The Atlantic Ten Conference is bringing its championship tournament closer to the Atlantic Ocean, and the move could have an impact on which team will win this year’s title.
Xavier’s A-10 championship last season was its third in five years, with each title run coming in the state of Ohio.
It also marked the fifth time in seven years that the A-10 champion’s campus was within an hour drive of the A-10 tournament site, with Temple winning in 2000 and ’01 at the Spectrum.
So there might be some legitimacy to a home-court advantage If Xavier had an advantage in 2005, then Temple, La Salle and Saint Joseph’s might have that very same edge this season.
The Owls, the Explorers and the Hawks will need every advantage they can get. The Philadelphia trio is in closer geographic proximity to Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall, where this year’s A-10 champion will be crowned, but they will face an uphill battle.
The Hawks were picked to finish eighth in the A-10, while the Owls and the Explorers trail close behind at ninth and 10th, respectively.
Xavier is expected to defend its crown. The Musketeers unexpectedly rose from an 8-8 conference record and the tourney’s 10th seed to win the A-10 tournament last season in its home city of Cincinnati.
This year’s tournament will be held a bit further away than Cincinnati’s U.S. Bank Arena, but that made no difference to the A-10’s coaches and media, who nearly unanimously voted the Musketeers to repeat.
Xavier received 59 of the conference’s 64 first-place votes. Massachusetts, picked to finish second, garnered four votes. Saint Louis, the third-place choice, received no top votes and fourth-place Charlotte
got one nod.
George Washington, which won the A-10 regular- season title in 2005, was chosen to finish fifth. The Colonials, who peaked in the national polls at No. 6, suffered just three losses all of last year in advancing to the NCAA Tournament.
Last season’s A-10 champion, Xavier, was the other team to make the Big Dance. Four Musketeers were picked for the conference’s preseason teams. Justin Cage, Xavier’s third-leading scorer from a year ago, was picked for the A-10 Second Team and All-Defensive Team.
Stanley Burrell, a junior guard, is Xavier’s top returnee. He put up 14.4 points and 3.2 assists last season. Justin Doellman (11.0 ppg) and Oklahoma transfer Drew Lavender (9.7 ppg as a sophomore) are also expected to contribute.
“We have some guys who have been there before. Our seniors played in the Elite Eight [in 2004], so I have faith in who we’re putting out there,” Xavier coach Sean Miller said.
While they might be frontrunners for the A-10 Most Valuable Player Award, Cage and Burrell will have some company in St. Louis’ Ian Vouyoukas, a Greek-born forward/center. The 6-10 Vouyoukas averaged close to 14 points, eight rebounds and two blocks per contest in 2005.
The Billikens also return seven of their eight top scorers from a year ago. Coach Brad Soderberg said St. Louis is better than its 16-13 record in 2005 would indicate.
“You don’t say this a lot, but this team has committed a lot of time and effort to getting better,” Soderberg said. “It all goes into offseason training and these guys spent a lot of time with each other.”
Of the four preseason teams, freshman Luis Guzman was Temple’s only choice. The newcomer, a guard from Paramus, N.J., was selected for the All-Rookie Team.
In addition to a new location for the championship tournament, the A-10 also introduces two new coaches into the fold this year – Temple’s Fran Dunphy
and Duquesne’s Ron Everhart.
Everhart and the Dukes will face a greater challenge than simply overcoming a 3-24 mark in 2005. Six Duquesne players were involved in a Sept. 17 on-campus
shooting that left four of them hospitalized.
Everhart, a Pittsburgh resident and native of nearby Fairmont, W. Va., said the incident hasn’t thwarted his mission: Rebuilding the Dukes.
“This is a chance to get back to close to home,” Everhart said. “I’ve always taken a lot of pride in the tradition here. …I want us to get back to that.”
Amidst all the change, Xavier will attempt to maintain some consistency in the conference – a second-straight championship.
Christopher A. Vito can be reached at email@example.com.