Commentary

Will A-10's crazy season cost league tourney bids?

Originally Published: March 11, 2008
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

Temple is the Atlantic 10 tournament's No. 2 seed, yet the Owls are not even in most NCAA tournament conversations.

Dayton boasts the league's second-best RPI (33) but is the conference tourney's eighth seed.

Rhode Island once was ranked No. 22 in the country but barely made it into its own postseason, slinking in as the 11th seed.

And in less than a month, Saint Joseph's has tumbled from an NCAAs at-large lock to an A-10 five seed.

The only thing that makes sense about the Atlantic 10 right now is that the tournament is in Atlantic City.

[+] EnlargeTravis Ford
AP Photo/Stew MilneUMass coach Travis Ford knows his team has some work to do this week.

This thing is a crapshoot.

"It's going to be interesting, to say the least,'' UMass coach Travis Ford said. "Someone asked me the other day, 'Who do you want to see in the first round?' Are you kidding? I don't want to see any of them.''

In a topsy-turvy basketball season, the A-10 earns the honors as the loopiest conference. In one week, Saint Louis beat Saint Joe's on the road and lost to Saint Bonaventure at home. George Washington didn't even make its own tournament, yet beat two teams that were nationally ranked -- Dayton and Rhode Island.

Less than a month ago, this story would have been entirely different. Courtesy of a 119-66 nonconference record, the Atlantic 10 of early February could have made a strong and fairly easy argument for as many as five teams in the NCAA tournament.

But as Selection Sunday looms, there is an equal amount of lobbying and fretting among A-10 coaches these days, worried that all the conference in-fighting has led to a scenario in which, barring an upset champion, Xavier and maybe Massachusetts will be the only teams dancing.

"I hope it doesn't hurt us overall,'' said Temple coach Fran Dunphy, whose team owns a typically schizophrenic résumé -- no real big nonconference wins but a 10-5 mark in the league. "I wonder if this is what the [Missouri] Valley went through a few years ago, where you have to fight that perception.''

That indeed will be the interesting case study for the selection committee. Power conferences receive dispensation and absolution for beating each other up. It is almost a badge of honor in the Big East -- where the middle of the conference is always a glut of similar teams -- to take your lumps as a way to prepare for the postseason. The unpredictable nature of the Pac-10 has allowed teams (USC) to play their way in -- not out.

[+] EnlargePhil Martelli
AP Photo/Al BehrmanSaint Joseph's coach Phil Martelli admits that some A-10 teams might have played themselves out of the tourney.

But will the committee give the same credence to the A-10?

"I felt for a long time the league was being judged and not the individual teams,'' Saint Joe's coach Phil Martelli said. "Having said that, [for] the teams that have a shot to be in that room on Sunday, we can't give them reasons to keep us out, and a lot of us have.''

Ironically, in an effort to amp up its résumé, the league may have shot itself in the foot.

At their meetings a year ago, A-10 coaches for the first time ranked their teams to establish a three-tier system. Teams in the top tier were expected to schedule tougher nonconference schedules and also were slated to play one another within the conference.

Lower-tiered teams, those that were considered rebuilding, played the top tier teams just once and were given the OK to build more manageable nonleague games.

The system has worked well for the lower tiers. Temple, for example, played a manageable nonleague schedule and built up its confidence for A-10 play. And, because the Owls only played Xavier and UMass once and Fordham twice, they had an easier road to an 11-5 record.

In one sense, the idea played well for the top-tier teams, too. Xavier beat Kansas State and Indiana, UMass topped Syracuse and Houston, and Rhode Island got wins over Alabama-Birmingham and Syracuse, which bulked up their strengths of schedule and RPIs.

But in the what-have-you-done-lately world of college basketball, where December is often a distant memory, those teams also could be punished by the tier system. They aren't losing to one another but rather to the lower-level programs, teams who were almost designed to finish with lesser RPI and strength of schedule numbers.

UMass lost to both Fordham (RPI 162) and Saint Louis (123), while Saint Joe's lost to Duquesne (114) and La Salle (163). Regardless of the rationale behind the scheduling, it doesn't look good.

"I think it's too early to tell how that will all play out,'' Rhode Island coach Jim Baron said.

The Atlantic 10 long has been in a unique quandary, struggling with an identity crisis as it married elite teams (UMass under John Calipari, Temple under John Chaney and Saint Joe's with Jameer Nelson) with paltry football purse strings. The Valley comparison that Dunphy made is apt in some ways. Until Creighton and Southern Illinois started regularly besting the big boys and routinely winning in the NCAA tournament, it struggled to get multiple bids. The Atlantic 10 has received as many as five bids but no more than two since 2004.

But the difference is the Valley is perfectly content being a basketball Don Quixote. The Atlantic 10 wants nothing to do with the mid-major stigma.

[+] EnlargeDrew Lavender
AP Photo/Al BehrmanMid-major? Us? Xavier's Drew Lavender said no thanks to a mid-major award earlier this season.

Xavier and Drew Lavender memorably turned back a weekly mid-major award this season and league commissioner Linda Bruno was delighted with the decision.

"We're not a mid-major,'' she said. "We're seventh out of 32 conferences (in the RPI). I'm not a math major, but that's not the middle of anything. For us, it's an insulting label. We've bought into the fact that we use the BCS term even though it doesn't refer to basketball, but we're not going to add to it by saying we're a mid-major. We're not that type of conference, and we're going to continue to fight that label.''

Just how well the fight is going could be revealed on Selection Sunday.

"I say it tongue in cheek, but if the American government, the CIA, had as much information as the committee in that room, c'mon, Osama Bin Laden would be arrested tomorrow,'' Martelli said. "If we only get two [bids]? I think disappointment is the right word. Not devastated, because we've lived this league for three months now so we know.

"But because of how hard we worked, how much has gone into this as a league and with an eye to the future [with] a lot of these teams losing great seniors, there's also the sense that this is the year. Let's make it happen.''

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.

Dana O'Neil | email

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