Let’s not sugercoat it. The Atlantic 10 has been disappointing this season, and it appears to be on track to be a single-bid league for the first time since 2004-05. Since then, the league has regularly toed the line the between being a league of Power 5/Big East/AAC quality and a really good mid-major conference. That’s not the case this year.
Currently, Rhode Island is far and away the best team in the league. The Rams have cracked the AP Poll this week, and sit and 7-0 in the league with no signs of slowing down. Barring a collapse, the Rams will be dancing for the second straight year.
The issue, however, is it doesn’t look like any teams will be joining them at this point in time. Now, that can certainly change, but the league’s performance to this point doesn’t lend much credence. St. Bonaventure still has an outside chance, but losing four out of five does not instill much confidence.
So what’s the issue? Well, the teams that have historically been reliable bets to make the tournament have not been up to snuff this year. VCU and Dayton underwent coaching changes and major roster turnover. Saint Louis has not been able build momentum under Travis Ford. Richmond lost some talent and has been battling injuries all season.
These things happen! But what if it’s not just a blip on the radar, but rather a sign of things to come?
What if the Anthony Grant and Mike Rhoades hires don’t pan out? Both Dayton and VCU have become staples in the NCAA Tournament and have the resources to operate like high-major programs. But both teams are hovering around No. 150 in KenPom this year. It very well could be first-year woes in a transition year, but if it’s not and the programs really have taken a dip, that’s when things become concerning.
Let’s look at Saint Louis in that same breath. The Billikens had a string of NCAA Tournament appearances early in the decade. The program seemed to be staying on course during the transition from Rick Majerus to Jim Crews, but Crews sputtered shortly after. Ford has not been able to get things going, and his program can’t seem to get out of its own way.
Duquesne has looked promising under Keith Dambrot this year, and it’s looking like that program is moving in the right direction. But consider this: Duquesne hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 1977. That’s no small turnaround task.
Davidson is another traditionally strong school, but a rough non-conference schedule has its at-large hopes looking dim. Missing the tournament this year would make it three straight years for Bob McKillop’s crew on the outside.
You’ll get programs like Saint Joseph’s, La Salle and UMass that make tournament appearances every couple of years. Those are important for the health of the league. None of them are making the tournament this year, though, unless they win the A-10 Tournament.
Let’s take a look at some of the criteria for the Atlantic 10’s NCAA Tournament teams since 2005-06.
Using some Kenpom data, we can get a general picture of what an Atlantic 10 team has to do to make the tournament. It’s important to remember that some of the years included programs like Xavier, Temple and Butler who eventually moved onto greener pastures.
Through the conference tournament, a team will need to win in the range of 22-24 games. In conference play, only two of those teams have finished with less than 10 wins: 2006 Xavier and 2008 St. Joe’s.
As far as Kenpom ranking goes, tournament teams will traditionally be in the top 50. Obviously the average can be skewed by teams that are ranked much higher or lower than the average, but we can get the general idea. Just two teams from this data set were ranked lower than No. 60 in Kenpom.
So how does this all apply to the Atlantic 10 this year? Well, we can start by looking at Kenpom rankings. Rhode Island sits No. 28, which feels right. The next highest team? That’s Davidson at 62 and then St. Bonaventure at 72. That concludes the list of teams ranking in the top 100 of Kenpom this year. If the season ended today, that would be the fewest top 100 teams of the Kenpom era.
Overall, the league’s record as a whole is also a little bit worse than it has been in recent years:
Taking all of this into account, you can start to see just how down the league is this year, and it’s fair to be concerned about the league’s future. It certainly feel like a new era of Atlantic 10 basketball is blossoming with so many new faces in the fold. The fear is that those new faces don’t find the same level of success that their predecessors found.
It would be silly to make any assumptions on the future of the league based on one year. Leagues and programs have down years. It happens. But it would be naive to think that things will return back to the norm just like that. The league is going to need its marquee faces to get back on track if the Atlantic 10 hopes to maintain its status as one of the best “mid-major” conferences in the country.
Until then, sit tight and enjoy the rest of the season. Who knows, maybe there will be multiple bids after all.