By CHRIS GOFF
It was an easier decision than filling out a conference awards ballot.
So for a third straight week, Saint Louis “ in the final edition of IndySportsLegends.com’s Atlantic 10 Power Rankings “ clutches the No. 1 spot. For 17 straight regular-season weeks “ and once before that during preseason practice “ you have checked here for a sketch of order to what was often an unpredictable and exciting league.
The Billikens, who started the year at No. 2, stayed put in spite of an overtime loss to Xavier that stopped their torrid 11-game winning streak. They have the A-10′s best record. And they went 4-0 against VCU, Butler and La Salle. It’s an open-and-shut case.
Without further adieu:
1. Saint Louis (24-6, 13-3 conference)
The players bought into a defensive mindset, but don’t overlook the offense. The Billikens score effectively, too. Saint Louis finished as the conference’s top tournament seed. Versatility is a major asset, as Mike McCall Jr. and Jordair Jett can play either guard spot, and no team brings a duo as good as Jett and Cody Ellis off the bench.
2. Virginia Commonwealth (24-7, 12-4)
Expect an angry Rams team in the tournament after the regular season ended on such a downer. VCU blew a 16-point lead and lost to Temple, costing themselves a share of the regular season title. The biggest question is whether Juvonte Reddic and Treveon Graham will split player of the year support and end up with neither winning the honor. That seemed to happen with Indiana’s Victor Oladipo and Cody Zeller. Temple’s Khalif Wyatt appears to be the frontrunner, however.
3. Temple (23-8, 11-5)
Did that Duquesne loss wake these guys up or what? Good luck trying to find something for the Owls to sweat after seven straight wins. Because more and more their NCAA tournament prospects aren’t worthy of perspiration. Jake O’Brien and Will Cummings played big in Sunday’s statement win over VCU. Wyatt is a superstar. After finally building up some momentum, Temple is the formidable team we once thought it to be. Remember, the Owls pushed Kansas to the absolute max at Allen Fieldhouse.
4. Butler (24-7, 11-5)
Just another very good season at Butler, huh? Roosevelt Jones showed rapid improvement, and Andrew Smith had his best year. From the perspective of the entire body of work, the defense is merely average, or slightly above, but it was excellent in conference play, and past Butler defenses have gone to a different place in the postseason. The offense is in the top 100 in points per possession. Rebounding is the team’s biggest strength. Wins over UMass and Xavier were a nice recovery. Entering the tournaments, Butler is generating little hoopla. Perhaps the Dawgs strike best when beneath the radar.
5. La Salle (21-8, 11-5)
The Explorers picked a bad time for their worst loss of the season, a 24-point debacle at Saint Louis that left John Giannini œreally disappointed. La Salle, which drops two spots this week, might have to go through Butler and Saint Louis just to reach the league championship game. The Explorers were a somewhat popular dark-horse choice in October, and now pride in La Salle basketball is back. Yet the grade for the season still totally hinges on getting to the NCAA tournament for the first time since (yikes) 1992.
6. Massachusetts (19-10, 9-7)
After allowing Butler to waltz into their gym and win comfortably, the Minutemen took care of business against Rhode Island to close a pretty good regular season. UMass feels like a team capable of beating any team in the conference on one day and losing to anyone the next. Chaz Williams needs a bit more help. An RPI of 57 isn’t supported by enough good wins, other than La Salle on the road.
7. Xavier (17-13, 8-8)
The Musketeers have made the NCAA tournament seven years in a row. Only seven other schools can say that. But Chris Mack went through a transition season. He only had two players who could make 3-pointers. He crafted a seven-man rotation with two really good players and five solid contributors. Semaj Christon and Travis Taylor were complete monsters in the upset of Saint Louis Wednesday. Early losses to Vanderbilt, Wofford, Pacific and Wake Forest were killers. The Musketeers came on late with defense, rebounding and a whole lot of Christon. A trophy is necessary to make the Big Dance.
8. Charlotte (20-10, 8-8)
Chris Braswell breathed new life into the 49ers with his tying layup that saved them from a brutal loss to Duquesne. He then made the game-winning shot with 18 seconds left in overtime and finished with 28 points in the 89-87 win. Then Charlotte’s defense reappeared in a nice victory over St. Joe’s. Alan Major leaves the Atlantic 10 on a high note, with 20 wins and young building blocks in Pierria Henry and Willie Clayton. Pretty rosy year, all things considered.
9. Saint Joseph’s (17-12, 8-8)
Theoretically, a more experienced version of the Hawks would be a different Hawks team than the one that finished 9-7 in A-10 play and lost in the first round of the NIT in 2012. Not so. St. Joe’s, picked to finish first by coaches and media, fell flat. Fans were disappointed. There wasn’t enough shooting on a middling offense that posted the sixth-worst true shooting percentage in the league. Players didn’t seem to be the hungriest. Don’t rule out a tournament run, though, as the Hawks received a pretty good draw given their slow-paced, half-court style.
10. Richmond (18-13, 8-8)
Anyone else out there notice that the Spiders have beaten just five teams with a winning record? They finished the season with four wins in six games. All four were against sub-.500 teams. Derrick Williams just hasn’t been back to normal since returning from injury. Richmond has been so dependent on the 3-pointer. Can they sustain shooting for four games in four days in the tournament? Doubtful.
11. George Washington (13-16, 7-9)
Aside from Isaiah Armwood’s quiet excellence, the story of the season was the Colonials’ grit. Or is there a better explanation for GW responding to four straight losses by beating Dayton 81-80 in overtime on an Armwood dunk with 2 seconds left for the win that ultimately clinched a tournament berth? The season is still alive, and Mike Lonergan’s scrappy defenders drew a team in UMass that they’ve proven they can beat.
12. Dayton (17-13, 7-9)
Just when they were starting to feel good about things, a loss at George Washington served up yet another blemish on a meager road record. The Flyers may be the No. 12 seed in Brooklyn, but at least they’re there.
13. St. Bonaventure (14-15, 7-9)
Saturday’s indefensible home defeat to Fordham ended their dream of returning to the A-10 tournament to defend their crown. The loss at Dayton on March 6 set up the collapse. The Bonnies finished with a perfectly neutral efficiency margin and scored 72.7 points per game while allowing 72.5. The roster was no nowhere near NCAA tournament caliber, but a team many expected to be bad was instead mediocre. Demitrius Conger and Eric Mosley had good seasons, leading Bona to wins over Temple, St. Joe’s, Charlotte and UMass. The shame is the late collapse left such a sour taste.
14. Rhode Island (8-21, 3-13)
New coach Dan Hurley and the arrival of junior college transfer Xavier Munford, who played for Hurley in high school, gave the Rams an unexpected shot. They may have finished with five straight losses, but they were one of only two teams in college basketball to beat Saint Louis on its home floor, and the Rams were somehow competitive in nearly every game despite not being able to make a shot to save their lives. This season counts as a step forward for the program.
15. Fordham (7-24, 3-13)
For the first time in six seasons, Fordham did not finish in last place. This past Saturday, with a 76-72 win at St. Bonaventure, was undeniably spectacular. After so much frustration and disappointment, the Rams knocked the reigning conference champion out of the tournament, shot 55 percent and saw Chris Gaston notch 22 points and nine rebounds to end his Fordham career on a high note. Eighth on the school’s all-time scoring list, Gaston had never won an A-10 road game “ until his last.
16. Duquesne (8-22, 1-15)
The Dukes went 1-17 over their final 18 games, causing a 7-5 start to take on an allure of mystery. But, oh, the one. On Feb. 14, Duquesne beat Temple in Philadelphia. Heck of a memory. Seniors Andre Marhold and Sean Johnson will be missed, but Quevyn Winters and Derrick Colter, so promising as freshmen, are the future.