With at least three teams projected to make the NCAA Tournament this year, the Atlantic 10 (A-10) Conference is highly competitive in men's basketball. However, the intensity of this conference extends beyond March Madness berths. Just five teams in this 14-school league have losing records this season, an indication of the competition programs face every game.
"It's extremely competitive especially when you go to another school and play them away," said Rhode Island guard Fatts Russell. "You've got to bring your A-game because on any given day you can lose big."
Russell is one of the national leaders in steals and one of two players in the conference recently named to the 2020 Midseason Team for Naismith Men's Defensive Player of the Year. His Rams are projected to make the NCAA Tournament, and if they do, this will be the 15th year in a row that the A-10 has earned at least two bids to The Big Dance and the 34th in the conference's history.
Dayton is, of course, the premier team in the A-10 this season. The Flyers are 27-2 and ranked fourth in the country with two games left before the conference tournament. What is shaping up to be the best regular season in school history is due in part to the caliber of teams they are facing.
"We want to run to pressure. We want to run to high stakes games at home or on the road in big-time environments and on national TV," said Dayton Athletic Director Neil Sullivan. "So we want our competition to be good and challenge us and challenge each other because I think that the health of league has a major influence on what your opportunities are for the postseason in terms of being able to build a resume of quality wins and avoiding, as the [Selection] Committee would call them, bad losses."
The Flyers only two losses thus far have been overtime defeats at the hands of top-ranked Kansas and Colorado. They have been perfect against the A-10 competition, beating teams like Rhode Island and Richmond, which has four players with more than 1,000 career points. The Spiders also have the conference's other member of the Naismith Men’s Defensive Player of the Year Midseason Team, guard Jacob Gilyard. In addition to having more than 1,000 career points, Gilyard is leading the country with 3.1 steals per game.
"This year, we switched to man [defense], which is a little different," Gilyard said. "We have a lot more pressure on the ball now, so I think that allows guys to throw more blind passes, and I'm able to take advantage of that."
Other schools have a shot at making March Madness depending on their showing in the A-10 Tournament. VCU started the season ranked but skidded to a 17-11 record, having lost five straight games. However, the Rams could still make it with a run in the conference tournament.
"We've hit a wall here and we've had a tough schedule, but we've got to get healthy and get right and worry about winning the next game," said VCU head coach Mike Rhoades.
But even with VCU's struggles, it is clear that the competitiveness is benefiting the entire A-10 conference.
"It's hard, but it's been really cool and it's great for our conference," Rhoades said. "It's been so competitive. Some teams have had great seasons up to this point, but there have been so many competitive games, and teams have been getting better throughout conference play."
— Written by Aaron Tallent, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Tallent is a writer whose articles have appeared in The Sweet Science, FOX Sports’ Outkick the Coverage, Liberty Island and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter at @AaronTallent.
(Top photo courtesy of Dayton Flyers Basketball Facebook page)