 3? 4? 5!?

Two weeks of conference play has scrambled the conference’s NCAA bid picture. Going into conference play, the Atlantic 10 had five teams in the postseason conversation, increasingly a “normal” situation for the A-10. However, five conference games has shuffled the New Year’s pecking order of Massachusetts, Saint Louis, George Washington, Virginia Commonwealth and Dayton (last eight in). The Minutemen picked up their second loss of the season (58-55 at Richmond) after a couple of close calls (with St. Bonaventure and George Mason), as the Billikens edge closer to UMass in the hearts and minds of bracketologists — if not the poll voters (compliments of a strong opening run).

The Saint Louis faithful is gearing up for another run at post season play. (Saint Louis athletics)

The Saint Louis faithful is gearing up for another run at post season play. (Saint Louis athletics)

With the losses of Temple, Xavier, and Butler to other leagues, more than a few publications predicted a step back for the conference’s overall postseason prospects. At this point the conference offers four candidates that will need consistent conference play to maintain their chances. How many bids can the conference get (maximum), and was the non-conference showing strong enough to boost any of the outlier programs into postseason contention (should any of the front runner fade)? Massachusetts (#13 in the January 20 AP poll; #12 in the USA Today/Coaches poll) and St. Louis (#19 AP, #20 in the USA Today/Coaches) are legitimate “High Fliers” that should contend for the conference title and draw NCAA bids with their consistently solid play. The non-conference resumes for George Washington, Virginia Commonwealth and Dayton are good enough, but their conference work could move them out of contention. GW is among those “also receiving votes” from voters in both polls. Note that Ken Pomeroy, Jeff Sagarin, the RPI and ESPN (the BPI) all rank five conference teams among their top 60 — see the below table of the consensus top eight conference teams below.

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The four indexed systems — RPI, KenPom, Sagarin and BPI — all identify Massachusetts, St. Louis, George Washington, Virginia Commonwealth and Dayton as the top tier of the conference, although they may disagree on the pecking order. Dayton, with a 1-3 opening to conference play, has moved to the S-Curve that would be seeded for the NCAA (if the selections were announced today). Note the consistency among Sagarin, Pomeroy and the BPI — each ranks George Washington above Virginia Commonwealth, which reflects the Colonials’ recent home win over the Rams (76-66). Lunardi’s seeds reflect that win as well. ESPN’s resident bracketologist may be a fan of the A-10 (aren’t we all?), but if keeping Dayton in the field looks questionable at this point, note that Lunardi has them “playing in” (at home no less — the Flyers “host” the play-in round). Considering that all the indices rank them at #52, which means they fall within the “last eight in” group and would in fact have to win a first round game to move into the Tournament. With the implied S-Curve Lunardi has constructed, the Flyers would be vulnerable to any conference tournament week upsets.

Front Runners and The Rear Guard — What the Atlantic 10’s five best candidates (strongest to weakest) will have to do:

  • Massachusetts — Ken Pomeroy is a prisoner of his metrics (he would be the first to say that his numbers reflect what happened, not what is to come), and the consensus among those who watch is that the Minutemen were the A-10’s strongest representative — despite having to come from behind twice in their three conference wins to date. Derek Kellogg’s squad danced with the devil once too often, however, and dropped a 58-55 decision at Richmond Wednesday night. That was the first test, but the next three games — one of which is a road return date with St. Bonaventure on January 29 — should give fans (and the Selection Committee) a hint on whether UMass can hang with Saint Louis (and stay high enough on the S-Curve for an NCAA #4/#5 seed) going into February. Circle March 9 when the Minutemen and Billiken face off in Amherst, because the winner should be seeded no worse than #2 in Brooklyn. The Minutemen have compiled the strongest non-conference resume of the group, so if they do not stumble badly in conference play, Kellogg’s team should pull down the highest A-10 seed in the NCAAs.

    Derek Kellogg has his guys performing at a high level. (AP)

    Derek Kellogg has his guys performing at a high level. (AP)

  • Saint Louis — The Billikens have a 5-0 conference record compliments of wins over three of the conference’s weakest members. The road win over Dayton had to be a confidence booster and their six-point win over St. Bonaventure (66-60) compares favorably with UMass’ own result against the Bonnies. The Billikens’ next game — versus Richmond next Wednesday — will provide another comparison game with Massachusetts. Jim Crews’ squad does not have any signature non-conference wins, but their two losses (versus Wichita State and Wisconsin) were not ugly. A favorable conference schedule (home games versus a surging St. Bonaventure, as well as challengers George Washington and Dayton) should work to their advantage and balance two late season road games at Massachusetts and Virginia Commonwealth. Avoiding a stumble in Philadelphia (two road games versus La Salle and Saint Joseph’s) and holding serve versus VCU would put the Bills in line for a top seed going into the conference tournament and virtually secure an NCAA bid before the end of the regular season.
  • Virginia Commonwealth — The victim more of relative expectations than actual performance, the Rams’ prospects, both for a #1/#2 seed in Brooklyn and a good seed in the NCAA, remain strong. Of their three non-conference losses, only Northern Iowa is troubling. The Rams have dropped a 10-point road game to George Washington to log a 3-1 conference record four games in. A road game with La Salle Saturday is the first of two challenges Shaka Smart’s squad must meet to keep pace with Saint Louis and Massachusetts, with a home game versus Richmond the Saturday following the second. A five-game run, starting in mid-February (February 12 versus George Washington) and continuing through March 1 (versus Saint Louis), should shape the conference race and boost (or diminish) VCU’s postseason prospects. The sequence includes home games versus GW followed by three road games (at Saint Louis, Massachusetts and Fordham) and concluding with a return date versus the Billikens. A record of 5-0, or even 4-1 (provided the loss is not to Fordham) should promote the Rams while pushing someone else (GW? UMass? Saint Louis?) away.
  • George Washington — A fracture to the fifth metatarsal in his left foot will sideline shooting guard Kethan Savage for the rest of the regular season. The Colonials, a surprise to some around the conference, compiled an impressive 12-2 non-conference record that included wins over Creighton, Maryland, and Miami (FL). A 3-1 conference record, compliments of a win over VCU and a road win (where Savage broke his foot) at St. Bonaventure, put the Colonials in the middle of the conference race. Savage, a 6’3″ wing, was GW’s second leading scorer with 13.4 points per game, characterized by Ken Pomeroy as a “Significant Contributor” (26.4% possession rate, 24.5% shooting rate) at the time of his injury. Mike Lonergan’s fast options — and he has several including Patrick Garino, Nemanja Mikic and John Kopriva — lean more to forwards rather than guards, will require a period of adjustment. The conference schedule gives them a lull, however, as La Salle (home) and Dayton (away) are their biggest challenges in the next three games.
  • Dayton — Coach Archie Miller’s squad put together a solid non-conference resume with wins over Georgia Tech, a good run in Hawaii (wins over Gonzaga and California), and a road win over Mississippi on the eve of conference play. A 1-3 start (losses to St. Louis, Richmond and VCU) have pushed the Flyers to the wrong side of the S-Curve. The next four games, should they go to script, should put Dayton north of .500 (5-3) and back into the conference race, but only George Washington (in Dayton, February 1) will help resurrect the Flyers’ NCAA prospects. A date in Olean, New York, with St. Bonaventure a week later will test whether Dayton has learned to handle conference road games. Stay tuned.

And Then There Is — Richmond and (possibly) St. Joseph’s may test the conference’s ability to “boot strap” one of their members onto the NCAA bubble.

  • Richmond – The Spiders brought 10 non-conference wins — five versus sub-200 RPI opponents — into conference play. They beat Dayton and VCU on their way to a 3-1 start. Like Massachusetts’ 2012-13 resume, their non-conference resume contains no ugly losses, but despite four opportunities, no power conference or marquee wins either. As their win over Massachusetts’ Wednesday illustrates, top 25/50 wins will have to come compliments of their conference mates. Away games at Saint Louis and Virginia Commonwealth and return dates (at home) versus George Washington and VCU give Chris Mooney’s team four chances to add to their resume.

    Away games at Saint Louis and Virginia Commonwealth and return dates versus George Washington and VCU give Chris Mooney's team four chances to add to their resume. (AP)

    Away games at Saint Louis and Virginia Commonwealth and return dates versus George Washington and VCU give Chris Mooney’s Richmond team four chances to add to their resume. (AP)

  • Saint Joseph’s — Left for dead after early season losses to Big 5 rivals Villanova (by 30 points) and Temple (RPI #172), a 3-1 conference run has boosted Phil Martelli’s squad to 13-5 and resurrected postseason talk on Hawk Hill. Their non-conference resume (10-4) shows wins over a sub #300 team (Binghamton) and four sub #200 teams, along with no marquee wins. The next five games — at Richmond, at Dayton, versus Massachusetts, Saint Louis and Virginia Commonwealth (in that order) — will make or break the Hawks’ prospects.

Games to Catch This Week:

  • Virginia Commonwealth at La Salle (Saturday 1/25 12:00 PM ET ESPN2) — An 8-6 non-conference record has reduced the Explorers to spoiler status in conference play, but La Salle poses a must win problem for VCU as Dr. John Giannini’s squad has an experienced back court in Tyreek Duren, Sam Mills, D.J. Peterson, Tyrone Garland, and Khalid Lewis that should be able to break the Rams’ press with a front court that can punish VCU when they do. Both teams play up tempo, which should make this an entertaining game (if La Salle can stay with VCU).
  • Saint Joseph’s at Richmond (Saturday 1/25 4:00 PM ET NBC SportsNetwork) — Both teams, sporting 3-1 records, have seen their post season profiles rise over the past two weeks. The front court/low post matchups should be worth the cost of admission as the Spiders center Alonzo Nelson-Ododa and power forward Derrick Williams will face off against the Hawks’ Halil Kanasevic (and Papa Ndao) and Ron Roberts. Count the turnovers. Saint Joseph’s tends to give it up and Richmond tends to force them.
  • Saint Joseph’s at Dayton (Wednesday 1/29 6:00 PM  CT TCN/WHIO) — Both teams need a win to stay close to the conference leaders and maintain their post season prospects. Should Coach Archie Miller decide to go with a smaller and quicker front court (Devon Scott and Devin Oliver) he could create matchup problems offensively for Halil Kanasevic and Ron Roberts. Or the two Hawks could eat them up. Matt Kavanaugh would be the more traditional matchup for the Flyers, but he will struggle to match Kanasevic and Roberts on the boards. Dayton needs a nice three-to-four game run to revive their NCAA chances. Look for Flyer wings Jordan Sibert and Dyshawn Pierre to post some strong offensive numbers.
  • Richmond at Saint Louis (Wednesday 1/29 7:00 PM CT FOX MW) — This should be a big night for the Billikens, but Richmond’s back court (Cedrick Lindsay, Kendall Anthony and Wayne Sparrow) should give their Saint Louis counterparts (Jordair Jett, Mike McCall and Austin McBroom) fits. The Billikens have the best defense in the conference (and the #2 defense in Division I per Ken Pomeroy), but their offense has been inconsistent. How well Anthony can penetrate and Lindsay can get the ball to the cutters will determine how competitive this game will be.
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