By CHUCKIE MAGGIO
At press time, we know two things for certain about the Atlantic 10 Tournament, which starts Wednesday afternoon in Brooklyn, N.Y.
The tournament will proceed as scheduled at Barclays Center, from the tip-off of the opening round game between St. Joseph’s and George Mason to the championship on Sunday afternoon. And there will be fans, despite global concerns surrounding the coronavirus outbreak causing spectator-less Mid-American Conference and Big West Conference Tournaments and the cancellation of the Ivy League Tournament altogether.
The only difference in the A-10’s policies to this point is postgame locker room access, which will not be available to the media this year.
The A-10 and Barclays Center are preparing for a typical tournament unless someone or something spurs a change of plans. The hope is that the focus remains on basketball through the five-day event.
The basketball should be thrilling, as the conference’s profile improved from a down 2018-19 thanks to the league’s generational team and player as well as a more competitive middle of the pack.
There is a clear favorite, but there are still several questions that need to be answered by the time the net is cut on Sunday. Here are the biggest storylines.
Is anyone stoppin’ Obi Toppin? The Dayton Flyers finished the regular season No. 3 in the Associated Press Top 25 poll after a perfect conference slate and just two non-conference overtime losses. Obi Toppin is the A-10 Player of the Year and might just win National Player of the Year after averaging 20 points and 7.5 rebounds a game and introducing himself to the country with a superb Maui Invitational and exhilarating dunks every night.
Toppin has led the Flyers to new heights. Now, can he pace them past their recent A-10 Tournament struggles?
Dayton has won just one A-10 Tournament game in the last four years. The Flyers were the No. 1 seed in 2016, but fell in the semis. They were the No. 1 seed again in 2017, but lost to No. 9 seed Davidson. A Thursday eight-nine game loss to VCU followed in 2018 before a quarterfinal loss to No. 6 Saint Louis in their only game last season.
A Dayton loss this year would be a shocker, as the Flyers roared into the postseason by routing Rhode Island by 27 on the road and George Washington by 25 in the regular season finale. The Saint Louis Billikens might have the best chance of dealing Dayton an “L” after coming within two points in overtime in January.
How many games do the Spiders need to win? The 24-7 Richmond Spiders are the only realistic hope the A-10 has at earning multiple at-large bids to the NCAA Tournament. Chris Mooney’s team is on the dreaded bubble right now, one of ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi’s “First Four Out” as of Tuesday night.
“I happen to think, having seen (Richmond) a bunch of times, I think they’re actually good enough to win a game, maybe two games in the tournament, if they can get in,” Lunardi told NCAA.com’s Andy Katz on Katz’s March Madness 365 podcast. “They played almost a month without their leading scorer (Blake Francis), had a near miss against Dayton without him… and they’re playing as well as any normal Atlantic 10 team would at this time of the year; Dayton is in a class of its own.”
Lunardi said Richmond probably needs help elsewhere to slide up from its current position and “no stumbling short of Dayton in the A-10 Tournament.” That portends a possible snub if the Spiders don’t make it through their side of the bracket to Sunday’s final.
It all starts on Friday night for the Spiders against Davidson or La Salle.
Which Bona team shows up? Expectations are relatively low as St. Bonaventure heads to Brooklyn. After all, if the Bonnies advance past St. Joseph’s or George Mason on Thursday, they will be challenged by the Saint Louis team that just routed them by 23 points in Missouri last Saturday.
Mark Schmidt’s program has made the A-10 Tournament exciting in recent years, winning at least one game in five of the last six years and making it to the weekend in the last two.
Schmidt, ever the tactician, could find last Saturday’s game film valuable for the potential rematch. Perhaps the neutral floor, where SBU tends to have significant crowd support, will serve the Bonnies better than traveling to Chaifetz. If they can rebound from their recent inconsistencies (1-3 since beating Richmond on Feb. 22) and win two games, the buzz will be back as they likely meet the vaunted Flyers on Saturday.
What if Davidson starts clicking? St. Bonaventure was one of the few teams to experience the usual, nuclear Davidson offense in the regular season. The oft-injured Wildcats stumbled to a 10-8 league record, out of the postseason conversation, but they did beat Saint Louis, Rhode Island and St. Bonaventure. Jon Axel-Gudmundsson and Kellan Grady are still liable to catch fire in a four-game stretch, making Bob McKillop’s team a darkhorse candidate to get to the weekend and possibly Sunday.
What’s your prediction? It’s difficult to pick against Dayton when no one in the A-10 has defeated them. The No. 1 seed has left the weekend without the tournament trophy in eight of the last 10 seasons, so history is against the Flyers.
But Obi isn’t.