Atlantic 10 Tournament Preview

Michael Phillis/Collegian

Click here to hear Eli Rosenswaike and Michael King discuss the Atlantic 10 Tournament and UMass’s chances at an at-large berth into the NCAA Tournament

Heading into today’s start of the Atlantic 10 Tournament, not much is known. But we do know the following: The A-10 has 14 teams (go figure), two of them won’t partake in the tournament (George Washington and St. Bonaventure), four teams will have first-round bye’s (Xavier, Temple, Massachusetts and Richmond) and one team will win the event and receive the automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament. What everyone wants to know is not just who will win the tournament, but which of the numerous “bubble” teams in the conference will be “dancing” in March. If Xavier (the prohibitive favorite) gets the automatic bid, could the country’s seventh-best conference only have one team represented in the field of 65? The No. 10 Musketeers are in no matter what, but the same can’t be said for UMass, Temple, Saint Joseph’s, Dayton and Rhode Island – five teams that have postseason aspirations that don’t include the NIT. Strangely enough, it’s the Flyers and the Rams (they were both ranked in the Top 25 at one time) that have the most work to do in that group to avoid the dreaded consolation prize for missing out on the NCAAs. The Minutemen may be in the best shape of that group, even though Temple beat UMass (in overtime) and finished one game ahead of Travis Ford’s team in the conference standings. UMass’s postseason r’eacute;sum’eacute; is simply stronger than Temple’s with more impressive non-conference and in-conference victories. For UMass and Temple, one interesting question has been raised. Since each team finished in the Top 4 in the conference, they received a bye in the first round – but is that a good thing? Take Dayton and Umass, for example. Both teams are hoping to secure an at-large bid into the NCAA Tournament.

Now, which of the following would help a team better: Winning a first-round game then falling in the second round OR getting the first-round bye and losing your first game in the second round? It’s a tough question to answer. Not getting that bye in the opening round gives Dayton, URI and St. Joe’s that extra chance to add a good win and boost their case for an at-large bid. Appearing on ESPN’s First Take on Monday morning, Ford talked about how his team already has a win in this tournament (sort of) since it earned the bye. But will the NCAA Selection Committee look at it that way? With the first-round bye’s in mind, eight of the 12 teams in the tournament will be in action today at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, N.J. First-round action will start at noon for the first game; the final game of the night will tip-off at 9 p.m. No. 8 Dayton vs. No. 9 Saint Louis (No. 1 Xavier awaits winner) If you go strictly by the seeds, this technically should be the most competitive matchup. That scenario is unlikely to play out, though. In terms of sports clich’eacute;’s, the “it’s hard to beat a team three times in one season” rhetoric is one of the most overused in college basketball – but it holds particularly well in this case. SLU came close to defeating the Flyers on Jan. 12 (68-57 loss in overtime) but were destroyed, 63-36, a few weeks later at home. The Billikens are a strange team. They lead the conference in scoring defense (61.5 points allowed per game) but are dead last with 60 points per game on offense. A good part of that has to do with their extremely slow pace of play, but their talent level simply doesn’t match Dayton’s – especially if the injured Chris Wright is able to play for the Flyers. SLU’s Kevin Lisch and Tommie Liddell III will have to play their best games for the Billikens to topple star Brian Roberts and UD. No. 5 Saint Joseph’s vs. No. 12 Fordham (No. 4 Richmond) This will be an interesting matchup, as both teams are led by the play of their respective big men (Bryant Dunston for the Rams and Ahmad Nivins for the Hawks). However, the game will likely be swung by the supporting casts, and the Hawks certainly have the advantage there. That was the case in the one prior meeting this season between the teams – a 70-55 SJU victory over Fordham. Dunston had a strong effort in that game (18 points and eight rebounds) and was supported by the 19 points from guard Marcus Stout. But no other Ram had more than five points, while the Hawks had double-figure contributions from four starters. If Saint Joe’s gets passed the Rams, it will likely have to defeat Richmond as well, if it hopes to get an at-large bid into the NCAA Tournament. With strong point guard play from Tasheed Carr and the duo of Nivins and Pat Calathes in the middle, the Hawks will likely be favored to do just that. No. 7 La Salle vs. No. 10 Duquesne (No. 2 Temple) Both teams enter this game in the midst of a slide, and in Duquesne’s case, they come into the matchup with a depleted lineup. Shawn James, the conference’s leading shot blocker, suffered a shoulder injury against Charlotte late in the season, and is unlikely to play. The Dukes love to run up and down the floor, playing little defense, and they need the 6-foot-10 center’s playmaking ability on defense to help counteract that. Meanwhile, the Explorers have been healthy, but have been struggling nonetheless. After an impressive five-game winning streak, La Salle has dropped three consecutive contests – including blowout losses to UMass and Temple. Despite a win in its last game over SLU, Duquesne has had it worse over that stretch – losing five consecutive games before its most recent triumph. The two teams split their season series this year, with La Salle capturing the last meeting, 75-72, on Feb. 24. Duquesne ran the Explorers out of their own gym two weeks prior, scoring over 100 points in a 17-point victory. The key to the rubber match will likely be La Salle’s Darnell Harris, who is one of the premier 3-point shooters in the country. No. 6 Charlotte vs. No. 11 Rhode Island (No. 3 Massachusetts) This has to be considered one of the elite matchups in the first round. Rhode Island’s late struggles dropped them to an 11-seed, but this is a team that was ranked in the Top 25 for several weeks and is loaded with talent. The 49ers have the better seeding, but it’s the Rams, not Charlotte that have a chance (albeit small at this point) to sneak into the NCAA Tournament. There was only one meeting between the programs this year, but that matchup could be more telling than the two between La Salle and Duquesne – because it happened just days ago. The 49ers completed URI’s late-season tailspin, going into the Ryan Center and taking down the Rams, 74-64 on March 8. Charlotte’s stars (Leemire Goldwire and Lamont Mack) had outstanding performances, combining for 53 of the team’s 74 points on 12-of-20 shooting from 3-point range. Rhode Island is a much deeper team on paper, but will have to stay out of foul trouble and limit Goldwire’s (who scored 34 in that game) scoring opportunities.

Eli Rosenswaike can be reached at [email protected]