It has been oft-uttered in sports that if you want to be the best, you have to beat the best.
And that certainly will be true in the Atlantic 10 conference this season. The A-10, which bills itself as the best basketball-only league in the country, never has been stronger in its 36 previous seasons.
The A-10 returns eight 20-win programs, all of which finished well inside the top 100 ranked teams in the country last season according to realtimerpi.com. Add to that incoming members VCU and Butler, which have reached three Final Fours combined in the last three seasons, and you have the making of a formidable 16-team conference.
“There’s no kind of strolling in and taking a win, whether it’s a home or a road game,” Saint Joseph’s coach Phil Martelli told Philahoops. “It’s a very deep league, a very balanced league.”
With their entire seven-man rotation back from a 20-win team, the Hawks are among the teams that could take home the A-10 tourney title in March at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, where the league will move its tournament after a six-year run at Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall.
But that list is long and includes perennial league front-runner Temple, which finished 20th in the country in RPI last season, St. Louis (31), Xavier (31) and UMass (77). Dayton (81) and La Salle (87), along with St. Joe’s (69), also could be contenders while defending league tourney champ St. Bonaventure (73) figures to take a step back with the graduation of star big man Andrew Nicholson.
VCU (38), a 2011 Final Four contestant coming off a 28-6 season, and Butler (116), back-to-back surprise NCAA runner-up in 2010 and 2011 prior to a down 18-14 campaign last season, certainly can’t be overlooked.
That’s nine teams that, on paper, have a realistic shot at winning the A-10 tourney title. And new head man Dan Hurley has been making headlines with his recruiting efforts at Rhode Island, while Philly native Chris Mooney’s Richmond squad should be improved and always is a tough opponent.
“The challenge is that the league continues to get better,” La Salle coach John Giannini told Philahoops. “I looked at nine teams that in my opinion could be in the NCAA tournament based on what they have coming back. Not much is going to separate 1-9 or 10 in the conference this year.
“Everyone is talking about how good the top of the league is. The bottom of this league is better than what you see in a lot of the other power conferences.”
The high quality of the league does have its drawbacks. It also means that there will be good A-10 teams that won’t reach the NCAA tournament, figuring the league will get at least the four bids it got last season means five of those nine above-mentioned teams could be left on the outside looking in.
“Every coach and every player wants to play against the best and you want to play in a league where you can get 4, 5, maybe 6 teams in the NCAA tournament but sometimes you have to watch what you wish for too,” Giannini said. “Once you get what you want, it’s not an easy task at all.”
For Giannini and the rest, though, the positives surely outweigh the potential negatives.
“I welcome it and I think players do,” Martelli said. “I think players want to play in real meaningful games.”
Just ask them.
“It’s just great competition,” Temple wing Scootie Randall, who will be returning after a medical redshirt last season, told Philahoops. “You should love playing against guys like VCU, they made it far in the tournament. And it’s just good competition. More chances to show what you can do.”
“This is probably going to be the most competitive the A-10 has been in a long time,” Owls teammate Khalif Wyatt told us. “St. Joe’s is going to be good, UMass is going to be really good, not to mention VCU, Butler and Xavier, La Salle. I think it’s going to be a real competitive league.”
Not that they wouldn’t anyway, but the high level of competition expected in the league this season has the three Philly A-10 coaches putting in proper preparation for a grueling winter.
“You better fiercely defend your home court and you better go on the road with a mentality that you’re just mentally and physically tougher than your opponent,” Martelli said. “If not, you’re going to get knocked on your (butt) every single night in this league.
“…We have to play every night like it’s our last night. I know it’s a cliché but that’s what it has to be. You’ve got to be able to get yourself emotionally, physically and mentally prepared for that next challenge.”
Temple coach Fran Dunphy might have said it best.
“It’s what has been placed in front of us,” he told Philahoops. “We are equal parts excited and having the appropriate fear.”
-Philly A-10 schedule: While the league hasn’t announced dates for league games, the home and away opponents have been released.
St. Joe’s and La Salle will host Butler and travel to VCU, while Temple will play host to Shaka Smart and the Rams and travel to Indianapolis to face Brad Stevens and the Bulldogs.
The Explorers, with tough road games at Xavier, St. Louis and Temple in addition to VCU, appear to have the toughest schedule of the three.
The Hawks’ notable home games will be against Xavier and Temple, with Martelli telling Philahoops that the game against the Owls once again will be played at Hagan Arena as it was last season. Prior to last season, St. Joe’s traditionally played that home game at the Palestra but was moved to its on-campus home to reenergize the fan base and increase the home-court advantage, according to Martelli.
In addition to VCU, the Owls will host St. Louis. Temple will be leaving the A-10 following this season for the Big East.
Click HERE for the entire list of A-10 home and away matchups.