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Up is down, down is up in topsy-turvy Atlantic 10 Conference

- The Washington Times - Monday, January 30, 2012

Saint Joseph's basketball coach Phil Martelli usually begins his team's work day with a video clip of the Hawks' next opponent.

At this point, he figures he might have a better chance of grabbing players' attention with a look at the scrunched-up Atlantic 10 standings.

"If you thought Temple was a big game [last weekend], we have nine big games left," Martelli said. "We're going to do that every time we start our preparation."

The 14-school conference might be the nation's most unpredictable scrum of teams. Most teams are just shy of the midpoint of the 16-game league schedule, yet all but three enter the week within two games of the conference lead.

Sure, usual stalwarts Temple and Xavier are credible postseason contenders. But so is resurgent Saint Louis and up-and-down Dayton.

And that doesn't even touch on the three teams who share the A-10 lead at 5-2: The unlikely combination of La Salle, Massachusetts and St. Bonaventure.

It's led to hopes conference teams could earn four or five NCAA tournament invitations when Selection Sunday arrives in six weeks. That, of course, ignores the cannibalization of postseason hopes certain to occur over the rest of league play.

It's already unfolded to some extent, and it's why a league so accustomed to having one team roll through the regular season mostly unimpeded — the regular season winner went 14-2 or better in 10 of the past 12 seasons — is in the midst of a very different year.

"I think there's going to be some separation," Xavier coach Chris Mack said. "It may not be as much of a margin as there has been in the past, but some type of separation will take place, and the teams at the top will have a shot at being at-large candidates."

There is no shortage of possibilities who could position themselves for a place in the NCAA's field of 68. Temple, with nonconference defeats of Duke and Wichita State, is in the best shape. But six other Atlantic 10 teams rank in the top 70 of the RPI.

Even a few teams who struggled in nonconference play — such as George Washington (8-13, 3-4 Atlantic 10) — find themselves with reminders of how tight the league is.

"When we lost to La Salle last week, we'd have tied for first if we'd won," said coach Mike Lonergan, whose team followed a loss to the Explorers with a setback at Fordham. "Now, we're right down toward the bottom. Things can change quickly."

Several league coaches said Monday a simple trend — the ability of most teams to defend their home court — has added to the chaotic nature of the standings. Only three A-10 teams (Charlotte, Duquesne and Rhode Island) do not have winning records in conference play at home.

Whatever the reason for the jumbled nature of the league, it's the sort of season Martelli can't quite recall ever being associated with. And that's more than enough reason for him to keep showing the ever-changing standings to his team.

"You can't even tell what the biggest game is because they all have implications," Martelli said. "What this is going to look like March 5 or 6 when teams we didn't anticipate are not going to have a bye or are going to be on the road [in the first round of the league tournament], it's going to be really unbelievable basketball. I think it's tremendous for individual programs. Every team has to feel they're in this."

NOTE: Lonergan said it would be "maybe another week" before forward David Pellom returns from a left knee injury. Pellom, who is averaging 8.8 points and 4.7 rebounds, has missed the Colonials' last two games.

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