Atlantic 10 Basketball: Seven Teams Chasing The Dance

There’s no college basketball conference in the country that has as much fluidity over the next four weeks than the Atlantic 10. The league has seven teams in legitimate contention for an NCAA Tournament bid, but none projected higher than a 5-seed by ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi. The league could realistically get as low as two bids or as high as six. Here’s a snapshot look at the seven Atlantic 10 basketball contenders—their strengths and weaknesses, and what schedule opportunities lie ahead.

Two teams are safe and secure for Selection Sunday, and that would be the A-10’s two new members, the Cinderella Final Four teams of 2011 in Butler and Virginia Commonwealth.

Butler (21-5, 8-3, projected #5 seed): The Bulldogs are easily the highest projected seed, although they’re in third place in the conference standings. They’re also lacking in depth. What they do have though, is perhaps the conference’s best player in guard Rotnei Clarke, who averages 17 ppg and shoots 42 percent from three-point range. Kellen Dunham and Roosevelt Jones are steady scorers on the wings, and Butler has a good offensive option in the low post with 6’11” senior Andrew Smith. The one weakness—beyond the depth—is that Smith is not a dominant rebounder for his size.

Virginia Commonwealth (21-5, 9-2, projected #8 seed): VCU is heavily oriented to the backcourt, with only one notable frontline player in 6’9” junior Juvonte Reddic. At least Reddic is a tough rebounder and good scorer, averaging 14 points/8 rebounds a night. The Rams then get backcourt scoring from Treveon Graham and Troy Daniels, who can put it in the bucket from both inside and outside the arc. Darius Theus is a good passer in running the offense, and for depth VCU can rotate in Briante Weber and Rob Brandenburg.

Butler pays a visit to Virginia Commonwealth on March 2, a game that will likely decide at least a piece of the regular season title. But there’s a third team in the mix for the conference championship and that’s St. Louis, who leads up a group of three teams on the NCAA bubble.

St. Louis (19-5, 8-2, projected #11 seed): I’m not sure why St. Louis is projected this low. They’ve overcame the passing away of head coach Rick Majerus early in the season, and given the Selection Committee’s track record of cutting teams a break if they overcome an injury, I don’t see why the Billikens wouldn’t get the same credit. St. Louis has got some great perimeter shooters in Mike McCall, Jordair Jett and Dwayne Evans, and senior forward Cody Ellis can play both inside and out. They are soft inside, something that will have to be overcome in upcoming games against VCU and at Butler. If Lunardi’s projections are right, the Billikens might need a win in one of those two games.

LaSalle (18-6, 8-3, projected #11 seed): The Explorers have a dynamic backcourt combination of Tyreek Duren and Ramon Galloway, who combine for 32 ppg. Both are deadly from three-point range. The duo gets some offensive help from guard Tyrone Garland, and Jerrell Wright and Steve Zack both hit the glass. This is a good, well-balanced team. The Explorers have a big game coming up Thursday at Temple, and they’ll be in St. Louis for the regular season finale on March 9. LaSalle needs to get a big win to secure its future prior to the A-10 tournament.

Temple (17-8, 6-5, projected as one of the first four out): Temple’s projection likely changes for the better, as a victory over fellow NCAA contender UMass on Saturday took place after Lunardi’s most recent projections. The Owls overall resume includes a big win over Syracuse, but they have been in a steady decline since conference play began, as their league record attests. Like Butler, they lack depth and are heavily dependent on a great guard—in this case Khalif Wyatt, the senior who knocks down twenty a night. Temple needs to get more from wingmen Scootie Randall and Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson. Anthony Lee is a lonely warrior in the frontcourt, but at least the 6’9” sophomore rebounds, grabbing eight a night. The win over UMass probably saved the Temple season, because the only other opportunity for a decent road win is coming up at Charlotte.

Speaking of UMass & Charlotte, they’re the two longshots. They’ve still got a shot at an at-large, but it’s unlikely they can take care of business in the regular season. The best hope for both the Minutemen and 49ers is to get in position where a couple A-10 tourney wins could push them over the top. And of course both are legitimate threats to win the league’s automatic bid when they gather in Atlantic City in March.

Charlotte (18-7, 6-5): A January 30 suspension to guard DeMario Mayfield really hurt the Charlotte cause. The 6’6” junior was averaging 12 ppg, and the team has lost three of five without him. Guard Pierria Henry and forward Chris Braswell are a decent inside-out combo, and Henry can drain the three. But he also has to run the offense and the loss of Mayfield deprived the team of a  pure scorer. There’s no tough road games left and when you’re in Charlotte’s position that’s not a good thing, because you need chances to play your way in.

UMass (16-8, 6-5): Last week was a tough blow to the Minutemen. Prior to the Temple loss—a one-point defeat where UMass messed up the last possession and didn’t get a shot off—they also lost to VCU. Chaz Williams is an underrated and exciting point guard who can both score and dish. Terrell Vinson is a nice offensive option at forward. But there’s no pure rebounder and 13 ppg scoring guard Jesse Morgan was lost to an ACL tear in mid-January. With no tough road games left to prove themselves, UMass has no room for error left.

So how does it all shake out? I’m taking St. Louis to end up winning the conference championship, and the two Philadelphia teams, LaSalle and Temple, to each make the NCAA field, giving Atlantic 10 basketball five teams in the Dance.