By CHRIS GOFF
Sweep Butler and win big against VCU, and you make the decision easy.
Saint Louis has thus seized the top spot of IndySportsLegends.com’s Atlantic 10 Power Rankings on the heels of a nine-game winning streak and two statement victories last week. After dominating their highly anticipated showdown with Shaka Smart’s Rams, the surging Billikens looked super scary in a gritty and steely second-half performance in Hinkle Fieldhouse.
The only uncertainty in the top four was whether to bump steady La Salle up to No. 3, in the wake of the Explorers’ league-best eighth road win Sunday. But the Bulldogs – having amassed three wins against top-10 opponents to La Salle’s one – managed to hold on.
Let’s jump in, below Ben Fahrbach’s slideshow from the Saint Louis-Butler game:
1. Saint Louis (21-5, 10-2 conference)
After a week in which the Billikens won not one but two big showdowns, including an away game at No. 15 Butler, the secret is out. Keep in mind, Saint Louis also owns a win over New Mexico. Jim Crews – still wearing the interim tag – has nine straight victories, an offense with one of the lowest turnover rates in Division I and a defense that ranks in the top 20 in points per possession. Life is good. They won this throne the old-fashioned way. And they are certainly one of the 25 best teams in America.
2. Virginia Commonwealth (22-6, 10-3)
The transition from the Colonial Athletic Association has been so seamless that it’s easy to forget VCU is a newcomer. Shaka Smart’s defense is different from the Billikens’ – he wants to speed games up more than slow them down – but the results are pretty much the same. Now the Rams host Butler for a shootout at high noon on Saturday. Smart is 0-2 against Saint Louis and La Salle this season. Butler is 0-3. Neither side wants to go winless against the other top teams in the league. The Bulldogs have something to prove. So does VCU. It should be a great game.
3. Butler (22-6, 9-4)
A lot that we’ve seen from Butler since it stunned the ˜Zags has been underwhelming. At least the team BU can’t beat – Saint Louis – can’t be seen again until the A-10 championship game if the Billikens are a No. 1 seed and the Bulldogs are a 2 or 3. Speaking of tournaments, regardless of how the Dawgs look right now, Brad Stevens’ coaching will always give them a shot. Two big questions loom in the meantime. Can Khyle Marshall get consistently involved in the offense? And can Alex Barlow climb back as a useful contributor?
4. La Salle (19-7, 9-4)
Ramon Galloway and Co. absorbed a loss you can live with on Thursday against Temple, although La Salle fans are probably wistful over the lost opportunity to go 4-0 in Big 5 play. What, if anything, this statistic portends for the postseason is unclear, but where would the Explorers be if they weren’t 5-1 in games decided by five points or less?
5. Temple (19-8, 8-5)
Three straight wins? That hadn’t happened since the first week of December. And it’s enough to say, Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in! Fran Dunphy, one of the godfathers in Philadelphia basketball, beat his alma mater, La Salle, Thursday in the closest thing you’ll see in the regular season to a playoff game. Power forward Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson posted one of the lines of the year in the A-10: 23 points, 18 rebounds and five assists. Then, on Sunday, the Owls whipped Charlotte in an impressive road victory. Are they finally building up some steam?
6. Charlotte (18-8, 6-6)
A home drubbing at the hands of Temple wasn’t the worst part of their week. Leading scorer DeMario Mayfield, who had been suspended since Jan. 30, was dismissed from the team on Friday after repeated brushes with trouble the past couple of seasons. With six losses in their last nine games, the 49ers are peering through an NCAA tournament window that is shutting ever more.
7. Massachusetts (17-9, 7-6)
A home win over Dayton stopped a three-game losing streak, but was it too late? Allowing St. Bonaventure to score like an NBA team could be an image seared in the eyes of a skeptical selection committee. The Minutemen must win the next two (at Xavier and home for Butler) and hope for other bubble contenders to start falling like dominoes.
8. Saint Joseph’s (15-10, 6-6)
The Hawks’ RPI (85) is one of several wedges between them and true at-large consideration. If they can finally put it all together and win the A-10 tournament, the inconsistency will be forgiven, but fans are anxious on Hawk Hill. At least Saturday’s victory over George Washington was not a shaky one. A follow-up win Wednesday at Saint Louis would re-energize their frustrated fan base.
9. Xavier (15-11, 8-5)
Are we being too discouraged? Probably. We can pardon the loss to VCU, which included a blown 17-point lead, because point guard Dee Davis injured his eye and missed the final 13 ½ minutes. Xavier never handled the press after that. But unless the Musketeers run the table, starting Tuesday at home against 24-3 Memphis, their string of seven consecutive NCAA tournament appearances will come down to winning the A-10 tournament. A pile of bad losses haunts Xavier.
10. Richmond (16-11, 6-6)
Not much new to report – the Spiders didn’t mess around with Fordham – and the remaining schedule is less-than-daunting, save for a March 6 trip to VCU, so let’s recognize senior Darien Brothers. He’s third in the A-10 in true shooting percentage, never turns the ball over, is eighth in the A-10 in scoring (14.8 ppg), makes 43 percent of his 3-pointers and is No. 8 in the country in free-throw percentage (.893). I feel fairly certain that Brothers is an all-conference player no matter what Richmond’s record is.
11. St. Bonaventure (13-13, 6-7)
The Bonnies went 32-for-33 from the free-throw line in Wednesday’s 99-94 win over UMass, and the percentage (.970) was the best by any team with at least 32 makes since 2006, according to ESPN Stats and Information. Eric Mosley scored 39 points in that wild shootout, most by a Bona player in regulation since 1977 and a school record for scoring in an A-10 game. The team that says No Sleep ˜Til Brooklyn had a 2-0 week and only needs to hold off Dayton (1.5 games back) for a tournament berth.
12. Dayton (14-12, 4-8)
The Flyers must be exasperated with a 1-7 record on the road. An offensive drought down the stretch cost them in a 76-66 loss at UMass Saturday. Dayton started the year surrounded by NCAA tournament chatter. The team just isn’t as good on the court as it appears on paper.
13. George Washington (12-13, 6-6)
There’s no team more eager to finish .500 than these guys, but this will be tough sledding: They still have to play Richmond, Saint Louis and La Salle. The loss to St. Joe’s replayed the hackneyed storyline; shots just would not fall. What’s disappointing is the Colonials have lost six home games this season. Only Rhode Island and Duquesne have lost more.
14. Rhode Island (8-18, 3-10)
The Rams acquitted themselves well in home losses to Xavier and La Salle, leading at halftime of both. In other words, no change to the season’s theme. New coach Dan Hurley is still squeezing blood from a rock.
15. Duquesne (8-19, 1-12)
Quevyn Winters, one of three freshmen in the starting lineup, offers promise for the future with four outings of at least 16 points in his last eight games. Along with Fordham, Duquesne has been mathematically eliminated from the A-10 tournament.
16. Fordham (6-22, 2-11)
Two wins and seven double-digit losses in 2013. The Rams couldn’t even show something at home Saturday against Richmond. Now only three games remain in the season, and the biggest question is whether Chris Gaston’s career will end on an 11-game losing streak.
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