St. Louis University is the defending Atlantic 10 champion, of the regular season and the conference tournament. But if SLU finished as the clear-cut best team in the league last season, the Billikens did not start it that way and they aren’t starting this season that way, even if they do have the bulk of last season’s team back.
They have won seven straight, and their only two losses so far are by six points to Wisconsin and five points to Wichita State, teams that are undefeated and ranked fourth and sixth, respectively, in this week’s Associated Press poll. It would not take any great rewriting of history to picture the Billikens as being undefeated.
And yet, the Billikens (13-2) no longer are the darlings of the Atlantic 10, in many quarters not even the favorite.
No. 19 Massachusetts, with a 12-1 record and wins over Louisiana State, Nebraska, New Mexico, Clemson, Brigham Young and Providence, is the only Atlantic 10 team in the national rankings, the team that has become the league favorite in the eyes of many.
If there’s any consensus about the Atlantic 10 this season, however, it’s that there is no consensus.
It could be SLU. It could be UMass. It could be Virginia Commonwealth or George Washington or Dayton.
Fordham coach Tom Pecora, on the league’s weekly conference call, listed every team in the league except his own — probably out of modesty —and Duquesne as being quality teams.
“There’s not a lot of separation, from the top spot down to seven, eight or nine,” said UMass coach Derek Kellogg, who expressed a bit of surprise over his team’s nonconference success.
“A very good team is going to finish 10th or 11th,” La Salle coach John Giannini said.
It’s always worthwhile to start any look at the Atlantic 10 with a quick refresher course.
This year, the math is 16-4+1=13. Last year, the league had 16 teams. Four of them, Temple, Xavier, Butler and Charlotte, left for other leagues. (Xavier and Butler to the streamlined Big East, Temple to the Atlantic Coast, Charlotte to Conference USA.) One team, George Mason, joined the league, bringing the total to 13. (A 14th team, Davidson, waits to join next season.)
While the teams that left were heavyweights, accounting for 12 of the league’s 21 NCAA bids over the past six seasons, those teams finished third, fifth, seventh and ninth in 2013, meaning that much of what made the league strong last season still is on hand.
A strong set of wins on the final weekend of the nonconference season pushed the A-10’s league RPI up to sixth best in the nation (ahead of the Southeastern Conference).
Along with the Big Ten, it’s the only league to have five teams with 12 wins. Five A-10 teams are in the top 50 of current RPI projections.
So if there’s not the sizzle that the addition of Butler and Virginia Commonwealth brought last season, there’s still a good quality to the league, which at present is projected to get at least three teams to the NCAA Tournament.
Last season, SLU was an irresistible story, as the team drove on in the wake of the illness and death of coach Rick Majerus. Jim Crews back then was interim coach Jim Crews, a guy with no guarantee of getting the job. Now, SLU is just another team, and one that had two chances to prove itself in nonconference play and slipped both times.
“We’re very pleased” with the nonconference season, Crews said. “We did extremely good. Winning on the road (where the team was 4-0) is very good. Our team has handled nothing like last year’s adversity, but each season brings adversity and we’ve handled things here and there. We’ve had different guys hurt, but nothing like Kwamain (Mitchell) last year. … I’m proud of what we’ve done in the nonconference season.”
It’s easy to forget that there were issues last year too, possibly even bigger ones that only got bigger when SLU lost, at home, to Rhode Island. (Even Rhode Island coach Dan Hurley marveled Monday at his team’s win. “We made some ridiculously difficult shots,” he said.)
This year, the crisis point is the team’s erratic offense, though its defense has been dependably strong. At this point a year ago, SLU still was two weeks away from going on the 11-game winning streak that defined its season.
“Every season,” Crews said, “you really should judge the season when the season is over, when all the pieces to the puzzle are there. This season is a long season. There will always be ups and downs throughout the season. Last year, we struggled out of the gate in conference play. We struggled out of the gate the first five or six nonconference games last year. You keep moving forward and see where it ends up.”
“We were close against Wichita State and Wisconsin and those are two we wish we could have gotten,” forward Dwayne Evans said recently. “To only have two losses … that’s a pretty good spot.”
The A-10 season begins today, with SLU playing at Rhode Island. It ends March 9, when SLU plays at UMass.
There’s a good chance that only then will it be safe to judge who’s best in the Atlantic 10.