- The Washington Times - Friday, November 17, 2000

PHILADELPHIA This is no way to celebrate a silver anniversary.

The Atlantic 10 turns 25 this season with no teams ranked in the preseason Top 25, a dismal conference rating, an unbalanced league schedule and a potpourri of marginal talent destined for the Continental Basketball Association.

An aggressive public relations offensive in the 1990s hyped the A-10 as being equal to the Big East. These days the newly created Mountain West Conference earns more respect than the A-10.

TV analyst Dick Vitale rates the Mountain West as the nation's eighth-best league over the A-10, which Vitale says is No. 9. The RPI, a computer index used to rank teams and conferences, has Conference USA rated higher than the A-10.

"The preseason polls I think do a lot for interest and we absolutely need them, but in some way you wish they weren't around because it's really tough to predict," said A-10 commissioner Linda Bruno. "Last year we had five teams in the Top 25, and after a couple weeks teams fell out and people were saying, 'Oh, my God, what's going on with the Atlantic 10?' You can't win either way."

Winning is the operative word. Last season the league went 6-14 against the Big East, 2-6 vs. the Big Ten, 8-8 against Conference USA and only 84-69 overall against outside opposition.

"Until [A-10 teams] go out and beat people, I don't know if more than one school is going to the Big Dance," said Digger Phelps, an ESPN analyst and former Notre Dame coach. "They didn't show up until March last season. I thought Temple was a Final Four team and Seton Hall cut that off. The conference doesn't have the same flair as it did three or four years ago. Now it's time to show it on the court."

Without a league power, the A-10 will toil in mediocrity. Hope of getting on par with the Big East or ACC will remain a dream. During the A-10's heyday of the 1990s, Massachusetts carried the flag. John Calipari's Minutemen went to the Final Four in 1996 and the Elite Eight in 1995. Center Marcus Camby, national player of the year in 1996, led UMass to a 35-2 record and an avalanche of exposure.

"I think sometimes when your better teams aren't the best teams, people look at your league differently," said UMass coach Bruiser Flint. "The last two years, we haven't been one of the better teams, so people say the league must be down. Plus, you've got to have some marquee players, too."

The definitive perception of the A-10 is its players. No longer do James Posey, Lamar Odom, Eddie Jones or Camby trod the A-10 hardwood. Therefore, without a recognizable talent, the league's reputation is scrutinized. How can the A-10 be any good if it doesn't have any players?

"The marquee players in college basketball are no longer surefire pros," said St. Joseph's coach Phil Martelli. "There is an all-American team in the paper today. Tell me how many of those guys are rock-solid, dead-certain pros? Those guys come a year and leave early. We're fortunate in this league that we don't get one-year wonders. We get guys that stay. The whole game of college basketball has changed. So, the idea that our league will be measured on pro prospects, I don't see it."

What is happening in the A-10, is the byproduct of the changing face of college basketball. Each year numerous blue-chip high school all-Americans bypass college and go straight to the NBA. That means many of the top 20 recruits who would ultimately land at Duke, North Carolina or Michigan are cashing in for NBA riches.

The basketball factories need players. Now the super programs go out and recruit lesser-tier players that would normally end up in the A-10.

Also, with so many players leaving the big programs early and declaring themselves eligible for the NBA Draft, there is constant personnel turnover in the top programs. Unfortunately for the A-10, the league's recruiting area overlaps into Big East, Big Ten and ACC territory. The A-10 doesn't have enough clout to go mano a mano with a conference like the ACC.

"These kids are all leaving early, they're leaving out of high school, they're leaving after their freshman year, and now the NBA is going to form a new league where you don't have to go to college, you can go straight and play in the instructional league," said Fordham coach Bob Hill. "Every time you turn around, these great centers in high school are all going pro. With the new [NCAA] legislation, if a coach leaves and to go somewhere else and he has a good recruiting class coming in, those kids can all leave and go to the instructional league now."

With the defection of Virginia Tech to the Big East, the A-10 will have only one division this season instead of its traditional East/West alignment. The one division will be only for this season and will break back into two season when Richmond joins the conference. With a one-division alignment, schools that normally would play a home-and-away schedule with teams in their own divisions now are forced to play home-and-away games with the better teams from the other division.

For example, George Washington is scheduled for home-and-away games this season against Temple, UMass and St. Bonaventure all former East Division teams that GW would normally play only once as a member of the West. Come NCAA tournament selection time, the one-division schedule could adversely affect the A-10's at-large bids.

"With the new format and not being being two divisions, it might make us look a little different," said Duquesne coach Darelle Porter. "Before, there were always two champions, the East and the West, and two schools that came in second place. Now, if you come in fifth or sixth place with that same record, it might hurt you, where in the past, you might have finished second with that same record."

However, the bottom line for the image-conscious A-10 is hype. If the college basketball talking heads and other media outlets don't buy into the conference, who actually will? Temple coach John Chaney believes ingrained traditional loyalties are hard to break.

And then it all gets back to winning. The A-10 doesn't help itself by losing to teams from the super conferences in head-to-head battles.

"The leagues around the country are the same leagues, the ACC is the same league, the same recruiters of the blue-chippers, the Big Ten, they're always the guys who are at the top and they are always the guys who are thought of by the same guys who come from those leagues," Chaney said. "Until we reach a stage where we're consistent at what we do in terms of winning, especially against teams from the outside, we will shake up some people in terms of their views about the Atlantic 10."

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