Checking in on… the Atlantic 10

Posted by Joe Dzuback (@vbtnblog) on December 17th, 2015

Joe Dzuback (@vbtnblog) is the RTC correspondent for the Atlantic 10 Conference.

Is the Atlantic 10 Fading?

Did Feast Week foretell a conference-wide stumble? After compiling a 36-10 (0.783) record through the season’s first 10 days, Atlantic 10 teams cooled off to a still solid 21-10 (0.677) record during the height of the early season invitational tournament events. Rolling into Finals Week (an academic, not an ESPN-inspired, reference), the conference’s December results of 29-19 (0.604) show another decline. The best win in December so far — Dayton‘s 72-67 win at Vanderbilt on December 9 — stands nearly alone among the consensus top seven conferences (AAC, ACC, Big East, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC). This month’s games have established that the A-10’s better squads are better than the top seven’s stragglers — George Washington has beaten Penn State (Big Ten) and Rutgers (Big Ten); Fordham demolished St. John’s (Big East); and there have been a number of near-misses. The sheer number of double-figure losses are numerous and troubling for those contemplating four or more bids come March, however. December losses that the Selection Committee may have trouble ignoring should those teams find themselves on the bubble include Richmond’s loss at Florida (12/1), Massachusetts’ loss to Mississippi on a neutral court (12/5), and Davidson’s big loss to North Carolina (12/6).

Mike Lonergan

Mike Lonergan and George Washington have been the class of the A-10 so far. (USA TODAY Sports)

Their Season So Far

Five of the conference’s better postseason prospects …

  • George Washington (#21 AP, 9-1) — The conference’s first team in a Top 25 poll this season (the Colonials are #22 in the USA Today/Coaches Poll) gained some national press when they knocked off ACC preseason favorite Virginia, 73-68, in their second game back on November 13. A five-point loss to #23 Cincinnati in the Barclays Center Classic championship finals remains their only blemish. The Colonials’ resume is heavily sprinkled with teams from the top seven conferences –Tennessee (SEC), Seton Hall (Big East), Penn State, Rutgers (Big Ten) and South Florida (AAC) — all wins. Virginia and Cincinnati are favored to hear the call come Selection Sunday; Tennessee and Seton Hall may find themselves in the conversation by the end of February. With St. Peter’s (NEC) and two more lower division top eight conference teams (Central Florida — AAC and DePaul — Big East) still to play, coach Mike Lonergan’s squad should start their conference slate with a 12-1 record … and a target on their back.

  • Dayton (7-2) — Based on their 2-1 record in the AdvoCare Invitational, the Flyers rode a wave of positive publicity out of Feast Week. Beating Vanderbilt in Nashville garnered some favorable publicity, but when the Flyers’ dropped a 61-59 decision to Chattanooga most of the buzz went very quiet very quickly. A single last minute loss (even though it came at home) will not make or break Dayton’s prospects, but the Flyers can help their cause by running the rest of their non-conference slate which includes a December 30 date with Arkansas of the SEC. The Flyers would then start their conference season with a 10-2 record that includes three-to-four resume wins. The non-conference slate so far has exposed a tendency to turn the ball over and a lack of second chance opportunities. Freshmen experience may cure the former, while the return of suspended forward Dyshawn Pierre, coupled with keeping foul-prone red shirt freshman Steve McElvine on the court should solve the latter. Archie Miller has consistently gotten more from less in each of his four previous seasons at Dayton — stay tuned, this season should be no different.

Archie Miller and Dayton will likely be right in the mix of things per usual. (USA TODAY Sports)

  • Davidson (7-1) — A consensus top-three finisher according to conference coaches, the Wildcats rode a 5-0 wave into Chapel Hill where they stumbled badly, taking a 33-point, 98-65 shot to the jaw. Although they bounced back against a pair of directional schools, Eastern Washington (96-86) and Western Carolina (87-54), that whopping by the Tar Heels left a lasting impression with poll voters. Usually good for a mention among the “Others receiving votes” in the polls, Davidson has gathered no votes since December 6. Their schedule continues to feature former Southern Conference mates like Mercer and College of Charleston, the Wildcats need wins against two major conference opponents coming up in Pittsburgh and California if they are to get those Heel marks off their back. They face the Panthers on a neutral court December 20, and travel to the West coast for a December 28 game with the Golden Bears. Bob McKillop’s charges may start their conference slate at a ceiling of 10-1 or (if KenPom is to be believed) a low of 8-3. With the A-10 lacking a clear standard bearer this season, betting a strong conference record will shore up their postseason resume is a risky play. McKillop needs to finish the month with at least a 2-1 record to have some post season momentum going into conference play.
  • Virginia Commonwealth (5-4) — The Atlantic 10 coaches picked the Rams to seed for four days of play in Brooklyn this March, a first for the Rams who joined the conference in 2012-13 season. Their losses to Duke, Wisconsin and Florida State (though competitive) suggest the line was justified. Will Wade’s squad has some seniors and potential, but he will have to guide them through a flawless four-game finish to December to have VCU in position to compete in conference play. Wade’s squad will host Cincinnati on Saturday (see below) with Buffalo, Liberty and North Florida to close out with what should be (if KenPom is to be believed) three wins. Should the Rams begin their conference slate boasting a 10-3 (or even a 9-4) record, strong conference play should cast those near misses versus Duke and Wisconsin in a different context.
  • Rhode Island (6-4) — The sleeper pick on Media Day, Rhode Island’s season took a huge stumble when guard EC Matthews was injured in their first game. Dan Hurley was forced to throw a committee of guards into the breach. The Rams have dropped close decisions to Valparaiso (58-55), Providence (74-72) and Nebraska (70-67), games whose results may have switched columns had Matthews been available to play. 9-1 is so much better than 6-4. The 23-point loss to Maryland on a neutral court stands out. Their best win to date is Houston (67-57), not enough to counter the losses. Their three remaining opponents, in-state rival Brown, Old Dominion and MAAC power Iona will not move the needle much (unless they lose). Expect Hurley’s charges to start the conference with a 9-4 record.
NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 16: DeAndre Bembry #43 of the Saint Joseph's Hawks handles the ball against the Virginia Commonwealth Rams during the Championship game of the 2014 Atlantic 10 Men's Basketball Tournament at Barclays Center on March 16, 2014 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. (Photo by Mike Lawrie/Getty Images)

DeAndre Bembry draws most of the attention, for good reason, but his teammates are also performing at a high level this year. (Getty Images)

  • Saint Joseph’s (7-2) — DeAndre Bembry draws most of the defensive attention and senior forward Isaiah Miles is posting career season numbers. Best of the seven wins is a one-point overtime (66-65) squeaker over Big 5 rival Temple. The others include a collection of Ivy League, MAC, MAAC and C-USA schools, most of whom will struggle when they turn to their conference slate next month. The two losses, both by double digits to the two best opponents on their slate, pose only a minor problem come March if coach Phil Martelli’s squad can post a strong conference record. Bembry and Miles will make the magic happen if point guard Shavar Newkirk can find his shot and freshman forward Pierfrancesco Oliva can put himself in the Rookie of the Year conversation during conference play. Martelli has one more shot at a major conference opponent when they play Virginia Tech at the Barclay’s Center December 22. The facility is familiar for the players. Run those three and the Hawks will stand at 10-2 when they start conference play.

But What About … ?

Five of Duquesne’s (8-2) wins came versus Division 2 opponents and teams whose KenPom ratings are #176 or lower (i.e. the bottom half of Division 1). The Dukes’ RPI numbers are about the same (three opponents whose RPI rank is #176 or lower). Coach Jim Ferry’s squad closes out their out of conference schedule versus Georgia Tech — Yellow Jacket coach Brian Gregory’s previous job was Dayton, which may explain the Tech’s affinity for A-10 teams this season — on December 30. The scoring margin should provide a hint on how Ferry’s charges will fare come conference play. Richmond (6-3) is, like Saint Josesph’s, somewhere near the bubble according to the RPI (#56). The Spiders may prove to be a legitimate contender by late February, after all, coach Chris Mooney has his prototype point guard in 5′ 11″ ShawnDre’ Jones, but Richmond, with a mediocre field goal defense against teams, three of which (according to the RPI) come from the bottom third of Division 1, will have to either firm up their interior defense or offset those close-in field goals with a more aggressive turnover rate. Mooney’s squad will close out December at Texas Tech — one last opportunity before conference play commences to add a resume win. Seven of Fordham’s (8-1) eight wins came versus a Division 2 team and six Division 1 team’s whose RPI rank is lower than #176. First year coach Jeff Neubauer’s best win came complements of cross-town rival St. John’s (73-57). How good will the Johnnies, who return just 5% of their playing minutes from last season’s squad, really be this season? After the Rams play Boston College (ACC) on December 22, they will take a 12 day break and open conference play on the road at George Washington, which should be a reality check for the Rose Hill gang. St. Bonaveture‘s record (6-2) belies a schedule chock-a-block with struggling local rivals and teams from the lower half of Division 1. The Bonnies will close their non-conference schedule hosting Little Four rival Niagara (3-8 out of the MAAC). Like Ferry and Neubauer, coach Mark Schmidt will rely on the conference slate to establish post season credentials.

Three Games to Catch This Weekend

The fall semester is winding towards final examinations, but Atlantic 10 programs have a few games play (and scores to settle?) before the holidays. Between final examinations, winter break and the two week “Bowl Season,” most Division I basketball programs will go on hiatus (or at least cut back significantly) on their schedules during this period. In the five days leading up to Christmas, conference teams will play a total of 24 games, with each team playing at least once (and Davidson three times). Between Christmas and New Year’s, however, conference play drops to 13 games (with 12 of 14 teams playing). “Games to Catch” this week reflect this wind-down.

Will Wade and VCU have a big challenge ahead in Cincinnati. (Times Free Press)

Will Wade and VCU have a big challenge ahead in Cincinnati. (Times Free Press)

  • Virginia Commonwealth vs. (#23 AP) Cincinnati (Saturday December 19, 4:00 PM CBS Sports Net) — The Bearcats beat George Washington (61-56) at the Barclay’s Center in last month. They used a punishing inside shot defense to hold the Colonials to 29% two point completion rate and while holding them to one shot (75% defensive rebounding rate) on many possessions. True, GW completed 50% of their three-point attempts (11-of-22), but fouls and physicality took their toll as coach Mick Cronin’s squad used a 22-14 run in the last 10 minutes to overtake Lonergan’s squad. Senior guard Mel Johnson will get his from the outside, but Wade will need stronger outside shooting from Doug Brooks, JeQuan Lewis, Jordan Burgess and Korey Billbury. Cincinnati will give VCU’s front court contingent, Mo Alie-Cox, Ahmed Hamdy Mohamed, Justin Tillman and Michael Gilmore the best set of opponents they will face this season. The game may turn on whether the foul-prone trio of Tillman, Gilmore and Mohamed can aggressively contribute for the entire 40 minutes. Track the fouls, home court advantage might help the Rams.
  • Davidson vs. Pittsburgh (Sunday December 20, 12:00 PM, ESPNU) — The game will be played at Madison Square Garden as the undercard in the Gotham Classic. A perennial contender in the physical Big East, the Panthers have settled into the middle of the Atlantic Coast Conference since joining in 2014. McKillop has developed an especially perimeter-oriented variation of the motion offense, eschewing offensive rebounds and pressing defenses to keep the tempo higher than average for Division 1 play. Pitt’s defense will stretch the clock, look for how easily (and frequently) Davidson can score, particularly from the arc. The Panthers like to punch it inside and rely on interior scoring to wear their opponent down. Michael Young, Sheldon Jeter, fifth-year senior transfer (from Richmond) Alonzo Nelson-Ododa and Rafael Maia are taller and/or heavier than their Wildcat counterparts (Nathan Ekwu, Peyton Aldridge, Oskar Michelsen, Jake Belford and Andrew McAuliffe). Pitt will dominate the boards, Davidson’s conversion rate will have to be high (better than 40% beyond the arc) to keep up.
  • Massachusetts vs (#14 AP) Providence (Monday December 21, 7:00 PM) – Home court advantage notwithstanding, if Providence is back to full strength (Ryan Fazekas has missed two games, both Kris Dunn and Ben Bentil have been used sparingly through last weekend) the Minutemen will have their hands full. Bentil and Rodney Bullock may be the best front court rotation Tyler Bergantino, Rashaan Holloway, Zach Coleman and Seth Berger see before they host George Washington on January 12. Coach Derek Kellogg’s squad has stop Kris Dunn and the Friars’ lethal combination of Bentil and Bullock. Defensive rebounding and two point shot defense are known Massachusetts weaknesses. Kellogg’s charges shoot well, but the Friars may limit opportunities through forced turnovers and steals.
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