You know when fans, commenters, and media will call a team’s upcoming season “make-or-break” for the coach currently at the helm? I feel this way about the entire A-10 conference in 2019-20. The last two seasons of A-10 basketball have been some of the worst in recent memory. The league has gotten multiple teams into the NCAA Tournament since 2005 when 12 seed George Washington was the only representative program in the Big Dance. That means the conference has had at least one team good enough to earn an at-large bid in the last 14 seasons. However, last year had A-10 fans holding their breath. VCU entered the conference tournament as the sole school with a shot at making the NCAA Tournament without a league title in Brooklyn. Unfortunately for Ram fans, they fell in the quarterfinals to Rhode Island. Fortunately for fans of the league as a whole, 2 teams would end up dancing last year.
This is the 2nd straight season where multiple bids was no guarantee. Entering the 2018 A-10 Tournament, Rhode Island was a clear at-large team, and St. Bonaventure was right on the bubble and in need of a run in Brooklyn to get a guaranteed ticket to the Big Dance. URI ended up losing to Davidson in the conference tournament, St. Bonaventure snuck in the First Four, and the A-10 cashed in on 3 bids. This year is key for the Atlantic 10 making a postseason statement.
In some regards, this conference is hanging on by a thread. Power 5 schools expanding conference play (see the Big Ten) have made it increasingly difficult for A-10 schools to get quality games on their non-conference schedule. While home-and-home matchups with strong mid-majors has helped somewhat, most quality games come from preseason tournaments around Thanksgiving, and the rest of the A-10 non-conference slate becomes “please don’t lose at home to Wagner tonight, guys.”
I’d argue that Davidson, Dayton, VCU, Saint Louis, Saint Joseph’s, and Rhode Island did a very good job scheduling out-of-conference this year. George Mason also got some quality games on its schedule, but there are some important teams that couldn’t get any big games: see Duquesne and St. Bonaventure. I can tell you from experience covering this league, neither team will run the table in non-conference play even though both should be favored in most of their out-of-conference matchups. Luckily, there are ample opportunities for the projected teams at the top to build NCAA Tournament resumes right out the gate, but teams like St. Bonaventure are going to have a hard time getting an at-large bid without 26+ wins.
If this Power 5 scheduling trend continues, it’s going to be tough for A-10 programs to make statement wins in November and December in future years. That’s why establishing a history of making the NCAA Tournament is important. Preseason hype, whether we like it or not, can really set the stage for where a team’s evaluated throughout the season. If VCU starts the season ranked in the top 25 and doesn’t lose any games it really shouldn’t lose, you all of a sudden have a team creeping up on the top 15 heading into conference play. This creates big win opportunities for the rest of the league.
There are a lot of good seniors this season as well. Start with returning A-10 Player of the Year Jon Axel Gudmundsson, add VCU’s Marcus Evans, Issac Vann, and De’Riante Jenkins. Factor in George Mason’s Justin Kier, Rhode Island’s Cyril Langevine and Jeff Dowtin, and you’ll realize the league will lose a lot of promising talent after this season ends. You also have sophomore Obi Toppin who could very well leave two years early for the NBA Draft. After two years of what’s felt like “rebuilding” for the entire A-10, this is the season for the conference to make a statement. As I mentioned, the last two years have not been trending well. Fewer teams are competing for tournament bids, and the bottom of the league has been getting significantly worse. 3 or 4 teams making the NCAA Tournament this season is a reassertion that this league consistently has programs that can recruit, develop, and cash in on the success of talented players.
Whether or not the entire conference performs well is vital for future success of each individual program. League-wide success will encourage highly-touted prospects to choose A-10 programs. Successful coaches may be more inclined to stay if the league is on the rise. The games become more competitive and more worthy of being televised nationally. These are all obvious points, but it feels like now more than ever the league needs to assert itself and show it deserves respect. Or it won’t. I defended the entire conference last season on Twitter, and I found it hard to stand my ground when team after team lost embarrassing games before conference play. Members of the national college basketball media were quick to point it out.
I am at lunch. Will tweet you the league’s losses later. Many … aren’t pretty. https://t.co/M5sHR7RC2o
— Jeff Goodman (@GoodmanHoops) November 22, 2018
I’ve loved covering this conference through the good and the bad, and I hope this is a year to cash in on developing talent and favorable expectations heading into the season. If the conference wants the benefit of the doubt come Selection Sunday in future seasons, it needs to continue earning respect. I feel the league is on the upper end of Mid-Major conferences, but it is certainly not on the same level as the AAC in terms of top-to-bottom talent. I think this year is key in determining whether the last 2 seasons of A-10 basketball were simply a short-lived trend or the start of a decline in the conference overall.