Checking in on… the Atlantic 10Posted by Joe Dzuback on January 31st, 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.
Teams on the Rise… Teams on the Slide
Just over 38 percent of the conference schedule is in the books and two teams — Saint Louis and Virginia Commonwealth — have emerged as the teams to catch. Three other teams – George Mason, Duquesne and Dayton (!) — are falling out of contact with the rest of the conference.
Rising – Teams that are finding their groove
- Saint Louis — Skeptics who groused that the Billikens’ early conference success came compliments of an easy draw have to pause for reflection after this week. Wins over Dayton, a rallying St. Bonaventure, and most recently Richmond (by 20 points) confirm that the Billikens are unlikely to slip against the conference’s middling teams and will continue to set the pace in the conference race for at least the next two weeks. A good deal of ink has extolled and analyzed Virginia Commonwealth’s HAVOC, but Jim Crews’ smothering defense — ranked #1 nationally by Ken Pomeroy (and a runaway #1 in conference play, over eight points per 100 possessions better than #2 VCU) — that provides the winning edge for the Bills. A combination of consistent two- and three-point field goal defense and strong defensive rebounding has powered Saint Louis’ defense in sharp contrast to VCU’s gambling, steal-oriented, press-and-trap approach that tolerates fouls as a byproduct. Saint Louis by contrast does not foul. Jordair Jett, the Bills’ thick but quick point guard, combines with undersized forward Dwayne Evans to provide the Billikens with an adequate, but hardly prolific, offense. The defense — for now — is enough. Their February 15 date with Virginia Commonwealth, the first of two games they will play with the Rams in the final three weeks of the regular season, is the opening shot in what may well become a three-game set that will be decided in the conference championship game at the Barclays Center.
- Virginia Commonwealth — The Rams’ road trip to Philadelphia for their game with La Salle last weekend could have been billed as a must-win for both teams. La Salle, surging out of the gate with a 3-1 conference record and a win over Big 5 rival Temple the prior weekend, appeared to be resurrecting their chances for a postseason bid. The Explorers earned a resume win over the Rams last season on the way to their first NCAA bid in 21 seasons. Despite leading by as much as nine in the first half, the Rams could not staunch a La Salle run that cut VCU’s lead to four going into halftime. The Explorers stretched that 5-0 run into a 9:45, 45-26 run, taking a 10-point, 60-50 lead into the last five-plus minutes of regulation. VCU rallied, held La Salle to four points over the last 5:15 to knot the game at 73, and forced an overtime period. While it took two overtimes to finally subdue the Explorers, the Rams left Philadelphia in a howling snowstorm on the right side of a 93-89 decision and a 4-1 conference record that kept Shaka Smart’s squad within striking distance of the 5-0 Billikens. A double-figure, 76-60 road win over Fordham extends VCU’s record to 5-1 going into this weekend. The four-game stretch (Richmond, Rhode Island, Saint Joseph’s and George Washington) before their February 15 trip to Saint Louis will be difficult, but should VCU emerge 4-0 (9-1 in conference) the Billikens game will draw a national attention.
- Richmond — A win over Massachusetts on January 22 gave the Spiders momentum going into last week. Chris Mooney’s squad posted a double-figure win over Saint Joseph’s that boosted their conference record to 4-1 before their road trip to Saint Louis. Will a humbling 20-point loss (77-57) at the hands of the Billikens Wednesday blunt Richmond’s surge? Saturday’s game at crosstown rival Virginia Commonwealth will supply a big piece to Mooney’s puzzle. Irrespective of Saturday’s outcome, however, the Spiders have games with St. Bonaventure (home) and Duquesne (away) that should at worst — if their surge is legitimate — put the Spiders at no worse than 6-3 going into the home stretch.
Sliding — Teams that are struggling now
- Massachusetts — At this point there is no fear that the #19 Minutemen (#8 RPI) will play themselves out of the NCAA field, but make no mistake, a string of close conference wins and a pair of losses to middling teams Richmond and St. Bonaventure has a few stomachs in Amherst churning. Derek Kellogg cannot point to personnel issues (injuries, suspensions, etc.) as the source of the slide. UMass will have four games (at Saint Joseph’s, vs. La Salle, at Rhode Island and vs. George Mason) to re-establish their rhythm before they face George Washington in the nation’s capital on February 15. That game will critical in deciding seeds going into the conference tournament and placement in the NCAA field of 68.
- Dayton — The Flyers continue to struggle in conference play, as a 1-5 conference record has largely squandered the gains earned in a solid non-conference run. Dayton’s slide includes three lost opportunities to impress the Selection Committee (Saint Louis, Richmond and VCU) and a loss to (RPI #132) Rhode Island. A 10-game sweep to close out the season would revive Dayton’s hopes since they have games with George Washington (February 1), Massachusetts (March 1), Saint Louis (March 5), and Richmond (March 8). Take those four games along with the other six and the Flyers will have the Selection Committee’s attention going into Tournament Week.
- La Salle — Last Saturday was a double blow to the Explorers. In addition to frittering away a 10-point lead on the way to a double-overtime loss to Virginia Commonwealth that largely closed out even a remote chance for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, 81-year old Tom Gola, a Philadelphia legend who twice led the Explorers to the national championship game (which they won in the 1954 season) passed away in Meadowbrook, Pennsylvania. Gola forged his reputation as the best high school basketball player at La Salle High School, earning offers from Kentucky and North Carolina before deciding to stay home and play for the Explorers. He led La Salle to the NIT championship in his freshman year, but the best was yet to come. Gola and the Explorers starred in the first nationally televised NCAA championship by beating Bradley to earn La Salle’s sole national championship trophy. Though he led La Salle to a defense of their championship in 1955, the Explorers lost to Bill Russell’s San Francisco squad that season. Gola went on to play for 10 years in the NBA with teams in Philadelphia and New York. He coached his alma mater to a 37-13 record over two years before moving to serve in two elective offices in Pennsylvania and Philadelphia. The deflated Explorers stumbled to a second loss (69-47 on the road) to George Washington Wednesday night. The loss evened La Salle’s conference record at 3-3, extended the team’s slide to three games.
- George Mason — The eighth place finish projected on Media Day appears way overconfident today. The Patriots are winless through six conference games with only four realistic prospects to break their slide before they host Duquesne to close out the season. Over the next week-plus, a home game versus an also slumping Dayton and a road game in Pittsburgh (Duquesne) offer the best possibilities in February. To this point in the season their performance suggests the Atlantic 10′s newest member is out of their depth.
- George Washington — The Colonials kept pace with Saint Louis and VCU last week, pushing their conference record to 5-1 despite losing shooting guard Kethan Savage. Saturday’s trip to Dayton, where Colonials will face a desparate Flyer squad, should give coach Mike Lonergan an idea of how his efforts to cover Savage’s loss will fare. The shooting guard accounted for 25 percent of the Colonials’ possessions and field goal attempts when he was on the floor. He justified the high usage by scoring at a relatively efficient 1.09 points per possession rate. In the two games played without Savage, fifth-year senior Maurice Creek has stepped up, with additional offensive output from forward Patricio Garino and point guard Joe McDonald. GW has a four-game run, starting February 12, where they face VCU (away), Massachusetts (home), Richmond (away) and Saint Louis (away), that will largely determine where they will be seeded going into the conference tournament in Brooklyn and likelihood of an NCAA bid on Selection Sunday.
- St. Bonaventure — Tabbed to finish #12 by the coaches on Media Day, the Bonnies hold a 3-4 conference record and appear on track to finish closer to the middle of the conference than the bottom. Inconsistency, a problem all season, continued last week as Mark Schmidt’s squad lost to Duquesne on Saturday but turned around to beat Massachusetts Wednesday night. If St. Bonaventure can beat Richmond next Wednesday, the rest of February’s six-game slate could yield a 7-0 or 6-1 record, which would launch the Bonnies into the top tier race in the conference (though probably not onto the NCAA bubble).
- Rhode Island — Dan Hurley’s squad is on track to improve on URI’s 12th-place finish in 2012-13. A road game at Fordham Saturday should give the Rams their third conference win of the season, matching their conference win total from last season, but of the three games that follow Fordham, only the road game at Dayton, against what has to be a demoralized Flyer squad, offers the best possibility before they host struggling Duquesne. Their ceiling this season is (per Ken Pomeroy) six wins. Reviewing game location and opponent, six seems realistic.
Games to Catch This Week
- Richmond at Virginia Commonwealth (Saturday 2/1 – 11:00 AM ET on ESPN2) — The Spiders have a veteran back court that values the ball. Terry Allen, Derrick Williams (6′ 6″, 270 lbs) and Alonzo Nelson-Ododa (6′ 9″, 210 lbs) are the kind of front court that could give VCU matchup problems (provided Williams stays out of foul trouble). The two rivals split their games last season, but Richmond is older and more talented this season, while VCU has had problems scoring consistently.
- Saint Bonaventure at Richmond (Wednesday 2/5 – 7:00 PM ET) — Two teams that hold hopes for the post season and contrasting styles of offense face off in a game that will damage one teams’ chances to finish in the top four of conference play not to mention post season prospects. The uptempo Bonnies offer a (generally) smaller and quicker lineup versus the (far) more deliberate Spiders squad. Who dictates the pace could determine who emerges with the “W”. Richmond contests the shot and pressures the ball handler as they draw out their opponents’ offensive possession. The Bonnies will try to score quickly and look to wings Matthew Wright, Marquise Simmons, Dion Wright and the blossoming point guard Charlon Kloof for their points. Youssou Ndoye, Simmons and Dion Wright are formidable rebounders at both ends of the floor. Should the Spiders’ scorers (Kendall Anthony, Cedrick Lindsay and Terry Allen take the most shots) come away with too many one-and-done trips that are not balanced by forced Bonnie turnovers (the Spiders steal, the Bonnies give it up too easily), Richmond could lose more than just a game.