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A quick look around the Atlantic 10

I love conference play.

One of the tougher parts of covering VCU the way I normally do — sitting on the court and filming the games — is that it’s hard to keep up with what teams around the A-10 are doing on any particular night.

I think that’s why I get extra excited when I get to watch a GOOD Atlantic 10 matchup on a night VCU is at home thinking about the next game.

Last night was supposed to be one of those nights.

The nationally ranked Butler Bulldogs headed to Chaifetz Arena in St. Louis to take the the A-10′s preseason No.2, the St. Louis Billikens.

Heading into the night the Bulldogs were the lone A-10 team to have only lost one game in conference play. St. Louis was at 3-2 and riding a three-game win streak after losing a home overtime letdown against Rhode Island (6-13, 1-5).

The game was close for about half of the first half, then it was all St. Louis.

It was the first Butler game I got to watch that showed just how beatable they can be (I had previously only watched them dominate), and the first game I had seen St. Louis play up to the potential people thought they had heading into the season.

A lot of you probably missed that game, and perhaps every other televised A-10 contest that didn’t feature VCU, so I figured today might be a nice day to give a quick glimpse of how the league is looking, a league where 2.5 games currently separates first (VCU and Xavier) from 14th (Fordham).

1. VCU (17-5, 5-2) 43RPI – You might have heard of these guys so I won’t spend much time on them. Butler’s loss moved VCU and Xavier up to a tie for first at .5 games ahead of the next five schools at 4-2. That includes an extra game played, so that’s something that would even out if teams kept winning. Bad news for VCU is their five wins have all come against teams currently ranked in the bottom half of the conference. After Saturday’s homecoming matchup against Fordham (6-1, 2-4), VCU will take on six straight teams currently with a 4-2 record or better. That stretch may make or break the Rams’ NCAA at-large hopes.

2. Xavier (12-8, 5-2) 70RPI – The Musketeers snapped a two-game skid largely in part to the Dayton Flyer’s inability to rebound on Xavier missed free throws, surviving the Flyers 66-62 this past Wednesday in Cincinnati. This Xavier team has looked very inconsistent, having thrashed Butler 62-47 early this year, only to lose to Wofford at home a month later. X has two nice home wins over Temple and La Salle (and George Washington if you are buying them), but are 1-2 on the road in A-10 play. Three of X’s next five games are against conference bottom feeders (two on the road). After that, the Musketeers host VCU, UMass and St. Louis before finishing the season at Butler. With their top scorer being the talented freshman guard Semaj Christon, don’t be surprised if X drops a game you wouldn’t expect, or picks up a win in an unlikely location.

3. No.9 Butler (17-4, 4-2) 13RPI – The Bulldogs have put themselves in great position for an at large bid, having two wins against teams currently ranked in the top 10 (No.3 Indiana and No.7 Gonzaga), as well as a buzzer-beating Mauii victory over No.25 Marquette. Four of Butler’s next six games are at home, the other two games being road matchups against teams with a combined overall record of 16-24. If the Bulldogs take care of business they’ll set themselves up nicely for a tough four-game stretch that includes home games against Xavier and St. Louis, and two tough roadies at UMass and VCU.

4. Charlotte (16-4, 4-2) 62RPI – Charlotte looked to be a paper tiger heading into conference play but are still a bit of an enigma. The Niners have solid home wins against La Salle and Xavier, but were blown out on the road against Richmond and George Washington. Things won’t get any easier after the indefinite suspension of leading scorer DeMario Mayfield and six of their eight remaining A-10 games coming against teams picked in A-10′s preseason top-8. If you were trading in 49er gold, now might be a good time to sell.

5. St. Louis (15-5, 4-2) 56RPI – The Billikens picked up a HUGE win last night against Butler, both for A-10 and NCAA at large purposes, and was nearly critical after losing a home game to Rhode Island. The Billikens will look to ride that momentum over their next three games, all coming against teams with losing records in the Atlantic 10, but two of which coming against Dayton and Richmond teams that can certainly test Jim Crews’ club.

6. UMass (14-5, 4-2) 48RPI – UMass is heating up after tough wins against Richmond and AT La Salle (we all know how tough those teams are). The Minutemen have the luxury of getting to play Rhode Island twice to finish their schedule AND finish with the majority of their remaining tough games in Amherst (v St. Joseph’s, Temple, Butler, Dayton). The Minutemen are lead by Hofstra transfer Chaz Williams who leads the Atlantic 10 in assists at 7.2 per game.

7. George Washington (10-9, 4-2) 114RPI – Another A-10 enigma, the Colonials have losses to the likes of Youngstown State and  Mount St. Mary’s and were picked to finish 13th in the league, but have won their last three including a thrashing of Charlotte and a 79-76 road upset of UMass. GW is led by Villanova transfer Isaiah Armwood (11.9 points, 8.3 rebounds), but outside of the big man are getting a ton of minutes via a trio of freshmen who ranked second, third and fifth in minutes played for the gold and blue. That should keep things interesting for GW as just over half of their remaining schedule comes against teams that could very well win the A-10.

8. La Salle (14-6, 4-3) 31RPI – La Salle’s momentum came crashing to a halt Wednesday with a 1-point home loss to UMass after previously upsetting No.9 Butler and then No.19 VCU. At 4-3, the Explorers are still in great shape, with four games remaining against teams with overall and A-10 losing records, as well as a home and home against a GW team that is 10-9 on the season. Don’t be surprised if coach Gianinni’s team rises to the top of the A-10 when it’s all said and done.

9. Temple (14-6, 3-3) 50RPI – So far this Temple team has gone as far as star Khalif Wyatt could take them. Fortunately for the Owls, that included a win over No.6 Syracuse that will be a major resume booster come March. That, or a game to help distract committee members from the Owls home letdowns against Canisius and St. Bonaventure. Temple gets Charlotte twice (who should be without their current leading scorer for both games) and has three very winnable games against Duquesne, Fordham and Rhode Island. Temple will look to stay above .500 in a tough roadie against crosstown rival St. Joseph’s tomorrow.

10. St. Joseph’s (12-7, 3-3) 86RPI – The conference’s preseason No.1 finds themselves in danger of dropping back below .500 after winning their last two contests. IF the hawks can get past Temple to move to 4-3, they’ll have their work cutout for them staying there, with back-to-back road games at Dayton and UMass, followed by a home game against a tough UofR team and a Palestra battle against La Salle.

11. Richmond (13-9, 3-4) 78RPI – The Spiders have had a brutal schedule so far, and it doesn’t get easier anytime soon (v Xavier and SLU, @ St. Joseph’s). UofR is a perfect 3-0 at home with wins over Rhody, Charlotte and that heartbreaking upset of your beloved VCU Rams, but are 0-4 on the road against an extremely tough group of La Salle, Butler, UMass and Temple. The Spiders may have a tough time keeping pace with the top of the league without the services of leading big Derrick Williams. Williams has missed the past eight games with an ankle injury.

12. Dayton (12-8, 2-4) 117RPI – The Flyers have been on the losing end of a number of tough A-10 battles, most recently a 66-61 road loss at rival Xavier that would have extended their winning streak to three games and pulled them to .500 in conference. Like Flyer fans have seen throughout the season however, the wheels came off when Dayton most needed steady play, giving up rebounds to Xavier after the Musketeers missed front ends of two straight 1-and-1s when the Flyers trailed by 1 with 24 and then 20 seconds to play. Dayton heads to St. Louis this weekend then returns for two home games against St. Joseph’s and Temple. Outlook: Not so good.

13. St. Bonaventure (9-10, 2-4) 128RPI – The Bonnies followed an 0-3 start to A-10 play by shocking both Temple and St. Joseph’s in Philly. Even with losing Andrew Nicholson to the Orlando Magic this past summer, the Bonnies have some pieces. But I expect a lot more inconsistency coming out of Olean this season. With two games remaining against Duquesne, home games against Fordham and a depleted Charlotte, and a roadie at Rhody, the Bonnies might be able to climb back up to the middle of the pack. That’s probably a best-case scenario.

14. Fordham (6-15, 2-4) 224RPI – Fordham is basically the landmine loss potential A-10 at large teams are trying to avoid. The Rams have home wins against Duquesne and Rhode Island, as well as close loses to UMass (77-73), St. Joseph’s (66-62) and at Charlotte (74-68), but after a 4-11 non-conference slate are poisoning the RPIs of schools they come in contact with in A-10 play. Fordham will travel to VCU Saturday for just their third A-10 road game this season. Their last road trip resulted in a 96-51 shelling at Dayton.

15. Rhode Island (6-15, 2-4) 183RPI – Credit to the Rhode Island Rams, they challenged themselves in the non-conference schedule, were ultimately unsuccessful, but have been a pesky game for any team that’s faced them. Rhody is just one of Fordham’s six wins on the season, but also one of St. Louis’ five losses. Go figure.

16. Duquesne (7-13, 0-6) – The Dukes are the lone winless team in A-10 play, and with a 82-75 loss at Fordham already in their rearview, may have already blown their one chance for a win. Duquesne stills hosts GW, Rhode Island, St. Bonaventure and Charlotte. My money would be on one of those as their only potential win.

About Mat Shelton-Eide

VCU School of the Arts (BFA '07) and Center for Sport Leadership (M.Ed. '10) alumnus, Mat has followed VCU basketball since the Sunbelt days when he'd attend games with his father. Worked as a graduate assistant in the VCU Sports Information Department for the '09-'10 season, but has covered VCU basketball for VCURamNation.com since 2007. mshelton@vcuramnation.com @MatShelton