Previewing the Atlantic 10 TournamentPosted by Joe Dzuback (@vtbnblog) on March 12th, 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.
Everything’s Gonna Be OK
The unasked question at Media Day last October was how the conference would fare without Temple and Xavier (not to mention Charlotte and Butler). In the 17 seasons since John Calipari left Massachusetts, the Owls or the Musketeers won (or shared in) 10 conference regular season titles, won eight conference tournaments, collected 25 of the 56 NCAA bids, and represented with at least one entrant in all but a single postseason (2005). Their last season in the league had more whimper than bang, so the remaining 13 members have to build their future without the name recognition and traditions that those programs contributed to the whole. If this season is the foretelling of things to come, though, the A-10 will be in great shape over the long run. Stellar non-conference play by George Washington, Massachusetts and Dayton, along with strong showings from Virginia Commonwealth (albeit disappointing by preview standards) and Saint Louis have put the conference in a no-man’s land between the basketball-first conferences (the West Coast, the Missouri Valley, C-USA and Mountain West) and the conferences that sit atop Division I. Whether the chosen metric is the RPI (ranked #6), Ken Pomeroy (ranked #8), Sagarin (ranked #8) or Dunkel (ranked #8), the Atlantic 10 is clearly positioned closer to the elite conferences than the other 25. Anticipating between four and six NCAA bids, the conference is about to kick off the second edition of its tournament at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, and ready for the limelight.
Four, Five… or Six?
The consensus of season previews anticipated that Virginia Commonwealth, Saint Louis and Massachusetts would catch the Selection Committee’s attention, but by the eve of conference play, two more — Dayton (12-3) and George Washington (12-2) — had joined them to assemble a group that potentially could equal last season’s record five bids (matched twice before). Massachusetts and Dayton faltered in conference play, but the Minutemen were secure enough by mid-January that the slippage has translated into a #7 seed line this week. A 1-5 start put Dayton out of the field of 68, but a 6-1 February followed by a 3-0 (so far) March has moved Archie Miller’s squad back into the conversation as a possible First Four (#12 seed) candidate. As for VCU (#8), St. Louis (#6) and GW (#8), all appear to be secure enough that an early round exit from the conference tournament should not jeopardize their NCAA bids. St. Joseph’s, despite a mediocre 9-4 (eventually 10-4) non-conference record, compiled an 11-3 A-10 record and appeared to be squarely in the field. An 0-2 closing put the Joe’s at 11-5 and back into a possible round one game in Dayton. The Hawks will need a win or two this week to bolster their resume.
- Saint Louis (26-5, 13-3, #5 seed NCAA) – The Billikens survived a late season 0-2 swoon to clinch the regular season title and a #1 seed in Brooklyn. Though they earned Wednesday night off, the drama begins Thursday for Crews’ crew.
- Virginia Commonwealth (24-7, 12-4, #6 seed NCAA) – Shaka Smart’s squad pulled together a late season rush to overtake the Hawks. A St. Joseph’s stumble pushed the Rams ahead to finish a game behind Saint Louis and earn the #2 seed for the conference tournament. Their 11-point win over Saint Louis on March 1 should those who believe Brooklyn will be a Billikens celebration party pause to think otherwise.
- George Washington (23-7, 11-5, #8 seed NCAA) – Kethan Savage’s return (and Maurice Creek’s productivity) will most likely determine how far the Colonials can run, this week in Brooklyn and next week in the NCAAs.
- Saint Joseph’s (21-9, 11-5, #10 seed NCAA) – A strong non-conference composite record became the difference-maker for the slow-starting Hawks which overcame losses to Big 5 rivals Villanova (by 30 points) and Temple (ranked #167 RPI) but managed an 11-3 conference record that included wins over Massachusetts (#16 RPI), Virginia Commonwealth (#13 RPI) and a sweep of Dayton (#39 RPI). An 0-2 finish raised questions, however.
- Massachusetts (23-7, 10-6 #7 seed NCAA) – After a great non-conference run (12-1) followed by a 3-0 start in conference play, the Minutemen have settled into a 7-6 finish. Fatigue? Conserving their strength? They better be ready on Thursday night as they are matched against a Rhode Island team that has gone 3-1 in their last four games. Rhode Island only lost by three points in Amherst earlier this season.
- Dayton (22-9, 10-6, #11 seed NCAA) – Six games into the conference season it appeared for all the world that the Flyers had squandered a solid 12-3 non-conference start with a 1-5 slide. Miller’s squad pulled a U-turn and ran off a 9-1 finish that included a 4-1 road record. Offense is not the question for this team, but rather do the Flyers have enough defense to run the table in Brooklyn? Dayton will have to do a better job on shot defense — both inside and outside the arc — if they hope to get past Saint Joseph’s Friday night (which assumes they beat the winner of Wednesday night’s George Mason-Fordham game).
- Richmond (18-13, 8-8, NIT) – Injury to senior guard Cedrick Lindsay largely ended Richmond’s NCAA prospects, but the Spiders have a resume good enough to draw attention (and an invitation?) from the NIT. They open Thursday night at the A-10 Tournament against a suddenly competitive Duquesne squad. Get by the Dukes and the Spiders get a third date with Virginia Commonwealth.
- La Salle (15-15, 7-9) – The Explorers stumbled versus Manhattan to open the season and never found their footing. Whether it was too much celebrating their Sweet Sixteen run in 2013, a nasty case of plantar fasciitis that hobbled Tyreek Duren for much of November and December or mourning the graduation loss of Ramon Galloway, La Salle looked not quite prepared for much of the season. Though presented with several chances to turn their season around, Dr. John Giannini’s squad couldn’t quite find a groove.
- St. Bonaventure (16-14, 6-10, CBI/CIT) – The conference is deep enough, the Bonnies have a few interesting wins on their resume and someone should be interested enough to give them a call after Selection Sunday. Beating La Salle Thursday would help too. Coach Mark Schmidt will have to find a new backcourt for next season as seniors Matthew Wright and Charlon Kloof will graduate in May.
- Rhode Island (14-17, 5-11) – With Freshman of the Year honors going to E.C. Matthews and Hassan Martin paired with Matthews on the All-Conference Freshman Team, the future, despite losing workhorse Xavier Munford to graduation, looks bright. The Rams inked point guard Jarvis Garrett out of Notre Dame Prep (Mass) as coach Dan Hurley appears well on his way to another talent upgrade going into next season.
- Duquesne (13-16, 5-11) – Coach Jim Ferry will lose All-Conference Third Team’er Olvie Soko along with Jerry Jones, a senior guard. If sophomore guard Micah Mason continues to develop though, the fans may not notice. The Dukes need another infusion of front court talent to make a move in the conference.
- George Mason (11-19, 4-12) – Perhaps Commissioner Bernadette McGlade assumed that because VCU made a seamless transition from the CAA last season that coach Paul Hewitt’s Patriots could do it as well. McGlade is 2-1 on that call as George Mason struggled virtually all season to keep up. A 2-2 finish helped Hewitt’s squad avert a tie with the epically struggling Fordham (which is good news for the Patriots, as the Rams held the tie-breaker). GMU will need, despite All-Rookie Team’er Jalen Jenkins (a 6’7″ forward), a talent upgrade. For Hewitt that should be no problem, as recruiting might be his strongest suit.
- Fordham (9-20, 2-14) – Despite recruiting the best guard in New York City for this season’s team, coach Tom Pecora, who is finishing his fourth year on Rose Hill, has still failed to move the Rams out of the A-10 basement. Pecora has a power forward signed for next season, but while the Atlantic 10 seems to be moving forward, Fordham appears to be standing still.
A Quick Guide to the Conference Tournament
- Wide Open? – On paper, any one of the top six seeds — in order, Saint Louis, Virginia Commonwealth, George Washington, Saint Joseph’s, Dayton and Massachusetts – could run the table (the task will be more difficult for some than others). Massachusetts and Dayton would have to run off four straight wins and each would probably have to beat two of the top four seeds on the way. The Minutemen have not been consistent enough lately, game-to-game, to instill confidence that they can do this. The Flyers, should they take care of the George Mason-Fordham winner, would face a Saint Joseph’s squad that has lost its last two.
- Best (Potential) Quarterfinal Game – Massachusetts vs. George Washington. The Minutemen have struggled in conference play, but senior guard (All-Conference First Team) Chaz Williams will be playing in front of a hometown crowd and center Cady Lalanne, who put together an outstanding non-conference run, should be able to hold his own in the paint with Colonials sophomore center (Most Improved Player) Kevin Larsen and power forward Isaiah Armwood. The rest of Derek Kellogg’s squad will have to rally and Williams will have to distribute the ball better, but if the Colonials do not have sophomore Kethan Savage available, they will have to rely even more heavily on Larsen, Armwood, Patricio Garino and Maurice Creek for offense. Four of GW’s conference losses were away from the Smith Center, and its lone home loss was to UMass. A close second goes to the Saint Joseph’s vs. Dayton game, set for the afternoon. Dayton’s smaller but more mobile frontcourt will have its hands full with the Hawks’ pair of Halil Kanasevic and Ron Roberts. A consensus of the latest NCAA bracket projections put both of these squads “in” (just barely), but for the loser, watching the upsets/bid thieves move the cut line closer could make for an uncomfortable, “if only,” weekend.
- Best (Potential) Semifinal Game – A VCU vs. George Washington game presents a number of interesting match-ups, the most obvious of which is the Joe McDonald/HAVOC defense. GW’s sophomore guard has turnover problems and plays tight at times. Colonials coach Mike Lonergan will need a plan to reliably break VCU’s vaunted press and trap defensive schemes. These two have split their face-to-face games, each holding serve by double-figures. GW won the first game by clamping down on Treveon Graham and All-Conference Sixth Man Melvin Johnson, and lost the second when those two combined for 46 points.
- If the Tournament Plays to Script – The most obvious outcome is a replay of last season’s final, an entertaining six-point nailbiter that went to the last two minutes before Saint Louis gathered itself for the closeout. The Billikens, however, will not have the steady hand of point guard Kwamain Mitchell available to focus the offense this time around. Should VCU, a favorite with the Brooklyn crowd, beat Saint Louis and take the automatic bid, few will be surprised. That, after all, was the prediction on Media Day last October.