- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Jamir Moultrie, of Bowie, was in seventh grade when he saw the Washington Wizards in person for the first time, venturing to Chinatown to see them play Milwaukee.

Now a freshman guard for La Salle in Philadelphia, Moultrie will be back in the area soon when the Atlantic 10 Conference tournament is held March 7-11 at Capital One Arena.

“It is really exciting,” the former Bishop McNamara High standout said of playing near home.

The Atlantic 10 Championship will be held in the nation’s capital for the first time, after staging the event in Pittsburgh last season and in Brooklyn from 2013-16. It will be a one-year layover by the conference, which is slated to host its signature event once again at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn from 2019-21.

The conference includes four schools at least 110 miles from Capital One Arena: nearby George Washington, George Mason in Fairfax and the University of Richmond and Virginia Commonwealth in Richmond.

“We don’t have to travel for it. Our fans can travel (nearby) and support us; it is easier for them,” said George Washington coach Maurice Joseph.

While the last-place Colonials (3-9 in conference play) and Patriots (5-7) will be glad to be close to campus, the tournament comes in a rare down year for the conference.

The Atlantic 10 has sent at least three teams to the NCAA Tournament in every season since 2008. That included six teams in 2014, the last time GW made the field. George Mason has not made the March Madness event in its first four seasons in the Atlantic 10, after jumping from the Colonial Athletic Association.

And the conference is in danger of being a one-bid league this March, especially if defending champion Rhode Island (12-0) wins the tournament and gains the automatic bid. Perhaps the best-case scenario for the Atlantic 10 is if someone such as Saint Bonaventure (8-4) or Davidson (8-4) wins the tournament title over Rhode Island, which seems a sure bet to gain an at-large bid if needed.

“The league is not nationally known in the metrics and bracketology right now,” George Mason coach Dave Paulsen said. “We are not perceived in the same fashion as past years and I get that; it is understandable. But I think it is a phenomenal league. I think what you are seeing is balanced quality in the middle and the bottom of the league.”

The Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) ranked the Atlantic 10 as the 10th best out of 32 Division I leagues as of Tuesday. Last season, the Atlantic 10 ranked eighth.

Last season, seven teams in the conference won at least 20 games and the overall record of the 14 teams was 250-200. This season, only Rhode Island has 20 wins so far and the overall conference mark is 176-167 vefore Tuesday’s play.

But Bernadette McGlade, the conference commissioner, isn’t fazed. A former basketball player at North Carolina, she has been the commissioner for 10 years.

“I think the caliber of play in the Atlantic 10 speaks for itself,” McGlade told The Washington Times, while watching host George Washington beat La Salle on Feb. 7 in Foggy Bottom. “URI, they are playing like they are an NCAA-ready team.”

Rhode Island was ranked No. 18 in the country last week by the Associated Press and entered Tuesday 12-0 in the conference following a win at home Friday over Davidson.

“This is unchartered territory for us,” Rams coach Dan Hurley told ESPN. “We have to able to handle the attention.”

Joseph feels there are several reasons for a down year outside of Rhode Island.

He notes there are new coaches at Dayton (Anthony Grant, a former VCU mentor); Duquesne (Keith Dambrot, the high school coach of LeBron James); Massachusetts (Matt McCall); and VCU, where Mike Rhoades was a former assistant before becoming the coach at Rice.

VCU (7-5, 15-10 overall) has made it to the NCAA field every year since 2011, but will need to win it all in the District to continue that streak.

Joseph also points out a lot of young players, including freshmen, are playing key minutes for many teams.

Meanwhile, McGlade has been encouraged about ticket sales for the tournament, and hopes for at least 9,000 fans per session. She said the first night will include an appreciation of first responders, with an education theme during the Thursday afternoon session March 8 and a salute to the military during the Thursday evening session.

Atlantic 10 Executive Associate Commissioner Keith Gill, the former athletic director at American, was in the District last week and announced, along with D.C. mayor Muriel Bowser, that more than 1,000 D.C. public school students will get tickets to the tourney March 8.

On the court, the Colonials are paced by senior guard Yuta Watanabe, who is from Japan and leads the team in scoring and rebounding. Mason junior guard Otis Livingston II is also among the top scorers in the conference, and had 14 points and nine assists Saturday as the Patriots beat the Colonials in Fairfax for the first time since 2010.

“There is so much parity in this league,” Joseph said. “No doubt we (as a conference) will get back to where we have been on a regular basis. We have to get some stability back.”

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