What to watch at A-10 tournament
The possibilities were instantly tantalizing.
Conference realignment was churning along. Temple was leaving the Atlantic 10 for the once-greener pastures of the Big East, and so the league acted fast, landing two marquee mid-majors -- recent Final Four participants and perfect geographic fits -- in Butler and VCU. When the Horizon League and Colonial Athletic Association, respectively, told both they'd be ineligible for the conference tournament, both bolted for the A-10 early.
And so was born a one-time, 16-team Atlantic 10, which would feature not only the newcomers but retain Temple, alongside league power Xavier, a very good Saint Louis team, recent Sweet 16 participant Richmond, a veteran preseason league favorite in Saint Joe's and a score of potentially intriguing sleepers -- UMass, La Salle, Charlotte, Dayton and so on. It was not at all ridiculous to see the A-10 as one of the best leagues in the country, good enough through its first eight-ish teams to compete with the very best conferences in the country.
It was going to be awesome.
Four months later, the results are well, mixed. Saint Louis, VCU, Butler and La Salle all met or exceeded expectations. Temple was as inconsistent as any team in the country. All five of those teams should make the NCAA tournament (though La Salle and Temple remain close enough to the bubble to feel slightly unsafe), but the rest of the league failed to truly shine. Charlotte kicked off with promise but faded down the stretch. UMass was fast-paced but just OK. Saint Joe's flopped. Richmond was wracked by injuries. Xavier rebuilt.
In the end, the A-10 offered some quality hoops at the top of the league and maintained a level of weekly anything-can-happen madness in its middle regions (in my weekly power rankings, I once ranked eight teams in a tie for sixth place; true story), but this one-time format didn't reach the lofty heights we might rightfully have expected in October.
Even so, if there's anything we learned from the two months of regular-season play, it's that in any given game, in this league, anything can happen.
Top three storylines
Can Temple firm up its tourney résumé?
In a league full of inconsistent teams, Temple was by far the least predictable. In a matter of three days in late December, the Owls lost at home to Canisius -- not a bad team, but still -- and toppled Syracuse in Madison Square Garden. They've challenged Kansas in Lawrence and lost at home to Duquesne, the latter one part of a string of five one-point games (three wins and two losses) in the middle of conference season. Since then, Temple has gotten things back on track, winning its past seven, including wins over UMass, La Salle and VCU. The Owls' NCAA tournament chances have followed suit, but they're still hanging around the bubble. A loss in their first game in Brooklyn (to either UMass or George Washington) certainly wouldn't help. Another win over VCU in the semis? Then we can start talking locks.
Ditto La Salle.
This probably should be a five-tournament-team league, but if the Owls are on the bubble, so is La Salle, and it's entirely possible both could eventually miss out if things go awry this week. The good news for the Explorers is their likely quarterfinal opponent is Butler, provided the Bulldogs take care of business against the 12th-seeded Dayton Flyers. Which means a loss wouldn't be a bad thing, and a win -- over a team that beat Indiana and Gonzaga -- is very much an upside proposition.
Will we get a Saint Louis-VCU rematch in the final?
With all due respect to the rest of this league -- particularly Butler, which remains as dangerous as ever in a single-elimination format -- and with the acknowledged understanding that mini-Cinderellas are often what make conference tournaments great, it's hard to imagine a better A-10 final than Saint Louis-VCU. For one, these are the two best teams in the league. For another, it's an ideal meeting of strengths. The Billikens lock up on defense and play smart, mistake-free offensive basketball; preventing turnovers and working for good looks is a huge part of their success. VCU, meanwhile, utterly thrives on turnovers.
The Rams force more giveaways per possession than any team in the country, and they turn those turnovers into points. That's Shaka Smart's whole system, and it almost always works. But it didn't work against Saint Louis in the first matchup this season -- a 76-62 victory -- and when the Rams can't force turnovers, they don't get stops. All of which makes this a pretty fascinating matchup for the wonky basketball fan and an awfully fun one to boot. You know -- provided it happens.
Five players to watch
Khalif Wyatt, Temple: Wyatt might be the single most important player in the tournament. It's not just that he's one of the nation's most prolific scorers, averaging 19.9 points per game. It's that he is asked to do it so often: Wyatt's 31.1 percent usage rate is the highest on his team by 11 percentage points; only Jake O'Brien, a reserve, uses more of his team's available offensive opportunities. That Wyatt has been able to score the way he has is the biggest reason Temple's offense was the third best in Atlantic 10 play. And the Owls -- who are no one's idea of a lockdown defensive squad -- desperately need offense.
Treveon Graham, VCU: Darius Theus and Briante Weber tend to be the most feted Rams and for good reason: They rank No. 3 and No. 1 in steals rate in the country, respectively, and they're why VCU can execute Smart's havoc defense so ruthlessly. But if Graham is occasionally overlooked, he shouldn't be. He leads VCU with 15.9 points per game, makes 37 percent of his 3s and gets his numbers seamlessly while serving as his team's top offensive option. And don't sleep on VCU's offense. While the Rams' defense occasionally struggled in A-10 play, their offense surged and finished the season as the most efficient group in the conference.
Rotnei Clarke, Butler: By far Butler's worst loss of the season was also its most recent, when the Bulldogs were utterly smothered by VCU's constant pressing attack in Richmond and lost 84-52 (and it may not have been that close). There was a lot of overreaction to that game, but VCU is an awful matchup for Butler, because the Bulldogs don't really have a true point guard playing at the point. What they do have is a converted shooting guard in Clarke, and while those distinctions can often be overblown (as long as a guard is effective, who cares what template he fits), in this case it's important. When Butler turns over the ball on offense, it makes its life miserable at the defensive end. Clarke has to be an effective scorer from deep, but maybe more than anything, he has to take care of the ball for this team to succeed.
Dwayne Evans, Saint Louis: We spent November and early December wondering when Kwamain Mitchell was going to come back from his October injury, and how Saint Louis would adapt upon his return, and it's no coincidence Mitchell's return preceded the Billikens' 21-3 finish in their final 24 games. But somewhere along the way, Evans emerged as Saint Louis' biggest offensive threat, who makes 53 percent of his 2s, draws fouls at a high rate (and makes 75 percent of his free throws) and anchors the glass on both ends of the floor.
Chaz Williams, UMass: We may have rightly expected a bit more from UMass this season, but it hasn't been a total disappointment. Why? Because I love fast-paced basketball, and the Minutemen were one of the fastest teams in the country all season long. The reason this style of play works is thanks to the tireless quickness of listed-at-5-foot-9-but-come-on senior guard Chaz Williams, who is a blur and an absolute thrill to watch. He's also one of the nation's best assist men -- he drops a dime on 42.4 percent of his possessions, eighth best in all of college hoops -- and if UMass is going to find a back-door route to the NCAA tournament, you can start with Williams.
Around the tournament
Hottest team: Saint Louis. Pretty straightforward stuff: After struggling out of the gate minus Mitchell (including losses to Santa Clara and Washington) and faltering in weird fashion at the start of conference play (Rhode Island played people tough this season, but still, a home loss to Rhode Island?!), all the Billikens have done is finish 11-1 with two wins over Butler and a convincing home win over VCU. No defense in the Atlantic 10 -- even VCU's -- came close to the work the Billikens put in, allowing only 0.92 points per trip against league opponents. This is a good team, a deep team, and an absolute nightmare to play. And considering all they've been through, losing their former coach, Rick Majerus, in early December, they're one of the sport's best stories, too.
Coldest team: Unfortunately, this is pretty obvious, but Duquesne and Fordham are this league's worst teams by a long shot -- they're simply not of a par with even most of the bottom half of the league. Both have had a rough go, but Fordham won its final regular-season game (against St. Bonaventure), while Duquesne went 1-16 in its final 17 games (with the only win coming 84-83 at Temple).
Sleeper pick: This is kind of a funny question, because as I mentioned in the intro, at the start of the season it felt as though this league had about 10 sleepers. Those ranks have dwindled, of course, but there are still plenty of threats that didn't get a first-round bye. Xavier has improved steadily over the course of the season (and the first rule of Xavier is never bet against Xavier); Richmond is a threat to get hot and rattle off a handful of wins with Derrick Williams back from injury; anything can happen with Charlotte, but it's a tough out; and Saint Joe's well, OK, let's not go too far. If I had to settle on one, I'd probably go with UMass. The Minutemen are the team with the most on the line, and they certainly have the talent to go deep.
Potential upset victim: Were Butler to lose in the first round to Dayton, it would surely be greeted with outright dismay, but the Bulldogs have often been overrated this season, particularly as they've struggled in the back half of conference play. If the Bulldogs' scoring goes cold, they haven't quite proved their defensive chops enough for me to automatically assume they won't get knocked off. I'm not saying it's going to happen -- Brad Stevens scouts and prepares his team as well as any coach in the country -- just that it wouldn't be totally surprising.
Best first-round matchup -- Xavier-Saint Joe's: The Musketeers have been a bear to deal with in their own building this season -- just ask Memphis or Saint Louis -- but can they get on a roll in the unfamiliar terrain of the Barclays Center? And Saint Joe's has been one of the more unfortunate teams in this league, not bad so much as painfully similar to last season's thoroughly mediocre squad, despite the somewhat silly preseason expectations that lots of returning players would magically add up to improvement. Is there anything left in that tank? One last-ditch shot at redemption? We shall see.
Best potential quarterfinal: That possible (OK, likely) La Salle-Butler game on the No. 4-No. 5 line is enticing, not only because it will just be a good old-fashioned basketball game, but also because it will be La Salle's last chance at some résumé-padding in advance of Selection Sunday.
Predicting a champion: I'd take VCU against most tournament fields, but it's hard for me to pick the Rams when their turnover-free Kryptonite sits across the bracket in the No. 1 seed. Saint Louis wins it.
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