By Chris DiSano
Rhode Island has continued its stellar play, but a tough test looms at perennial Atlantic 10 heavy-weight VCU tonight. Speaking of VCU, Mike Rhoades’ team is tied with crosstown rival Richmond and Bob McKillop’s Davidson Wildcats for second place, while Duquesne and rising St. Bonaventure are a shade off the pace and battle on Saturday. Let’s examine this some league storylines.
This week’s A-10 fan poll –
We’re just past the halfway point in the conference season and this week’s poll asked which A-10 development is the biggest surprise. The poll generated 162 responses in 16 hours and Duquesne’s play, far outpacing expectations, collected 44 percent of the vote, trumping Rhode Island’s dominance and Richmond’s conference play bounce-back (each receiving 27 percent).
At roughly the halfway point of the season, what is the biggest surprise of conference play? Answer to appear on https://t.co/s6G5NFEFOW later this week.— Chris DiSano (@CDiSano44) February 1, 2018
Observing Duquesne live last week in Kingston, one word comes to mind: Intensity. The fire and confidence the Dukes are bringing to the hardwood every night is refreshing. They play tough, together, and fearless – foundational characteristics that will continue to serve them as they battle for A-10 Championship seeding. It’s a remarkable slap to the face of preseason “expectations” and a testament to their rapid development under Keith Dambrot and staff.
One poll response came from VCU color analyst and long-time A-10 friend Michael Litos, who perhaps said it best in offering up his rationale for choosing Duquesne: “Had to go with Duquesne. The other two were not huge leaps. Duquesne is an entirely different team.” Dilly dilly.
Southern Rams | New England Rams
Tonight’s game pits this year’s heavyweight versus one of the league standouts (along with Dayton) for the past several years. The aforementioned Mr. Litos was gracious enough to ask me a few questions to tee up the matchup. Check it out.
Quote of the week
“On behalf of the Atlantic 10 Conference, I extend my sincerest sympathy to the Butler family. Rasual, his wife and family will be in our prayers. As one of the all-time greats from the Atlantic 10, we extend our support to the La Salle community and the Butler family.”
-- Commissioner Bernadette McGlade on the sudden passing of La Salle great Rasual Butler
Unheralded guard glasswork
Scroll through the list of multiple 10 rebound performances in the Atlantic 10 this season and you’ll see expected names like Justin Tillman, Eric Williams Jr., and Josh Cunningham. But tied for third with Cunningham on the list is George Mason’s 6-5 junior Jaire Grayer. We know Grayer can fill it up as a talented scorer who averages 14.5 points per game and shoots it nearly 39 percent from deep. But Grayer doesn’t get the credit he deserves for battling the behemoths inside on the glass. He ranks third with seven games of 10-plus rebounds and collects 7.9 boards per game overall, good enough for fifth in the league. Perhaps he went to school on former Mason standout Marquise Moore during their time together as teammates. Whatever the case, let’s give Grayer his due.
Name to know
It’s week five of Chalktalk and I made another – not the first, nor last – mistake in my life. I should’ve led this ‘Name to Know’ series with 6-foot-5 junior Courtney Stockard of St. Bonaventure. Put plainly, he’s earned it. After missing two seasons with a foot injury, Stockard (11 points, 5.9 rebounds, 2.0 assists per game) persevered and grinded his way back to join his teammates. Finally healthy, he’s been a consistent performer for Coach Mark Schmidt. A versatile defender who can guard wings and post players, Stockard answers the call no matter the matchup. Offensively, he excels in transition and, in the half court, is an able finisher around the rim. Beyond the numbers he’s a do-the-dirty-work guy, assuming a leadership role and functioning as a stabilizing force for a team with lofty aspirations.
Massachusetts suited up just six scholarship players on Wednesday night. That didn’t deter Matt McCall’s troops, who battled back from 14 points down in the final five minutes to throw quite a scare into conference leading URI.
“I was proud of our effort,” McCall told the Daily Hampshire Gazette postgame. “It started in practice. We had two of the best practices we’ve had in a long, long time,” McCall said. “We scored 83 points against one of the best defensive teams in the country. Offensively I thought we were good. Defensively we have to get a whole lot better. ... I was proud of our fight and proud we didn’t quit.”
No quit indeed. Despite losses of key players prior to and as the season has unfolded, the Minutemen are competing every play. The team personifies McCall’s grit and determination – he cut his teeth as a student manager and worked his way up the ladder – which bodes well for the future in Amherst.
So who’s playing this weekend?
Friday: Rhode Island at VCU – 7pm (ESPN2) Saturday: Dayton at Massachusetts – 2pm (ESN/NBCS-B) Davidson at George Washington – 4pm (NBCS-W) Saint Joseph’s at La Salle – 4pm (CBSSN) George Mason at Richmond – 4:30pm (NBCSN) St. Bonaventure at Duquesne – 6:30 (NBCSN) Fordham at Saint Louis – 8pm – (FSMW+)
We’ll wrap with this –
As intriguing as the Rams² game may be, it’s not the most important game of the week. That distinction belongs to the St. Bonaventure at Duquesne tilt – in my eyes anyway. The Bonnies still have designs on the NCAA Tournament and face the stout Dukes in Pittsburgh. SBU has won three straight and needs to grab a solid road win. The game has top four A-10 Tournament seeding implications for both programs also, so there’s a lot on the line. Tune in on NBCSN Saturday evening.
Chris DiSano, is an Atlantic 10 television analyst and writer. He has served as the host of A-10 Live! at Men's Basketball Media Day and founded the former College Chalktalk. DiSano, who was named an NBC Sports top Atlantic 10 basketball follow, can be found on Twitter at @CDiSano44