Neither La Salle coach John Giannini nor Joseph’s coach Phil Martelli is ready to drop off the Atlantic Ten tournament trophy in Kingston, but the coaches of the Philadelphia teams in the conference both concede that the path to the title again goes through Rhode Island.
The A-10 tournament will start Wednesday at Capital One Arena in Washington with 18th-ranked Rhode Island as the No. 1 seed. The Rams (23-6, 15-3 conference) won their first outright regular-season conference title but a stumble down the stretch – two straight losses – raises questions about whether the door has been opened.
“It’s Rhode Island’s tournament to lose,” said Martelli. “ Rhode Island dominated, dominated, dominated. This league, as it did through 18 league games, goes through Rhode Island.”
The A-10 was a top-heavy league with Rhode Island, St. Bonaventure and Davidson, and then the rest of the teams trailing in a close pack.
“The regular season means something,” said Giannini, whose Explorers will play Massachusetts in an opening-round game Wednesday. “Rhode Island, Bonaventure and Davidson separated themselves a bit. That’s what makes me cringe.
“But in a one-game scenario, absolutely anything can happen. This isn’t a seven-game series. In that sense, I think most tournaments are wide open in college basketball.”
La Salle will set about testing that theory on Wednesday when the 12th-seeded Explorers play 13-seed Massachusetts at 6 p.m.
The teams split their regular-season games with UMass winning, 86-79, in Amherst on Jan. 10. La Salle returned the favor with an 82-72 victory at Tom Gola Arena 14 days later.
Senior forward B.J. Johnson, who missed the first game due to injury, had 26 points and six rebounds in the rematch in Philadelphia.
Luwane Pipkins scored 44 for the Minutemen in the win and dropped 25 points on the Explorers in Philadelphia. Pipkins and totaled 12 three-pointers in the two games with La Salle.
Since the Explorers haven’t won three consecutive games since the start of the season, perhaps it better to say they need five one-game winning streaks to win the programs first Atlantic Ten tournament title.
“It doesn’t matter how I feel,” Giannini said of the tournament. “We’ll get prepared and be totally focused on winning the game. Every game is different. It’s just about tomorrow, the next practice and the next opponent. Unless you have something special the way Villanova does, unless you’re extraordinarily good or extraordinarily bad, you’re always trying to improve. You’re trying to get better.”
If the Explorers beat Massachusetts, they will advance to play 5th-seeded Virginia Commonwealth at 2:30 p.m on Thursday.