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Atlantic 10 goes big-time with NCAA contenders, Brooklyn tournament
NEW YORK — For these four days in March, the not-so-mid-major Atlantic 10 Conference will be dancing with the big boys.
The league's tournament moves into the sparkling new Barclays Center in New York City. Two of its members are ranked, and three others are in good position to make the NCAA tourney.
If the A-10 indeed earns five bids, that could possibly tie it for third among all conferences, behind just the Big East and Big Ten, based on some current (and of course ever-changing) projections. Five would match the conference's record, set in 1997 and '98.
"The talent level, the coaching level is comparable to anybody," said analyst Bill Raftery, who will call the final for CBS. "If you win that conference, you're ready for the NCAA. You went through the mill."
But this is college sports in the 21st century, so just as much is happening off the court as on it. With the breakup of the Big East — playing its conference tournament 6 miles away at Madison Square Garden — the A-10's present, powerful configuration may be a one-hit wonder.
Longtime stalwart Temple is headed to join the Big East's football-playing members. Butler, Xavier and possibly others could latch on to the Big East's basketball schools.
"It's bittersweet," Temple coach Fran Dunphy said. "It's been a great relationship."
But if, say, A-10 newcomers Butler and VCU are reprising their historic 2011 NCAA semifinal in Sunday's title game, the here and now of the basketball will overshadow all that.
So deep is the conference this year that the Bulldogs — who own wins over top-ranked Gonzaga and No. 3 Indiana — are seeded fifth and failed to clinch a bye. They'll open Thursday against 12th-seeded Dayton.
With a win, Butler (24-7, 11-5) will face fourth-seeded La Salle (21-8, 11-5), which could use another impressive victory to ensure the Explorers aren't sweating on Selection Sunday.
La Salle coach John Giannini doesn't pretend to ignore all the bubble banter. But he reminds himself of one recent night when the Explorers won, yet their status suffered because two other NCAA hopefuls posted big victories. The next day, La Salle gained in projections without playing because some competitors lost.
"At the end of the day, the people you're on the bubble with, half win and half lose," Giannini said. "It's up to you to do your part."
Some tantalizing semifinal matchups are very possible. How about Temple against No. 25 VCU (24-7, 12-4)? Butler or La Salle against 16th-ranked Saint Louis (24-6, 13-3)?
"Looking at the bracket, it's easy to see what everyone has been talking about all year: how deep this league is," said second-seeded VCU's coach, Shaka Smart.
Those games are hardly guaranteed, though. The top five teams have lost a combined 11 times to the squads that finished sixth through 16th in the standings. (Only 12 schools qualify for the conference tournament.)
"It's wide open," Saint Louis interim coach Jim Crews said. "Every game in the A-10, you had to play well, and you had to earn things and had to get a few lucky plays."
Third-seeded Temple (23-8, 11-5), which was .500 in conference play in mid-February, is the hottest team heading into the tournament with seven straight wins. The Owls also bring the star most likely to thrill the Brooklyn fans with a hot shooting day. Conference player of the year Khalif Wyatt averaged 22.4 points against A-10 opponents and has reached 30 points five times.
Saint Louis, the regular-season champ, may not have a player break 20 during the tournament — and still win the title. Five players average between 9.8 and 12.9 points. They don't need to score a whole lot in allowing 58.4 points per game.
Junior forward Dwayne Evans is a force at 6-foot-5, averaging 14.5 points on 50.6 percent shooting with 8.6 rebounds in A-10 play.
Butler would need to win four games in four days for a title, but the Bulldogs are finally healthy after leading scorers Rotnei Clarke and Andrew Smith missed time because of injuries.
"That's what you really want to have going into these tournaments in March," coach Brad Stevens said.
One of the biggest stars of the weekend will be the venue itself, home of the NBA's Nets. A-10 officials have looked back in their records and can't find another tournament that had more media credential requests.
Raftery, a La Salle alum, predicts that unlike when the tourney was in Atlantic City, fans will stick around even after their school loses.
"The arena itself creates an added level of excitement," Smart said.
Long Island Rail Road is adding extra late-night trains to accommodate fans. Even Raftery plans to take public transportation to the final.
This week will prove whether the Big Apple is big enough for the fruits of two proud basketball conferences. Their decisive games won't conflict with each other, though — the A-10 semifinals are Saturday afternoon, the Big East final Saturday night, and the A-10 championship Sunday afternoon.
There are eight ranked teams and 13 strong NCAA hopefuls between the tournaments. For fans, it will be the last chance to see both leagues in their current configurations.
"Certainly if you mix the teams up with some Atlantic 10 teams playing Big East teams, I don't think it would be a one-sided affair," Smart said. "Maybe we'll see that in the NCAA tournament. Hopefully there will be a great amount of attention given to both tournaments, because they both deserve it."
By Donald Lambro
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