Atlantic 10 Basketball: Butler Strikes A Blow For The League

Atlantic 10 basketball doesn’t have any ranked teams as of Sunday evening, but after the conference’s newest member, Butler, knocked off top-ranked Indiana in overtime yesterday, that’s likely to change. The A-10 is a consistently competitive league with some new additions. Can they make a national impact? We’re going to take a closer look at three teams—starting with Butler, then moving to fellow newcomer Virginia Commonwealth, both schools with recent runs to the Final Four. Then we’ll add in the league’s traditional power in Temple.

Butler: Even prior to Saturday’s neutral-floor upset, the Bulldogs had the makings of a good team. The only losses were at Xavier—another potential A-10 contender that I don’t mean to diss by not reviewing today—and at Illinois. Butler has a top-caliber point guard in Rotnei Clark, a senior transfer from Arkansas. He averages 18 points per game and is lights out from three-point range.

Clark then has three quality players arrayed on the wings, Kyhle Marshall, Roosevelt Jones and freshman Kellen Dunham. The all average around 10 ppg, and are good shooters from the floor. The Butler has a true post player in 6’11” senior Andrew Smith , something that will be a big security blanket in a lot of games this year.

The fact Butler’s almost certainly to be ranked next week is less important than the fact that they look like a team ready to return to the NCAA Tournament, after missing the Madness a year ago.

Virginia Commonwealth: The Rams made it back to the NCAAs a year ago, following up their stunning Final Four run of 2011, and they had some success, knocking off Wichita State, before losing to Indiana. VCU’s got a team that can shoot the ball, with everyone able to knock down the jumper and most of the core six players effective from three-point range.

Treveon Graham, a 6’5” sophomore, is the leading scorer at 15 ppg and also the one perimeter player whose game doesn’t depend on hitting from long range. He also gets five rebounds a game and provides board help to Juvonte Reddic, the 6’9” junior whose responsible for the inside. Head coach Shaka Smart has four guards he can move in and out, starting with Troy Daniels and also including Rob Brandenberg, Darius Theus and Briante Weber.

Smart deserves the benefit of the doubt in a competitive race, but I think the dependence on perimeter shooting and the lack of any depth in the post is going to be a problem for this team. VCU is good enough that, if the A-10 doesn’t pan out with any depth, they can win enough games to make it back to the NCAA Tournament. But if you end up with six or seven quality teams in this league, it could get dicey.

Temple: Another team who made it to the NCAAs last year, the Owls have been blown out by Duke so far this season, but also have a 15-point win over crosstown rival Villanova. They also have a lot of experience, with four seniors playing key roles.

The best of the seniors—and on the entire team for that matter—is Scootie Randall, the small forward who averages 15 points/8 rebounds a game. Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson, like Randall, is a 6’6” wingman and he can step out and hit the trey, to the tune of 48 percent. Another long-range threat is guard T.J. Di Leo, who hits half his shots from behind the arc. The Owls share VCU’s problem of a lack of post depth—there’s one quality player in sophomore Anthony Lee, but otherwise Temple is dependent on the perimeter.

Because of Temple’s experience, I like their chances of sustaining success through the long conference season more so than Virginia Commonwealth’s. But when you’re dependent on outside shooting, you’re going to lose some games to teams you otherwise wouldn’t, when you find a night when the shots just don’t fall.

The Atlantic 10 basketball race promises to be exciting and between now and when conference play begins after the New Year, TheSportsNotebook is going to take a closer look at other viable contenders. Xavier made the Sweet 16 last year and Charlotte is off to a 10-1 start. Dayton’s become a consistent winner, even if they don’t always make the NCAA Tournament and we’ll also look at St. Louis, as a program that won an NCAA game a year ago, now tries to transition after the sad passing of Rick Majerus.