The Atlantic 10 is deep. We've known this would be the case since the summer, when VCU and Butler joined a year early (a year before Temple was set to leave for the Big East), and we're seeing it play out on a nightly basis now that conference play is in full swing. Let's get to the rankings:
1. Virginia Commonwealth. The Rams got all they could handle and more at home against Saint Joseph's on Thursday night. Frankly, down four with 14 seconds left, they probably should have lost the game in regulation. But Troy Daniels made a huge 3, Ronald Roberts missed the front end of a double bonus, and Darius Theus scrambled past a standstill Hawks defense to tie the score at 80 with just 6 seconds remaining. The Hawks, totally gassed, had no chance in overtime, and VCU handled business and came away with the win -- its 12th in a row. And man, are VCU wins -- or, for that matter, losses -- fun to watch.
2. Butler. Despite the loss of Rotnei Clarke to a scary neck injury -- which required a stretcher and a trip to the hospital, but which thankfully turned out to be a neck sprain -- the Bulldogs held on to win at Dayton on Saturday. They followed that up with an easy home victory over Richmond. Now comes the fun part. On Saturday, Brad Stevens and company will host Gonzaga in Hinkle Fieldhouse as the first "College GameDay" location of the season, and the first in Hinkle's 85-year history. Clarke will still be missing, and Butler will have to guard Gonzaga's efficient offense better than it has guarded anyone all season. Thus far, Butler ranks eighth in the conference in points allowed per possession, and first in per-possession scoring. The Bulldogs can really light it up, but they're still getting there on the defensive end.
3. Saint Louis
At this point, I'm willing to consider Saint Louis and Temple as essentially equals, power-rankings-wise. The Billikens lost in Philly last Saturday 64-54, but if we're not willing to forgive road losses in the A-10 then I'm going to have to overreact and downvote everybody at least once a week. After all, Temple scored only 52 points in 63 possessions at Xavier just a few days after pushing Kansas to the limit in Allen Fieldhouse. Point is, these two teams appear to be the third- and fourth-best in the league. Or fourth- and third-best, depending on your perspective and/or allegiances. But they're clearly a notch above the rest.
5. Massachusetts. Last week, I moved up UMass despite my season-long doubts because I watched all 40 minutes of its effort at Saint Louis, and it impressed me. But for a few mistakes down the stretch, and a few heady plays by the Billikens' veterans, Derek Kellogg's team might well have won that game. I see no reason to move UMass down this week. Sure, its 77-73 win at Fordham wasn't pretty, but it was a win, and UMass moved to 2-1 in A-10 play with a home win over Duquesne on Thursday night. I said this last week, and it bears repeating: On a per-possession basis, the Minutemen aren't much to look at. Per KenPom.com, their offense ranks outside the top 130, as does their defense. They don't have one particular statistical trait -- other than pace, where they average 73 possessions a game -- that will impress you. But as much as I lean on tempo-free stats, the Minutemen are 12-4 without a bad loss to their name. I'm willing to keep them here until those forgettable efficiency stats start to turn into Ls.
6. Saint Joseph's. At the end of Thursday night's loss at VCU, you could just see it: shoulders sagging, chests heaving, legs cramping -- the Hawks were done. Even the tirelessly wing-flapping Hawk mascot looked to be losing steam. It was that kind of a night, particularly when VCU forced overtime, but win or lose, the first 40 minutes were a valiant effort, and a really positive sign for a team that to date (as we discussed last week) hasn't looked much different from last season's 20-14 group. Perhaps the biggest difference Thursday was the return of Langston Galloway's shooting stroke. Last season, Galloway led the A-10 in 3-point field goal percentage at 46.6 percent; this season, he's shooting just 35.6. But he was 5-for-9 Thursday night, a figure that included a number of key buckets. If he can split the difference and just make around 40 percent, and if Carl Jones and C.J. Aiken can pressure opposing defenses as they pressured the league's best, this team might yet be going places.
7. Charlotte. The 49ers have begun the A-10 season 3-0, but that was to be expected: Their first three opponents were La Salle (home), Rhode Island (away) and Fordham (home). Indeed, at 15-2, Charlotte's only win over an opponent ranked in the KenPom top 100 is La Salle; no one else is ranked higher than 110. I don't say that as a method of detraction, though; there are real things to like about this team. Through three A-10 games, the 49ers have been the conference's best per-possession defense (allowing just 0.86 points per trip), they've rebounded about 35 percent of their misses this season, and they get to the line frequently on the offensive end. They just turn the ball over too often, and when they don't, don't shoot it particularly well, either. Needless to say, it'll be interesting to see what happens when the 49ers go on the road, beginning Saturday at Richmond.
8. La Salle. The Explorers toughed out a 72-70 home win over Dayton Wednesday, a game in which neither team carved more than a two-possession margin and which could have gone either way through the final minute. La Salle scored 1.01 points per possession; Dayton scored 0.99. It was that tight. It's the kind of win we might not remember in detail in March, when all of the results are in and we're comparing 30 at-large tournament resumes at a time. But it was a really great home-court stand, especially with a trip to Xavier up next.
9. Xavier. Should we be giving Xavier credit for its 3-0 league start? Absolutely. The Musketeers did, after all, hold Temple to 52 points on Jan. 10. And, for that matter, they did manage to get out of St. Bonaventure's gym with a 66-64 victory Wednesday. Next up is La Salle on Saturday, and if Xavier scores as it has in its first three games -- at 1.11 points per trip, it currently wields the league's second-most-efficient offense -- the Musketeers could very easily go to 4-0.
10. Dayton. When Archie Miller first looked at his team's Atlantic 10 schedule, he must have been at least a little exasperated. If he wasn't then, he is now. The Flyers kicked off conference play with a game at VCU, a home loss to Butler, and a trip to LaSalle, where the Explorers held the aforementioned line. Fortunately, it gets easier: Dayton is off until next Wednesday, when it gets Fordham at home, followed by Duquesne.
11. Richmond. Perhaps the three-point home win over Rhode Island on Jan. 9 wasn't a fluky off night but in fact a sign that this Richmond team just isn't very good after all. At that point, despite their defensive struggles, the Spiders were still playing efficient offense. And sure, they've had to deal with trips to La Salle and Butler. But still, they've scored just 0.91 PPP, and allowed 1.05, in those three games. If Richmond is putting points on the board it at least has a shot, but if it doesn't, the defense isn't nearly good enough to keep the Spiders out of the cellar.
12. George Washington. The Colonials nearly nipped Temple on Wednesday night, but instead suffered a 55-53 home loss. Simply put, this offense is bad: GW has exactly one player (reserve Dwayne Smith) whose offensive rating is above 102 (100 is about average). The Colonials rank No. 250 in the country in KenPom's adjusted offensive efficiency ranking. They can guard people, but man do they struggle to score.
13. St. Bonaventure. The Bonnies are sort of the polar opposite of George Washington: They score pretty well, and get good, efficient scoring from Demitrius Conger and Chris Johnson, but they've allowed 1.05 points per trip to opposing offenses this season, and that's simply not going to get the job done -- especially considering their early A-10 schedule. After dropping home games to VCU and Xavier, St. Bonaventure now has to tangle with Temple (Saturday) and Saint Joe's (Wednesday) on the road. Ouch.
14. Rhode Island. The theme of the Rams' season has been their effort. They might not be ready to compete yet, but they are making opponents earn their victories: They nearly got Richmond on the road Jan. 9, and they played Charlotte tight at home Saturday. One guesses their trip to Saint Louis this weekend won't go quite as well.
Maybe it's a sign of how tight this league is, or maybe the middle of the league just isn't ruthless at putting bad teams away, but neither of these teams is getting blown out. Fordham tested both UMass and Charlotte (and lost by a combined 10 points); Duquesne lost by eight to Saint Joe's. So, you know, there's that.