- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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More often than not, conference realignment has hurt college basketball, squandering rivalries and history in the name of cable subscriptions and BCS eligibility.
The Atlantic 10 is an exception.
After all, it was the latest wave of conference realignment that caused the Big East to go hunting for Temple, and thus caused the A-10 to go out and get Butler and Virginia Commonwealth. When the Horizon League and Colonial Athletic Association told both teams they wouldn't be allowed to participate in their respective 2013 conference tournaments, they jumped a year early -- in time to join a 16-team league that still featured the frequently favored Owls.
Before the season, that possibility was tantalizing. After two months of nonconference play, VCU looks like the league's clear favorite, and Butler one of its top contenders. Temple and St. Louis are, for all intents and purposes, co-favorites. It's safe to say the overall league hasn't quite panned out the way we expected -- Saint Joe's has struggled, Xavier is young, and a handful of mid-table sleeper teams have missed early nonconference opportunities -- but the fact remains that this brief 16-team edition of the Atlantic 10 could provide one of its most entertaining seasons in league history.
The favorite: Virginia Commonwealth.
VCU is breaking all the rules.
The rules say that when you move from the Colonial Athletic Association -- which, for all its recent hoops success, has never been more than the 12th or 13th best college hoops conference in the country -- to a stacked Atlantic 10, you are supposed to take your lumps. Your program needs time to adjust to more exposure and TV time; you flail in the face of new recruiting and travel challenges; you struggle in the nightly buzz saw of better league competition.
The rules most definitely do not say you should win your new league, or be viewed as its favorite as January begins. But that's exactly what VCU is doing, and that's exactly what VCU is.
Of course, the Rams under Shaka Smart are nothing new; their famous 2011 run from the First Four to the Final Four is the stuff of legend, and they gave Indiana a nail-biting challenge in the NCAA tournament last season. But they've taken things to a whole new level in 2012-13. Their per-possession efficiency numbers rank them among the nation's 10 or 15 best teams overall, primarily because guards Darius Theus and Briante Weber force opposing ball handlers into committing a turnover on nearly a third of their possessions. VCU's steals rate (19.3 percent) and opponents' turnover rate (30.7) are both the best in the country. And with those turnovers come easy fast-break and secondary-break offense, a main reason why VCU is also among the nation's 25 most efficient offenses.
Make no mistake: Things will get much tougher for the Rams in A-10 play. And since November, they have done much of their damage against some questionable competition. But there's no way to watch the Rams play, or examine what makes them tick, and not see them as at least a narrow favorite in their brand new league.
Temple: When Temple lost to Canisius at home on Dec. 19, it was easy to write the Owls off. They were dominated by Duke in New Jersey, and now this? A 10-point loss to a MAAC team at home? But Temple quickly quieted those questions. Fran Dunphy's team bounced back by beating a really good Syracuse team on a neutral court on Dec. 22, and this week the Owls held Kansas to just over a point per possession in a nail-biter loss in Allen Fieldhouse -- win or lose, one of the most impressive road performances by any team this season. If Khalif Wyatt & Co. defend like that on a regular basis, they could be the best team in the A-10.
Butler: Speaking of success in a new league, there was much consternation and great concern that when Butler joined VCU in its offseason realignment move, the Bulldogs too would be tossed against the rocky shores of a league that wasn't so mid-major. Beyond new challenges in recruiting, the idea seemed to be that Butler couldn't possibly excel without the Horizon League to beat up on during the regular season. There were a bunch of reasons why this argument didn't make much sense, but most of all it never acknowledged that Butler has on average been just as good as the top levels of the Atlantic 10 for the past five or so seasons. Excepting their ugly early loss at Xavier, the Bulldogs appear to be about that good again this season -- something they've proven by beating Marquette, beating up on North Carolina and shocking Indiana on Dec. 15.
Saint Louis: For most of the nonconference season, it's been hard to judge just how good this Saint Louis team is. For one, the Billikens were dealing with the death of their beloved head coach, Rick Majerus, and the transition to working under interim coach Jim Crews. Meanwhile, star senior guard Kwamain Mitchell suffered a foot injury at the start of practice in October; he didn't return until late December. But now that Mitchell is healthy, things are coming together, and the team that lost to Santa Clara and Washington in November is defending like a team that can contend for the A-10 title.
Player of the Year (so far): Treveon Graham, VCU. The Rams' defensive hasslers get most of the press, but Graham is the most important piece of an offense that makes this team doubly fearsome. He's averaging 14.8 points and 5.4 rebounds; despite using 26.6 percent of his team's possessions, Graham is one of the most efficient players in the league.
Freshman of the Year (so far): Willie Clayton, Charlotte. Charlotte is off to a tidy 12-2 start, and while that has had something to do with the nation's 294th-ranked schedule (according to KenPom.com), it is also thanks to the emergence of the freshman Clayton as one of the nation's best rebounders. Clayton's 19.4 percent offensive rebounding rate is higher than any other player in the country, save Notre Dame's Jack Cooley. That's lofty company.
Wins to brag about: VCU over Memphis; VCU over Belmont; St. Louis over New Mexico; Butler over Marquette; Butler over North Carolina; Butler over Indiana; Saint Joseph's over Notre Dame; Dayton at Alabama; Charlotte at Davidson; Xavier over Butler; UMass over Ohio
Losses that sting: Santa Clara at St. Louis; Washington over St. Louis; Canisius at Temple; Fairfield at Saint Joseph's; Central Connecticut at La Salle; Weber State at Dayton; George Mason over Richmond; Pacific over Xavier; Vanderbilt at Xavier; Wofford at Xavier; Wake Forest over Xavier
Pleasant surprises: Everyone assumed VCU would be good, but this good? Butler's win over Indiana -- a gritty, physical victory sealed by walk-on Alex Barlow's unlikely game-winner -- may have reminded many casual fans that the Bulldogs are to be feared, but their early success in Maui was the real first glimpse. Again, Charlotte hasn't played the best schedule, but it got a really nice win at Davidson and is showing some real progress under coach Alan Major. … The surprise of the A-10's nonconference season came when Temple bounced back from a home loss to Canisius with that win over Syracuse in Madison Square Garden. Did you see that coming? Don't lie.
Biggest disappointments: In October, the Atlantic 10 preseason poll picked Saint Joseph's to win the league. There's still time, but after close loses to Florida State, Villanova and Fairfield, the Hawks have a lot of work to do to make a safe NCAA tournament case, and a lot of improving to do if they want to win the A-10. When a team loses as much as Xavier lost in the offseason (including Tu Holloway, Kenny Frease, Mark Lyons and Dezmine Wells), you expect them to struggle. But Xavier has been so good in recent seasons, and so good at reloading, that it remains somewhat shocking to see it struggling at 7-6 thus far.
Three questions going forward
1. Can Saint Joe's turn it around?
Human-derived (as opposed to statistical) preseason projections tend to overvalue the importance of returning players, and when you have all five starters coming back from a pretty good team, you're bound to be awash in hype. But what if Saint Joe's just is what it is? The Hawks have some really talented scorers (Langston Galloway, Carl Jones and C.J. Aiken). But to date they haven't played up to their ability, and Phil Martelli's team has been far too lenient on the defensive end. The Hawks don't force enough turnovers and allow far too many second chances. I'm not losing hope just yet, but it will be fascinating to see where this season goes from here.
2. Can Temple defend consistently?
The Owls have been scoring at a high rate all season. But when they've struggled -- see: Duke, Canisius -- they've given up 1.32 and 1.14 points per possession, respectively. Temple's offense helped key the win over Syracuse, but the defense played arguably its best game of the season Sunday, holding Kansas to just 69 points on 66 possessions in arguably the toughest road environment in the country. If the Owls can replicate that performance consistently, they're really scary.
3. Just how deep is this league, anyway?
This one-time-only 16-team edition of the A-10 was the product of fortuitous timing: Butler and VCU left their leagues a year early (not wanting to wait, and thus be ineligible for conference tournament competition, as both the Horizon and CAA mandated) and arrived one season before Temple was set to leave for the Big East (which at this rate will no longer exist in five years). With returning forces like St. Louis, a lot of hype around Saint Joe's, Xavier always lurking in the shadows and a handful of dark-horse candidates (La Salle, Richmond, Dayton, UMass), it looked like the A-10 might get seven or eight teams in the NCAA tournament when all was said and done. Charlotte has impressed, UMass has stumbled out of the gate, Xavier and Saint Joe's have struggled, and Dayton remains inconsistent. This version of the A-10 might not be quite the wood chipper we assumed. But it is still a very good and highly competitive league.
1. VCU: The Rams' stifling "HAVOC" defense will make their new league mates miserable all season.
2. St. Louis: With Kwamain Mitchell back, the Billikens' brand of smart, hard-nosed, slow-paced basketball will be just as effective as last season.
3. Temple: If the defense keeps trending in the right direction, look out.
4. Butler: The Bulldogs have done a massive offensive 180 from last season, and Brad Stevens is one of the best coaches in the country.
5. Saint Joseph's: The jury is still very much out.
6. La Salle: Ramon Galloway is one of the best players you've never heard of; La Salle is one of the sneakier tournament hopefuls in this mix.
7. Charlotte: The 49ers aren't pretty, and they're not as good as 12-2 would seem to say, but they defend and rebound well enough to convert nonbelievers en masse.
8. Dayton: You never know what you're going to get with Dayton, but Archie Miller has some intriguing young talent to work with.
9. Xavier: The Musketeers are young and learning on the job. This is a rare real-deal rebuilding year for Chris Mack & Co.
10. UMass: As an avowed Chaz Williams fan, I'm tempted to make the Minutemen a top-half regular-season sleeper. But their efficiency numbers tell a different, far less flattering story.
11. Richmond: Chris Mooney is still rebuilding with a trio of sophomores who can really score the ball, but the Spiders don't guard anyone yet.
12. St. Bonaventure: Seniors Demitrius Conger, Chris Johnson and Eric Mosley offer scoring punch, but the Bonnies have too many other issues.
13. George Washington: Good news: The Colonials have one of the 35 best per-possession defenses in the country. Bad news: They can't throw it in the ocean.
14. Rhode Island: First-year coach Dan Hurley already has the Rams playing better and harder than last season's miserable seven-win campaign, but there's a long way to go yet.
15. Duquesne: The Dukes have a frosh to watch in Derrick Colter, and that's about it.
16. Fordham: When VCU came from the CAA, the A-10 should have traded Fordham. It probably would have been better for everyone.