I. Renko is an RTC columnist. He will kick off each weekend during the season with his analysis of the 26 other non-power conferences. Follow him on Twitter @IRenkoHoops.
When the A-10 added Butler and VCU to its ranks this past offseason, we knew that the two teams would strengthen the now 16-team conference. The two schools, each of which has had recent improbable Final Four runs, were expected to join the ranks of Xavier, Temple, St. Louis, and Dayton, and, along with a resurgent St. Joseph’s, UMass, and LaSalle, make the A-10 the deepest and, arguably, most exciting non-BCS conference in the country. But after the past week, it’s become clear that not only are these two programs going to add depth to the A-10, they may very well conquer it in their first year.
By now you know that Butler took down top-ranked Indiana 88-86 in a thrilling overtime win last Saturday. What was most surprising about the win, though, was how Butler did it. It wasn’t their vaunted defense, which gave up 1.13 points per possession to Indiana’s full-throttled attack — the second most this year for the Bulldogs and well above their averages during the Brad Stevens era. Rather, it was Butler’s efficient offense, which registered 1.16 points per possession. Part of that was their three-point shooting (11-24, 48.1%) with Rotnei Clarke leading the way (5-11). We have come to expect that from Butler, which often relies on the three-point shot as a great equalizer. But the more surprising, and perhaps more significant, elements of Butler’s offense were its willingness to attack the basket and its prodigious output on the offensive glass. Sophomore wing Roosevelt Jones led the attack, often exploiting a favorable matchup against Jordan Hulls, en route to 16 points on 6-10 shooting (no threes). And the Bulldogs rebounded nearly half of their own misses — 48.7%. To some extent, the Bulldogs took advantage of sloppy block-outs by Indiana, but this reflects a season-long strength and a marked shift from the early years of Brad Stevens’ tenure. In Stevens’ first four seasons, Butler never averaged an offensive rebounding percentage of more than 32.8 percent. But last year, the Bulldogs hauled in 35 percent of their misses, and this year, it’s up to 39.4 percent.
As impressive as Butler’s win was, VCU quietly made waves of its own this past week as they pummeled Alabama and Western Kentucky by a combined 51 points. In both games, VCU went for the kill early, jumping out to big leads on the strength of their Havoc defense. The Rams did not allow Alabama to score a field goal until 10:44 had elapsed, en route to a 33-18 halftime lead that they would convert into a 73-54 final score. Alabama finished the game with 18 turnovers — a season high, as it often is for teams facing VCU’s defensive pressure. Four days later, VCU suffered no letdown from its BCS beatdown, whipping on Western Kentucky, one of the Sun Belt’s top teams and last year’s Tournament participant. After jumping out to 15-3 lead, the Rams would head into halftime up 42-16, cruising the rest of the way to a 76-44 win. VCU forced a whopping 32 turnovers, including one on each of Western Kentucky’s first three possessions.
The old Bulldogs may be learning new tricks while the Rams thrive on the tried-and-true, but regardless of how they’re doing it, both teams have vaulted themselves to the top of A-10 heap. Don’t take my word for it, ask the computers. Any of them — Butler and VCU are the A-10’s two highest ranking teams in the RPI, Sagarin ratings, and Pomeroy ratings. The A-10’s mainstays have not distinguished themselves. Temple was routed badly by Duke in its first real competitive game of the year and just lost to Canisius at home by 10 points; Xavier is trying to replace five starters; St. Louis is trying to get their feet under them after losing their coach and then their star point guard to injury; and St. Joe’s, UMass, and Dayton have struggled to find consistency. As a result, there is a good chance that the A-10 will crown a champion it has never crowned before.
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