(SportsNetwork.com) - The 38th Atlantic 10 Conference Tournament gets underway on Wednesday, as the 13 teams from the league battle it out in order to decide the conference champion and recipient of the league's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
For the second straight season the Saint Louis Billikens are the team to beat in this tournament, entering the event as the top seed after claiming their second straight regular-season title with a 13-3 league ledger. The Billikens won a school-record 19 straight games at one point this season, but dropped three straight before righting the ship with a 64-62 win in the final seconds against UMass in the regular-season finale.
There was not only a tight race at the very top of the A-10 this season, but throughout the league. VCU finished second with a mark of 12-4, while George Washington and Saint Joseph's tied for third at 11-5, although the Colonials won the only head-to-head meeting between the two and grabbed the third seed. The Hawks had to settle for the fourth seed, but that still gives them a bye to the quarterfinals along with the Billikens, Rams and Colonials.
Also in a tie at the end of the year were UMass and Dayton, who each went 10-6 in conference action. By virtue of an 86-79 victory on March 1 over the Minutemen, the Flyers have secured the fifth seed, while the Minutemen are left at the sixth spot.
Filling out the rest of the field are Richmond (7), La Salle (8), St. Bonaventure (9), Duquesne (10), Rhode Island (11), George Mason (12) and Fordham (13).
Only two teams play in the first round, with 12th-seed George Mason and 13th- seed Fordham whittling the field down by one on Wednesday.
The Patriots had been a fixture in the CAA, and an important one at that, before making the move to the A-10 this season. After winning at least 22 games in five of their final six seasons in the CAA, they failed to recapture that success in 2014, going just 11-19 overall and 5-12 in conference play. Obviously George Mason has never won an A-10 tournament title, but it last ended on top of a league tourney in 2008 when it claimed the CAA trophy as the third seed. Despite the efforts of backcourt duo Sherrod Wright (15.8 ppg) and Bryon Allen (15.2 ppg), the Patriots were a weak offensive bunch this season, netting just 69.6 ppg.
Fordham is more familiar with the A-10, but that familiarity hasn't done much over the years. The Rams have never won this tourney and are just 4-13 overall in the event. It is no surprise considering they have had a losing record in all but one of the last 22 seasons. Fordham is 9-20 overall and 2-14 in league play, both the worst marks in the conference, although it did beat George Mason 76-70 in the lone meeting between the two squads. A victory in the first round would give it 10 wins for just the second time in the last six campaigns. Defense is the weak point for the Rams, who allow 78.1 ppg on 46.1 percent shooting, wiping away the efforts of potent scorers Branden Frazier (18 ppg) and Jon Severe (17.6 ppg).
The winner of the matchup between George Mason and Fordham moves on to face fifth-seeded Dayton.
The Flyers suffered a four-game losing streak at the end of January, but that is in rear-view window now, as they enter the postseason with wins in nine of their last 10 games. The long string of success at the end of the year pushed Dayton to 22-9 overall and 10-6 in conference. The always-consistent Flyers, who have piled up 20 wins in six of the last seven seasons, are shooting for their second A-10 Tournament title, with the first coming in 2003. Jordan Sibert (12.6 ppg), Devin Oliver (12 ppg, 7.4 rpg) and Dyshawn Pierre (11 ppg, 5.7 rpg) head up the effort for Dayton, which is netting 73.2 ppg on 46.2 percent shooting, but doesn't attack the glass particularly well, ranking 11th in the league in rebounding (35.2 rpg).
There are three other second-round pairings. No. 8 La Salle faces ninth-seeded St. Bonaventure, seventh-seeded Richmond takes on 10th-seeded Duquesne, and No. 11 seed Rhode Island challenges sixth-seeded UMass.
The Explorers came crashing back to Earth after their stunning run to the Sweet 16 last year. An inconsistent follow-up campaign finished with La Salle in possession of a 15-15 split of its overall schedule and a 7-9 mark against the rest of the A-10. Although they made it to the Big Dance in 2013, the Explorers were ousted in the first round of the A-10 Tournament, keeping them from making any type of move toward their first-ever A-10 crown. In fact, La Salle hasn't even made it out of the second round since 2002, and has never gotten to the championship game. Tyreek Duren (15.2 ppg), Jerrell Wright (12.9 ppg, 6.6 rpg) and Tyrone Garland (13 ppg) were all important contributors to the NCAA Tournament team and they hope to recapture the magic.
Two years ago, the Bonnies stunned the conference as they captured their first ever A-10 Tournament title. St. Bonaventure did not do a particularly good job defending the crown, failing to even qualify for the tournament last year. Aside from the 2012 season, the Bonnies have been stuck in a rut. They have had at least 15 wins in five of the last six years, but only once had more than 16. They could add to that total with a win against the Explorers, with whom they split the season series. Matthew Wright (16.7 ppg) and Charlon Kloof (11.5 ppg) will need to be at their best to do so and improve upon the team's 16-14 overall mark, which includes a 6-10 league ledger.
Richmond (18-13, 8-8) comes limping into the tournament as the seventh seed. The Spiders were once considered one of the strongest squads in the A-10, a conference clearly on the rise, but they collapsed down the stretch. A 60-58 loss to Dayton in the regular-season finale was the fourth straight to end the season and puts their chances of earning an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, should they fail to win the A-10, perilously low. Richmond's best bet now is to capture the conference crown, something it has only done once before (2011). The Spiders were really walking a thin line for most of the season, with a scoring margin of +1.7 as they net just 66.7 ppg. Losing leading scorer Cedrick Lindsay (18.3 ppg, 4 apg) to injury in early February didn't help matters, but Kendall Anthony (16 ppg) is still healthy.
Duquesne will oppose Richmond, a team it lost to 75-58 in the only regular- season meeting. Head coach Jim Ferry made some strides in his second season at the helm, as the Dukes improved on an 8-22 campaign in 2013 with a 13-16 ledger this year. That includes a 5-11 mark against A-10 competition, which, while not a great record, did include a 71-64 upset of regular-season champion Saint Louis in the final weeks of the season. Duquesne has won the conference tournament before, but that came way back in 1977, giving the Dukes the longest stretch between conference titles among teams that have captured the crown at least once. Ovie Soko (18.2 ppg, 7.8 rpg) will lead the way as the Dukes start the incredible challenge of ending that drought as a 10-seed.
With Temple exiting the A-10 for the AAC this season, UMass became the winningest current program in the conference. The Minutemen have claimed a conference-best five league titles, with Saint Joseph's and George Washington each tied for the second-most with two. However, those league crowns were picked up in a five-year stretch from 1991-96, when John Calipari was the head coach and Marcus Camby was still making plays. This year, the Minutemen went 23-7, giving them at least 21 wins in the last three seasons. However, this was the first since 1999 that they earned a spot in the national rankings, rising as high as 13th. Electric point guard Chaz Williams (15.8 ppg, 7.1 apg), who leads the A-10 in assists, has been the primary force behind the Minutemen's league-leading offensive showing (76.4 ppg).
Like Duquesne's Jim Ferry, Dan Hurley has made improvements for Rhode Island in his second season in charge. The Rams are just 14-17 overall entering the postseason, but that is quite a step up considering they had 15 wins combined over the previous two seasons. None of those 14 wins, or the five they gained in conference play, came against UMass, which topped the Rams twice. However, those two victories each came by five points or less. Rhode Island will now be tasked with finding a way to win, not just stay close with the Minutemen, that is if its is to make a run at its second A-10 title, the first of which came back in 1999. Xavier Munford (16.7 ppg) may rival Williams as a scorer, but the Rams as a whole are not nearly the offensive force that UMass is, netting just 68 ppg.
For the winner of the La Salle/St. Bonaventure clash, a meeting with No. 1 seed Saint Louis awaits. The Billikens won both the regular season and tournament titles in the A-10 a season ago, and they have tallied at least 26 wins in each of the last three seasons, all ending with trips to the NCAA Tournament, assuming they return again this year. Opponents have really struggled to find offensive success against Saint Louis, which is letting up only 60.9 ppg on 39.6 percent shooting, ranking among the top-25 in the country in each category. Jordair Jett (13.8 ppg, 4.7 apg) is a sensational playmaker with the ball in his hands, as he illustrated with a game-winning layup in the regular-season finale against UMass. Dwayne Evans (14 ppg, 6.4 rpg) will also be defending his title as tournament MVP from a year ago.
Second-seed VCU will be paired up with whichever team survives between Richmond and Duquesne. Last year, their first in the A-10, the Rams made it all the way to the conference title game before being knocked off by Saint Louis, 62-56. The Rams are looking up at the Billikens once again this season, as they fell just short of the regular-season title. Still, Shaka Smart's reign as one of the best head coaches in the mid-major ranks continued as his Rams are 24-7 entering the postseason, marking the eighth straight campaign that has ended with at least 24 victories. By now Smart's 'HAVOC' system on defense is nothing new, but it is still effective, with the Rams collecting more steals than any team in the country (11.5 spg). Treveon Graham (15.6 ppg) leads the team on offense, while Briante Weber (9.1 ppg, 3.6 spg) is a disruptive defender, leading the nation in thefts.
A revived George Washington squad will be awaiting the victor between UMass and URI. The Colonials won two conference titles in three seasons in 2005 and 2007, but had been going downhill since. They had four losing seasons in the six years following those championships, but turned the tables this year, rolling to a 23-7 overall record in the regular season. They won three straight games to finish off the campaign and are likely a team that will be in the field of 68 for the NCAA Tournament regardless of how they fair in this event. While that may be true, it doesn't mean experienced leaders Maurice Creek (14.6 ppg), Isaiah Armwood (12.3 ppg, 8.7 rpg) and Kevin Larsen (11.3 ppg) will be content with what the team has already accomplished.
Saint Joseph's, the fourth seed, has to wait for two games to finish before seeing who it will match up with in the quarterfinals. The winner between George Mason and Fordham then facing Dayton to determine who plays the Hawks. Saint Joseph's is tied with George Washington for the second most conference titles, earning a pair in the 1997 and 1986 seasons. The Hawks have won five regular season crowns since, but only made one appearance in the championship game of the tournament in that time. Head coach Phil Martelli has ridden his starting lineup hard to a 21-9 overall mark, with Langston Galloway (!7 ppg), Ronald Roberts (14.6 ppg, 7.2 rpg), DeAndre' Bembry (12.2 ppg) and Halil Kanacevic (10.3 ppg, 8.3 rpg .4 4 apg) the main focus for a team, whose leading scorer off the bench averages just 3.2 ppg.