Analysis: Atlantic 10 title not guaranteed for men’s hoops

Redshirt freshman Jordan Burgess has started the last seven games for head coach Shaka Smart, who has led the Rams to a 9-1 record since Nov. 29. Photo by Audry Dubon.

Sean Labar 
Contributing Writer

The VCU men’s basketball team entered the 2013-14 season as clear favorites to win the Atlantic 10 conference, and though that remains a possibility, it won’t be an easy road for head coach Shaka Smart and his youthful squad.

The strength of the A-10 has already exceeded preseason expectations. Xavier University and Temple University captured every A-10 regular-season title from 2007 to 2012; however, both have joined other conferences since. Butler University, a squad that has proven itself in postseason play, also departed for the Big East last March. The odds were clearly stacked against the conference this season.

Not a single A-10 team had a sub-.500 record when conference play began last Tuesday, Jan. 7. The University of Massachussetts, which sits atop conference standings entering the week, was ranked No. 19 in the nation, according to the AP top-25 poll released Monday Jan. 6. Saint Louis University received 19 votes to be ranked in the poll and George Washington University received nine votes. VCU was previously ranked as highly as 10th back in November.

There is good basketball being played from the top to the bottom in this conference. The second half of the season will be a challenge for the Rams, who have shown they can be prone to mistakes. They will have to establish themselves within the A-10 before they can think about making any sort of NCAA tournament run.

The first major test will be on Tuesday, Jan. 14 when VCU takes a road trip to GW. The Colonials (13-3) have an impressive win over Creighton on their resume and their three losses came to Marquette University, Kansas State University and La Salle University. The loss to La Salle (8-6) shows that GW has some weaknesses. VCU plays them twice this year and needs to come out with victories each time.

The Rams’ next major challenge will come on Jan. 22 when they make the trek to Dayton University. The Flyers (12-4) beat Gonzaga University, the University of California and the University of Mississippi, proving they can hang with some larger conference programs. If VCU can steal road victories against GW and Dayton, it will give them confidence as they prepare for a few of their toughest games to close out the regular season.

VCU’s toughest matchups will come during the final two months of the schedule. On Feb. 15, the Rams will travel to Saint Louis to take on the defending conference champion Billikens. Saint Louis topped VCU twice last season, including a 62-56 victory in the A-10 championship game. The Billikens (15-2) may be even better this season. They boast the seventh-best defense in the nation and their only two losses have come to No. 10 the University of Wisconsin and No. 12 Wichita State University. VCU will battle Saint Louis twice again this season and needs to find a way to win at least one of those games.

The Rams’ final test will come on Feb. 21 when they travel to U.Mass. The Minutemen (14-1) suffered their only loss to Florida State University, the same team that dominated VCU in Puerto Rico in November. U.Mass. also has an impressive victory over previously 19th-ranked University of New Mexico, strengthening their resume. VCU will have to find a way to contain senior point guard Chaz Williams, who is averaging 15.9 points and 7.6 assists per game. U.Mass. could easily walk away with the conference title. This will be quite the challenge for the Rams.

Though these are the matchups that Smart will surely highlight on his calendar, the A-10 has proven challenging and conference play is unpredictable.

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