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How the A-10 remains strong yet still can't earn widespread respect

By Matt Norlander | College Basketball Writer

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Rob Brandenburg and VCU have a chance to become the class of the underappreciated A-10. (Getty Images)

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After a really good, really close loss (80-75) at UMass on Feb. 21 -- which is the last time his Rams fell -- VCU coach Shaka Smart spoke passionately about the league his program represents. UMass had beaten VCU in the closing seconds thanks to the defensive play of Minutemen star point guard Chaz Williams. It was ironic, given Smart's team's penchant for pinning opponents to defeat by way of defensive pressure. But the game showcased something for the league, something the Atlantic 10 needed: two surefire NCAA Tournament teams slamming against each other for the better part of two hours in what amounted to one of the best matchups that weekend provided.

“If you look at it from a league perspective, it does highlight two of the better teams in our league. Somehow we seem to bring that out in people,” Smart said. “Our conference is still undervalued. I don't think people realize the gauntlet that you have to go through in this league.”

The appropriately unfortunate fact of the evening: The game took place on a Friday night, when hardly anyone watches college basketball. One of the best moments for the Atlantic 10's season was barely noticed come mid-afternoon the next day. So what is it going to take for this conference to earn more consistent and widespread reverence?

“Here's what it is, but don't take this the wrong way,” Smart told the room of reporters. “There is a lack of ... sophistication out there right now as it relates to [coverage of] the A-10.”

The Atlantic 10 tournament gets underway Wednesday in hip-ish Brooklyn, N.Y., with the league in a good spot to make some history. Six teams are in position to earn bids to the Big Dance and that would be a league record. This development comes one year removed from the A-10 tying a conference mark by sending five to the NCAAs last season, including La Salle's run to the Sweet 16. (An incredible accomplishment that never really got its full due, circumstances considered.)

Remember a year ago, when the Atlantic 10 benefited from conference realignment by snagging Butler and VCU in the league? Within minutes, it seemed, Temple, Xavier and Butler all opted to break up the feel-good party and bolt to new conference real estate, the former to the AAC and the latter two to the Big East. (Only Xavier is sniffing the NCAA Tournament this season, and it likely still needs a win to feel secure.)

The A-10's one-year resurrection was expected to last just that long, expectations for the league ratcheted all the way to about waist-level.

Yet the league's inarguably stronger this season despite its reputation for having less heft at the top. The most underreported and under-recognized trend of the 2013-14 college basketball season has been not only how good the A-10's turned out to be, but in fact how it's arguably a top-five conference in college basketball. The league went 131-54 in non-conference play, and no league spans out-of-conference opponent scheduling like this one, which can draw teams at the top, middle and bottom of Division I. Eight teams have strength of schedules in the top 70, and no three-bids-plus league has played more road games.

So here's this basketball-first/only conference, in a football-dictated collegiate media epoch, that continues to make strides and yet still somehow is overlooked and underrated. It's remarkable, considering the A-10 has pressed on and been viable -- if not entirely relevant -- over the past decade.

Why is this? There are a few answers, and they come from the bigger picture, that image being the NCAA Tournament. Think about it in terms of teams like Missouri, Stanford, Alabama, Maryland, LSU, Seton Hall and Georgia Tech. You see those names, you don't get revved up, right? Truth is, they're proud programs with a lot of really good history (you'd be surprised how good Alabama was for how long in basketball/the SEC), only they've been middling for most of the past decade. Those programs haven't made most NCAA Tournaments, and even when they've reached one, they haven't done much when they got there.

In a larger ambit, the same applies to the A-10. Last year was nice, but from 2005-2012 the conference never had more than three NCAA Tournament victories in a given year. (Last season there were seven.) When you can't win into the second weekend, it affects perception. And nothing alters impressions and recognition like a Final Four run. Just ask VCU, which made its biggest push while a member of the CAA. It's the very reason the Rams are even in the Atlantic 10 at all.

The league's biggest issue can be found in its lack of viable contenders for the sport's ultimate weekend. Forget having a national title contender: just offering up one team in the league that can get people to believe the Final Four is a realistic hope, well that goes a long way. The conference hasn't had a team seen as Final Four-worthy since Saint Joe's went 27-1 and earned a No. 1 seed in 2004.

Even then, you'll remember, many speculated against the Hawks.

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Jim Crews has made Saint Louis as respected and feared in college basketball circles, but SLU isn't a national program at this point. (USATSI)

In fact, most have probably forgotten about the George Washington team in 2006, one of only six teams in the past 15 years from the Atlantic 10, Big East, SEC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and ACC to go undefeated in-conference. Why do you forget? Because G.W. was knocked out in the second round by Duke.

Phil Martelli, 59, who's been at Saint Joseph's nearly two decades and is the longest tenured coach in the league, wants to see a dominant team return. Even at the detriment of everyone else. He said that shows when the A-10 is terrific, like when Temple under John Chaney and UMass under John Calipari were thumping most everyone.

“Yes, this league's glory moments are when we have a lead dog run away from everybody,” he said. “And when you run away from everybody in this league, then you are a top 10 team in the country. I do think in a way you're getting, ‘If you can't win a national championship, how good could you be?'”

UMass coach Derek Kellogg knows what it was like. After the aforementioned win over VCU, he spoke how great it felt for it to "feel like it did in the '90s" inside the Mullins Center. Kellogg learned on Calipari at UMass during the heyday for Minutemen hoops.

“The A-10 has always stood the test of time for one reason or another and we've withstood even stronger this time around,” Kellogg said, referring to the latest bout of defections. The A-10 has lost eight programs to other leagues over the past two decades, beginning with Penn State in the early '90s and Butler, Charlotte, Xavier and Temple packing up last summer.

This season the conference has wins over Virginia, Creighton, Providence, Gonzaga, New Mexico, Nebraska, BYU and California, all teams either in the tournament or damn close. Yet the microcosm for the A-10's lack of deference can be found in the league's best team, its two-time champion,Saint Louis. The Billikens -- who share with VCU the distinction of being top-five defense in the country -- have a negative connotation due to the fact they are the strongest team Wichita State beat all year. SLU, which earned a No. 4 seed last season and could very well equal that feat five days from now, are at best a boring team that wins without star power and at worst an indictment on a team from outside conference borders that just made history by going 34-0.

The A-10 lacks appeal and falls short on applause because it's not omnipresent.

"It'll never get the due nationally it deserves, because at the end of the day we're not on ESPN every night,” Duquesne coach Jim Ferry said. "That's all you hear and all you see."

You see what teams have done from a non-conference scheduling. There is probably something to that. ESPN helped create the Big East and ACC into what they were/are. With the Big East now much more spread out, and with a revamped look, it doesn't feel at all like the same conference. (Let's see how the Big East tournament is received/covered this week, as well.)

League coaches will tout the conference's ability to get eight or nine teams into the postseason every year. Ultimately, that doesn't matter to most. It's NCAA Tournament or nothing, really.

The final factor that's held the A-10 back: star power. Or lack thereof. It's not that the Atlantic 10 hasn't had great players. It has, but none have been transcendent in the past decade, and that translates to being really good rather than undeniably great. The last nine years the A-10 has only put nine players into the league via the NBA Draft. One per season, none have gone in the lottery, and only three have cracked the first round.

When there is no face of the league (think about how Doug McDermott has helped the Big East in a transition year) that can hamper things a bit. For as fun to watch as Chaz Williams and Jordair Jett are, they're not mainstream headliners. And most of the country couldn't name you one player on George Washington, Saint Joe's, Dayton, even household-friendly VCU, all teams that can/should fill up bracket slots on Selection Sunday. That affects image, reputation, renown and trickles down from there.

Martelli said this isn't an Atlantic 10 problem. It's more that the league's remained true to developing talent, and because stars have been made out of freshmen, the conference has lagged behind in the publicity chase.

“The other thing is we, as a basketball fan/reporter/whatever term you want to put on it, we have gotten so caught up in these one-and-dones,” Martelli said. “And when you look around the A-10, and SLU is starting five seniors for example, I think it's hard for people to understand. The youth of college basketball is given a whole lot more respect/homage to them than kids that stay around, which is what's not going to happen in the Atlantic 10. So we're note going to be talked about in July and win the offseason, because nobody is going to get a one-and-done.”

It's true. But for all the lack of respect or PR the league is victim to, it's still showing to be worthy of inclusion in a grander greater tier of the best leagues in college hoops. It's not the ACC or Big 12 or Pac-12, but it's certainly a notch above the West Coast Conference, Mountain West and Missouri Valley. League comparison has been a contentious subject among A-10 coaches for years, and Martelli said it's time to stop the constant measuring.

“We need to be comfortable in our own skin,” Martelli said. “We [used to discuss], ‘How good is the Big East' and where we stacked up. That's swell, but we need to stop all that. Just go out there and play and from there, we'll get the right number.”

The A-10's odd appeal is that is was always better than most but just shy of being great. Of going mainstream. There's a charm to that, but after a while that charm corrodes. It's nearly impossible for the league to dip out of viability, but until another superstar comes along or a team or two steps up and can contend for Final Fours over a three- or four-year period, the league is set up to remain durable, sturdy and considered a cut below.

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