In my Duquesne conference preview, I noted that I thought the Atlantic 10 looked like a one bid league this year. While we’re a long way from Selection Sunday, the league has put a down payment in fulfilling that prognostication. The conference is 0-3 against the Patriot League and has performed poorly against top 200 Kenpom programs. Don’t take my word for it:
That tweet came after a pretty lousy Tuesday for the league. You can add another top 200 loss as La Salle got beaten by Florida in Gainesville last night. Thankfully Richmond took care of business against Kenpom 322 St. Francis – the NY version, something I normally wouldn’t have to worry about.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting the book is closed for the Atlantic 10. There is plenty of time to right the ship, but they’ve already dug themselves quite the hole. To its credit, the conference does sit five games over .500 overall against division one schools. While RPI doesn’t mean a heck of a lot for schools right now, the conference has a slightly larger sample of 35 games. That’s still not incredibly meaningful, but the A-10 is currently 20th according to Realtime RPI. They have a lot of ground to make up even to get to 12th in the nation where they finished last year. RPI will still be volatile as I don’t expect Conference USA, the Colonial and the Summit to finish 5 through 7 respectively over an entire season, but those conferences have quality wins already that the Atlantic 10 can’t claim. Of the other traditional, non-BCS, multi-bid conferences, only the Mountain West ranks lower than the Atlantic 10 though the WCC and AAC are having problems of their own.
Things can get better for the league, but they’re going to carry some worts that won’t go away. George Mason’s early losses will make it difficult for them to get back into even NIT contention as they’re already carrying two losses against teams likely to finish outside the top 100 and a third in Penn who easily could. No one reasonable thought the Patriots were an at large bid contender, but their 0-3 start causes two problems for the Atlantic 10. First, you expect the preseason forth place team in a multi-bid league to carry themselves well enough in the non-conference season that beating them in conference will help build the resume of one of the top clubs or not damage their resume too badly if the fourth place club beats the contender. If nothing else, they give a boost to the team likely to get a bid’s strength of schedule. Second, I expect Mason to snap out of their early funk by the time conference play rolls around. Maybe, they lose a couple more bad ones before they straighten things out? Thankfully, they only have three games against the teams who could earn a bid in my opinion (Saint Louis, St Joe’s, and Davidson), but they could easily hang a loss on one of them, too. Two of those games are on the road for the Patriots, so an upset now becomes even more damaging. The Patriots aren’t going to be a good win or a neutral loss at this point unless they drastically turn things around starting with their next game. The loss they’re likely to hang on one of the top teams could be damaging.
My next concern hinges on the top teams not showing well early. Thankfully, all have avoided a poor loss, but they haven’t dominated the way an at large team ought to against weaker opponents. Davidson beat a bad Cleveland State handily, but flirted with disaster against likely 200+ RPI Dartmouth. Saint Louis owns a perfect 3-0 record, but haven’t been able to beat any of Kenpom’s currently ranked 303, 163 and 336 by more than 11 points. In the end, the RPI doesn’t care about style points or how badly team X beat team Y, but it doesn’t inspire much confidence that they’ll be able to stack up wins against better teams or even continue to avoid losses to mediocre teams much longer. St. Joe’s have acquitted themselves the best out of this group and own what could be the Atlantic 10’s best win so far against Old Dominion. The Hawks have a couple of road tests coming up against Wake Forest and William and Mary. I’ll be interested to see if they can pull through this stretch unblemished. If they can, they’ll certainly go a long way to turn me over to the believer camp. Nothing in this sample translates to elite, but rather bubble team at best.
I don’t think there are any teams that really scream surprise right now for the league. VCU has gotten off to a dominant defensive start and none of their slate of opponents have managed to score more than 61 points. Of course, those teams aren’t particularly good, but strong defense plays against anyone and steals games. Their best player, Marcus Evans, has scored 11.3 per game so far while playing limited minutes as he works his way back from multiple major ankle injuries. They could slot into the void opened by Mason. Duquesne hasn’t killed it, but they own two of the wins against Kenpom top 200 opponents in the tweet I embedded earlier. None will likely translate to quality wins, but they’re certainly doing more to help than most to this point. The Dukes have an outside shot at carrying a top 100 RPI into conference play which would be a huge boost to the league desperately in need of one.
The rest of the league either is doing what I would have expected or slightly worse. Dayton dominated against very bad Coppin St team, but a not so good North Florida gave them a bit of a game. The good news is the Flyers have gone unblemished without their star Josh Cunningham. UMass lost to a good Harvard team at home and the league will get an another shot at the smart kids when they head to Kingston to play URI. I didn’t expect St Bonaventure to be very good, but I would have put them at 2-1 rather than 1-2 three games into the season. Richmond will carry a 300 RPI loss with them for the rest of the season having succumbed to Longwood in their opener at home. La Salle, GW, and Fordham are a combined 0-7 against D-I opponents. Atlantic 10 teams with NCAA ambitions will need to play those three, some of them more than once. While upsets are unlikely, all three are looking like strength of schedule drains.
In fairness, the A-10 hasn’t had many opportunities to distinguish itself and I’m sure the league will pick up some good wins along the way. However, they’ve started out by accumulating bad losses. The non – conference season is the only time leagues get separation from the rest of college basketball. Conference play is a cannibalistic, zero sum game where the winner takes points from the loser. The entire Atlantic 10 will need to take care of business if they want to give the top teams a shot at an at-large bid. The good teams will need to play nearly flawlessly the rest of way. Tier II will need to win to help the top of the league look better. Overachievers will need to overachieve to compensate for some teams underperforming. The bad teams will need to do whatever they can to make sure they aren’t too much of a drain. Can the Atlantic 10 turn it around? Absolutely. There is time, but if a team has played 3 non-con games already, they’re almost 20% of the way done with that portion of their schedule. Opportunity hasn’t passed, but it’s passing faster than we think.