Tuesday , Mar , 07 , 2006 C.Y. Ellis

2006 Atlantic 10 Conference Tournament Preview

The Sports Network

By Pat Taggart, College Basketball Staff Writer

FACTS & STATS: Site: U.S. Bank Arena (17,000) — Cincinnati, Ohio. Dates:
Wednesday, March 8th through Saturday, March 11th. Television: Atlantic 10 TV,
ESPN (Championship Game). Annual 30th. Defending Champion: George Washington.

OUTLOOK: When the 30th annual Atlantic 10 Tournament begins on Wednesday,
March 8th, there is one question in need of an answer: Can anyone beat George
Washington? It has been a magical year for the Colonials, who finished with a
perfect record in A-10 play. They won this tournament a year ago for the first
time in program history and are the clear favorites to repeat as champs. The
stiffest competition figures to come from Charlotte, a team that nearly
knocked off George Washington in the regular season finale. The 49ers are
newcomers to the conference and are making their A-10 Tournament debut along
with Saint Louis. Because of the addition of those two programs, the league
now has 14 members, and the bottom two teams (St. Bonaventure and Duquesne)
will not take part in this event. Aside from the Colonials, there is not
another team in the conference that is a lock for an at-large bid to the NCAA
Tournament, so expect the level of intensity at this event to be extremely

The first of four opening round games on March 8th pits the ninth-seeded
Temple Owls against the eighth-seeded Rhode Island Rams. Temple has won more
A-10 titles than any other current member of the league with six, and the most
recent championship for the storied program was captured in 2001. The Owls are
a stellar 41-17 all-time at this event, a record that is far better than that
possessed by any other league team except for Xavier, which is 15-7 in 22
A-10 Tournament games. Temple was crushed at home by Fordham on Senior Day to
close out the regular season, and it will be interesting to see how the Owls
respond in the opening round. As for Rhode Island, it captured its only A-10
championship back in 1999, but the team is just 16-24 all-time as part of this
event. The Rams won their final two regular season games, including a six-
point decision over Temple on March 1st.

The fifth-seeded Saint Joseph’s Hawks will meet the 12th-seeded Dayton Flyers
in the second of four opening round games. Saint Joseph’s reached the
championship game of this tournament a year ago, losing to George Washington
in the final. The Hawks have a 22-21 record at this event and have captured
two titles, the most recent of which came in 1997. They are the best free
throw shooting team in the league and enter this tournament with a five-game
winning streak. As for Dayton, it has fallen far and fast since winning the
A-10 title in 2003 and reaching the championship game again in 2004. The
Flyers have not won back-to-back games since January, so the idea of the club
putting together four straight wins in this tournament seems unlikely.

The Xavier Musketeers have been relegated to the 10th-seed, and they are set
to take on the seventh-seeded UMass Minutemen on Wednesday. Just two seasons
removed from an A-10 Tournament title, Xavier has struggled to establish
consistency this season, despite a significant amount of talent in the lineup.
The Musketeers lost three of their final four regular season games, including
a 65-56 setback to the Minutemen in the finale. Speaking of UMass, it has won
this event five times, more than any current A-10 team aside from Temple, but
it has been a full decade since the program’s last title. The Minutemen are
last in the conference in turnover margin but are tops in rebounding margin.

The last opening round matchup features the 11th-seeded Richmond Spiders and
the sixth-seeded Fordham Rams. Richmond owns a respectable 5-4 record as part
of this tournament, but the program has yet to win a championship since
joining the conference. The Spiders are last in the league in scoring with
52.6 ppg, 8.5 ppg less than the next closest team. Fortunately, they are tops
in the A-10 in scoring defense, as they are surrendering only 58.3 ppg. As for
Fordham, it has played 11 A-10 Tournament games and has managed just one win,
by far the worst record among members of the league. The Rams are led by
Jermaine Anderson and Bryant Dunston, both of whom are averaging 16.1 ppg.
They are the top three-point shooting team in the conference, and Anderson is
the biggest perimeter threat.

Top-seeded George Washington awaits the Temple/Rhode Island winner for the
first of four quarterfinal games on Thursday. George Washington owns a rather
poor 19-28 record as part of this event, but the program finally won the
tournament last year for the first time. There is not a single performer for
the Colonials ranked among the league’s top 10 scorers, but five players for
the club are averaging double figures. Big man Pops Mensah-Bonsu will miss
this tournament as he recovers from surgery, but the roster is still loaded
with proven performers. The Colonials are the top offensive team in the A-10
with 79.9 ppg, and they are outscoring opponents by an average of 13.3 ppg.
They are the only team in the nation with only one loss and have set the
program record for wins in a season.

Saint Louis captured the fourth-seed in its inaugural A-10 season, and it will
battle the winner of the Dayton/Saint Joseph’s game. The Billikens left
Conference USA to join the A-10, and they went on a run down the stretch in
which they recorded victories in seven of eight games to shoot up the
standings. On a down note, their last two regular season games resulted in
defeat. Saint Louis is ranked 13th among 14 A-10 teams in scoring with 61.1
ppg, but the club is third in scoring defense, allowing only 59.8 ppg. Keep
an eye on sophomore Brian Roberts, as he is netting 16.1 ppg.

Like Saint Louis, Charlotte played well in its first year in the A-10, and the
second-seeded 49ers are set to battle either Xavier or UMass in the
quarterfinals. It can certainly be argued with validity that Charlotte
possesses the league’s top duo. De’Angelo Alexander is third in the conference
with 17.3 ppg on the strength of his 42.9 percent shooting from three-point
range. Curtis Withers is the other half of the dynamic duo, and the rugged
forward is contributing 16.1 ppg to go along with a league-high 11.0 rpg.

Perhaps the biggest surprise this season in the A-10 is that La Salle has been
able to capture the third seed. The Explorers begin play in this tournament on
Thursday against either Richmond or Fordham. The Explorers have never won this
event since joining the league, and they are a lackluster 6-10 in A-10
Tournament games. There is hope this season because of tremendous coaching and
the presence of star forward Steven Smith. The senior decided to return to
school rather than enter the NBA Draft after last season, and he currently
leads the league in scoring with 20.0 ppg to go along with 8.0 rpg. La Salle
has not excelled in one aspect of the game, but it has been solid in all areas
for much of this season.

Expect Charlotte and Xavier to provide the toughest competition for George
Washington, as both the Musketeers and 49ers have the talent to win this
event. Still, the Colonials are the smart pick, as they have enough talent
in the mix to overcome the absence of Mensah-Bonsu. If GW does win this event,
don’t expect any other A-10 squad to earn a bid to the NCAA Tournament.

Sports Network Predicted Champion: George Washington