Last season, it was my job to rank the Pac–12 during a downright depressing season for a once-mighty (and still to rise) West Coast hoops league. That assignment was occasionally -- how to put this politely -- a challenge.
I expect no such anguish with the Atlantic 10. Now in a one-time-only realignment-borne offer of 16 teams, easily half of which could conceivably make the NCAA tournament, this is going to be a very fun conference to rank. (I also get to rank the Big Ten. Not too shabby.)
Here’s the first edition.
1. Saint Joseph’s. Phil Martelli’s team was picked to win the conference in the preseason, and it has done little to disabuse us of that notion to date. The Hawks already own wins over Notre Dame and a slightly hampered Harvard, with the one loss coming to an athletic but hardly vintage Florida State team. The Hawks play foul-free defense and efficient offense, and they have the look of a contender.
2. VCU. It is tempting to put the Rams up top, and I suspect they’ll be there more often than not throughout these rankings, but I’m giving St. Joe’s the benefit of the doubt for now. (We have plenty of time, after all. No rush.) Simply put, Shaka Smart’s team is almost certainly the best three-loss team in the country -- deep, athletic, highly attuned to Smart’s pressing havoc style and every bit the equal of the teams (Wichita State, Duke, Missouri) it lost to in November. Look out for the Rams.
3. Butler. The Bulldogs came out in the first nonconference conference game -- a pre-existing road game at Xavier -- and looked just about as bad offensively as last season, which is saying something. Since then, things have perked up. Led by newcomers Rotnei Clarke and Kellen Dunham, Butler rediscovered its outside stroke in Maui, clawing out a thrilling win over Marquette and spanking a lost North Carolina.
4. Temple. It’s hard to get over the moon when a team’s win ledger reads Kent State, Rice, Delaware and Buffalo, but if you’ve seen Fran Dunphy’s team play, you’re aware how dangerous Scootie Randall and Khalif Wyatt are on the offensive end. This might not be Dunphy’s best side, but it will remain very much in the hunt throughout the season.
5. Saint Louis. It’s tough to rank Saint Louis too gently or harshly at this point. For one, the Billikens are still dealing with the loss of their coach, Rick Majerus, to ongoing serious health issues. They’re also fighting through an injury keeping their best player, guard Kwamain Mitchell, off the court. That helps explain Wednesday night’s blah loss at Washington (the Huskies didn’t play half-bad, either), as Saint Louis won’t really be whole until Mitchell returns.
6. Xavier. That ESPN Tip-Off Marathon game against Butler was a massacre. Xavier defended as well as possible, and Butler had no response. All of a sudden, an unrecognizable lineup (missing Tu Holloway, Mark Lyons, Kenny Frease and Dezmine Wells) looked like it might just keep the Musketeers’ streak of success alive. I tend to give Chris Mack the benefit of the doubt (and why not?), but let’s see how Xavier holds up against a young Purdue team Saturday before we totally buy in.
7. UMass. I love me Chaz Williams -- there are few pleasures more palpable in my world than the drastically undersized but super-quick point guard -- but after UMass generated some preseason buzz, early returns are decidedly mixed. Wins over Harvard and Providence are all right (even if they came by a combined five points, and Wednesday’s win over Siena came by just one), but the two times UMass has played a quality opponent (NC State, Tennessee), it has been shellacked. A home date with Miami is on tap for Saturday. Call this stock a hold.
8. Charlotte. Charlotte is 6-0 and playing some good basketball (some of which came in the Great Alaska Shootout, which I didn’t even know still existed), especially on the defensive end, where it is holding opponents to the seventh-worst effective field goal percentage of any defense in the country. That is good. That said, to date, Charlotte has beaten Charleston Southern, Georgia Southern, Lamar, Texas State, Oral Roberts and Northeastern. Not exactly a murderer’s row. So I am willing to give Alan Major’s team some early love ... but I would not be shocked if it fell apart under even slightly more intense scrutiny.
9. La Salle. In case you needed another reason this conference is going to be so deep, look no further than La Salle. The Explorers aren’t national title contenders by any means, but they are one more trendy “Look out for X!” squad that could find its way into the NCAA tournament by season’s end. Ramon Galloway is a really nice player, particularly on the defensive end, and D.J. Peterson is a lights-out shooter. A loss to Central Connecticut doesn’t look great, but wins over Delaware and Villanova aren’t too shabby.
10. Richmond. Oh, speaking of quiet A–10 sleepers/tournament teams ... remember the Richmond Spiders? That team that went to the Sweet 16 two years ago? Right. Chris Mooney had a rebuilding project on his hands after that run, but he already has things moving in the right direction. The Spiders just have to prove it on the court. They haven’t beaten anyone of note yet, they were blown out by good Minnesota and Ohio teams, and they needed two overtimes to get past William & Mary on Wednesday night. Another definite hold, but don’t be surprised if they improve in a hurry.
11. St. Bonaventure. Life without Andrew Nicholson doesn’t look like it’s going to be very much fun. The Bonnies still have some solid upperclassmen here -- Demitrius Conger, Chris Johnson and a trio of junior starters -- but Nicholson was a total do-everything stud. Mark Schmidt’s bunch held tough at Ohio on Wednesday night (losing 69-64), but a loss at Canisus on Nov. 17 didn’t exactly portend a tournament future. Still, it’s early.
12. Dayton. It might be another one of those seasons for Dayton fans. They know what I mean already, but in case you don’t -- Dayton began its season in promising fashion, losing a solid effort to Colorado but beating high-majors Boston College and Auburn (both bad, but still) as well as Manhattan and Arkansas State (also both bad, but still). And then Wednesday night, it laid an egg at home, losing 62–61 to Weber State ... a year after Damian Lillard stopped playing basketball at Weber State. Hopefully, this type of frustrating inconsistency doesn’t become a trademark. UD fans deserve better.
13. Duquesne. For all the depth and strength of this realignment-smushed league, the modern A–10 has never been loaded all the way from top to bottom, and this is where it starts to get really ugly. Duquesne already owns losses to Albany and North Dakota State (the latter is actually not that bad, but at home, it doesn’t look good, either).
14. George Washington. GWU has made a bigger push into local D.C. recruits in recent seasons, hoping to compete on even the second tier of one of the nation’s most fertile recruiting landscapes. It has yet to pay off. The Colonials already own home losses to Youngstown State and Mount St. Mary’s, the latter being the worse of the two, and are playing some really ugly offense to boot.
15. Rhode Island
Last week, genius extraordinaire Elon Musk was speaking at an Oxford conference thing and at one point called Mars “a bit of a fixer-upper.” That is roughly how you’d describe these last two programs, which already are a combined 2-11 this season (those Rhody did give George Mason a real fight at home Wednesday night), and, well, yeah. That's about all that needs to be said, for now.