Atlantic 10 Refresher: New look, same tenacity

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Atlantic 10 Refresher: New look, same tenacity

Coming into the 2013-14 season, it seemed doubtful the Atlantic 10 could come anywhere close to matching the level the league ascended to last season when a record five teams made the NCAA tournament, with all five advancing to at least the Round of 32.

The conference, after all, had to deal with the departures of Butler and Xavier to the new Big East, Temple to the American Athletic Conference and Charlotte to Conference USA, while it added only former CAA member George Mason. (Davidson is set to become the Atlantic 10’s 14th team in 2014-15).

But with league play set to tip off Wednesday, one thing has become clear: The Atlantic 10 remains a very strong conference. And for the league’s two Philadelphia programs -- La Salle and Saint Joseph’s -- that represents both a challenge and an opportunity.

“It really gives all of the teams a chance to really contend for postseason berths because every game you’re playing is pretty much a top 50 or a top 100 game,” La Salle head coach John Giannini. “There’s no way you’re going to finish high in this league and not be strongly considered for postseason play. Of course the challenge is that a very good team is going to finish in 10th or 11th, too. So things are about to get harder but we’re excited about the opportunity.”

While the league doesn’t have quite the same quality as it did last season, it still ranks seventh in the conference RPI, just behind the SEC and well ahead of the American, Temple’s new league. There are currently five teams in the top 50 of the RPI (Massachusetts, George Washington, Dayton, VCU and Saint Louis) and the A-10 is one of just two leagues in which five teams have 12 or more wins. It’s also one of six leagues in which every team finished .500 or better in non-conference play.

“I’m very proud of the performances of our teams -- not only in wins but whom they’ve beaten and where they’ve beaten them,” St. Joe’s head coach Phil Martelli said. “Certainly you’re setting up for an unbelievable conference competition.”

La Salle and St. Joe’s will face the best the conference has to offer right off the bat. The Hawks will have a particularly difficult challenge, hitting the road to face a dominant UMass team on Wednesday (7 p.m., The Comcast Network).

Led by diminutive point guard Chaz Williams (15.5 ppg, 7.7 apg), the Minutemen have been one of the biggest surprises in the country, winning 12 of their first 13 games to surge to No. 5 in the RPI and No. 19 in the AP Top 25 poll.

Well, maybe they’re not a surprise to everybody.

“They’re everything we thought they were,” Martelli said. “They’re a national team. They should be talked about nationally. They should have been talked about nationally going into the season. This is a wonderful, wonderful team with tremendous balance. And every coach will tell you college basketball goes through the point guard. Tell me one that’s better than Chaz.”

St. Joe’s has been getting some nice production of late out of its own starting point guard in junior Chris Wilson, who’s averaged 13.8 points per game over the last five contests -- all St. Joe’s wins.

With Wilson, DeAndre Bembry -- who Martelli called “one of the best freshman in the league” -- and steady seniors Langston Galloway, Ronald Roberts and Halil Kanacevic, the Hawks (9-4) boast a starting lineup that’s probably as good as any in the league.

But to finish among the top three or four teams in the league -- which might be enough to ensure the program’s first NCAA tournament berth since 2008 -- Martelli knows his team’s bench play must improve.

“We’re about what we thought we were,” the St. Joe’s coach said. “We need to really develop our depth. We haven’t had much success off the bench.”

Still, even without as much bench production as their coach might like, the Hawks’ only losses this season have come against relatively major programs (Creighton, LSU, Temple and Villanova). And to reel off five straight victories after the 30-point home drubbing the Hawks suffered to Big 5 rival Villanova on Dec. 7 has Martelli excited about the character of his team heading into league play.

“When you lose Philadelphia games, it’s more than just a loss,” Martelli said. “There’s a serious psychological blow that occurs. But the players deserve all the credit. They hung in, handled what they had to handle academically … and we’ve gotten better in practice.”

La Salle’s non-conference games didn’t go as well as St. Joe’s, as the Explorers enter Thursday’s A-10 opener vs. George Washington at Tom Gola Arena (8 p.m., NBCSN) with a 7-6 mark and a 130 RPI.

But like the Hawks, the Explorers certainly have the talent and potential to finish near the top of the league if things break right.

They’ll get an early indication of how they match up with the A-10's best when they face a George Washington squad, which is off to a blistering 12-2 start and ranks 25th in the RPI. Picked in the preseason to finish 10th in the A-10, the Colonials have already beaten Maryland and Creighton with their only loss coming to Kansas State.

“They’re tremendous quality of wins and record speak for themselves,” Giannini said. “They’re really big at every position. That size helps them in terms of rebounding and defense. And offensively they play really smart. They have great role definition.”

Coming into the season, La Salle figured to be a few notches ahead of George Washington on the A-10 ladder. On the heels of their run to the Sweet 16 and with all but one key player returning, the Explorers were picked to finish third in the league, behind only VCU and defending champ St. Louis.

And even though La Salle hasn’t been able to live up to its lofty preseason billing to this point, Giannini thinks the tide is shifting in part because of the improving health of star senior point guard Tyreek Duren.

“We only lost one key player in Ramon Galloway but yet our team’s very different,” the La Salle coach explained. “We really didn’t expect losing one player -- even a truly outstanding one like Ramon -- would impact us so much. But as we thought more about it, it’s almost like we lost Ramon and Tyreek. Tyreek has had plantar fasciitis since May and it’s only been in the last two, three weeks that he’s playing anything near his normal self.

“We’re really optimistic about our team right now largely because we see Tyreek getting better.”

NCAA Tournament wrap: UNC edges out Kentucky on Maye game-winner

NCAA Tournament wrap: UNC edges out Kentucky on Maye game-winner

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Luke Maye hit a jumper with 0.3 seconds left, and top-seeded North Carolina held off Kentucky 75-73 to earn the Tar Heels' second straight trip to the Final Four and 20th all-time in Sunday's showdown of college basketball's elite in the South Regional.

The Tar Heels (31-7) will play Midwest champ Oregon on Saturday in Phoenix in the national semifinal.

North Carolina took control with a 12-0 run within the final 5 minutes. Kentucky's freshmen De'Aaron Fox and Malik Monk hit three quick 3s, the last two by Monk and his second with 7.2 seconds left tied it up at 73.

Theo Pinson brought the ball down, passed back to Maye. The sophomore from Huntersville, North Carolina, knocked it down for the win with his feet on the 3-point line.

The Wildcats had one last chance, but Derek Willis' inbound pass went out of bounds on the far end.

Kentucky (32-6) will miss out on the Final Four for the second straight year.

South Carolina beats Florida to reach first Final Four
NEW YORK -- It's only right that South Carolina's first trip to Final Four was earned through its defense.

A team known for a swarming zone used it effectively down the stretch to beat Florida 77-70 on Sunday and win the East Regional at Madison Square Garden.

Sindarius Thornwell scored 26 points for the seventh-seeded Gamecocks (26-10) against the fourth-seeded Gators (27-9) in the all-Southeastern Conference matchup.

South Carolina will face Gonzaga, the No. 1 seed from the West Regional, in the Final Four on Saturday at Glendale, Arizona.

"Gamecock Nation, we heard you loud and clear," coach Frank Martin roared as the team prepared to cut down the nets. "We'll see you in Phoenix."

The game was as close as expected until the final minute. There were 14 lead changes and 10 ties. The last lead change came on two free throws by Thornwell with 2:24 left that made it 65-63. Florida managed just three field goals over the final 3:55.

Thornwell, the regional MVP, followed the deciding free throws with a nice assist to Maik Kotsar for a 4-point lead. It seemed Thornwell, who scored eight straight points for the Gamecocks, was always where he needed to be including making a steal with 40 seconds left that turned into a 73-68 lead.

"I just made plays," Thornwell said. "Plays needed to be made down the stretch and I stepped up and made plays."

"Thornwell was just being Thornwell," Florida coach Mike White said of the SEC player of the year. "He's one of the best players in the country."

PJ Dozier added 17 points for the Gamecocks, Chris Silva had 13 and Kotsar 12.

It all totaled to a Final Four trip for Martin, he of the booming voice and terrifying faces.

Justin Leon had 18 points for the Gators who managed a 40-33 halftime lead on 7-for-12 shooting from 3-point range. But that was it. Florida was 0 for 14 from beyond the arc in the second half, a lot like the 0-for-17 effort the Gators had in their first meeting with South Carolina this season.

South Carolina, which forced Florida into 16 turnovers, finished 23 for 31 from the free throw line, including a 9-for-10 effort from Thornwell.

NCAA Tournament Wrap: Gonzaga reaches 1st Final Four; Oregon upsets Kansas

NCAA Tournament Wrap: Gonzaga reaches 1st Final Four; Oregon upsets Kansas

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Tyler Dorsey poured in 27 points, Dillon Brooks added 17 and plucky Oregon ended Kansas' romp through the NCAA Tournament with a 74-60 victory Saturday night that gave the Ducks their first Final Four trip in nearly 80 years.

Dylan Ennis added 12 points for the Ducks (33-5), who took the lead with 16 minutes left in the first half and never trailed again, giving coach Dana Altman his first trip to the national semifinals.

They'll face the winner of Sunday's game between North Carolina and Kentucky in Glendale, Arizona.

Player of the year front-runner Frank Mason III had 21 points in his final game for the Jayhawks (31-5), who had rolled to the Elite Eight by an average margin of 30 points. But their dream season ended with a thud just 40 minutes from campus on a night where very little went right (see full recap).

Gonzaga beats Xavier to reach 1st Final Four
SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Nigel Williams-Goss scored 23 points while orchestrating Gonzaga's efficient offense, and the Zags finally shook their overrated tag by routing Xavier 83-59 on Saturday to reach the Final Four for the first time.

Gonzaga (36-1) has been dogged by criticism through the years despite winning consistently, in part for playing in a weak conference but also for never making the Final Four.

On the cusp of history, the Zags took it head on with a superb all-around game to give coach Mark Few the one missing piece of his resume.

Gonzaga found the range from the perimeter after struggling the first three NCAA games, making 12 of 24 from 3-point range. The defense, a soft spot in the past, shut down the underdog and 11th-seeded Musketeers (24-14) to win the West Region.

The Zags will face the winner between South Carolina and Florida in next week's Final Four in Arizona (see full recap).