OLEAN – Ed McLaughlin freely admitted that he didn’t appreciate the Atlantic 10 until his view was up close and personal. McLaughlin was the athletic director at Niagara until 2012, when he left for the same post at Virginia Commonwealth the year it moved to the Atlantic 10 conference.
The first year was a learning experience for everyone involved. Niagara had good teams in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference under Joe Mihalich. They made the NCAA tournament one year during McLaughlin’s tenure, a first in 37 seasons. But as McLaughlin quickly found out, it wasn’t the Atlantic 10.
“For the first month, we were saying, ‘Wow, this is a really good league,’ ” McLaughlin said by telephone Tuesday evening. “Night in and night out, the play is really at a high level. The coaching is at a really high level. It’s nothing against the MAAC. It’s a great league. I loved being in that league, but this is a real-deal league.”
Dayton’s 85-79 victory over St. Bonaventure was disheartening for Bonnies fans who were excited about their terrific start, but basketball purists had to admire the Flyers’ show in the first half. They were practically flawless while opening up a 45-18 lead at intermission under difficult conditions in the Reilly Center.
St. Bonaventure should take comfort knowing it made the game interesting in the second half. Dayton had a 55-25 lead six minutes into the second half before Bona pulled within 10 points with about five minutes remaining. The Bonnies used up so much energy coming back that they had little left to finish.
Bona deserves credit for making the game respectable. They fought through frustration over their poor shooting in the first half. They didn’t quit. Marcus Posley had 31 points and Jaylen Adams, 27. They combined for 50 points in the second half. The Bonnies battled back while getting little from their forwards.
At its best, Dayton can play with any team in the country. The Flyers have a terrific leader in fiery coach Archie Miller, who led the Flyers to the Elite Eight two years ago with the stifling defense for which they are known. They improved to 4-1 in the conference and 15-3 overall.
At its worst, St. Bonaventure can lose to any team in the country. The Bonnies, who started the season with four straight conference wins and a 12-3 record overall, have lost two straight conference games. They couldn’t put the ball in the ocean if they played the first half on a cruise ship Tuesday.
“This league is as good as any and is always underrated,” Miller said. “They dropped two in a row, but they’re a really good team. They can beat anybody on a given night, particularly with those guards. This league from top to bottom will go down to the last week. We’ll always be playing that game.”
The result Tuesday is what happens in the Atlantic 10 when the best and worst of both worlds convene on the same court. No matter how it appeared in the first half, Bona showed it’s capable of playing with Dayton. The first half was a clunker that should be crumpled into a ball and tossed in the trash.
In this league, Bona isn’t getting much sympathy.
The Atlantic 10 may be underrated in certain circles, but it certainly hasn’t been overlooked in recent seasons by the NCAA tournament selection committee. In the previous three years, 14 teams from the A-10 have been invited to the Big Dance. The Southeast Conference had 10 over the same stretch.
Over the last two-plus seasons, Atlantic 10 teams have won 26 games over Top 25 nonconference teams. It has 10 wins this season against the ACC, Big East and Big 10. It’s the seventh-rated conference in Division I. It’s ahead of the American Athletic Conference, which includes the likes of eighth-ranked SMU and Connecticut.
For me, there’s an element of charm in a conference that keeps most players for four seasons and grooms them into men. You’re able to watch them mature. You come to appreciate the work needed to improve. You admire the coaches and their personalities knowing they could lead most teams in the country.
Strange but true, but the general lack of depth and dominant big men you see in other conferences actually make this league better. The conference is balanced and tends to be cyclical at the top. Less time on the shot clock has encouraged strong, athletic players to get up and down the court and improve scoring.
St. Bonaventure didn’t have a player taller than 6-foot-8. Dayton didn’t start anyone bigger than 6-6 but made room for 6-11 freshman Steve McElvene, who checked into the game and imposed his will. It doesn’t help, of course, when the Bonnies shoot 25 percent from the floor as they did in the first half Tuesday.
With each team loaded with versatility but lacking dominant players, it brings out basketball at its best. The knockdown, drag-out affairs over a full season turn the year into a test of survival. St. Bonaventure was dreadful in the first half and paid a dear price against an unforgiving team.
“Every game in the league from Davidson all the way through, you got to bring your game,” Bona coach Mark Schmidt said. “You have to play with intensity, with passion, you have to play every possession. It’s not the seventh-best conference in the country for nothing. It’s hard. You can’t not play for 20 minutes. That’s a lesson our guys have learned.”
It gets tougher.
St. Bonaventure is headed for Richmond and a meeting Saturday with first-place VCU, which won its first five conference games in an eight-game winning streak and is 13-5 overall in the first season of the post-Shaka Smart era. The Rams are terrific from the perimeter and play relentless, physical defense.
If the Bonnies thought Tuesday night’s game was difficult, they should expect their next game to be equally brutal. After all, VCU looks like the real deal.
“It’s a tough league,” Posley said. “It’s the A-10, and it’s going to be a war every night. Unfortunately, things didn’t go the way we wanted them to tonight, but we have another tough opponent coming up.
“We’ll try to learn from this one, watch film and get ready for VCU.”