A-10 Tournament Preview: Top Dogs
Butler has its sights set on an A-10 championship.
by Nick Rotunno
When: March 14-17
Where: Barclays Center, Brooklyn, New York
The planners of the 2013 Atlantic 10 Tournament have scored a tremendous venue. The sparkling Barclays Center, home of the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets, seats nearly 18,000 fans and is smack in the middle of New York City’s biggest borough. If all goes accordingly, it should be an exciting, professional-level atmosphere when the A-10 boys roll into town this weekend.
Once the basketball gets underway, No. 21 VCU, No. 16 Saint Louis and always dangerous Butler hope to contend for a tournament title. All three teams are skilled, well-coached, brimming with potential and have proven their merit during a long conference grind. Just a step below the favorites, squads like Temple, La Salle, Xavier and UMass will bring their best efforts to Brooklyn, knowing that their only path to the NCAA Tournament is the elusive A-10 auto-bid. Known for its tough, skilled brand of basketball, the Atlantic 10 will be fun to watch in NYC.
Virginia Commonwealth (24-6, 12-3) — Shaka Smart’s outfit is 12-3 in A-10 play and tied with St. Louis for first place. The Rams have won 23 games altogether this year, are currently ranked 21st in the AP Top 25 and manhandled former No. 20 Butler 84-52 last week. They’re good and it will be a surprise if they don’t go far in Brooklyn. VCU can score—78.1 points per game, 11th in the country—and defend about as well as anyone in the A-10. But enough numbers—Coach Smart is young, passionate and savvy. His enthusiasm inspires his kids, and he knows how to win high-pressure ballgames.
Butler (23-7, 10-5) — The Bulldogs haven’t had their best year at 23-7 overall and 10-5 in the A-10. But this is still theteamthat beat Marquette and North Carolina in November, Indiana in December and Gonzaga in January. As we all witnessed in ’10 and ’11, during its two improbable runs to the National Title game, Butler tends to rise to the occasion. The beautiful Barclays Center is a big stage and Brad Stevens—another young, driven head coach—will have these Bulldogs ready for the spotlight. Plus, senior guard Rotnei Clarke is among the top scorers in the conference (averaging 16.5 ppg), and Roosevelt Jones is an unorthodox player who keeps defenders off balance.
Saint Louis (23-6, 12-3) -– One of the big surprises of the 2012-13 season, the 16th-ranked Billikens are currently tied for first in the A-10 with a 12-3 conference record. Good shooting and terrific guard play are the hallmarks of this consistent squad, which scored an impressive victory over Butler at Hinkle Fieldhouse on February 22. The numbers won’t blow you away—68.6 points per game, about 45 percent on average from the field—but Saint Louis had won 11 conference games in a row before an overtime loss to Xavier last Wednesday. St. Louis is definitely one of the favorites to win this tourney.
La Salle (21-7, 11-4) — The Explorers garnered national attention in late January when they knocked off Butler and VCU in consecutive games. La Salle has slipped a little since that high-water mark, but still, this team has won seven of its last eight. Averaging 73.6 points per game, second-highest in the conference, the Explorers are offensively potent. Senior guard Ramon Galloway is averaging 17.8 ppg.
Xavier (17-12, 9-6) — With a 9-6 record in conference play, the Musketeers have been decent this year. Don’t overlook this squad, though, because Xavier has the talent to knock off the league’s best. Case in point: a 77-66 overtime win versus Saint Louis last Wednesday. The Muskies play Butler on Saturday in their last regular season game.
Players to Watch
Darius Theus, So.G, VCU — Star upperclassmen are common in the A-10 and this senior guard has the best assist-to-turnover ratio in the conference at 2.8. He plays about 26 minutes per game and is a key component of the Rams’s efficient, high-scoring offense.
Rotnei Clarke, Sr. G, Butler — A smart and versatile scorer, the senior guard has played heavy minutes for the Bulldogs this season and averages 16.5 points per game. He transferred from Arkansas two years ago, sat out a season, and is now Butler’s go-to guy. Whether shooting the three or driving the paint, Clarke is a playmaker.
Travis Taylor, Sr. F, Xavier — The Musketeers have a tough reputation and Taylor is one of the reasons why. The 6-8 senior is averaging 9 rebounds per game this season, best in the A-10.
Butler — Yeah, the Bulldogs have been inconsistent this season. But they’re gritty, fairly talented and have established a winning precedent. Honestly, any of the top five or six teams has a shot at winning the A-10 tourney this year. I give Brad Stevens’ group the edge, and not for any real quantifiable reason. More a gut feeling than anything else.