By Chris Mahr
Amid the lowest-scoring season in recent memory, I am in full agreement that changes need to be made in college basketball. Of course, that’s an easy assessment for me to make watching from my TV set. What’s not nearly as easy is for teams and their coaches to buck convention in the middle of the season when they’re winning with an ugly, low-scoring game plan.
“For a vast number of hardscrabble mid-major Division I basketball teams … slowing the game down is the best formula for victory,” wrote Grantland’s Michael Weinreb in an analysis of the downward scoring trend last Wednesday. “Even if it is objectively duller.”
It may not be pretty, but it’s the teams that are most comfortable playing whatever brand of basketball is en vogue at the moment that often do the most damage in March. And no conference in college hoops is turning ugly basketball into beautiful results quite like the Atlantic 10.
The second-strongest mid-major conference in the land and the seventh strongest overall (according to CBS Sports’ Jerry Palm) currently boasts a pair of Top 25 teams (No. 18 Saint Louis and No. 20 Butler), a third team on the fringe of the rankings (VCU) and four additional bubble teams (La Salle, Temple, UMass and Charlotte) with RPIs better than 60. With the exception of go-go, hard-pressing VCU, they’re all winning with boring basketball.
Take a look at the snooze-inducing scoring outputs of all those aforementioned teams sans the Rams (the exception that proves the rule):
- Saint Louis (21–5) – 68.7 PPG (142nd in NCAA)
- Butler (22–6) – 70.2 PPG (105th in NCAA)
- La Salle (19–7) – 72.3 PPG (66th in NCAA)
- Temple (19–8) – 71.7 PPG (78th in NCAA)
- UMass (17–9) – 73.8 PPG (42nd in NCAA)
- Charlotte (18–8) – 67.3 PPG (180th in NCAA)
There’s not an offensive powerhouse in the bunch. In the cases of both Saint Louis and Charlotte, they can often look downright inept. (In Saint Louis’ case, it makes the Billikens’ place atop the A-10 standings all the more unlikely.)
Aside from occasional cold streaks of shooting, however, these teams don’t make many mistakes.Their game plans are built to minimize them (as well as around defense). And in their most important games of the season, that strategy has paid off.
In addition to defeating Butler twice and VCU once (each convincingly), Saint Louis also beat Mountain West frontrunner New Mexico. Butler’s non-conference resume — wins over North Carolina, Marquette, Indiana and Gonzaga — might be the most impressive in the country. La Salle tripped up Villanova in addition to wins over Butler and VCU, while Temple shocked Syracuse.
Games in a season as topsy turvy as this one — with No. 1 teams rising and falling with the regularity of an ocean tide — aren’t so much won as they are gutted out. That’s how both the A-10 frontrunners and the conference’s bubble teams have found success this season. Put them in the Big Dance and that’s how they’ll continue to go about their business.
With both VCU and Butler already making the 2011 Final Four, keep your eye on a team from the A-10 crashing the party in Atlanta this year.
After all, any win in March in beautiful — regardless of how ugly it may seem.
Chris Mahr is the managing editor of Lost Lettermen. His column appears Tuesdays and Thursdays. You can follow him on Twitter at @CMahrtian.
Photo Credit: Scott Rovak/USA Today Sports