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No entity has been more imperiled by conference realignment than the medium-profile, football-agnostic college hoops conference. A decade ago, Conference USA was home to Louisville, Memphis, Cincinnati, Saint Louis, Marquette, DePaul, Charlotte and more. Now? Just slightly worse than the Ivy League and the MAC (subscription required).
The Atlantic 10’s situation has never been that drastic. Indeed, Bernadette McGlade’s conference is just a year removed from adding Butler and VCU, two recent Final Four teams, to its rolls. But when the basketball-only members of the Big East broke off and formed their own league last spring, Butler and Xavier followed. Temple had long since announced its new membership in the American.
Either Xavier or Temple won every A-10 regular-season title from 2007 to 2012 and, in the past six seasons, accounted for 12 of the league’s 21 NCAA tournament bids. Now both are gone. What, exactly, is the A-10 without them?
“Wide open” is one answer. “Completely bonkers” is another.
On Tuesday evening, the Atlantic-10 will kick off conference play with a remarkable statistic appended to its collective hide: No A-10 team will enter with a sub-.500 record. Schedule is a factor here, particularly for Duquesne (7-5), Fordham (7-6) and George Mason (7-7), but still: That’s where the A-10 is as league competition begins. That’s kind of bonkers!
It is a simplistic way to look at the conference, sure, but it reveals a larger truth: The Atlantic-10 has a lot of good basketball teams this season. Pomeroy rankings do a handy back-of-the-envelope snapshot job, and what Ken’s efficiency stats reveal is that Saint Louis (No. 21), UMass (No. 28) and VCU (No. 33) all hover among the nation’s best 30 or so teams, with SLU’s top-five defense setting it apart, if only slightly.
Then there’s Dayton (No. 42), which beat Gonzaga, Cal and Ole Miss; George Washington (No. 67) and its win over Creighton and losses to just Marquette and Kansas State; and Richmond (No. 74), which is 10-5 with two OT losses to Wake Forest and Ohio and an impressive performance at Florida worth considering. Even Saint Joseph’s (No. 82) at 9-4 has zero good wins but no indicting losses.
These are all pretty good teams. Many are conference title contenders. All boast top-100 adjusted efficiency ranks as of Tuesday, as do St. Bonaventure and 2013 Sweet Sixteen surprise La Salle. That is more than many leagues -- let alone those coming off a summer realignment exodus -- can claim.
Plus, the lower third of the league is better. Duquesne is the only sub-200 squad in the league right now, at No. 204. Fordham and the Dukes are not only much better than they were in years past, they both score the ball and don’t defend so they’re usually pretty fun, too. Rhode Island is light years better in its second season under Danny Hurley than it was two years ago and is improving by the month. George Mason is ... well, we’ll see.
But you get the point! The point is that, beginning Tuesday night, the Atlantic-10 will tip off league play in a conference that most, including yours truly, had discounted as Saint Louis, VCU, maybe UMass and no one else. Not only was that wrong, it was way off. There are better leagues than the A-10 this season, and probably more entertaining ones. None are deeper. Few will be quite so fascinating.