If you can be certain of one thing, it’s the fact that America loves underdogs. America itself was once the great underdog during its war for independence over 200 years ago, and that mentality has stuck.
Sports are no different.
Every March, America engulfs itself in the madness of the men’s Division I college basketball championship. From conference tournaments until the Final Four, March Madness is arguably more popular than the Super Bowl.
So why all this talk about the underdogs? Because during that special time of year, the unpredictable happens like clockwork, with mid-major schools often sending home power-conference teams after the opening round of games.
The Atlantic-10 conference in particular has been on a tournament hot streak as of late. Last year, to give an example, Xavier reached their second straight Sweet Sixteen and Dayton upset No. 6 seed West Virginia in a first-round game.
You’d have to go back to 2005 to find a year where the Atlantic-10 only had one team qualify for the Big Dance, and the last two years in a row, the A-10 has fielded three teams in the tournament.
With these considerations, the Atlantic-10 has become the class of the mid-major conferences. But in spite of the growing strength of the conference as a whole, there are only 65 bids to the tournament, and 31 automatic bids for winning the conference tournaments.
This year, the A-10 looks as strong as ever. Temple, Xavier, Dayton, Richmond, Charlotte, and Rhode Island all have legitimate opportunities to punch their tickets to the Big Dance. All except Rhode Island have had at least one victory over a top 25 team, and quality wins like that are often what make or break bubble teams.
Starting at the top, Temple has victories this year over Villanova, Northern Illinois, Virginia Tech, and Seton Hall, losses to Georgetown and St John’s, and suffered an ugly beating to then-top ranked Kansas. It’s a solid non-conference resume, and being currently ranked in the top 25, they need to keep up momentum and should easily coast into the NCAA tournament.
Xavier doesn’t have it quite as easy. Their only impressive non-conference win required overtime in an 83-79 victory over Cincinnati, and losses to Marquette, Baylor, Kansas State, the highly-overrated Butler (seriously? No. 10 in preseason polls?), and Wake Forest. The Musketeers will need to dominate in conference play or they’ll be suiting up for the NIT.
I’m also unimpressed by Dayton. The Flyers hold wins over Georgia Tech, Creighton, and Old Dominion, but losses to Villanova, New Mexico, and Kansas State, in combination with a mostly weak non-conference schedule, will come back to haunt them.
When you have to take the game to overtime just to beat Duquesne, it’s not your year.
Richmond could be the dark horse of the conference. With impressive victories over Missouri, Chattanooga, and Old Dominion, as well as a great road upset at Florida, Richmond has a lot of potential. If they can keep up this pace of comfortably winning games (with 10 of their 13 victories by five points or more), expect to see Richmond playing late into March.
As a recent alum, I really want to like Charlotte’s chances. They mopped the floor with Louisville, but that is their only impressive achievement. Had they pulled upsets against Georgia Tech and Tennessee, I’d be calling the 49ers a shoo-in, but having defeated paycheck schools in their non-conference schedule and losing three of four and four of six, I’d say Charlotte needs to get it together or they even risk missing the NIT.
Lastly, Rhode Island is another potential sleeper. With quiet victories over Boston College and Providence and their only two losses coming by a combined six points, the Rams are well on their way to being one of the 65 competing for the greatest prize in college basketball.
While Temple, Xavier, and Rhode Island look like the class of the conference right now, there’s still half of the schedule left to play. Anything can happen in the second half of the season, and the way these conference games play out will undoubtedly have a hand in deciding which teams go to the dance.
Provided there aren’t any upsets in the conference tournament (which would weaken the chances for the better teams), it’s safe to expect three A-10 teams will make their way to the tournament this year—four if some of the major conferences falter.
There hasn’t been a true mid-major team to win it all since 1977 when Marquette defeated Charlotte in the Final Four and Chapel Hill in the finals.
But none of that matters to the fans. A single upset over a powerhouse like Kansas or Duke is worth every bit as much as a championship to the players.
When you think of great sports stories and great sports films, it’s never about the juggernaut that accomplishes their goal—it’s about the average Joe, the Cinderella team that overachieves at the right moment.
It’s the mid-major school that rises up, overcomes the odds, and works as a team to achieve the unthinkable.