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Friday, March 1, 2013
Conference Power Rankings: A-10

By Eamonn Brennan

Can I share something with you guys? Would that be OK? OK. So, for the first time in a long time, I feel a distinct sense of calm about the Atlantic 10 power rankings. I feel as though things have settled neatly into place. It took us a lot longer than it probably should have, but I think we know who the best four teams are, and we know that the middle of the league (from, say, Saint Joseph's to St. Bonaventure) is essentially interchangeable, that any of those teams can beat any of the others. And we know who the worst four or five teams are. Given the insanity that has been the Atlantic 10 this season (remember when I placed eight teams in a tie for sixth?), this comes as a bit of a shock. A welcome shock, naturally, but a shock.

Of course, I say this, and it's just as likely it will all come crumbling down this weekend. Anarchy is always just around the corner.

1. Saint Louis. No anarchy here: The Billikens took over the top spot last week thanks to an eight-game winning streak that included some of the best defensive play in the country and convincing victories over Butler and VCU. Since then, the Billikens went to Hinkle Fieldhouse and toughed out a 65-61 win -- and a season sweep -- over Butler, and treated Saint Joseph's like those rats whose brains we attached via computer wires will one day treat us. (I, for one, welcome our new rat overlords.) Jim Crews' team is not only one of the best defensive squads in the country, or one of the hottest -- it is also one of the best stories in sports, given everything it has overcome this season.

2. Virginia Commonwealth. VCU's HAVOC defense, coach Shaka Smart's unique strategic baby, is premised on sacrifices. You can't pressure defenders like mad for 40 minutes and not give up a few open shots and offensive rebounds from time to time; it's bound to happen. The question is whether relying so much on turnovers is bound to catch up to the Rams eventually.

How so? Currently, VCU leads the nation in opponent turnover rate; opposing offenses cough up the rock on 29.1 percent of their possessions. That's a lot. But opposing offenses also have posted a 49.5 effective field goal percentage (national rank: 216), a 34.2 offensive rebounding rate (rank: 272) and a 38.5 percent free throws/field goal attempts ratio (rank: 238). Within A-10 play, VCU's defense ranks first in turnover rate, 16th in eFG%, 16th in OR% and ninth in FTA/FGA.

In other words, if VCU doesn't get a turnover, it doesn't get a stop. Against teams that turn over the ball, this is perfect. It's part of the reason VCU's offense has been so efficient, because those turnovers turn into easy points on the other end. Besides, the style almost always allows the Rams to set the terms of engagement, which in college hoops is like five-eighths of the battle. Something like that. But against teams that don't turn over the ball -- hello Saint Louis, which turned it over only eight times in 56 possessions in the Billikens' 76-62 romp Feb. 19 -- the Rams don't seem to have a Plan B.

Fortunately, getting people to turn the ball over nearly 30 percent of the time is a pretty good Plan A. But this will be a fascinating little statistical experiment in the next month.

3. Butler. Speaking of turnover percentage and VCU, it's easy to think of Butler as a low-turnover, defense-first, make-the-other-team-screw-up team. And rightly so: That's essentially how the Bulldogs made those back-to-back Final Four runs in 2010 and 2011. But this year's Butler team started as an offensive unit that relied on the shooting of Rotnei Clarke and Kellen Dunham and the scrappy off-kilter interior work of Andrew Smith, Khyle Marshall and Roosevelt Jones, but otherwise struggled on the defensive end. Butler has made some strides on defense since; only Saint Louis is guarding better in A-10 play, for example, and the Bulldogs are excellent at preventing second chances. Some of the "classic" Butler elements are still there. That said, asking a career spot-shooter such as Clarke to take over as a point guard this season has been a tough transition, and that's why Butler has turned over the ball on 20.3 percent of its possessions in A-10 play, the 11th-highest mark. On Saturday, after seven days off, Butler plays at VCU. Oh, to sit in on a Brad Stevens' practice this week.

4. La Salle. Fun fact: Explorers' A-10 opponents shoot just 29.1 percent from 3, the lowest percentage in the league. There's a lot of luck involved in that kind of stat -- it's really hard for a team to keep opponents' long-range shooting at bay over the course of a whole season, almost regardless of defensive strategy -- but the Explorers deserve some credit here. La Salle consciously runs shooters off the 3-point line, which has resulted in their opponents taking only 24.7 percent of their attempts from beyond the arc, sixth-lowest in the country this season. La Salle has some holes of its own, sure, but a defensive strategy that begins with "Hey, let's not let people shoot 3s" is an awfully good place to start.

5. Temple. Has Temple finally settled down? I'd like to think so. After participating in a downright insane five straight one-point contests -- which included losses to Saint Joe's (meh) and Duquesne (yikes) and wins over Charlotte, Dayton, and UMass -- the Owls have won three in a row, including over La Salle (82-74), Charlotte (71-51) and, on Thursday night, Detroit (83-78). Those are all entirely reasonable, dare I say sane scores, and hopefully a sign that Temple's mix of Khalif Wyatt-led efficient offense and hold-on-to-your-butts defense is settling into something resembling predictability. Maybe.

6. Xavier. We've always known two things about Xavier this season, even as the Musketeers have labored through their first real "rebuilding" year in recent memory: (1) They were going to get better, and (2) They were going to be tough to beat at home. Those factors helped a fearless Semaj Christon & Co. hold off a clearly more talented Memphis team for a 64-62 win Tuesday. The loss meant more for Memphis than the win did for Xavier, but with a final three games against UMass, Saint Louis and Butler, there's a real chance the Musketeers could at least get to the fringe of the bubble conversation, right?

7. Massachusetts. Not a whole lot to update here. Last Wednesday's loss to St. Bonaventure basically took the Minutemen off every bracketologist's near-bubble list, but there is still a home game with Butler that could prove helpful next week. Of course, Chaz Williams and his teammates have to get past Xavier at the Cintas Center Saturday.

8. Charlotte. When Wednesday's edition of the Bubble Watch came out, Charlotte fans got after me a little bit for not including their 49ers. A few hours later, Charlotte lost its third straight … at home … to Dayton … 88-67. That's when the tweets stopped. (That's a working title for my novel, please don't steal it.)

9. Saint Joseph's. After 26 games this season, Saint Joe's is 15-11. After 26 games in 2012, Saint Joe's was 16-10. Last season, per KenPom.com, the Hawks scored 1.092 points per possession and allowed 0.98; this season, the Hawks are scoring 1.071 and allowing 0.982. They still don't force turnovers and never foul, they still block a lot of shots, they still -- well, you get the point. This is the exact same team as last season, a little better in some areas, a little worse in others, and the point of all this is one I will ram home with a sledgehammer as frequently as it takes to change this silly offseason rite of fall: Just because a team returns everyone doesn't automatically mean that team is going to be better. Call it the Phil Martelli Apothegm.

10. Richmond. Richmond had to deal with an injury to Derrick Williams, arguably its best scorer, for the heart of A-10 play, and that made it tough to appraise this team on its whole merits. I'm not willing to award too much credit for three straight wins over the Bonnies, Fordham and GW, but I am very intrigued to see if Richmond isn't the best A-10 tournament Cinderella/spoiler/sleeper candidate.

11. George Washington. Still solid on the defensive end, still prone to bad shots and too many turnovers on the offensive end. Some potentially interesting pieces (Joe McDonald, Patricio Garino, Kevin Larsen) for the future, though.

12. Dayton. Turning the ball over on 23 percent of your possessions and allowing 1.034 points per trip in A-10 play is a quick way to end up 15-12, or 16-14, or whatever the Flyers will be by the end of the regular season.

13. St. Bonaventure. Senior guard Eric Mosley is one of the most efficient offensive players you've never heard of, which is impressive considering he plays alongside arguably the champion of that category, Demitrius Conger (offensive rating: 116.1). Of course, the Bonnies don't guard anyone, which is why they're not very good.

14. Rhode Island. It feels like all season I've been awarding moral victories to the Rams whether they like it or not, but it's true: Rhode Island plays people tough. Sunday's seven-point home loss to La Salle was no different. Saturday's trip to Temple could be.

15. Duquesne and 16. Fordham. Duquesne got its moment in the sun a couple of weeks ago after that one-point road win over Temple, but it has been back to the grind since. Fordham is still bad. Fin.