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February 5, 2008

SCS.comThere was a time when Atlantic Ten fans enjoyed sending multiple teams to the NCAA Tournament year after year. Marcus Camby and John Calipari took Massachusetts to the Final Four. John Chaney and his Temple squads would annually knock-off Final Four contenders, while teams like Saint Joseph’s, Xavier, Rhode Island, Dayton, George Washington, and even Saint Bonaventure would find themselves in postseason play come March. Then the conference seemed to hit a low-point. Temple and Massachusetts were struggling, Rhode Island and Saint Bonaventure were abysmal; the Atlantic Ten and its terrible television contract looked like a conference in disarray.

However, entering this season, the Atlantic Ten, coming off possibly its worst season just a year ago looked to be infused by new blood amongst the coaching ranks over the past several seasons. Headlined by Rick Majerus, one of the top coaches over the last two decades, Fran Dunphy, who dominated the Ivy Leage at Penn, and an up and comer in Travis Ford. Although Majerus has had his fair share of rough moments thus far at Saint Louis, it’s only a matter of time before they are a conference favorite. Ford seems to have the Minutemen looking to contend for a NCAA Tournament berth, and Dunphy has Temple playing its best basketball in a few years winning five out of its last six games.

With less then a month left before March is upon us, the Atlantic Ten can quietly hope for five bids to the Big Dance. Xavier seems to be playing for a protected seed, while Saint Joseph’s, Dayton, and Rhode Island all find themselves in a solid position, while Massachusetts, Charlotte, Temple, Duquesne, and Richmond have to be taken seriously in Atlantic City when the conference tournament rolls around. It’s safe to say, the Atlantic Ten is well on its way to returning to traditional form and closing the gap on the Big Ten, the least impressive of the supposed power conferences.

Any talk of the Atlantic Ten has to start with Xavier. The Musketeers have carried the torch for the conference over the past few years, and once again look to be the conference’s elite. Widely considered a top 15 team, it is nearly impossible for Xavier to contend for a seed on the top line, but it is not impossible to think that they can reach a number two seed and most certainly a top four seed should they finish the year as strong as expected. The Musketeers still have to travel to Dayton, Rhode Island, and Hawk Hill, while also hosting Saint Joseph’s. If they get through those three extremely tough road games unscathed, this is a team that will warrant Final Four talk and even more.

As usual, Xavier challenges its opponents with a well balanced attack that features six players averaging double digits in scoring. The heart and soul of the team is 5’7 Drew Lavender, the undersized guard gets in the paint almost with ease and creates opportunities once he is there. Inside, they are strong, with a pair of 6’9 players who can help on both ends of the court. But the key to their team may be their team rebounding, no team in the country rebounds as team better than the Musketeers.

For the early part of the season, it seemed as if Xavier would receive most of its competition from Dayton and Rhode Island, both posted gaudy records and looked well equipped for March. However, Dayton has stumbled as of late thanks to untimely injuries and seems destined to join a plethora of teams on the bubble waiting to see their name pop-up on the television March 16. Rhode Island has remained steady and is just a game back in the Atlantic Ten standings while posting a 19-3 record. Coach Jim Baron’s guards are as good as any in the conference and have a brute in Will Daniels manning the post.

Similar to the Musketeers, Rhode Island rebounds as a team very well. While the Rams have kept their momentum in the right direction, as noted before, Dayton has struggled. After racing off to a 14-1 start, Dayton has put their name square on the bubble dropping four out of their last five and has not showed any signs of righting their ship. Next up for the Flyers is a stretch with road trips to George Washington and LaSalle and home contests with Charlotte, Duquesne, and Temple before Xavier comes to town for its in-state rivalry. This is undoubtedly the most important stretch of the season for Dayton and certainly need to win four out of five heading into their clash with conference’s marquee team or risk finding them in quite a tailspin.

Tied atop the standings with the Musketeers is Saint Joseph’s. It is not insane to think this Hawks team is the most talented in the conference. Do-it-all swingman Pat Calathes has come of age. The 6’10 guard can score, rebound and penetrate while keeping every player on the court in the flow of the game. Saint Joseph’s is most certainly a team that will create match-up problems for whoever draws them in the first round; that is if Saint Joseph’s sees the first round. Despite a solid record and a very talented team, the Hawks’ best wins have been a pair against Massachusetts making Philadelphia’s “Holy War” on Monday evening with Villanova extremely important and their last chance for a quality non-conference win. Luckily for Phil Martelli though, his squad does get two cracks at Xavier, and one with both Rhode Island and Dayton. The Hawks need to grab a couple of those wins to feel confident about their chances heading into the conference tournament.

We have taken a quick look at the Atlantic Ten’s top teams, so how many bids can the conference really garner? To be honest, it is anywhere between one and five. Should Rhode Island stumble, while Saint Joseph’s, Dayton and company do very little to bolster their résumés, while Xavier runs right through the conference tournament, the Atlantic Ten will see their worst fear realized and only get one bid. But that is pretty unlikely. Saint Joseph’s is too talented not to notch a few big wins against the conference big boys, so they appear to be tournament worthy.

Three teams appears to be certain as Rhode Island has showed no signs of missing out on a bid by doing nothing more than playing steady basketball on their way to a potential 25-26 win season. Now it gets tough, where can a fourth bid come from? The most obvious team appears to be the stumbling Flyers. The Flyers look to finish around 9-7 in the conference, with a 21-8 mark overall. Should that be the case, Dayton will need a run to the conference semifinal to get that fourth bid despite out of conference victories over Louisville and Pittsburgh.

Heading into the season, four bids seemed to be nothing more than a prayer for Atlantic Ten backers. But five bids? Not even Linda Bruno could have hoped for a fifth bid. The four teams previously discussed are the ones with the highest chance at an at-large bid; Massachusetts and Charlotte have an outside shot. But should the previous four teams take care of their business and all the chips fall into the correct place allowing four at-large bids, it is not too far-fetched to think that Duquesne, Massachusetts, Charlotte, or Temple can not win the Atlantic Ten Tournament earning the conference a fifth bid. Five bids would be a huge step for the conference in its hope of returning as the top mid-major.

Barring a disaster, it appears that the Atlantic Ten will send multiple teams to the big dance, but in all honesty, anything less than three would be a major disappointment. Four seems to be a reasonable goal for the conference and secretly Atlantic Ten fans and administrators will hope for five bids. Only the last month of the season will tell what the Atlantic Ten’s postseason situation will look like, but tonight’s Saint Joseph’s versus Villanova game kicks off what looks to be an extremely exciting and crucial span for the conference as a whole.

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