and VCU have helped elevate the Atlantic 10 to widespread respectability. (Mike Lawrie/Getty Images)
BROOKLYN - The Barclays Center roared into halftime of Saturday's Atlantic 10 semifinal between No. 23 VCU and George Washington, much of the VCU-backing crowd drawn to its feet by the first period's final play, when Rob Brandenburg buried a three from the wing to give the Rams a 33-31 lead. It was another thrilling play in a tournament that had already featured Jordan Gathers' buzzer beater in St. Bonaventure's upset of Saint Louis, and Langston Galloway's controversial, maybe-pushed-off three to push Saint Joseph's ahead of Dayton, its NCAA tournament bubble compatriot. But as she stood in a courtside tunnel, the buzz from Brandenburg's three giving way to an on-court game of Simon Says, A-10 commissioner Bernadette McGlade was not completely enjoying the ride.
"It's kind of excruciating," McGlade said of the weekend. "We're having a great championship, but I feel the pressure like all these coaches. We just want teams to win and get in a position where we not only get our [automatic qualifier in the NCAA tournament] but we get the at-larges."
Sunday night might provide some relief. Depending on how the bubble sorts itself out by the time of the selection show -- and specifically on whether the committee smiles upon the at-large resumes of Saint Joseph's, should they lose Sunday's title game to VCU, and Dayton -- the A-10 could be on the verge of setting a new league record with six NCAA tournament bids. That would surpass last year's five, the third time the conference had reached that high-water mark. Six bids would also likely rival or even surpass the number of invites doled out to the blue bloods of the Big Ten and ACC, and almost definitely top the Big East and American Athletic conferences. No league outside of the six traditional power conferences has placed that many teams in the tournament since Conference USA in 2004.
That's not bad for one of the conferences seemingly hit hardest by the frenzied expansion and realignment of power conferences over the past few years. Most damaging were the departures of stalwart Xavier, a 14-time NCAA tournament team since arriving in the A-10 in 1995, and expected new crown jewel Butler, which spent just a year in the A-10 before bolting for the new Big East. Joining them on the departure list were Temple, a perennial tournament contender that joined the AAC, and Charlotte, a 2005 arrival that headed to Conference USA. Both schools left primarily to benefit their football programs. But McGlade and co. were proactive in bracing for such shifting, scooping up not just Butler (however briefly) but also fellow 2011 Final Four Cinderella VCU and 2006 national semifinalist George Mason from the Colonial Athletic Association, as well as perennial tourney contender Davidson (which begins play next season) from the SoCon. Add increased visibility from a cable package that includes ESPN, NBC Sports Network, and CBS Sports Network and a league championship game broadcast by CBS on Selection Sunday, and the A-10, at least now, looks stronger than it had been before being raided.
"A lot of people thought with those teams leaving we wouldn't get those bids," said GW coach Mike Lonergan. "I told my friends hey, Saint Joe's, UMass -- these people are getting a lot of guys back, and I thought we could be pretty good. I'm a little surprised we might get six, but I knew we'd get four or five."
The A-10's strength this season has come not from the dominant teams it periodically produces (John Calipari's top-ranked UMass teams in the mid-1990s, the Saint Joe's squad that went undefeated in the 2004 regular season, even the George Washington outfit that swept the league in 2006) but from a relatively balanced cadre. The league's six tournament candidates -- VCU, Saint Louis, GW, UMass, Saint Joseph's, and Dayton, the first four presumed safely into the tournament -- rank among the top 58 in Ken Pomeroy's efficiency-based rankings. Among that group are a number of resume-building non-conference victories: VCU's early win at Virginia, GW's upset of Creighton in a Thanksgiving tournament in California, Dayton's win over Gonzaga in Hawaii, and UMass's wins over New Mexico, Providence, and Nebraska.
Every team invited to dance adds another bit of credibility, another chance for a talented recruit to associate a school with a path to the game's greatest stage, not to mention another tourney-money payout to the conference and its members. But in terms of perception, just getting there only does so much. While all five of the conference's tournament teams won their opening games last season, only La Salle -- a 13 seed -- advanced to the Sweet 16, and the A-10 has not sent multiple teams to the tournament's second weekend since 2004. In that span only Xavier, in 2008, reached the Elite Eight. Just one of its teams, Marcus Camby's 1996 Minutemen, has ever reached the Final Four while a member. Any of this year's crop could win multiple games, but there is no obvious candidate to break through to Arlington and seize the national stage on the conference's behalf. Yet McGlade is less concerned with what happens in the tournament than with being well represented. "My philosophy has always been that the goal is to get in the bracket," McGlade said, "and the teams can do their work."
Not everyone is enthused about the A-10's impending dance party. "Come on," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said at a post-game press conference Saturday about the A-10's potential half-dozen bids. "I mean, they’re good, but put them in our conference and go through the meat grinder." He has a point: the conference ranks eighth in Ken Pomeroy's rankings, slightly behind the SEC and American Athletic. (The A-10's likely counterpoint: It is nipping at the ACC's fifth-place heels in the RPI.) And without teams in the game's top tier, the perceived standing of the Atlantic 10 nationally may still be well below what its level of postseason participation would suggest.
Last spring, the conference sought to change that by partnering with the ad agency 160 Over 90 on a campaign themed "Who Wants Next?" to boost the A-10's cachet. Launched in February (and earning a New York Times write-up even before that) it features T-shirts, print ads, branded hashtags, and videos voiced by slam poet Saul Williams in web videos and commercials slated for national TV, one of which takes on the backhanded compliment of being labeled a postseason Cinderella: "Anyone who thinks this is make-believe, we make believe."
More threatening than an ACC coach's words is the ACC itself. When the Atlantic 10 moved its conference tournament from Atlantic City, N.J., to Brooklyn beginning last year, the idea was to draw the attention of a massive media market and syphon prestige by associating itself with the bright lights of the nation's largest city. But SI's Pete Thamel reported yesterday that the ACC is finalizing a deal to play its championship tournament at Barclays Center when the A-10's agreement expires in 2017, which could reportedly bump the A-10 tournament to earlier in the week or to another site altogether. McGlade declined to comment on the topic Saturday, instead referring to a statement she released following the report: "At this time, there is no announcement related to future tournaments. This weekend is about crowning our 2014 A-10 champion."
It is also about seeing who will join that champion in a tournament of the very near future. Just like last year, McGlade said she and a half-dozen conference staffers will spend Sunday evening in a suite at the Brooklyn Bridge Marriott, having changed into comfortable clothes and ordered dinner from a local pizzeria as they settle in for the NCAA tournament selection show. There they will watch with "baited breath" to find out how many of their teams made the committee believe, cheering as each school appears on the screen, and then they will join the rest of the country in watching the teams do their work.