AMHERST, Mass. – Following Friday night’s loss to UMass, VCU head coach Shaka Smart entered the room for his postgame press conference, firing off a question before even taking his seat at the table.
“Is this the same room where John Chaney said, ‘I’ll kill you’?,” he asked, referring to the former Temple coach’s confrontation with then-UMass head coach John Calipari which happened just over 20 years ago.
“You won’t hear that from me,” he then assured the room.
In his two-year tenure in the Atlantic 10, Smart has immersed himself in the history of the conference … both good and bad, apparently.
The Chaney-Calipari incident ranks high among the conference’s list of infamous moments, but Friday night’s showdown between VCU’s Havoc and UMass’ P.A.I.N. — Pressure, Agitate, Interrupt, Neutralize — is another reminder of how impressive the talent in the Atlantic 10 is. Friday night’s slate of games was particularly low, but a fast-paced 40-minute thriller between the Rams and Minutemen directed the national audience to the sold out Mullins Center for the evening.
“Our conference is still undervalued,” Smart said. “I don’t think people realized the gauntlet that you have to go through in this league. I guess Saint Louis, on paper the win-loss record, they are making it look easy, but if you look closer at some of their games, some of them have been very close. And then for the rest of us, we’ve been battling it out.”
The Billikens are winners of 19 in a row, with their last loss to the nation’s only remaining unbeaten, Wichita State. Last March, Saint Louis was one of five Atlantic 10 teams that won at least one game in the NCAA tournament. The win over VCU almost assures UMass its first NCAA tourney bid since 1998. The Minutemen could be one of four, potentially five bids in this year’s field from the A10.
“Don’t take this the wrong way, but there is a lack of sophistication out there right now as it relates to the Atlantic 10,” Smart added. “There are fill-in-the-blank high-major programs and they carry a weight because of their name, first and foremost. But the reality is if you look closer and you compare them to some of the teams in our league, I think our league shapes out pretty well. Again I’m not calling out anyone individually.”
In the RPI Top 100, nine teams — Saint Louis, St. Joseph’s, UMass, VCU, Richmond, George Washington, Dayton and St. Bonaventure — all crack the list.
“I think it just continues with the A10, I think it’s stood the test of time for one reason or another,” Kellogg said, who played in the A10 from 1991-1995 under Calipari. “The proof is really right there in the numbers. That’s what it says.”
Selection Sunday is less than a month away. Two of the Atlantic 10’s bids from a season ago — Butler and Temple — are gone. St. Joseph’s doesn’t have the best out of conference resume while Richmond is without Cedrick Lindsay and Derrick Williams for the remainder of the season. The A10 has its share of bubble teams while at-large bids should be extended to multiple teams within the conference.
Teams like Saint Louis, ranked No. 10 in the AP poll, may not be in the discussion among the nation’s contenders, and the league doesn’t have the national attention it may deserve, but Friday night was a reminder of what sort of Havoc, or P.A.I.N. A10 teams like VCU and UMass can inflict on the NCAA tournament field.
The conference did account for seven wins in the 2013 NCAA Tournament after all.
“It was a pretty exciting game, a well-played game, a phenomenal crowd,” Smart said. “We just have to continue pushing forward with that and gaining respect as a league.”