Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Atlantic-10 Conference Tournament Preview

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The Atlantic-10 Conference was the surprise league this year, as it started out as one of the best conferences in the country, with a handful of teams getting double-digit wins in the non-conference portion of the season. However, down the stretch, the contenders essentially knocked each other out of the league race by beating up on one another. Xavier ran away with the title, going 14-2 and finished with a three-game lead. Temple and Massachusetts had double-digit wins, while eight teams finished between 7-9 and 9-7.

Favorite: There’s no question about who the clear-cut favorite to win the conference tournament is right now. Xavier has been one of the better teams in the country throughout the season, and could be in-line for a top-three seed come Selection Sunday. The Musketeers won 17 of 18 games from late December until early March. They are a very balanced team led by senior guard Drew Lavender, one of the most underrated point men in America. Josh Duncan is a tough match-up in the frontcourt, while Derrick Brown is a supremely athletic rebounder and finisher. B.J. Raymond and C.J. Anderson are solid wings, and Stanley Burrell can shoot well from three.

Contenders: Massachusetts is playing some of the best ball in the conference, as the Minutemen have won six in a row heading into the tourney. Gary Forbes and Ricky Harris are one of the most prolific wing duos in the country, as they combine for nearly 40 points per game. Chris Lowe is an underrated point guard who can do it all. Etienne Brower leads the way in the frontcourt with his scoring and rebounding. Saint Joseph’s have lost four of its last 10 games heading into the tourney, but the Hawks are fighting for their NCAA Tournament lives and will be motivated. Pat Calathes is an extremely difficult match-up due to his size and range, while Ahman Nivins is one of the best post players in the conference. Rob Ferguson is another double-figure scorer up front. Tasheed Carr is a very solid all-around player; Darrin Govens can shoot. Although Temple doesn’t have much of a shot at an at-large bid, the Owls finished second in the conference and have some momentum after winning their last four games. Dionte Christmas is a big-time scorer who can carry Temple, while Mark Tyndale is tough to stop going to the basket. Freshman Lavoy Allen is the go-to player up front.

Sleeper: If you had asked me three weeks ago who the sleeper in this conference is going to be, I likely would not have said Dayton. At the time, the Flyers had lost eight of 11 and were just 5-8 in league play. However, they won their last three games of the season and are playing well. Brian Roberts is one of the best guards in the country, while Marcus Johnson is another solid guard. The key will be the health of freshman Chris Wright; he hasn’t played since early January but could return soon. If he comes back, look out.

Prediction: A couple of months ago, this looked like a league that could potentially get five bids in the NCAA Tournament. However, as mentioned above, they have eaten each other alive, leaving just a handful of teams even in contention for berths. Therefore, there is a lot on the line this week. Most of the bubble teams need to win two games to feel comfortable about their status; Xavier is merely playing for a three seed. One might expect the Musketeers to fall early due to complacency – wrong. Xavier is the best team in the league and can win in any type of game. I expect them to get the automatic bid, knocking off Massachusetts in a tough title game.

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