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What to make of the Atlantic 10 in the final month?

February 13, 2015 Columns No Comments

The Atlantic 10 has taken quite a turn in just a couple of weeks. What once looked like it could go comfortably to one team has now become a must-watch race in the final month of the regular season. Additionally, the NCAA Tournament case for each team only gets more difficult to figure all the time.

It was only a couple of weeks ago that Dayton came to Amherst and lost to UMass, at that time a team that was a little tough to figure out. That gave VCU a two-game lead in the standings, and with the way the Rams had been playing, you could be forgiven for thinking that the regular season championship going to them was a foregone conclusion.

Now, all of a sudden, the Rams have company – lots of it, in fact, and others are right behind them and gaining. After Wednesday night’s games, which saw VCU and Rhode Island lose and UMass win again, those three and Dayton are in a four-way tie atop the conference at 8-3, with George Washington and Davidson breathing down their necks at 7-4.

Aside from the standings, there is the reality of where each team is trending. Rhode Island and UMass are decidedly trending up, though the Rams suffered a tough road loss at Saint Joseph’s on Wednesday. UMass has won six straight and has had several different players lead the way in victory. VCU, on the other hand, is a big question mark. Briante Weber is done for the year, and Treveon Graham’s ankle hasn’t been right for a month. Without both, they are a very different team, and while still very talented, you see without them how much of an unfinished product they still were. Their players have a ways to go before reaching their ceiling, but now they will need to produce while doing so.

George Washington, Dayton and Davidson aren’t really trending either way, and could go in either direction. George Washington will go as far as their junior core will take them, unless more depth develops. Dayton might be the best of the three on paper, and they were on a roll for a while after dismissing Devon Scott and Jalen Robinson from the team in December. Davidson has been the pleasant surprise team.

While those six look like the top contenders, several teams right behind them can influence the race and even break into the top five, even if they don’t come out on top. La Salle, who had a three-game winning streak snapped at UMass on Sunday, has talent and is a capable defensive team. The Explorers have been an inconsistent offensive team, perhaps in part from starting three underclassmen on the perimeter.

“This league is an experience, a mental and consistency league,” said La Salle head coach John Giannini. “Everyone has good players, and if you’re not focused, if you can’t get back on defense, if you can’t follow a game plan, you’re not going to win.”

The discussion about the conference gets very interesting if you get to the subject of NCAA Tournament possibilities. In theory, the conference should certainly get multiple NCAA Tournament teams, but just who ends up going has a lot to be sorted out. VCU would normally be considered a lock, although one wonders how the committee will view and seed them given the aforementioned injuries and how they affect them. They have now lost three out of four. Graham should certainly be ready to go by the NCAA Tournament, unless the ankle injury was much more severe than initially thought.

Dayton doesn’t have a bad loss, and in non-conference they have wins over Texas A&M and Ole Miss. The former is likely to have more value than the latter. They haven’t knocked off a contending team in the Atlantic 10, however. That makes them a tough team to figure.

After that, Rhode Island and UMass each have lots of work to do, although the Rams are in a good place inside the conference. Rhode Island’s best wins came against a Nebraska team that isn’t even in the discussion for the NCAA Tournament and George Washington, both at home. UMass has been surging, but their best non-conference wins are against Florida State and two MAAC leaders. They played a very strong non-conference schedule, but an NCAA Tournament team has to get wins in some of those games.

Fortunately, the Minutemen still have to play Rhode Island, VCU and George Washington – but all on the road. They are also trending up, having started to figure a lot of things out, and need to continue that for any chance at this. In other words, they have a long road to being in the discussion, though the potential is there based on their play of late.

“I definitely think we all know how to play with each other, and we all know what each other can do,” said UMass freshman Donte Clark. “I think we put each other in a good position to do what we need to do.”

George Washington really hurt themselves by losing at Duquesne in the one game in this six-game stretch that doesn’t come against a contender. That basically negates their win over Wichita State in the Diamond Head Classic championship. They have VCU at home on Saturday, and UMass at home to end the regular season, but how much value will wins over them carry?

Davidson had the worst non-conference of them all, beating a lot of teams with low RPI and whiffing in their toughest games (North Carolina and at Virginia). They have a tough stretch coming up that will define if they should even be in the discussion, starting next Wednesday: at George Washington, Fordham, at Rhode Island, then George Washington and VCU at home.

In retrospect, the injury to Briante Weber looks like it may be more of a game-changer than first thought (and it was thought to be a big one, to be sure), because VCU is now more beatable, but how the NCAA Tournament selection committee will value a win over the Rams is not clear. Normally, beating them would be a big boost to a team’s chances.

A lot remains to be sorted out in the Atlantic 10. It’s likely to be home to a lot of bubble-related games in the final weeks of the regular season, as well as jockeying for position in the standings. Teams right below the contenders in the standings, such as La Salle, St. Bonaventure and Duquesne, have a chance to greatly influence this as well. The matchups to come indicate there’s at least one more turn for the conference to take before they convene in Brooklyn.

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