12 teams enter, but only one will reign supreme at the end of the week in one of the most competitive mid-major conferences in America. While several teams (Temple and St. Louis) already have all but clinched their spot in the NCAA Tournament, several others have the chance to play their way in with long runs or by being the last team standing on Sunday.
While top-seeded Temple has owned the league with three titles in the past four years and a league-high nine titles, ninth-seeded Dayton won three games last season and gave (3) Dayton a scare in the championship bout before falling. With Brooklyn and the Barclays Center on the horizon next year, what will Boardwalk Hall and Atlantic City hold in the host sites sixth and final tournament.
Without further ado, here's a look at each team that made it into the tournament , Rhode Island and Fordham weren't so fortunate, with information on the team's players and one strength that could take them all the way to Sunday. We also have predictions at the bottom of the article for those of you who want to get to straight to the knitty grittty.
(1) Temple Owls (24-6, 13-3): Temple is not only the number one seed with the best resume of any conference team (wins over Duke and Wichita State) but also the most veteran squad. Head coach Fran Dunphy starts three seniors and two juniors and brings a third junior off the bench in his eight-man regular rotation. Guards Ramone Moore (17.8 ppg) and Khalif Wyatt (17.1 ppg) are second and third in the Atlantic 10 in scoring and senior point guard Juan Fernandez is one of the top playmakers and 3-point shooters in the conference. Temple's backcourt is the best in the conference and they could lead the team to a title, the question is will big men Michael Eric and Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson carry their share of the load.
(2) St. Louis Bilikens (24-6, 12-4): The Bilikens are one of five Atlantic 10 teams that have yet to win a tournament title but head coach Rick Majerus leads an extremely solid squad that is certainly capable of it this time around. Senior forward Brian Conklin was named to the conference's first team and he certainly had a nice season (13.9 ppg, 5 rbg) but St. Louis is special because of how they play as a team, specifically defense. St. Louis is seventh in the nation in points allowed at 56.6 points per game, while the next closest team is St. Bonaventure at 110th out of 317 teams (64.7). Just like the Owls, St. Louis is red hot, winning 11 of their past 13 games and they own victories over every team still alive but UMass and Temple. If St. Louis can keep up their four assist-to-turnover ratio in tournament play, they should have few problems getting through the quarterfinals, if not all the way to a tournament title.
(3) Xavier Musketeers (19-11, 10-6): Fun fact, Xavier is the last school alphabetically in the nation that plays inDivision I basketball, more important fact: this team had many analysts picking them to reach the Final Four before the season and they still have all that talent on the roster. While an early season brawl against Cincinnati derailed their perfect start and knocked the Musketeers off course, head coach Chris Mack still has one of the most talented players in the nation manning the point in Tu Holloway. Holloway is a third-year senior who was named a Third Team All American last season and finished in the top five in the conference in scoring (16.7 ppg) and assists (5.4 apg). Xavier may enter the tournament having won just six of their past 12 but they've made six straight trips to the Big Dance and with a solid core in senior guard Mark Lyons, swingman Dezmine Wells and 7-footer Kenny Frease they have the talent to turn things around.
(4) St. Bonaventure Bonnies (17-11, 10-6): Have you heard of Andrew Nicholson? You should, the senior forward and Player of the Year in the Atlantic 10 is a legit NBA prospect and even has his own website. The conference's leading scorer averaged 17.9 points per game during the regular season and added 8.3 rebounds, good for second best, finished fourth in field goal percentage at 57.9 percent and seventh in blocked shots with 1.6 blocks per game. Add in the fact that the Atlantic 10 is dominated by guards, seven of the 10 players on the top two conference teams were guards, and Nicholson becomes a player that can take over games. Add in the fact that the Bonaventures were the second best team in the Atlantic 10 (64.7 points per game allowed), second best free throw shooting team (76.2 percent) and led the conference in rebounding margin by a wide margin (+5.5) and the Bonnies could be in line for their first title.
(5) Saint Joseph's Hakws (19-12, 9-7): I love this Hawks team. Despite the fact that they have no seniors on the roster and are led by a four sophomores and a junior, this Hawks squad could easily win the title this year and could make it two or three in a row in years to come. Three starters (Carl Jones, Langston Galloway and C.J. AIken) are averaging double figures and sophomore Ronald Roberts JR. won the Sixth Man Award in the conference for his 11.1 points and 6.0 rebounds per game and the team is stacked offensively. The Hawks balance the scoring with the most dominant defensive player in the conference in Aiken, who's third in the nation with 3.7 blocks per game. And I haven't even touched on do-everything forward Halil Kanacevic who leads the team in rebounding and assists and you've got a dynamic team that no one can match up with at all five spots.
(6) Dayton Flyers (19-11, 9-7): After last season's huge run the Flyers can't expect to fly under the rader, especially after being the only team to claim wins over all three top seeds in the regular season. After a four-game slide knocked them out of first place, the Flyers finished strong with wins in five of their final seven games including four double-digit wins. Junior point guard Kevin Dillard earned a Second Team selection Monday and is in the same class of elite playmakers as Fernandez, Holloway and UMass sensation Chaz Williams. Dillard finished second in the league in assists per game (5.9), tied for first in assists-to-turnover ratio (2.1) and shot 82.5 percent from the charity stripe. Between Dillard and leading scorer, senior forward, Chris Johnson the Flyers led the conference in free throw shooting (76.9 percent) and fourth in assists (14.6 apg). The Flyers are a talented team but a season-ending injury to third-leading scorer Josh Benson leaves the Flyers with little room for error.
(7) LaSalle Explorers (20-11, 9-7): Even though we're at team number seven in our primer we still haven't had a team who can't legitimately make a run at the title. The Explorers struggled down the stretch with five losses in their last eight games but their four guard lineup can cause huge matchup problems, especially when teams don't have much time to game-plan for them. Senior guard Earl Pettis was deemed the Atlantic 10 Most Improved Player Of Year after leading LaSalle with 15.2 points and 1.9 steals per game while serving as a mentor for the team's younger guards. Sophomore point guard Tyreek Duren in a star in the making and Ramon Galloway and Sam Mills can both fill the stat sheet. LaSalle was the lone team in the conference to finish in the top three in both scoring offense and scoring defense but they'll need freshmen forward Jerrell Wright to come up with a big performance and stay out of foul trouble to even make it out of the first round.
(8) UMass Minutemen (20-10, 9-7): UMass might not be the best team in the conference but they are by far the most interesting to watch. Head coach Derek Kellogg's decision to scrap the team's dribble-drive system in favor of an upbeat tempo offense that focuses on turning turnovers and rebounds into quick points has helped UMass average 76.1 points per game, which is 28th best in the nation. The aforementioned Williams has been just as much as a factor as the new system in the team's turnaround. After earning a CAA-All Rookie Team as a freshmen at Hofstra, the sophomore transfer earned First Team honors on Monday after a historic season (16.2 ppg, 6.4 apg, 4.1 rbg, 2.3 spg). Add in a talented group of athletic swingmen around him in Raphiael Putney, Terrell Vinson and Javorn Farrell along with senior captain Sean Carter and UMass has their best chance to make a run in Kellogg's tenture. The only question is can Umass overcome their recent history of A10 woes (2-10 last 10 years) and their road troubles (6-9 away from home).
(9) Duquesne Dukes (16-14, 7-9): Duquesne is the first of six teams that finished under .500 in conference play but that certainly doesn't mean UMass and potentially Temple can take them lightly. Earlier this season Duquesne defeated UMass their first round opponents by an 80-69 score and the team's veteran backcourt can compete is almost as good as LaSalle's. Senior swingman B.J. Monteiro leads the the Dukes with 15 points and 5.3 rebounds per game and junior Sean Johnson adds 13 points but it was sophomore T.J. McConnell who earned a spot on an all league team. McConnell averages 11.4 points per game (3rd best), 4.3 rebounds (2nd best) and leads the team with 5.5 assists and 2.8 steals per game. For Duquesne to advance they'll have to continue to be successful in creating turnovers, the Dukes led the conference with a +5.3 turnover margin and forced more than 20 giveaways a game.
(10) Richmond Spiders (16-15, 7-9): The defending champions have a monumentally difficult task if they're going to earn their third straight trip to the NCAA Tournament and second straight A10 crown. After a 29-8 season and a trip to the Sweet Sixteen, the 2011-12 edition has struggled to repeat that success after their top three scorers and point guard options graduated. A trio of underclassmen have helped bridge the gap for head coach Chris Mooney with Jackson Tennessee native Kendall Anthony playing so well that he earned the Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Year. I don't think Anthony necessarily had the best numbers out of the A10 bunch but the Spiders certainly deserved at least one nod, outside of All-Defensive Team selection senior big man Darrius Garrett. Outside of Anthony and Garrett, junior guard Darien Brothers leads the team with 14 points per game and sophomore forward Derrick Williams adds 11.1 points and 5.5 rebounds per game. Unfortunately for Richmond, all the nice pieces have knotched just one win against the top four teams this year and lost six of their past 10 in conference.
(11) George Washington Colonials (10-20, 5-11): Head coach Mike Lonergan bolted from Vermont for home and his dream job and I'm sure he's very happy. But while the Catamounts will play for the America East Championship Game Saturday, Lonergan will be sitting on the sidelines watching either that game or an Atlantic 10 semifinal, rather than getting his own chance to coach. Lonergan took over a serious rebuilding process in D.C., as GW hasn't been a factor in the Atlantic 10 since 2007 and certainly didn't make much of a splash this season. While the Colonials consistently kept games close, they failed to beat a top eight team in the conference and they were one of just three teams who lost to 3-13 Fordham. Point guard Tony Taylor has been the best player on the roster for the past three years and will sadly enters the final week of his season campaign with little chance of postseason play. Junior forwards Lasan Kromah and David Pellom are the other two guys to watch, as the Colonials young group of core players are still trying to catch up before the pair departs next May.
(12) Charlotte 49ers (13-16, 5-11): Charlotte returns to the Atlantic 10 tourney after missing out last season but that doesn't mean 49ers fans should be booking their tickets to Atlantic City just yet. Outside of a win against St. Joes early in the year, the 49ers wins came against 10th place Richmond, 11th place George Washington and the only teams not to make the tournament (Rhode Island and Fordham). Junior forward Chris Braswell has been the number one guy all year long with a team-leading 15.6 points, 7.6 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game. Point guard Pierria Henry is another potential star in the making in the A10 as the Rookie Team Member finished with 7.2 points, 3.4 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game. Even with Braswell and Henry though, the fact that the team is in the bottom three in field goal percentage, free throw percentage and 3-point percentage means they'll be hard pressed to make any noise this week.
Tuesday March 6-First Round-All Games at higher seed and start at 7 p.m. EDT
(5) St. Joes Over (12) Charlotte: Charlotte won the first matchup 57-52 on the Hawks home floor behind a 12-2 run to close the game but this is a must-win game for the Hawks who are on the bubble for an at-large bid. If the Hawks can avoid shooting 9.1 percent (2-of-21) from the 3-point line and knock down their season average (6.5 per game), they should be able to get by the 49ers this time.
(6) Dayton Over (11) George Washington: These two teams played Saturday in the regular season finale with the Flyers earning a 75-59 win in Ohio. Somehow I don't see the rematch going much differently, especially with Dayton's impressive play at home (3-game winning streak).
(10) Richmond Over (7) LaSalle: LaSalle may have won the first matchup in Richmond (78-76) but the two teams styles are so similar with four-guard lineups that it could come down to the matchup in the paint. The Spiders held a sizeable advantage down low the first time, when they grabbed 21 more rebounds (45-24) and recorded eight blocks.
(8) UMass Over (9) Duquesne: While LaSalle and Richmond will be fascinating because of the similar styles, UMass and Duquesne should be even more fun to watch because of the differing styles and lineups. UMass is 14-1 on the year at home and they fans and Kellogg are desperate for a win to ensure the Minutemen get at least an NIT or CBI Invitation.
Friday March 9-Quarterfinals in Atlantic City
(1) Temple Over (9) UMass-Noon: UMass took the Owls to the brink last week in Philadelphia in their best road game, if not overall performance, of the season but Temple is too good the second time around. If UMass had any of the other teams who received byes in the second round I'd like their chances.
(2) St. Louis Over (10) Richmond-(2:30): St. Louis' defense put the clamps down on Richmond in a 64-50 win earlier this season and they'll do the same Friday, ending any hopes of a repeat champion.
(6) Dayton Over (3) Xavier-(6:30): Xavier easily could win the whole tournament and need at least one win to make the NCAA Tournament but they just haven't been able to play consistent basketball ever since the December brawl. Dayton creamed the Musketeers earlier this year and took Xavier to overtime on the road in the second matchup-the Flyers will be playing for revenge and their own at-large hopes.
(5) St. Joseph's Over (4) St. Bonaventure- (9:00): This is an upset in seed only, the Hawks are a legit title contender and are the third team who need to play their way off the bubble and into the tournament. It took the Bonnies 50 minutes and two comebacks to put St. Joes away on St. Bonaventure's home court in a 98-93 win. The game will be come down to whether Kanacevic and Aiken can slow down Nicholson enough to keep him from carrying the Bonnies (32 points, 14 rebounds) like he did in the first game.
Saturday March 10-Semifinals in Atlantic City
(1) Temple Over (5) St. Joseph's-(1 p.m.): The two Big Five teams split the city title and a pair of games in the regular season with both teams earning double-digits wins on their home floors. If Temple can play their normal game they'll have the advantage but with game-changers like Aiken, Galloway and Jones on Phil Martelli's side, he has plenty of weapons to make the Owls stumble again. This game will be tight no matter what and could go either way.
(2) St. Louis Over (6) Dayton-(3:30 p.m.): Rick Majerus' squad held Dayton a season low 50 points in their 58-50 win in St. Louis to avenge an earlier 79-72 overtime loss in Ohio. St. Louis' defense is just too a much of a factor for me to overlook, especially after the Bilikens got the wake-up call they needed in a loss to Rhode Island two weeks ago.
Sunday March 11-Finals In Atlantic City
(2) St. Louis Over (1) Temple-(1 p.m.): Yes Temple won (72-67) in St. Louis in January but crazier things have happened and the Bilikens slightly longer rotation (nine deep), coupled with the less grueling path will be enough to put them over the top.