Checking in on… the Atlantic 10

Posted by Joe Dzuback (@vbtnblog) on January 13th, 2015

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.

How Last Week’s Games Determined Which Teams to Watch

Games last week confirmed that three undefeated teams — Virginia Commonwealth, Dayton and Rhode Island — have emerged as the teams to beat, while three others –Fordham, St. Louis and Saint Joseph’s — will struggle for the next nine weeks. For our three winless teams, the fact that each has played at least one contest against the group of VCU, Dayton and Rhode Island means there is a clear separation between those three and the other 11 teams in the conference. Saint Joseph’s third loss was, for example, to Duquesne, which carries two losses of its own (Dayton and Rhode Island). Phil Martelli’s squad may spring a surprise or two in February, but the youthful Hawks still have a lot to learn. Saint Louis lost a lot to graduation but a preseason shoulder separation to forward Grandy Glaze took even more experience away from Jim Crews’s team. Glaze had surgery last week to correct the separation and will not play again this season. Fordham’s points for/against margin is running at -36 through three games (-12 per game), a clear indication that the Rose Hill Rams are still “rebuilding” well into Tom Pecora’s fifth season. Their prognosis is not good.

Archie Miller might be the most important returnee of the entire A10 conference. (AP)

Archie Miller’s Dayton club in right in the mix. (AP)

Virginia Commonwealth, which beat Davidson last weekend, faces a road challenge at Rhode Island this week and it will also get a visit from George Washington before the end of the month. Those three games represent the Rams’ biggest tests until the middle of February. Win those two and it is reasonable to think that the Rams could be 11-0 in conference play when they pay GW a return date. Dayton beat St. Bonaventure by 17 points, negating the Bonnies’ height advantage with a scorching 14-of-24 night from beyond the arc. The Flyers will face a Davidson squad on January 20 that also lives and dies by the three. A win at Davidson and at UMass beyond that would mean coach Archie Miller’s team could also enter February undefeated (8-0) in conference play and in good shape for an NCAA bid. Rhode Island, the least experienced of the three top-tier teams (average 1.4 years of experience, ranked #267 nationally), has the toughest path through the rest of the month, with games versus VCU and Massachusetts this week followed by a home date with George Washington on January 31. Win those three and the chances are good that the Rams will also sport an 8-0 conference record going into February.

George Washington, Massachusetts and Davidson all stumbled in conference play last week, but the Wildcats’ road loss at VCU puts them in better shape than either of the other two. Davidson has two more important tests this week, but should Bob McKillop’s team get through the next three games with a 3-0 or 2-1 record, his squad should enter February with at least six conference wins and solid prospects for a total of 12 Ws and a #4/#5 seed in Brooklyn. One or two wins at the Barclays Center should be more than enough to put McKillop’s squad safely into the NCAA Tournament. George Washington’s 13-point loss to La Salle, however, has to worry coach Mike Lonergan. The Colonials only dropped to 2-1 in A-10 play, but with a road record of 2-4 their remaining seven conference road games are guaranteed to be an adventure. Massachusetts limped into conference play with a 7-6 record so a 2-1 start offers little hope to the revival of their postseason prospects. The Minutemen will host Davidson, Rhode Island and Dayton before the end of the month, but the Atlantic 10’s opportunities to help UMass make a case for postseason play is limited. The Minutemen are more likely to play the role of spoilers than contenders for the rest of this season.

Four Games to Catch This Week

Key games this week feature a match-up between two of the last three undefeated A-10 teams and four tough road games for four of the conference’s elite. Results from this week should assure that the winners will have strong conference records going into February.

If Rhode Island is going to truly challenge for the A-10 crown, Biggie Minnis will likely play a big part in the equation. (RI Athletics)

If Rhode Island is going to truly challenge for the A-10 crown, Biggie Minnis will likely play a big part in the equation. (RI Athletics)

  • Dayton at Davidson (Tuesday 1/20, 7:30 PM ET, CBSSN) — These two squads have established themselves as top-tier conference teams and legitimate candidates for at-large bids to the NCAA Tournament. Davidson might be the only Atlantic 10 team with which Dayton’s lack of size will not be a liability, but the three-point shot is a huge part of the Wildcats’ offense (39.4 percent of their total points).
  • Virginia Commonwealth at Rhode Island (Tuesday 1/13, 7:30 PM ET CBSSN) — Is Rhode Island ready to challenge VCU? The winner of tonight’s game will be 4-0 in A-10 play with a strong chance to start out at 6-0 in conference play. While the frontcourts are evenly matched (very slight advantage to Rhode Island), the home team will need a better-than-average effort from its backcourt rotation of junior point guard Biggie Minnis, freshman Jared Terrell and senior T.J. Buchanan. VCU will press and trap the ball-handlers, an approach that targets and frustrates inexperienced guards. Though Minnis is experienced, he gives up about 33 percent of his possessions while Buchanan and Terrell turn over about 20 percent of theirs. Developing a counter to Shaka Smart’s HAVOC defense should be the top priority for Dan Hurley.
  • Davidson at Massachusetts (Wednesday 1/14, 7:00 PM ET) — The Minutemen and Wildcats share 2-1 conference records. Davidson dropped a six-point decision at VCU last weekend, the second strongest showing for a visitor to the Verizon Wireless Arena this season. The Minutemen, which lost to St. Bonaventure at home and then won twice on the road (at La Salle and George Mason), will try to get their home court rhythm going. Shot defense is the key as UMass needs to hold Davidson under 50 percent in effective field goal percentage. When their opponents shoot 50 percent or better on that metric, the Minutemen are 2-5. Davidson has several offensive options to counter in Oskar Michelson, Peyton Aldridge, Brian Sullivan, Jack Gibbs and Tyler Kalinoski, the latter two of whom play at least 25 minutes per game and account for 45 percent of the Wildcats’ shots taken when they are on the floor. The Wildcats boast an eFG% of 50 percent or better in 11 of their 14 games this season, losing two of three when they convert below that rate.
  • Rhode Island at Massachusetts (Saturday 1/17, 2:30 PM ET, NBCSN) — As the second game of the Minutemen’s home stand, it is mandatory that Derek Kellogg’s squad go at least 1-1 (preferably 2-0) this week. Rhode Island and Massachusetts have mirror games this season, so a win here would give the Rams a chance to for two wins against their regional rivals, an important benchmark in Hurley’s rebuilding program. The Rams would like to hold the Minutemen to less than 50 percent eFG shooting, because they win (11-0) when their opponents do not convert at that rate or better..
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