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Matt Vautour: Atlantic 10 underdogs making early season noise

Villanova head coach Jay Wright in action against Cincinnati in an NCAA college basketball game, Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2013, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Al Behrman)

Villanova head coach Jay Wright in action against Cincinnati in an NCAA college basketball game, Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2013, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Al Behrman)

Monday, December 2, 2013
(Published in print: Tuesday, December 3, 2013)

After riding a huge wave of positive publicity into last year’s NCAA tournament, the state of the Atlantic 10 figured to be a big question for the 2013-14 season. The losses of banner-carriers Temple and Xavier, as well as Butler and Charlotte, made it fair to wonder how the league would hold up.

So far so good.

Saint Louis and Virginia Commonwealth were expected to be the league’s top dogs with La Salle not far behind. When the dust settles they still might be, but the most encouraging thing for the A-10 in its one year as a 13-team conference, is that the two teams ranked in this week’s top 25 are not any of the expected frontrunners.

UMass’ speedy rise back to the national scene has received plenty of attention, but the Minutemen aren’t alone.

Dayton earned its No. 25 ranking at least partially on the strength of upsetting then-No. 13 Gonzaga. The Zags might prove to have been overrated in the preseason, but the addition of former Ohio State guard Jordan Sibert (14.4 points per game) has given them a huge lift.

George Washington lost Lasan Kromah, who transferred to UConn, but gained former Indiana guard Maurice Creek and the swap has been a positive. GW boasts wins over Creighton and Miami. Games this week with Rutgers on Wednesday and Maryland on Sunday gave them a chance to further enhance its profile.

ILLOGICAL — So Villanova is undefeated. Sure, the Wildcats’ first few wins included victories over Lafayette, Mount St. Mary’s and Delaware. But last week at the Battle 4 Atlantis, Villanova beat Southern Cal, Kansas and Iowa.

Kansas is expected to be very good and probably great. Andrew Wiggins has been hyped as the best freshman since the invention of shoelaces. There’s plenty to like about the Jayhawks. But Villanova won the game on a neutral floor and, while the Wildcats might not be more talented or even the better team in the long run, right now, Villanova is at least playing better. Shouldn’t that count for more than preseason speculation.

But in both polls, Kansas (No. 6 AP, No. 7 coaches) was ranked higher than Villanova (No. 14, 19) largely because most voters weren’t willing to take a team that was unranked with no points in the AP poll (five in the coaches) and rank it higher than Kansas.

That doesn’t seem right.

MY TOP 10, 19 — 1. Michigan State, 2. Arizona, 3. Kentucky, 4. Syracuse, 5. Ohio State, 6. Villanova, 7. Connecticut, 8. Kansas, 9. Louisville, 10. Duke.

I have UMass No. 19. Nine voters have the Minutemen ranked higher than me (Jeff Faraudo, of the Bay Area News Group, has them highest at No. 14). Four voters agree with me at 19, while 51 have UMass lower, including eight who don’t have the Minutemen ranked at all.

For the rest of my Top 25 visit the College Hoop Week Guide on GazetteNET.com’s UMass Sports Blog.

GAMES OF THE WEEK: North Carolina at Michigan State, Wednesday, 9 p.m. ESPN — Which North Carolina team shows up, the one that upended Louisville or the one that lost to UAB? This is one of a handful or terrific matchups in the annual Big Ten vs. ACC challenge.

ATLANTIC 10 GAME OF THE WEEK: BYU at UMass, Saturday, 1:30 p.m. MassMutual Center, CBS Sports Network — The Cougars are 6-2 with their only losses coming to Wichita State and Iowa State. They might be the team that dethrones Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference. This is a another potential resume game for both teams.

ON THE ROAD TO ... Bruiser Flint winning another CAA Coach of the Year award. Before junior guard Damion Lee got hurt, the Dragons put a serious scare into Arizona, two nights before the Wildcats beat Duke. Drexel bounced back to beat Alabama and has already beat Rutgers. It should be among the CAA favorites.

Information from personal interviews, newspaper articles and sports information releases was used in this report.

Matt Vautour can be reached at mvautour@gazettenet.com. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage

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