Conference Catch-ups: Atlantic-10 Battle Royale


Conference play is right around the corner, so to help you get out of that post-holiday haze, we’ll be catching you up on all the happenings in the country’s top 12 conferences. Here’s our Atlantic-10 Conference Catchup:

Favorite: Virginia Commonwealth
The Ram’s blend of experience, leadership, 3-point firepower and HAVOC defense is what sets them apart from the rest of the A-10.

Both Troy Daniels and Darius Theus were members of the 2010 Rams squad that lost to Butler at the Final-4 and are now the heart and soul of the Ram’s team. Juniors Juvonte Reddic, Rob Brandenburg and D.J. Haley have all been vital contributors during their time in Richmond. It seems like every season Shaka Smart loses 2-3 talented experienced seniors, only to see a new crop of leaders emerge from the underclassmen ranks. It has happened nearly every season since he took over in 2009. Sophomore Treveon Graham leads the team in scoring with 14.8-ppg and sophomore Briante Weber is the nation’s leader in steal percentage (8.67%).

The Ram’s patented “HAVOC” defense continues to give people fits and their offensive firepower goes unrivaled in the A-10. There are a handful of teams that could win the Atlantic-10, but VCU looks like the only team right now that should.
Contenders: The top of the Atlantic-10 is as deep as any conference in the country, even the Big-Ten. No team has been through as much as the Saint Louis Billikens have this season. They got a new coach, lost their best player to injury, and mourned the passing of Rick Majerus. But after losing three of their first six games, the Billikens have rattled off seven in a row, including a 14-point win over No. 20 New Mexico. Oh, and they’ve got their star player, Kwamain Mitchell, back from injury.

But we shouldn’t forget about Butler or Temple. In fact, the top four teams in the A-10 are all capable of making a deep run in the NCAA tournament. Rotnei Clarke has added the scoring threat the Butler Bulldogs desperately needed, and it showed in high-profile wins over Marquette, North Carolina and Indiana. The Bulldog’s frontcourt of Khyle Marshall and Andrew Smith has been as good as advertised.

Then there is Temple. The Owls are just a Canisius loss away from being talked about among the nation’s elite. Their only other losses were to No. 1 Duke and No.6 Temple. Plus they dominated No. 3 Syracuse at Madison Square Garden. They also have the conference’s best player in Khalif Wyatt.
Biggest Surprise: Charlotte
This isn’t really a surprise, since Charlotte ranks 292nd in strength of schedule and lost their only two non-conference games against BCS-conference teams. But at 12-2 heading in to A-10 play, the 49ers should be commended for winning all the games they should win and not slipping up against inferior competition. This team has enough experience and youthful talent to cause a scare in the A-10. Freshman forward Willie Clayton has the second best offensive rebounding percentage in the country (19.4%) and sophomore Pierra Henry ranks 9th nationally in steal percentage (5.82%). They deserve the recognition now because in a month they will start one of the most hellacious 6-game stretches of any team in any conference: at Temple, VCU, at Butler, at Saint Louis, Temple, and Dayton.
Biggest Disappointment: Saint Joseph’s
Considering the Hawks were preseason favorites to win the A-10, sitting at 8-4 with ugly losses to Creighton, Florida State, Villanova and Fairfield is troubling. What’s also troubling is the manner in which they lost. They were outclasses by Creighton on the road, lost their composure against Villanova and came up flat against a bad Florida State team and Fairfield. The Hawks have one of the most talented rosters in the A-10, and aside from an overtime win against Notre Dame at Madison Square Garden, they have not won any signature games.
Player of the Year: Khalif Wyatt, Temple
The senior guard leads the team in scoring with 16.1-ppg and was the driving force in Temple’s huge win against Syracuse. He scored 33 points on 8-for-17 from the field and a perfect 15-for-15 from the free throw in the Owls’ 83-79 win at Madison Square Garden. Aside from his six point performance against Duke, Wyatt is usually the best player on the court, which should bode well for the Owls as they head in to A-10 play.
Best Freshman: Semaj Christon, Xavier
The freshman guard has been the lone bright spot for the Musketeers, who have lost four in a row and sit at 7-6 with losses to Wofford and Pacific. Christon is a play-making guard who can score from almost anywhere and have stepped up in big spots, like on the road at Purdue, where he scored 25 points on 8-for-12 from the field. Unfortunately, he is being asked to do too much for a freshman, and is not getting the support from the front court that the team needs.
Three Predictions:

  • The A-10 Tournament in Brooklyn will be the best Championship Week Tournament. The A-10 is leaving Atlantic City in favor of the fresh digs at the Barclays Center in Brookyln. This conference is going to have multiple NCAA Tournament bids hanging in the balance come Championship Week, and with the Big East Tournament taking place on the other side of the bridge, there is going to be a lot of buzz surrounding Brooklyn.
  • An Atlantic-10 team will make the Final-4. This is one of the deepest conferences in the country. If VCU can escape league play with only minor scrapes and bruises, there is no reason to believe they can’t win six games in-a-row at a neutral site. Temple and St. Joseph’s have the talent to compete with any team in the country and Butler is still Butler, only now they Rotnei Clarke.
  • Xavier will not win the A-10. I know, I know. Not that bold of a prediction. But the Musketeers have dominated the conference for what seems like the last two decades. However with the addition of Butler and VCU, along with the team’s lack of depth and production in the frontcourt, the Musketeers will be on the outside looking in. Semaj Christon has been great, but the X-Men could really used a boost in play from their experienced leaders like Jeff Robinson and Brad Redford, but they aren’t getting it.

Power Rankings (* = tourney team):

1. Virginia Commonwealth*
2. Temple*
3. Butler*
4. Saint Louis*
5. Saint Joseph’s
6. Dayton
7. Xavier
8. UMass
9. Richmond
10. Charlotte
11. LaSalle
12. Duquesne
13. St. Bonaventure
14. Rhode Island
15. George Washington
16. Fordham

You can find Troy on Twitter at @TroyMachir

No. 3 Michigan outlasts No. 9 Florida State to advance to Final Four

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Michigan struggled to generate consistent offense, but the Wolverines held off No. 9 seed Florida State for a 58-54 win on Saturday night during the West Regional final in Los Angeles.

The No. 3 seed Wolverines (32-7) are headed back to the Final Four under head coach John Beilein for the first time since 2013 as Michigan advanced to the Final Four for the eighth time in program history.

Making things look easy during a Thursday night blowout win over Texas A&M, Michigan made 10 first-half three-pointers to cruise to victory. During the Elite Eight, Michigan couldn’t generate any consistency from the perimeter. Only shooting 18 percent (4-for-22) from three-point range, Michigan missed ten straight three-pointers at one point as they had to grind out a win in an offensive struggle. Redshirt sophomore guard Charles Matthews paced the Wolverines with 17 points while junior big man Mo Wagner chipped in 12 points despite an 0-for-7 shooting night from three-point range.

Florida State (23-12) did its best to hang around despite having major offensive issues of their own. The Seminoles found themselves trailing by three points with under a minute left, but they couldn’t get over the hump in the final few possessions. Senior forward Phil Cofer (16 points) and junior guard P.J. Savoy (12 points) were the only two double-figure scorers for Florida State as they shot 32 percent (16-for-50) from the field and 25 percent (4-for-16) from three-point range.

Michigan advances to next weekend’s Final Four in San Antonio as they’ll take on No. 11 seed and national darling Loyola.

Loyola-Chicago’s Sister Jean gets her piece of the net

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Loyola-Chicago’s hero — their 98-year old chaplain, Sister Jean — got her reward for being the good-luck charm that got the Ramblers to the Final Four.

Think about this:

  • The Ramblers beat Miami on a game-winning three with 0.3 seconds left
  • They beat Tennessee on a jumper with 3.6 seconds left that bounced off the rim, the backboard and the rim again before going in.
  • They needed a three with 7.6 seconds left to help them hold off Nevada in the Sweet 16.
  • A senior that never averaged more than 8.3 points and that had a season-high of 14 points against something called Eureka this season went for a career-high 23 points to get the Ramblers to the Final Four.

She earned this piece of the net.

The Atlanta Falcons are trying to recruit Sister Jean from Loyola

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The Atlanta Falcons are American sports’ most cursed franchise now that the Chicago Cubs have won a World Series.

Hell, Atlanta sports in general are a minefield of terrible losses, blown seasons and heartbreak.

Which is why the Falcons, who may or may not have blown a 28-3 lead in the Super Bowl to Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, are trying to get Sister Jean on their payroll:

Stay away, Falcons.

Sister Jean is ours.

Sincerely, College Basketball

No. 11-seed Loyola-Chicago advances past Kansas State, to Final Four

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Sister Jean strikes again!

Ben Richardson, a senior guard who’s never averaged more than 8.3 points in a season, broke double-figures just four times during his senior year and had a season-high of 14 points that came in a game against something called Eureka, scored went 6-for-7 from three and scored a career-high 23 points for No. 11-seed Loyola-Chicago as college basketball’s latest Cinderella finished off their run to the Final Four with a 78-62 win over No. 9-seed Kansas State.

A No. 11-seed is the lowest-seeded team to ever reach a Final Four, and Loyola is just the fourth No. 11-seed to get to the Final Four. LSU did it in 1986, George Mason made it in 2006 and VCU reached the Final Four out of a play-in game in 2011.

Perhaps the most impressive part of this win was that it was never really in doubt. Kansas State led 3-2 for 17 seconds in the first half … and that’s it. The Ramblers opened the game on a 15-5 run, took a 36-24 lead into the break and led by as many as 23 points in the second half.

Perhaps this is what says it all — The Ramblers emptied their bench to let the walk-ons get some run.

In the Elite Eight.

Their bench players dribbled out the clock to send them to the Final Four.

For a team that needed game-winning jumpers in the final 10 seconds in the first three rounds of the tournament, Kansas State was the lowest seeded team that the Ramblers played in the tournament. I guess it’s fitting that they were the game they finally won comfortably.

And to be frank, this is the postseason run that we all needed this year.

Let’s start with the basics: Nobody wants to see Kansas State in the Final Four. I’m sorry Kansas State fans, but that’s the truth. This run has been fun, it might have saved Bruce Weber’s job and I’ve gained a whole new level of respect for the fight and the grit that guys like Barry Brown Jr., Cartier Diarra and Xavier Sneed play with.

But if you are going to give me the choice between seeing a miracle mid-major run to the final weekend of the college basketball season or a middling power conference program that happened to get hot against a lucky draw in the NCAA tournament, I’m taking the mid-major.

Every. Single. Time.

And I guarantee that I’m not the only one.

If we’re not going to get a blueblood, give me the little guy.

Especially when they are being led to glory by a 98-year old nun named Sister Jean.

That is the other part of this: Everything about this Loyola-Chicago team is good. They are what makes college basketball so special. They are why this event is the best sporting event in America. And they are making this run in the tournament in a year where the sport has been marred by scandal after scandal.

There was the FBI’s investigation into corruption in college basketball that resulted in assistant coaches at four programs getting arrested. There was the arrest of the three UCLA players that turned into an international incident covered by TMZ, CNN and FOX News when LaVar Ball stood up for his son and got into a war of words with Donald Trump. There were the accusations that were levied at Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo that he covered up sexual assaults committed by players within his program. There were the reports that leaked before the start of the NCAA tournament that tied players at myriad programs with taking impermissible from a disgraced NCAA agent, and then the controversy surrounding a report that Sean Miller was caught on a wiretap discussing a payment of $100,000 for Deandre Ayton.

Anyone paying attention to college basketball from afar would think that the sport is an absolute cesspool, and whether the fact that it is may or may not be true depending the way that you view amateurism and the ability of college athletes to earn money off of their likeness, the bottom-line is this: College basketball’s public image has never been worse.

Until now.

Now we have a team from the Missouri Valley — a league that Wichita State and Creighton left because it wasn’t good enough — heading to the Final Four. We have a mid-major program whose most famous member is their 98-year old chaplain. We have a program with a head coach that is so far from the glitz and glamour of $3,000 suits that he wears outfits that look like this.

This is why college basketball is the best.

Because things like this can happen.

Tonight, we are all Ramblers.

Report: Gonzaga will decide on conference future in next few weeks

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Now that Gonzaga has been eliminated from the 2018 NCAA tournament, the school has some important decisions to make regarding its basketball future.

A report at the end of February from Mark Zeigler of the San Diego Union-Tribune said that the Bulldogs were among two teams targeted by the Mountain West Conference for future expansion. The Mountain West talks are becoming more of a reality since the Zags were ousted by Florida State in the Sweet 16 on Thursday night.

Dennis Dodd of is reporting that Gonzaga will make a conference decision in the next few weeks as the school is exploring the possibility of leaving the West Coast Conference.

Gonzaga athletic director Mike Roth confirmed to Dodd that the Mountain West and Gonzaga are talking while also noting that rumors of BYU and Gonzaga being a package deal are false. Since the window is quickly closing to try to get new teams into leagues for the 2018-19 season the Gonzaga/Mountain West talks should be figured out within the next few weeks.

“I think we’re into that crunch period for sure if we’re going to try to get it done for the fall of 2018. At the same time, we’re not going to rush the decision because of timing,” Roth said to Dodd.

“In a perfect world, we’re going to be making a decision in the next couple of weeks here. But there is no such thing as perfect worlds in the crazy world of college athletics.”

While Gonzaga has dominated the WCC over the last 20 years, the conference hasn’t provided enough quality competition for the perennial top-25 program. That’s why the jump to the Mountain West would be intriguing. The Bulldogs would get a better yearly strength of schedule to help its tournament profile. The Mountain West would add a stable NCAA tournament contender that would also boost the national profile of the league.

“Our conference doesn’t get the national respect, and the Mountain West has better respect,” Roth said to Dodd. “Whether it’s significant enough for us to make that move, we’re trying to figure [that] out.”

As Dodd noted in his report, this move would have little to do with revenue for Gonzaga. This move would be made strictly for competitive purposes:

Such a move would seemingly have little to do with revenue, at least for Gonzaga. The Mountain West TV contract is worth approximately $18 million (about $1.5 million per school). Gonzaga’s current league, the West Coast Conference, gets a tiny fraction compared to that amount.

Based on an industry standard that basketball is worth only 25 percent of any media rights contract, jumping to the MWC would net Gonzaga only $375,000 per season.

Based on Roth’s quotes about the WCC and the level of national respect, it will be fascinating to see if this move happens in the next few weeks. It makes sense for both Gonzaga and the Mountain West to make this move. But a lot of other things also have to be figured out for such a move to take place. Once the college basketball season is over, this will be one of the biggest storylines to follow heading into next season.