The Atlantic-10 lays claim to an interesting intersection in the college basketball landscape, occupying that narrowing gap where the major conferences with their big time TV contracts meet the mid-majors with their back road eight-hour bus trips.
Here in college basketball limbo, where Xavier has been to three straight Sweet 16s and St. Bonaventure hasn’t had a winning season since 2001-2002, is where we find two bubble contenders in what may be Thursday’s most intriguing match-up: Richmond at Temple.
This season, the top tier of the Atlantic 10 is turning into a four-team battle for the regular season crown, with Xavier once again leading the way at 10-1 after its Feb. 16 romp over lowly St. Joseph’s.
Duquesne has also continued their recent resurgence, sitting a game back at 9-2.
Tied with the Dukes are the Richmond Spiders and the Temple Owls, both jockeying for an NCAA berth as we reach the critical final two weeks of the regular season.
Richmond has had an impressive year, already eclipsing the all-important 20-win mark with Saturday’s convincing 64-52 home victory over St. Louis. The Spiders’ signature victory was a neutral-floor domination of Purdue back in November, but non-conference losses at Iona and home to Bucknell leave the Spiders needing a strong finish.
The Spiders can score from all corners of the floor with the country’s seventh most potent 3-point attack, shooting at a 41 percent clip as a team from downtown. Six-foot ten-inch senior Justin Harper leads the team in scoring with 18.0 points per game and shoots just under 50 percent from 3-point range, good for fifth in the nation.
Senior guard Kevin Anderson anchors the backcourt and has scored 20 or more points four times already in this conference season, not to mention the 28 points he scored against Purdue.
Conventional wisdom might lead you to believe that these Spiders are going to have a tough time going into Philadelphia needing to beat a dangerous Temple team in its own building, but since losing their first two away from home to Iona and Old Dominion, the Spiders have gone out and won their last ten games away from the Robins Center.
This road warrior mentality may be due to the fact that the team is heavy on experience, with four of the Spiders’ top five in minutes played being seniors.
On the other side of the ball, the Temple Owls are having another great season. The Owls, at 19-5, have no bad losses on the resume, and looked impressive in knocking off Georgetown, 68-65, back in December and going down narrowly at the hands of cross town rival Villanova, 78-74.
Barring a collapse down the stretch, Temple looks like a NCAA tournament team, meaning they should have a chance to avenge last year’s first round loss to America’s favorite Ivy League Cinderella, Cornell.
True to their storied basketball tradition, Temple basketball is heavy on the defense, holding opponents’ 2-point field goal percentage under 43 percent. In 20-of-24 games, they have held its opponents under 70 points. In those games, they are 18-2.
Temple has gotten it done without a bona fide offensive superstar this season, as no one averages more than 16 points per game. Nevertheless, junior guard Ramone Moore has carried the scoring load when the Owls have needed it.
Moore dropped 30 in the big win against the Hoyas and is coming off a 26-point effort in the February 12th victory at Dayton. Lavoy Allen, the Owls’ 6-foot-9 vacuum on the glass who has three double-doubles in his last five games, is coming off of a sprained ankle.
His availability Thursday will be key in determining whether the Owls can protect their home court at the Liacouris Center.
The winner of this back and forth battle—and that is exactly what one should be expecting of these two teams that like to play in their half court sets—will surely be on the fast track to the safe side of the NCAA Tournament’s dreaded bubble.