A confession: I have no idea how to rank this conference.
This is the part where the most vocal of the commenters will sneer and say "Told you so!" and then probably make a mean comment about the size of my cranium (which I fully acknowledge is almost freakish in its circumference). Yes, ha ha, get your jokes out of the way, because guess what? Pretty much everyone agrees with me. How do I know? I took an unplanned and indirect Twitter poll last night, and the replies I received were as uniformly confused as I was.
So before we go reading too much into each team's specific position in this week's A-10 power rankings, let's just acknowledge there is VCU and Butler and then, what, eight teams (nine? 10?) that all sort of jumble together in one way or another, many of which suffered confusing home losses this week, just to make this whole exercise more challenging. As always (duh), I reserve the right to use tempo-free statistics to guide my way.
With that preamble out of the way, let's roll:
1. Butler. On Saturday, when Butler coach Brad Stevens saw Roosevelt Jones' last-second steal and coast-to-coast floater fall in at Hinkle Fieldhouse -- the most thrilling moment of the season to date, and one of the craziest basketball things I've ever seen -- he turned, crossed his arms, and headed to midcourt to shake Gonzaga coach Mark Few's hand. Yahoo! Sports' Pat Forde asked Stevens about his reaction, about how, as a legion of Butler fans and players exploded into joyful insanity all around him, he could possibly remain so unaffected. He said this:
“What goes through my mind is, the hay is in the barn,” Stevens said. “If a guy makes a shot like that or doesn’t, it doesn’t define who we are. It doesn’t affect how I evaluate our team. It doesn’t break our season.
"I'm a huge person on growth over prize."
Ken Pomeroy, noting this, followed up:
But just because one openly admits to caring about the process, doesn’t mean one doesn’t care about the result. It is possible to care about both while acknowledging the basic truth that the former often tells you more about a team’s ability than the latter.
The point is: We should care about a lot more than a team's win-loss record. X team should be ranked here, because they beat Y team, and Y beat Z, and so on and so forth. Results matter, sure, but in evaluation, process -- how a team plays on each possession, whether it loses by a lot or a little, whether those games are at home or on the road or at neutral sites, whether players look like they couldn't care less during a timeout, and so on -- matters just as much. On Saturday, Butler beat Gonzaga with Hinkle Magic. This week it lost to La Salle 54-53. Does this make La Salle better than Butler? No. At this stage of the season, the process is what matters. Rose Jones' shot may or may not go in (and his slight push on the inbound may or may not get called), but the way Butler played without its leading scorer in all of two games this week, combined with its results from throughout the season, have earned it the No. 1 spot in these rankings.
The larger point is: Let's keep wins and losses in context. But don't take my word for it. Take Stevens'.
2. Virginia Commonwealth. Here's the part where the discerning among you will say, hey, wait a minute. Eamonn just waxed on about the importance of "process" -- i.e., why you can't merely judge a team by its wins and losses -- but he knocked VCU out of the top spot even though the Rams play the best defense in the A-10, and are the only team ranked inside Pomeroy's top 15. Well, you got me: After weeks of dominance at the top spot, VCU's loss at Richmond has precipitated a small decrease in ranking. Richmond beat the Rams because it managed, against all odds, to not turn the ball over against the nation's most fearsome turnover-creation defense. Anyway, tough OT loss, but VCU isn't going anywhere.
3. La Salle. This is where it gets insanely dicey. So let's welcome in the Explorers! Why the bump up to No. 3? For one, they just beat Butler, however narrowly, and that counts for something. For another, their A-10 losses have been on the road against at least decent teams, and this week we've seen a rash of top-half A-10 teams lose games of lesser quality, some even on their own floors. I don't want to damn the Explorers with faint praise, but this is something of a default move.
4. Charlotte. Lost by 20 at Richmond last Saturday, which would be greater cause for concern had the Spiders not flashed such an improved attack against VCU on Thursday night. Despite allowing 1.21 points per game to Richmond, the 49ers are still playing the best per-possession defense in the league. They can be downright horrific to watch on the offensive end -- per-possession, they're No. 15 in the league right now -- but if you can hold opponents to just .93 points per trip you're going to give yourself plenty of chances, particularly on the road.
5. Temple. In a week full of weird losses, Temple's home loss to St. Bonaventure on Saturday would have been the weirdest, were it not for the team immediately following them. In any case, a three-point loss at home to the Bonnies doesn't look particularly good, and I'd sure prefer Temple to be more consistent -- and thus easier to rank -- but the Owls remain impossible to peg. Stay tuned.
6. St. Louis. So, about weird home losses: On Saturday the Rhode Island Rams, winners of exactly seven games last season, came to St. Louis and left with an absolutely massive 82-80 OT win. Massive, that is, for Rhody; for the Billikens, it is fair to ask how the Rams were able to score 1.21 points per trip on the road against a team that prides itself on -- and wins with -- defense.
7. Xavier. Wherein your humble correspondent (though still not totally convinced by this young Xavier team just yet) acknowledges that through five games the Musketeers are 4-1, have held their A-10 opponents to the second-fewest points per possession in the league, are playing at least decent offense (or decent enough) and pushed that aforementioned high-quality Charlotte defense on the road Wednesday night. I'm not sure whether Chris Mack can get this transitional team to the tournament; I sort of doubt it. But he's doing his hardest to try.
8. Dayton. When your first four league games go at VCU, home versus Butler, and at La Salle, you can be forgiven for starting A-10 play 0-3. I actually think Archie Miller's team is a lot better than people realize: Only two of its losses (vs. Colorado, at VCU) have come by double digits; it lost to Weber State and Illinois State by one point apiece; it lost at Southern Cal and La Salle by two points each; and it played Butler (without Rotnei Clarke, but still) close at Hinkle. It took me a little bit to realize it too, but this is a pretty solid outfit. The W-L record just doesn't reflect it yet.
9. Richmond. The Spiders looked OK on paper early in the year, with a totally respectable offense, but then their nonconference losses just kept looking worse and worse -- not just losses but blowouts, with few positive takeaways throughout. And Richmond had to start A-10 play on the road at La Salle and at Butler, where it was handled both times. But the Spiders have looked great in their past two games, a 20-point home win over Charlotte and Thursday's big-time upset over VCU in OT, and if Chris Mooney's team can play not-totally-horrible defense, it looks like the much-touted scoring punch is finally emerging.
10. St. Bonaventure. There's a potential for small sample-size error here (same with Richmond), but I don't care: If you beat Temple and Saint Joe's in back-to-back league road games, you will be rewarded with a healthy move up the rankings. Great week for the Bonnies.
11 Saint Joseph's. A-10 play has showcased improvements for this disappointing squad (disappointing, that is, to the media that picked them to win the league; don't blame me, I voted for Kodos). The Hawks looked very competitive in losses at Butler and VCU. And then they turned around and lost to the Bonnies at home 73-64. One step forward, two steps back.
12. Massachusetts. Again with the home losses: This week, UMass lost at home to George Washington 79-76. At first glance, this is an upset, but if you look at all into UMass' per-possession numbers, you realize this team really hasn't been very good at anything but getting up and down the floor for almost the entire (excepting the Ohio win and a good losing effort at St. Louis) season. The Minutemen own the nation's 147th-ranked offense and 151st-ranked defense, per KenPom.com. They are profoundly confusing.
13. Rhode Island. Here's a well-deserved nod to the Rhode Island Rams, who may be 6-11 but are (A) vastly improved in their first season under Dan Hurley, and (B) proud owners of Saturday's win at St. Louis, which qualifies as huge for this program at this stage. Whatever their limitations, the Rams believe. It's exciting stuff to see.
14. George Washington. Nice road win over UMass, though something strange has happened through the first five games of league play: The Colonials aren't defending as well as they have. They ranked in the top 50 nationally in per-possession defense for much of the nonconference season, but have allowed 1.02 points per trip since the start of A-10 competition.
15. Fordham. Fordham is 1-3 in conference play, the same record as Dayton, Saint Joe's and Rhode Island. It is not as good as any of those teams; its defense ranks No. 299 in the country in adjusted efficiency.
16. Duquesne. Put it this way: During last night's informal Twitter survey, this was the only thing I got back about Duquesne: "@eamonnbrennan Duquesne = 16. #DidMyPart." I'd say that sums it up.