Wednesday, March 10, 2004

Pressure-cooker success may determine NCAA bids


Good conference tourney showing could benefit teams

By Dustin Dow
The Cincinnati Enquirer

ESPN likes to refer to this week of conference tournaments as "Championship Week." What is going on in Dayton, however, is more like "Campaign Week."

The next four days are about pressure, playmaking and advancing - and bolstering NCAA Tournament credentials. Depending on what happens this week at University of Dayton Arena, the league could end up with more NCAA Tournament teams than it has had since 1998. But if early-round upsets strike the conference's elite teams, as few as one team, Saint Joseph's, could represent the A-10 in the NCAA Tournament.

This is not the usual conference tournament, where the NCAA teams are already identified, and filling league coffers with ticket revenue becomes the main objective. The moneymaking aspect will always be there, but uncertain futures for several teams offer a new level of interest to this year's A-10 Tournament, which begins at noon today.

"It will make for a great tournament," said Dayton coach Brian Gregory, whose team is on the favorable side of the NCAA bubble at 22-7, having finished in first place in the West Division. "Every game holds postseason implications. Whenever you have that, the intensity increases and possession by possession grows in importance."

No. 1 Saint Joseph's (27-0) might be the only conference team with a guarantee of playing in the NCAA Tournament. Dayton, Xavier (19-10), Richmond (18-11) and George Washington (17-10) are each capable of playing into or out of the NCAA Tournament this week.

Xavier's potential quarterfinal matchup against Saint Joseph's looms as large as any game this season for the Musketeers. The same goes for Richmond, which could face Temple in the quarterfinals, and possibly Dayton in the semifinals. George Washington has a first-round bye, but might be in a must-win situation in the quarterfinals against Rhode Island.

"It's a lot easier to be in a card game when you're wagering quarters than when you're wagering $100 bills," Richmond coach Jerry Wainwright said. "Everything is relative to pressure. Tournament play has a lot to do with how you handle pressure. The stakes are high."

The league put itself in this position by adopting a league-wide policy to improve non-conference scheduling. That directive has seen the A-10 play its toughest out-of-conference schedule this season, ahead of such power leagues as the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Big East and the Big Ten. This has kept the Ratings Percentage Index standings competitive.

Dayton is No. 42 in the RPI according to CollegeRPI.com, followed by Richmond (43), Xavier (52) and George Washington (79). Rhode Island is No. 71 in the RPI with an 18-11 record, and could play itself onto the bubble with a strong A-10 Tournament showing.

"If we're in the ACC or the Big East, all those teams would be in," Xavier senior guard Lionel Chalmers said. "It shows how far this league has come. That's what you want. You don't want to play scrubs and win. You want competition. That's what we've been playing all year, and this tournament will come down to who can get it done when it counts."

Even the team that hasn't lost all season and knows it's in the NCAA Tournament realizes these could be the toughest three days of the season. They could also be bright days for the A-10 with rewards on Selection Sunday. Five A-10 teams made the NCAA Tournament in 1998. Since then, the league has not put more than three teams in the tournament at one time.

"It says great things about the A-10 that so many teams are on the brink here," Saint Joseph's coach Phil Martelli said. "We haven't been down, we've just beating each other up. ... That's the way it should be in the conference tournament."

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E-mail ddow@enquirer.com




CHAMPIONSHIP WEEK
Tournament preview section

C-USA TOURNAMENT PREVIEW
Conference USA teams see prominence arrive too late
Leader a quiet force for UC
Fan's guide to the C-USA tournament
C-USA Tournament tidbits
C-USA Tournament trivia

A-10 TOURNAMENT PREVIEW
Pressure-cooker success may determine NCAA bids
Muskies' A-10 goal: Boost NCAA odds
Fan's guide to the A-10 Tournament
A-10 Tournament tidbits
A-10 Tournament trivia

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