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Chiarelli: Predicting the A-10 tournament in an unpredictable year

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(Alec Zabrecky/Daily Collegian)

(Alec Zabrecky/Daily Collegian)

The first rule in following this 2015 Atlantic 10 conference is to throw presumptions aside, because nothing will make sense.

The second rule is that, at least this year, there aren’t any other rules.

It was nearly impossible to not enjoy conference play this year. With just three weeks left in the season, four teams were tied for first place. Yet none of those teams – Virginia Commonwealth, Dayton, Rhode Island and Massachusetts – ended up winning the regular season crown.

No, that went to Davidson, the team that was picked to finish 12th out of 14 teams in the preseason poll and just concluded its first year in the conference. How’s that for making an entrance?

There have been catastrophic injuries (hello, Briante Weber) and roster overhauls, as Dayton continues to challenge the notion that tall players are required to succeed at basketball after kicking its two big men off the team earlier this season.

There were upstarts in Davidson, teams vying for respect (nice jump, URI) and even clunkers. Yes, I’m looking at you, George Washington and UMass.

Now it’s time to sort it all out as the opening round of the A-10 tournament begins Wednesday night.

Shall we get started?

The favorite 

It’s difficult to find a team entering a conference tournament that is playing as well as Davidson.

The Wildcats snuck into the AP top 25 poll this week at No. 24 and have won nine games in a row. During that streak, they scored at least 82 points four different times. They shoot the ball often but do it well and have four different players averaging double-figures.

Senior guard Tyler Kalinoski was named A-10 Player of the Year and Davidson coach Bob McKillop won Coach of the Year. The Wildcats are deservedly getting their due, but now must earn it.

Finding success in conference tournaments, which require teams to play sometimes as many as four games in four straight days, hinges on guard play, which happens to be Davidson’s strength. Kalinoski (16.9 points per game), Jack Gibbs (16) and Brian Sullivan (13.1) can all effectively run the point and score, making it a difficult matchup to cover for opposing teams, especially as the tournament prolongs.

Also, how fitting is it that the nucleus of the team nobody assumed would make noise is named Tyler Kalinoski, Jack Gibbs and Brian Sullivan? That could be anybody.

The next up

Behind Davidson, which is the No. 1 seed, is Dayton, URI and Richmond in that order. According to Ken Pomeroy’s simulator, Dayton is the next most likely to make the championship (21.6 percent chance), so we’ll start with them.

The Flyers dismissed two forwards, Jalen Robinson and Devon Scott, from the program in December following a dorm room incident. The move left Dayton coach Archie Miller with little height in the front court and even less depth.

Yet the Flyers rolled, amassing a record of 23-7. They never wavered even though they don’t have a deep bench. They’re led by Jordan Sibert (16.6 points per game) but the emergence of forward Kendall Pollard, who won the conference’s Most Improved Player award, has kept them afloat.

Behind them is URI, who boasts an impressive overall record (21-8) but less-than-impressive out-of-conference accolades. The result? The third seed in the Atlantic 10 tournament, a prominent chance at winning the tournament, but still with some work to do.

The Rams are led by E.C. Matthews (16.6 points per game) and forward Hassan Martin (three blocks per game).

At No. 4 is Richmond, which has won its last six games and vaulted up to the land of the double-bye week. The Spiders have beaten VCU twice, took down George Washington and beat UMass on the road. Their leading scorer Kendall Anthony is 5-foot-8 and they play an unselfish brand of basketball.

But is it enough?

The Dark Horse

It almost feels wrong to call VCU a dark horse.

The Rams have dealt with as much adversity as any within the league, losing Weber (their all-time steals leader and senior floor general) while also trying to stay afloat within the league while their leading scorer (Treveon Graham) also battled injury.

Yet here they are. They’re still a projected NCAA tournament team, still have Shaka Smart as head coach and still bring “Havoc” defense to every opponent. This is important, because only Dayton and VCU are deeply rooted in winning crucial games in March.

Without Weber, the Rams are a different team. They can’t implement their pressure-based defense to its most effective intent and aren’t playing with the same attitude. On a neutral court, having to play games in consecutive days – this is tough to overcome.

Another interesting note: Smart has never won an A-10 championship at VCU. Yes, he’s found success in the NCAA tournament, but to never win the league? That has to be in the back of his mind.

Who is left

Ah, the clunkers.

Both UMass and George Washington entered this season with the expectation of making the NCAA tournament. Neither of them will make it, unless…

No, we shouldn’t even entertain the thought. Not a UMass team that’s so consistently inconsistent and has lost five of its last six games? What about a Colonials team with balanced scoring and the experience of beating a top opponent, as evident by its win over Wichita State?

No, absolutely not. Heck, the Minutemen just lost 87-65 to George Washington.

But with the supposed talent on both rosters, what could happen if one of the respective teams catches fire?

Prediction

I’ll preface this by saying that trying to predict the A-10 tournament is as useful as counting the number of potholes on the University of Massachusetts’ campus.

Upsets will happen, teams will get hot. Last year, Saint Joseph’s surprised everyone by winning it all. But then again, nobody’s ever accused me of being smart.

Immediately toss out George Washington and UMass. Against elite competition, neither team has shown it could withstand the four-day ringer which is required to win the tournament. I’m also eliminating Richmond, because outside of Anthony, it lacks the upper-echelon talent to hang around.

That leaves Davidson, Dayton, Rhode Island and VCU. The team no one would’ve picked (Davidson), the team everyone maybe shouldn’t have picked (VCU), last year’s NCAA tournament Cinderella (Dayton) and a relative newcomer in URI.

Fun.

VCU is at an immediate disadvantage because of the amount of energy required to play its system consistently. Dayton lacks depth, URI hasn’t beaten anybody and Davidson would need to shoot well throughout the weekend. A potentially fun matchup is Davidson against VCU in the semifinals.

I’ll take Dayton. It has multiple scorers, an energetic forward in Pollard and the experience and confidence from last season. Am I worried about their lack of depth in a back-to-back scenario? Sure.

But not as worried as I am about picking the No. 1 seed to win it all.

Mark Chiarelli can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @Mark_Chiarelli.

1 Comment

One Response to “Chiarelli: Predicting the A-10 tournament in an unpredictable year”

  1. Tony Dennis on March 11th, 2015 12:52 pm

    I like it. Good thinking went into it.

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