Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Atlantic 10 Tournament: Six Takeaways

Eleven Games, Four Days, One Winner...
...16 winners actually. The entire Atlantic 10 Conference won as Commissioner Bernadette McGlade made the decision to switch the conference tournament site from Atlantic City (every inch the gracious host for the last six years) to the brand new Barclay's Center just across the Brooklyn Bridge from Madison Square Garden. The Big East have their Garden Party, but the A-10, five of whose members garnered NCAA bids on Sunday evening offered a host of interesting matchups for their four day Coming Out Party last weekend. Covering the tournament for another publication, I was able to enjoy four terrific days of basketball as the Barclay's Center debuted as a conference tournament venue.

1. "Our whole style of play is to get the other team rattled" -- Shaka Smart after his team lost to Saint Louis in the A-10 Tournament Final. On the strength of their HAVOC defense the Rams were able to climb out of a 45-32 hole and close to 46-45. VCU used a combination of a full court press and half court traps to force the normally unflappable Billikens to turnover the ball without a shot, and quickly convert those turnovers into points at the other end. The Bills, like Temple the weekend before, exhaled, posted a big (usually Loe or Dwayne Evans) along the middle of the back court and swung the ball inbound to the opposite side from the inbounder. Once in, the ball handler (usually Jett or Mitchell) would draw the second defender and then to the big posted in that middle zone. Press broken, Saint Louis had to insure not to pass to a forward posted too close to the sideline or midcourt line, which would inevitably draw the second VCU defender for a trap. How many tournament teams have the experience and ball handling skill to counter the Rams' press? Akron for example (VCU's next opponent) has a freshman and sophomore oriented squad that turns over 20% of their possessions without a field goal attempt. The Zips will be in for a long night Thursday...

2. Saint Louis Will be a Tough Out -- "...they have all of the ingredients of a team that can make a run in the NCAA Tournament: They are very well coached; they have older guys that don't get rattled; they're good inside; they're good outside and they defend" -- Shaka Smart after the A-10 Tournament Final. The Billikens drew a #4 seed Sunday, giving them #12 seed New Mexico State, the 24-10 winner of the Western Athletic Conference championship in the opening round on Thursday in San Jose, California. Both Saint Louis and New Mexico State have been there before, but the Billikens having advanced to the field of 32 last time, are ready to go farther.

3. The Atlantic 10 is a Very Deep Conference -- The conference matched it's all-time high for NCAA bids with five Sunday, but also advanced three teams, Charlotte, Massachusetts and Saint Joseph's, to the NIT which kicks off Tuesday (tonight). Richmond, eliminated in a controversial opening round match with Charlotte Thursday, will try to improve it's 18-14 in the CBI Tournament. Xavier, which had it's NCAA run stopped at seven consecutive this season and was snubbed for the NIT, passed on a CBI invitation. Had the Musketeers accepted, the conference would have had 10 of 16 members playing after Brooklyn.

4. Saint Joseph's Has a Hard Time Coming Back -- Coach Phil Martelli's Hawks squad was the conference coaches' favorite going into the season. Well stocked at all five positions, the Hawks have the option to "go big" with Aiken, Kanacevic, Roberts and a backcourt of Jones and Galloway, or "go small" by starting sophomore Chris Wilson beside Galloway and Jones, and bringing Aiken (or Roberts) in off the bench. Blessed with that flexibility, the Hawks nevertheless need to take the lead and control the game flow to insure a successful outcome. Of their 13 losses this season only three were by six or fewer points (ie 1-2 possessions), leaving this observer with the impression that, given their offensive system requires multiple screens and/or picks to develop a shot opportunity, falling behind poses a larger than usual obstacle to putting points on the board quickly. Although they cut Virginia Commonwealth's 10 point half-time lead to three (and then back to four) Friday night, the Hawks were effectively out of the game when they fell behind by 13 after Halil Kanacevic picked up an offensive foul (change of possession) and a technical with 11:22 left in the second half. The Rams added two more 90 seconds later, pushing their lead out to 15. Though the Hawks finished with a 36-24 run, they were not really in it, trailing by double digits with 94 seconds left and by at least two possessions, until Langston Galloway nailed a three point attempt with 13 seconds left to cut the deficit five. The play that netted center Papa Ndao his eighth three of the season took nine seconds to develop. Facing a Saint John's team (in the Battle of the SJUs?) in the first round of the NIT, the Hawks will have to guard the shot and control the boards to insure the Johnnies don't jump ahead quickly on them.

5. The Subway and Schedule Gave the Media Choices -- The media turnout Saturday was larger than I remember in Atlantic City. By starting their first semi-final game at noon and their second second semi-final before 5:00 pm, the Atlantic 10 was able to draw the considerable New York City media (not to mention filmmaker Spike Lee) to Brooklyn (and back to Manhattan) before the Big East Championship Final tipped off at 9:00 pm. The A-10 started their Women's Championship game at 7:00 pm and drew the media and fan following typical for women's basketball -- a brilliant counter scheduling move by the A-10. Las Vegas, by hosting the Mountain West, the Western Athletic and the West Coast Conference, has established a presence in Division I basketball, but the Big Apple, by hosting both the Big East and the A-10 tournaments simultaneously, gave fans an outstanding Championship Week experience.

6. Saint Louis Won the War, but VCU Won the Battle...of the Bands -- College basketball bands tend to be miniature versions of the mammoth marching bands that serenade BCS football teams. Virginia Commonwealth is not terribly different, though the Rams, like several school bands, augment their normally brass and drum-heavy sound with a couple of electric guitars and performed several half-play half-sing/chant musical offerings. What set the Rams apart was the physicality of their performance. The tuba players danced as the rest of the rather large contingent of musicians danced, bopped and bounced as they played some of their more exuberant numbers. Well known offerings like "Thriller" were given a different, brassier, edgier treatment by the VCU band which often, by simply changing the beat or adding syncopation, lent a very different (and refreshing) musical interpretation to the number. A second place to the La Salle band, which consistently lent a bouncy, funky interpretation to their music, which seems a good deal closer to the temperament of Philadelphia than their A-10 brethren, Saint Joseph's and Temple.

No comments: