The Atlantic 10 basketball race didn’t shape up as anyone expected. This was supposed to be a year that Xavier dominated the 13-team conference and made themselves a possible candidate for the Final Four. Instead, the Musketeers are on the NCAA Tournament bubble as we head into the conference tournament, while Temple brought home the league championship.
Temple did with it extraordinary guard play, with Ramone Moore and Khalif Wyatt each scoring 17 ppg, Juan Fernandez hitting the three-ball and then getting strong play underneath from Micheal Eric and Rahlir-Hollis Jefferson. St. Louis didn’t have the same dynamic talent but the Billikens only finished a game back with 6’6” swingman Brian Conklin leading the way, Kwamain Mitchell running the floor and Cody Ellis hitting from downtown. The Billikens weakness was inside—Ellis goes 6’8” and when you’re top big man is more comfortable by the three-point stripe than the box in the post, it’s tough to be a championship team. That’s no knock on Ellis who is certainly not unusual, just to point out what St. Louis head coach Rick Majerus was missing. St. Louis looks in good shape for the NCAA Tournament, projected as a #10 seed by ESPN.com bracketologist Joe Lunardi. Temple is projected for a #5 spot.
TIME FOR BASKETBALL & BLACKJACK
Xavier, and to a lesser extent St. Joe’s, and where the NCAA interest lies this coming weekend in Atlantic City when the teams gather for basketball and the fans gather for blackjack. Xavier is squarely on the bubble, and while I don’t think they have any business in the Dance, short of winning at least two games this weekend, others disagree. The Musketeers have not been the same team since a December brawl with Cincinnati put their elite backcourt of Tu Holloway and Mark Lyons on the bench for a few games. Even when the guards were back, the team was not the same. The play of 7’0” center Kenny Frease has also been too inconsistent. In the case of St. Joe’s, they’re a young team on the rise, but have had inconsistency problems of their own that resulted in blowing a couple winnable games down the stretch that could have nailed down an NCAA invite. Lunardi has them missing the field by 5-8 spots, close enough to be within the margin of error, especially if they make the final of the tournament.
Last year’s A-10 tournament was an upset-fest, with #12 seed St. Joe’s making the semis and 9th-seed Dayton making the final, before Richmond restored order and won it. I don’t see that kind of chaos this year, but I do think Xavier’s talent and St. Joe’s improvement and confidence will create a final game between the two bubble teams on Sunday. At which point I’m picking St. Joe’s to win it and steal an NCAA bid.
ATLANTIC 10 INDIVIDUAL HONORS
You wouldn’t know it to look at the NCAA seedings, but it’s not St. Joe’s, but St. Bonaventure that finished fourth in the league standings, with a 10-6 conference record. The 17-11 overall mark has the Bonnies out of NCAA discussion, but it’s not the fault of post man Andrew Nicholson, who averaged 18 points/8 rebounds a game. Fordham’s awful season can’t fall at the feet of Chris Gaston, who averaged a 17/10 line. And how about UMass’ exciting point guard Chaz Williams, who averaged 16 points/4 rebounds/6 assists and leading the Minutemen to a 20-win season? As good as the Temple guards have been, they have each other to fall back on. As good as Holloway and Lyons still are, they have the same. I like these three players as the best Player of the Year candidates and my choice is Nicholson, who offers the best package of controlling a game almost by himself and leading his team to some decent heights based on expectations.
The Coach of the Year should go to St. Louis’ Rick Majerus. Temple’s Fran Dunphy had more talent, and Phil Martinelli at St. Joe’s needed those wins his team coughed up down the stretch to win this award. St Louis is the least talented of the four teams in NCAA discussion this weekend, yet they came within a game of a league title and are close to an NCAA lock.