Friday, February 1, 2013
Conference Power Rankings: Atlantic 10
By Eamonn Brennan
If someone tells you they know how to rank all 16 Atlantic 10 teams at this point in the 2012-13 season, that person is lying. To be honest, I was tempted to update John Gasaway's Tuesday Truths efficiency margin data to include Wednesday and Thursday night's games, and just use that in place of power rankings -- my little artistic protest against indecipherable hierarchies, a silent screed against the pointlessness of delineation. But then I realized you guys would probably think I was being lazy. We can't have that.
The good news in all this is I'm pretty sure, even this far removed from the date, that the A-10 tourney is going to be completely insane. In the meantime, let's just do our best?
1. Butler. I know, I know: The Bulldogs were handled on the road at Saint Louis on Thursday night, losing 75-58 and never really threatening from the end of the first half onward. But I'm leaving the Bulldogs at the top of the league for a few reasons.
I'm not inclined to punish teams too much for losing to other good teams on the road.
Based on overall performance throughout the entire college hoops season -- when Butler got wins over Marquette, Indiana and Gonzaga, and only lost to Illinois during the height of the Illini's 3-point-shooting wizardry in Maui -- it is awfully easy to make a pure "resume" case for the Bulldogs at the No. 1 spot.
No one else has truly stepped up to claim the spot.
Is this a ranking by default? Sure. But I'm not really sure who else you'd take here, and so Butler remains in place. For now.
2. La Salle. Here's another excellent example of why the current A-10 is such a chaotic rankings haven: Last Wednesday, La Salle toppled Butler at home. On Saturday, the Explorers traveled to Richmond, Va., and got the best league win of the season to date, a 69-61 victory at Virginia Commonwealth in which they didn't let VCU kill them on turnovers and held the Rams to just 0.95 points per trip in their own building. Here come the Explorers, right? Right!
That is, until Wednesday, when La Salle lost at home to Massachusetts 61-60. Being held to 60 points on your home floor by a defense as mediocre as the Minutemen: not a good look.
Even so, I dare you to find me an A-10 team without at least one confusing or just downright bad loss in recent weeks. It isn't possible. So La Salle gets the bump up to No. 2 this week, even if it sort of backed its way in.
3. Virginia Commonwealth. I still believe in the VCU Rams. I still think they're one of the best teams in this league, with some of its most athletic and versatile players and one of its best defenses. Having said that … through seven A-10 contests, including two recent losses to Richmond and La Salle (and a major home survival against a confident Rhode Island team Wednesday night), the Rams actually have played the 10th-best per-possession defense (1.02 PPP) in the conference to date. Yes, you read that right. Tenth. The good news is that they're still forcing a ton of turnovers. The other good news is that most of that scoring is because of opponents hitting a league-high 40 percent from 3 against the Rams, which is bound to come down eventually. With Fordham, Charlotte, and UMass on deck, I'd guess that'll happen sooner rather than later.
4. Saint Louis. I'm not about to go and do something like crazy like put the Billikens at the top of the A-10 power rankings after one convincing home win, because I'm not about to forget that two-week-old home loss to Rhode Island that quickly. Saint Louis isn't as bad as that loss insinuated, nor is it as good as a double-digit victory over Butler might say. The Billikens are, however, closer to the latter. They still hassle opposing ball handlers, and they chase down the highest percentage of available defensive rebounds in the A-10. If they get their offense working, they're not to be slept on.
5. Temple. Is there another team that encapsulates this maddening A-10 better than Temple? In the aforementioned Tuesday Truths, John called this league the "post-Xavier A-10," but I'd argue it is just as much the post-Temple A-10. For the past five years, with minimal exception, you knew what you were going to get from Fran Dunphy's team -- and what you usually got was a league title contender. This season, the Owls are playing wildly disparate basketball, beating Syracuse and pushing Kansas to the limit just a few weeks before losing to St. Bonaventure at home. They are, like the A-10 itself, impossible to predict. Anyway, the Owls couldn't quite keep up with Butler at Hinkle on Saturday, but they did get a nice return win over Richmond on Wednesday night. So there's that.
Note: Until otherwise notified, consider each of the following teams essentially tied. If you complain to me on Twitter about where any of them is ranked, I will know you are a blind homer, because you don't know either. Heed this warning!
Xavier. The Musketeers are 5-2 in league play, their only losses coming on the road at Charlotte and Saint Joe's, and so we at least know one thing about Chris Mack's team: It is going to be really tough to beat at home.
Massachusetts. I'm not kidding: These teams really aren't going to be ranked in any discernible order, because it's practically impossible, at least at this point. And I remain pretty unconvinced of UMass. But the Minutemen did beat one of the hottest teams in the A-10 -- and in the country, really -- on its own floor this week (La Salle), and they got past Richmond (also hot) 70-65 in Amherst on Sunday.
George Washington. On Saturday, for the first time in my college hoops writing career, I got a bunch of tweets from George Washington fans. "Looks like you have to change your A-10 power rankings nyah nyah" was the general sentiment. I have to admit: I wasn't paying much attention to the Colonials at the time. But, lo and behold, Mike Lonergan's team wasn't just winning its third consecutive game; it was absolutely pulverizing the previously defensively impressive Charlotte 49ers 82-54. There isn't much to say other than: nice win, and I'll be more of a believer when and if you can knock of La Salle at home tomorrow.
Saint Joseph's. The preseason conference favorite continues to struggle for one simple reason: defense. The Hawks are playing the fourth-best offense in the league to date, but they've allowed 1.06 points per trip -- 13th in the conference. Were Phil Martelli's offense clicking at a Michigan-esque rate, allowing well over a point per possession would be just fine. But Saint Joe's offense is only slightly better than average, and so this is the result.
Richmond. Whatever happens to the Spiders the rest of the season -- and they've been taking losses and wins in clusters for a month now -- they'll always have that overtime win over city rival VCU. That's not nothing.
Dayton. It's tough to get a read on Dayton. The Flyers lost their first three A-10 games to Butler, VCU and La Salle, then followed up with two obvious blowout home wins over Fordham and Duquesne. Archie Miller's team had a chance to topple rival Xavier on the road Wednesday, but couldn't come up with the plays away from home, and so Dayton is a predictable 2-4, and it feels as though the Flyers belong right in the middle of this group.
Charlotte. Is it time to abandon the Charlotte bandwagon? Yeah, probably. Look, blowout road losses happen, and I'm totally willing to look past that 82-54 loss at George Washington. But I can't look past how putrid this offense is. To wit: The 49ers are playing the third-best per-possession defense in the league thus far. They are allowing 0.97 points per trip. They are scoring -- get this -- 0.923 points per trip. They're playing really good defense! That offense is just so bad it doesn't matter.
St. Bonaventure. The Bonnies are a little like Charlotte, but the opposite: St. Bonaventure can score at an OK rate, but it doesn't really defend, which is why (plus good competition, of course) it put up six consecutive losses from Dec. 22 to Jan. 16. Still, the Bonnies did beat Temple and Saint Joe's on back-to-back occasions, and played Saint Louis relatively tight in a home loss last week, so they're not hopeless.
Note: Tie over. Carry on.
14. Rhode Island. Rhode Island is not good -- let's not get carried away -- but the Rams are not bad, and nowhere near as abysmal as they were last season. Consider their past four games: On Jan. 19, they won at Saint Louis. On Jan. 23, they lost to George Washington 66-65. On Jan. 30, they lost at VCU 70-64. There was a three-point road loss at Fordham sandwiched in there, but nobody's perfect, and the point is not that Rhode Island is even a top-100 team -- merely that it is playing teams both good and bad close, both at home and on the road. Considering where this program left off last season, it's pretty impressive stuff.
15. Fordham. Nice home win over Rhode Island last week, but with VCU, Saint Louis, La Salle, Xavier and Butler coming up, it might be the last one for a while.
16. Duquesne. The Dukes have lost their past eight games. It's nice, in a league this wild, to know I have at least one slot to count on.