Deep Atlantic 10 boasts six teams with NCAA tourney aspirations
RPI top-43 teams: Rhode Island, Temple, Xavier, Charlotte, Richmond, Dayton
The next 10 days feature five marquee matchups between the league's top teams
The A-10 hasn't placed more than three teams in the NCAA tournament since '04
AMHERST, Mass. -- The look from first-year Xavier coach Chris Mack to reserve forward Andrew Taylor was frostier than the unfriendly February air blowing outside the Mullins Center.
Mack's Musketeers were in the process of kicking away a 17-point halftime lead and Taylor had just been victimized by some UMass hustle and muscle that turned a scrambling series of offensive rebounds into a wide-open three. With the lead down to five, Mack called timeout and slowly walked onto the floor. When Taylor arrived from the other end of the court, Mack provided evidence that the Bambino's not the only curse in New England.
Xavier ultimately held off the youthful Minutemen for an 87-79 win on Wednesday night, but the scene symbolizes the current state of the Atlantic 10: Things are getting hot and nothing is going to come easy.
That's the way life normally is in this league. The travel, with members throughout the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic and Midwest, is onerous. The arenas vary wildly in quality, size and atmosphere. The quality of basketball is good enough to get you beat on almost any night, but is not perceived to be at the high-major level, where those defeats are considered respectable come Selection Sunday.
Well, you can't shrink the country or enlarge Fordham's Rose Hill Gym, but the last part of that annual equation may be about to change.
The A-10 currently has six teams -- Rhode Island, Temple, Xavier, Charlotte, Richmond and Dayton -- in the top 43 of the RPI. That means when those teams start facing each other, which they will five times in the next 10 days alone, those games will be RPI helpers. Much like the Missouri Valley Confernce in 2006, if results break the right way, all of these teams are going to have very strong computer profiles at season's end, with a series of league wins that should be very valuable in at-large consideration. This year, the A-10, literally and figuratively, could get a major at-large haul.
"I've read these articles about the A-10's emergence for 20 years, but this year is particularly outstanding," said Richmond coach Chris Mooney, whose Spiders beat Missouri, Mississippi State and Florida. "To have six teams in any league that have a sense of an at-large bid in February is impressive. Almost any league in the country would take that."
This season, the Pac-10 is nowhere near that. The Big Ten, ACC and SEC don't appear to be in any better shape. Yet, the expectation in those leagues remains, like it does every season, that teams can "make a run" and play their way into NCAA contention. In the A-10, things usually work the other way. Conference play often acts as a culling process that whittles the league down to a more "appropriate" bid haul.
The A-10 hasn't placed more than three teams into the NCAA tournament since four made it in 2004 and, apropos of its struggle for national respect, didn't receive any at-large slots the year after that. If Temple hadn't nabbed unexpected tournament titles the last two seasons, it's quite possible the league may have totaled nine NCAA bids over the past five seasons combined, with no more than two in any one season.
Years of working to improve nonleague scheduling are paying off this season. Detractors will quickly point out that the league is 1-22 overall in nonleague games against the RPI Top 25, but almost half of those were played by teams outside the top six. Of the 12 losses suffered by teams in at-large contention, eight were on the road and five of those were by two points or fewer or in overtime. The three neutral-site defeats came by eight, five and six points.
On the plus side, the league's big six currently have 17 wins against RPI top 100 teams out of conference and went a combined 8-5 in home or neutral-site games against the RPI top 50. Bottom line: The A-10 has beaten some quality teams while not getting nearly the favorable scheduling advantages (read: home games) major conferences enjoy.
"Our teams speak for themselves, our coaches speak for themselves, our records speak for themselves," said Rhode Island coach Jim Baron, whose 18-3 Rams sport a lofty RPI of 12 and recently snapped Dayton's 30-game home winning streak. "What our conference has done in nonconference is to better ourselves and better our league. Everything isn't done on 'buy games,' you know what I mean?"
The other aspect of the brewing perfect bid storm is that the league standings are starting to shake out in inverse order of quality of nonleague performance. Richmond, with three quality wins, has more wiggle room than teams like Xavier, which suffered a series of very tough nonleague losses, and Charlotte, which pounded undermanned Louisville at Freedom Hall but was blown out in several other games against NCAA tournament-level foes. Therefore, for the league's sake, it's a positive that Xavier leads the way at 8-1, with only a five-point loss at nationally ranked Temple sullying its A-10 campaign. It's good that Charlotte already has won at Richmond and beaten Temple. It's OK, for now, that Richmond lost at struggling Saint Louis and also ate one of the three home league losses so far for the top six squads. If Dayton can hold serve in huge upcoming home games against Xavier and Charlotte, the Flyers also should remain strongly in the mix.
"We have to figure out a way to make up for [the home loss to Rhode Island]," Dayton coach Brian Gregory said. "The good thing for all the teams is you'll have the opportunity to do some things, because if you win, you'll be beating some really good teams. At points in the past, if you got yourself into a hole, if you beat some teams, you may be able to get out of the hole with just wins, but maybe not the perception of what kind of wins those are."
For all of these contenders, any wins are good wins at this point. That's why Mack could feel relief after Wednesday's victory. The Musketeers were far from perfect in nonleague play, so it will take a strong finish in a league that often has been marginalized come March to warrant a moment of Madness.
"I'm very aware of the history of the conference and how many bids we've gotten," Mack said, "I think it's going to be ultracompetitive down the stretch for the teams that are battling for first place, second, third, because there are no guarantees. You don't want to leave it anyone's hands."
If things continue as they are, though, the A-10 may force a lot of hands come Selection Sunday.
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