January 3, 2008

Atlantic 10 steps into national spotlight

The biggest storyline of the season so far belongs to another stellar crop of freshmen. But the biggest surprise belongs to a conference that has forced itself onto the national radar.

The Atlantic 10 was expected to be much improved, but nobody predicted this kind of start for a league that for years has despised being lumped together with other mid-major conferences.

Four A-10 schools are ranked in the top 25 of the most recent RPI (http://www.kenpom.com/rpi.php): Dayton (No. 7), Rhode Island (No. 13), Xavier (No. 14) and Massachusetts (No. 22). That's more than all six of the "major" conferences. The ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12 and SEC each have three teams in the 25 while the Pac-10 has just one.

It's the A-10's performance against college basketball's big boys that has led directly to its lofty status. Dayton (12-1) and Rhode Island (14-1) are a combined 5-0 against opponents from the Big East, including the Flyers' 80-55 thrashing of Pittsburgh (11-1) on Saturday.

UMass (11-2), which is riding a six-game winning streak after a comeback win over Houston on Wednesday, has road wins at Syracuse and Boston College . Xavier (10-3), the preseason league favorite, gave No. 11 Indiana (11-1) its only loss of the season with a convincing 80-65 win Nov. 24.

"Anybody who thinks we are a 'mid-major' can't do the math," A-10 commissioner Linda Bruno said. "Our top schools can beat anybody on any given night."

Another major reason for the league's facelift is the dramatic improvement of two of the league's previous bottom feeders. Duquesne (10-3) has nearly matched its 10-win total from last season and is off to its best start since 1979-80. St. Bonaventure (5-8) is two victories away from its win total from last season.

Bruno and a host of A-10 coaches say they saw a breakthrough season coming despite the fact that the league's RPI was closer to the Ivy League than the Missouri Valley Conference last season. An extraordinary amount of veterans were returning, with most of the league's top programs bringing back the bulk of their starting lineups.

"We have been young for a few years now, so we expected a good year," Bruno said. "I'm really not surprised. This is where we are supposed to be. We are a big conference."

Some daunting non-conference schedules back Bruno's claims.

Xavier, coming off a run to the second round of the 2007 NCAA Tournament, has faced five BCS-league teams (Indiana, Cincinnati, Arizona State, Tennessee and Kansas State) and will play two others (Virginia and Auburn) before league play begins.

Charlotte, off to an 8-4 start following an uncharacteristic 14-16 campaign, has faced two ACC teams (they lost to Georgia Tech and beat Wake Forest) and will face two more (Maryland and Clemson). The 49ers also have beaten Davidson and Southern Illinois, two mid-majors that reached the 2007 NCAA Tournament.

While the Atlantic 10 is enjoying a breakthrough season, many mid-major conferences are struggling. Here's a look at how many NCAA Tournament bids they can expect to receive.
Atlantic-10 4-5 Dayton and Rhode Island each have shot at a top-four seed.
Colonial 1-2 2006 Cinderella George Mason has bounced back.
Conference USA 1-2 Rest of league is falling even farther behind Memphis.
Horizon 1-2 Butler is an NCAA lock again. Bulldogs have beaten 5 BCS-league foes.
Missouri Valley 2-3 MVC is slipping. Even Southern Illinois may miss Big Dance.
Mountain West 1-2 Getting two bids will be tough. Non-conference resumes are weak.
WAC 1 WAC is way down, slipping to No. 19 in RPI conference ratings.
West Coast 1-2 St. Mary's emergence could make the WCC a multiple-bid league.
Dayton landed a home game with Pitt, visited Louisville (the Flyers won 70-65) and also has road games at Miami University and Holy Cross, schools consistently in the hunt for NCAA Tournament bids.

Rhode Island, which already was facing Providence and Boston College, added a road trip to Syracuse and entered the Glenn Wilkes Invitational in Daytona Beach, Fla., where the Rams knocked off the Big East's USF Bulls.

"There was a conscious effort to improve everybody's schedule," Rhode Island seventh-year coach Jim Baron said. "We expected a lot of teams to win a lot of games. This league is as strong as it has ever been."

Rhode Island certainly was among the A-10 teams with high expectations. The Rams returned four starters from a 19-win team that reached the finals of the 2007 Atlantic 10 Tournament.

Two of those returning starters are forward Will Daniels, who was on the preseason A-10 first team, and the coach's son, Jimmy Baron, who ranked fourth in the nation in 3-point field-goal percentage at 47.8 percent last season. Daniels (18.9 points per game) and Baron (15.2 points) have raised their scoring averages this season. But the big surprise has been the play of senior point guard Parfait Bitee, who is dishing out 5.3 assists a game while posting a 2.1 assist-to-turnover ratio. Bitee, a native of Cameroon, also has become a better outside shooter. He has made 49 percent of his 3-point attempts after making just 30.2 percent last season. That's even better than Baron, who is shooting 44.2 percent from beyond the arc.

"I think (Bitee) is the most improved player in the league," Jim Baron said. "He's put a lot of time into his shooting. He's been one of the best defensive players the last couple years, and he's doing a great job running the team."

Dayton also had NCAA Tournament aspirations thanks to the return of senior guard Brian Roberts, who was the league's top returning scorer (18.5 points per game) from a team that won 19 games. The Flyers, which survived a double-overtime thriller against Akron on Wednesday night, were also excited about the addition of freshman power forward Chris Wright, a four-star recruit who turned down scholarship offers from numerous Big Ten schools.

Roberts is shooting 50.3 percent from the field while saving his best performances for the biggest games. He scored 28 points against Louisville, then put up a career-high 31 against Pitt.

Wright scored 22 points in his first game, a 78-74 win over East Tennessee State, and ranks second on the team in scoring (11.7 points) and first in rebounding (6.6 per game).

UMass' emergence has been surprising. The Minutemen were picked eighth in the league preseason poll, but third-year coach Travis Ford didn't feel slighted.

"I was happy to be picked eighth in the preseason poll," Ford said. "Even though I knew we could possibly be better than that, we lost a lot of scoring and rebounding so it was very understandable. We only had two guys coming back who had played significant minutes."

The Minutemen lost A-10 Player of the Year Stephane Lasme (second-round NBA pick) and Rashaun Freeman, two big men who carried them to a 24-win season and a share of the league's 2007 regular-season title. Lasme and Freeman combined to average 28.2 points and 17.8 rebounds last season.

With that duo gone, UMass has become a smaller, quicker team. Ford wanted a team in the mold of the lightning-fast Kentucky squads he played on under Rick Pitino in the early 1990s.

The new, more trigger-happy Minutemen set a record for most points scored by an opponent in the Carrier Dome with a 107-100 win over Syracuse. They are averaging 84.1 points, compared to 77.3 last season.

"We changed our style of play drastically," Ford said. "Obviously last year we played to our strength, which was getting the ball inside. We are much more up-tempo now. We have a handful of rangy guys who are 6-foot-5 to 6-foot-7. They can shoot, drive and do a lot of different things. This is a fun team to coach."

Senior wing Gary Forbes (6-7) has excelled in the new system. Forbes, who transferred from Virginia two years ago when the Cavaliers made a coaching change, has scored in double figures in all 12 games and is averaging a league-high 20.9 points while averaging a team-high 8.0 rebounds and adding 3.6 assists per game.

Sophomore guard Ricky Harris has been one of the nation's most improved players, going from a little-known reserve to one of the league's most dangerous scorers. Harris has raised his scoring average to 19.2 points per game from 4.5.

"Ricky got a little frustrated last year, but I told him then that next year would be his year," Ford said. "I didn't think he would average 20 points a game, but he was always scoring a lot in practice and he turns the corner about as well as anyone I have coached."

UMass' fast start has put Ford in the early mix for national coach of the year honors.

"Coach Ford has done a tremendous job," Bruno said. "He has a particularly tough job because of UMass going to the Final Four (in 1996). People there have tasted great success, and they want it again."

The A-10's early success also has led to the popular question of how many NCAA Tournament bids the league can expect. Bruno believes four is within reach.

"I think we would have four teams if the (NCAA Tournament) selection committee met tomorrow," Bruno said. "But it's all talk at this point. Conference play will determine a lot. Everybody knows that Saint Joseph's (7-4) will be one of the top teams at the end of the season. A lot can change in a short period of time."

Nothing is better proof of that than A-10. The league that had slipped behind others in the mid-major hierarchy is challenging the notion that it doesn't belong alongside the best conferences in the nation.

Andrew Skwara is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at askwara@rivals.com.


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