Even before this turbulent and unpredictable winter, the Atlantic 10 had molded a reputation for conducting an upset-tinged conference tournament.
Since 2006, the top seed has been more likely to lose its first game (five times) than raise the trophy (twice).
And now this: the season-long front-runner showing late-year cracks, a contender that hasn’t lost in more than six weeks and eight teams separated by two games in the final standings.
“It’s going to be fun, and there are going to be some surprises,” said George Washington Coach Maurice Joseph, whose team is the No. 11 seed. “Hopefully, it’s us.”
GW and 13 others will gather at Capital One Arena this week for a five-day scramble that will reward an automatic berth in the NCAA tournament and, depending on how it unfolds, perhaps two at-large invitations.
The festivities will begin Wednesday with first-round games involving the bottom four teams: No. 12 La Salle vs. No. 13 Massachusetts and No. 11 GW vs. No. 14 Fordham. Another six, including No. 5 George Mason, will enter the fray Thursday, while the top four seeds enjoy double byes to Friday’s quarterfinals.
It has been a down year for the A-10. Typically boasting several teams of national merit, the league has had just one in the Associated Press poll all season, top-seeded Rhode Island, which this week is ranked 25th. Second-seeded St. Bonaventure, which has won 12 straight, is next in the AP voting.
Those two are the only Atlantic 10 representatives in the top 75 of the Rating Percentage Index, a strength-of-schedule formula that will figure prominently in the NCAA selection committee’s at-large choices Sunday. At Nos. 16 and 21 respectively entering Tuesday, the Rams and Bonnies are well positioned for at-large slots, should they fail to win the league championship.
Another A-10 team doesn’t appear in the RPI until No. 81 (Davidson).
The league earned 26 at-large berths in the previous 10 seasons and enjoyed a high of six NCAA participants in 2014. However, the worst nonconference winning percentage in 13 years initially dimmed the Atlantic 10’s hopes of multiple bids.
Rhode Island (23-6) ran away with the regular season title by winning its first 13 conference games, then dropped three of the last five. St. Bonaventure (24-6) ended the Rams’ streak Feb. 16 .
Davidson’s only setbacks in the past 10 games were at Rhode Island and at St. Bonaventure, a 117-113 triple-overtime thriller featuring five players with at least 30 points. The Wildcats avenged the URI defeat with a late-game rally at home Friday.
In between the top three and bottom two seeds, there is not much separation. At 10-8, only Saint Joseph’s had a winning record in conference games. Four teams finished 9-9 and another at 8-10.
Rhode Island is “still the favorite, in my mind,” George Mason Coach Dave Paulsen said. “But certainly the Bonnies and Davidson are playing really well. Anyone can win it. The gap was very wide early on, but some of the rest of us made progress figuring out how we can be effective.”
Without any scholarship seniors or much depth, the Patriots were predictably erratic. They went 3-6 in the first half of the league schedule and 6-3 in the last half. They followed three consecutive last-second victories, all provided by sophomore Ian Boyd, with a 14-point home defeat to Richmond on Saturday.
If they defeat La Salle or Massachusetts on Thursday, the Patriots would face fourth-seeded Saint Joseph’s, a team they defeated at the buzzer in both regular season meetings.
GW had won four of five before losing at Dayton on Saturday, a result that dropped it into the bottom four.
“We always felt if we were playing our best basketball in February and March, we have a chance to make things happen in the conference tournament,” said Joseph, whose team Feb. 28 routed its first-round foe, Fordham, 72-56, at Smith Center. “I think a lot of coaches are telling their teams to be confident because of the amount of parity across the board.”
Notes: Davidson’s Peyton Aldridge (21.3 points per game) and St. Bonaventure’s Jaylen Adams (20.5) shared player of the year honors, while Rhode Island’s Dan Hurley received the coaching award. GW’s Yuta Watanabe was named defensive player of the year, and Davidson’s Kellan Grady (17.9 points per game) was the top rookie. . . .
Aldridge, Adams, VCU’s Justin Tillman, St. Bonaventure’s Matt Mobley and Rhode Island’s Jared Terrell were named first-team all-conference. George Mason’s Otis Livingston II made the second team and Watanabe the third team.
More college basketball: