When mid-major giants Butler and VCU joined the Atlantic 10 conference before the start of this season, it suddenly became a conference jam-packed with talent. When all is said and done, this conference could have as many as six of its teams receive bids to the NCAA tournament, a figure that cannot be matched by any conferences other than the Big East and the Big Ten. Two teams in the A-10 are currently ranked in the top 25, and five have been ranked at some point in the season. Eleven teams in this conference have at least 17 wins thus far, which has made conference play extremely competitive, and whoever wins this tournament should be considered capable of reaching the Final Four.
The Xavier Muskateers are perhaps the most underrated team in the entire country. Entering the conference tournament with an overall record of 17-13, it would be easy to write them off as a mediocre squad that’s too young to be a threat against the nation’s elite. But if you ask any of their opponents from this season, they might be inclined to disagree. Yes, Xavier has lost thirteen games this season, but ten of them were by 7 points or fewer. Yes, the team only has three seniors on its entire roster, but they all play more than 20 minutes per game and are some of the team’s leading scorers. Sure, the Muskateers have had their fair share of bad losses (vs. Pacific, at Wake Forest, vs. Wofford), but they have also beaten the best of the A-10 (Temple, Butler, La Salle, and even Saint Louis). Xavier is a tough squad that refuses to believe that they’re too young or too small to compete with the best, and I’m convinced that their best basketball is yet to have been played. Teams like this, with a whole lot of fight in them, tend to thrive in a one-and-done tournament atmosphere.
Temple is just as good as VCU, Saint Louis, and Butler, and their skillful guard play makes them a tough match up for anyone in this tournament. Star point guard Khalif Wyatt is one of the best players in the country, and it always seems like he saves his best performances for the big stage. Wyatt put up 33 points in a win over Syracuse earlier this season, 26 in a narrow loss to Kansas (on the road), and 24 in a competitive one-point victory over UMass. While he has consistently shined all season long, he saved his best performance for last in a victory over VCU on Sunday, scoring a game-high 30 points and shooting a season-high 16 free throws. In that game, Temple overcame a 16-point deficit and ended up beating the Rams by 8. Winners of seven straight, the Owls enter this tournament as the hottest team in their conference, believing whole heartedly that they can stand alone at week’s end.
Players to Watch
Brad Redford (Xavier) – While he isn’t their top scorer and only plays about 20 minutes a game, Brad Redford is the heart and soul of this Xavier team. Redford shoots 50% from the field, 45% from three, and an unbelievable 96% from the line. Combine these abilities with his senior leadership and you’ve got a very dependable go-to player in late game situations.
Rotnei Clarke (Butler) – Hard to name any player in college basketball who shoots the ball better than this guy. Clarke is a three-point specialist with lightning quick speed and a charismatic attitude, and he is undeniably Butler’s most valuable player. It’s tough to have an effective game plan against him when you consider the fact that he seems to shoot the ball even better when he is double covered, and is an outside threat as long as he’s in the same zip code as the basket.
Khaliff Wyatt (Temple) – In one word, Khaliff Wyatt is smooth. He’s an incredible dribbler, a lethal shooter, and his court awareness makes him a step ahead of his opponent at all times. Watch out for this guy in the NBA.
Treveon Graham (VCU) – He may only be a sophomore on a very experienced VCU squad, but Treveon Graham plays with a level of maturity far beyond his years. Graham leads his team in scoring, shoots 37% from three, and, despite playing guard, averages six rebounds per game.
Ramon Galloway (La Salle) – Senior Ramon Galloway has carried his Explorers to a record-setting season, averaging a team-high 17.4 points, 3.7 assists, and 2.1 steals per game. No one on La Salle works harder and cares more about his team succeeding; after hitting a game-winning shot against then 9th ranked Butler, Galloway literally cried tears of joy.
Mike McCall Jr. (Saint Louis) – While his stats may not suggest it, Mike McCall Jr. is the best player on Saint Louis. Standing six feet tall and weighing a mere 180 pounds, McCall Jr. is a lot harder to stop in the lane than one would expect him to be. He has blazing speed and fantastic leaping ability, which makes him very efficient driving to the basket, as well as very capable of creating his own shot.
Has to Make a Statement
The obvious answer in this category is Xavier. While they have had some very impressive wins as of late, the Muskateers have virtually no shot of making the NCAA tournament unless they win or reach the finals of the A-10 tourney. Inconsistent play throughout the season has really damaged Xavier’s dancing dreams, including a few really bad losses against the likes of Pacific, Wofford, Vanderbilt, and Wake Forest. If the selection committee uses the eye test for the Muskateers then they should be a lock for March Madness, as they have competed very well against ranked opponents all season long and even beaten the likes of Memphis and Saint Louis in the past couple of weeks. But alas, when it comes to making it into the field of 68, teams need a certain amount of wins to support their case. That means that Xavier needs at least three more in order to fit the mold, and what a better way than in this gritty tournament where the level of competition will be higher than ever.
Butler- The Butler Bulldogs have been in the top 25 for most of this season, but they shockingly enter the A-10 tournament as unranked underdogs. This Bulldogs squad is as talented as the ones that have made Final Four runs, but their chances of going far this March will surely depend on their seeding. If Butler were to lose its first round game on Thursday to Dayton, the Bulldogs could fall to an 8, or even a 9-seed. On the flip side, if they string a few wins together or even win the A-10 flat-out, they could see their seeding rise all the way to a 4 or 5-seed.
Temple- This Temple team is exceptionally experienced and has upset alert in their DNA when it comes to the NCAA tournament. However, a deep run in the A-10 tourney could actually make the Owls favorites in their first-round tournament match-up. Winning the A-10 would likely give the Owls two more wins against ranked opponents, which start to look nice when they’re paired up with other wins against teams like Syracuse, VCU, and La Salle.
Saint Louis: The Billikens have had one of the strongest second halves to this season of any team in college basketball. They have won twelve of their last thirteen games, with the lone loss coming on the road in overtime against a desperate Xavier squad. An early loss in the A-10 tournament could taint this recent success, but a deep run would ultimately land Saint Louis a 3 or 4-seed in the NCAA tournament.
La Salle: While La Salle has been successful all season long, a relatively weak non-conference schedule makes their overall record a little less legitimate. Although they have gone 11-5 in conference play, they seem to be flying under the radar when compared to the likes of Saint Louis, VCU, Butler, and Temple. La Salle believes they are as good as all of these teams, but if they want to convince others they will have to prove it with a few quality wins in the A-10 tournament. A first round loss could land the Explorers uncomfortably on the bubble, but a deep run could give them a 7 or 8-seed.
Favorite to Win
In my opinion, the VCU Rams have too much talent and experience not to be favored in the A-10 Tournament. Shaka Smart has proven to be one of the best coaches in the country, and the Rams’ tenacious full-court press allows them to make even the most worthy opponents’ offense look like it belongs to a division three liberal arts school.
Treveon Graham (VCU): This guy is a stud, and he seems to be getting better each and every game that he plays. After this tournament, expect him to become a household name.
Richmond over Charlotte
Butler over Dayton
UMass over George Washington
Xavier over St. Josephs
Saint Louis over Richmond
Butler over La Salle
Temple over UMass
VCU over Xavier
Butler over Saint Louis
VCU over Temple
VCU over Butler