If you had told me on February 11, when the Selection Committee revealed the then-current top 16 seeds in the NCAA Tournament, that the Atlantic 10 would be a three-bid conference, I’m not sure what I would have thought. I know for a fact that I would have thought you were lying, though. At that time, it was looking for sure like Rhode Island would be the conference’s lone representative come March.
Since then, however, a lot has changed. St. Bonaventure ripped off a 13-game winning streak. Rhode Island lost three of its last five games to end conference play, including a humiliating 30-point 78-48 loss to Saint Joseph’s that ruined the team’s Senior NIght. And the Davidson Wildcats knocked off the regular-season champs twice in the final two weeks, including the title game.
All three of the above teams were included when the field of 68 was announced on Sunday. Rhode Island grabbed a 7-seed — the highest in program history. Conference champion Davidson earned a 12 and St. Bonaventure an 11, though the Bonnies were relegated to a play-in game on Tuesday night.
Let’s take a look at each A-10 representative’s first-round matchups and chances of winning. [Disclaimer: Percentage chances listed are not based on BPI, Pomeroy, or any other predictive metrics. They are simply an approximation.]
(11) St. Bonaventure Bonnies
First opponent: (11) UCLA (play-in round, tonight at 9:10 PM EDT, TruTV)
Despite a disappointing loss to eventual champion Davidson in the A-10 semifinals, the Bonnies were able to slip into the NCAA Tournament. However, they were relegated to the domain of SWAC and MEAC champions: the play-in round. The Bonnies are matched up with the Bruins of UCLA, whose selection over Pac-12 rival USC has been the source of much controversy.
UCLA finished its regular-season and conference tournament play with a record of 21-11 overall (11-7 Pac-12), and a final RPI of 36, while the Bonnies ended up at 25-7 (14-4 A-10) and 25th in RPI. The teams have averaged 81.9 and 77.9 points per game respectively and have surrendered 76.3 and 71.0 on average, again respectively. St. Bonaventure is no stranger to the UD Arena, having faced the Flyers there in each of the last three seasons. It will be interesting to see if the Dayton-area crowd turns out to support its A-10 brethren. In 2013, La Salle became the first A-10 team to play in the opening round, winning 80-71.
Ultimately, the outcome of this game rests on Courtney Stockard. The junior guard suffered a hamstring injury during St. Bonaventure’s 83-77 win over Richmond in the conference quarterfinals and is listed as a game-time decision. Without him, the Bonnies suffered their second-largest loss of the season (12 points) the following day. They can still win without Stockard, but doing so will be much tougher against a UCLA team with wins over Cincinnati and Michigan, champions of the AAC and Big Ten, respectively.
Prediction (without Stockard): UCLA 81, St. Bonaventure 74
Prediction (with Stockard): St. Bonaventure 79, UCLA 77
Bonnies’ chance of advancing: 44%
(12) Davidson Wildcats
First opponent: (5) Kentucky (South Regional First Round, Thursday at 7:10 PM EDT, CBS)
Heading into the A-10 Tournament, the Wildcats knew that the only way into the NCAAs was to win the conference. To do so would be no easy task, requiring upsets of second-seeded St. Bonaventure and top-seeded Rhode Island, both of which were receiving votes in the AP and USA Today polls. Catching fire at the right time, Davidson was able to pull off this impressive feat, slotting into the bracket on the 12-seed line.
The 5-12 upset has become something of a tradition come March, and the ‘Cats are this year’s trendy pick. Grant Labedz wrote about this here. I won’t spend too much time repeating Grant’s argument, but to summarize, it breaks down into three major points. Davidson is more experienced, with a core group of seniors, compared to Kentucky’s team, which is statistically the youngest in Division I. Additionally, it benefits from superior defensive rebounding and free-throw shooting.
If Davidson were facing any other 5-seed, there would be no doubt in my mind that the Wildcats would be moving on to the second round, and possibly the second weekend. However, Kentucky is coming off a victory in the SEC championship over 3-seed Tennessee, ranked by the committee as the tenth-best team in the country, and a blowout defeat of 8-seed Alabama. Both teams are rolling right now but barring any injuries, Kentucky should still be considered the favorite. An upset is not impossible, but I’m not willing to bet on it unless it’s a close game. If it comes down to the wire, experience will trump talent and Davidson will prevail.
Prediction: Kentucky 77, Davidson 72
(Davidson) Wildcats’ chance of advancing: 47%
(7) Rhode Island Rams
First opponent: (10) Oklahoma (Midwest Regional First Round, Thursday at 12:15 PM EDT, CBS)
Although they faltered a bit down the stretch, the Rams still ended up with the highest seed in program history. Rhode Island will look to improve on last year’s performance, in which they upset 6-seed Creighton before falling a possession shy of shocking 3-seed Oregon. This year, the road to the Round of 16 will be equally difficult, with the Oklahoma Trae Young as the first obstacle and the Duke Blue Devils looming should the Rams emerge victorious on Thursday afternoon. Let’s take a closer look at that first-round matchup.
Oklahoma started the season off unranked but climbed as high as #4 in the AP Poll before beginning a dramatic backslide that left the Sooners on the bubble heading into the season’s final weekend. Throughout the year, the team’s fates have rested on the performance of one player: Trae Young, the first athlete ever to lead the NCAA in scoring and assists in a single season. When he is on his game, the freshman is one of the game’s most electric players and the team plays like an NCAA-caliber squad. Oftentimes, however, his surname is only too fitting. He may be the star of this team, but he is only a freshman and has experienced prolonged cold streaks over his initial season with the Sooners. During these lapses, Oklahoma has looked nowhere close to tournament-level.
Ultimately, I have URI taking this one. The Rams are far more complete and well-rounded than the Sooners, who live and die by Young. The experience factor discussed in the Davidson section will work in Rhody’s favor, too. A senior-heavy (and more talented) team should easily be able to take down one with a freshman star and his supporting cast. It won’t necessarily be an easy win, but I fully expect Rhode Island to pull it out.
Prediction: Rhode Island 81, Oklahoma 75
Rams’ chances of advancing: 64%
Overall, all three A-10 teams have legitimate shots at winning at least their first game in the NCAA Tournament. Nothing will be easy, of course, but I fully believe that at least two of the conference’s three representatives will win at least once. No matter how they fare, this season can only be considered a huge success for the Atlantic 10. In just a month, it went from a projected one-bid league to a three-bid one, in a “down year” nonetheless. The next few days should be a treat for all fans of the conference.