10 Out-of-Conference Games That Will Matter Come March

Finally, finally, finally! College ball is back. Even though the season has yet to tip off, it’s already time to start talking about March, especially for teams in non-BCS leagues where out-of-conference games can determine a team’s postseason fate. As Steve Dimiceli thoroughly described, the A-10 is by no means a mid-major conference. Yet, it does not have the national attention, reputation, and, dare I say, talent of BCS conferences. Schools in BCS conferences have ample opportunities to show their worth to large audiences in conference play, whereas smaller-conference teams need to take advantage of their out-of-conference slate. Below is a chronological list of 10 out-of-conference games and pre-season tournaments that will help shape the A-10’s road to March before conference play begins.

VCU – Tennessee, Nov. 14, Annapolis, Md.
The college season opens with a bang, as VCU and Tennessee play in the first game of the nationally televised Veteran’s Classic doubleheader. The A-10 stalwarts will be the favorites, but Tennessee, a middle-of-the-pack SEC team, will be vying for an early signature win to put on its resume. Donnie Tyndall, who is replacing Cuonzo Martin, will be looking to stabilize a Tennessee program that had a shaky offseason given Martin’s sudden departure. A win against VCU would certainly help. Also, this will be the first chance to see VCU’s highly touted freshmen class, already considered to be Shaka Smart’s best ever. Check out Brian Keiper’s detailed and thoughtful preview.

St. Joe’s – No. 13 Gonzaga, Nov. 19, Spokane, Wash.
Phil Martelli lost a lot – namely Ronald Roberts Jr., Langston Galloway, and Halil Kanacevic — from last’ year’s squad that should have almost beat UConn in the Tournament. But DeAndre Bembry, last season’s A-10 co-rookie of the year, should explode this season. I mean, just check out his highlights:

And then there is this:

Despite Bembry’s promise, I expect the Hawks to be outside the field of 68 come March. They do, however, have a great opportunity early in the season to steal a win at Gonzaga, which could be Mark Few’s best team yet. Outside of the Hawks’ traditional Big 5 games, the Gonzaga game is their sole exciting out-of-conference contest.

Dayton at the Puerto Rico Tip-Off, Nov. 20-23, San Juan, P.R.
Dayton lost a lot of last year’s team that caught fire in March, and knocked off three BCS teams before falling to Florida in the Elite 8. Still, the Flyers return two of the A-10’s top players: Jordan Sibert and Dyshawn Pierre. Despite Dayton’s revamped roster, don’t expect the Flyers to fall off much, if at all. We’ll get a chance to see this new Dayton squad against good competition early in the season, when it plays in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off. The Flyers open against Texas A&M. If they get past the Aggies, which they should, they would then most likely meet UConn in the next round. Although the Huskies lost Shabazz Napier, the heart and soul of its National Championship team, Ryan Boatwright should pick up where Napier left off. This game would be a huge opportunity for the Flyers to show last year was not a fluke. A quick A-10 side note: George Mason is on the other side of the bracket, and opens against West Virginia.

Rhode Island – Nebraska, Nov. 22, Kingston, R.I.
Dan Hurley inherited a mess when he took over Rhode Island in 2012. The promise land could still be a year or two away, yet we should start to see a rise from this talented but young team this year. 2014 Atlantic 10 all-freshman team members Hassan Martin and E.C. Matthews will welcome top-100 recruit Jared Terrell to an improving Rams team. The Rams, however, have little time to gel. After tune-up games against Pace and UMass Lowell, the Rams welcome Nebraska, another team on the rise, into the Ryan Center. This game is absolutely crucial for the Rams, given they then travel to Orlando for the Orlando Classic where they will face Kansas in the opening round. A win against Nebraska could give the Rams the momentum they need to hang with the Jayhawks. Conversely, a poor showing could mark the beginning of an early-season rough patch.

UMass at the Hall of Fame Tip Off, Nov. 22-23, Uncasville, Conn.
Like Dayton, UMass will be trying to prove last year was not an anomaly, and its weekend doubleheader against Notre Dame and Florida St. will be an early opportunity to make its case. Despite losing Chaz Williams and Sampson Carter, UMass should be fighting for an at-large bid come March. Both Notre Dame and Florida St., picked to finish 7th and 8th, respectively, in a loaded ACC, expect to make the tournament, too. For UMass, a weekend sweep is realistic, and spilt is acceptable, and a winless weekend is intolerable.

Richmond – North Carolina State, Nov. 26, Raleigh, N.C.
Expectations are high for the Spiders. They played the final 11 games last season without their only two seniors, Cedrick Lindsay and Derrick Williams, so experience will not be an issue for this junior-led team. Then add transfer T.J. Cline and freshman Khwan Fore to the mix, and this Richmond team looks like it should be in the mix for an at-large NCAA bid. Richmond, however, lacks any true opportunities for impressive out-of-conference wins. Richmond will play in the Gotham Classic at Madison Square Garden in December, which could have been an opportunity to play a top team in the world’s most famous arena. Instead, Richmond drew Pepperdine. I’m sorry, Waves’ fans, but a neutral court win over Pepperdine won’t impress many people. That leaves N.C. State as Richmond’s most difficult out-of-conference contest. No games in November are must-wins, yet a win in Raleigh over a middle-of-the-pack ACC team could be enough to push the Spiders into the field of 68.

UMass – Harvard, Nov. 29, Boston, Mass.
Who would have thought five years ago that a win over Harvard would be a resume-building win? Yet under Tommy Amaker’s reign, Harvard keeps getting better and better. According to Pat Forde, Harvard’s preseason ranking marks the first time in 40 years that an Ivy has cracked the preseason poll. UMass, however, has an early opportunity to spoil Harvard’s expectations, and Derek Kellogg’s squad, led by Cady Lalanne, Trey Davis, and Derrick Gordon, has more than enough talent to do so.

St. Louis – Wichita State Dec. 6, Wichita, Kan.
Last year, the Billikens came about as close as anyone to knocking off Wichita State in the regular season, losing by five in a back-and-forth game. This year’s St. Louis team, however, looks much different than last year’s. The five Billikens who played the most last year are gone, leaving Jim Crew with a completely different squad. It’s hard to even gauge how this team stacks up to the rest of the A-10 since, well, there’s not a whole lot to measure. On the other hand, Wichita St. returns its stellar backcourt of Ron Baker and Fred Van Fleet. St. Louis will undoubtedly be a big underdog when it visits Wichita, but this game could serve as a measuring point to see how much St. Louis has fallen.

VCU-#9 Virginia, Dec. 9, Richmond, Va.
When these teams met last year, they played about as ugly as a game could be. Yet the ending made up for it:

Hopefully the two teams will clean up the first 38 minutes or so, and give us another great finish. This game and VCU’s clash with Villanova are its best opportunities to prove it is a top-10 team.

George Washington at the Diamond Head Classic, Dec. 22-25, Honolulu, Hawaii
The Colonials lost leading scorer Maurice Creek and leading rebounder Isaiah Armwood, yet they are still loaded coming into this season. Kethan Savage, Patricio Garino, and Kevin Larson, all of who averaged double-digit scoring figures last year, should lead George Washington back to tournament. Aside from its game at UVA, George Washington’s best opportunity to shine in out-of-conference play could come at the Diamond Head Classic. The Colonials should beat Ohio in the first round, which would most likely set up a semi-final game against Colorado. A win over the Buffalos would likely set up a clash with either Wichita St. or Nebraska – two teams who would be the favorite over the Colonials, but two teams George Washington could certainly beat.

Jack Nicholson is a rising junior at the University of Richmond. He is the sports editor for The Collegian, University of Richmond's student newspaper...