ESPN: More often than not, conference realignment has hurt college basketball, squandering rivalries and history in the name of cable subscriptions and BCS eligibility.
The Atlantic 10 is an exception.
After two months of nonconference play, VCU looks like the league’s clear favorite, and Butler one of its top contenders. Temple and St. Louis are, for all intents and purposes, co-favorites. It’s safe to say the overall league hasn’t quite panned out the way we expected — Saint Joe’s has struggled, Xavier is young, and a handful of mid-table sleeper teams have missed early nonconference opportunities — but the fact remains that this brief 16-team edition of the Atlantic 10 could provide one of its most entertaining seasons in league history.
The favorite: Virginia Commonwealth.
VCU is breaking all the rules.
The rules say that when you move from the Colonial Athletic Association — which, for all its recent hoops success, has never been more than the 12th or 13th best college hoops conference in the country — to a stacked Atlantic 10, you are supposed to take your lumps. Your program needs time to adjust to more exposure and TV time; you flail in the face of new recruiting and travel challenges; you struggle in the nightly buzz saw of better league competition.
Of course, the Rams under Shaka Smart are nothing new; their famous 2011 run from the First Four to the Final Four is the stuff of legend, and they gave Indiana a nail-biting challenge in the NCAA tournament last season. But they’ve taken things to a whole new level in 2012-13. Their per-possession efficiency numbers rank them among the nation’s 10 or 15 best teams overall, primarily because guards Darius Theus and Briante Weber force opposing ball handlers into committing a turnover on nearly a third of their possessions. VCU’s steals rate (19.3 percent) and opponents’ turnover rate (30.7) are both the best in the country. And with those turnovers come easy fast-break and secondary-break offense, a main reason why VCU is also among the nation’s 25 most efficient offenses.
Make no mistake: Things will get much tougher for the Rams in A-10 play. And since November, they have done much of their damage against some questionable competition. But there’s no way to watch the Rams play, or examine what makes them tick, and not see them as at least a narrow favorite in their brand new league.
Player of the Year (so far): Treveon Graham, VCU.
Other contenders: Wyatt, Temple; Rotnei Clarke, Butler; Andrew Smith, Butler; Mitchell, St. Louis; Ramon Galloway, La Salle; Chaz Williams, UMass
Freshman of the Year (so far): Willie Clayton, Charlotte.
Other contenders: Semaj Christon, Xavier; Kellen Dunham, Butler; Quevyn Winters, Duquesne
1. VCU 9.Xavier
2. SLU 10. UMass
3. Temple 11. Richmond
4. Butler 12. St. Bonaventure
5. St. Joe’s 13. George Washington
6. La Salle 14. Rhode Island
7. Charlotte 15. Duquesne
8. Dayton 16. Fordham
VCU is kind of a bold call, no? I know they are more or less a lock to make it in the top 4 meaning they automatically advance to the Barclay’s Center for the A-10 Tournament. I think Butler, at this stage, should be the favorite to finish first in the A-10.
Butler has some huge away and neutral court wins and seems almost unstoppable. They do have a big game coming up against Gonzaga on Saturday and Butler will be without Rotnei Clark (their best player). Butler pulls off the win on Saturday, it will add another Top 25 (in RPI) win. They beat the ‘Zags without Clark, I would think they’d be the favorite to win each game they play.
Something to note about my Rams (URI), they will need to surprise a few teams and create some havoc in the league. Let’s just make things easy and assume the predicted places hold true; I do not think there will be more than a game, maybe two (at the most), that separate URI and the Bonnies. If URI can pull off a couple upsets and beat the Bonnies and/or GWU, they can leap frog those teams and make it into the A-10 Tournament. I do not believe that is too far fetched to think about. Of course, if they make it to the tournament by finishing in 12th, they would have to go on the road to play St. Joe’s to earn the right to play at the Barclay’s. The way URI has played on the road, I do not think they will be able to go to Philly and knock off St. Joe’s…but hey, they beat Auburn on the road and pushed Richmond to the brink (even after being down 18 at one point in the second half).