Conference play will tip this Saturday with the entire league in action, all seven games coming between 12:30 and 4:30PM EST. You’ll want to clear up your afternoon for that.
But before we begin conference, a few observations from the non-conference that I think will be interesting to think about heading forward.
IS RHODE ISLAND BETTER WITHOUT E.C. MATTHEWS PLAYING A STARRING ROLE?
Starting off with a controversial opinion/question right out of the gate, but consider this: Rhody’s best wins, Seton Hall and Providence, both came without Matthews on the floor. The Rams also competed well, coming up just short (68-64) at kenpom No.50 Alabama. With Matthews, the Rams are 3-1 on the season. They lost 88-81 at top-40 Nevada, dominated No.147 UNC Asheville and narrowly escaped Iona (123) and College of Charleston (116) in Kingston these past two games. Matthews posted sub-90 (not very good) offensive ratings in three of his four games and get this…has the worst overall box plus/minus on this year’s team at -6.5 and a career-low player efficiency rating of 9, the fourth worst on this year’s URI team. Woof. Chalk it up to a small sample if you want, but after you do that, consider that Matthews finished seventh in box plus/minus on last year’s team and was fifth his previous complete season.
Oddly enough…Rhode Island has been better this season with Matthews sidelined.
HOW MUCH BETTER IS RICHMOND THAN THEIR 2-10 RECORD SUGGESTS?
Hard to sugarcoat a 2-10 start to the season, but I think there are some reasons to think the conference’s worst record to this point in the season doesn’t have to mean an absolute cellar dweller year in the A-10 for the Spiders.
Fact: Richmond has played one of the hardest schedules of any A-10 team (seven games against top-100 teams). They weren’t ready for that without TJ Cline. It’s also a fact that Richmond looked horrible in their first two games of the season, getting blasted by both Delaware (kenpom No.215) and Jacksonville State (No.133) in the Robins Center. They also played poorly at home against a bad JMU team (No.241). Major red flags.
With that said, Richmond actually competed against four top-100 squads, something a good chunk of the A-10 hasn’t proven themselves capable of doing.
I’m not saying Richmond has any shot at competing for a league title, or even that they will finish in the top half of the league, just saying watch out for them as this year’s biggest banana peel because they are capable of beating almost anyone in this conference and probably a decent bit better than their 2-10 record suggests.
HOW MUCH WORSE IS DUQUENSE THAN THEIR 9-4 RECORD SUGGESTS?
Keith Dambrot is in the opening chapter of an attempted rebuild of Duquesne. The Dukes are 9-4, which is just their second best start over the last three seasons after a 10-3 start before going 6-12 in the 2015-16 race.
Of the Dukes nine wins this season, seven have come against sub-300 teams in what kenpom ranks the second easiest schedule in basketball. Duquesne has played no top-100 teams, has played just one top-150 team (a 10-point loss) and has two sub-240 losses.
Dambrot and Co. may eventually get there with Duquesne, but don’t be surprised if they come back to reality real soon with conference play beginning.
I can’t remember exactly where I ranked UMass in my A10Talk.com preseason ballot this year, but I’m pretty sure it was bottom-3. But you know what? McCall actually has these guys looking pretty solid.
A two-point road loss to Quinnipiac is pretty much the version of UMass I expected this year. I did not expect the version that has two top-70 home wins over Providence and Georgia. On top of those two wins, UMass also actually competed away from Amherst against top-60 South Carolina and BYU. UMass is shooting the ball well (53.6% EFG%) and defending and I think can pose a challenge to any team in this conference.
Circle home games against Rhode Island on Jan 30 and VCU on Feb 21 as two huge opportunities for the Minutemen as well as key conference race games this season.
VCU IS A TOP-3 TEAM WITH A FAVORABLE SCHEDULE
An 8-5 record and a No.93 kenpom ranking probably won’t jump off the page at ya as a threat to win the league, but I’d warn against sleeping on this VCU team.
Let’s start with that schedule. All five of VCU’s losses aren’t just to top-100 teams, but top-50 teams. The Rams competed in four of those five contests and actually led two of their top-35 opponents with under two minutes to play, letting both Michigan and Texas escape very late. You know how many top-35 kenpom teams there are in the A-10 at this moment? None.
Two of VCU’s losses, Seton Hall and Texas, also came without the services of top-5 players Malik Crowfield and Issac Vann. The Rams have seen the return of Crowfield for these last three contests (all wins), but are still waiting on Vann — who averaged 12.5 points per contest prior to injury — to return. He’ll likely return from a high ankle sprain early in the A-10 season, if not by Saturday in the Rams home opener against Fordham.
It remains to be seen if VCU can and will compete with Rhody and Bona for league supremacy, but worth noting they play that duo just once each, both games being played at the Siegel Center, giving them a serious A-10 race schedule advantage over the league’s other top teams.
FLYERS FLYING UNDER THE RADAR?
Dayton picked up no good top-100 wins in the non-conference, which will keep them well below the national radar they made their home under Archie Miller, but I think they have the potential to be a threat in this league as UD continues to figure out a new head coach and some key new pieces.
The problem? Dayton’s shot selection.
45.4% of Dayton’s shots are three-point attempts and that’s from a team that ranks 226th nationally in three-point percentage at 33.6%. Conversely, only 26.1% of Dayton’s shots are coming at the rim, an extremely low number for a team with Josh Cunningham playing in what’s supposed to be a starring role.
Dayton is finishing 57% of their two-point attempts, ranking them 26th nationally in that stat.
Feed the paint and watch how good these guys can be against a down Atlantic 10, especially with the backing of 13,000+ at UD Arena.
RANKING SATURDAY’S GAMES
1. GW v SAINT JOSEPH’S – The Hawks were picked to finish third in the preseason and both teams have played tight games against both good and bad teams. GW finished 11th in this year’s preseason poll but at 7-6 look quite similar to SJU, competing with Miami at the Smith Center and defeating a top-75 Temple team but were tested by some pretty bad teams and lost at Rider. Kenpom has this one as the closest thing to a coin flip on Saturday, giving the home Colonials at 53% chance of victory.
2. ST. BONAVENTURE v UMASS – UMass is playing well as of late but has yet to secure a road win this season. A road victory at Bona would certainly grab the attention of the conference while vaulting Matt McCall into an early Coach of the Year lead…but that of course is easier said than done against the team that may be playing the best basketball in the conference right now and is riding the high of a road win at Syracuse.
3. RICHMOND v DAVIDSON – I’ve got this one circled as my favorite trap game of the weekend. This will be the eighth top-100 teams Richmond has played over their last 10 games. The Spiders choked late to fall to No.97 Bucknell and couldn’t finish off No.96 Georgetown. They start a new season Saturday as A-10 play begins and will look to start the conference year off right against No.92 Davidson. I won’t be surprised to see Richmond finally get on the right side of a matchup against a top-100 team that has already lost two sub-200 road games this season.
4. DUQUESNE v DAYTON – The 9-4 Dukes get a shot at the defending A-10 regular season champs when hosting Dayton on Saturday in what will be the highest-ranked (if you can believe that at No.132) opponent Duquesne has played all season. Kenpom has this one a 1-point contest with Dayton coming out victorious. I’d take Dayton to cover that easily if you could bet on that spread, but hey, ya never know.
5. LA SALLE v SLU – Both teams have a bad loss, both a solid win and through 13 games it’s still hard to figure out this duo. Kenpom likes the Explorers, giving La Salle a 70% chance to win. I’d lean that way as well but think this could be a good game.
6. VCU v FORDHAM – The black and gold Rams have played four sub-200 teams this season, winning by double-digits each time. The Fordham Rams are 0-4 against the top-100 this season, but were semi-competitive in the majority of those contests. Just tough to see a team with three losses to sub-150 teams beating a healthy VCU at the Siegel Center.
7. RHODE ISLAND v GEORGE MASON – A 7-point home loss to William & Mary, a 23-point home loss to Georgia Southern, and 18-point home loss to Penn State and a late home escape of Morgan State makes of some of GMU’s recent sample. None of that bodes well for a road game against Rhode Island. Will we see the Patriots team that competed at Louisville or the group we’ve seen more recently? My guess is it’ll be the later, which means this one is likely not pretty.