Though it flies under the radar compared to some of the bigger conference tournaments, the A-10 Men’s Basketball Tournament has had some great basketball over the past decade. And as it goes in March, anything can happen. Only two top seeds in the last 10 years have gone on to win the conference’s automatic NCAA tournament bid: Temple in 2010 and St. Louis in 2013. Every other #1 seed has either not made it out of their first game or lost in the semifinals.
As with last year, Dayton and VCU have the top two seeds in the tourney, earning a double bye along with #3 Richmond and #4 Rhode Island. All four teams will be in action Friday beginning at noon when the Flyers take on the winners of Thursday’s first matchup between #8 La Salle and #9 Davidson. Expect a high scoring game. The other game set for Thursday, which will have the winner face VCU at 6 pm on Friday, has #7 George Mason taking on #10 Fordham, two teams trending in opposite directions as of late. #5 St. Bonaventure will take on the winner of #12 UMass and #13 St. Joe’s, who meet in the first game of the tournament. After winning two of the last three A-10 tournament titles, the Hawks season was derailed after losing leading scorers Shavar Newkirk and Lamarr Kimble to injury. UMass only won four games in conference this year, but one of those was against the Flyers. The host for this year’s tournament will also play on Wednesday night as #14 Duquesne faces #11 St. Louis. These two teams faced two years ago in the opening round at the Barclay Center when the #11 Dukes beat the #14 Bilikens 61-55, Jim Ferry’s only tournament win as coach.
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So will Dayton be able to reverse the trend and make a run at the crown or will we have another surprise winner steal the automatic bid. Let’s take a look at the teams with the best shot at winning the title.
The #1 seeded Flyers roll into Pittsburgh fresh off their second straight A-10 regular season title. However, they come into the tournament fresh off only their third conference loss of the season, an 87-81 loss at George Washington Saturday which snapped a nine game winning streak. At 24-5 on the year, Dayton is pretty much a lock to get a NCAA berth. But don’t expect this veteran squad, who was picked to win the A-10 in the preseason, to be looking ahead, especially in their head coach’s hometown.
Former WPIAL great Archie Miller’s team is based around three seniors: forward Kendall Pollard, guard Charles Cooke and guard Scoothie Smith, who combined for 43.9 points per game this season. Cooke has delivered this season after being named preseason first team all-conference and all-defensive team, a big reason why they are the number one scoring offensive and number two scoring defense in the A-10. If I’m Dayton, I am rooting for La Salle to knock off Davidson. The Wildcats top two scorers Jack Gibbs and Peyton Aldridge averaged over 20 points per game this season while hitting about 9 threes a game.
The Flyers should have plenty of support from their faithful this week. When Dayton played Duquesne at PPG Paints Arena back in January, almost half the fans in attendance were supporting the visitors. There should be even more this week in Pittsburgh as they look for their first tournament title since 2003.
It was business as usual this season in for the Rams. Another NCAA bid is almost certain after they finished 24-7 and 14-4 in the A-10, joining Dayton as the only teams to go undefeated at home in conference play. This program hasn’t let up since Will Wade took over for Shaka Smart two years ago, making the tournament finals last season before losing to St. Joe’s.
Though VCU isn’t the biggest team inside, they are still one of the toughest teams down low. Junior forward Justin Tillman ranks second in the A-10 in rebounds with 8.3 per game while senior forward Mo Allie-Cox is second in blocks with 2.2 per game. Don’t be surprised if you see some NFL scouts taking in any of the senior forward’s games this week. Many consider him to have a future at tight end in the NFL. Senior guard JeQuan Lewis leads the Rams in scoring with 14.3 points per game. Tillman and Alle-Cox have averaged double figures as well. With an easier road, in my view, than the other top seeds, the Rams should have the chance to win their second tournament title since joining the A-10 in 2012.
Dan Hurley’s team has had one of the most up and down years of any team in college basketball this season. After being picked to finish second in the conference while earning the only Top 25 ranking (#23) to begin the year, the Rams started the season 4-0 culminating with versus ranked Cincinnati. They would go onto lose four of their next six to Duke, Valparaiso, Providence and Houston. Outside the Duke game, which they lost by 10 on a neutral floor, the three other losses were by 5 points or less, all on the road. However, their rough stretch in December has these battle tested Rams playing their best basketball heading into the tournament, winning their last five heading into Pittsburgh.
Currently sitting on the outside of the NCAA tournament field, Rhode Island will need to advance to the championship game to ensure their place at the table. Having the best defense statistically in the A-10 will help make that a possibility. They have held teams this season to under 30 percent from beyond the arch. Senior forwards Hussan Martin and Kuran Iverson have made the Rams one of the best rebounding teams down the stretch in the conference. And if you were wondering, yes Kuran Iverson is the cousin of Basketball Hall of Famer Allen Iverson. If the Rams hope to earn their first NCAA tournament bid since 1999, the Rams will need big performances from Iverson, Martin and junior guard E.C. Matthews, who leads the team with 14.4 points per game.
There have been four college basketball games played at the PPG Paints Arena this season. In all four outings, at least one of the teams’ struggled from three at some point in the game. Pitt missed every shot in the second half of their game vs Duquesne, finishing the game 3-22. The Dukes themselves went 3-21 in their loss to Dayton, who themselves went 2-9 in the first half before settling in with 6 three’s in the second half. To cut to the chase, the team that finds their stroke this week in Pittsburgh will go on to hoist title on Sunday. Don’t be surprised if teams like George Washington or even Davidson make a run with some hot shooting.
Despite not mentioning them above, my prediction for the A-10 final Sunday is George Washington vs Dayton. The Colonials won the NIT last season and create one of the biggest matchup nightmares in the conference with graduate forward Tyler Cavanaugh and 6-foot-9 swing guard Yuta Watanabe. But in the end, Archie Miller will finally bring an A-10 tournament crown back to southwest Ohio. It’s only fitting he gets his first title in the place he knows all too well.