All month long, CBT will be rolling out our 2013-2014 season preview. To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here.
The Atlantic 10 Conference saw a record five teams play in the NCAA tournament in 2013, with every single team advancing to at least the Round of 32. That was before conference realignment struck again, as the Catholic 7 claimed Butler and Xavier, the AAC brought on Temple, and Charlotte headed back to Conference USA.
Butler and Temple accounted for two of those five bids last spring, and all four of the departing teams were ranked in the RPI top 100. The A-10 took a blow, but the league has been resilient, especially in the ever changing college landscape.
“The A-10 has kind of sustained the test of time,” UMass head coach Derek Kellogg told NBCSports.com in a phone interview. “There has been a lot of changing and transformation within the league the last 15-20 years, dating back to when Rutgers, West Virginia and schools like that were in the A-10.”
The conference had 16 teams last year, and by the start of the 2014-2015 season, that number will be back up to 14, thanks to the addition of two programs with strong basketball histories. George Mason joins the A-10 this season, replacing one Final Four team (Butler) for another, as Kellogg said. The following season Davidson joins the conference as the 14th member.
“The A-10 historically been a very strong conference and we are a basketball-centric conference,” Atlantic 10 Commissioner Bernadette McGlade said last Tuesday at the league’s media day. “We know who we are and we want to stay focused on that and we want to be successful.”
George Mason fields a club football team and Davidson’s football program is in the FCS, which gives the A-10 two new members that a focused and locked in its basketball programs.
“I think realignment is inevitable,” Kellogg said, “but the A-10 is one of those leagues, where its priorities are that of a basketball league. We’ll be able to compete on a national level because the schools are committed to their coaches, their programs and their basketball teams.”
“I think we’ve done a good job of bringing in schools as this transformation has gone on. That softens the blow of losing traditional A-10 schools.”
UMass ended up on the wrong side of the bubble on Selection Sunday, but in hindsight, after seeing what the five teams in the tournament did, you can make a good case that the Minutemen deserved a bid. Kellogg, now in his sixth season at his alma mater, is looking to take his program to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1998.
Shaka Smart and VCU are ranked heading into the season, and are the favorites in the Atlantic 10. Havoc in all likelihood will return to the NCAA tournament for the fourth straight season, but who will be joining the Rams from the conference will be the big question this season. Despite all losses of Butler, Charlotte, Temple and Xavier, it’s not inconceivable to see the A-10 get as many as four bids this season.
“We have three returning tournament teams, and those teams are all rated highly,” Kellogg said of his conference. “Then I think you have three or four teams in that next group that are all vying to chip away. A lot of it will do with how we play out of conference. A lot of teams have upgrade their schedules. Would five be a stretch? … We’d have to play really well [as a conference] to get that. But there will be four, five, as many as six teams in the conversation.”
La Salle comes back after a Sweet Sixteen run in March, returning the back court of Tyreek Duren and Tyrone Garland. Saint Louis, not Butler or VCU, finished atop the conference standings and won the A-10 tournament. The Billikens return a conference Player of the Year candidate, Dwayne Evans, along with three other starters. Then there is UMass, who could pick up quality non-conference wins against LSU, Boston College, BYU and Providence this season and get to play La Salle, Saint Louis and VCU all at home during conference play.
In the preseason the A-10 has four teams with realistic shots at bids, as the league attempts to build off the momentum of last March. But for the A-10, it isn’t just this year that looks promising. The conference has devoted new memberships to schools with a focus on their basketball teams, but the it’s the universities themselves are providing their programs with the resources to be stable fixtures in college basketball for the future.
This offseason, Saint Louis removed the interim label and made Jim Crews the head coach. Shaka Smart, Dr. John Giannini, and Danny Hurley were all awarded extensions by their respective schools. Crews, Smart, and Giannini all took their programs to the NCAA tournament, while Hurley is building towards that goal in his third season at URI.
St. Bonventure’s Andrew Nicholson was the last player drafted from the A-10 back in 2012. Although, the league didn’t have an NBA draftee this season, it still managed to produce five tournament teams. As Matt Norlander writes, that’s a product of Atlantic 10 programs building teams with three and four year guys; quality players that tend to have playing careers overseas.
“It’s underrated. It’s been underrated since I’ve been [at Dayton],” Flyers head coach Archie Miller told reporters. “There’s a lot of guys on a lot of teams that can play heavy roles anywhere win the country. There’s really legitimate, high-level players who come into the league. The last couple of seasons, with success in the NCAA, in some cases guys are a little older.”
It’s also the image the Atlantic 10 gives, such as hosting its conference tournament in the brand-new, luxurious Barclay’s Center.
“We are portraying an image of being big-time basketball, playing in what I consider the nicest arena in the world at this particular moment,” Kellogg said. “We are in one of the top media markets in the world, and that has helped solidify the message that we were trying to send, that we are on the same stage.”
The Atlantic 10 solidified that message last season, and will look to reinforce the notion that its a power conference again this season.