Atlantic 10 suddenly wide-open
With conference play starting up Wednesday night, let's take a closer look at the Atlantic 10:
The favorite: This was an easier call a few weeks ago, but I still have to lean toward Xavier, although it's with a little less certainty. Post-brawl, the Musketeers have been a team in chaos, dropping three in a row and four of their past five. Most troublesome is how lost the players seemed to be after they fell to Gonzaga on Dec. 31. They offered little in the way of explanation for their skid and seemed as perplexed by it as anyone else.
Still, Xavier remains the most talented team in the league. Tu Holloway, Kenny Frease and Mark Lyons make for a dynamic trio, arguably the best in the Atlantic 10. Presuming those players -- two seniors and a junior -- take ownership of whatever is currently ailing X, this still should be Xavier's conference to take.
Other contenders: In traditional Rick Majerus fashion, Saint Louis is building toward relevance again. The coach, who has tinkered and rebuilt his share of programs, has a legit winner in the Billikens. Kwamain Mitchell, who missed all of last season thanks to suspension, is finding his form and Brian Conklin has been terrific all season.
Temple is, as usual, in the mix. Fran Dunphy has had to make do with a patchwork team this season -- Scootie Randall (knee) has yet to play, and Micheal Eric (patella) has been out since early December. The Owls will be much better, especially defensively, if both can return but have managed to play well even without them thanks to Ramone Moore and Khalif Wyatt.
The sleeper pick in the A-10 also calls Philadelphia home. Saint Joseph's, a team that started to find its way in last season's conference tournament, has a solid, young nucleus of players who like to play together. Carl Jones and Langston Galloway make for a formidable backcourt, and C.J. Aiken is a defensive anchor.
Player of the year (so far): This will be interesting. Holloway was the runaway favorite at the start of the season, and his stats -- he's second in the league in scoring (18.4 points per game) have done little to hurt him. But will Holloway's suspension and role in the brawl with Cincinnati affect the vote? If he continues to play well, if Xavier gets back to winning and, most important, if Holloway comports himself with dignity for the remainder of the season, he's still the favorite.
Freshman of the year (so far): As Alan Major tries to rebuild Charlotte, he's wisely put the 49ers in the hands of freshman Pierria Henry. The point guard is a quick, heady player on both ends of the court. Along with averaging 7.3 points and dishing out 3.4 assists per game, Henry ranks sixth in the nation in steals (2.8 per game) and chips in 4.2 rebounds.
Wins to brag about: Saint Louis over Washington; Saint Louis over Villanova; Temple over Wichita State; Temple over Villanova; Dayton over Alabama; Saint Joseph's over Creighton; Xavier over Purdue; Xavier over Vanderbilt; Xavier over Cincinnati
Losses that sting: Loyola Marymount over Saint Louis; Bowling Green over Temple; American over Saint Joseph's; Oral Roberts over Xavier; Hawaii over Xavier; Arkansas State over St. Bonaventure; Monmouth over Fordham; Brown over Rhode Island; Bucknell over Richmond.
Pleasant surprises: You know that eventually a Majerus-coached team will be better, but it's still an impressive jump for the Billikens -- from last season's turmoil-plagued 12-19 finish to this season's 12-2 mark. Hofstra transfer Chaz Williams is making a huge difference for UMass and Derek Kellogg. The Minutemen's up-tempo and pressing style has led to a nice cushion of 11 wins headed into conference play. The conference tournament showed Saint Joe's potential. The Hawks are living up to it now. Phil Martelli has a talented team that is a lot of fun to watch. And his players are young, which means things can only get better. Kudos to Archie Miller in his first year at Dayton. The Flyers are playing well, with two SEC wins to show for it -- against Alabama and Ole Miss.
Biggest disappointments: Xavier's brawl with Cincinnati easily goes down as the nadir of the Atlantic 10 season and seems to have precipitated the Musketeers' slide. Once a top-10 team and favorite Final Four sleeper, X is out of the rankings and trying to rediscover itself. Really thought St. Bonaventure, with Andrew Nicholson, would be a team pulling some upsets this season. Instead the Bonnies have come up empty in all of their big nonconference tests. It's understandable that Richmond would drop back a little after its Sweet 16 run -- especially because Justin Harper, Kevin Anderson and Dan Geriot are gone -- but the Spiders' 9-6 start is still more pedestrian than expected. And what in the world has happened at Rhode Island?Three questions going forward
Can Xavier regroup? The answer can be found only in the Xavier locker room, where a group of players need to look one another in the eye and themselves in the mirror to figure out whether what's ailing X can be fixed. But this is more than about just the post-traumatic mental effects of the brawl. Xavier, as my colleague Eamonn Brennan pointed out in his blog, has been flawed all season.
Despite a roster filled with talent, the offense has been stagnant. The Musketeers average 71 points per game but have had long lapses when their scoring disappears, as though everyone is waiting on Holloway to do something extraordinary. All of it is fixable, and to count Xavier out would be foolish, but certainly how the Musketeers start this conference season will be worth watching.
How many NCAA tournament bids will the Atlantic 10 receive?
It's always an interesting question in the league that is technically outside the "big six" but still not really a mid-major.
The league has been stuck at three for the past four seasons, and that seems the most likely number again this season -- Xavier, Temple and Saint Louis as the likely recipients -- but don't count out a fourth team in the form of Saint Joseph's altogether.
The Hawks are a solid 35 in the RPI, 50th in the Sagarin ratings and 52nd in the Pomeroy ratings.
Working in Saint Joe's favor: wins against Creighton and Villanova plus nothing-to-be-ashamed-of losses to Seton Hall, Iona and Harvard. The loss to American is problematic.
The Hawks are a far cry from a lock, but if they can grab some wins against some of the top-tier favorites in the conference and avoid any horrific losses, they certainly will be in the bubble conversation.
Is there a March sleeper in this conference?
The answer is still yes, but it's not just Xavier anymore.
Don't be surprised if a familiar face is prowling the sideline during the Sweet 16 -- that of Rick Majerus. It's an easy pick now, of course, that the Billikens are playing well, but it is more than just the wins Saint Louis is racking up that makes it an interesting tourney choice; it's how the Billikens are winning.
They rank fourth in the country in defense, allowing just 53 points per game. Only Loyola Marymount has topped the 70-point threshold against Saint Louis, and just five other teams have scored more than 60.
Shots don't always fall in the NCAA tournament, but a team that counts defense as its backbone/personality always has a shot.Revised predictions
1. Xavier: Its spot at the top is shaky, but the talent provides the slim edge.
2. Saint Louis: Conklin and Mitchell have the Billikens looking for their first league title.
3. Temple: A lot depends on Randall and Eric for the long haul.
4. Saint Joseph's: The young Hawks have an outside shot at a tourney bid thanks to wins against Creighton and Villanova.
5. Massachusetts: Kellogg has the Minutemen rebuilding project headed in the right direction.
6. St. Bonaventure: Nicholson can't do it alone, but he can do a lot of damage for the Bonnies.
7. Dayton: As always, the Flyers will be a tough out at home.
8. Richmond: A young Richmond team could finish higher if it finds solid footing.
9. Duquesne: The high-scoring Dukes head into conference play on a three-game roll.
10. La Salle: The Explorers, who head into league play as the hottest team with wins in eight of their last nine games, are another team that could finish higher.
11. Charlotte: Braswell and Henry make for a good one-two punch.
12. Fordham: Double-double king Chris Gaston will keep the Rams in a lot of games.
13. George Washington: There's still a lot of work to be done in D.C.
14. Rhode Island: One word: oof.
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at email@example.com. Follow Dana on Twitter: @dgoneil1.
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