- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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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.