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May 16, 2016

Hewitt: Atlantic 10 is becoming an elite college basketball conference

I want to say something. I’m going to put it out there.

If you like it, you can take it. If you don’t, send it right back.

The Atlantic 10 is quickly becoming an elite college basketball conference.

To clarify: The Atlantic 10, if not already, will soon be mentioned among the best basketball conferences the country has to offer.

I’m not saying the A-10 is the best conference in the country. I’m not saying it’s better than the Big East, the SEC, the ACC or even the Big Ten – yet.

Those conferences, right now, are in a league of their own.

The numbers speak for themselves. In three of those four conferences, at least four teams were selected in the preseason AP Top 25 poll. The SEC has three teams in the poll, and two of them are in the Top 10. The A-10 certainly can’t say any of that, as it doesn’t have any teams in the Top 25. Although it has four teams receiving votes.

But something must be said for the rise of the A-10, which is, without question, creeping into the conversation.

Last season alone, the conference sent eight out of 14 teams to postseason tournaments, a league record. And if you count Butler and Virginia Commonwealth, who both joined the league this offseason, that would make 10. Any conference that puts 62.5 percent of its teams into the postseason has to be accounted for to some degree in a conversation of the best conferences in the country.

This season, the A-10 is poised for probably its biggest year since its inception in 1976. With the additions of the Bulldogs and Rams to the conference, the league now holds 16 teams, the most it’s ever had, which makes the label of “Atlantic 10” a little silly, but that’s a topic for a different day.

But more importantly, the league is deep – even deeper than last season.

Butler, as a member of the Horizon League, made the national championship game in both 2010 and 2011. The Bulldogs enter their first season in the A-10 a year after having a “down year” in making the College Basketball Invitational tournament. But coach Brad Stevens and his team are poised for a return to the top.

VCU, a previous member of the Colonial Athletic Association, is no slouch to playing deep into March, too. The Rams also made the Final Four in 2011, and have made the NCAA tournament four times in the last six years. VCU coach Shaka Smart and his boys aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.

Both of those squads are premier additions to an already loaded and rising conference. Many of the league’s coaches rave about how their teams can never take a night off in league play, and that sentiment may never be truer than this season.

This season alone, there are at least eight teams – St. Joseph’s, Saint Louis, VCU, UMass, Temple, Butler, Dayton and La Salle – that have legitimate hope to make the NCAA tournament. And even the losses of Tu Holloway and Dez Wells can’t push Xavier too far out of the conversation.

“When Xavier’s picked in the preseason 10th, you know something strange is going on,” UMass coach Derek Kellogg said.

Strange indeed.

Xavier has made the NCAA tournament seven consecutive times and 11 times in the past 12 years, but isn’t a lock at all to make the field this season. In any other year, that would make for a down season in the A-10. But not this year.

Out of the eight teams I listed that have a legitimate shot at making the NCAA tournament, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that six teams make it. In fact, I would actually be surprised if the A-10 didn’t secure at least six bids to the Big Dance this season.

So, how would that compare to the elite conferences in the country? In 2011-12, the A-10 placed four teams in the tournament, which is very respectable. That was  tied for fifth-best in the country with the SEC, which is the home of defending national champion Kentucky.

That statistic alone should grant the A-10 entry into the conversation. The league has always been one of, if not the best mid-major conference in the country. It has sent at least three teams to the NCAA tournament the past five seasons, but there is a certain feel about the potential that it can fulfill this season.

Without question, the Big East has been considered by the large majority to be the best conference in the country year after year. They are the measuring stick for greatness – just look at last season, when it sent an unprecedented nine teams to the NCAA tournament.

I’m not proclaiming that the A-10 is going to be better than the Big East this season. But with all things considered, it might not be too long until that’s the case.

The Big East is  losing some of its best members as Syracuse and Pittsburgh are leaving after this season. West Virginia and Notre Dame will soon be gone as well.

If not this season, the A-10 has the opportunity in the next five or so seasons to exceed the Big East in terms of performance and exposure. It’s already starting to happen this season, as the A-10’s conference tournament officially moves to the beautiful and new Barclays Center in Brooklyn, which is not too far from the Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden. Both leagues will share the spotlight in the Big Apple on the same weekend for the first time ever.

With it being Temple’s last season in the A-10, this season could mark the league’s best chance of laying a firm imprint into the conversation of the country’s elite for years to come.

And with a new television deal in place, a brand new state-of-the-art site for its conference tournament and a depth rarely matched across the country from top to bottom, there’s no reason it can’t happen.

And if it doesn’t? You can send it right back.

Stephen Hewitt can be reached at shewitt@student.umass.edu and followed on Twitter @steve_hewitt.

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