Atlantic 10 Tournament Primer

Dan Hurley URI

The Atlantic 10 Tournament Championship tips off this week at its 2016-17 home, PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, PA. It’s where the Pittsburgh Penguins reside and promises to provide an ultra-modern, top-notch experience from the concourse to the court. Here’s some info and story lines to track as the signature event for this top eight league in the country unfolds:

Will it be 3?

The Atlantic 10 may not be a Power 5 conference, but don’t insult it by calling it a mid-major. It’s anything but, averaging three NCAA Tournament bids over the past several years. This season, three teams are once again in the at-large bid discussion.

The Dayton Flyers finished the regular season 24-6 and 15-3 in the Atlantic 10, earning the conference’s regular season crown. Archie Miller guided his club through tragedy last off-season (when big Steve McElvene, a promising young center, collapsed and passed away). The club carries his spirit and demonstrates great unity in accomplishing great things to date. Dayton is No. 21 in the RPI rankings and is a lock for its fourth consecutive NCAA Tournament berth. Still, its four talented seniors, Scoochie Smith, Charles Cooke, Kendall Pollard and Kyle Davis would love to stack an A10 tournament championship on top of their regular season one. Then more Madness awaits.

VCU sits at 24-7 overall and finished 14-4 in conference play, good for an outright second place finish. The Rams own one of only four wins all season over the best team you may not have heard of, Middle Tennessee State (27-4), and flash impressive depth with nine players averaging at least 11 minutes a game. Led by senior big-shot maker JeQuan Lewis (14.6ppg, 4.7apg), imposing pivot presence Mo Alie-Cox (10ppg, 2.2bpg), and junior jumping jack Justin Tillman (12.8ppg, 8.4rpg), the Rams should hear their named called on Selection Sunday, particularly given their pedigree and lofty No. 23 RPI.

But the $64,000 question (or 68 these days I suppose) is whether another set of Rams joins the Flyers and VCU Rams in the NCAA Tournament. That group would be Rhode Island (21-9, 13-5), led by Dan Hurley in his fifth season at the helm. Hurley’s squad finished the season strong with five straight victories, including Ws over VCU and Davidson… and boasts the strongest non-conference schedule of any Atlantic 10 team. Rhody also engineered a neutral court win over No. 15 Cincinnati (27-4) and is No. 42 in the RPI, but has a couple of head-scratching losses.

If you’re the northern Rams, the goal is to remove as much discretion as possible from the selection committee, and that means winning two in Pittsburgh as far as I’m concerned. If the chalk holds, URI will face a good St. Bonaventure team in the quarterfinals before a stern test versus Dayton (if the Flyers beat either Davidson or La Salle in the quarters). Win both and Rhode Island should be in. Win one and lose to Dayton in the semis and it’s bullet-sweating time. Fortunately, senior forward Hassan Martin (14ppg, 7.1rpg) seems intent on willing his team into a bracket. The Atlantic 10’s leading shot blocker for the past four seasons (2.67bpg in 2016-17) is the most impactful two way player in the league and will factor heavily into whether the Atlantic 10 can lock up three bids.

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Intriguing Thursday matchup. Here’s the Atlantic 10 Bracket. In the 7/10 game on Thursday, George Mason (19-12, 9-9) faces 10th seed Fordham (13-18, 7-11). Dave Paulsen has done a wonderful job rebuilding GMU and the team features a blend of emerging young stars and productive vets like all-conference senior guard Marquise Moore (17.4ppg, 10.5rpg). As good as they’ve been, the Patriots narrowly escaped Fordham a few weeks back, turning it over 18 times at home against the frenetic, irregular defensive looks that make prepping for, and playing against, Fordham a nightmare. Beyond taking it away, which Jeff Neubauer’s Rams do as well as any team in the country, Fordham speeds teams up and forces them to take out-of-rhythm shots, which effects spacing, defensive retreat and transition defense. This one could be close, so tune in to NBCSN at 6pm on Thursday evening.

Guard worth the price of admission.

  • Jack Gibbs, Senior – Davidson: 22ppg, 4.1rpg, 4.3apg. Though the Davidson Wildcats did not replicate the conference success of their first two A10 regular seasons, don’t let this year’s 15-14, 8-10 record and ninth seed lull you to sleep. The ‘Cats are dangerous. And Gibbs is the tone-setter. No guard in the conference changes speeds better and is more unpredictable. Don’t play the “assumption” game when defending Gibbs. He’ll pull up early in the shot clock if the look is right, drive it when opponents least expect, and can flat carry a team better than any other guard in the conference.

Forward worth the price of admission.

  • T.J. Cline, Senior – Richmond: 18.6ppg, 8.1rpg, 5.7apg. The Atlantic 10 Player of the Year, Cline is magnificent with the ball in his hands, whether in isolation situations or facilitating the offense from the high post. The Atlantic 10’s most offensively skilled big, Cline helped lead Richmond (19-11, 13-5) to a third place regular season finish and finished second in the conference in assists per game, absurd when considering the droves of great guards in the league. Watching Cline play is a basketball purists dream. Don’t miss the chance.

A few more nuggets and superlatives.

  • Hottest teams entering the tournament – URI and GW (5 consecutive wins each)
  • Best guard in crunch time – Scoochie Smith, Dayton
  • Freak on the glass – Justin Tillman, VCU
  • Best glider off the bounce – E.C. Matthews, Rhode Island
  • Top guard tandem – Jaylen Adams & Matt Mobley, St. Bonaventure
  • Most underappreciated pivot man – Tyler Cavanaugh, GW
  • Most disruptive perimeter defender – Joseph Chartouny, Fordham
  • A10 Tourney breakout candidate – Xeyrius Williams, Dayton
  • Freshmen to watch – De’Monte Buckingham, Richmond; Mike Lewis II, Duquesne
  • Best pep bands – (tie) VCU’s “The Peppas” and George Mason’s “Green Machine”

Here’s where to watch…

The tourney tips Wednesday with the lowest four seeds: (11) Saint Louis/(14) Duquesne, (12)UMass/Saint Joseph’s(13) doing battle — find these two tilts on the American Sports Network beginning at 6pm. Cascading channel coverage then kicks in, with the second round and quarterfinals set for NBC Sports Network on Thursday and Friday. Saturday’s semifinals will take place on CBS College Sports Network and the Championship game will be broadcast on CBS at 12:30pm Selection Sunday.