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.