In the college basketball era we are in now, George Mason and VCU have made Final Four runs. Butler has played in two national title games and could have — some might argue should have — won one of them. The Atlantic 10 is a great conference; I would say a power league. The Missouri Valley isn’t quite as deep as the A-10 but it seems to be miles ahead of the SWAC. For years, no matter what your league was, you were said to be a mid-major. I’m done with that. I am calling these leagues what they are: non-football leagues. The final few previews I will do are the top leagues in this classification and a few teams to keep an eye on. I will debut my first bracket just in time for the holidays. Happy Hanukkah for those of that persuasion.
**Order based on league standings as of writing**
Due up first, the mighty Atlantic 10.
As I said in the open, this is a fantastic league. It has expanded to add VCU and Butler but it remains the longtime home of Xavier, Richmond, St. Joe’s, Dayton and Temple. UMass and George Washington have also had some great teams. Despite the 10 in the name, the league actually boasts 16 clubs. This will be a multi-bid league and depending on how the bubble shapes up, its fourth or even fifth team could slip in ahead of a football power league team.
Charlotte, 8-0. Outlook: Don’t let the fast start fool you. Outside the Davidson win, this club has played a laughably weak slate. The team won just five league games a season ago so despite some nice returning players. Don’t cash in your 401k to bet the 49ers as this year’s Cinderella story yet.
Temple, 7-0: An NCAA team a year ago and looking strong once again. They’ve already taken several MAC schools to the woodshed. The Owls still play Duke, Syracuse and Kansas out of conference, so they will be tested, no question about that. If they win any of them, Temple’s ballers will have a great piece on their resume.
La Salle, 5-1: A 21-game winner and NIT team a year ago returns a solid quad (Tyreek Duren, Ramon Galloway, Sam Miles and Jerrell Wright). They’ve already beaten a Big East and Big 10 team and face the ACC’s Miami Hurricanes on Jan. 2. This team should be on people’s radar as one that will “steal” a bid from a “power” league team.
Richmond, 7-2: The Spiders were top-heavy last year with four kids in double figures and not much after that. The good news is that every one of those kids is back, so if the supporting cast can get a little better Richmond should win a game or two more. As it stands now, this squad is a fringe tournament team at best. In their two biggest tests so far (Minnesota and Ohio) they were blown out.
Xavier, 6-2: One of the most consistent programs regardless of size, league, history or name on the back of the jersey over the last decade took a step back last season. They “only” won 21 games and were a five-point loss away from reaching the Elite Eight yet again. The bulk of the stars are gone but they have a solid recruit in Semaj Christon and sophomore Justin Martin has really stepped up his game. December 19 against intra-city rival Cincinnati will be a great chance to gauge this team against NCAA-bound teams but they made an early statement when they dismantled Butler earlier in the year.
Butler, 6-2: The Bulldogs finally took a step back, yet they still won more than 20 games. Arkansas transfer Rotnei Clarke has been tearing it up early and they returned some pieces off of last year’s team, most notably Khyle Marshall. The biggest obstacle for Butler is the fact that the A-10 grind will be a lot harder than the Horizon. If they can adapt easily, you might see those pesky Dogs back in your office pool.
Dayton, 6-2: This veteran team made the NIT a season ago and look to improve on that. With two of their top three scorers back, they should be sniffing around a spot but in a league this deep, they might have to settle with the NIT again. They do boast a very nice road win (Alabama) on the young season already.
Saint Joe’s, 5-2: With the bulk of last year’s 20-win, NIT team returning, there is potential. But the inconsistencies of a season ago remain. Already this season they have an upset win over Notre Dame and a 30-point loss to Creighton. If your reaction was, “Huh?” then we had the exact same feeling.
St. Bonaventure, 5-2: The Bonnies shocked much of the hoops world when they won the A-10 tournament after a 17-win regular season. While they return some of the important cogs from that run, they are far from the most talented team in the league.
Saint Louis, 5-2: The NCAA team a year ago returned some very good players and all things considered should be a Tourney team again. The problem is the passing of Rick Majerus is not something any of us could have considered a couple weeks ago.
Virginia Commonwealth, 5-2: That 40 Minutes of Hell defense continues to make the Rams dangerous. They already knocked off Memphis and gave both Duke and Missouri all they could handle. Reddic and Daniels have the potential to be the best 1-2 punch in the league. If the Rams aren’t on your radar, you better get them there.
Massachusetts, 4-3: The Minutemen scheduled very ambitiously and while they won one of their games against top-tier teams, they dropped the other three. Still, this team returns the bulk of their stars and made the NIT semifinals a year ago. You know what? Put them on your radar too.
Duquesne, 4-4: The Dukes were a mediocre team a season ago and lost the bulk of their scoring. Sean Johnson is a fun player and Quevyn Winters has had a nice start to his collegiate career but this team is still building.
George Washington, Rhode Island and Fordham: GW’s more of a hoops school than the other two so their rebuild is progressing better. As for the two Rams teams, their seven losses are not built equally. Rhode Island has played Virginia Tech, Seton Hall and Ohio State and has knocked off Auburn. Fordham has had a much softer schedule and their two-point win over Penn is the only thing keeping them from posting an oh-fer right now.
The Atlantic 10 sent three teams to the NCAAs a season ago, and with an even deeper league thanks to the additions of VCU and Butler, four or even five teams isn’t a stretch. The big thing will be if another crazy tournament run happens again and a St. Bonaventure team slips in with the auto-bid. The three teams I think have the best shot at getting in are Temple, Xavier and La Salle; however, Butler, VCU and a couple other clubs will have a lot to say about whether or not that happens. The great thing about a league this deep is that the small things will make all the difference: The star missing a game from a bad ankle. The poor road game resulting in an upset to a weak team. Those things will be huge in this nip-and-tuck race.
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