ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- Boardwalk Hall, the site of this year's Atlantic 10 tournament, was built for Beatles concerts and Miss America pageants, not basketball. So one end of the building is dominated by a darkened proscenium stage, protected by a tall canvas curtain. Painted on its surface is a faded portrait of an old warship, keeling dangerously to the port side while navigating choppy seas.
If you ask me if we're one of the best 65 teams in America, I'd say sure. But you know what? I'd rather be the A-10 champs at this time tomorrow.
A thousand printed words couldn't better describe this league in 2007-08 than that giant 60-foot metaphor that overlooks this week's elimination games. After a 119-66 overall nonconference record propelled the A-10 into the national spotlight, the bulk of the league struggled to records in the .500 range in league play, turning a certain five-bid cruise into a truly imperfect storm. Only No. 12 Xavier (27-6, 14-2 A-10) was virtually assured of an NCAA bid going into the league tourney.
And on Friday night, Atlantic City was the site of a major mutiny. Saint Joseph's spent most of the season in second place before slumping to a No. 5 seed. But in the tourney semifinals, the Hawks took down No. 1 seed Xavier 61-53 with stifling perimeter defense. Xavier, the top 3-point shooting team in the conference, was forced into a dismal 1-for-14 performance beyond the arc. And the Musketeers had no answer for 6-foot-10 Pat Calathes, who hit five 3s of his own on the way to 24 points.
It was SJU's second win over the nationally ranked Musketeers in 12 days, but four losses in its last six regular season games meant that the Hawks didn't receive a bye to the quarterfinals. The championship contest against Temple, who defeated Charlotte in the other semifinal, will be their fourth game in as many days.
Following the win, the 2,000 or so happy Hawks fans who'd made the hour-long trip from Philadelphia were buzzing on the boardwalk about a Big Dance ticket that seemed assured a month ago, impossible a week ago and quite probable now. Had the Hawks -- now a 21-11 team with wins over Xavier (twice), Villanova and MAAC champion Siena -- done enough to earn a spot in the NCAA tournament?
"I just hope they have TVs in Indianapolis," said Saint Joseph's head coach Phil Martelli afterward. "I hope the committee has seen my team play. … If you ask me if we're one of the best 65 teams in America, I'd say sure. But you know what? I'd rather be the A-10 champs at this time tomorrow."
While Saint Joseph's looks good for at-large consideration should it need it, what of the other A-10 contenders? If Temple falls short on Saturday, would 20 wins and runner-up status in the nation's No. 7 RPI conference be enough to catch the committee's eye? And what are the fates of early-round losers Dayton (wins over Pitt and Louisville, plus injury allowances), or UMass? The Minutemen own an RPI of 43 and a 21-10 record, but their devastated players had to be literally scraped off the floor by assistant coaches after the team's 69-65 quarterfinal loss to surging No. 6 seed Charlotte.
"We have a lot of teams that are worthy," said Xavier head coach Sean Miller after his team's semifinal exit. "We have a lot of teams that suffered some tough losses at the end. But we have a conference that's represented itself as well as any in the country, minus three or four. People on television are talking about the Big Ten getting four or five teams in … but if you look at the RPI of our conference, it's like one one-hundredth of a point less than the Big Ten's. If that's truly the case, and they get five and we get two … I don't know about that."
Martelli, for his part, has given up trying to politick and campaign.
"That committee is going to select what it thinks are the best teams," he said as he pounded a table with an index finger. "Do I think UMass is one of the best teams in the country? Absolutely, positively. Do I think [Temple and Charlotte] deserve to go? Sure! But how much energy do you have?"
Even with only two teams left standing, there are still more questions than answers in Atlantic City. And it's enough to make anyone seasick.
Kyle Whelliston is the national mid-major reporter for Basketball Times and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.