By: Tony Del Fiacco, KCOU Sports
The Atlantic 10 Conference tournament kicks off Wednesday evening at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, NY. For the last few seasons, the A-10 has raised a pretty convincing argument that it is one of the best leagues in Division I outside the Power 5 Conferences, if not one of the five best leagues overall. In a 2014 NCAA tournament wherein a 7-seed met an 8-seed in the championship, it was 11th-seeded Dayton whose surprise Elite Eight run made them the tournament’s darlings. Shaka Smart’s VCU Rams remain as relevant as ever. UMass and Saint Louis may have regressed from their tournament-worthy forms in 2013-14—with the Billikens dropping all the way from first to worst in the regular season standings—but new teams with potential to make noise this month (Richmond, Rhode Island, George Washington) have emerged in their place. And Davidson was leaps and bounds better than all of them this year.
Let’s get to it.
It’s hard to argue against the outright A-10 champions’ case. Like the last Davidson squad (2007-08) to crack the Top 25, this year’s ‘Cats are an offensive juggernaut: 80.6 ppg, 17.4 apg, 47.6 FG%. Star guard Jack Gibbs is back from a slight meniscus tear suffered in January, which spells plenty of trouble for the field: two of Davidson’s just four losses at full strength this season include ACC titans Virginia and UNC. Another, to VCU, was avenged March 5 in an 82-55 drubbing. Furthermore, they have the A-10 Conference Player of the Year in Tyler Kalinoski (16.9 ppg, 4.2 apg, 5.7 rpg, 43.3% FG%.) Not bad for the newcomers from the Southern Conference that preseason polls slotted at 12th place out of 14, right?
Archie Miller’s team isn’t tall, with no scholarship players over 6-6 since Devon Scott and Jalen Robinson’s dismissal back in December. But what they suddenly lacked in size, they had more than enough to make up for it in talent, finishing 2nd overall. Jordan Silbert (16.6 ppg) is the one to watch for in a Flyers uniform this weekend.
Rhode Island Rams
The best of the A-10’s three “Rams” teams, Dan Hurley’s URI squad is shooting for what would be the school’s first trip to the Big Dance since 1999. Their win over then 22nd-ranked Nebraska in December pins to their resume a big win over a ranked out-of-conference opponent, an accomplishment neither Davidson nor Dayton can claim for themselves. EC Matthews is probably the most NBA-ready player in the league and a sexy pick for tournament MVP should Tyler Kalinoski & Co. fall short of the title.
As long as Shaka Smart stands on their sidelines, it seems the Commonwealth will always have a chance to reign atop this conference. However, getting swept by Richmond, which cost them the tournament’s fourth seed and two byes, was concerning. So was their dropping three of their last four games, including the aforementioned 27-point loss to Davidson. But if you’re willing to focus on their worst losses, so should you on their best wins. So their 71-65 win over full-strength Davidson on Jan. 7 and 92-87 double overtime win over nationally #10th-ranked Northern Iowa on Dec. 13 are nothing to scoff at.
The Spiders boast arguably the league’s most dangerous backcourt combination in Kendall Anthony and Shawn’Dre Jones. (A five-foot-single-digit guy named Anthony? I like him already.) Those two, combined with a possibly favorable quarterfinal matchup with a VCU team they swept, could be enough to guarantee a deep run in this tourney for Richmond.
SEMIFINAL AND CHAMPIONSHIP PICKS
Davidson over VCU
Rhode Island over Dayton
Davidson over Rhode Island
Tip-off for the tournament opener, Fordham vs. George Mason, is at 5:30 pm CT this evening. You can catch the games on the A-10 Network or SNY if you somehow have either network here in Columbia.