If you read Banners on the Parkway in the summer, you're aware that I split the Atlantic 10 into two groups: The Contenders, and the Bottom Six. As we approach the conference season's beginning tomorrow, one thing has changed significantly. The St. Louis Billikens have come on strong this year, their #14 mark on KenPom and a projected #7 seed from Joe Lunardi show just how far Rick Majerus has brought his team in just one year. Before we started the season I said "There's not a clear cut third place team in the A10 this year, and Rick Majerus' boys may just sneak in there." That was clearly wrong, as SLU is easily one of the top two teams in the conference.
Beyond that, Xavier (56th in KenPom) staggers into A10 play looking to destroy some softer opponents before the Billikens arrive on the 25th of this month. La Salle, who Joel will preview tomorrow, has a very repectable KenPom ranking of 72ndand comes into this game with a borderline inexplicable 10-4 record. St. Joe's, made the more loathable by the actions of Phil Martelli this season, is 52nd, Dayton 71st, Temple 44th, and St. Bonaventure, Duquesne, UMass and Richmond all clock in above the 115 mark. Why do these numbers matter?
Because Xavier is dropping like a rock. The Butler win, normally worth a good deal, now comes against a team with a KenPom ranking of 114. With that win devalued, XU has to make hay in the conference schedule. Thanks to solid out of conference play and better scheduling by their Atlantic peers, there is a chance they can. Here's how:
1. Only lose twice: Obviously, winning is the best way to keep yourself in the national picture. If Xavier loses more than twice it will most likely be because they missed a chance to beat a team tanked higher than they are. A win against St. Louis is an absolute must, and the Musketeers have two chances. Should the Billikens manage a split, Xavier can really only afford to lose to Temple without damaging their seed or, even worse, NCAA tournament chances.
2. Cheer for St. Louis: If the Billikens stay hot they will represent two chances at a win every bit as useful as Gonzaga would have been. St. Louis is a darling of the statistically in tune basketball crowd right now, and that will be reflected in their RPI as the season moves on. If the Billikens mow through the A10, but the Musketeers beat them twice, a good deal of damage is reversed.
3. Mop up on the bottom: Losses to Charlotte (128), George Washington (173), URI (238), or Fordham (269) would be absolutely devestating to the Musketeers right now. Xavier won't return home between La Salle tomorrow and Fordham on Saturday. A win in Philly, followed by a thrashing of the Rams would do a good deal to right the ship. Xavier meets the bottom of the conference five times this year. All of those must be wins.
4. Win the tournament: The A10 tournament will also present at least one more chance at a good win. Assuming there isn't a complete collapse of the basketball world, Xavier will meet either Temple or SLU in a potential final and have to beat the other to get there. A season that seems on the rocks now could still yield a #4 seed if Xavier rolls through the conference tournament, and gets one more good win doing it.
Much like Robert Redford, I'm not going to sugarcoat it. The Musketeers are struggling right now and A10 opponents will be queuing up for a shot at the fallen bully. If Xavier regains the merciless finishing that they showed against Purdue and the swagger they showed against Cincy, the season will still be a success. Wednesday will go a long way to showing whether that is still possible.