Atlantic 10 looks A-OK

PHILADELPHIA -- A little less than a year ago, Atlantic 10 commissioner Bernadette McGlade spent what should have been her conference’s shining moment -- a first-time meeting between VCU and Butler -- discussing what would happen to her league when Butler and Xavier left.

The deal wasn’t officially done then, so McGlade could only talk in hypotheticals, and even as the commissioner insisted it would all be just fine, it was hard not to think hers was merely pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking.

Sans the Bulldogs and Musketeers, the A-10 looked to be left with VCU and a bunch of teams whose latest and greatest were at least a decade earlier.

And then on one Saturday night, George Washington routed Fordham to improve to 19-4, Saint Louis survived a buzzer-beater to beat La Salle and run its record to 22-2, Dayton beat St. Bonaventure in Olean and is now 16-8, and Saint Joseph’s upset VCU to go to 16-7.

And we haven’t discussed UMass, off on Saturday but sitting at 18-4.

It all left Phil Martelli, already pretty giddy from his team’s 69-62 win against the Rams, feeling cat-got-the-canary good.

The dean of A-10 coaches, Martelli has seen the conference through its inevitable ebbs and flows and he knows what people were saying and thinking when October rolled around.

He also knows what they’ll be saying come March.

"Nobody is going to want to see an Atlantic 10 name pulled in the first round of the NCAA tournament," he said.

The only way the Atlantic 10 was going to survive was if teams that kept promising and threatening to become relevant actually did it.

Like St. Joe’s, which had run together 10 years of empty promises.

It’s been a decade since Jameer Nelson and Delonte West worked their magic here, and nine of those years resulted in an NCAA drought.

A year ago, things looked good. The Hawks were picked to win the conference but instead finished a disappointing 18-14.

They stumbled out of the gate again this season, 9-4 through December, but now suddenly have won six of their past eight, including signature victories against UMass and now VCU.

St. Joe’s might still be on the bubble, but at least it’s finally on the right side of it.

"The thing with this league, when you go on the road especially, if you don’t play your best game or close to it, you’re not going to win," said VCU coach Shaka Smart, who watched his team take a good half to light a fire and create havoc, let alone HAVOC. "There’s more depth now."

Fair or unfair, the Atlantic 10 and the Big East are destined for a lifelong run of comparisons. Northeast-based, basketball centric, they are a mirror image of one another, one just has a little more name cache and a bigger TV contract.

It is hard to ignore the irony in the year one side-by-side. The Big East, the league that attracted the detractors, has two NCAA locks in Creighton and Villanova, and two big maybes in Providence and Xavier.

The picked apart carcass of the A-10? It could be looking at as many as five or six bids.

"A lot of sages were taking the train to New York [for the A-10 tournament], wondering what was going to happen to us," Martelli said.

No one is wondering anymore.