The more things change, the more they stay the same.
With another week gone, the A-10 regular season title race is still headed toward what has seemed inevitable for some time: Dayton and VCU sweating until the season’s final day.
But the past seven days has brought some distillation. Richmond lost twice, including at home to VCU, to essentially put the Spiders’ championship hopes to rest. Rhode Island and its long-shot bid also got severely dinged with a loss at certifiably-pesky Fordham.
Last week we highlighted VCU’s improving defense as its key to the A-10 Tournament’s No. 1 seed. Defense is integral for Dayton too, but “improvement” may not be as important. The Flyers’ defense is already elite, at least according to Dave Paulsen.
“They’re an elite defensive team, across the board their entire group defends with a level of urgency that’s clearly built into the team’s DNA,” Paulsen said Monday on the league conference call. “With Charles Cooke, he’s veteran guy with a good combination of quickness, strength and length. He’s an elite defender, but he’s supported by the entire team concept.”
Dayton’s defensive efficiency (92.9) is the best in the league, and the best mark the Flyers have posted in A-10 play over Archie Miller’s six seasons.
If there’s a hole in the resume, it’s that the Flyers don’t have a truly eye-popping win. Two wins against Rhode Island (one without Cooke) are nice, but Dayton came up empty in big games against VCU, Saint Mary’s and Northwestern.
Yet this is a team with a lot going for it in March. With an elite defense, veteran group and rock-solid point guard, no one will look forward to having the Flyers in their bracket.
Will Wade had an authentic moment on the league’s conference call this week.
As he phoned in, he learned in real-time that JeQuan Lewis had been named A-10 Co-Player of the Week. For him, it was about time.
“Finally!” Wade exclaimed.
While it might have been a bit tongue-in-cheek, it is surprising that it took until mid-February for a Ram to take home the award. Throughout the season, VCU has gotten star turns from a handful of players:
- Samir Doughty against Duquense on Jan. 4: 23 points, 9 assists, 7 rebounds.
- Jonathan Williams against St. John’s on Nov. 24: 22 points, 4 rebounds, 6 assists.
- Justin Tillman against GW on Jan. 11: 20 points, 13 rebounds.
- Mo Alie-Cox against Saint Bonaventure on Feb. 4: 20 points, 8-11 FG, 4 rebounds.
But Lewis has been the team’s most consistent force and is posting career highs in points per game (15.6), rebounds per game (3.1) and steals per game (1.8). Never was that more on display then against St. Joe’s, where his 34 points and nine three-pointers carried VCU.
And that leads to an interesting question. Other players - such as Jaylen Adams or T.J. Cline - might end up with better stat lines, but should the best player on the league’s best team (if it does end up that way) be in the running for A-10 POY?
Explorers a late season threat?
There was a time that the Explorers looked like a sexy upstart pick.
Can that be revived? Their 2-6 stretch from Jan. 22-Feb. 15 coincided (save for one game) with Pookie Powell’s knee injury that caused him to miss six games. In La Salle’s get-healthy win against St. Joe’s on Saturday, the point guard played 26 minutes and was solid all around (13 points, 3-7 FG, 7 rebounds, 3 assists).
Powell takes great care of the ball and has the eighth best assist rate in A-10 play (27.5%). He’s a vital cog in an offense that relies on three-point shooting and spacing to create lanes for guys like himself and Amar Stukes.
With him back, the Explorers play URI and three teams below them in the standings to finish the regular season. La Salle still has major holes, such as a three-point defense that’s been abused all year. But the recipe is there for some momentum heading into the league tournament.
Is something brewing at Duquesne?
You don’t need to squint to see the future at Duquesne.
According to Maurice Joseph, it will include - at some point - an All-League guard in Mike Lewis.
“He’s very quick and fast with the ball,” Joseph said on the league conference call. “He’s a really good shooter and has a quick release. When you’re a small guy and play small your whole life you get a knack, get an understanding how to create separation and get your shot off.”
The freshman from St. Louis has been dynamic in league play. He’s averaged 16.2 points per game and shot 42.7 percent on 82 three-point attempts, including six-for-seven in last week’s 30-point win over UMass.
He’s teamed with fellow freshman Isiaha Mike to create an exciting, young inside-outside duo. And there’s help on the way, as the Dukes welcome in two well-regarded Florida prep prospects next season.
Fordham’s surprising rise
The Rams have come a long away in five weeks.
They dropped their first three A-10 games amid a stretch that saw them lose nine out of 10. It was at this time that Fordham’s KenPom rating cratered to 234, and the season seemed lost.
But no more. The Rams win at Rhode Island - which Danny Hurley called the worst loss he’s been a part of at home - was their best of the year, and their third KenPom top-100 in A-10 play. At 6-8, the Rams have been far from an easy out.
Javontae Hawkins has been a reliable first option offensively, and Joseph Chartouny has led a trapping defense that can take opponents out of what they want to do. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Fordham win a game or two in Pittsburgh.