We’re inching closer and closer to March Madness, meaning it’s bubble talk time across the college hoops landscape. At this very moment, most of the discussion for the Atlantic 10 includes just three teams: Dayton, VCU and Rhode Island, perhaps no big surprise as those three were your predicted top-three heading into the season, both VCU and Dayton looking to extend NCAA tournament streaks with Rhody looking to break a 17-season tourney drought.
Currently only Dayton and VCU are predicted as tournament teams by the country’s two biggest bracketologists. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi and CBS’ Jerry Palm have both been floating the league’s two marquee programs around the 8-10 seed range the last few weeks. Both have Rhody fighting for inclusion in this year’s field, Lunardi putting the Keaney blue Rams has his fourth team in line for inclusion, Palm a slightly more optimistic two spots away from being included in the field.
A lot can happen between now and Selection Sunday. All three of the discussed teams have a minimum of nine games ahead of them with a maximum of 12, but the larger question being: would a two or even three-team NCAA tournament group make for a down year in the Atlantic 10?
The past decade the A-10 has sent an average of 3.5 teams to the NCAA tournament, a number skewed by a 2013 season featuring a 16-team A-10 followed by an outlier year where the conference somehow sent almost half the league — six of its then thirteen teams — to the dance. But as a 14-team conference the Atlantic 10 has averaged exactly three teams per year, meaning as disappointing as a three-team year could be, or even two for that matter, it’s about what the Atlantic 10 has been and will be.
A-10 NCAA TOURNAMENT BIDS THE PAST DECADE
2016: 3 (Dayton, Saint Joseph’s, VCU)
2015: 3 (Davidson, Dayton, VCU)
2014: 6 (Dayton, GW, UMass, Saint Joseph’s, SLU, VCU)
2013: 5 (Butler, La Salle, SLU, Temple, VCU)
2012: 4 (St. Bonaventure, SLU, Temple, Xavier)
2011: 3 (Richmond, Temple, Xavier)
2010: 3 (Richmond, Temple, Xavier)
2009: 3 (Dayton, Temple, Xavier)
2008: 3 (Saint Joseph’s, Temple, Xavier)
2007: 2 (GW, Xavier)
Note: Teams in RED no longer in Atlantic 10
But conference realignment has obviously shifted things around a good bit. The A-10 sent just two of its current teams to the Big Dance in 2007, but that season also saw current members VCU, George Mason and Davidson advance into the then 64-team field as members of the CAA and SoCon conferences.
NCAA TOURNAMENT APPEARANCES THE PAST DECADE
Saint Joseph’s: 3
Saint Louis: 3
George Mason: 2
George Washington: 2
La Salle: 1
St. Bonaventure: 1
Rhode Island: 0
If you add the NCAA tournament appearance rates of current A-10 programs you get exactly what we are looking at this year: 2.7 NCAA tourney teams per season. That’s where we are right now. The current A-10 is a conference that will hope to get three teams dancing per season, but may on occasion send just one lucky duo to represent the league.
IF YOU AIN’T MOVIN’ FORWARD, YOU’RE SPINNIN’ WHEELS
So how do we improve? There appear to be two realistic ways outside of hoping teams will do what they’ve proven incapable of consistently doing the past decade (and beyond).
The first is the Atlantic 10 drops back to a 16-game conference season, allowing A-10 coaches two more opportunities to better game the system using creative scheduling techniques that take advantage of the current heavily leaned upon RPI rankings system NCAA tourney selection committees currently use. That’s your best bet to increase the number of teams the A-10 sends dancing on any given season.
The other way — a less likely to actually happen way — is to expand, adding teams that have made NCAA tournament appearances a way of life the same way VCU and Davidson seem to have, the two teams who skew the current A-10’s NCAA tournament appearance rate over the past decade. But the problem there is an incredibly small pool of teams within the A-10’s geographical footprint from which to choose.
Would the A-10 reach as far west as Wichita, Kansas? Could they get creative with an East/West divisional conference that somehow does include those Wichita State Shockers, as well as the likes of the WCC’s best, Gonzaga and St. Mary’s?
I think only one of those scenarios is any bit likely, but the reality of not attempting to move forward would leave us with a conference that is just ahead of every other mid-major in terms of yearly bids and is one that features no team that has advanced past the first weekend of NCAA tournament action more than once this past decade.