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Breaking down the Billikens path through the Atlantic 10

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The Billikens men’s basketball team improved to 3-0 in conference play (16-2 overall) with their victory over St. Bonaventure at Chaifetz arena on Wednesday night. The defending champions of the Atlantic 10 conference, the Billikens are poised to compete for yet another conference championship this season.

Due to conference realignment, the A-10 has a much different look than a season ago. Former conference heavyweight Xavier departed for the new-look Big East conference along with Butler after their first season in the league. Temple moved to the American Athletic Conference after 31 years in the A-10 and Charlotte joined Conference USA. The lone newcomer is George Mason, who is best known for their Cinderella run to the Final Four in 2006.

Despite an outright conference regular season and tournament championship a season ago, the Billikens were picked to finish second behind media darling Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). Behind SLU, La Salle, Massachusetts and St. Joseph’s rounded out the top five. Much has changed since the preseason polls were released, and the A-10 race figures to be very competitive once again with several teams in the mix for the conference title as well as NCAA tournament invites.

At this point in time Massachusetts appears to be the Billikens’ strongest challenger in the conference race. The Minutemen are currently ranked No. 16 in the AP poll. They hold a 15-1 record and improved to 3-0 in the A-10 after defeating George Mason on Wednesday night. Massachusetts is led by senior guard Chaz Williams who averages over 15 points per game and shoots better than 43 percent from behind the arc. UMass is known for their ability to light up the scoreboard; on the season they average just shy of 80 points per game. The Billikens will travel to Amherst to take on the Minutemen in the A-10 finale on March 8 in a game that figures to have strong implications in deciding the regular season conference champion.

Early in conference play, preseason pick VCU currently stands at 13-4. Shaka Smart’s team has been regarded for their “havoc” defense ever since their improbable run to the Final Four in 2011. This year, the Rams’ pressure defense is a focal point once again. Junior guard Treveon Graham and senior forward Juvonte Reddic lead the way for VCU, but they are one of the more well-rounded teams in the conference. Seven players average more than six points per game for the Rams so they are certainly not one-dimensional. The Billikens will host VCU at Chaifetz arena on Feb. 15, and they will travel to Richmond for the rematch on March 1 in what should be two very competitive contests.

Perhaps the most surprising A-10 team is George Washington. The Colonials are 14-3 overall and they improved to 2-1 in conference play after a 76-66 victory over VCU. Five players average scoring in double figures for the Colonials, three of whom are just sophomores. George Washington was picked to finish 10 in the preseason poll, but they appear to be a legitimate contender at this point in the season. They will travel to St. Louis to take on the Billikens on Feb.22.

Despite struggling in non-conference play, La Salle will be yet another competitive team in the A-10. The Explorers sit at 10-6, but are now 3-0 in conference play after victories over George Washington, Duquesne and Rhode Island. La Salle finished 11-5 in conference play a season ago, but they peaked at the right time as they advanced to the Sweet Sixteen in the NCAA tournament. The Explorers are a long shot to win the A-10 regular season championship, but they have the talent to give teams headaches in the conference tournament in March. The Billikens will travel to Philadelphia to take on La Salle on Feb. 8.

Other than UMass, no A-10 team is in better position than the Billikens. The Bills entered the AP poll at No. 24 this week after a convincing road victory at Dayton over the weekend.  A season ago, the Billikens stumbled to a 3-3 regular season start, and they faltered with a 1-2 record to begin conference play. Despite this, the Bills won the A-10 with a 13-3 league record, won the conference tournament, and finished with a school-record 28 victories.

If the Billikens are to return to prominence once again this season, their stingy defense is what will carry them there. SLU currently ranks fifth nationally in defensive efficiency, and gives up less than 58 points per game on average. 13 conference games remain for the Billikens – six on the road, and seven at home. If SLU can win their remaining home games and win two of three versus La Salle, VCU and UMass on the road, they are likely to be A-10 champions for the second consecutive year (and earn their third consecutive NCAA tournament appearance).

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