New Atlantic 10 contenders emerging, favorites still on top

By: Steven Wright – Sports Editor

About a fourth of the way into the Atlantic 10 Conference schedule, it is now time to reassess how the teams in the league stand up against one another.

We have some good looks at the way each are building their postseason resumes to this point, with the University of Massachusetts, Saint Louis University and George Washington University looking like solid NCAA tournament competitors.

The A-10 could be looking at as many as five teams making it to the big dance, with Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Dayton as borderline teams to be in the field of 68 right now.

At the start of the season, I picked VCU to take the regular season crown and UMass to win the automatic berth through the conference tournament.

I have not seen things changing too much at the top, but there has been plenty of shuffling in the middle of the league so far. The following is my predicted order of finish. Hopefully this proves to be a nice primer for the remainder of conference play as February and March approach.

Besides, there’s nothing like creating a list to have another way for people to let you know you were wrong, right?

13. George Mason. Welcome to your new home, George Mason. It’s going to be tough in their first season in the A-10 to pick up any victories, already missing out on a chance at the upset of the year at home over UMass after giving a lead in the final seconds.

12. Fordham. Only getting one chance against Duquesne and falling, a lack of defense will plague Fordham to a sixth-straight season of fewer than three wins in the league.

11. Duquesne. It only took them one game to match last year’s win total in conference play. Another home contest with Mason should keep them out of the gutter this season.

10. St. Bonaventure. The Bonnies have the highest amount of mystery surrounding them, playing tough against four of the top teams in the conference, and picking up an upset over Richmond. It’s hard to see SBU continuing to stay close as play wears on.

9. Rhode Island. Freshman guard E. C. Matthews has been a clone of senior guard Xavier Munford, which will be trouble for conference foes in upcoming years. The Rams lack a spark at the end of games to close things out, keeping them from being ranked higher.

8. Saint Joseph’s. The Hawks whiffed on each of their big chances for a marquee win outside of the A-10, but it’s tough to count out head coach Phil Martelli’s team. SJU is easily the dark horse pick right now.

7. Richmond. Quick guards in a unique offense again define head coach Chris Mooney’s squad. There are too many holes to be a contender for the top four, mainly in the lack of rebounding and free throw shooting, despite its gaudy 92 percent performance against Dayton.

6. La Salle. The toughest team to judge in the A-10. With high expectations at the start of the year, it did not live up to them, going 6-6, but has had a strong start to its conference schedule since with three straight wins. Senior guard Tyreek Duren and junior forward Jerrell Wright will dictate how far the Explorers can get into the postseason.

5. Dayton. It’s no time for UD to panic yet. The team still has one of, if not the best offense in the A-10, which will win them a few games. The Flyers should continue to have success on the road and set the highest mark for wins away from UD Arena in the Archie Miller era. However, the league’s toughest home conference schedule still has GW, UMass, La Salle and Saint Joseph’s to get through, which does not leave room for many stumbling blocks.

4. George Washington. The Colonials have emerged as the sleeper from the beginning of the season, getting off to an 11-1 start. Fifth-year senior guard Maurice Creek, a transfer from Indiana University, has been the key GW missed last season on both sides of the ball. Already knocking off VCU at home, GW will get its true test during a four-game stretch to close out February.

3. VCU. Havoc hasn’t come easy for the Rams this season, but they remain one of the top teams in the country at forcing turnovers with their multiple high pressure, full court presses. The half court offense isn’t as impressive, with the lack of a go-to shooter and outside threat being the team’s downfall in several losses.

2. Saint Louis. The defending champions are the top rated A-10 team in Ken Pomeroy’s rankings, and have the league’s best defense yet again this season. Senior forward Dwayne Evans is the best forward in the league, and senior guard Jordair Jett lives up to his name as a quick guard who is tough to stop at the point. Their lack of offensive prowess keeps them from the top spot.

1. Massachusetts. It should be no surprise UMass looks like the best team in the A-10. The surprise is how dominant their play was in out of conference action. The Minutemen get quality minutes from seven players, but senior guard Chaz Williams makes them go and is the leading candidate for A-10 Player of the Year. Their schedule is back loaded though, with GW, VCU, Dayton and SLU among their last six opponents.