When looking at a map of the Division I college basketball programs, the East Coast is peppered with the vast majority of the schools who belong amongst the nation's elite. Smaller conferences with smaller rivalries abound out East. One league reigns supreme in terms of consistent production, and that’s the Atlantic-10. This season, five bids is not only a distinct possibility, at this junction in the season, it’s almost likely. Both Xavier (12-5, 4-0), and #16 Temple (15-3 3-0) boast tremendous computer numbers (14th & 11th in RPI respectively), numbers that alone should guarantee them a spot in the NCAA Tournament, for now at least. In fact, many experts in the field of bracketology have five A-10 teams going dancing. At first glance, that’s crazy, but not after some research. Here’s a chance for Xavier to solidify it’s position in the Tournament, while Temple is out to prove that it is the team to beat in the conference.
This was not supposed to be Temple’s year. For years they had thrived under fiery coach John Chaney, going to a few Elite Eights. After his retirement in 2006, the Owls underwent a massive change of scenery with the appointment of Fran Dunphy, a much less imposing figure than his predecessor. But Dunphy has led Temple to two straight NCAA Tournament berths. Despite losing standout guard Dionte Christmas, this is suiting up to be Temple’s best year with Dunphy at the helm, returning to national prominence under a more balanced scoring attack, led by double-double machine Lavoy Allen, three point ace Juan Fernandez and senior slasher Ryan Brooks. Allen is picking up where he left off a year ago, consistently contributing 10 and 10. The increased scoring role of Brooks isn’t a huge surprise, considering he stepped into the role vacated by Christmas. But Fernandez, one of the nation’s best shooters and perhaps the driving force behind Temple’s big win over Villanova (33 points) is the pleasant surprise on the roster. His play has picked up as of late, going for double digits in 9 of Temple’s last 10 games. Rounding out the thirty minute club is senior point guard Luis Guzman. Although Guzman doesn’t score nearly as much as the other three, he is a strong rebounder, good passer and steady ball handler. Freshmen Rahlir Jefferson and Ramone Moore bolster depth, both providing solid rebounding as well as some scoring. Big Nigerian Michael Eric is a work in progress, but the lanky center has shown some major promise. Craig Williams is a straight up jump shooter.
Xavier, too, wasn’t supposed to be this good. After coach Sean Miller, who had retained a strong standard of success that started with Skip Prosser and continued with Thad Matta. Chris Mack looks to continue that success, guiding the Musketeers to a 4-0 record in Atlantic-10 play thus far, including a win over rival Dayton. He also won his first Crosstown Shootout, as Terrell Holloway and the Muskies ousted Lance Stephenson’s Bearcats in double overtime. Indiana transfer and Youtube sensation Jordan Crawford has proven he can play, leading the Atlantic-10 in scoring. Terrell Holloway, whose consistent play a year ago was one of the reasons the loss of Drew Lavender didn’t sting so much, is having an excellent sophomore campaign. He’s second on the team in scoring and has a great assist/turnover ratio. Jason Love has transformed into a beast of a rebounder, really taking his game to the next level and stepping up to the challenge that was presented by being the team’s leading returning scorer. Dante Jackson, as well, has been a fantastic shooter, rarely missing and playing solid defense. Brad Redford takes over 90% of his shots from beyond the arc, and he does it well, connecting on 48% of those. Jamel McLean and Kenny Frease provide low post depth. McLean thrives on getting to the free throw line, while the monstrous Frease is an enforcer. Mark Lyons is another viable guard option, giving Coach Mack another ball handler and distributor, as well as someone who can score.
Temple at home is tough. The last time these two teams played, the Owls upset the highly ranked Musketeers 55-53 in the Atlantic-10 Tournament, and Xavier hasn’t won on Temple’s turf since 2004. The Owls win, to the tune of 73-64.