It Is Not All Fordham’s Fault; Atlantic 10 Among Best Conferences in Nation

By DAN GARTLAND
STAFF WRITERA10 Logo

In college basketball’s caste system, the Atlantic 10 is classified as a “mid-major”, but this term does not do justice to the conference’s strength. In recent years, the A-10 has proven to be one of the toughest leagues in the nation.

“It is a major conference,” Fordham head coach Tom Pecora said. “I mean, when you’re rated in the top eight conferences in the country, you’re a major conference. The only reason we’re not considered a BCS [conference] is because we don’t have football.”

The conference ranks sixth in combined RPI, ahead of the SEC and only slightly behind the ACC. A-10 teams have a combined record of 127-54. Only two teams (Fordham and George Mason) are more than two games under .500 in the season. Saint Louis is ranked No. 12 in the nation with a record of 22-2. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi predicts four A-10 teams will qualify for the NCAA tournament.

“This league is as tough as it gets out there right now,” Dayton head coach Archie Miller said after his team’s victory over Fordham on Jan. 15.

Fordham has struggled to win A-10 games under Pecora. The Rams are 2-7 in conference play so far this season, and 7-41 in the previous three year’s combined.

“The league is no joke,” Pecora said. “The commitment to basketball at the schools in the top tier of this league is just very, very impressive. They’re not going to have down years.”

The top tier of the conference has been in flux, though. The recent wave of conference realignment has not spared the A-10. From 2005 to 2012, the league was comprised of the same 14 teams. In July 2012, the conference welcomed Butler and VCU, giving the league 16 members. But Butler, Temple, Xavier and Charlotte — four of the conference’s top men’s basketball programs, with 32 NCAA tournament appearances between them since 2000 — all left in 2013. With George Mason joining the league, the A-10 has 13 members this season.

Trevon Graham is a big reason why VCU is one of the best teams in the A-10 (Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia)

Trevon Graham is a big reason why VCU is one of the best teams in the A-10 (Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia)

In George Mason, the A-10 added a program with a bit of history itself. The Patriots are famous for having advanced to the Final Four in the 2006 NCAA Tournament, and were one of the premier programs in the Colonial Athletic Association.

But, transitioning to the A-10 has been difficult for George Mason. The Patriots lost their first eight conference games this season before finally beating Duquesne on Saturday for their first ever A-10 win.

“The addition of Mason wasn’t what everyone thought it would be — to this point,” Pecora said. “Mason’s a little shocked, coming from the CAA. That was the best job in the CAA for years, along with VCU and Old Dominion.”

Despite losing four storied programs, the A-10 is as strong as ever — maybe even stronger than it’s ever been, because many of the teams that remained are tougher this year.

Rhode Island went 8-21 last year but, with a month left in the season, is 11-13 this year. Duquesne was 8-22 a year ago, but has already racked up 10 wins this season.

Although, no team has had a turnaround as dramatic as George Washington. The Colonials were 13-17 last season and lost their two top scorers. Given their current record of 19-4, 2014 has been kind to them. Fordham got to see GW’s vast improvement first-hand this past Saturday when the Colonials smacked the Rams, 93-67, in Washington. Last year, GW won by only eight.

“I think they did it through transfers, which is something that we are challenged to do here,” Pecora said. “The two transfers, [Maurice] Creek and Isaiah Armwood, help tremendously. And they’ve just started a committee there headed by Randy Levine, the president of the [New York] Yankees, to upgrade athletics, but specifically to upgrade men’s basketball. They’ve got a couple million dollars in that. The place is impressive. We played down there last week, and they made upgrades in their facility. Obviously, the game-day experience is great.”

Winning on the road in the A-10 can be especially difficult. Fordham has only won one A-10 road game since Tom Pecora’s arrival in 2010.

“This is the type of league that winning a road game is almost worth two,” Rhode Island head coach Dan Hurley said after his team fell to Fordham in the Bronx. “It’s so tough to win one on the road.”

This season, Fordham is 7-4 at home, but only 2-9 on the road. The Rams took Richmond (currently in sixth place in the conference) to overtime at Rose Hill Gym in January. Perhaps most memorably, last season Fordham gave No. 11 Butler all it could handle before losing, 68-63.

“When you see the top teams in the league going to the bottom half of the league, the bottom third of the league, and having to fight for their lives to come out with wins, there’s no such thing as moral victories but it shows you how strong the league is,” Pecora said. “I think it also shows you how close the bottom teams are to turning the corner.”

“You’re a player or two away from that happening,” he said.