Commentary

Quality Ws, surprising depth for A-10

Originally Published: December 23, 2009
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

XavierFrank Victores/US PresswireX's losses this season have ranged from the respectable to the questionable to the downright bizarre.

Favorite: This isn't shaping up to be the walkover I thought it might be: Richmond, Charlotte, Rhode Island and Temple all have legit arguments to claim favorite honors in the league. But based on talent, I'm sticking with my preseason guns and calling on Dayton. The Flyers have everything they need to win the league -- depth, talent and experience -- and have proved worthy with wins over Georgia Tech and Old Dominion.

Most surprising team: Charlotte. After finishing 11-20 last season, the 49ers were expected to be better, but this good? An impressive turnaround is in the works for Bobby Lutz. Charlotte trounced Louisville at Freedom Hall, a signature win for a program on the rise.

Most disappointing team: Fordham. It's not the 2-7 record that makes the Rams disappointing; it's the school's decision to fire Dereck Whittenburg before January and basically torpedo the entire season. The administration easily could have fired Whittenburg at the end of last season and started fresh but didn't, waiting instead until Jio Fontan voiced (again) his desire to leave before pulling the plug. Colleges rarely used to can coaches in midseason, but with Fordham's decision followed closely by Penn's dismissal of Glen Miller, universities are entering scary uncharted waters.

Mystery team: Xavier. Under first-year coach Chris Mack, the Musketeers haven't exactly fallen off. They beat Cincinnati and have more-than-respectable losses to Kansas State, Butler and Marquette. The Baylor loss? Not quite as respectable but here's the mystery: Will X make it to the NCAA tourney? The Musketeers haven't missed since the 2004-05 season.

[+] EnlargeBobby Lutz
AP Photo/Timothy D. EasleyBobby Lutz has Charlotte off to a 9-1 start that includes a blowout win at Louisville.

Best player: Shamari Spears, Charlotte. The Boston College transfer has been everything the 49ers hoped for and more. He's averaging 18.5 points per game. The only time he hasn't reached double figures was against Louisville … and his team didn't need him anyway.

Top performance: Terrell Holloway, Xavier. In the Crosstown Shootout double-overtime victory against Cincinnati, the sophomore scored 26 points and hit a critical 11 of 11 shots from the free throw line. More impressive, in a game where keeping your poise was as critical as scoring points, the playmaking point guard directed the Musketeers with aplomb.

Strangest score: Butler 69, Xavier 68. The final score wasn't as strange as how the two teams got there. When Gordon Hayward scored to give the Bulldogs the lead, everyone in the building, on the benches and in the television audience thought there was 1.2 seconds left. And then, in a review long enough to dictate health care reform, officials determined that the clock had inadvertently stopped for 1.3 seconds earlier in the possession and called the game over. By the letter of the law it was the right decision but it was a bitter pill to digest, tarnishing what had been a great game.

What you might not have realized: St. Bonaventure might have one of the best-kept secrets in Andrew Nicholson. The sophomore forward is averaging 15.3 points and 7.4 rebounds per game. He put up 26 on St. John's and 18 on Syracuse.

Reason to brag: The Atlantic 10 already has collected its fair share of BCS wins this season: Boston College (Rhode Island), Georgia Tech (by Dayton); Louisville (by Charlotte); Cincinnati (by Xavier); Providence (by Rhode Island); Mississippi State, Missouri and Florida (all by Richmond); and Seton Hall and Villanova (by Temple) all have fallen victim to A-10 foes.

Reason to worry: The A-10 hasn't received more than four NCAA tournament bids since 1998, which means the deep league will have to break precedent this season.

Who's going dancing: Can the A-10 really put five teams in the NCAA tournament? Just maybe. Certainly Dayton, Richmond, Temple and Charlotte have legit arguments right now, what with their quality wins over high-major opponents. Rhode Island lacks the splashy name but certainly could push for consideration and even Xavier, courtesy of its win over Cincinnati and heartbreaker against Butler, has a case.

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

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