Ten conferences should get at least two bids to the NCAA Tournament this year, with smaller outfits like the Missouri Valley and Mountain West joining the big leagues. Of all those conferences, none will have a more intriguing battle for the regular season crown than the Atlantic 10. The unpredictability of the conference was on display Wednesday night. When the action wrapped up, four teams, VCU, Dayton, Davidson and Rhode Island, were all tied atop the conference at 11-4.
It all started with those latter two teams facing off in a game with that carried major bubble implications. Davidson entered the game on a five-game winning streak, the last two of which with Jack Gibbs back on the court after the star point guard missed a month of action with a knee injury. Rhode Island, meanwhile, was desperate for another top-50 win to burnish its thin at-large resume.
On this night, neither Gibbs nor running mate Tyler Kalinoski shot as well as he normally does. The duo went just 12-for-29 from the floor, allowing the offensively challenged Rams to hang around after being down by 12 early in the second half, and eventually to take at two point lead with just 27 seconds remaining. At that point, Gibbs, a 42.3-percent three-point shooter, was 0-for-3 from distance. Right on cue, he buried a triple from the corner with 13 seconds left, putting the Wildcats up by one. Jared Terrell missed a three on the other end, and Davidson came away with another strong win just weeks from Selection Sunday.
Davidson typically gets it done on the offensive end, but with Gibbs and Kalinoski shooting below their average, is the defense that starred in Rhode Island. The Wildcats forced the Rams, who headed into the game 291st in the country in three-point percentage, to shoot over the top, and they predictably struggled. Rhode Island connected on just one of its 19 three-point attempts, with E.C. Matthews accounting for eight misses on his own. When the Rams got the ball in the paint they had success, going 21-for-42 on two-point field goals. Hassan Martin, in particular gave Davidson fits, going 7-for-10 and pulling down 16 rebounds (seven offensive), but Davidson was able to make Rhode Island dependent on making threes to come away with a win.
With the win Davidson is now 2-3 against the top 50 and 6-4 against the top 100, having begun the week as one of our first four teams out of the tournament. If they can take care of business against George Washington over the weekend, they’ll have a chance to play their way into the tournament in the regular season with a win over VCU on March 5.
Speaking of VCU, they played one of the wildest games in any conference to date on Wednesday. The Rams came out completely flat against Richmond, with the Spiders jumping out to a 12-point lead at the midpoint of the first half. That lead would grow to as much as 16 in the second half, and with both Treveon Graham and JeQuan Lewis struggling, it looked like the Rams would suffer their worst loss of the season.
Even though VCU chipped away at the lead, they still trailed by eight with two minutes left in the game. From that point until the final buzzer of regulation, Richmond missed one field goal attempt, three free throws, and VCU had one last shot to tie the game, trailing by three with six seconds left. Then Graham did this.
It was the Rams who were in control late in overtime, scoring six straight points to take a three-point lead with just five seconds left. Shaka Smart instructed his team to foul, preventing a potential game-tying three. ShawnDre’ Jones made the first and missed the second on purpose, with the rebound going out of bounds off of VCU. A beautiful in-bounds play gave T.J. Cline a wide open layup for T.J. Cline, forcing a second overtime. From there on, it was all Richmond, resulting in the four-way tie at the top of the conference.
The Rams, who were the class of the conference have not been the same team since losing Briante Weber to a torn ACL. Each contender has three games remaining, but two of them, Davidson and Rhode Island, are on the outside of our current field of 68. With four games remaining featuring two of those teams (Rhode Island @ Dayton, Dayton @ VCU, VCU @ Davidson), this conference will likely come right down to the wire. The A-10 may not be one of the strongest conferences in the country, but it certainly will be the most exciting in the final weeks of the regular season.