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.”

Penn State men's hockey ranked No. 1 for first time in program history

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Penn State men's hockey ranked No. 1 for first time in program history

At 16-2-1, Penn State's men's hockey team is ranked first in the nation for the first time in program history.

The Nittany Lions have improved each of the last four years under head coach Guy Gadowsky. 

Their record by year:

      2013-14: 8-26-2
      2014-15: 18-15-4
Last season: 21-13-4
This season: 16-2-1

Penn State received 30 of 50 first-place votes in the USCHO Division I poll. Denver is ranked No. 2, followed by Boston University, Minnesota-Duluth and Massachusetts-Lowell (see USCHO poll).

Penn State was ranked fourth last week before sweeping Michigan State.

Villanova focused on learning from win over Seton Hall, not No. 1 ranking

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Villanova focused on learning from win over Seton Hall, not No. 1 ranking

A few hours before Villanova hosted Seton Hall on Monday night, head coach Jay Wright came home and talked to his wife, Patty.

“You know you’re No. 1?” she said.

Wright didn’t react much to the news, nor did the players on the team when they found out during the pregame meal a little bit later.

“It’s not really that big of a deal this time,” Wright said. “I think we were all much more concerned with Seton Hall.”

Being No. 1 may almost be old news at this point, but thoroughly dominating good teams at the Pavilion never gets stale for the Wildcats, who cruised to a 76-46 demolition of the Pirates on the same day they regained the top spot of the rankings after a week at No. 3 (see Instant Replay).

Senior Kris Jenkins sparked the win with 16 points, shooting 4 for 6 from the three-point line and 4 for 4 from the foul line — numbers he cared far more about than the No. 1 in front of Villanova.

“That’s just a number,” Jenkins said. “We focus on getting better each and every day. We can lose our next game and we won’t be No. 1.” 

Villanova reached the No. 1 spot in the AP poll for the first time in the program’s illustrious history last season, a couple of months before winning the national title on an iconic buzzer-beater from Jenkins.

The Wildcats then spent five weeks at No. 1 this season before a 66-58 loss to Butler on Jan. 4 moved them out of the top spot — only briefly, as it turned out.

“Every time you do something first is exciting,” Wright said. “And then you learn from it. I think we learned a great lesson last year and I think it helped us this year. And we learned a lesson again when we went to Butler. So you keep learning from it, that’s what we really take from it.”

As the Wildcats said last season, the most important thing is finishing the season No. 1. And they certainly showed once again that they have the chops to repeat as national champs — a prospect that Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard called “pretty exciting” even after his team had its brains beaten in.

“That’s a tough team to play,” Willard said. “They’re the No. 1 team in the country for a reason. If you’re not clicking on all cylinders when you come here, that can happen.”

Willard went on to say that “if Josh Hart’s not the National Player of the Year, then there’s something wrong.” But against the Pirates, Hart had a modest 11 points as Villanova showed off its impressive balance with all seven players in Wright’s rotation finishing with at least eight points.

Afterwards, Wright credited his three seniors — Jenkins, Hart and Darryl Reynolds (eight points, nine rebounds) — for helping the team bounce back from a sub-optimal performance in Saturday’s 70-57 win over St. John’s at Madison Square Garden.

“I’m just really fortunate to have three guys who are experienced and have been successful but are really humble,” Wright said. “We looked at the film, told them St. John’s played harder than us, and we took care of it. I think our seniors set the tone.”

Saturday’s win wasn’t the only game at the Garden on Villanova’s mind. The last time the Wildcats played Seton Hall, they suffered a stinging defeat to the Pirates in the title game of the Big East Tournament. 

Jenkins, though, insisted, that rare loss didn’t offer any extra motivation. Neither did the fact that Villanova set a record with its 47th straight victory at the Pavilion. Or that Monday’s win was the program’s 1,700th of all time.

“Numbers are something that is becoming a challenge for us,” Wright admitted. “It’s a great challenge to have. Right now, it doesn’t really do anything for us. But trust me, at the end of the year, we take great pride in that. All it can do is distract us right now. We know we have to answer the questions and you guys do a great job. I usually learn the numbers from you guys. It’s just not gonna do anything for us right now.”

Wright may not always like talking about his team’s absurdly impressive accomplishments. But he certainly loves games like this one as the Wildcats dominated all phases, from start to finish.

Deadly long-range shooting? Tenacious defense? Creating turnovers and scoring off them? Big-time hustle plays and rebounds? Electrifying dunks? Villanova did it all Monday in front of a raucous section of students back from winter break and one spectator named Ben Simmons, who took in the game from a courtside seat and applauded with everyone else.

What’s it like coaching a game like that? Is it ever hard when your No. 1 team is up by 30?

“It’s not difficult at all,” Wright said with a laugh. “It’s enjoyable. Things are going well, so you’re enjoying yourself.”