By Alex Crow
Like just about every other conference this season, the A-10 has seen its share of ups and downs. We saw Richmond travel to Rupp Arena and knock off a then-No. 10 Kentucky team, only to have Kentucky rapidly show the world the potential issues of relying on one-and-done culture, now sitting on the outside looking in in most bracket projections. We also saw Travis Ford’s Saint Louis Billikens start the season on a seven game winning streak, before then going on to play just one game in the month of January en route to finishing 13-5. Finally, there are teams like St. Bonaventure, the number one seed in the A-10 Tournament, who played just two non-conference games, leaving nearly all of their resume up to the rest of the conference. With the conference tournament being bumped up to starting on Wednesday, March 3, I wanted to provide my thoughts on the Contenders, Impact Players, and a potential Dark Horse capable of making noise this week
While every team will have the opportunity to compete, these three teams should be considered the favorites in a very balanced A-10:
The Bonnies have paced the A-10 with 11 conference wins, on the way to a 13-4 overall record, giving them the top-seed in the A-10 Tournament, a finishing a ½ game ahead of the 2nd place VCU Rams. Due to a lack of non-conference game, nothing jumps off the page about St. Bonaventure’s resume, with only a road win vs. Akron and conference wins against Richmond, VCU, and Davidson (Twice). Despite this lack of resume, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has the Bonnies in the tournament as an 11-seed and the designated automatic qualifier, meaning to project them as the tournament winner (this could change, as St. Bonaventure fell in their last regular season game vs. Dayton on Monday).
The bottom line is that St. Bonaventure has taken care of business in-conference and has a great 1-2 punch of guard play in Kyle Lofton and Jaren Holmes. They both average just under 15 points per game, with Lofton adding 5 assists per game and Holmes shooting 45% from beyond the arc. Add in the Bonnies other three double-digit scorers and you have an offense that is capable of hanging with anyone in the A-10, especially when you factor in that the Bonnies lead the conference in scoring defense, with opponents averaging just 61 points per game. They defend the 3-point line better than anyone in the conference while also pacing the A-10 in 3-point field goal percentage. The Bonnies have flown under-the-radar in the national media this season but are capable of making noise when their offense is humming.
Shaka Smart has long since moved on from VCU, but this is a vintage Rams team that harkens back to that era of greatness in Richmond. The 2020-21 Rams have gone back to their roots of frantic defense, forcing opponents into mistakes. VCU opponents average nearly 18 turnovers per game, which is one of the driving forces in KenPom having VCU ranked 14th in points per 100 possessions (90.3). While their offense lags significantly behind their defensive metrics, only scoring 106 points per 100 (122nd), any time you force teams into as many turnovers as the Rams do, you have a chance to manufacture easy baskets while disrupting the opponent’s rhythm.
As good as their defense is, the Rams can only go as far as Nah’Shon Hyland, who averages 19 points and 2 steals per game, takes them. He is second in the A-10 in scoring and will need to play big for the Rams to try and secure their spot in the NCAA Tournament. Lunardi currently has VCU as a 10-seed, as a member of the last four byes. Unlike many teams in the A-10, VCU has an opportunity to get an at-large bid, should they not win the A-10 Tournament. But VCU, who knocked off Utah State, Memphis, and James Madison (a projected tournament team!) in non-conference before beating St. Bonaventure, Saint Louis, Richmond and sweeping Dayton in A-10 play, should be considered a favorite to win the A-10 title.
Of the teams mentioned in this “Contenders’ section, Davidson is the only team that will be coming off of a win going into the conference tournament, with the Wildcats having not dropped a game to a team not named St. Bonaventure since early January. Davidson has done a great job this season of not losing bad games in conference, while also managing to knock off VCU in the last game of the season. With an offense averaging 113 points per 100 possessions (26th, KenPom), Davidson can hang with even the most ferocious defenses, capitalizing on the fact that they only commit about 10 turnovers per game, good enough for 2nd in the A-10. They also do a phenomenal job of keeping opponents off the glass, allowing opponents to grab the fewest rebounds per game in the conference. On offense, the Wildcats are led by Kellan Grady, a senior guard averaging 17 points per game while shooting nearly 40% from 3. He will need to channel some Stephen Curry magic to get Davidson into the tournament, as Davidson will likely have to win the A-10 tournament to punch a ticket to Indy.
Dark Horse: Saint Louis
Despite cooling off after a hot 7-0 start out of the gates, don’t underestimate the Billikens’ chances to win the A-10 Tournament. They have not been able to string many consecutive victories together, which is the name of the conference tournament game, but Saint Louis is a team that rebounds better than anyone in the conference and has a respectable ranking of 50 in the NET, 41 in KenPom. With hometown kid Javonte Perkins leading a top-50 offense (111.2 points per 100, KenPom) with 17 points per game, paired with a defense only allowing 94.6 points per 100, the Billikens have all the pieces to make a tournament run, they just haven’t been able to put it all together yet. It is now or never for the Billikens. Saint Louis is currently in Joe Lunardi’s Next Four Out, so the Billikens will probably need to win the A-10 to make it to the NCAA Tournament.
Two Honorable mentions for A-10 Dark Horse would be Dayton and Richmond. Dayton, one of the biggest losers regarding the canceled tournament last year has won a handful of good games but has just as many questionable losses. With Jalen Crutcher piloting the ship averaging 19 points and 5 assists, Dayton, who ended the season with a win on the road at St. Bonaventure, has the firepower to make a tournament run. I also mention Richmond who, going into their season finale versus 2-14 St. Joseph, was in Lunardi’s first four out. However, after falling 76-73 to the Hawks, a quad-4 loss, Richmond now finds itself in a position that they must win the A-10’s automatic bid in order to qualify for March Madness. Led by senior Blake Francis at 17 points per game, Richmond does not turn the ball over and will play with the desperate tenacity of a team on the wrong side of the bubble.
Wednesday, March 3
#12 LaSalle vs #13 St. Joseph
#11 George Washington vs #14 Fordham
Thursday, March 4
#8 Richmond vs #9 Dusquesne->Winner plays St. Bonaventure (Quarterfinals)
#5 Umass vs Winner of Lasalle/St. Joe->Winner plays #4 Saint Louis
#7 Dayton vs #10 Rhode Island->Winner plays #2 VCU
#6 George Mason vs Winner of GW/Fordham->Winner plays #3 Davidson
Quarterfinals Take place Friday, March 5, with St. Bonaventure, VCU, Davidson and Saint Louis receiving double-byes into the quarterfinals.
The A-10 Conference Tournament is taking place March 3-14, with the first round being played at Siegal arena in Richmond, followed by the second and third rounds split between both there and the Robins Center, also near Richmond. The Championship will take place at the University of Dayton Arena a week after the rest of the tournament.
Edited by Tyler Kading