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Paper Tigers

I have gone on record stating that current A-10 co-leader Duquesne is, in effect, a paper tiger. I think their hot start and impressive record are somewhat illusory and not a great reflection of the quality of the team, and I've been very honest about that. But, as Xavier was bidding farewell to a modest seven-game winning streak by playing their worst game in almost a month, Duquense was methodically putting away another one of the weak sisters of the A-10 (more on that later). Like the small child I resemble emotionally, I responded to uncomfortable circumstances by seeking comfort in the familiar: we're still the best team in the A-10. Right?

We are. That, by the way, doesn't guarantee that XU is going to take home the A-10 title this year. Ugly, niggling things like injuries, bad calls, bad luck, and performances below or above the normal level all go together in some untold formula with a team's talent, their schedule, and a thousand other things that end up determining who comes out on top. The bedwetting at Charlotte didn't help, either.

One of the first factors to which the talking heads usually point in evaluating a team is its road record. When I pulled up the numbers on the Dukes, I was momentarily staggered by their road W-L of 6-3. Then I looked at their opponents in those games. In order of when the games were played, their opponents currently rank 133rd, 239th, 204th, 345th, 165th, and 244th in the RPI. That's right, a lone road win in the top 150 of the RPI, and that was against Bowling Green in November. Their non-conference strength of schedule was 145th; they played four decent teams (a neutral site game with Pitt, @Penn St, WVU, George Mason) and lost them all. Their best non-conference win was at home against IUPUI, who is currently ranked 113th in the RPI.

It has been noted on some major outlets (okay, SBN) that Duquesne was recently on an eleven game winning streak. This streak spanned eight conference games, home wins over Northwestern St (241st RPI) and Norfolk St (283rd), and road victory over Houston Baptist (345th of 346 teams ranked by ESPN). Those conference games have been about as easy as possible for the Dukes. Their conference strength of schedule sits at 150th, compared to Xavier's mark of 75th. Duquesne's toughest A-10 matchups - their wins over 7-2 Temple and 5-4 Dayton - have both come at home. The rest of the A-10 teams they've beaten so far have a combined record of 14-40.

Where Duquesne is 1-3 against the RPI top 50 and 4-6 against the top 150, Xavier is 3-3 in the top 50 and 10-5 in the top 150. Though the teams sport identical conference records, Xavier has a win in hand over Richmond in addition to the wins over Temple and Dayton that the teams have in common. A mentally tough, battle-tested team like Xavier bounces back from a bump in the road (like losing to Charlotte) by stepping up and showing their mettle in some way (like going to Georgia and only turning the ball over seven times en route to a massive win). How Duquesne shows up this weekend will tell a lot about what kind of team they are.

A recently as last week, Duquesne was getting blurbs on college hoops blogs and feature stories written about them. After a loss at St. Bonaventure last weekend plummeted them to the mid-70s in the RPI, I'd have to imagine their buzz has dwindled commensurate to their at-large hopes. With a big matchup with X looming this weekend and road dates against Dayton and Richmond still on the calendar, Duquesne suddenly finds their hopes of taking the A-10 crown very slim indeed. When you're a paper champion, it doesn't take much to see it all go up in smoke.