Another wacky week in the Atlantic 10, another mostly futile attempt to place the lion's share of these teams in something resembling a hierarchy. Let's give it a less wordy shot:
1. Virginia Commonwealth. For most of the nonconference season, VCU was an elite defensive team. Shaka Smart's constant pressure system worked: It forced opponents into the highest turnover rate in the country -- a distinction it still maintains; Rams opponents cough it up on 29.3 percent of their possessions -- while VCU's all-men-on-deck combination of lightning-quick guards (Treveon Graham, Darius Theus, Briante Weber, Troy Daniels, Rob Brandenberg) constituted one of the most exciting watches in the sport.
But a weird thing happened on the way to the Atlantic 10: VCU's defense got mediocre. The Rams still force a ton of turnovers, of course, but when they don't force turnovers, they don't get stops. VCU's league opponents make 38.0 percent of their 3-pointers and 50.2 percent of their 2s, and have averaged 1.01 points per trip, making VCU's defense the seventh-best in the league. Another weird thing happened: VCU's offense took off. Through nine games, the Rams have the best per-possession offense in the A-10. Talk about a reversal of fortune.
Why put them back at No. 1 this week? Because I think VCU's defense will come back. And if it does, and this offensive pace continues, the Rams will be as dangerous as any team in the country.
2. Butler. If power rankings are a balance between a team's long-view work to date and an evaluation of its current performance, you could still make the argument that Butler is the best team in the Atlantic 10. After all, no one else can lay claim to a win as good as Indiana, not to mention Gonzaga at home. (Marquette in Maui wasn't too bad, either). But the Bulldogs, it should be noted, entered Wednesday night's home date against Charlotte with a conference efficiency margin of only 0.08 points per possession, tied with La Salle and George Washington for fourth-best in the league. And then they lost to Charlotte at home. I'm not panicking just yet, nor should Butler fans; there is still much to recommend the Bulldogs. But it is not heresy to admit that Butler has struggled in the past two weeks, even as wins over Rhode Island, St. Bonaventure and George Washington masked that fact.
3. Saint Louis. The Billikens, meanwhile, are headed in the opposite direction: Since back-to-back losses to Temple and Rhode Island on Jan. 12 and Jan. 19, St. Louis has won six in a row in mostly easy fashion, including a 73-58 victory over Butler. Its defense allows the fewest points per trip in the league (0.915), mostly because Saint Louis rarely allows offensive boards. But the schedule only gets tougher from here: versus Charlotte, versus VCU, at Butler, versus Saint Joseph's, at George Washington, at Xavier, versus La Salle. In other words: go time.
4. La Salle. Were it not for that baffling mid-November home loss to Central Connecticut, the Explorers might well be the subject of some national discussion. Because other than that, the rest of La Salle's losses (at Bucknell, Miami, Charlotte and Xavier, and a 61-60 home loss to Massachusetts) are completely forgivable. Saint Louis has been stifling on the defensive end in conference play, but La Salle is right there with its friends from the Midwest, and perhaps it's time non-A-10-heads sat up and took notice.
5. Massachusetts. OK, UMass fans: You win. I have officially decided to stop qualifying everything I write about the Minutemen with some version of "Well, their efficiency numbers haven't been very good, so the other shoe could drop any time now." It's not that I didn't like UMass, or something sinister like that; it just felt like fair warning. I'm done now. The bottom line is UMass is the fourth-fastest team in the country -- in this hyper-slow modern college basketball landscape, this is something we should be praising in and of itself -- and that pace, aided by the speed of point guard Chaz Williams, allowed the Minutemen to post the A-10's second-ranked efficiency offense performance and fourth-ranked defense prior to Thursday night's game at VCU. The Minutemen were blown out in that game, but that'll happen at VCU. Either way, it's time to start taking Derek Kellogg's team seriously.
6. Charlotte. On Wednesday night, Charlotte won 71-67 at Butler. I reacted to this in some detail Thursday, so instead of repeating myself, I'll merely send you there.
7. Xavier. For a young team that struggled so much in the nonconference, Xavier sure seems to be headed in the right direction now. Maybe that was bound to happen. Maybe it's a product of the Musketeers' backloaded schedule. All three of Xavier's league losses came on the road; its only real quality A-10 win (La Salle) came at home. The Musketeers go to Dayton on Saturday, and then Rhode Island next week. Those will be tests, sure, but it gets really gully starting Feb. 23, when Xavier closes with -- get this -- VCU, Memphis, UMass, St. Louis and Butler. This is going to be really interesting.
8. George Washington. As mentioned above, the Colonials' league efficiency margin of 0.08 points per trip was, before Wednesday's games, tied for the fourth-best in the league. George Washington hasn't played since. The ceiling is pretty limited here, but Mike Lonergan's team plays defense, and that makes it a very tough out.
9. Temple. More like TempLOL, am I right? No? Come on, Owls fans. Now might not feel like the time to joke, but I find the hoary old chestnut holds true: "Laughter is the best medicine … for getting over an 84-83 home loss to Duquesne." That actually happened Thursday night; that's a real thing. And it's a perfect summation of this insanely unpredictable, defense-averse Temple team, a team that can now say it beat Syracuse in Madison Square Garden and lost to Duquesne at home. Your guess is as good as mine.
10. Saint Joseph's. Fun game in Philly this weekend, when Saint Joe's meets La Salle in another Big 5 matchup. At this point, city pride is starting to feel like the best possible outcome for Saint Joe's. It's a really disappointing team.
11. Dayton. In December, back when we thought Alabama was a top-four SEC team, Dayton's victory in Tuscaloosa seemed to foretell another unpredictable, up-and-down Dayton season. Now it just looks like the latter.
12. Richmond. The Spiders have been racked by injuries, which is a good explanation for why an offense that played so well on a per-possession basis in the nonconference season has been the A-10's 12th-best to date. The Spiders have struggled on defense all season; without scoring, they're having a tough time.
13. St. Bonaventure. When they beat Temple and Saint Joe's on the road in late January, the Bonnies seemed to be on the rise. But they've fallen back below .500 since and, despite a valiant effort in a three-point home OT loss to La Salle on Wednesday, are clearly in a rebuilding stage.
14. Rhode Island. Between a road win at Saint Louis -- still can't figure that one out -- and Wednesday's 75-72 home victory over Dayton, Rhode Island lost six consecutive games. And you know what? It was all positive stuff. Remember, this is a team with a first-year head coach that won seven games in 2011-12. Five of the losses in the recent skid came by single digits. The Rams are playing people tough. It's a weekly refrain in this space, but it's true.
15. Duquesne. Duquesne! Huge win over Temple on Thursday night, not for any tangible reason -- it's not as though Duquesne is on the bubble -- but for sheer morale. It's not easy to play in a league like this when you're overmatched, and you had better believe knocking off one of the league's annual contenders in its final season in the league, in its own building, had to be incredibly satisfying.
16. Fordham. Fordham, unfortunately, has had no such fun. Its only two league wins have come over Rhode Island and Duquesne; it has lost its past five games; and on Saturday, Butler comes to town. Ouch.