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.”