The Atlantic 10 isn’t having one it’s best years in college basketball, but there’s still an interesting a conference championship race and some fluidity among the NCAA bubble teams that make it worth keeping an eye for fans of power conference teams. TheSportsNotebook breaks six teams into three categories. You have Temple/St. Louis in the race for the top spot. Xavier/St. Joe’s are legitimate NCAA bubble teams. And LaSalle/UMass are longshots, but could still play their way onto the NCAA radar with a spirited finish. Here’s the rundown…
Temple(21-5, 10-2, projected #5 seed): The Owls are playing great basketball right now, having won ten in a row. They got their center, Micheal Eric back from an injury and his return coincides with the last nine wins. Eric completes the puzzle for a team that has a dynamic three-guard backcourt. Ramone Moore and Khalif Wyatt are both electric scorers and each share the basketball well. Juan Fernandez is a reliable third guard who knows his role and can bury the trey. While Eric is the only true post player, both Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson and Anthony Lee chip in some rebounding help. Temple has all the pieces, but the remaining schedule won’t be easy. They play intra-city battles tonight against LaSalle and this weekend at St. Joseph’s, before a home game with UMass. With St. Louis breathing down Temple’s neck for first place, there’s no room for error.
St. Louis (22-5, 10-3, projected #8 seed): St. Louis is a well-balanced team, but they don’t have the electricity at the guards that Moore and Wyatt give Temple, nor the true post player that Eric provides. What they do have is a good collection of shooters, with guards Kwamain Mitchell, Mike McCall and Kyle Cassity, along with forward Cody Ellis, able to hit from long range. Brian Conklin is a nice frontcourt player, while Dwayne Evans plays bigger than his 6’5” frame would suggest. The Billikens close the season with winnable road games at Rhode Island and Duquesne and a tough home game with what should be a desperate Xavier team. They need to sweep if they want to catch Temple for at least a piece of the league title. As far as the NCAA goes, you’d certainly have to give them a shot in an 8-9 or 7-10 game, regardless of seeding, but I don’t see St. Loo as a sleeper.
NCAA BUBBLE TEAMS
Xavier (17-10, 8-5, projected #11 seed): A big caveat on that seed projection is that ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi put that out on Monday and Xavier lost last night at UMass. The Musketeers are about as disappointing a team as there is in the country. The backcourt can score with anybody, as Tu Holloway is one of the country’s best, and Mark Lyons gets 17 a game himself. Holloway can take you off the dribble and Lyons can bury the trey. Kenny Frease stands 7’0” tall in the post and seemed ready to emerge as a dominant player, but it never quite worked out. Dezmine Wells is a solid shooter in third scorer in the backcourt, who fulfills the same role as Temple’s Fernandez.
This team should be a Sweet 16 contender and Final Four darkhorse. Early season wins over Vanderbilt, Purdue and Cincinnati seemed to validate that. But there was a bad brawl and a lot of suspensions on both sides in the Cincy game, and Xavier has not been the same team since. At minimum they need to beat St. Louis on the road next Tuesday and I’m going to take the rare step of dissenting from Lunardi’s brackets—I think the Selection Committee is going to minimize credit for what happened pre-suspension, the same way the minimize it if a team suffers an injury. Unless they beat St. Louis and/or at least reach the final of the A-10 tournament, I believe the Musketeers are toast.
St. Joe’s (18-10, 8-5, projected just outside the NCAA): Lunardi currently has the Hawks missing the Dance by anywhere from 5-8 spots. That’s probably outside the margin of error if bids went out today. But they don’t go out today and St. Joe’s is a young team playing some good basketball right now. The tandem of Carl Jones and Langston Galloway gives them their own solid backcourt duo. This is more of a finesse-oriented team, as the forwards like to step out and shoot threes. Neither C.J. Aiken or Hali Kanacevic do it all that well, so coach Phil Martinelli should consider banning them from going behind the arc. But the guard play has the team rolling and they’ve got a home game with Temple this weekend that’s crucial to building the NCAA resume and the A-10 tourney will be as well. The Hawks would be better off getting up to third place and getting St. Louis, rather than Temple in the semi-finals of the league tournament.
UMass (19-8, 8-5): Everyone’s life could have been easier had Xavier taken care of the Minutemen last night, but at 19-8 and chances for a road win at Temple still ahead of them mean UMass can play its way into the conversation. Chaz Williams is one of the conference’s top players at the point, with an average of 16 points/4 rebounds/6 assists per night and the rest of the team is a series of three-point gunners. If they get hot, can they gun the team to three straight wins, then two more in the A-10 tournament? That would put them at 24-9 in the at-large discussion and it likely means two late wins over Temple. (Obviously if they win the tournament they get the automatic bid and this whole discussion is moot). I could see them getting in.
LaSalle (18-9, 7-5): A lot of years a resume with competitive losses to Villanova, Pitt and Dayton would be a good thing. This year is not one of them, so the Explorers have their backs to the wall. This is not a lineup with a lot of depth and four players chew up most of the minutes and all are guards. Earl Pettis, Ramon Galloway, Tyrek Duren and Sam Mills are virtually carbon copies, all pretty good scorers, and all pretty good shooters. On the positive side, the remaining schedule is manageable. The toughest game is Temple and that’s a home game (although it’s an intra-city rivalry, some homecourt doesn’t mean as much). But unlike UMass, getting to 22-9 won’t mean a juicy road win down the stretch, so I think even if they reach the tournament final, it’s not enough. LaSalle needs to pull off a miracle in Atlantic City if they want to dance.