- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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Well, Atlantic 10 fans, it's that time: The final conference power rankings of the season. I know, I know. You're sad. I'm sad, too. It's hard to say goodbye. It's hard to let go. All we can do is remember all of the times we shared, all of the laughs, and the tears we shed -- usually because of Temple -- and take those experiences with us as we fan out to take on whatever the world holds for us next. I love you all.
1. Saint Louis. Saint Louis has come a long way.
I was being jokingly dramatic in the introduction, so I feel the need to make it clear that what follows actually isn't facetious at all. This week, this desk ran my colleague Dana O'Neil's typically excellent feature on Saint Louis, which details how Jim Crews and a devastated group of players -- all of whom seemed to really love Rick Majerus the way Brian Conklin loved Rick Majerus -- came together and fought through the emptiness of their coach's death to forge something positive. It hasn't been easy, on or off the court. On the court, Saint Louis stumbled in November against Santa Clara and Washington, and then later at the start of A-10 play; off the court, the Billikens learned of Majerus's death, and then served as pallbearers at his funeral. But it has all come together these past six weeks. Crews told O'Neil he never said the players needed to "honor" their departed coach with a successful season, or basketball in any form. Instead:
"We told them three things," Crews said. "First we told them to pray, have your prayers for Rick and his family. Number two, honor his lessons and laugh at the memories. And three, we said to do like Coach did: Live your life forward. Live your life forward. That's all you can do, guys."
I'm not sure there's a better or more impressive story in college basketball this season.
2. Virginia Commonwealth. VCU's total demolition of Butler last Saturday was a frustrating meta-watch, because it was the subject of a lot of gross overreaction. Yes, Butler got worked, and yes, VCU looked great. But the one-sided nature of the game was more a product of matchups: Butler doesn't handle the ball well (its point guard, Rotnei Clarke, is after all not really a point guard), and VCU absolutely shreds teams that can't take care of the ball. Hence the blowout. This is what makes VCU so dangerous, but also slightly unnerving in your bracket: If the Rams come up against a team that takes care of the ball at all costs, they haven't really proved they can get stops in a traditional way. Even so, having a style that dictates to your opponents more often than the reverse is a major advantage in the NCAA tournament. Plus, they're really fun to watch. That helps, too.
In the meantime, this conference race will come down to the final weekend. Saint Louis hosts La Salle on Saturday; VCU travels to Temple on Sunday. That is definitely the tougher assignment, but one the Rams can surely handle.
3. Butler. See above. Butler has its fair share of flaws -- too many turnovers, an inability to set up a preventative half-court defense because of them -- and all of them were exponentially exploited by VCU last Saturday. And honestly? Butler was pretty overrated for a while. Blame the victories over Indiana and Gonzaga, blame the benefit of the doubt, but the Bulldogs currently sit at No. 60 in the KenPom.com adjusted efficiency rankings. I don't know that they're that bad, either, and I can guarantee you no coach in the country wants to see them on their side of the NCAA tournament bracket. But there are definite issues here, issues VCU blew up and magnified for the whole world to see.
4. La Salle. The bad news for La Salle? The Explorers are only barely in the NCAA tournament bracket at this point; they're currently sitting on Joe Lunardi's No. 12 line. The good news? Everyone else on the bubble keeps falling apart. Also: La Salle's only remaining game, Saturday's trip to Saint Louis, is a no-lose situation. The selection committee won't judge La Salle too harshly if it falls to the Billikens on the road, and a decent showing in the Atlantic-10 tournament should be enough to seal the deal. Failing that, maybe Kentucky can keep losing bad games? Hey, whatever works.
5. Temple. Let's give it up for the Owls. I know, I know, I threw a shot at them in the introduction, but it was deserved -- Temple was the Atlantic 10's most sporadic team in 2012-13, which would put it high in the running for most sporadic worldwide. The Owls were capable of beating Syracuse in the Garden and losing to Canisius and Duquesne at home, and anything in between; they played five one-point games in a row, which is where luck meets insanity. But they've started to pull something reliable out of the rubble: Temple has won its past six games, many of those results not of the one-point-margin variety, and gets to close the season with a shot at VCU at home. Their bad losses have kept the Owls very much on the bubble, but you can't fault the recent work. It has been almost -- gasp -- consistent.
6. Xavier. The notion that Xavier could sneak into the NCAA tournament has seemed ridiculous for most of the season, given some of the really ugly losses and various growing pains this rebuilding (rebuilt?) Musketeers team has endured. But the late spate of home-schedule love always offered the chance for an outside push, and the Musketeers managed to split those games, dropping Memphis and Saint Louis but losing to VCU and UMass. Last on the docket is a trip to Butler, where a victory is not only a reasonable proposition but would be disproportionately attractive to the selection committee. So don't shut the front door just yet.
7. Massachusetts. Speaking of opportunities against Butler, the Minutemen had one Thursday night, and they let it get away. It has been an occasionally frustrating season for UMass fans, no doubt, because entering the season this had the look of a tournament team. If the Minutemen can't get in on this soft bubble, you'd have no choice but to call this a decent but ultimately disappointing season. But I will award some credit for style of play: In a sport dominated by slow-paced lurches, UMass has played some of the fastest basketball in the country all season long. From a purely stylistic standpoint, I salute it.
8. Saint Joseph's. I was awfully tempted to go back through every week of these power rankings and make a compendium of the times I used Saint Joe's to make the point that teams don't automatically improve just because they have a lot of returning players, but honestly, these poor Hawks fans don't need to hear it anymore. And besides, I think I've made my case. The people rest, your honor.
9. Richmond. A couple of tough losses down the stretch for the new, less-banged-up Spiders, the first at Dayton last Saturday, the latter at VCU on Wednesday. It was no surprise to see Richmond buck up for its crosstown rival, of course, but it was nice to see a relatively full-strength Spiders team showcase the efficient offense that made it such an intriguing proposition in November and December. Chris Mooney will lose senior guard Darien Brothers to graduation, but everyone else should be back, and if that's the case, the Spiders just need to play a bit better defense and they could be a tournament-type factor very soon.
10. Charlotte. Speaking of disappointing seasons, or at least disappointing finishes, how about Charlotte? The 49ers were on the very far-flung fringes of the bubble conversation even a few weeks ago. Then they lost four in a row, including home games to Dayton and Temple and the worst, Saturday's 104-83 loss at St. Bonaventure, before an 89-87 overtime escape at Duquesne on Wednesday. The upshot is that while Charlotte won't be dancing, Alan Major definitely took a couple of major steps forward with this program this season, and you can't help but think the long-term trajectory is positive.
11. Dayton. Speaking of defensively challenged teams, in the past two weeks the Flyers have won three straight. Those wins came against Charlotte, Richmond and St. Bonaventure, but still -- they showed off an offense that now ranks second in the A-10 on a per-possession basis (1.11 points per possession). That's about the highest praise I can bestow, because Dayton has had a bit of a disappointing season, too; the Flyers looked like one of several of this league's potential sleepers before the season began. Back to the drawing board this summer.
12. St. Bonaventure. If any one loss keeps UMass out of the NCAA tournament, it might be the one they suffered to the Bonnies on Feb. 20. Playing spoiler is never really where you want to be in late February and early March, but that doesn't make it any less fun once you do.
13. George Washington. The Colonials have had a really tough stretch to close the season, losing four straight against Saint Joseph's, Richmond, Saint Louis and La Salle -- and only one of those games, against Saint Louis, was in GW's own building. Give George Washington this much credit: Mike Lonergan's team defended well and got after it on the offensive glass, ranking No. 1 in the A-10 in offensive rebounding rate, and at the very least gave itself an identity as a difficult team to play. It's a start.
14. Rhode Island. Just a really nice season from the Rams and first-year coach Danny Hurley. You may look at their 8-20 record and wonder what on Earth I'm talking about. But look closer: Not only did the Rams beat Saint Louis on its own floor, they played really well in a lot of losses, giving obviously superior teams real runs for their respective monies almost every time out. A first season at a hollowed-out crater of a program like Rhody is a matter of setting a tone, of building the proverbial and much-lauded foundation, and I think Hurley and his staff can safely say they managed that much this season. Onward and upward from here.
15, 16: Duquesne, Fordham. If these final A-10 power rankings are like a high school commencement ceremony, Duquesne and Fordham are the two kids you didn't talk to or even really notice a whole lot unless they did something weird, like beat Temple on its own floor. They're also the kids upon whom you look back and wonder: I wasn't mean to them, was I?
I really hope I wasn't. It was a tough season all around, but one that wouldn't have been complete without Duquesne and Fordham along for the ride. So thanks, guys. And thanks to all of you for reading. When I said I loved you, I was only half-kidding.