One year after five Atlantic 10 teams advanced to the third round of the NCAA tournament, the mid-major conference entered the 2013-14 basketball season with lowered expectations.
A victim of conference realignment, the A-10 lost Butler University, Xavier University, Temple University and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte this past offseason and welcomed in former Colonial Athletic Association member George Mason University. But while four of its top-eight teams moved on, the conference has arguably managed to improve. And a handful of immensely talented guards playing for some nationally-competitive teams are the main reason why.
Less than one month into the schedule, the A-10 can already claim three victories against top-25 opponents. VCU’s Nov. 12 victory at No. 25 University of Virginia got things started, and the University of Massachusetts followed with a win against No. 19 University of New Mexico on Nov. 22 before the University of Dayton took care of No. 11 Gonzaga University on Nov. 25.
Led by senior standout guard Chaz Williams, the Minutemen of Amherst, Mass. are the A-10’s early cinderella story. En route to an undefeated 6-0 record, U.Mass. has notched impressive victories against Boston College, Louisiana State University and Clemson University to complement its upset against the Lobos.
However, the Flyers are making a case to join U.Mass. among the nation’s top-ranked teams. Dayton made some noise at the Maui Invitational last week by knocking off head coach Mark Few’s 11th-ranked Bulldogs before falling just short against No. 18 Baylor University on Nov. 26. Head coach Archie Miller’s team also has victories against Georgia Tech and the University of California to bulk up its early resume.
Last season’s conference champion Saint Louis University has also started the season well. The Billikens, whose only two losses this season were close affairs with top-15 teams, own the A-10’s top scoring defense. Saint Louis allows an average of just 58 points per game, five points fewer than second-ranked St. Bonaventure.
VCU, the preseason conference favorite, picked up an early resume-builder in Charlottesville, Va. the second week of the season, but dropped from the top-25 with a pair of losses at the Puerto Rico Tip-Off in late November.
The Rams were exposed against Florida State University before taking care of business against Long Beach State and falling short against Georgetown University on Nov. 24. Though head coach Shaka Smart’s team leads the nation in steals per game, poor shooting has been a factor early in the season.
An improved George Washington University squad, who picked up an overtime victory against the University of Miami on Nov. 28, is also deserving of mention. The Colonials fell to No. 25 Marquette on Nov. 29, but enter the month of December with a single loss to a quality opponent. George Washington took on No. 20 Creighton University on Sunday, Dec. 1, but the result was not final as of press time.
Altogether, the A-10 arguably boasts four or five teams with top-25 potential. And the common denominator among those squads is formidable guard play.
Williams leads the group of talented guards after passing up an opportunity to play professional basketball in Turkey a season ago. The 5-foot-9 Brooklyn, N.Y. native is an undersized scorer, who averages nearly 16 points per game for his career with the Minutemen.
Juniors Briante Weber and Jordan Sibert have helped VCU and Dayton earn heaps of national attention in the early-going respectively. Weber, a versatile combo-guard who leads the nation in steals per game, was averaging 11 points, 4 rebounds and 4 assists a contest through seven games. Sibert, on the other hand, is more of a natural scorer. The Junior, who netted 23 points in Dayton’s upset against Gonzaga, leads the Flyers with 14 points a game.
Saint Louis’ Jordair Jett and GW’s Maurice Creek are a pair of senior guards who also make significant contributions for their respective teams. Each averages at least 10 points per game and more than three rebounds a contest. Creek’s 16 points per game ranks 12th in the A-10.
Moving forward, the next few weeks are going to help determine whether the A-10 continues its emergence as one of the country’s premier basketball conferences. If the Minutemen can escape a Dec. 21 matchup against the FSU Seminoles and VCU and Dayton continue their winning ways, don’t be surprised if the conference enters January with at least three ranked teams.
VCU looks to to take care of business against a pair of Atlantic Coast Conference opponents in Virginia Tech and Boston College in late December, but neither the Rams nor the Flyers face serious challenges in the immediate future.
Injuries and inter-conference matchups will play a major factor, but if the A-10’s top teams maintain their current pace, the conference could receive at least five NCAA tournament bids for the second straight season.