The Atlantic 10 earned a league-record six bids to the National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament on Sunday.
The six bids, along with the league’s overall success this season, surprised a great number of coaches, announcers and fans given the league’s losses of Temple University, Xavier University and Butler University. La Salle University head coach John Giannini was not surprised.
“It’s a great league,” Giannini said after a loss at University of Richmond. “I don’t care who comes or goes. It’s a basketball league, and it’s never not been at a high level.”
In recent years, the league has been, as Giannini said, at a high level. Over the past four seasons, the A-10 has earned 15 bids and had a team reach the Sweet 16 in all four seasons.
Over the same span, the Pac-12 – a BCS conference with blue-blood teams such as University of California, Los Angeles and University of Arizona – earned just 13 NCAA tournament bids and had a team reach the Sweet 16 in three of those seasons.
“Why some people would be surprised doesn’t make sense to me,” Giannini said on the league’s impressive season. “It means to me obviously they haven’t paid attention to the history of the conference.”
The A-10 has lost big-time programs, such as West Virginia University, Penn State University and Villanova University, and recovered, but Giannini downplays how impressive this season has been for the A-10. This time around, the A-10 has not just survived the losses of three of its most important members. It had one of its best years in its 38-year history.
In addition to its six bids, which are three more than the SEC and two more than the Big East and the AAC, the league posted a combined .708 out-of-conference winning percentage against strong competition. Eight of the 13 teams have a top-70 strength of schedule. Duquesne University is the only team whose SOS does not rank in the top 100.
Like Giannini, University of Massachusetts head coach Derek Kellogg was not surprised the league overcame its losses, but noted how difficult this time was.
“The A-10 has always stood the test of time for one reason or another,” said Kellogg, who starred at UMass in the 1990s. “And I think we’ve even withstood it even stronger this time around.”
Following a loss at Massachusetts, Virginia Commonwealth University head coach Shaka Smart said the A-10 was still undervalued, per Masslive’s Daniel Malone.
“Our conference is still undervalued,” Smart said. “I don’t think people realize the gauntlet that you have to go through in this league.”
If Smart is right, why does the A-10 continue to lack national appreciation? A few reasons stand out.
For starters, name recognition plays a big role. For example, two of the SEC’s three teams that received bids are University of Florida, the tournament’s top seed, and University of Kentucky, one of the most prestigious programs in college basketball. No A-10 teams come close to Florida and UK in terms of name recognition.
But name recognition can lead to false perceptions of teams.
Take, for example, two hypothetical matchups: the A-10’s George Washington University vs. University of Dayton and the Big 10’s Indiana University vs. University of Illinois. Indiana and Illinois’ histories are exceptional, but this year, George Washington and St. Joseph’s each have better RPI’s and better records against the RPI top 100 than both the Illini and the Hoosiers.
“There are fill-in-the-blank high-major programs or BCS programs that just carry a weight because of their name, first and foremost,” Smart said.
RPI plays an important role for the selection committee’s awarding bids, but name recognition is often most important when it comes to selling tickets, merchandise and television advertisements.
The A-10 made big moves in recent years by signing a new television contract with ESPN, NBC Sports and CBS Sports, and moving its conference tournament to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. But, its television contract is not nearly as large as the Big East and the ACC’s, two of its east coast counterparts. Additionally, the Barclays Center is already making plans to host the ACC tournament when its contract with the A-10 expires in 2017.
Duke University head coach Mike Krzyzewski does not think the A-10 is as good as it may appear, he said in a press conference following an ACC semifinal win over North Carolina State.
“Come on. I mean, they’re good,” he said, “but put them in our conference and go through the meat grinder that our conference has to go through.”
The A-10 will continue to face critics, such as Krzyzewski, until it improves on a final reason that keeps it from receiving the same respect as the power conferences: winning. And not just winning in the regular season, winning in the tournament, winning when the nation is watching.
UMass’ 1996 team is the only A-10 team in league history to have reached the final four, and the NCAA vacated this appearance because UMass star Marcus Camby received money from agents during the season.
The A-10 has not had a true national title contender since Jameer Nelson and Delonte West led St. Joseph’s University to the Elite 8 in 2004. Since then, only the 2008 Xavier team has reached the Elite 8.
This may be the A-10′s best chance it has had since then to make some serious noise in the tournament. This year’s field is wide open, and all six of the A-10 teams have shown signs that they could make a run. St. Louis University has looked shaky as of late but was dominant early in the season, VCU and Massachusetts have the athleticism and explosiveness to keep up with most teams, and St. Joseph’s looks to be peaking at the right time.
The A-10 launched an ad campaign in February based on the question, “Who Wants Next?” The ideal answer is not a specific team, but rather the league as a whole. Whether you are a Richmond fan, St. Louis fan, or University of Rhode Island fan, right now you are an A-10 fan.
The A-10 has had a great year, but the time is now for the league to show it deserves the same money, name recognition and popularity as the power conferences.