An A-10 primer for conference season

The Atlantic 10 sits in a sort of pleasant basketball purgatory. Not a mid-major, not part of the so-called Big Six, it instead has carved its own hoopscentric niche. This is a basketball league, not a basketball league with a football problem or a football league with a basketball stepbrother.

The question, as always, is just how good is the A-10 from top to bottom? It has always had a few fearless members who challenge the establishment, but hasn't been able to quite pull its middle and bottom up to its own high standards.

At the beginning of the season, the league looked to be in position to welcome some new members to the top of the standings.

But as the A-10 preps for the start of conference play on Wednesday, it's fair to say the league has been somewhat disappointing this season. One only needs to look at the past couple of days: Richmond lost at home to Bucknell; St. Bonaventure lost at home to Marshall; Rhode Island lost 84-59 at Florida; UMass lost 92-63 at Central Connecticut State.

There are still quality teams, and there will be multiple bids to the NCAA tournament. But just how many is now the question.

Team to beat: Temple

The league's three-time defending champion has done little to suggest it's letting go of its perch. The Owls have lost three respectable games -- to Cal, Texas A&M and a dogfight to city rival Villanova -- and already have claimed a quality victory by beating Georgetown. Fran Dunphy's squad continues to hang its hat on the defensive end. The Owls allow just 57.4 points per game (15th in the country) and play tough, scrappy man-to-man.

What's surprising is the team that said goodbye to Ryan Brooks still has good offensive production. Ramone Moore and Scootie Randall, bit players last season, have been revelations. Moore averages a team-high 15 points and Randall's 8.7 ppg and 4.9 rpg give a great boost to Juan Fernandez.

The enigma remains Lavoy Allen. A terrific player in the post, Allen can be a dominant player -- when he wants to be. The problem is, Allen turns his production off and on. If Temple wants to get Dunphy that elusive NCAA tournament victory, Allen will need to find a permanent "on" switch.

Player of the year: Tu Holloway, Xavier

The junior is averaging 21.3 points, 5.6 assists, 4.3 rebounds and 1.7 steals while averaging 39 minutes, keeping the depleted Musketeers afloat. He's had to do everything for Xavier and has delivered game in and game out. By any name, Holloway has been flat-out terrific all season.

Rookie of the year: Langston Galloway, Saint Joseph's

On a young, struggling team, Galloway has been a breath of fresh air. The 6-3 freshman guard from Louisiana is averaging 12.5 points, 5.6 rebounds and 2.9 assists, while hitting 41 percent of his field goals and an impressive 92 percent of his free throws.

Early surprise: St. Bonaventure

The bar is perpetually set near the ground in Olean, N.Y., but there is reason to think the Bonnies are coming out of the quicksand. They have an eye-opening comeback win against St. John's that looks better and better by the day and also own victories over Ohio and Siena. Andrew Nicholson (see below) is putting up the sort of numbers that turn heads, and perhaps, turn a program around.

The big unknown: Rhode Island

The Rams have looked good (beating Boston College and solid mid-majors like Charleston and Drexel) and not so good (losing to Illinois-Chicago and by 25 at Florida). But Rhode Island just added Orion Outerbridge to the roster, which could be a season-changer. The junior, who missed the first 12 games with academic troubles, had 12 points in his first game back -- the win against BC.

Early dud: La Salle

Last year was supposed to be the year for the Explorers, but their early hopes and expectations were derailed by injuries. So this season became the year. The year for disaster, it looks like. La Salle lost a well-played, close game to Villanova 84-81, but has since skidded on the road of misery, dropping three more to Bucknell, Rider and Towson. The Explorers are 7-7 after snapping a three-game skid on Sunday against Binghamton. Aaric Murray, so good early, has struggled right alongside his team, disappearing with 11 disinterested points in the loss to Towson.

Scrappiest team: Xavier

The short-handed Musketeers (down to nine scholarship players) would have every reason to fold and raise the white flag. They lost Brad Redford to a knee injury before the season started and recently Jay Canty went to the bench with a stress fracture. But Xavier has hung tough with a respectable 8-4 mark, and it has yet to go down without a fight to anyone this season.

Best of the rest: Dayton, Richmond

I was a little concerned about the Flyers early, wondering if they were headed to another season of unfulfilled expectations after a blowout loss to Cincinnati and a defeat to East Tennessee State. But Dayton has rallied nicely with five wins in a row, including W's against Seton Hall and New Mexico. UD also owns a win at Ole Miss from earlier in the season. Chris Wright and Chris Johnson have been rock steady and look poised to complete things this time around.

Richmond has been oddly all over the map, losing to Iona, Georgia Tech and Bucknell and beating VCU at home, Purdue at a neutral site and Arizona State and Seton Hall on the road. The Spiders have so much talent and experience in the likes of Kevin Anderson, Justin Harper and Dan Geriot. It's hard not to expect Richmond to find a steady course through the A-10 season.

Grading the preseason picks (based on official media poll)

1. Temple: Some things aren't worth making complicated. This was a no-brainer pick, and the Owls haven't done anything to make the pollsters feel foolish.
2. Xavier: No one could have predicted the misfortune and injuries that have hit the Musketeers, so an understandable pick.
3. Richmond: Seemed about on target, though with Xavier's injury woes, the Spiders could climb up the standings by season's end.
4. Dayton: Based on the Flyers' free fall before the NIT, this pick made sense. If Dayton keeps it together, it could finish higher.
5. Rhode Island: Good slot for the Rams.
6. Saint Louis: Picks were made before leading scorer Kwamain Mitchell and starter Willie Reed were suspended from school following a sexual assault accusation (no charges were filed and the school later dropped allegations of sexual assault but suspended them for violating its code of conduct).
7. Charlotte: First-year coach Alan Major may actually push the 49ers higher than this, if their recent wins against Tennessee and Georgia Tech are signs of good things to come.
8. Duquesne: Thought this looked low back in October, but as it looks now, the still helter-skelter Dukes have lived down to this ranking.
9. La Salle: Expected La Salle to finish higher than this, but the last month has proved that the Explorers still haven't merited higher expectations.
10. George Washington: Unfortunately the Colonials have done little to prove this lack of faith wrong.
11. Massachusetts: The young Minutemen haven't been able to beat any quality competition yet and were just embarrassed by a NEC team, so this seems about right.
12. Saint Joseph's: The young Hawks may actually finish lower than this.
13. St. Bonaventure: Penciling the Bonnies at or near the bottom of the conference has long been an A-10 tradition, but St. Bonaventure may be ending that this year.
14. Fordham: Tom Pecora has voters looking silly early, with a respectable 6-6 start for the Rams. Question is: Can they keep it going in conference?

Best place to watch a game this season: Rose Hill Gymnasium

OK, so the product on the court hasn't been great for a while, but Fordham's gym is worth a visit on its own. Built in 1925, it is the country's oldest on-campus facility in continuous use for Division I basketball. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar played his final high school game there and during World War II, Rose Hill served as a barracks. If you don't appreciate old, stay away. If you love history, go.

(Honorable mention: Xavier's Cintas Center, Dayton Arena).

Worst venue: Reilly Center, St. Bonaventure

It's one of those nondescript multipurpose facilities, which isn't a crime. However, couple that with the fact that you can't get to Olean from anywhere (save Canada), and it ends up at the bottom of the A-10 facility heap.

Best player toiling in obscurity: Andrew Nicholson, St. Bonaventure

Obscurity and Olean are practically synonymous, so it's not hard to figure out why Nicholson isn't a household name. But the junior has been terrific, scoring in double figures in every game this season, including a 44-point, 12-rebound monster in the four-overtime win against Ohio, a game in which Nicholson played all 60 minutes.

Coach you want drawing up a last-second play: Chris Mooney

If Rick Majerus' health weren't such an issue, I'd pick the Saint Louis coach here. As it is, the nod goes to Richmond's Mooney. A Pete Carril disciple, he knows a thing or two about how to draw up a good play when a team needs it.

Best mascot: Saint Joseph's Hawk

So the Hawk has died a little bit on the court this season, but the mascot hasn't stopped flapping at least one wing through all of that misery.

Most entertaining team

This isn't exactly a high-flying, high-scoring league, so if you're looking for points, look at Duquesne. The Dukes rank 17th in the nation in scoring offense (80.7 ppg). There's also fun in watching Damian Saunders, a terrific player who flies under the radar to everyone but NBA scouts, who are flocking to Pittsburgh to see him.

Must-see games

1. Dayton at Xavier, Jan. 15
2. Richmond at Temple, Feb. 17
3. Temple at Duke, Feb. 23
4. Xavier at Dayton, Feb. 27


NCAA tickets (3): Temple, Dayton, Richmond
Second-round attendee: Temple
NIT: Rhode Island, Xavier
CBI: Duquesne

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.