They’re in.The men’s basketball team secured its ticket to Atlantic City for next week’s Atlantic Ten Conference tournament with its victory against Charlotte Saturday.
The season’s final two games – against Dayton Wednesday and at Fordham Saturday – will determine the Owls’ final seed.Though the Owls (12-15) have spent the season among the bottom half of the A-10 standings, they have maintained
a steady distance from 13th and 14th place – the two positions that miss out on the tournament.
Nevertheless, the Owls were relieved to hear they will play during spring break.
Senior guard Dustin Salisbery let out a deep sigh upon hearing the news.
“That’s definitely a good thing,” the co-captain said. “We still want to win these games, but now we know if we just happen to slip up, we’re still in there.”
Dionte Christmas, the A-10’s leading scorer, echoed that.
“That’s great, we clinched a spot in the A-10 tournament – that’s wonderful,” the sophomore said. The Owls’ 6-8 conference record puts them in a three-way tie for eighth place with Charlotte and Dayton.
Last season, the Owls entered the tourney with the No. 9 seed, just the second time they had failed to earn a first-round bye.
The Owls are not eligible to earn a bye this season.
But in a conference without a clear-cut favorite, they understand anything can happen. They only have to rewind to last season when they knocked off George Washington, ranked No. 6 nationally,
in the quarterfinals.
“When we get there, it’s a whole new ballgame,” Salisbery said. “Everybody is 0-0 when we get there. So, we’ve got a chance to make the NCAA Tournament.”
Salisbery clearly knows what’s at stake. The A-10 champion gets its ticket punched to the Big Dance, an honor that’s eluded the Owls in each of the last five seasons. The losers, at best, might get the chance to play in the NIT, because none of the A-10 teams are likely to warrant an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.
To win the A-10 tourney will take four straight wins. And better defense, Salisbery said.
The Owls rank 11th in the conference in scoring defense, surrendering 74.2 points per game. Opponents have shot 43.9 percent against them. They are being outrebounded by a 4.3 margin.
Those numbers were better Saturday when the Owls limited Charlotte to 69 points on 39 percent shooting. The Owls won the battle on the glass, 39-35.
Coach Fran Dunphy said his team’s performance was an improvement, but added that the Owls aren’t quite where he’d like to see them.
“It’s really important each and every game now, that if we’re going to do anything in the tournament, we have to get to a point where we’re more confident than we were over the last couple of games,” he said.
“As a team, I think we need to go out, play defense and just play aggressive like we did [Saturday],” Christmas said. “I think we’ll be all right.”
The offense, of course, has been there for most of the season. The Owls average 76 points per game, the fifth most in the league. Christmas and Mark Tyndale
rank 1-2 in scoring, and Salisbery lurks close behind, at sixth. Tyndale has emerged as one of the league’s best guards. The three-year starter has averaged 24.7 points and 8.9 rebounds in the last nine games. Christmas said Tyndale’s performance has helped take the pressure off of him.”Mark’s definitely picking up the slack,” said Christmas, who has struggled with his shot of late.
“The last five, six games, he’s been scoring 20 and 30 points. I’m proud of him.”
Tyndale’s latest performance, a career-best 37 points against the 49ers Saturday, had the junior guard beaming with confidence in both him and the team.
“I think we’re going to be a real scary team to play,” Tyndale said. “I think we’re going to do well in the A-10 tournament.”
Dayton brings an identical 6-8 A-10 record
to the Liacouras Center Wednesday. The Flyers have won just once on the road this season, a 69-62 victory at St. Bonaventure on Feb. 10.The game also marks the final time seniors Dion Dacons and Salisbery will suit up for the home crowd.
John Kopp can be reached at email@example.com.