I don't know if you guys can tell yet, but when conference tournament time rolls around every year, I'm completely in my element. I roll out of bed, flip on the tv, and spend all day immersed in games and press conferences. It's like a four-day Christmas for basketball junkies such as myself, and today's Atlantic 10 slate has got me in a festive mood. Here's a recap of today's matchups, along with some hasty predictions for tomorrow.
Game 1: Duquesne 67 Richmond 62
I will admit, in many respects, I feel bad for Richmond. Given the way they ended their regular season, as well as the glaring injury problems on their roster, a lot of doubt was cast upon the preseason top team in the conference for today, including from yours truly. However, late into the first half, the Spiders pretty much had complete control. Jumping to a 27-13 lead, Richmond looked like they were playing at the same level they were against Kentucky in November. Grant Golden looked as healthy as ever, heading into the break 4-7 from the field. Duquesne chipped their deficit down to 7 at halftime, but it would take a sizeable defensive overhaul for them to come away with the win.
Luckily for the Dukes, that's exactly what happened.
For most of the second half, Duquesne stayed competitive, but couldn't get the margin down past 5 or 6 points. Finally, due to a combination of their own defensive prowess and Grant Golden taking an extended trip to the bench, the Dukes brought the game right down to their tempo. In the final nine minutes of play, Richmond hit just one of their seven field goals. For Duquesne, they hit all seven, including two clutch buckets from Tavian Dunn-Martin. According to Coach Keith Dambrot, Dunn-Martin has been the Dukes' biggest catalyst for success this season.
"I’m glad he’s been able to shake off all the adversity we’ve faced this year," Dambrot said. "He shouldn’t be able to play the way he does at his size, but when he has a good game, we have a chance to beat most people."
This win was Duquesne's first A-10 tournament win against a higher seed since 2009, and while it was a great win, it wasn't enough for an accomplished coach like Dambrot.
"We went to 9 straight championship games in Akron, so we’re not used to losing," Dambrot explained. "To win is nice, but ultimately, Duquesne hasn’t been in the tournament in 500 years, so unless we get into the tournament, I won’t really be happy. How can you be?"
The Dukes will take on the Bonnies in the first game of the Friday slate.
For Spiders coach Chris Mooney, the wounds were still a bit too fresh to give a solid reaction to his team's season. However, in terms of a next move, Mooney emphasized that his new priority will be ensuring his older players will have all the resources they need to prepare for the NBA Draft.
Game 2: UMass 100 St. Joe's 66
This one was tough to watch. Before I get into it, let me break down some of the records this game set in comparison to the Atlantic 10 Tournament historically:
-UMass became the fourth team ever, as well as the first team since GW in 1999 to score 100 points in an A-10 Tournament game.
-UMass hit 15 threes all game, the second best all-time. They were two shy of the Bonnies record 17 in 2002.
-UMass hit 40 total field goals, which is the third most in A-10 Tournament history. URI currently has the record with 42 scored in 1988.
-The 34 point margin today breaks the record for widest in A-10 Tournament history. The previous record holder was Rutgers, who took down the Bonnies by 33 in 1989.
By looking at these stats, I'm sure you can determine that this one was a blowout from the get-go. Facing off against a well-rested UMass team, St. Joe's look gassed as they tried their best to get through their third game of the week on a second consecutive day of playing basketball. According to the Hawks' Ryan Daly, a possible contributor to this wide margin was an overpreparation on guarding Tre Mitchell.
"We didn't want Tre Mitchell to beat us," Daly explained, reiterating similar sentiments made after yesterday's win. "In return, we let up a lot of threes. "They were shooting 15 for 27 at one point when I looked up, which is just an absolutely ridiculous percentage."
As news of Daly's comments yesterday reached the UMass locker room, Tre Mitchell and his teammates looked to use their potential strategy against them.
"Somebody sent me a screenshot of a text talking about how focused they were on me," Mitchell said. "When I saw that, I knew our guys were about to have a field day. If you send two guys on me, I know we have weapons out on our perimeter [that can connect."
10 out of 13 UMass players who hit the floor today scored, with all five starters registering in double-figures. Ronnie DeGray led all scorers with 19, while Mitchell finished with 15.
While the Minutemen prepare for the Billikens tomorrow, Ryan Daly announced that his time at St. Joe's is done as he looks to go pro. According to Coach Billy Lange, Daly has been instrumental in developing St. Joe's as a major basketball program.
"A lot of these guys probably weren't thinking about playing at St. Joe's in 7th or 8th grade, but for Ryan, it's a dream come true," Lange said. "To have that passion and competitiveness while we build a new era of St. Joe's basketball is truly a blessing."
Game 3: Dayton 84 URI 72
Despite a relatively neck-and-neck first few minutes, Dayton seemed to lock in offensively late in the first. Both a practical and symbolic testament to their control of the game, a Jalen Crutcher three at the first-half buzzer established a nine-point lead that would never be flipped in Rhody's favor.
"That was big," Crutcher recalled of that shot. "It was a momentum swing for us, and we just knew that we had to come out in the second half and keep going."
The Flyers no doubt kept going, laying on deep-ball after deep-ball to finish the game shooting 52% from beyond the arc. While Crutcher finished the game with 14, his teammate Ibi Watson led all Dayton scorers with 25 points.
"I just needed to keep shooting the same shots I do in warmups," Watson said. "Since I kept my confidence up tonight, I kept hitting my shots."
In a season full of program suspensions and cancellations, one thing that made this matchup so solid was familiarity between these two teams. Rhody has played 17 conference games this year, tied for most in the A-10 with La Salle. In their third meeting with Dayton this year, both sides felt like today's game felt like a classic conference matchup.
"We knew that today was going to be a battle, and that we needed to be at our best," Coach Anthony Grant said. "They’ve got depth, they’ve got speed, they’ve got one of the best players in the country in Fatts [Russell], so we had to be at the top of our game."
Coach Grant doubled down on his complements to Fatts, describing how he's been a major representative for what makes the Atlantic 10 such a great league.
Looking ahead, the Flyers head into tomorrow with another familiar opponent in VCU. Coach Grant mentioned VCU's home court advantage this tournament, and how they can be a major threat.
"VCU from a defensive standpoint, creates a lot of issues with their press," Coach Grant said. "With the way they can guard and disrupt you, so we need to figure out how to take care of the ball. Tomorrow is a different team, a different challenge, so we gotta do what we can to come out of tomorrow with a win."
Dayton's players were very cognizant of their current series with VCU this season, which the Rams lead 2-0. However, Jalen Crutcher felt pretty confident in his team for tomorrow.
"We’re ready for that matchup," Crutcher said with a smile. "They beat us twice so, you know, third time’s the charm."
Game 4: George Mason 73 George Washington 59
Considering I've been talking about scrappy games for this entire recap, it's fitting that the final game of today had plenty of fans in the first half wondering whether or not one team will hit 40 points.
Despite the low total, Mason Coach Dave Paulsen assured his guys that the amount of points they scored today didn't matter as long as it was more than their opponents.
"Obviously we were challenged offensively in the first half," Paulsen said. "I told our guys at halftime that we're built to win whether the score is 52-50 or 82-50, so just keep doing what you're doing."
Considering both teams struggled shooting from deep, finishing with a combined 10-31 from three-point land, Mason decided to win this game in the post, outscoring GW in the paint by a whopping margin of 42-13. Snagging 7 offensive rebounds all game for 13 second chance points. Jordan Miller was the biggest producer for the patriots, snagging 10 boards and scoring 20 to register a double-double.
Despite the loss, Colonials Coach Jamion Christian was beaming with pride for his team. Along with playing through a pandemic, the Colonials faced departing players in late December, forcing them to rethink their entire strategy and lineup going forward.
"It's amazing watching them, and I talk about them being so resilient," Christian said. "We had Covid issues, we had guys leave, we had an insurrection right off campus. There was a lot that we took on this year, but you wouldn't have known that when seeing these guys on the court. I'm proud of who they are, and we've grown so close together during these tough times."
Tomorrow, Mason will take on Davidson in the quarterfinals.
Hasty Predictions for Tomorrow
St. Bonaventure vs. Duquesne: Duquesne pulled off a great win against Richmond today, and they'll provide a formidable matchup for the Bonnies within the post. Combine that with the unpredictability of Tavian Dunn-Martin, and the Bonnies will have a lot of work defensively. However, in a defensive war of attrition, I think the Bonnies are much better suited to come out on top in this one.
SLU vs. UMass: SLU took down the Minutemen pretty decisively on Monday after forcing them to make some costly mistakes. The biggest key to victory for the Billikens will be using as much of their rotation as possible. As long as they don't get caught turning themselves into the Collins-Perkins show, they'll punch their ticket to the semifinals.
VCU vs Dayton: I got a little ahead of myself yesterday when making a VCU-Dayton prediction instead of a URI-Dayton prediction, but considering this matchup is now happening, I will hold firm to what I originally said. If Bones doesn't hit the court, Dayton will advance.
Davidson vs. George Mason: Davidson has been flying under the radar as a potentially dangerous tournament team. Gimme the Wildcats to play on Saturday.