College Basketball Nation: Saint Joseph's Hawks

Here’s what’s bubbling now. First the ACC, where Pitt is now a lock.

At this point, any team with a cat-related mascot and a couple of close games in their rearview gets slapped with the "Cardiac Cats" nickname. Pittsburgh actually earned it. All season, the Panthers have played close games. Its losses to good teams have been close, its wins over bad teams closer. And then there's the slow-burn bubble drama: On a per-possession basis, Pittsburgh should have wrapped up its NCAA tournament bid months ago. Instead, its lack of quality wins and a couple of home slugs down the stretch (to Florida State and NC State, respectively) put Pitt and its questionable nonconference schedule into legitimate bubble jeopardy.

Friday was another exercise in self-induced anxiety. Leading 50-31 with 11:43 to play, Pitt should have put North Carolina away with room to spare in the second half. Then, of course, the Panthers gradually let UNC close the lead, and when Talib Zanna -- who put together a brilliant 19-point, 21-rebound game -- fouled out with 1:03 left, and Marcus Paige's free throws cut the lead to four, things looked grim. But Pitt regrouped and survived, thanks to free throws and careful ballhandling down the stretch (and maybe one or two missed calls, which were legion in this game), and as such we can officially lock the Panthers into a tourney slot. Adding another noteworthy top-50 win was really all this team needed to do to make sure the committee didn't look askance at its unspectacular profile. Mission accomplished.

Meanwhile, over in the Atlantic 10 …

Alongside Providence-St. John's and La. Tech-Southern Miss, Friday's Saint Joseph's-Dayton clash in the A-10 quarterfinals was the best example the weekend had to offer of two bubble teams, both in need of wins, clashing in the conference tournament. The result was a thriller. Thanks to a Langston Galloway 3, Saint Joe's escaped victorious, and now the question is what it all means.

St. Joseph’s: Notching a win over a fellow bubble team on a neutral floor is the kind of thing that just might make the difference -- a tiny difference, but a difference -- between getting in the tournament and getting snubbed on Selection Sunday. The Hawks got what they needed Friday, thanks to Galloway's 31 points and a clutch 3 with 20 seconds to play in Friday's 70-67 win over the Flyers. It was the Hawks' third win over Dayton, which helps, because it looks like both teams are in a dead-heat on the cut line. The question is what might happen Saturday when the Hawks play St. Bonaventure. What should have been a crack at Saint Louis has suddenly turned into a bad-loss opportunity. Would St. Joe's take a hit if it lost? We're honestly not sure. But Friday's win was major regardless.

Dayton: On Friday morning, before broadcasting St. Joe's-Dayton -- he is a man of many talents, after all -- ESPN's own Joe Lunardi offered up his latest last four in update: St. Joe's, Dayton, BYU, Providence. That squared with our own reckoning starting the day, and it's not clear Dayton should be downgraded much along the cut line after the loss. The next four teams on Joe's S-Curve are Minnesota, FSU, Southern Miss, and Arkansas, followed by Cal, Missouri, St. John's, and Green Bay. Both in the short-term movement and overall resume sense -- FSU, Arkansas, Cal, and St. John's have all lost in the past 24 hours -- Dayton rates well against most of those teams. And again: what happens if St. Joe's loses to the Bonnies? Don't tear up your season programs just yet, Flyers fans. If anything, a #daytonindayton play-in game looks likelier than ever.

And let’s not leave out the Big Ten …

Illinois needed, at the very least, a win over Michigan on Friday (and then probably another against Ohio State on Saturday) to get anywhere near the bubble conversation, and the Illini gave it a real run. (And inspired the Watch's Illinois-based friends to send a flurry of second-half texts. Hey guys!) But Michigan held on to a 64-63 lead down the stretch, and the Illini's sudden long-shot hopes vanished just as quickly.

By our admittedly dim lights, Nebraska entered the day with a little space between itself and the cut line -- one of the last four byes, maybe higher. After the loss to Ohio State? It's hard to say. Résumé-wise, Nebraska has a solid-enough RPI (41) and an even better overall schedule (26), plus an 11-7 record in the Big Ten, which might count for something. The committee should see a good, hot team that knocked off Wisconsin five days ago, that outplayed Ohio State for much of Friday's game, that won at Michigan State in mid-February, and that finished the Big Ten season 8-2 over the final 10 games. But if the committee pays as much attention to the sweep vs. Penn State, or the neutral-court loss to UAB -- and if it doesn't like the sight of a good team crumbling under the postseason glare -- maybe Nebraska's case won't be cut and dry. We think they'll get in, but we're not positive about it.

Off in the SEC ...

Missouri: The Tigers played Florida to a draw in the first half and completely crumbled in the second; that's what happens when you let Texas A&M take your nonexistent defense to double-overtime a day before playing the best team in the country. Barring a major surprise, the Tigers' punishment will take the form of a Selection Sunday snub. Arkansas isn't in much better shape after Thursday's loss to South Carolina. In the end, it looks like the SEC is going to be a three-bid league. Finally, Tennessee finally has emerged as a willing third wheel.

Tennessee: No team in the country enjoyed a wider gap all season between what advanced metrics said about them -- that they were one of the best 15 or 20 teams in the country -- and what their wins and losses, and their resulting RPI, indicated. A lot of that had to do with an uncharacteristic-for-all-parties 30-point blowout of Virginia in late December, but still: Tennessee has been one of the nation's best offensive rebounding teams in the country with the returning SEC player of the year (Jordan McRae) roaming the perimeter. But losses to Vanderbilt, Missouri and Texas A&M in February put Cuonzo Martin's team on the bubble and kept it there since. But after avoiding a bad loss on Friday to South Carolina, the Vols are 20-11 overall with a top-15 strength of schedule number by their name and an all-upside matchup against Florida on deck for Saturday.

Check out full details on teams on the bubble here.

Tournament preview: Atlantic 10

March, 11, 2014
Mar 11
Armageddon did not arrive. The end, as it turns out, is nowhere near.

Conference realignment has come, team pillaging has gone, and the Atlantic 10 is still here and still fine, thank you very much.

Just a year ago, teams gathered in Brooklyn for what seemed like a swan song to real excellence, with Xavier, Temple, Butler and Charlotte on their way out the door.

Instead, the reorganized and recharged Atlantic 10 expects to get six of its 13 teams into the NCAA tournament field, a rather nice little percentage. How? Because exactly what needed to happen for the A-10 to remain relevant, did. Teams that had been stuck in the middle of the pack for years emerged this season as viable threats, replacing the ones that left for greener pastures.

[+] EnlargeJim Crews
Bob DeChiara/USA TODAY SportsCoach Jim Crews and Saint Louis have won back-to-back regular-season titles in the Atlantic 10.
George Washington, Saint Joseph’s and Dayton all have reconvened on the scene after too many years on the shoulder of the road, while UMass finally has formally delivered on years of promise. Mix in regulars Saint Louis and VCU and you have a core of teams that are, by ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi’s estimation, solidly in the field before the tourney even tips off in Brooklyn.

Credit the schools for making good hires (Archie Miller at Dayton, Mike Lonergan at GW) and making a commitment to be basketball-centric, and credit the coaches for pushing the right buttons.

But mostly credit the conference for keeping its vision clear amid the chaos.

What’s at stake?

A shot at history for five teams -- VCU, St. Joe, GW, UMass and Dayton.

The last time one of those won the Atlantic 10 Tournament -- how about 2007?

VCU gets a pass. The Rams are in only their second season in the conference.

The rest, though, were once part of the conference backbone, league stalwarts that could be counted on for big results. Hard times and coaching changes have conspired to send all of them into reshuffling, if not flat-out rebuilding mode.

George Washington won the tourney in 2007 and again in 2005. Dayton’s drought stretches back to 2003. Saint Joseph’s, despite that magical 2004 season run, hasn’t won a postseason title since 1997, and UMass has to go all the way back to 1996 when a certain young coach by the name of Calipari led the Minutemen.

This isn’t about securing a bid, though no doubt the certainty of a relaxing Selection Sunday would be welcome.

With Saint Louis already claiming its second consecutive regular-season title, this is about lofting a trophy and legitimizing success.

Team with the most to gain

Dayton. If there is a team even slightly on the bubble, it’s the Flyers. More than likely the strong finish -- with wins against both UMass and Saint Louis -- solidified things for Dayton, but a few wins here wouldn’t hurt.

The Flyers have a solid RPI (40) and schedule (41), but no one wants to be sweating out upsets elsewhere. A longer stay in Brooklyn wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

Of course, the ironic twist for Dayton is that being one of the last teams in could almost work in the Flyers’ favor. The First Four games again will be played on Dayton’s home court, and with no way to pick a new site on the fly, the selection committee has agreed to allow the Flyers to play there if they are in one of those early games.

Video: Impact Performance nominees

February, 23, 2014
Feb 23

The Capital One Cup Impact Performances of the Week nominees include Doug McDermott, Marcus Smart, Jabari Parker and Langston Galloway.

Atlantic 10 looks A-OK

February, 8, 2014
Feb 8
PHILADELPHIA -- A little less than a year ago, Atlantic 10 commissioner Bernadette McGlade spent what should have been her conference’s shining moment -- a first-time meeting between VCU and Butler -- discussing what would happen to her league when Butler and Xavier left.

The deal wasn’t officially done then, so McGlade could only talk in hypotheticals, and even as the commissioner insisted it would all be just fine, it was hard not to think hers was merely pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking.

Sans the Bulldogs and Musketeers, the A-10 looked to be left with VCU and a bunch of teams whose latest and greatest were at least a decade earlier.

And then on one Saturday night, George Washington routed Fordham to improve to 19-4, Saint Louis survived a buzzer-beater to beat La Salle and run its record to 22-2, Dayton beat St. Bonaventure in Olean and is now 16-8, and Saint Joseph’s upset VCU to go to 16-7.

And we haven’t discussed UMass, off on Saturday but sitting at 18-4.

[+] EnlargeSaint Joseph
Bill Streicher/Icon SMI Saint Joseph's forward DeAndre Bembry reaches to control a pass against VCU's Jordan Burgess.
It all left Phil Martelli, already pretty giddy from his team’s 69-62 win against the Rams, feeling cat-got-the-canary good.

The dean of A-10 coaches, Martelli has seen the conference through its inevitable ebbs and flows and he knows what people were saying and thinking when October rolled around.

He also knows what they’ll be saying come March.

"Nobody is going to want to see an Atlantic 10 name pulled in the first round of the NCAA tournament," he said.

The only way the Atlantic 10 was going to survive was if teams that kept promising and threatening to become relevant actually did it.

Like St. Joe’s, which had run together 10 years of empty promises.

It’s been a decade since Jameer Nelson and Delonte West worked their magic here, and nine of those years resulted in an NCAA drought.

A year ago, things looked good. The Hawks were picked to win the conference but instead finished a disappointing 18-14.

They stumbled out of the gate again this season, 9-4 through December, but now suddenly have won six of their past eight, including signature victories against UMass and now VCU.

St. Joe’s might still be on the bubble, but at least it’s finally on the right side of it.

"The thing with this league, when you go on the road especially, if you don’t play your best game or close to it, you’re not going to win," said VCU coach Shaka Smart, who watched his team take a good half to light a fire and create havoc, let alone HAVOC. "There’s more depth now."

Fair or unfair, the Atlantic 10 and the Big East are destined for a lifelong run of comparisons. Northeast-based, basketball centric, they are a mirror image of one another, one just has a little more name cache and a bigger TV contract.

It is hard to ignore the irony in the year one side-by-side. The Big East, the league that attracted the detractors, has two NCAA locks in Creighton and Villanova, and two big maybes in Providence and Xavier.

The picked apart carcass of the A-10? It could be looking at as many as five or six bids.

"A lot of sages were taking the train to New York [for the A-10 tournament], wondering what was going to happen to us," Martelli said.

No one is wondering anymore.

Weekend Picks: Syracuse over Duke?

January, 31, 2014
Jan 31
The games will mean more as Selection Sunday approaches.

But the games also make less sense now, right?

Northwestern over Wisconsin? Texas in the hunt for the Big 12 title? Utah putting up a fight against No. 1 Arizona?

Anything can happen.

But I admit it was still a bit audacious -- maybe crazy -- to pick Florida State to upset Duke in Cameron Indoor last weekend. I guess I hadn’t realized that the Blue Devils had suddenly morphed into a serious national contender again. They’re rolling. Capable of beating any team in the ACC.

Let’s see if they can keep it up Saturday when they travel to Syracuse.

Last week: 4-1

Overall: 28-12


No. 23 Oklahoma at No. 16 Iowa State, 4 p.m. ET, The Sooners (6-2 Big 12), along with Texas (5-2 Big 12), are one of the few teams in the stacked Big 12 that can catch Kansas and grab a sliver of the Big 12 title. Iowa State is just trying to stop a slide that has thrown it toward the bottom of the league. Possessing the worst scoring defense in the conference doesn’t help (78.7 points per game allowed), although a rough stretch (two games against Kansas in two weeks) contributed to Iowa State's stumbles. After Oklahoma (No. 2 scoring offense in the Big 12) and an upcoming road test against Oklahoma State, things should get easier in Ames. These two games, however, could extend the slide. This is the same Oklahoma team that beat the Cyclones in Norman, Okla., on Jan. 11 and has won five of its past six. One team rising, the other falling.

Prediction: Iowa State 83, Oklahoma 82

No. 17 Duke at No. 2 Syracuse, 6:30 p.m. ET, ESPN: There were so many concerns about this Duke team after it lost to Clemson a few weeks ago. It has an impressive collection of playmakers, including a likely top-three pick named Jabari Parker who could be the antidote to Cuse’s zone. But its defense had been inconsistent. That was the past. Duke is a sturdier defensive unit now. Barely top-100 a few weeks ago, the Blue Devils (58.4 points per game allowed in their past five games, per ESPN Stats & Info) are ranked 60th in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency ratings. But Cuse has been a juggernaut this season. The Orange have forced turnovers on 23.8 percent of their opponents’ possessions. And Tyler Ennis, Jerami Grant and C.J. Fair anchor one of the most talented units in the country. Cuse doesn’t always win pretty, but Jim Boeheim’s team continues to come out on top.

Prediction: Syracuse 68, Duke 66

No. 6 Kansas at No. 25 Texas, 4 p.m. ET, ESPN: Rick Barnes might be the front-runner in the Big 12’s coach of the year conversation. And that’s one of the greatest reversals in the country. He entered the season on a seat that had gotten warmer after Texas missed the NCAA tournament last season. Now his Longhorns are just two games behind Kansas in the Big 12 race after winning seven in a row and 10 of their past 11. Jonathan Holmes and Cameron Ridley have been a major part of the progress for a team that’s been successful on the offensive glass and defensively (21st in adjusted defensive efficiency, 17.6 block percentage per Ken Pomeroy). But they’re hosting a Kansas team that might be as dangerous as any group in America right now. Andrew Wiggins has averaged 24.3 points per game in KU’s past three contests, squashing doubts about his ability to be a more dominant presence. But leaving Austin with a victory will be tough.

Prediction: Kansas 87, Texas 84

No. 21 UMass at Saint Joseph’s, 6 p.m. ET, CBS Sports Network: The Minutemen have had their struggles in recent weeks as the Atlantic 10 race has intensified. Derek Kellogg’s program has lost two of three (St. Bonaventure, Richmond). And it’s not difficult to see why. Chaz Williams, a strong conference player of the year contender, couldn’t find the rim in both losses. He went 5-for-21 in those games. He also committed eight combined turnovers. If Saint Joseph’s can limit Williams, a player who affects every aspect of Kellogg’s game plan, it will have a shot. The Hawks didn’t do that in a four-point loss to UMass on Jan. 8 (Williams scored 22, shot 5-for-10). They’ll lose again, however, if they fail to pressure UMass’ senior star.

Prediction: Saint Joseph’s 69, UMass 67


Virginia at No. 18 Pitt, 12:30 p.m. ET, ESPNU: Virginia quietly has climbed the ACC standings. The Cavaliers are 7-1 and second behind Syracuse. Their only ACC loss came against Duke. They’re ranked third in adjusted defensive efficiency, per Ken Pomeroy, and their seven conference wins have all been by 12 points or more. But Tony Bennett’s squad is still missing a true signature victory. Virginia will have a chance to change that when it faces Pitt, a team that’s coming off a 15-point loss to Duke earlier this week. Duke did a great job of limiting Lamar Patterson’s early touches and making sure that he didn’t have any easy looks. Patterson, No. 6 in Ken Pomeroy’s individual offensive ratings, went 4-for-14 in that game. Losing Durand Johnson to injury a few weeks ago changed Jamie Dixon’s offensive capabilities. That puts more pressure on Patterson, Cameron Wright and Talib Zanna. But they can handle it.

Prediction: Pitt 60, Virginia 57
Saturday's matchup between Creighton and Saint Joseph’s probably isn’t one that leaps out onto the national radar, but it intrigues me for a number of reasons.

The Atlantic 10 is again a sneaky deep conference this season -- as UMass proved early with its wins over Boston College and LSU -- and I think the Hawks are a sleeper.

Saint Joseph’s is motivated after losing to Creighton in a big way, 80-51 last season, when the teams met in Omaha, Neb. But Saturday’s meeting could be much different. For starters, it’s in Philadelphia, where the Hawks are always tough.

Plagued by slow offensive starts last season, Saint Joe’s appears to have benefited from taking a foreign tour and playing games in Italy this summer. Guard Langston Galloway may not have picked up Italian, but so far he's been fluent in scoring. The 6-foot-2 senior is averaging 20.5 points and is a major reason why it seems the Hawks’ scoring problems from a season ago are in the past.

Forward Ronald Roberts Jr. is a much better player than he showed in last season's meeting, when he was limited to 1-of-3 shooting and finished with just three points and five rebounds. Roberts is averaging 18.5 points and 9.5 rebounds through two games.

In addition, the Hawks are not likely to repeat their forgettable first half against Creighton last season when they shot just 29 percent from the field, scored 20 points and ended up trailing by 27.

The Bluejays are hovering as the first team in the “others receiving votes" in both the Associated Press and USA Today coaches' polls. A win likely gets them ranked next week. You have to admire coach Greg McDermott for playing a true road game so early in the season, but with his veteran lineup, there’s good reason to take that risk.

Senior forward Doug McDermott manages to make his 28.5 scoring average through two games look mundane. But what’s been a bit surprising is the emergence of Devin Brooks. The 6-2 junior college transfer is a reserve who is averaging 9.5 points and leads the team with 7.5 rebounds per game.

Nonconference schedule analysis: A-10

September, 9, 2013
For the next three days, will be breaking down the nonconference schedules of each team in nine of the nation's top leagues. Let's begin with the Atlantic 10.


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.
1. New Butler coach Brandon Miller couldn't have had the summer lay out better for him with the decision by assistants Michael Lewis and Terry Johnson to stay on the Bulldogs staff. It's unclear if either had a shot to go with former coach Brad Stevens to the Boston Celtics, but the point is moot now. A much bigger coup is that the team's scheduled trip to Australia is still on for August. Miller didn't know the Butler players -- he came back to the school in April after spending a year at Illinois as a special assistant and the year before that doing pharmaceutical sales. The trip gives him 10 practices and four games Down Under. "I couldn't ask for a better time to be here,'' Miller said during our ESPNU college basketball podcast Tuesday. "We've got our Hinkle campaign (to update the famed arena), the Big East, and the new locker room, scoreboard and chair-back seating. The Australia trip is a huge advantage. It gives us a chance to bond."

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.
Well, Atlantic 10 fans, it's that time: The final conference power rankings of the season. I know, I know. You're sad. I'm sad, too. It's hard to say goodbye. It's hard to let go. All we can do is remember all of the times we shared, all of the laughs, and the tears we shed -- usually because of Temple -- and take those experiences with us as we fan out to take on whatever the world holds for us next. I love you all.

Let's begin:

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 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.

Conference Power Rankings: A-10

February, 22, 2013
Another week of confusing Atlantic 10 action, another attempt to put these teams in some meaningful order by your humble power ranker. And with a big game on deck -- Saint Louis visits Butler at 7 p.m. ET tonight -- things are obviously subject to change. Let's just do our best, shall we?

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.
Another wacky week in the Atlantic 10, another mostly futile attempt to place the lion's share of these teams in something resembling a hierarchy. Let's give it a less wordy shot:

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.
After last week's incredibly controversial eight-way tie at sixth place, and after a week full of results as close to predictable as this league -- and, frankly, this sport -- is going to get, I come to you with a more streamlined, (hopefully) less insane version of the Atlantic 10 power rankings. Ahoy:

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.
If someone tells you they know how to rank all 16 Atlantic 10 teams at this point in the 2012-13 season, that person is lying. To be honest, I was tempted to update John Gasaway's Tuesday Truths efficiency margin data to include Wednesday and Thursday night's games, and just use that in place of power rankings -- my little artistic protest against indecipherable hierarchies, a silent screed against the pointlessness of delineation. But then I realized you guys would probably think I was being lazy. We can't have that.

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.

6. TIE

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.
The Atlantic 10 is deep. We've known this would be the case since the summer, when VCU and Butler joined a year early (a year before Temple was set to leave for the Big East), and we're seeing it play out on a nightly basis now that conference play is in full swing. Let's get to the rankings:

1. Virginia Commonwealth. The Rams got all they could handle and more at home against Saint Joseph's on Thursday night. Frankly, down four with 14 seconds left, they probably should have lost the game in regulation. But Troy Daniels made a huge 3, Ronald Roberts missed the front end of a double bonus, and Darius Theus scrambled past a standstill Hawks defense to tie the score at 80 with just 6 seconds remaining. The Hawks, totally gassed, had no chance in overtime, and VCU handled business and came away with the win -- its 12th in a row. And man, are VCU wins -- or, for that matter, losses -- fun to watch.

2. Butler. Despite the loss of Rotnei Clarke to a scary neck injury -- which required a stretcher and a trip to the hospital, but which thankfully turned out to be a neck sprain -- the Bulldogs held on to win at Dayton on Saturday. They followed that up with an easy home victory over Richmond. Now comes the fun part. On Saturday, Brad Stevens and company will host Gonzaga in Hinkle Fieldhouse as the first "College GameDay" location of the season, and the first in Hinkle's 85-year history. Clarke will still be missing, and Butler will have to guard Gonzaga's efficient offense better than it has guarded anyone all season. Thus far, Butler ranks eighth in the conference in points allowed per possession, and first in per-possession scoring. The Bulldogs can really light it up, but they're still getting there on the defensive end.

3. Saint Louis
3a. Temple.

At this point, I'm willing to consider Saint Louis and Temple as essentially equals, power-rankings-wise. The Billikens lost in Philly last Saturday 64-54, but if we're not willing to forgive road losses in the A-10 then I'm going to have to overreact and downvote everybody at least once a week. After all, Temple scored only 52 points in 63 possessions at Xavier just a few days after pushing Kansas to the limit in Allen Fieldhouse. Point is, these two teams appear to be the third- and fourth-best in the league. Or fourth- and third-best, depending on your perspective and/or allegiances. But they're clearly a notch above the rest.

5. Massachusetts. Last week, I moved up UMass despite my season-long doubts because I watched all 40 minutes of its effort at Saint Louis, and it impressed me. But for a few mistakes down the stretch, and a few heady plays by the Billikens' veterans, Derek Kellogg's team might well have won that game. I see no reason to move UMass down this week. Sure, its 77-73 win at Fordham wasn't pretty, but it was a win, and UMass moved to 2-1 in A-10 play with a home win over Duquesne on Thursday night. I said this last week, and it bears repeating: On a per-possession basis, the Minutemen aren't much to look at. Per, their offense ranks outside the top 130, as does their defense. They don't have one particular statistical trait -- other than pace, where they average 73 possessions a game -- that will impress you. But as much as I lean on tempo-free stats, the Minutemen are 12-4 without a bad loss to their name. I'm willing to keep them here until those forgettable efficiency stats start to turn into Ls.

6. Saint Joseph's. At the end of Thursday night's loss at VCU, you could just see it: shoulders sagging, chests heaving, legs cramping -- the Hawks were done. Even the tirelessly wing-flapping Hawk mascot looked to be losing steam. It was that kind of a night, particularly when VCU forced overtime, but win or lose, the first 40 minutes were a valiant effort, and a really positive sign for a team that to date (as we discussed last week) hasn't looked much different from last season's 20-14 group. Perhaps the biggest difference Thursday was the return of Langston Galloway's shooting stroke. Last season, Galloway led the A-10 in 3-point field goal percentage at 46.6 percent; this season, he's shooting just 35.6. But he was 5-for-9 Thursday night, a figure that included a number of key buckets. If he can split the difference and just make around 40 percent, and if Carl Jones and C.J. Aiken can pressure opposing defenses as they pressured the league's best, this team might yet be going places.

7. Charlotte. The 49ers have begun the A-10 season 3-0, but that was to be expected: Their first three opponents were La Salle (home), Rhode Island (away) and Fordham (home). Indeed, at 15-2, Charlotte's only win over an opponent ranked in the KenPom top 100 is La Salle; no one else is ranked higher than 110. I don't say that as a method of detraction, though; there are real things to like about this team. Through three A-10 games, the 49ers have been the conference's best per-possession defense (allowing just 0.86 points per trip), they've rebounded about 35 percent of their misses this season, and they get to the line frequently on the offensive end. They just turn the ball over too often, and when they don't, don't shoot it particularly well, either. Needless to say, it'll be interesting to see what happens when the 49ers go on the road, beginning Saturday at Richmond.

8. La Salle. The Explorers toughed out a 72-70 home win over Dayton Wednesday, a game in which neither team carved more than a two-possession margin and which could have gone either way through the final minute. La Salle scored 1.01 points per possession; Dayton scored 0.99. It was that tight. It's the kind of win we might not remember in detail in March, when all of the results are in and we're comparing 30 at-large tournament resumes at a time. But it was a really great home-court stand, especially with a trip to Xavier up next.

9. Xavier. Should we be giving Xavier credit for its 3-0 league start? Absolutely. The Musketeers did, after all, hold Temple to 52 points on Jan. 10. And, for that matter, they did manage to get out of St. Bonaventure's gym with a 66-64 victory Wednesday. Next up is La Salle on Saturday, and if Xavier scores as it has in its first three games -- at 1.11 points per trip, it currently wields the league's second-most-efficient offense -- the Musketeers could very easily go to 4-0.

10. Dayton. When Archie Miller first looked at his team's Atlantic 10 schedule, he must have been at least a little exasperated. If he wasn't then, he is now. The Flyers kicked off conference play with a game at VCU, a home loss to Butler, and a trip to LaSalle, where the Explorers held the aforementioned line. Fortunately, it gets easier: Dayton is off until next Wednesday, when it gets Fordham at home, followed by Duquesne.

11. Richmond. Perhaps the three-point home win over Rhode Island on Jan. 9 wasn't a fluky off night but in fact a sign that this Richmond team just isn't very good after all. At that point, despite their defensive struggles, the Spiders were still playing efficient offense. And sure, they've had to deal with trips to La Salle and Butler. But still, they've scored just 0.91 PPP, and allowed 1.05, in those three games. If Richmond is putting points on the board it at least has a shot, but if it doesn't, the defense isn't nearly good enough to keep the Spiders out of the cellar.

12. George Washington. The Colonials nearly nipped Temple on Wednesday night, but instead suffered a 55-53 home loss. Simply put, this offense is bad: GW has exactly one player (reserve Dwayne Smith) whose offensive rating is above 102 (100 is about average). The Colonials rank No. 250 in the country in KenPom's adjusted offensive efficiency ranking. They can guard people, but man do they struggle to score.

13. St. Bonaventure. The Bonnies are sort of the polar opposite of George Washington: They score pretty well, and get good, efficient scoring from Demitrius Conger and Chris Johnson, but they've allowed 1.05 points per trip to opposing offenses this season, and that's simply not going to get the job done -- especially considering their early A-10 schedule. After dropping home games to VCU and Xavier, St. Bonaventure now has to tangle with Temple (Saturday) and Saint Joe's (Wednesday) on the road. Ouch.

14. Rhode Island. The theme of the Rams' season has been their effort. They might not be ready to compete yet, but they are making opponents earn their victories: They nearly got Richmond on the road Jan. 9, and they played Charlotte tight at home Saturday. One guesses their trip to Saint Louis this weekend won't go quite as well.

15. Fordham.
16. Duquesne.

Maybe it's a sign of how tight this league is, or maybe the middle of the league just isn't ruthless at putting bad teams away, but neither of these teams is getting blown out. Fordham tested both UMass and Charlotte (and lost by a combined 10 points); Duquesne lost by eight to Saint Joe's. So, you know, there's that.
This week, my colleague Myron Medcalf described the Atlantic 10 to me as a "beautiful mess." That sounds about right. We know Virginia Commonwealth and Butler are really good. We know Temple and Saint Louis aren't too far behind. But the middle of the league -- from the fifth spot to the 11th or so -- is a gigantic muddle, one that is sure to trade body blows and/or confusing results for the next three months.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8. Saint Joseph's. I'm trying to not be overly negative about the Hawks, because it isn't their fault they were picked to win the league based on the fact that they returned five starters from last season's team. Bringing back five starters is all well and good, but what people seem to miss when they make obvious picks like that is that a lack of turnover is no guarantee of sudden improvement. Just as often, teams remain what they were. At the end of last season, Saint Joe's finished ranked No. 52 in adjusted offensive efficiency and No. 106 in adjusted defense, per 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.