By CHUCKIE MAGGIO
BROOKLYN, N.Y. — Atlantic 10 commissioner Bernadette McGlade is entering her 12th year overseeing the conference and her second season in another dream role: a member of the NCAA men’s basketball selection committee.
As much as McGlade enjoys deliberating in the room on Selection Sunday as the NCAA Tournament’s field of 68 is decided, however, she hopes to be in the room less often this March. League commissioners are not allowed to be part of the conversation when their member schools are being discussed; the more exclusion, the more successful the league.
The A-10’s place in last year’s big dance was not a point of contention. The VCU Rams were the conference’s only worthy at-large invitee, while the Saint Louis Billikens earned the automatic bid by defeating St. Bonaventure in the conference championship game.
There was a quiet confidence in the room at Media Day on Thursday, though, as McGlade and the 14 head coaches forecasted a stronger league.
VCU starts the year as the No. 25 team in the Associated Press poll; no one in the A-10 was ranked last preseason. Davidson and Dayton are also receiving votes in the AP poll. Rhode Island returns an impressive bevy of returners, including Jeff Dowtin, Cyril Langevine and Fatts Russell. St. Bonaventure may have the most talented point guard/center combination the conference has seen in quite some time.
“We’re deeper this year. We’re more veteran, we’re more experienced,” McGlade assessed. “Just chatting with a couple of the coaches earlier today, everyone seems to be commenting that they’re healthy, which is great. So I think that the league is set up for greatness.”
McGlade is impressed with the non-conference schedules teams have built to set themselves squarely in the at-large conversation. The projected top four have plenty of opportunities for marquee wins.
VCU hosts preseason No. 22 LSU and visits No. 23 Purdue and Wichita State. Davidson will play No. 24 Auburn and AP vote-getter Marquette at neutral sites, play Northeastern and Vanderbilt in enemy territory and host Nevada. Dayton, led by sophomore star Obi Toppin, tips off the Maui Invitational against Tom Crean’s Georgia Bulldogs and could also battle Michigan State and Kansas over Thanksgiving break. Rhody challenges Maryland, Alabama, LSU, West Virginia and Providence before its A-10 slate.
McGlade was prepared for the high degree of difficulty. She meets with the coaches each spring to review which teams made the postseason the previous season, which schools are entering or in the midst of a “rebuilding” period and which programs are building schedules worthy of NCAA Tournament slots.
“We have an unbelievable non-conference schedule, if you looked across the board,” McGlade noted, “and I am a firm believer that you can really establish where you are nationally in your non-conference season… At the end of the day, you can’t trick the committee to get into the championship; you have to win games. You’ve gotta win games and that’s what it comes down to. Our schools have built the schedules they need to have right now, so it’s gonna be up to the coaches and players to start playing come Nov. 5.”
In addition to the four frontrunners, McGlade said she expects Rhode Island, Richmond and St. Bonaventure to “be in the fight.” Rhode Island and Bonaventure met in last year’s conference tournament semifinal after URI upset VCU. Despite being the No. 11 seed, Richmond came within three points of knocking out Saint Louis in Thursday’s second round and preventing the Billikens from even making it to the weekend. And the Bonnies’ run to Championship Sunday was well documented.
“Our top six teams are looking right now to be experienced, to be veteran and to be deep,” McGlade said. “We’ll start from there. Obviously, your top six out of 14 is a pretty good number.”
The teams have become more experienced, for a fact, but the league’s young talent cannot be ignored. Toppin is only a sophomore but is already firmly on the NBA’s radar as 17 of the Association’s scouts have visited Dayton practice facility this month. Duquesne sophomore Sincere Carry and Bonaventure second-year players Kyle Lofton and Osun Osunniyi will also draw significant pro attention in due time, as each of them were featured on preseason all-conference teams
With a future as promising as the A-10’s, there is plenty of reason for optimism from the woman in charge.
“We were waiting for this year last year,” McGlade recalled with a laugh, “because the talent was really significant… Obi’s a lottery pick; he’s a first round draft pick. He’s somebody that everyone in the A-10 is going to get a chance to see. You just can’t replace that.
“The other thing about the young athletes, we see it year in and year out, is those student-athletes almost don’t know what they’re afraid of. They just go with such reckless abandon, they play with enthusiasm.We did a leadership summit a couple weeks ago in Washington D.C. with our men’s and women’s basketball student athletes. They look so strong and powerful when they’re on the court playing and then we’re close to them in a room like this and you realize, you’re only 18, 19-year-old young adults.”