College Basketball Nation: Dayton Flyers
On Holiday is College Basketball Nation's daily rundown of the holiday tournaments, complete with previews, recaps, and links to all of the early-season tournament info you'll need in the weeks to come.
MAUI INVITATIONAL [bracket]
While You Were Sleeping: Dayton survives "just drive to the rim and get fouled, or at least just act like it" late-game offense, upsets Gonzaga 84-79
Just when you thought the Maui Invitational was going to go according to plan.
On an otherwise predictable first day of Maui action, Dayton unleashed a thorough performance in an 84-79 win over Gonzaga.
How? The Flyers were the more physical, sharper team throughout. Of the 50 rebounds on Gonzaga's end of the floor, Dayton grabbed 17. But it wasn't until the second half that the Flyers, um, took flight? (Wow, sorry.) Dayton scored 28 points in the first 20 minutes of the game, but required just 10 minutes and 28 seconds in the second half to do the same — blitzing the Zags with good spacing, crisp ball movement and a bevy of 3s. Jordan Sibert, Khari Price and Scoochie Smith made four 3s in one four-minute stretch, and eight of Dayton's nine 3s came in the second period.
The biggest among them came with just one minute to play. Up 75-72, Sibert took a quicker-than-recommended 3, and sank it, giving Dayton a 78-72 lead. The Flyers would need every bit of that lead in the final 60 seconds.
Why? Two reasons: First, Kevin Pangos was very good at getting to the rim. Second, he was very good at drawing fouls while doing so -- even when contact looked minimal at best. It was a tough night for the officials all around, and there were a lot of questionable calls, and a lot of unfortunate foul trouble, that marred an otherwise entertaining affair. But it was the final minute that was most noticeable, as Pangos kept turning the corner, kept getting fouled and kept earning free throws. Honestly, the final minute took forever.
Eventually, Pangos, who finished with 27 points, spurred his own undoing. His steal with 43 seconds left turned into a wide-open, missed floater, and Gary Bell Jr. failed to convert on the rebound. Then, 21 seconds later, Pangos and Bell converged on Dyshawn Pierre -- and Pangos, who had four fouls, slapped and fouled Bell. Bell gave Pangos a mystified look, just before the star guard calmly walked to the bench.
You can't have seen Dayton's performance and not bumped up your projections for the Flyers going forward. They were good. Very good. If they're able to control the offensive glass and knock down kickout 3s the way they did Monday night, they'll give teams even better than the Zags plenty of fits in the days and weeks to come.
Top Story 1B: Syracuse manages Minnesota. A near-upset of Kentucky in Lexington was Monday night's biggest non-tournament news, and Arizona State's campus-site preliminary thriller against Marquette was the most entertaining result of the day, but the most interesting game (at least to your humble correspondent) came Monday afternoon. Syracuse's 75-67 win over Minnesota was about as close as you get to a win-win.
For Syracuse, it was a victory, of course, but also much more than that. In four games to date, in particular last week's downright gross 56-50 home win over St. Francis, the Orange looked disjointed and out of sorts, especially on the offensive end. Senior C.J. Fair, a do-everything glue guy turned focal point, had struggled in his new role; a talented-but-thin Orange backcourt of Trevor Cooney and Tyler Ennis looked even less comfortable.
On Monday, though, Fair finally grabbed a game by the scruff of its neck. Late in the first half, Fair skied over two Minnesota defenders and dunked so hard his own face exploded into bloody stigmata. (In reality, he caught a fingernail or three on the way up, but I prefer my explanation.) With two minutes left in the second half, when Minnesota's press began to wear on Syracuse, Fair knocked down an ice-cold midrange jumper that built the Orange lead back out to four points, a lead that held the rest of the way. Fair finished with 16 points and 10 rebounds on 15 shots; Cooney made five 3s; Ennis went 1-of-9 from the field but 10-of-11 from the free throw line.
Minnesota, meanwhile, kept on being impressive. The Gophers have adapted to Richard Pitino's chip-off-the-block high-pressure style immensely well. That style kept them in the game throughout the second half, and good 3-point and free throw shooting put them there in the first place. Monday's performance, combined with a big road win at Richmond on Nov. 16, is enough to make one think the younger Pitino's first season might not involve much rebuilding at all.
The rest: California looked plenty impressive in its own right. Arkansas has not exactly been the best road defensive team under Mike Anderson, so make of that what you will, but still: Cal got a 19-point, 15-rebound, 8-of-12 night from forward David Kravish, 15 points on eight shots from promising wing Jabari Bird, and a nice 15-point, seven-assist night from senior guard Justin Cobbs. The phrase "total team win" applies here. … Chaminade couldn't hang with Baylor in the second half in Tuesday night's 93-77 loss, but it did have at least a little of what Baylor coach Scott Drew called "Maui Magic.” Silverswords guard -- and former Dunk City resident -- Christophe Varidel scored 31 points in the first half, and 42 total, and did it all while sporting an absolutely textbook chill-barista ponytail-scruff combo. Here's to you, Christophe!
Maui fixtures, Day 2:
Arkansas-Minnesota, 2 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
Chaminade-Gonzaga, 4:30 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
California-Syracuse, 7 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Baylor-Dayton, 9:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)
PARADISE JAM: Maryland tops Providence in final, 56-52: So: Good win for Maryland? Letdown for Providence? What about neither? The Terps will take it, to be sure, and the Friars will walk away feeling as if an opportunity was lost, but I'm not willing to throw out any long-term Providence bullishness on the back of a 16-of-59 night from the field. Sometimes you eat the rim, and sometimes the rim eats you.
- BYU got a characteristically high-octane 86-82 win over Texas on the first night of the CBE Classic. That tally was topped only by Wichita State, which put up a tidy 90 on the still-defensively-challenged DePaul Blue Demons. Those two results set up a fantastic non-power-six final at the CBE, where Wichita State, fresh off a Final Four run, will happily soak up the home Kansas City energy that has in recent years been reserved for Kansas, Missouri and Kansas State. Movin' on up, indeed.
- The Legends Classic did its best to fill the Maui lull, but there wasn't a whole lot of entertainment value involved. Stanford got a pretty good 86-76 win over Houston.
Toughest: Maui Invitational (Nov. 25-27), Ole Miss (Jan. 4)
Next-toughest: USC (Dec. 22), at Georgia Tech (Nov. 20), Iona (Dec. 19)
The rest: IPFW (Nov. 9), St. Francis-Pa. (Nov. 13), St. Francis-N.Y. (Nov. 16), Delaware State (Dec. 4), at Illinois State (Dec. 7), Central Michigan (Dec. 14), Murray State (Dec. 29), Winthrop (Jan. 1)
Toughness scale (1-10): 7 -- Archie Miller’s program boasts one of the league’s tougher nonconference slates. The Maui tournament is the core of the schedule. The Flyers will open the holiday tournament with a matchup against WCC favorite Gonzaga. Possible meetings with Baylor, Syracuse, Cal and/or Arkansas could add even more credibility to Dayton’s lineup. USC at home and Georgia Tech on the road are solid challenges, as are mid-major opponents Iona, Illinois State and Murray State.
Toughest: Pittsburgh (Nov. 30)
Next-toughest: at West Virginia (Nov. 17), Robert Morris (Dec. 14)
The rest: Abilene Christian (Nov. 9), New Hampshire (Nov. 13), Albany (Nov. 20), UMBC (Dec. 4), Penn State (Dec. 11), St. Francis-Pa. (Dec. 17), UMass-Lowell (Dec. 21), at Texas-Pan American (Dec. 29), Appalachian State (Jan. 2)
Toughness scale (1-10): 4 -- So, there’s Pitt. And then, this becomes a game of “Wait … what team?” A lot of relatively unknown opponents on Duquesne’s nonconference schedule. Abilene Christian? Appalachian State? Robert Morris, which defeated Kentucky in the opening round of the NIT last season, will be one of Duquesne’s toughest opponents. WVU likely will be mediocre again. Even Pitt, the star of the slate, lost a lot from last season, so this isn’t the typical Jamie Dixon program. Can’t get too excited about Duquesne’s first two months of 2013-14.
Toughest: at Syracuse (Nov. 12), Harvard (Dec. 28)
Next-toughest: at St. John’s (Dec. 7)
The rest: St. Francis-Pa. (Nov. 8), Lehigh (Nov. 15), Sacred Heart (Nov. 23), at Manhattan (Nov. 26), Furman (Dec. 4), at Colgate (Dec. 10), Howard (Dec. 14), at Monmouth (Dec. 21), Loyola-Chicago (Dec. 23), Siena (Dec. 30)
Toughness scale (1-10): 6 -- For an Atlantic 10 contender, this would be a decent slate. A lot of power at the top (Syracuse, Harvard, St. John’s) and a bunch of filler the rest of the way. But for a Fordham squad that’s expected to finish near the bottom of the conference standings again, this is not an easy path. Syracuse could win the ACC in its first year in the league. Harvard returns the top players from an NCAA tourney squad and adds veterans Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry, who were suspended last season.
Toughest: Diamond Head Classic (Dec. 22-25)
Next-toughest: Oklahoma (Dec. 8), Northern Iowa (Nov. 16), at Iona (Nov. 23), at Princeton (Nov. 26)
The rest: American (Nov. 8), at Lamar (Nov. 12), St. Francis (Pa.) (Nov. 19), Rhode Island (Nov. 30), South Florida (Dec. 4), Penn (Jan. 2), Old Dominion (Jan. 4)
Toughness scale (1-10): 7 -- George Mason kicks off its first year in the Atlantic 10 with a somewhat challenging nonconference lineup. The Patriots will play Iowa State in the opening round of the Diamond Head Classic. Georges Niang and Co. are a dangerous crew. And a possible championship matchup against Mountain West contender Boise State is intriguing. Games against Oklahoma and Northern Iowa are interesting, but the rest of the slate isn’t exactly breathtaking. And they’ll have to do a lot of work to reach the later stages of the Diamond Head Classic. Can’t give them too much credit for this one.
Toughest: Wooden Legacy (Nov. 28-Dec. 1)
Next-toughest: Maryland (Dec. 8), at Kansas State (Dec. 31)
The rest: Radford (Nov. 8), Maine (Nov. 12), at Manhattan (Nov. 16), Delaware State (Nov. 19), Rutgers (Dec. 4), Boston University (Dec. 11), UMBC (Dec. 21), Hofstra (Dec. 28), Georgia (Jan. 3)
Toughness scale (1-10): 7 -- George Washington won just 13 games last season. With a solid group of programs anchoring its nonconference slate -- remember, this is all relative -- boosting that win total could prove difficult. The Wooden Legacy will be a gauntlet for GW if it advances with a win over Miami in the opening round. Marquette, San Diego State, Creighton and Arizona State are all potential opponents. And Maryland awaits in early December. The rest of the schedule is average, especially because GW probably won’t face the premier programs in the Wooden.
Toughest: at Villanova (Dec. 15)
Next-toughest: Paradise Jam (Nov. 22-25), at Miami (Dec. 22), vs. Temple (Jan. 18 at the Palestra)
The rest: Manhattan (Nov. 9), Quinnipiac (Nov. 12), Siena (Nov. 16), at Penn State (Nov. 19), Hartford (Dec. 4), Stony Brook (Dec. 7), Wagner (Dec. 19), at Penn (Jan. 4)
Toughness scale (1-10): 4 -- In March, La Salle shocked the nation with a rally to the Sweet 16, where it lost to another Cinderella, Wichita State. This isn’t exactly the strongest follow to that run. The Explorers' toughest nonconference opponent will be Big 5 rival Villanova, an NCAA tournament team a year ago. The Paradise Jam field is weak overall. Potential matchups against Maryland and Northern Iowa, however, could pay dividends down the line. Maybe. Miami was a great opponent for last season's RPI, but lost every major contributor from its ACC championship squad. Far more risk than reward with this schedule.
Toughest: LSU (Nov. 12), Charleston Classic (Nov. 21-24)
Next-toughest: BYU (Dec. 7), Florida State (Dec. 21), Providence (Dec. 28)
The rest: Boston College (Nov. 10), Youngstown State (Nov. 17), at Eastern Michigan (Dec. 3), Northern Illinois (Dec. 14), at Ohio (Dec. 18), Miami-Ohio (Jan. 4), at Elon (Jan. 18)
Toughness scale (1-10): 6 -- With Chazz Williams returning, UMass could make its first appearance in the NCAA tournament in more than a decade. The team’s nonconference slate possesses a few opportunities that will impress the selection committee if it wins. The Minutemen will face LSU in just their second game of 2013-14. A matchup against New Mexico in the second round of the Charleston Classic is a possibility (have to get past Nebraska first). BYU, Florida State and Providence could be interesting games to look back upon on Selection Sunday.
Toughest: NIT Season Tip-Off (Nov. 18-19, Nov. 25-29), at LSU (Jan. 4)
Next-toughest: at SMU (Nov. 11), George Mason (Nov. 30), at Providence (Dec. 5)
The rest: Maine (Nov. 8), North Carolina A&T (Nov. 15), UMass-Lowell (Nov. 23), at Detroit (Dec. 8), New Hampshire (Dec. 22), at Brown (Jan. 2)
Toughness scale (1-10): 6 -- Danny Hurley’s program still faces a variety of unknowns in its nonconference slate because so many things could happen in the NIT Season Tip-Off. But that’s the Rams’ best chance to make some noise before Atlantic 10 competition starts. The rest of their nonconference slate is lukewarm but appropriate for a program that could finish near the bottom of the league again. A road game at LSU could be one of Rhode Island’s toughest games in 2013-14. And the program has to finish a nonconference series with George Mason with one more game, even though it’ll face the new A-10 member in conference play, too. The Rams will also play a surging SMU team in early November. Not a killer nonconference slate, but it makes sense for this program.
Toughest: Hall of Fame Classic (Nov. 23-24), at Florida (Jan. 4)
Next-toughest: Belmont (Nov. 11), Minnesota (Nov. 16)
The rest: Delaware (Nov. 8), Hofstra (Nov. 19), at Air Force (Nov. 27), James Madison (Nov. 30), at William & Mary (Dec. 4), at Wake Forest (Dec. 7), Coppin State (Dec. 14), Ohio (Dec. 22), Old Dominion (Dec. 28), at Northeastern (Dec. 31),
Toughness scale (1-10): 8 -- Richmond went 4-13 away from home last season. That subpar streak could continue in 2013-14. The Spiders will kick off the Hall of Fame Classic with a matchup against ACC contender North Carolina. Either Louisville or Fairfield awaits in the second game. In early January, they’ll travel to Gainesville to face a Florida squad that could challenge Kentucky for the SEC crown. Home games against Minnesota and Belmont could end in defeat, too.
Toughest: Creighton (Nov. 16), Old Spice Classic (Nov. 28-Dec. 1)
Next-toughest: Villanova (Dec. 7)
The rest: at Vermont (Nov. 9), Marist (Nov. 13), Temple (Dec. 4), Drexel (Dec. 18), at Loyola-Md (Dec. 21), Boston University (Dec. 29), Binghamton (Dec. 31), Denver (Jan. 4), Penn (Jan. 18)
Toughness scale (1-10): 8 -- Phil Martelli’s program is still searching for its first NCAA appearance since 2008. Its 2013-14 nonconference slate will present plenty of quality win opportunities to assist in that effort. But they could be roadblocks, too. Doug McDermott and Creighton could win the new Big East title. Martelli’s team will open the Old Spice Classic against a revitalized LSU team and a matchup against a deep Memphis squad could follow. The top contributors from Villanova’s NCAA tourney team are back, too. It won’t be an easy opening run for the Hawks.
Toughest: Wichita State (Dec. 1), Cancun Challenge (Nov. 26-27)
Next-toughest: Indiana State (Dec. 18), at Vanderbilt (Dec. 30)
The rest: Southeast Missouri (Nov. 8), at SIUE (Nov. 13), at Southern Illinois (Nov. 16), Oral Roberts (Nov. 21), Bowling Green (Nov. 23), Rockhurst (Dec. 3), at Valparaiso (Dec. 7), Wofford (Dec. 14), North Carolina A&T (Dec. 21), Yale (Jan. 4)
Toughness scale (1-10): 7 -- Jim Crews’ Saint Louis squad has the talent (four senior starters are back) to contend for its second consecutive Atlantic 10 title. This nonconference stretch should prepare them for the challenge. The Billikens certainly have a few easy games on their nonconference stretch. But they’ll face Wisconsin in the inaugural Cancun Challenge before playing Final Four participant Wichita State a few days later. A home game against Indiana State could be a bad idea. The Sycamores are tough. The rest of the menu features a bunch of rebuilding, unproven squads. But the contenders that anchor the slate will give the Billikens all they can handle prior to conference play.
Toughest: at Iona (Dec. 14)
Next-toughest: at Wake Forest (Dec. 17), Delaware (Dec. 30)
The rest: South Dakota (Nov. 9), Abilene Christian (Nov. 11), Canisius (Nov. 16), at Siena (Nov. 19), UMass-Lowell (Dec. 3), at Buffalo (Dec. 7), at Niagara (Dec. 21), Cornell (Jan. 4)
Toughness scale (1-10): 4 -- Even for a St. Bonaventure squad that lost multiple key contributors and continues to seek its footing since Andrew Nicholson turned pro a few years ago, this nonconference slate is unimpressive. The Bonnies’ toughest game could come on the road against an Iona squad that lost Momo Jones (No. 3 scorer in the nation last season) but returns four starters. Delaware? Wake Forest on the road? Umm, probably a 2 and a 3 three on the difficulty scale. Sure, the Bonnies are expected to struggle. But a bunch of games against lackluster opponents will serve one purpose -- to boost the team’s win total (possibly) before conference play.
Toughest: Puerto Rico Tip-Off (Nov. 21-24), at Virginia (Nov. 12)
Next-toughest: at Belmont (Dec. 1), at Northern Iowa (Dec. 14), Boston College (Dec. 28)
The rest: Illinois State (Nov. 8), Winthrop (Nov. 16), Northeastern (Nov. 29), Eastern Kentucky (Dec. 5), Old Dominion (Dec. 8), Wofford (Dec. 17), Virginia Tech (Dec. 21), Stony Brook (Jan. 3)
Toughness scale (1-10): 8 – Shaka Smart probably possesses his most talented roster at VCU. And this nonconference slate will prepare the Rams for the Atlantic 10 schedule and beyond. In the Puerto Rico Tip-Off, VCU could face Florida State, Michigan and Georgetown. Tony Bennett’s Virginia squad is stacked and the Rams travel to Charlottesville for that matchup. Away games against Belmont, Northern Iowa and Boston College (Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y.) are the kind of matchups that could disrupt momentum if VCU takes one or more losses. This is a legit lineup. If the Rams stumble in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off, however, their nonconference slate strength will decrease.
Tournament bracket for the EA Sports Maui Invitational
When and where: Nov. 25-27 at the Lahaina Civic Center in Maui, Hawaii
Initial thoughts: The 2012 EA Sports Maui Invitational will be tough to top.
Chaminade’s stunning annihilation of Texas ... Rotnei Clarke’s buzzer-beater to lift Butler past Marquette ... North Carolina’s uncharacteristic display of mediocrity ... Illinois players hoisting the championship trophy after winning three games by an average of 23.3 points. Each game brought a new storyline.
This year’s event could provide similar drama. Although there is only one preseason top-10 team (Syracuse) in the bracket, the 2013 field is far from weak. Gonzaga spent time as the nation’s No. 1 team last season, Cal and Minnesota made the NCAA tournament, and Baylor won the NIT championship.
Each of those teams (with Baylor being the possible exception) should take a small step back this season, but all of them will still be solid and contend for NCAA tournament berths. In other words, there’s not a dud in this bunch, which leads me to believe that almost every game in this year’s event will be entertaining and competitive.
Potential matchup I’d like to see: Baylor vs. Gonzaga. Baylor shouldn’t have any problems beating Chaminade in the opening round and advancing to the semifinals against either Gonzaga or Dayton. The Flyers are always pesky, but I still think Gonzaga wins that game. Baylor and Gonzaga have faced off in two of the past three seasons, with Gonzaga winning both times by single digits. But I’d pick the Bears in this one. The Zags lost their top two post players (Kelly Olynyk and Elias Harris), and Baylor’s strength is in the paint with Cory Jefferson, Isaiah Austin, Ricardo Gathers, Taurean Prince and Royce O’Neale. Gonzaga boasts one of the country’s top point guards in Kevin Pangos while Baylor is searching for a replacement at that position following the graduation of Big 12 scoring leader Pierre Jackson. Still, Baylor’s overall depth in the backcourt is strong with experienced players such as Brady Heslip and Gary Franklin there to guide newcomers like Ishmail Wainright, Kenny Chery and Allerik Freeman.
Five players to watch
Justin Cobbs, Cal: Transfers are hit and miss, but things couldn’t have worked out any better when Cobbs left Minnesota for Cal a few years ago. The athletic guard averaged 15.1 points and 4.8 assists a game as a junior last season. He’ll be asked to do even more following the departure of leading scorer Allen Crabbe to the NBA.
Tyler Ennis, Syracuse: Returning standouts C.J. Fair and Jerami Grant are more recognizable names, but no player in the Maui Invitational will be under as much scrutiny as Ennis, the freshman point guard who has been tabbed to replace NBA lottery pick Michael Carter-Williams. How Syracuse fares in the ACC and, ultimately, the postseason will depend heavily on how Ennis performs in his first season of college basketball.
Andre Hollins, Minnesota: Hollins led the Gophers in scoring last season with 14.6 points per game. His 41-point effort in a victory over Memphis in the Battle 4 Atlantis was one of the top performances in college basketball all season. He should combine with Austin Hollins (no relation) to give Minnesota one of the more formidable backcourts in the Maui field. The biggest issue for the Gophers will be finding scoring down low.
Cory Jefferson, Baylor: The Bears power forward is fresh off a breakthrough season in which he averaged 13.3 points and eight rebounds a game. Jefferson was particularly effective in the postseason, when he averaged 21.2 points over a five-game stretch to lead Baylor to the NIT championship. The freakishly athletic Jefferson will combine with the 7-foot Austin and a bruiser in Gathers to give Baylor one of the nation’s top frontcourts.
Kevin Pangos, Gonzaga: A point guard, Pangos ranked third on the Zags in scoring last season with 11.9 points per game and averaged a team-high 3.3 assists. He shot just 42 percent from the field, a number that will need to increase this season. The loss of leading scorers Olynyk and Harris (who combined to average 32.4 PPG) means that Pangos will likely be asked to score at a higher rate.
Title game prediction: Syracuse over Baylor
Baylor has the size, depth, talent and experience to hang with Syracuse, and winning the championship of such an elite tournament would be a huge momentum boost for a squad loaded with potential. Syracuse, though, is an incredibly difficult team to prepare for on short notice because of its unorthodox style. Even though they lost Carter-Williams, James Southerland and Brandon Triche, the Orange aren’t short on experience, depth or talent either. Fair averaged a team-high 14.5 points and seven rebounds a game for a team that reached the Final Four last spring. Grant showed flashes of brilliance when his minutes increased during Southerland’s suspension, and DaJuan Coleman, Rakeem Christmas and Baye Keita are poised for breakthrough seasons. They’ve proved they can excel at the highest level. Look for Syracuse to win an entertaining championship game.
Who others are picking:
Eamonn Brennan: Baylor over Syracuse
Jeff Goodman: Gonzaga over Syracuse
Andy Katz: Syracuse over Gonzaga
Myron Medcalf: Syracuse over Baylor
Dana O'Neil: Syracuse over Baylor
2. The 2013-14 season will be crucial for the Atlantic 10's efforts to continue the momentum it built last season with La Salle's run to the NCAA tournament's Sweet 16 from the First Four. The top three teams return in Virginia Commonwealth, Saint Louis and La Salle, though the league loses Xavier and Butler. The A-10 will need that top three to stay on top, with a deeper second tier in Richmond, Saint Joseph's and Massachusetts. George Mason is the wild card in its first year in the league (Davidson joins in 2014-15). Dayton, Rhode Island, St. Bonaventure are all more than capable of cracking the aforementioned crew. The A-10 gets overshadowed by the Big East and might at times by the American. That's why this is an important year for the A-10 to re-establish its foothold in the East.
3. USC made it official with the transfer of UNLV's Katin Reinhardt. As with Darion Clark, transferring from Charlotte, Reinhardt will have to sit out next season. The Trojans, meanwhile, are trying to get Maryland transfer Pe'Shon Howard eligible immediately. Don't be surprised to see this kind of roster-building under Andy Enfield. He'll have to balance transfers, those who can play immediately and players he can stash for a year in his effort to create balanced classes. Oregon has made this an art in the Pac-12. Arizona State has gotten into the mix in attempting to climb up faster. Enfield is well-versed in compiling a roster in a variety of ways. To ensure USC is a viable player over the next two seasons, the Trojans will have to take some gambles.
2. Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany has charged the basketball staff to look at some scheduling options to help out incoming members Maryland and Rutgers on the East Coast. One challenge or scheduling agreement that was circulated in infancy stages was with the Big East. But like the once and failed proposed deal with the Pac-12, figuring out how to schedule with another conference can be cumbersome. The Big Ten already has the marquee challenge with the ACC. Some schools in the Big Ten have locked in nonconference rivalry games, or neutral-site commitments. It leaves little room for another forced challenge. The other problem with doing a Big Ten-Big East deal is that games already exist. Creighton-Nebraska, Marquette-Wisconsin, Rutgers-Seton Hall are games between the two conferences (Rutgers will join the Big Ten in 2014-15). Butler-Indiana and Butler-Purdue are on a rotation of playing against each other every other year (Notre Dame plays Indiana/Purdue the other year). DePaul has played Northwestern and could ensure that game occurs, or one against Illinois for DePaul. Having Ohio State play Xavier, Villanova-Penn State (not a reach) and then the holy grail of trying to convince Maryland and Georgetown to play could actually be recast as a challenge. The problem would be finding two teams that make sense to play Providence and St. John's. This is all still a reach and the Big Ten isn't going to look at any of this until after a year of watching the new Big East.
3. The A-10 released its conference matchups for next season. Dayton drew Richmond, Saint Joseph's, Saint Louis and Rhode Island twice. The Flyers won't be playing Xavier at all since the Musketeers are no longer in the A-10, but there was no chance to play in a nonconference game for the two longtime rivals. Xavier coach Chris Mack said with 18 conference games instead of 16 previously for the Musketeers, playing Dayton wasn't a reality for next season. Existing contracts could make it tougher in the future. Meanwhile, Flyers coach Archie Miller said Xavier's scheduling issues and other nonconference contracts made it impossible to schedule the game this season. He's unsure about the future of the series.
2. The reason the new Big East might not start out with 12 schools in the fall instead of 10 is the lack of consensus among the seven schools forming the new league. The best-case scenario would be for the new Big East to start fresh with a dozen. But if there isn't agreement on the schools beyond 10, they will wait for another year. Butler and Xavier are the locks to get first invites, with a debate raging among different factions over Creighton and Dayton for No. 10. Saint Louis is the other school that could ultimately be in the group. Having a primarily basketball-driven conference isn't a new concept. It's called the Atlantic 10. Georgetown coach John Thompson III wasn't being sentimental about the end of the Big East on Thursday. He said the Big East isn't going anywhere and neither is the tournament. He's technically right.
3. Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips has to make a decision on the fate of coach Bill Carmody in the coming week. Carmody hasn't been able to get Northwestern in the NCAA tournament, but then no one has in Evanston. Carmody has had tremendously bad luck and is a well-respected coach for a reason. He has poured all his energy into trying to get the Wildcats into the NCAA tournament. Northwestern should be able to make a cameo every so often, like Stanford. The Wildcats are always going to be in a better position than most to earn quality wins due to the strength of the Big Ten, and probably just have to finish sixth to be in the chase for a bid. That will become more difficult with 14 teams, but still doable. If Northwestern were to go in another direction, I don't see how how Duke associate head coach Chris Collins, a native of the northern Chicago suburbs, doesn't get the first call. Carmody deserves a chance to state his case for what he has done to make the Wildcats competitive and what he can still achieve.
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.
1. Saint Louis. For the first time this season, the Saint Louis Billikens are your No. 1 team in the Atlantic 10. Why? Form. No team in the conference is currently playing better; no other team in the A-10 has rattled off eight straight wins, including convincing home victories over Butler and, most recently, VCU. The Billikens play the stingiest defense in the league, and their offense -- their biggest bugaboo thus far -- ranks second. They're the real deal.
Of course, there is that game at Hinkle Fieldhouse tonight, so this perception could change if Jim Crews' team is just totally blown out. Failing that, by now we have to consider Saint Louis & Co. at least the prospective equal of VCU and Butler -- if not something more.
2. Butler. It is worth noting that Butler's Feb. 13 home loss to Charlotte came when Andrew Smith was sidelined with an injury. It is also worth noting that, even with Smith back in the lineup, the Bulldogs haven't looked their best these past couple of weeks. They managed to hold on for a win at Fordham on Saturday, and beat up on hapless Duquesne Tuesday, but neither of those games featured the kind of impressive offense that drove the Bulldogs to their early-season success. This team has yet to play really vintage (or "vintage") Butler defense; its best work has always been on the offensive end. If the offense slows down, as it has recently, will the Bulldogs improve enough on the defensive end to remain formidable? (For more on this, check out Butler coach Brad Stevens's appearance with Andy Katz and Seth Greenberg on the ESPN college hoops podcast Wednesday.)
3. Virginia Commonwealth. VCU was No. 1 last week. It's No. 3 this week. I don't really think that should be taken as an indictment; I think VCU is about as good as Butler or Saint Louis overall, depending mostly on matchups and style of play. If VCU gets a team that turns over the ball even semi-frequently, they're almost impossible to beat. They create too much chaos, and get too many easy buckets. But if they play a team that limits turnovers -- see: Saint Louis -- the whole pressure-turnover-score-pressure loop breaks down, and VCU has a tough time getting stops or keeping offenses off the boards.
4. La Salle. I'm more inclined to give Temple the credit, rather than La Salle the blame, for the Owls' 82-74 win at the Liacouras Center on Thursday night. Sure, you would have liked to see La Salle put up more of a fight during the 18-0 run that broke the game open at the end of the first half, but Temple was also really hot, and when Temple gets hot, they can beat anyone. The Explorers remain in the top half of this league, to say the least, and are well positioned for a solid NCAA tournament at-large berth.
5. Charlotte. The 49ers were blown out at Saint Louis on Saturday, but Saint Louis is blowing out everyone in its own building these days, so I don't see much reason to downgrade the 49ers. If there is a reason, it's that Charlotte -- so solid defensively for the first two months of the season -- is now allowing 1.03 points per possession while scoring only 0.97. Running an efficiency margin deficit is not a good way to get in the NCAA tournament, which is a realistic goal.
6. Temple. Temple can not be ranked; Temple exists outside space and time. I mean, really: What sense can you make of a team that participated in five -- yes, five -- straight one-point games? Two were losses (at Saint Joe's, at home vs. Duquesne -- yikes) and three were wins (Charlotte, Dayton, UMass), and then Temple -- again, the same team that lost at home to Duquesne -- went on a tear against a good La Salle team Thursday night. Before Thursday night, the Owls were scoring 1.054 points per trip and allowing 1.055. I give up.
7. Massachusetts. The Minutemen are fighting like mad for an NCAA tournament bid -- they're either just outside the tournament field or way outside it, depending on whom you ask -- and needless to say, Wednesday's loss at St. Bonaventure was not helpful. The Bonnies put up 99 points (on a super-brisk 84 possessions, but still).
8. Xavier. Xavier's various RPI and strength of schedule numbers made them a very long shot to get into the tournament before they lost to Dayton on Saturday, and they fell off the Bubble Watch accordingly. But keep an eye out: Xavier's next four games all come at home, and all four -- VCU, Memphis, UMass and Saint Louis -- would aid a last-second tournament push. (And a trip to Butler is the final game of the season; that would help, too.)
9. Saint Joseph's. Remember when Saint Joe's was picked to win this league? Yeah. Not so much. They're now 14-10 with a mediocre offense and a bad defense, which is pretty much exactly where they were at this time last season. Lesson to everyone: Just because a team brings back all its players doesn't mean those players automatically get better.
10. George Washington. The Colonials are still playing solid defense. They're also still playing terrible offense. That combination makes them good enough to beat the league's bottom-half squads on given nights, but they can't muster enough scoring to do anything else consistently.
11. Dayton. For all of Dayton's struggles this year, Saturday's 11-point home win over their in-state rivals/overlords Xavier had to feel really good. It's the little things, right?
12. Richmond. The Spiders got an exciting and well-earned OT win over St. Bonaventure on Saturday, but the issues we've covered almost weekly -- injuries, a hampered offense, a defense that was never good enough to compensate for either two -- remain.
13. St. Bonaventure. The Bonnies may well have spoiled UMass's shot at an at-large tourney bid Wednesday night. Mark Schmidt's team's remaining schedule is mostly bad, but Charlotte comes to town March 2, and the 49ers would do well to avoid a fate similar to the Minutemen.
14. Rhode Island. The Rams' offense remains abysmal -- Xavier Munford and company mustered only 42 points in 64 possessions at home against the Musketeers on Wednesday, but you have to love the defensive leap they've taken in league play, and the spirit with which they've battled consistently superior opponents.
15. Duquesne. After that amazing 84-83 upset at Temple, their first league win of the season, the Dukes were probably bound for a letdown. Or maybe just a return to normalcy. Either way, they lost to Rhode Island and Butler.
16. Fordham. You sort of have to feel for teams such as Duquesne and Fordham; they are in some ways mid-majors that pale in comparison to the majority of their well-financed league foes. Anyway, they're 6-21.
1. Virginia Commonwealth. For most of the nonconference season, VCU was an elite defensive team. Shaka Smart's constant pressure system worked: It forced opponents into the highest turnover rate in the country -- a distinction it still maintains; Rams opponents cough it up on 29.3 percent of their possessions -- while VCU's all-men-on-deck combination of lightning-quick guards (Treveon Graham, Darius Theus, Briante Weber, Troy Daniels, Rob Brandenberg) constituted one of the most exciting watches in the sport.
But a weird thing happened on the way to the Atlantic 10: VCU's defense got mediocre. The Rams still force a ton of turnovers, of course, but when they don't force turnovers, they don't get stops. VCU's league opponents make 38.0 percent of their 3-pointers and 50.2 percent of their 2s, and have averaged 1.01 points per trip, making VCU's defense the seventh-best in the league. Another weird thing happened: VCU's offense took off. Through nine games, the Rams have the best per-possession offense in the A-10. Talk about a reversal of fortune.
Why put them back at No. 1 this week? Because I think VCU's defense will come back. And if it does, and this offensive pace continues, the Rams will be as dangerous as any team in the country.
Also, Thursday night Juvonte Reddic did this. So you know.
2. Butler. If power rankings are a balance between a team's long-view work to date and an evaluation of its current performance, you could still make the argument that Butler is the best team in the Atlantic 10. After all, no one else can lay claim to a win as good as Indiana, not to mention Gonzaga at home. (Marquette in Maui wasn't too bad, either). But the Bulldogs, it should be noted, entered Wednesday night's home date against Charlotte with a conference efficiency margin of only 0.08 points per possession, tied with La Salle and George Washington for fourth-best in the league. And then they lost to Charlotte at home. I'm not panicking just yet, nor should Butler fans; there is still much to recommend the Bulldogs. But it is not heresy to admit that Butler has struggled in the past two weeks, even as wins over Rhode Island, St. Bonaventure and George Washington masked that fact.
3. Saint Louis. The Billikens, meanwhile, are headed in the opposite direction: Since back-to-back losses to Temple and Rhode Island on Jan. 12 and Jan. 19, St. Louis has won six in a row in mostly easy fashion, including a 73-58 victory over Butler. Its defense allows the fewest points per trip in the league (0.915), mostly because Saint Louis rarely allows offensive boards. But the schedule only gets tougher from here: versus Charlotte, versus VCU, at Butler, versus Saint Joseph's, at George Washington, at Xavier, versus La Salle. In other words: go time.
4. La Salle. Were it not for that baffling mid-November home loss to Central Connecticut, the Explorers might well be the subject of some national discussion. Because other than that, the rest of La Salle's losses (at Bucknell, Miami, Charlotte and Xavier, and a 61-60 home loss to Massachusetts) are completely forgivable. Saint Louis has been stifling on the defensive end in conference play, but La Salle is right there with its friends from the Midwest, and perhaps it's time non-A-10-heads sat up and took notice.
5. Massachusetts. OK, UMass fans: You win. I have officially decided to stop qualifying everything I write about the Minutemen with some version of "Well, their efficiency numbers haven't been very good, so the other shoe could drop any time now." It's not that I didn't like UMass, or something sinister like that; it just felt like fair warning. I'm done now. The bottom line is UMass is the fourth-fastest team in the country -- in this hyper-slow modern college basketball landscape, this is something we should be praising in and of itself -- and that pace, aided by the speed of point guard Chaz Williams, allowed the Minutemen to post the A-10's second-ranked efficiency offense performance and fourth-ranked defense prior to Thursday night's game at VCU. The Minutemen were blown out in that game, but that'll happen at VCU. Either way, it's time to start taking Derek Kellogg's team seriously.
6. Charlotte. On Wednesday night, Charlotte won 71-67 at Butler. I reacted to this in some detail Thursday, so instead of repeating myself, I'll merely send you there.
7. Xavier. For a young team that struggled so much in the nonconference, Xavier sure seems to be headed in the right direction now. Maybe that was bound to happen. Maybe it's a product of the Musketeers' backloaded schedule. All three of Xavier's league losses came on the road; its only real quality A-10 win (La Salle) came at home. The Musketeers go to Dayton on Saturday, and then Rhode Island next week. Those will be tests, sure, but it gets really gully starting Feb. 23, when Xavier closes with -- get this -- VCU, Memphis, UMass, St. Louis and Butler. This is going to be really interesting.
8. George Washington. As mentioned above, the Colonials' league efficiency margin of 0.08 points per trip was, before Wednesday's games, tied for the fourth-best in the league. George Washington hasn't played since. The ceiling is pretty limited here, but Mike Lonergan's team plays defense, and that makes it a very tough out.
9. Temple. More like TempLOL, am I right? No? Come on, Owls fans. Now might not feel like the time to joke, but I find the hoary old chestnut holds true: "Laughter is the best medicine … for getting over an 84-83 home loss to Duquesne." That actually happened Thursday night; that's a real thing. And it's a perfect summation of this insanely unpredictable, defense-averse Temple team, a team that can now say it beat Syracuse in Madison Square Garden and lost to Duquesne at home. Your guess is as good as mine.
10. Saint Joseph's. Fun game in Philly this weekend, when Saint Joe's meets La Salle in another Big 5 matchup. At this point, city pride is starting to feel like the best possible outcome for Saint Joe's. It's a really disappointing team.
11. Dayton. In December, back when we thought Alabama was a top-four SEC team, Dayton's victory in Tuscaloosa seemed to foretell another unpredictable, up-and-down Dayton season. Now it just looks like the latter.
12. Richmond. The Spiders have been racked by injuries, which is a good explanation for why an offense that played so well on a per-possession basis in the nonconference season has been the A-10's 12th-best to date. The Spiders have struggled on defense all season; without scoring, they're having a tough time.
13. St. Bonaventure. When they beat Temple and Saint Joe's on the road in late January, the Bonnies seemed to be on the rise. But they've fallen back below .500 since and, despite a valiant effort in a three-point home OT loss to La Salle on Wednesday, are clearly in a rebuilding stage.
14. Rhode Island. Between a road win at Saint Louis -- still can't figure that one out -- and Wednesday's 75-72 home victory over Dayton, Rhode Island lost six consecutive games. And you know what? It was all positive stuff. Remember, this is a team with a first-year head coach that won seven games in 2011-12. Five of the losses in the recent skid came by single digits. The Rams are playing people tough. It's a weekly refrain in this space, but it's true.
15. Duquesne. Duquesne! Huge win over Temple on Thursday night, not for any tangible reason -- it's not as though Duquesne is on the bubble -- but for sheer morale. It's not easy to play in a league like this when you're overmatched, and you had better believe knocking off one of the league's annual contenders in its final season in the league, in its own building, had to be incredibly satisfying.
16. Fordham. Fordham, unfortunately, has had no such fun. Its only two league wins have come over Rhode Island and Duquesne; it has lost its past five games; and on Saturday, Butler comes to town. Ouch.
1. Butler. Rhode Island remains a tough out more often than not in league play, and the Rams gave Butler a real go at Hinkle Fieldhouse on Saturday. But Butler held firm, winning 75-68, and followed that up with a more comfortable romp over St. Bonaventure on Wednesday night. Same deal remains with the Bulldogs: This is a good team, and one no one will want to play in March, but it still needs to get better on the defensive end to really justify its currently lofty ranking come tourney time.
In the meantime, the Indianapolis Star's David Woods has a really sad, but ultimately heartwarming story on Butler reserve Erik Fromm, whose father Leonard Fromm, an associate dean at Indiana University law school for 33 years, recently lost a battle with cancer just before Fromm's 21st birthday.
2. La Salle. Other than last Saturday's game at George Washington, this was a bit of an off-week for La Salle -- tomorrow's home date with Fordham included. But the Explorers should be commended for handling the Colonials, who'd won their previous three (close games at UMass and Rhode Island and an absolute thrashing of Charlotte) and were starting to look like a mid-table dangerous insurgent, particularly on the defensive end.
3. Virginia Commonwealth. The Rams haven't played their best basketball over the past month or so -- back-to-back losses to Richmond and La Salle made that clear enough -- primarily because their vaunted defense, one of the best and most entertaining in the country in November and December, has allowed 1.01 points per trip in A-10 play, seventh-fewest in the league. VCU's only game in the past week came at home against Fordham, which is a nice way to get your defense back on track. In sum: Saturday's trip to Charlotte should be very interesting.
4. Saint Louis. For as many seeds of doubt as the Billikens planted (at least in my brain; your synaptic mileage may vary) in the first two weeks of A-10 play, after five consecutive victories it would appear that things are coming along just fine in Arch-land. (Ha, no one calls Saint Louis that.) After a home overtime loss to Rhode Island on Jan. 19, Jim Crews' squad demolished Butler and Dayton at home and handled business in three potentially tricky road games against RPI landmines. The most important trend? Defense. Saint Louis struggled in this regard for weeks, but it has since established itself as the stingiest per-possession defense in the Atlantic 10, and that should help the Billikens avoid setbacks on the road as they seek to bolster that NCAA tournament resume.
5. Temple. It's genuinely hard to know what to make of Temple's latest win, an 89-88 home victory over Charlotte. Why? Because Charlotte, the 15th-best offense in the Atlantic 10, should never score 88 points on anyone, anywhere -- home, away, on Mars, anywhere. I know, I know: Temple got out of there with the W, which is what really matters. But 88 points in 74 possessions? Really? To Charlotte? Just another data point in a baffling Owls season, I guess.
6. Massachusetts. I suppose you could say I'm coming around on UMass. Or you could say I'm very rapidly transitioning from my role as someone who allows tempo-free statistics to aid much of my fickle eyeballs' analysis into someone who must acknowledge the cold realpolitik of NCAA tournament qualification. (It is kind of what I do around here.) Either way, the fact of the matter is that for as utterly mediocre as UMass' per-possessions numbers tell me the Minutemen are, and for as rarely as I've been impressed when I've watched them this season, their at-large profile is such that they have a pretty good chance of getting into the NCAA tournament. It's pretty strange: This is a team that isn't truly bad at anything (save 3-point shooting) but excels at nothing (save perhaps field-goal defense, and UMass has gotten more more and more stops in A-10 play). But its RPI and schedule numbers and lack of truly bad losses have it in position to lay claim to a bid if it can see this thing through. In a league full of confusion, there is something to be said for that.
7. Xavier. Without (god forbid) going into the whole eight-way tie thing again -- and again, you should not be freaking out about these ranks at this point -- this is where the validity of ranking any one A-10 outfit over the other starts to go a bit sideways. I like Xavier, and Chris Mack has done some nice things with a young team, particularly on the glass; the Musketeers out-board the rest of the league on both the offensive and defensive ends. But they don't appear likely to break out of this soft middle anytime soon.
8. Charlotte. Strangely enough, even despite the loss, you have to be encouraged by Charlotte's 88-point outburst in that 74-possession game at Temple. The 49ers' biggest issue (understatement!) all season has been their brutal offense, and seeing them put up an efficient performance like that on the road is at least a step in the right direction.
9. George Washington. The Colonials have been one of the hottest teams in the conference for much of the past month, and they could have really made waves if they'd dropped La Salle last Saturday. Even so, they're 4-1 in their past five games.
10. Dayton. Not unlike many of the teams in this range in the league right now, Dayton does some things well and other things really poorly. In the Flyers' case, they can really shoot it from distance, and score efficiently … provided they're not turning it over, which they do at a higher percentage than any team in the A-10.
11. Saint Joseph's. Same old stuff with Saint Joe's. The Hawks are not bad bad, and their talent remains tantalizing, but as long as they're allowing more points per trip in conference play (1.067) than they're scoring (1.057) … well, you don't need to be Watson (the computer, not Sherlock Holmes' ambiguous assistant) to figure out why that might limit a team's chances for success.
12. Richmond. Same goes for Richmond: The Spiders have shown plenty of flashes on offense this season (see: Jan. 24 versus VCU), but they're still playing with a negative efficiency margin in conference play and at this point not even scoring particularly well, either.
13. St. Bonaventure. I've gone back and forth on the Bonnies here and there, particularly after they notched consecutive wins at Temple and Saint Joe's, but the deeper we get into the season the clearer it becomes that these defensive woes (1.13 PPP allowed) aren't going anywhere.
14. Rhode Island. If you don't follow the A-10 closely, and if all you do is look at efficiency numbers, then you might not be aware of how well Dan Hurley is doing in his first year at Rhode Island. But even after five consecutive losses, I'm kind of impressed, because with the exception of Wednesday's defeat at UMass, all of those losses have been in close games after credible performances. It's a long slog, but these are all positive signs.
15. Fordham. In a league full of pretty questionable defensive teams, Fordham's defense might be the worst.
16. Duquesne. Except for maybe Duquesne.
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.
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
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.
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.