Checking in on… the Atlantic 10

Posted by Joe Dzuback (@vbtnblog) on February 25th, 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.

Where They Stand

The conference regular season is two weeks away from finishing. Using possession-based offensive and defensive efficiency differences, three distinct tiers in the Atlantic 10 have emerged. The top five teams (see table below) — Davidson, Dayton, Virginia Commonwealth, Richmond and Rhode Island — have separated themselves from their nine conference-mates by an efficiency margin that will not disappear over the next four games. Richmond and Rhode Island present “Nitty Gritty” profiles that read “NIT” rather than “NCAA,” and Massachusetts, lodged in the middle tier but possessing a winning conference record and an non-conference schedule strength ranked second in the league, will test eyeballs and gut-checks. Those three aside, however, the conference records and efficiency margins are behaving more than in seasons past. This is not the conference that sent six teams to the NCAAs last March, but lacking any clear locks (Virginia Commonwealth might be the only team that could lose out and still draw an at-large invitation) the A-10 has three solid candidates for the NCAA Tournament and three more bubble teams. Reviewing the remaining games indicates that bids for the bubble will most likely come at the expense of the conference’s three strongest candidates.


These Teams Can Make the NCAA Tournament If…

  • Virginia Commonwealth (21-6, 11-3) — The Rams have to stay healthy and not lose to George Mason (RPI #221). Losing Briante Weber was a blow, but the recent two-game skid happened while senior wing Treveon Graham, coach Shaka Smart’s penultimate go-to guy, was sidelined with a ankle sprain. The three-game bounce back came with Graham in the lineup. In a one possession game when a score is necessary Smart will give Graham the ball and call for a clear out. VCU’s offense and defense took a step back during much of the season, but Graham’s numbers (usually coupled with one from an assortment of complementary parts, especially Mel Johnson and Moe Alie-Cox) have been strong enough to carry the team against most opponents on most nights. With one of the more challenging four games slates remaining (Richmond, Dayton, Davidson and George Mason have a combined conference record of 31-25, 0.554), the priority is to not lose to GMU. A 3-1 finish (24-7, 14-4) is probably optimistic, but anything less would put the Rams into tie-breakers with at least one other conference team. VCU holds the tie-breaker over Rhode Island (the most likely tie), but a loss to Dayton would give the Flyers the tie-breaker and should the loss come to Davidson, the Rams and Wildcats would have to muddle through the next set of tie-breaker rules to determine the #1 seed in Brooklyn. The Rams have been a regular fixture in the conference tournament championship game since joining the conference in 2012, but have yet to win either the regular season (and take the #1 seed in the tournament) or the tournament championship game.

  • Rhode Island (19-6, 11-3) — At 19-6 overall with four games to go the Rams will need to go 3-1 to secure at least a #2 seed in Brooklyn. This team is a year ahead of schedule, but with a weak out of conference slate (SOS rank #238) coach Dan Hurley’s squad, with an RPI rank somewhere (according to Warren Nolan’s Nitty Gritty Report) in the low 60s, is still on the wrong side of the cutline. An 0-4 top 50 record is modestly countered with a 3-1 51-100 record. Two of Rhody’s remaining opponents, La Salle and Saint Joseph’s, can only hurt them should they lose while the other two, Dayton (away) and Davidson (home), are top 100. Those two are also the Rams’ closest competition for the #2 seed, so wins serve a duel purpose of securing URI’s seed in the A10 conference tournament, and bolster their NCAA credentials. A deep run in Brooklyn that includes additional wins over top 100 opponents will still be needed to keep the Rams’ hopes for the NCAA alive. A 2-2 record should drop coach Dan Hurley’s squad down to the 4 seed in Brooklyn, and effectively quash any hope, short of an A10 conference tournament championship, of the NCAA tournament this season. The NIT, a realistic expectation, should give the Rams a home game to start, a chance to advance two-to-three (or more) rounds against comparable competition and thereby build confidence going into next season.

    This team is a year ahead of schedule, but with a weak out of conference slate (SOS rank #238) coach Dan Hurley's squad is still on the wrong side of the cutline. (AP)

    This team is a year ahead of schedule, but with a weak non-conference slate (SOS rank #238), coach Dan Hurley’s squad is still on the wrong side of the cut line. (AP)

  • Dayton (20-6, 10-4) — The Conference Coach of the Year race was decided in early February with Flyer head coach Archie Miller the clear choice. In an era when this season’s Cinderella turns into next season’s pumpkin, Miller has coached last season’s Elite Eight to a 20-6 overall record despite an episode of players behaving badly that has left the Flyers with a roster of nine scholarship players all of whom are 6’6″ or shorter. Since Dayton expelled juniors Jalen Robinson and Devon Scott they have compiled a 12-4 (10-4 in conference) record. Even with one of his trio of tallest remaining players, Kendall Pollard day-to-day with concussion-like symptoms suffered during the Flyers’ 75-61 win at St. Bonaventure February 14. Dayton has a four-game slate remaining that includes Rhode Island (home), Virginia Commonwealth (away) and La Salle (away). A 2-2/3-1 finish would give the Flyers a 12 or 13 conference wins and 22+ wins overall. That should translate into a #3 seed in Brooklyn and an at-large NCAA bid in hand before the conference. Getting Pollard back to join Dyshawn Pierre and Bobby Wehrli, the two other 6’6″ forwards who make up the front court rotation, is critical for a run in Brooklyn and beyond.
  • Davidson (19-6, 10-4) – An unimpressive out of conference slate (SOS #218) combined with several sub 200 conference opponents translates into a high 50s RPI rank for Davidson, which undermines their 19-6 overall record. Fueling skeptics’ doubts are two losses, to Saint Joseph’s (away) and St. Bonaventure (home), that came during junior point guard Jack Gibbs’ seven game absence (slight meniscus tear) a period when the Wildcats notched a 5-2 record. Coach Bob McKillop has to be concerned with Gibbs’ durability, but can find comfort in freshmen Payton Aldridge (forward) and Oskar Michelson’s (forward) development. McKillop’s front court rotation is young (the two freshmen plus fellow freshman Nathan Ekwu, sophomore Andrew McAuliffe and junior Jordan Barham) and short (no one is over 6’8″) but deep, an advantage given their pace (67.5 possessions per game 56th out of 348 in Division 1). Keeping Gibbs healthy will be a priority as the Wildcats close out with a four game schedule that includes games with Rhode Island (away), George Washington (home) and Virginia Commonwealth (home). A 3-1 finish would give Davidson a 22 win season, no worse than #3 seed in the A10 Tournament and (most likely) move the Wildcats high enough on the “last eight in list” to survive the expected Conference Tournament Week upsets. Especially true if one of those wins comes compliments of VCU. Their fans should be pleased with this inaugural season.
  • Massachusetts (16-11, 9-4) — The Minutemen are still in the NCAA conversation thanks to very strong out of conference SOS. Had they posted a better out of conference record than 7-6, they most likely would be very close to “in” or at least right side of the bubble. Despite a conference record that should give them no worse than a #5 or #6 seed in Brooklyn, their resume for the Selection Committee needs work — a 6-9 record with the top 100 teams will not cut it, UMass needs more 1-100 wins. The closing slate gives coach Derek Kellogg’s squad two more opportunities — Richmond (#88 home) and George Washington (#87 away) — but the Minutemen must avoid losing to Fordham (RPI #232) to remain viable. Several wins in the conference tournament would be very helpful.

These Teams Will Play Somewhere After Brooklyn If…

George Washington, Richmond and La Salle have played themselves out of the NCAA Tournament conversation, but there is still a chance for a berth in the NIT or one of the “C” tournaments. With RPI rankings in the #70-#90 range, there should be interest elsewhere if they can burnish their resumes.

Alonzo Nelson-Ododa

Losing junior forward Alonzo Nelson-Ododa blunted a better than expected season. (Richmond Athletics)

  • George Washington (17-10, 7-7) — The three-game slide at the start of February ended any chance for the NCAA tournament, but other postseason opportunities are there if the Colonials can muster one more push. Improving their A10 Tournament seed dramatically (they would be seeded #6-#8 if the season ended today) is impossible, but the juniors can create some separation from the schools clustered in the middle of standings right now (Richmond, St. Bonaventure) and gather a few more wins to impress the NIT committee. Best bets include George Mason and Massachusetts (they host the Minutemen to close out the regular season).
  • Richmond (15-12, 8-6) — Losing junior forward Alonzo Nelson-Ododa (concussion and fracture near his right eye) blunted a better-than-expected season. The Spiders, 15-11 overall, are on the radar for the NIT. With four games remaining finishing with a 10-8 conference record is realistic should coach Chris Mooney’s squad win as expected against Saint Joseph’s and St. Louis. The other two opponents, VCU (home) and Massachusetts (away) are more problematic, especially lacking Nelson-Ododa. Stronger than expected development of sophomore forward T.J.Cline and freshman point guard ShawnDre’ Jones suggest that a post season in 2015 will build to a better result in 2016.
  • La Salle (15-12, 7-7) — The 68-64 overtime road loss to St. Louis Sunday afternoon shouts NIT (or a tournament that starts with “C”). Leading for the middle 38 minutes, the Explorers committed two consecutive turnovers in the last minute of regulation that allowed the struggling Billikens to catch them. Dr. John Giannini’s squad could not muster another push in overtime to nail down the “W”. With 15 wins and four regular season games to play La Salle will need at least one win in the Atlantic 10 conference tournament to record their third 20 win record in the last four seasons. The Explorers will have to win out over a slate that includes Rhode Island (home) and Dayton (home), two opponents they are not expected to beat, even with the home court advantage. Even with a 2-2 record, La Salle should have opportunities in Brooklyn and beyond for two more wins. The good news for Giannini is that his squad is young, among the youngest in Division 1, and junior front court players Jerrell Wright and Steve Zack, barring unforeseen developments, should be back for one more season. Jordan Price is a keeper and Cleon Roberts will improve going into next season.

Games to Catch This Week

The weekend reduced the three-way tie between Virginia Commonwealth, Rhode Island and Dayton by one. VCU and URI hold one game leads over Dayton and Davidson going into games on Wednesday and Saturday this week. Even with one game in hand and four to go, the pair of Rams are far from secure. Both will feel pressure Wednesday to keep pace with wins over difficult opponents. Dayton and Davidson will have their chances too, as each has a faceoff coming with the front-runners this week. With virtually no locks so far, this week’s slate features three games that will clarify the seeds for the Atlantic 10 Tournament. Two of those games may also serve as elimination games for NCAA bids.

  • Davidson at Rhode Island (Wednesday 2/25 7:00 PM ET) — A game ostensibly to decide (at least) the #2 seed for Brooklyn next month, a loss for Rhode Island virtually eliminates the Rams’ from NCAA consideration. With an RPI mired in the 60s, Coach Dan Hurley’s squad needs more wins over top 100 opponents like Davidson. Wildcat coach Bob McKillop wants to play up-tempo while Rhody coach Dan Hurley will want to grind this out as a half-court chess match. Possession-rates alone will not decide the winner, but should Hurley succeed, how Davidson handles a game of that style, more characteristic of the NCAA tournament, may foreshadow their prospects next month. Jack Gibbs and E.C. Matthews will draw the eyeballs and ink, but the game will turn on whether Rhode Island’s three point defense can crowd Gibbs, Tyler Kalinosky and Brian Sullivan off their spots and whether Davidson’s young front court rotation (Nathan Ekwu, Oskar Michelson, Andrew McAuliffe and Payton Aldridge) can control the boards. Those two elements will determine the pace and style. Hurley will need exceptional effort from his more experienced front court, Gilvydas Biruta, Earl Watson and Hasan Martin. Watch those guys. Davidson is flirting with the cutline; a win here helps materially while a loss hurts their prospects.
  • Virginia Commonwealth at Richmond (Wednesday 2/25 7:00 PM ET ESPN2) — On the heels of the Spiders’ upset at VCU last month, Ken Pomeroy projects Richmond as the winner (by a one point margin). The numbers do not tell us that the Rams were reeling from Briante Weber’s in game injury (out for the season), nor that Richmond will not have Alonzo Nelson-Ododa, also injured several games later. Moe Alie-Cox and the balance of VCU’s front court rotation will still have to handle Terry Allen and T.J. Cline, but should put up better numbers than his first game. Weber’s absence takes the edge off of the HAVOC defense, but Spider coach Chris Mooney will have to find a defense that contains Treveon Graham.
  • Dayton at Virginia Commonwealth (Saturday 2/28 2:00 PM ET ESPN2) — The Rams’ season-ending gauntlet continues with a visit from third place Dayton. Coach Shaka Smart can present the undersized Flyers with a front court trio of 6’7″ and taller players. That line up should dominate the boards and limit lane scoring. The challenge for coach Archie Miller is daunting but familiar. No matter who Smart rotates through the VCU front court Miller, limited to rotation of eight players, will rely on Kendall Pollard, Dyshawn Pierre and Bobby Wehrli all of whom are 6’6″. The Flyer offense will rest with senior wing Jordan Sibert, Pollard and Pierre. Sophomore guard Scoochi Smith, a 40% three point sniper, will have to be a game-long answer to VCU’s inside scoring. Two VCU losses will cost the Rams a seedline next month, a ripple in the larger NCAA picture, but conference standings, relatively stable since the second week in January, could go into next week with four leaders. The game will not eliminate Dayton from the field of 68, but a loss would limit their confersence seed upside to #3.
  • George Washington at Davidson (Saturday 2/28 7:00 PM ET) — The Colonials are looking at an NIT bid at this point and a win here would not put them back onto the bubble. Should this be Davidson’s second loss of the week however, the Wildcats, ranked in the RPI high 50s, will need wins in the last week and conference tournament to stay on the Selection Committee’s radar. GWU’s conference road record, 2-5, is one of the disappointments for coach Mike Lonergan, a troubling benchmark for his youngish squad that should also trouble the committee that selects the NIT field. Contrasting possessions and field goal distribution mean this too will be another clash of styles for Davidson. Unlike the match in Kingston Wednesday night, this game will be played in Belk Arena, a comfortable setting for Jack Gibbs, Tyler Kalinoski and Brian Sullivan.
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