Atlantic-10 Conference aiming for big splash

The shiny new Atlantic 10 hopes to put at least six teams in the NCAA Tournament.

In a rare basketball-driven realignment move, VCU and Butler joined the Atlantic 10 last spring. And with conference play for the 2012-13 season set to get underway, it's clear that a consistently good basketball conference is better than ever.

In April 2011, Butler and VCU played each other in the Final Four, with Butler winning and moving on to its second straight national championship game. This week, they open play in a new conference as the only Atlantic 10's only nationally-ranked teams but among a group of as many as seven teams in the conference with legitimate NCAA Tournament hopes.

No. 17 Butler is 12-2, having lost to No. 13 Illinois in the championship game at the Maui Invitational and at A-10 member Xavier in a pre-scheduled game that didn't count in the conference standings. No. 24 VCU (12-3) lost to No. 5 Duke and No. 13 Missouri in the Bahamas and lost at home to Wichita State in early November, but has won nine straight heading into a Wednesday night date with Dayton.

Speaking of Dayton, maybe the league's schedule-maker has a beef with the Flyers. They'll play in front of a sold out crowd in Richmond Wednesday night, then host Butler on Saturday. Butler's conference opener is Wednesday at St. Joseph's, the preseason pick of the league media to win the A-10.

The race is on, and only very strong teams will have a chance to survive.

"Adding VCU and Butler is great for the league," Dayton coach Archie Miller said. "They've earned the right to be on that national stage, and in nonconference play they've really handled their business.

"They are teams that really are competing for a top-four seed (in the NCAA Tournament). Anytime you're able to add championship-type prorgrams that play the way they do, it doesn't do anything but boost you."

It also makes the conference race quite a grind. Because of the late additions that put 16 teams in the league, the league will use a scheduling model that sees every team play each conference rival once, with each team having one designated opponent it will play twice.

It's unique, and only time will tell if it helps the league's RPI numbers and other criteria used in selecting the 68-team NCAA Tournament bracket. All Atlantic 10 coaches -- both new and returning -- know right now is that their teams had better be ready for two fights a week from here on out.

"There's no question that teams in this league are going to beat each other up," VCU coach Shaka Smart said. "That's just the nature of the beast. Look at all these games (this week) that open conference play. There are going to be some very good teams that are 1-1 or even 0-2.

"It gives you quite a few opporunities for high-quality wins, or even if you lose...on the road, it's not like you're going to drop 50 spots in the RPI. There are certainly going to be possibilities for five or six teams to be in the NCAA Tournament."

Atlantic 10 teams handed No. 5 Indiana, No. 7 Syracuse and No. 16 Notre Dame their only losses thus far. Temple won at Syracuse, St. Joe's beat Notre Dame in New York and Indiana was No. 1 when it lost a neutral-floor game in Indianapolis to Butler in mid-December.

"I've always said rankings are fairly meaningless," Butler coach Brad Stevens said. "But when you beat a team that's No. 1 it does hold a little more meaning in the eyes of the public. It put us in the rankings which I laugh at a little bit, but that's OK. At the end of the day, this program has had a lot of big wins. We've been to the mountaintop of all mountains with two straight Final Fours.

"Was it a big win? Yes. But this program is bigger than a win in December."

Stevens and Butler have always scheduled with March in mind, and this year was no different. The path through conference play will be different and steeper than it was in the Horizon League, and Butler appears to be ready for it.

"When you beat each other up, so to speak, it will hurt if you haven't positioned yourself pre-conference to be among the better teams in the country," Stevens said. "In the A-10, teams certainly have positioned themselves well.

"It just talks to the strength of the league, the parity of the league. I think, obviously, what you do in the nonconference can tell you about the strength of the league."

Butler (18) was the highest of five top-50 RPI teams in the Atlantic 10 and eight in the top 80 at the beginning of this week. By the Sagarin Ratings, VCU is the highest-ranked A-10 team at 12th and eight also rank in the top 80. UMass, Dayton, LaSalle and Saint Louis also appear to have teams worthy of NCAA Tournament consideration as the conference race begins.

"I've seen (most) of the conference on TV at one point and I've been impressed by a lot of teams," Smart said. "Watching Temple against Kansas (last weekend), they're disappointed they didn't win but, man, they looked terrific. They outplayed Kansas for most of that game. I'm really impressed with what Butler is doing obviously. Everybody is.

"It's a great league and we're excited to be in it."

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