Loaded Atlantic 10 still up for grabs

Ben Weixlmann, a 2011 Saint Louis University graduate, covers SLU men’s basketball and Atlantic 10 recruiting for BillikenReport.com on the FOX/Scout.com network.  Weixlmann’s work has been featured on many national outlets, including MSN, FOX Sports and BleacherReport.

The entire landscape of Atlantic 10 Conference men’s basketball underwent a massive shift on July 1, 2012, when Butler and Virginia Commonwealth officially joined the league.

The additions created a 16-team formation that was expected to be nearly as powerful as one of the big-six “BCS” conferences. There was talk among pundits during preseason that the A-10 could receive as many as five NCAA tournament big. Whether the league gets that many remains to be seen, but it certainly has lived up to the hype.

After multiple successful nonconference slates and the first couple of weeks of league play, for a brief moment the state of the A-10 seemed clear. The new kids on the block and perennial power Xavier were having their way early on. But as quickly as a few teams found separation, unpredictability returned. Over the span of a few weeks, St. Bonaventure thumped Temple at home, Xavier lost at Charlotte, La Salle went to VCU and won, Rhode Island shocked Saint Louis in overtime, and Charlotte outlasted Butler at Hinkle Fieldhouse.

In other words, all hell has broken loose. If a team has even a hint of an off night, it’s likely to go down. In some ways, the A-10 has been a microcosm for college basketball this season. The league is as jumbled up as any in the country, which is consistent with the parity nationwide.
VCU head coach Shaka Smart, who is in his fourth year at the helm of the Rams’ program, thought he knew what to expect transitioning from the Colonial Athletic Association.  Nevertheless, there’s been an element of surprise.

“[The A-10] is just as good as I thought it would be and even deeper than I thought it would be,” Smart told FOXSportsMidwest.com. “Which means seemingly every night you’re playing a high-level team with very, very good players.”

Xavier long has been the flagship institution for the league. Despite a depleted roster, the Musketeers are fifth in the A-10 at 7-4. Xavier coach Chris Mack believes that when one looks around the A-10 this season, it’s been one of the tougher leagues in recent memory.

“It’s enjoyable to watch, but not to coach,” Mack said. “We added two teams with completely identifiable styles of play — winning teams with a championship mindset. … Every single night is a war.”

Smart’s Rams currently sit atop the conference standings at 9-2, but several teams are in striking distance. Saint Louis, having reeled off seven wins in a row, is 8-2, while La Salle and Butler are 8-3 and poised to make a push for the regular-season title. With a plethora of teams clumped together, even a brief hot streak or slump can drastically change the season’s outlook.

So, if the league is as clear as mud, what can we discern? Well, for yet another year, the conference is well on its way to receiving multiple NCAA tourney bids. One matchup between two likely participants caught the eye of Smart, illustrating how strong the A-10 is.

“You know the game that impressed more than any that I’ve seen is the Saint Louis win over Butler,” Smart said. “They were playing at an extremely high level, and I thought looked like a team capable of making a deep, deep run in the NCAA tournament.”

Most projections have four teams “in” — Butler, VCU, Saint Louis and La Salle — with Charlotte and Massachusetts teetering in and out of the 68-team field. With 10 teams in the RPI’s top 100, facing quality and battle-tested opponents has become the A-10 norm.

The nightly grind for many in the A-10 could bode well as the weeks wear on. Traveling to a difficult environment or playing a talented team at home is an experience that will aid league team in postseason play.

“I think we’ll be prepared by playing against a lot of different styles and phenomenal coaches, to go along with a ton of great players,” Smart said. “With the attacks of different teams and the way they play, it’s definitely a league that will have everyone ready for the postseason.”

As 16 teams fight for 12 spots in the A-10 tournament — and a chance at the conference’s automatic NCAA bid — there’s no doubt it’ll be a wild ride.

“I don’t know if college basketball has ever seen a last two or three weeks of the regular season [like we will see this year],” Mack said. “Everyone is going to be scratching and clawing for the tournament.”