The A-10 has had quite the start to the NCAA tournament, winning its first six games and advancing all five of its participants to the Round of 32.
For a lot of these teams, this early success has been expected. Saint Louis, VCU and Butler won as higher seeds. The Billikens and Rams have even been mentioned as Final Four contenders.
Then there is No. 9-seed Temple pulling off a big win over NC State, the preseason pick to win the ACC. The Owls will get a shot at No. 1-seed Indiana in the next round and figure to give the Hoosiers all they can handle.
La Salle has been one of the surprises of this tournament, easily dispatching Boise State in an opening-round game before holding on to beat No. 4-seed Kansas State in Kansas City. The Wildcats tied Kansas for the regular-season Big 12 title.
Now, the Explorers move on to face No. 12-seed Ole Miss, a very winnable game in a crazy region.
Moving forward, there is no reason to think that these five teams will stop here. The Atlantic 10 feels like it is poised to make even more noise as the stakes get higher.
Here are three things these teams have in common, making the A-10 the scariest conference in the NCAA tournament moving forward.
Every March, the old adage is repeated that to win in the NCAA tournament, good guard play is essential. Luckily for the Atlantic 10, that commodity can be found in abundance throughout the league.
There are a couple of things that set this group of guards apart. The first is experience. Khalif Wyatt at Temple is a senior. The same can be said about Darius Theus at VCU, Rotnei Clarke at Butler, Kwamain Mitchell at Saint Louis and Ramon Galloway at La Salle.
They are all seasoned veterans and steadying influences on their teams who never get rattled. That makes a huge difference in March Madness.
The next is the ability to score and put pressure on the defense. Theus is the only player of that group who does not score in double figures. However, every one of those players figures to have the ball in his hands with the game on the line, something in which each of their coaches can take comfort.
With the exception of La Salle’s Dr. John Giannini, who is making a name for himself in this tournament, all of these coaches have track records of success.
The nation was recently introduced to Butler’s Brad Stevens and VCU’s Shaka Smart, two of the best coaches in the country despite the fact they are both in their mid-30s. They have led their programs to Final Fours in the past few years and stayed put despite opportunities elsewhere.
Fran Dunphy has led Temple to six straight NCAA tournaments, and while he has never advanced to the second weekend of March Madness, his coaching ability has never come into question. That was evident in Temple’s Round of 64 win over NC State, a team that certainly was more talented than the Owls.
Jim Crews has done a fantastic job with Saint Louis, showing why he was the late Rick Majerus' pick to take over the Billikens this season. Crews has an excellent basketball pedigree, playing and coaching under Bob Knight at Indiana in the late '70s and early '80s. He took Evansville to four NCAA tournaments in his 17 seasons on the job there.
A-10 Conference Play
The beauty of the new and soon-to-be short-lived Atlantic 10 is the diversity within the conference. That diversity has been perfect preparation for the NCAA tournament, where teams will encounter all different kinds of playing styles and tempos.
One night in the A-10, La Salle might need to deal with Butler’s "grind-it-out" style, playing possession by possession. Three days later, the Explorers could have to go against VCU’s "havoc" defense at a breakneck pace.
That scenario played itself out in January. La Salle won both games playing contrasting styles, and it propelled the Explorers to where they are today, shocking the college-basketball world with their early run in the NCAA tournament.
Unfortunately, the A-10 will look drastically different again next year. Butler and Xavier are moving to the new Big East, while Temple is going to the conference formerly known as the Big East. Charlotte is moving on to Conference USA.
At least the league made its one year as it is currently constituted count. It was a fun conference season that has paid off in a big way in the NCAA tournament. Those dividends figure to keep rolling in for the A-10 as March Madness rolls on.