Fordham Trying to Build a Winner in an Atlantic 10 That Keeps Getting Better

Charles CostelloContributor IMarch 16, 2014

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 12: Travion Leonard #2 and Ryan Rhoomes #30 of the Fordham Rams celebrate after a shot by Leonard in the second half against the George Mason Patriots during the first round of the Atlantic 10 Men's Basketball Tournament at Barclays Center on March 12, 2014 in the Brooklyn Borough of New York City.  (Photo by Mike Lawrie/Getty Images)
Mike Lawrie/Getty Images

If you want an example of how difficult it is to build a winning program in college basketball, look no further than the Fordham Rams.

Fordham has struggled mightily since joining the Atlantic 10 Conference prior to the 1995 season.

Consider that the Rams have finished below .500 in 17 of their 19 seasons in the A-10, only three times have they had a .500 or better record in conference play, and they've won only five conference tournament games (including one last week in the play-in game).

This year, Fordham started the season with some hope. Branden Frazier, a four-year starter, returned for his final season. And the Rams welcomed Jon Severe, Mr. New York Basketball in 2013, to Rose Hill. Fordham got off to a decent start, going 7-6 in nonconference games. It looked poised to take that next step.

But the Rams would struggle over the last two months of the season. They went 2-14 in conference play, lost their last eight games to close out the regular season and had trouble competing in a league that, despite losing Xavier, Temple, Charlotte and Butler, might be as good as ever.

"It's as competitive as it's ever been," Fordham head coach Tom Pecora said about the A-10. "It's gotten better each year since I've been here."

Pecora just wrapped up his fourth season with the Rams. In those four years, they've gone 34-85. They're 9-55 in regular-season conference play.

"It continues to get better and better and I think this year you'll see that come Selection Sunday," Pecora said earlier this year.

He was right. The Atlantic 10 will have a record six teams in the tournament—Virginia Commonwealth, Dayton, Saint Louis, Massachusetts, George Washington and Saint Joseph's. 

"You'll see the A-10 get as many if not more teams in the tournament than some conferences that people perceive as being better basketball conferences," Pecora said.

He was right with that prediction, too. For example, the Big East got four teams in and the A-10 had just as many teams selected as the Atlantic Coast Conference and the Big Ten did.

Two decades ago when it went from the Patriot League to the Atlantic 10, Fordham must have known that there would be a huge difference playing in a major basketball conference. But to what extent could the school have predicted this? The league is better now, top to bottom, than it was back then. That's made the rebuilding process much more difficult.

Pecora is the latest in a succession of coaches who have found the task of building a winner in the Bronx to be a difficult one. Nick Macarchuk, Bob Hill and Dereck Whittenburg had no better luck.

Pecora isn't alone in thinking that the conference has gotten better. It was a staple of many press conferences across the league this year.

"I think it's a terrific league," Virginia Commonwealth head coach Shaka Smart said. Smart's team lost to Saint Joseph's, 65-61, in the Atlantic 10 Championship Game on Sunday afternoon.

"I think from top to bottom it's very underrated. So much is made of so-called BCS leagues and high-major leagues, but I think the basketball that's been played in our conference can stand up to a whole lot of people. I'm not going to say we're the best league in the country, but I think we can compete with any league in the country.

"A lot of people were down on the A-10 after some teams left, but they neglected to see that there were a lot of teams coming back that had very good players returning and good players coming in, and I think the coaches in this league are terrific as well."

In fact, like others, Smart doesn't feel the A-10 gets the credit it deserves.

“Our conference is still undervalued,” he said last month, according to NBC Sports' College Basketball Talk. “I don’t think people realized the gauntlet that you have to go through in this league."

With six teams selected to play in this year's NCAA tournament, that might be changing.

“Don’t take this the wrong way, but there is a lack of sophistication out there right now as it relates to the Atlantic 10," Smart said in the NBC Sports article. "There are fill-in-the-blank high-major programs and they carry a weight because of their name, first and foremost. But the reality is if you look closer and you compare them to some of the teams in our league, I think our league shapes out pretty well."

In the current RPI, nine Atlantic 10 teams are ranked in the Top 100 (Virginia Commonwealth, Massachusetts, Saint Louis, George Washington, Saint Joseph’s, Dayton, Richmond, St. Bonaventure and La Salle).

“The proof is really right there in the numbers," Massachusetts head coach Derek Kellogg said, via the NBC Sports article.

After his George Washington team beat Fordham last weekend to close out the regular season, head coach Mike Lonergan said that in the Atlantic 10 "anybody can beat you," and predicted that the conference tournament would be wide open with all teams having a chance to win on those first couple of days.

Like Pecora, he predicted big things for the A-10 on Selection Sunday.

"I really feel five or six will definitely get in," he said. "Part of that is [because] the league is great, and also [in] those other leagues people keep knocking each other off.

"This is a great conference."

Something Fordham knows all too well.

Unless otherwise noted, quotations in this article were obtained firsthand.