Wild American Gooner

When Sports Are More Than Just Sports

Primer & Predictions for the Atlantic 10 Stretch Run

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(Written for The Davidsonian in my capacity as sports editor.)

A year ago, the Atlantic 10 saw six of its teams included in the NCAA Tournament field, but this year, the conference is looking at between one and four bids. The bubble is chalk full of A-10 teams. The issue is part a drop-off in talent from last year and part a jump in parity. Top to bottom, the A-10 has become one of the best leagues in the country, but the selection committee usually doesn’t favor parity. Teams need to separate themselves in the end.

With George Washington losing five of their last six games, the Atlantic 10 has become a five-team race. The top five teams are all within a game of each other, and each team has five games to close out the regular season. VCU, Dayton and URI all sit at 10-3 in conference play, while Davidson and UMass lie a game behind.

So where does each of these teams stand as they head into the stretch run? Let’s take a look:

VCU (20-6, 10-3 in A-10)

Remaining Games: UMass, @Richmond, Dayton, @Davidson, George Mason (Predictions: win, loss, win, loss, win)
State of the Team: After losing defensive star and emotional leader Briante Weber to a season-ending knee injury, things looked bad for the Rams as they dropped three of four. But they appear to have righted the ship. Despite likely Conference POY Treveon Graham struggling to find his game after a series of ankle issues, VCU has found ways to get important wins over the last week with a more balanced approach. JeQuan Lewis has stepped up on the offensive end in an increased role, and while he is certainly not Weber on the defensive end, he still ranks 20th in the country in steal percentage. One has to figure Graham will break out soon too and explode for a couple 30-point games. Their remaining schedule is brutal though. Only George Mason at home in the regular season finale looks to be an easy win.
What they need to do to get into the NCAA Tournament: The Rams are pretty safely in the field of 68 at this point, as their win over Northern Iowa is looking even better now. But seeding wise, they’ll need to prove that the post-injury drop-off isn’t as drastic as it seemed two weeks ago. With a strong finish to the regular season and a couple wins in the Atlantic 10 Tournament, my guess is they’ll be looking at a 6 or 7 seed. But should they lose three of these last five games and go winless in Brooklyn, the Rams could find themselves uncomfortably back on the bubble. However, with two straight losses in the final over the last two years, Graham will be out to win this Atlantic 10 Tournament.
Predicted Finish in Atlantic 10: 13-5, tied 2nd overall.

Dayton (20-5, 10-3 in A-10)

Remaining Games: @Duquesene, George Mason, @VCU, URI, @LaSalle (Predictions: win, win, loss, loss, win)
State of the Team: Dyshawn Pierre has stepped up his game this year to move alongside streaky Jordan Sibert as Dayton’s top threats, and the two of them have Archie Miller’s squad peaking of late. However, they have proven very little about their ability to beat the top end of the conference. Against these other four top teams, Dayton is 0-2. Yes, you read that correctly; Dayton has had a very kind schedule thus far. So the road trip to VCU will be a daunting task for a team whose only road win since January 10 came at Saint Louis. I wouldn’t be surprised to see them lose three in a row to end the season. The trip to Duquesne this weekend could also prove a tougher test than many might think.
What they need to do to get into the NCAA Tournament: The sheer win-total for Dayton will look rather impressive at the end of the year, so as long as they win at least three of these games and win a game or two in Brooklyn, they should be in the field barring lots of upsets in other conference tournaments. Their win against Ole Miss is a good boost to the resume, and their credentials are also bolstered by their run a year ago, as silly as that may be. My guess is they’ll get in as a 10 seed, but I don’t think they’ll win a game.
Predicted Finish in Atlantic 10: 13-5, tied 2nd overall.

Rhode Island (18-6, 10-3 in A-10) 

Remaining Games: @George Mason, Davidson, @LaSalle, @Dayton, St. Joe’s (Predictions: win, win, loss, win, win)
State of the Team: URI has flown under the radar this year, but after a big win against UMass Wednesday night, they’re riding a surge of momentum. Hassan Martin has become arguably the best interior defender in the conference, and his offensive game only continues to get better. E.C. Matthews and Jared Terrell have provided some excellent guard play, and the two seem to have a knack for picking up their play when the other is struggling. Like Dayton, URI hasn’t really been tested (they’re only 1-2 against these other four top teams), but a tricky win at Richmond earlier this month spoke volumes about this team’s potential. The home game against Davidson will be a massive test of the Rams. A win in that game, and I think they can win the regular-season title outright.
What they need to do to get into the NCAA Tournament: This is a young squad that lacks the experience and the non-conference wins, but they would be hard to leave out were they to win the regular season title. I think they need five or six more wins, including in the conference tournament, to get in. But a key is a signature win that they currently lack. That could come at Dayton or in a conference semifinal. While I think they get in, I currently have them as my favorite for the conference tournament, which would give them an automatic bid of course.
Predicted Finish in Atlantic 10: 14-4, 1st overall.

Davidson (18-6, 9-4 in A-10)

Remaining Games: Fordham, @Rhode Island, GW, VCU, @Duquesne (Predictions: win, loss, win, win, win)
State of the Team: Few outside of Davidson, NC expected the Wildcats to be in this position, but here we are in late February and Davidson has a legitimate chance to win an Atlantic 10 title in their maiden season in the conference. As many teams have found out, Davidson is more than just a three-point shooting team. On Wednesday night, they found a way to beat GW on the road despite shooting under 25% from deep. With star point guard Jack Gibbs returning from injury, this team could be peaking at just the right team. The trip to Rhode Island and the home game against VCU are the two big ones. I don’t like the matchup with URI’s defense on the road, but if Brian Sullivan, Tyler Kalinoski and Gibbs are all on their games, Davidson can run the table in conference play.
What they need to do to get into the NCAA Tournament: Having joined the A-10 in part in hopes of earning an at-large bid, it would be a bitter pill to swallow if the Wildcats just barely missed the tournament after a season as impressive as this one. However, should Davidson win four of these last five and make a semifinal appearance in Brooklyn, the selection committee might just send an invitation to Coach McKillop’s squad. Davidson’s offensive numbers (7th most efficient offense in the country and the only team to score over 70 against likely #1 seed UVA) could help counteract the unimpressive non-conference schedule.
Predicted Finish in Atlantic 10: 13-5, tied 2nd overall.

UMass (16-10, 9-4 in A-10)

Remaining Games: @VCU, St. Joe’s, Fordham, Richmond, @GW (loss, win, win, loss, win)
State of the Team: After non-conference play filled with tough losses and a loss to St. Bonaventure in the A-10 opener, things looked bleak for the Minutemen. But since that loss, UMass has been as hot as anyone in the conference. Trey Davis becoming a more consistent scorer was exactly what this highly balanced team needed. Cady Lalanne’s interior play has also done wonders for the Minutemen, especially on the defensive end. If UMass can find a way to steal the game at VCU tomorrow, watch out. This is a team that knows how to win and has a kind final stretch of games.
What they need to do to get into the NCAA Tournament: They need to win the conference tournament. Or maybe they can run the table in conference play and lose in the final. Going 7-6 in non-conference play made their path much more difficult. However, a win at VCU would certainly grab the attention of the selection committee. Don’t sleep on UMass, but similarly, don’t hold your breath for a tournament bid.
Predicted Finish in Atlantic 10: 12-6, 5th overall.

This is set up to be a wild couple of weeks in the Atlantic 10. Check back here for further coverage and follow me on Twitter (@Klaus_Faust) for updates.

Who do you think will win the conference? Please comment below and discuss.

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