The clock hit triple zeros in Estero, Florida, and despite the deficit on the scoreboard all Tory Verdi could do is smile. His UMass Minutewomen stood toe-to-toe with the 13th-ranked Iowa State Cyclones, coming back from an 18-point hole at halftime to make the final of the Gulf Coast Showcase a one possession game before the tying shot rimmed out with just seconds to go. The Minutewomen began the season on a seven-game winning run, including victories over NCAA Tournament stalwart South Dakota State and undefeated Kent State before falling by five to the Cyclones. The 7-0 start before the Iowa State game was the best start to a season in over 50 years for UMass.
Tami Reiss has smiled plenty, too. From hitting triple digits against Merrimack to knocking off Virginia, her Rhode Island Rams surged out of the gates to open this season. Their only loss came to still-undefeated Long Beach State, ending a seven-game winning streak to start the season. With a roster comprised of seven transfers, all from mid or high major programs, the Rams have showed stifling defense, limiting opponents to just over 50 points per game while setting a single-game record for points scored. In the same vein as UMass, URI’s 7-0 start before the Long Beach State loss was a program first.
At Rose Hill, the record might not show it, but Fordham have also made their mark as a potential tournament team. The Rams (of the Bronx variety) defeated Michigan State and Houston while hanging tough through three quarters against a 6th ranked Baylor team, and despite their record of 4-3, Stephanie Gaitley’s team has a strength of schedule of 29.
Per RealTimeRPI, the Minutewomen, URI, and Fordham check in at 32, 33, and 38 in the country respectively. Warren Nolan’s RPI has UMass at 21, URI at 41, and Fordham at 45. Importantly, it hasn’t just been those three teams producing; the conference as a whole has gotten off to an abnormally fast start. Dayton picked up a Quadrant 1 win on the road at Purdue (the other two conference Q1 wins include UMass’ neutral site defeat of Kent State and URI over Princeton). George Washington has a record of 4-3 while playing the 23rd strongest schedule in the nation. VCU beat Washington, and have three games against top-70 teams coming up in the next ten days. After losing their first two games, Davidson has put together a five-game winning streak. Even St. Bonaventure, picked to finish last in the league, is 4-1 to start the season, albeit with four Q4 wins.
If the postseason started today, there would be a very good argument that as many as seven A10 teams could be in contention for NCAA or WNIT berths. With the league returning 18 of the 20 leading scorers from last year while adding several high-caliber transfers and first year players, coaches around the league knew of the potential this year’s A10 might have. The strong non-conference schedule for A10 teams across the board is just part and parcel of an across-the-board strategy to put the league in as strong a position as it has seen in years.
Importantly, a rising tide will lift all ships. When conference play begins, there is a vested interest across the league in having their average rating as high as possible. While rooting for the conference might be a tired cliché, it takes on extra importance in a NCAAW that has an immense Power 5 skew (of the 25 ranked teams, just three are from mid-major conferences: UConn, University of South Florida, and Florida Gulf Coast–and I would be open to the argument that the AAC and Big East are worthy of high-major consideration in WBB since the old Big East split anyway).
The remaining three weeks of out-of-conference play could well determine the eventual postseason fates of many A10 tournament hopefuls. Fordham has 3 Q1 games all at home; UMass, URI, and VCU all have one each, with a handful of borderline Q1/Q2 games that have the possibility to shift given other results. The A10 is going to be incredibly tight at the top come conference play, but the conference as a whole can continue to beat expectations to give as many teams as possible a shot at March glory. Don’t look now, but the A10 might be back.
For more A10 Women’s Basketball content, be sure to check out A10Talk’s weekly power rankings.
By: Nathan Strauss (@nathanpstrauss)