By CHRIS GOFF
ISL Assistant Editor
For the third straight season, the Atlantic 10 tournament will have a new champion, because St. Bonaventure isn’t around to defend its crown. Before the tourney tips Thursday at noon, let’s take a look inside the event:
Storyline: Imagine the possibilities. There are many. Only once in the past seven seasons has the top seed won this tournament, and the field seems especially wide-open this year. With four NCAA bids likely in hand, La Salle is the conference’s most prominent bubble team. But – getting greedy – if chaos broke loose, and with 10 teams in the RPI top 87, could the league earn more than five bids? On the other hand, if chalk holds, perhaps momentum from this week launches a Final Four contender. The Atlantic 10 has sent a team to the Final Four just once, and that appearance – by John Calipari’s UMass team in 1996 – was vacated by the NCAA.
The Target: Saint Louis, which won the regular-season title, separated itself from the competition. Potential first opponent Richmond is the only team to hold the Billikens to fewer than 60 points in the past 14 games, but the Spiders scored only 46 and lost by 10. Defenses lack a primary focus when guarding Saint Louis, which gets offense off the bench and from a variety of players. It’s likely the Billikens’ balanced attack guides them to at least the third round.
Sleeper: Since an upset home loss to Duquesne on Feb. 14, Temple has won seven straight. The school has won this tournament nine times, most ever, including five times from 2000 to 2010. Khalif Wyatt may shoot them to victory once or twice. If Scootie Randall and Anthony Lee show up, suddenly another trophy is a real possibility.
Others Who Could Cut Down the Nets:
Virginia Commonwealth – If you saw the defensive bullying the Rams gave teams throughout the regular season, you know they’re going to be difficult to beat. Hot shooting could put them over the top.
Butler – The Bulldogs aren’t exactly under the radar after spending part of the season ranked in the top 10, but they lack the talent of past versions that featured NBA draft picks. Brad Stevens is an excellent coach, and he is on the opposite side of the bracket from VCU, which handed him his worst loss two weeks ago. Butler’s formula has always been to peak late. It still looks like a long shot. The Bulldogs do not match up well against the Billikens, who could await in the semifinals.
La Salle – Beware the Explorers’ poor tourney track record (1-9 in games played past the first round). They’re playing to lock up an NCAA bid, so perhaps desperation trumps history. But they enter the tourney without momentum, in part because stabilizing big man Steve Zack has been out, and likely will be out for the entirety of their stay in Brooklyn, however long.
Massachusetts – Minutemen haven’t won this thing since 1996. Can they bust the bracket? Upset Temple in the second round and then take on VCU in a semifinal that would have the Barclays Center rocking. Red flag: Chaz Williams and Co. haven’t been able to string together long periods of success. UMass hasn’t won three straight in more than two months.
Xavier – The young Musketeers are 0-7 away from home against winning teams, not a great indicator of success in Brooklyn.
Saint Joseph’s – The Hawks are 12-3 in first-round games and should manage to make it out of the 7-10 matchup with a mild upset. On the chance a team with size and talent flips the switch, St. Joe’s has to be on this list.
Fading Team: Since reaching the 15-win plateau on Jan. 16, Charlotte has thrown away any hope of an at-large ticket to the Dance by losing six of its past nine. As suspected, the dismissal of leading scorer DeMario Mayfield did nothing to help matters.
Spoiler: Although an afterthought, Dayton could easily make the semifinals. The Flyers have won a game in each of the past six tournaments, the longest active streak in the conference. They enter this one having won three of their past four games and four of six. If the Flyers can steal an afternoon bout with Butler, Dayton will meet La Salle in the second round – and the Explorers barely beat the Flyers 72-70, in Philadelphia no less.
Player who could get on a roll: Ramon Galloway has been the driving force in La Salle’s emergence this season as a potential NCAA tournament team for the first time since 1992. He is the most versatile guard in this tournament, leading the Explorers in scoring (17.4 points) and assists (3.7) and coming in third in rebounding (4.7). Galloway has a flirted a few times with a triple-double; could he get one as part of a senior signature game in a big run in Brooklyn?
Most Outstanding Player: Wyatt is playing at a particularly high level down the stretch and is the easy bet to shine brightest. But if Rotnei Clarke catches fire, he could throw Butler on his shoulders and capture the hearts of the New York City crowd.
Feeling the Pressure (team): That’d be Richmond. The 2011 tournament champion and 2010 runner-up has lost six of its last seven against teams seeded above it in this year’s field. Over the past two seasons, the Spiders are 34-29 overall, with just 11 wins over teams with a winning record. Now we’ll see whether Chris Mooney’s talented bunch can salvage anything from this season besides a win over cross-town rival VCU. The program sorely needs a shot of adrenaline.
Feeling the Pressure (player): What’s up with Langston Galloway? The St. Joe’s wing has made 21 of his last 63 attempts (33 percent) from long range, far below the lofty standards of his three-year career, and is averaging 10.5 points per game since mid-January. His junior year overall has been a regression, and that helped plant the seeds of the Hawks’ disappointing 8-8 record in league play. When Galloway can’t hit, St. Joe’s has no floor-spacing.
Game with most on the line: Potential Butler-La Salle second-round game Friday. The Explorers might be able to afford a slip in their first tournament game. Then again, they might not, especially on the heels of a 24-point loss in their regular-season finale. La Salle would be wise to leave nothing to chance with the NCAA’s selection committee. Losing to a Butler team on a neutral court with Clarke healthy could also diminish La Salle’s home win over Butler which came with Clarke sidelined.
Two Bold Predictions: St. Joe’s will beat VCU in the second round, and Butler will make the Final Four. The Hawks contain shooters, holding opponents to just 30.6 percent from behind the arc. That’s a good start, because the Rams made the second-most 3-pointers in the conference. More importantly, the Hawks typically can take care of the ball, a requisite trait against VCU. As far as the Bulldogs, their recent changing fortunes are of positive psychological value, and they’ll win a revenge game with La Salle, which could play tight under the pressure.
Pick: Saint Louis over Temple in an exciting final on Sunday. The Billikens just haven’t shown much vulnerability. Why start now?
Follow Chris Goff on Twitter: www.twitter.com/chrisgoff_isl.
Follow Indy Sports Legends on Twitter: www.twitter.com/cliffbrunt_isl.