In a season where few teams have been actual surprises to start the year – Ole Miss, Miami (Fla.), Saint Mary's, Drake, among the most notable – the most impressive group start has to be from the Atlantic 10, where the conference is off to its best start since St. Joseph's stole the hoops spotlight in 2003-04.
Huh. Has Jameer Nelson really been in the NBA four years? Doesn't seem that long ago when Nelson was leading St. Joe's to a 30-2 season and just missing out on the Final Four. His Hawks and Xavier, which also reached the Elite Eight that season, helped make the A-10 one of that season's big stars.
That hasn't been the case for the A-10 the last few years.
The league was ranked 15th, 11th and 10th in conference RPI the seasons following St. Joe's run. Usually a multiple-bid conference, only George Washington and Xavier have made the NCAA Tournament the last three years, a reflection of poorer league play as others, like the Missouri Valley and the Mountain West, featured deeper and far better teams.
This year, the A-10, which has two ranked teams in this week's AP poll in Dayton and Rhode Island, is just behind the MVC in conference RPI. A-10 teams have a .632 winning percentage against non-conference foes, the league's best since 1997-98. More impressive are the teams the teams at the top. UMass and Xavier join Dayton and R.I. in the top 25 in RPI – tied with the Big 12 for most teams in the top 25.
(For those who quibble with the RPI – which has its problems, but is one of the main considerations when it comes to at-large bids for the NCAA Tournament, so you have to reference it – the A-10 isn't as hot in pomeroy ratings or on bbstate.com. Only Xavier is in Pomeroy's top 25; St. Joe's and Xavier are ranked in bbstate's top 25.)
And few saw starts like that coming.
The Flyers (11-1) are off to their best start since 1955-56, when they won their first 14. Wins against Pitt, Louisville and an underrated Miami (Ohio), with an All-American caliber player in Brian Roberts give them a good chance at a run in the Big Dance.
Rhode Island (13-1) has an even more historic start, its best since 1946-47. The Rams' only loss is to B.C., and have beaten Providence, Syracuse. They're not as impressive on paper as Dayton, but can't be overlooked.
Both will be gunning for the A-10 title, but Xavier, UMass, St. Joe's and even Duquense (8-3, its best start since 1979-80) could make that conference race interesting for once. And maybe even result in 3-5 bids in the NCAA Tournament.
Now that would be a pleasant
surprise reward for a proud hoops league.