College Basketball Nation: Chris Johnson

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
3a. Temple.

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.

15. Fordham.
16. Duquesne.


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.
This week, my colleague Myron Medcalf described the Atlantic 10 to me as a "beautiful mess." That sounds about right. We know Virginia Commonwealth and Butler are really good. We know Temple and Saint Louis aren't too far behind. But the middle of the league -- from the fifth spot to the 11th or so -- is a gigantic muddle, one that is sure to trade body blows and/or confusing results for the next three months.

So: As much fun as it is to to get lathered up about where your team is or isn't ranked, the bottom line is that these rankings aren't definitive, and they aren't going to be for a while -- we're still just beginning the most enlightening portion of the season (actual intra-A-10 play). But I'm excited to kick things off. You?

1. Virginia Commonwealth. One thing I remain certain of, at least right now, is that VCU is the best team in this league. That hasn't changed since last Friday. The Rams kicked things off with a solid home win over Dayton on Wednesday, and will road-trip it to St. Bonaventure Saturday.

2. Butler. VCU's first A-10 win was a somewhat ho-hum home-court stand against an inferior squad; Butler's was a truly impressive road victory over a team (Saint Joseph's) desperate to start turning their thus-far disappointing season around. Butler scored 1.14 points per possession, and held the Hawks to 1.05, in that win. As I detailed last week, 2011-12 Butler and 2012-13 Butler couldn't be more stylistically opposite. Last season, the Bulldogs guarded but couldn't throw it in the ocean. This season, their offense is their greatest strength.

3. Saint Louis. UMass gave Saint Louis just about all it could handle in each team's conference opener Thursday night, but the Billikens held on, breaking open enough space at the end -- helped in part by a really bad (and questionably called) foul on UMass forward Raphiael Putney -- to win 70-62. The Billikens are not particularly pretty to watch: They play at the A-10's slowest pace, and they rely on stalwart defense more than any particularly attractive sense of offensive creativity. But they are effective.

4. Temple. I'll be honest: I did not expect Temple to lose at Xavier on Thursday night. I definitely did not expect them to score a mere 52 points in 63 possessions. But I also refuse to overreact to a road loss in conference play, even against a team riding a four-game losing streak. It is never easy to come away with victories in the Cintas Center, and I would imagine more than a few of the teams ranked above Temple in this list will be confronted with that reality before the end of the season.

5. Massachusetts. This is a huge, huge leap for UMass this week. Why? First of all, because I said so! You're not the king of Dirk! I'm the king of Dirk! Second, because I watched almost all of UMass's loss at Saint Louis on Thursday night, and I came away awfully impressed. The Billikens tend to grind unprepared and sloppy teams into pulp, particularly on their own floor, but the Minutemen were neck-and-neck for about 37 minutes. Plus, they really don't have a bad loss yet. So here they are.

Take heed: This team's per-possession numbers tell a different story. They are not promising. So, yes, I reserve the right to yank them back down to the lower portions of the league at a week's notice. But for now, I'll give a little credit where it's due.

6. Charlotte. On Wednesday night, La Salle star Ramon Galloway went a positively Allen Iverson-esque 7-for-29 at Charlotte. Those 22 misses were the most by any player in regulation since 2008. And, sure, while some of that is a bad shooting night, some of it is also the stifling defense the 49ers are playing under coach Alan Major. The 49ers hold opponents to the 10th-lowest effective field goal percentage (41.6 percent) in the country. They will, as Mr. Galloway learned, make you miss. Now, if they can just shape up that ugly offense …

7. La Salle. Charlotte's defense is going to wreak havoc on plenty of opponents' shooting performances this season, so you can't really punish the Explorers too much for falling short on the road. Still, if this is supposed to be an NCAA tournament team -- and I'm not sure it is, though I've thought the Explorers were a nice sleeper throughout the offseason -- it's going to have to go out and get a few road wins at some point.

8. Saint Joseph's. I'm trying to not be overly negative about the Hawks, because it isn't their fault they were picked to win the league based on the fact that they returned five starters from last season's team. Bringing back five starters is all well and good, but what people seem to miss when they make obvious picks like that is that a lack of turnover is no guarantee of sudden improvement. Just as often, teams remain what they were. At the end of last season, Saint Joe's finished ranked No. 52 in adjusted offensive efficiency and No. 106 in adjusted defense, per KenPom.com. Through 13 games this season, they are ranked No. 62 on offense and No. 94 on defense. Last year, Saint Joe's finished 20-14. This year, the Hawks are 8-5. Each week it gets harder to locate differences.

9. Dayton. Dayton was at No. 7 last week, and while the Flyers didn't cover themselves in glory at VCU this week, that's a tall order for most any team. The problem with Dayton right now is turnovers. When Dayton keeps the turnovers low, it has an offense that can compete with the rest of this league. When it coughs the ball up -- which is more often than not -- it is going to struggle. It's that simple.

10. Xavier. Give credit where it's due: On Wednesday night, despite an injury to point guard Dee Davis (which kept him out for much of the game), Xavier held off Temple for a 57-52 home victory. In any of the past five seasons, that might have been the win that sealed Xavier's superiority in the league regular season. This time around, it broke the program's longest losing streak (four games) in 33 years. I still wouldn't want to play at Xavier if I'm an opposing coach, but we have to see more from this young team before it starts climbing.

11. Richmond. A win is a win, I suppose, but the fact that the Spiders -- for whom offense is a core (OK, only) strength -- barely mustered just 64 points in 63 possessions at home against Rhode Island on Wednesday is slightly disconcerting. Again, Chris Mooney's team held on, 64-61, but if the Spiders are going to be an efficient offense that can't guard anybody, you'd like to see them, oh, I don't know … play well on the offensive end?

12. George Washington. For all of the nonconference season, George Washington's offense was among the worst -- if not the worst -- in the A-10. Its defense was among the 40-or-so best in the country, but offense? Not GW's thing. But in their first A-10 game, the Colonials dropped 78 points in 67 possessions, the highest figure of the A-10 conference season to date. Which is, of course, why we use caution with small sample sizes. But seriously, if this team can manage even a point per trip against decent teams, it'll pick up more than a few wins going forward.

13. St. Bonaventure. As you just read, the Bonnies were on the losing end of a game in which basically nothing went right. Not only did George Washington's dormant offense come roaring to life, but its typically stout defense held Chris Johnson and Co. to just .88 points per trip. And it doesn't get any easier this weekend: On Saturday, VCU comes to town.

14. Rhode Island. The Rams are not good. But they are better than last year (this is not a high hurdle) and, at the very least, are giving opponents serious tests (a la their near miss at Richmond on Wednesday).

15. Fordham. This is the first time Fordham has moved out of the wooden spoon position in these rankings all season. That immense honor comes courtesy of a seven-point home win over Duquesne.

16. Duquesne. Lost to Fordham by seven points. Verbum sap.
Another week of Atlantic-10 power rankings, another week spent reading through the kind words of my adoring readers. Let's do this, guys!

1. Virginia Commonwealth. In my experience, Butler fans are not only some of the nicest people around, there's also eminently reasonable. By and large, each week I've ranked VCU above the Bulldogs, Butler fans have typically (not always, but typically) responded with some version of "I'm a Butler fan, but that's cool. That VCU team is good."

Call it the Pax Atlanta: This year, this league's two teams (at least to date) are also its two newest, recent products of conference realignment, 2011 mid-major Dance-crashing brothers in arms, with mutual respect for each other's young star coaches and greatly contrasting styles of play. That's the vibe I'm picking up, anyway, and it has been refreshing to see -- even after that victory over Indiana -- Bulldogs fans take a step back and look at just what this VCU team is doing and say, "Yeah, you know? They're really good too."

Because they are: After their latest offensive explosion against East Tennessee State -- in which guard Troy Daniels made 11-of-20 from 3, for 33 points and 10 rebounds -- this year's Rams team is mixing its typically fantastic ball-hawking defense (VCU forces both turnovers and pure steals at the highest rate in the country) with efficient, balanced, long-range offense. It has been a lot of fun to watch, and with A-10 play picking up, it's only going to get better.

2. Butler. What's most interesting about this Butler team to date is not that the Bulldogs are good. I expected that, and I was hardly alone. What's interesting is how Butler is good. To wit:


See? Butler has made a sudden and drastic shift, from a putrid offense with a stubborn defense to much more efficient scoring with a much more forgiving defense. The obvious culprits -- not that this is a bad thing, because man was Butler hard to watch last season -- are the additions of sharpshooting Rotnei Clarke and Kellen Dunham in place of defensive specialist Ronald Nored and frustrating shooting guard Chrishawn Hopkins. But Andrew Smith has also taken his game to another level, Roosevelt Jones is a great glue type, and Butler is actually shooting the ball disproportionately better inside the arc than outside it. Perhaps the threat of Clarke and Dunham launching from range is as important as the execution. Whatever it is, it's working.

3. Temple. We discussed Temple -- or, rather, the reaction to Temple's Dec. 22 road win over Syracuse -- in great detail last week, so we won't spend too much time breaking the Owls down this week. Instead, a heads up: On Sunday, Temple travels to Kansas. If they win there, I will put the Owls No. 1 in next week's rankings. I don't think that's going to happen, but still, it would be awesome to see -- especially because it would give Canisius transitive-property bragging rights over both Syracuse and Kansas. I sense a great disturbance in the force.

4. Saint Louis. New Year's Eve was big for the Billikens in a couple of different ways. For one, guard Kwamain Mitchell made just his second appearance of the season after returning from a November injury, and with 29 minutes Monday was his first return to full-time duty. Oh, and there's this: Saint Louis beat New Mexico at home, 60-46. The game came just a couple of days after New Mexico fought hard for a win at Cincinnati (before Cincinnati went to Pittsburgh and got what might end up as one of the most impressive road wins of the season), so you could forgive UNM for being a little worn out with the road trip by the time they passed under the Arch. But no matter, that's a really nice home win for Jim Crews' bunch, one that should stand the test of time as it pertains to the NCAA tournament at-large picture. With Mitchell healthy, this team is a real A-10 title challenger. But we knew that already.

5. Saint Joseph's. The Hawks move back into the top five almost by default this week thanks to some of the second-tier teams' performances, but their own struggles (in addition to Xavier's) appear to have made the Atlantic 10 not quite as elite-deep as it appeared to be back when everyone was jocking St. Joe's in the offseason. The Hawks' issues have primarily come by being a bit soft on defense -- they neither force turnovers nor protect their own glass -- and their offense hasn't been good enough.

6. La Salle. After a second-half collapse, La Salle took an L at Miami on Wednesday, which isn't an incriminating loss: Even without injured forward Reggie Johnson, the Hurricanes are really tough at home. So if you're willing to forgive La Salle its Nov. 18 home loss to Central Connecticut State (and I am, because it was Nov. 18) and are willing to dive into some of the Explorers' tempo-free numbers (you know it), you'll find an above-average offense led by senior Ramon Galloway, which is thus far carrying a below-average defense that gets, according to Synergy scouting services, absolutely shredded by opponents' pick-and-rolls. That play set has dragged down the Explorers' entire half-court defense (they do a nice job in transition, partially because they don't turn the ball over often on the other end of the floor), and could be one fruitful adjustment to make to start the A-10 season.

7. Dayton. So, I'm a little bit torn on Dayton's latest result. That result? A 63-61 overtime loss at USC. Why am I torn? Because on the one hand, USC is pretty objectively bad. On the other hand, USC has played a brutal nonconference schedule, Kevin O'Neill's USC teams have tended to pick up steam (especially defensively) as the season goes along, and you get the feeling that Dayton won't be the only team held to .79 points per trip on USC's floor this season.

8. Charlotte. Charlotte is shooting 28.3 percent from beyond the arc this season. The good news? Charlotte rarely attempts 3-pointers. So at least the 49ers are self-aware. Unfortunately, this has made their offense a bit one-dimensional, and despite the gaudy 12-2 record Alan Major's team is still barely scoring more than a point per trip overall this season. Meanwhile, its victory at Davidson remains the only real sign that this team is considerably better than it was last season. The A-10 campaign will tell us much.

9. Xavier. It will be interesting to see how we look back on Xavier's four-game late-December losing streak. Will it become part of a young-team-comes-together narrative? There's still plenty of time for that, after all, and no A-10 fan is willing to count out the Musketeers before conference play even begins. But my hunch is that this team just isn't all that good, at least not yet; it doesn't have any area of the game in which it really excels.

10. Richmond. The Spiders, on the other hand, have an identity: They score the basketball. Richmond's offense is still top-40 good, efficiency-wise, and the Spiders get after people on the defensive end, forcing opponents into a turnover on 24.4 percent of their possessions. But the defense is suspect in all of the other important factors, and while you can sing the praises of an efficient offense all you want, Richmond hasn't beaten anyone even remotely good (including George Mason and Davidson, the latter a home loss).

11. Massachusetts. Thus far this season, Massachusetts has scored .983 points per trip. It has allowed .990. This is obviously not a sustainable winning formula. But the Minutemen do have one thing in their favor: pace. Per KenPom.com, Massachusetts crams the third-highest number of possessions (adjusted for competition) into 40 minutes in the country: 74.6. You can see, with a guard as quick as Chaz Williams, why coach Derek Kellogg would want to get out and run. The problem is that UMass hasn't really guarded anybody, and shoots a lot of 3s despite knocking down just 30.2 percent to date. UMass fans seem convinced this team is drastically underrated here, but I'm not seeing it, at least not yet.

12. St. Bonaventure. The Bonnies, at least, can knock down shots. Indeed, at 7-5 this may be one of the sneaky-underrated teams in the league right now. The Bonnies have three efficient senior guards going right now (Demitrius Conger, Chris Johnson and Eric Mosley, who comes off the bench and has the highest offensive rating on the team) and 6-foot-8 junior forward Marquise Simmons has been especially effective on the glass, too. Last week, I made the comment that Mark Schmidt's team was especially generous to opposing 3-point shooters, and that at some point we had to consider that a flaw; as one commenter corrected me, that might not actually be the case. If opponents cool off a little bit, this team's defense won't look so questionable.

13. George Washington. George Washington is the opposite of St. Bonaventure: The Colonials' offense is ugly (.967 points per trip) but its defense is actually a top-50 unit, allowing just .899 points per trip thus far. I'll be interested to see if GW can steal a win at a bad Georgia team Friday night, and if so, whether our perception of the Colonials as a total low-end A-10 also-ran this season ought to change.

14. Duquesne. Back-to-back road losses are no big deal. Back-to-back road losses at Louisiana-Lafayette and Penn State mean you're probably not very good. (Anyone who has seen Penn State play is nodding his or her head while reading this.)

15. Rhode Island. The Dec. 27 game at Saint Mary's was never going to be a win, so it's not like the opinion of the Rams has changed much. And conference season is going to be tough. But it was good to see first-year coach Dan Hurley coax a few wins out of his rebuilding squad before league play begins.

16. Fordham. In a league that features Rhode Island and Duquesne, Fordham seems to pretty clearly be the worst team on offer.
Since we mentioned it last night before the game began, the rematch of Division-II upstart LeMoyne and Division-I power program Syracuse went exactly as expected Tuesday night. Which is to say that it went actually the opposite of last year's LeMoyne-Syracuse exhibition-upset-of-the-century.

Not only did Jim Boeheim's team avoid another embarrassing loss, it steamrolled the hapless Dolphins 91-48. Scoop Jardine had 13 points, Kris Joseph had 12, and freshman Dion Waiters added 13 off the bench. Dolphins star Chris Johnson, the guy who hit the last-second three in LeMoyne's win last season, scored 23 points, which is pretty impressive considering the rest of his team scored 25.

In any case, Syracuse got its revenge for last year's upset, LeMoyne got a stark reminder that last year was probably a little bit of a fluke (OK, way, way more than a little bit; plus it was an exhibition) and fans of the Orange can rest easily.* Case closed.

*(Or can they? Last year's Cuse lost to LeMoyne and then had one of its better seasons in recent history. Superstition is a fickle beast. Maybe Syracuse should have thrown the rematch just to preserve last season's good vibes. No? You're telling me this is a dumb idea? OK. I'll be quiet now.)

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