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Full-Court Press: A land of Davids
By Lucas Gulotta, Associate College Basketball Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - March Madness tends to produce a run or two in the NCAA Tournament by teams that seemingly came out of nowhere.
This season, it is highly likely at least one of those uplifting underdog stories will trace back to the Atlantic 10, which currently harbors nine teams with at least 10 wins against just three with losing records. Despite the quantity of victories, it is the quality of them is even more impressive.
The A-10 was one of the top mid-major leagues in the NCAA last season as Temple, Saint Louis, St. Bonaventure and Xavier all reached the Big Dance. While the Bonnies and Musketeers may not return to the NCAA Tournament after losing so much of the talent that took them there a year ago, the additions of Virginia Commonwealth and Butler along with the drastic improvement of Charlotte has made the conference very deep.
The 16 member schools combined for a 141-78 non-conference record (.643 winning percentage) before league play opened up this week. Last season, the A-10 programs finished the non-conference with a combined 139-94 (.597) record.
Butler has a starring role in its first season in the league. Brad Stevens has a uniquely calm approach to coaching his 14th-ranked Bulldogs. Butler produced what may have been the biggest upset of the season in a very unlikely manner as a 5-foot-11 walk-on guard, Alex Barlow, hit a game-winning shot in the closing seconds to lift the team to a thrilling overtime victory of the then- No. 1 Indiana Hoosiers on Dec. 15.
The Bulldogs have a very nice balance with senior guard Rotnei Clark at the head of the charge. If Butler gets through its inaugural tour of the league without a significant collapse and arrives in the Big Dance once again, a familiar story may unfold, as evidenced by the team's victories already over Marquette, North Carolina, Indiana, Northwestern and Vanderbilt.
Although it did not count toward their league record, the Bulldogs were upset themselves earlier in the year as they suffered a 15-point loss to Xavier. Chris Mack's Musketeers have failed to knock off any major conference schools, but they appear to be developing chemistry with Semaj Christon rapidly developing a strong A-10 freshman of the year award resume. The rookie guard poured in 16 points as Xavier managed to clip Temple by five points on Thursday night in its A-10 opener.
Fran Dunphy's Owls may have been disappointed on Thursday, but they have plenty to be optimistic about after taking down a Goliath themselves this season. Senior point guard Khalif Wyatt exploded for 33 points as Temple handed Syracuse its first loss in a four-point affair at Madison Square Garden.
The Owls nearly upset Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse on Jan. 6 behind a 26-point showing from Wyatt, who opened up his conference season with a 2-of-11 showing from the floor.
Wyatt will not be the only player to experience an off-night or two during the conference season. As teams become more familiar with common opponents, weaknesses tend to be exposed.
There have been a handful of other unexpected decisions involving A-10 programs this season. Saint Louis handled New Mexico (60-46), Massachusetts notched victories over Providence (77-75) and Ohio University (85-76), and Phil Martelli's Saint Joseph's Hawks earned an early season overtime triumph over Notre Dame (79-70). Even two of the three schools with losing records took down foes from power conferences as Duquesne beat West Virginia and Rhode Island earned its first win of the season by outlasting Auburn in a double- overtime thriller.
Dayton has exhibited solid play all season long due to Kevin Dillard's tremendous work as the starting point. The Flyers tallied victories over Boston College, Alabama and mid-major power Murray State before suffering a 12-point setback at VCU on Wednesday.
Shaka Smart's Rams are 1-2 versus ranked opposition as they faced Memphis, Duke and Missouri on consecutive days in the Battle 4 Atlantis. VCU defeated Memphis by 13, but its hard-fought losses to the Blue Devils and Missouri may have indicated even further how tough Smart's team will be in a one-game playoff scenario for anyone.
The Rams later completed a rout of Alabama at home as they showed off their pin-point accuracy from beyond the arc in addition to a suffocating approach to defense. Troy Daniels has been the guiding light as of late with a 21.6-point average and 34 makes from long distance over the span of his last five outings. The Rams are likely to crack the Top 25 if they continue their 10-game winning streak through the weekend.
The hot hand of Daniels helped him become the conference's player of the week on Monday. Due to the extreme depth of the conference, 10 different players have won the award in nine weeks, as Dillard and La Salle's Tyreek Duren shared the honor on Dec. 10.
There is still plenty to be decided in the A-10 as it currently is in the infancy stages of its conference season. Saint Joseph's was picked as the preseason favorite to win the league, but it has yet to live up to the expectations despite a very talented roster.
While Butler and VCU appear to be the most powerful of the bunch right now, their positions in the national polls will stamp a bull's-eye on their backs as they each make their inaugural trips through what looks to be a litter full of feisty underdogs.
01/11 09:56:01 ET
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