- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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After last week's incredibly controversial eight-way tie at sixth place, and after a week full of results as close to predictable as this league -- and, frankly, this sport -- is going to get, I come to you with a more streamlined, (hopefully) less insane version of the Atlantic 10 power rankings. Ahoy:
1. Butler. Rhode Island remains a tough out more often than not in league play, and the Rams gave Butler a real go at Hinkle Fieldhouse on Saturday. But Butler held firm, winning 75-68, and followed that up with a more comfortable romp over St. Bonaventure on Wednesday night. Same deal remains with the Bulldogs: This is a good team, and one no one will want to play in March, but it still needs to get better on the defensive end to really justify its currently lofty ranking come tourney time.
In the meantime, the Indianapolis Star's David Woods has a really sad, but ultimately heartwarming story on Butler reserve Erik Fromm, whose father Leonard Fromm, an associate dean at Indiana University law school for 33 years, recently lost a battle with cancer just before Fromm's 21st birthday.
2. La Salle. Other than last Saturday's game at George Washington, this was a bit of an off-week for La Salle -- tomorrow's home date with Fordham included. But the Explorers should be commended for handling the Colonials, who'd won their previous three (close games at UMass and Rhode Island and an absolute thrashing of Charlotte) and were starting to look like a mid-table dangerous insurgent, particularly on the defensive end.
3. Virginia Commonwealth. The Rams haven't played their best basketball over the past month or so -- back-to-back losses to Richmond and La Salle made that clear enough -- primarily because their vaunted defense, one of the best and most entertaining in the country in November and December, has allowed 1.01 points per trip in A-10 play, seventh-fewest in the league. VCU's only game in the past week came at home against Fordham, which is a nice way to get your defense back on track. In sum: Saturday's trip to Charlotte should be very interesting.
4. Saint Louis. For as many seeds of doubt as the Billikens planted (at least in my brain; your synaptic mileage may vary) in the first two weeks of A-10 play, after five consecutive victories it would appear that things are coming along just fine in Arch-land. (Ha, no one calls Saint Louis that.) After a home overtime loss to Rhode Island on Jan. 19, Jim Crews' squad demolished Butler and Dayton at home and handled business in three potentially tricky road games against RPI landmines. The most important trend? Defense. Saint Louis struggled in this regard for weeks, but it has since established itself as the stingiest per-possession defense in the Atlantic 10, and that should help the Billikens avoid setbacks on the road as they seek to bolster that NCAA tournament resume.
5. Temple. It's genuinely hard to know what to make of Temple's latest win, an 89-88 home victory over Charlotte. Why? Because Charlotte, the 15th-best offense in the Atlantic 10, should never score 88 points on anyone, anywhere -- home, away, on Mars, anywhere. I know, I know: Temple got out of there with the W, which is what really matters. But 88 points in 74 possessions? Really? To Charlotte? Just another data point in a baffling Owls season, I guess.
6. Massachusetts. I suppose you could say I'm coming around on UMass. Or you could say I'm very rapidly transitioning from my role as someone who allows tempo-free statistics to aid much of my fickle eyeballs' analysis into someone who must acknowledge the cold realpolitik of NCAA tournament qualification. (It is kind of what I do around here.) Either way, the fact of the matter is that for as utterly mediocre as UMass' per-possessions numbers tell me the Minutemen are, and for as rarely as I've been impressed when I've watched them this season, their at-large profile is such that they have a pretty good chance of getting into the NCAA tournament. It's pretty strange: This is a team that isn't truly bad at anything (save 3-point shooting) but excels at nothing (save perhaps field-goal defense, and UMass has gotten more more and more stops in A-10 play). But its RPI and schedule numbers and lack of truly bad losses have it in position to lay claim to a bid if it can see this thing through. In a league full of confusion, there is something to be said for that.
7. Xavier. Without (god forbid) going into the whole eight-way tie thing again -- and again, you should not be freaking out about these ranks at this point -- this is where the validity of ranking any one A-10 outfit over the other starts to go a bit sideways. I like Xavier, and Chris Mack has done some nice things with a young team, particularly on the glass; the Musketeers out-board the rest of the league on both the offensive and defensive ends. But they don't appear likely to break out of this soft middle anytime soon.
8. Charlotte. Strangely enough, even despite the loss, you have to be encouraged by Charlotte's 88-point outburst in that 74-possession game at Temple. The 49ers' biggest issue (understatement!) all season has been their brutal offense, and seeing them put up an efficient performance like that on the road is at least a step in the right direction.
9. George Washington. The Colonials have been one of the hottest teams in the conference for much of the past month, and they could have really made waves if they'd dropped La Salle last Saturday. Even so, they're 4-1 in their past five games.
10. Dayton. Not unlike many of the teams in this range in the league right now, Dayton does some things well and other things really poorly. In the Flyers' case, they can really shoot it from distance, and score efficiently … provided they're not turning it over, which they do at a higher percentage than any team in the A-10.
11. Saint Joseph's. Same old stuff with Saint Joe's. The Hawks are not bad bad, and their talent remains tantalizing, but as long as they're allowing more points per trip in conference play (1.067) than they're scoring (1.057) … well, you don't need to be Watson (the computer, not Sherlock Holmes' ambiguous assistant) to figure out why that might limit a team's chances for success.
12. Richmond. Same goes for Richmond: The Spiders have shown plenty of flashes on offense this season (see: Jan. 24 versus VCU), but they're still playing with a negative efficiency margin in conference play and at this point not even scoring particularly well, either.
13. St. Bonaventure. I've gone back and forth on the Bonnies here and there, particularly after they notched consecutive wins at Temple and Saint Joe's, but the deeper we get into the season the clearer it becomes that these defensive woes (1.13 PPP allowed) aren't going anywhere.
14. Rhode Island. If you don't follow the A-10 closely, and if all you do is look at efficiency numbers, then you might not be aware of how well Dan Hurley is doing in his first year at Rhode Island. But even after five consecutive losses, I'm kind of impressed, because with the exception of Wednesday's defeat at UMass, all of those losses have been in close games after credible performances. It's a long slog, but these are all positive signs.
15. Fordham. In a league full of pretty questionable defensive teams, Fordham's defense might be the worst.
16. Duquesne. Except for maybe Duquesne.