The race for the Atlantic 10 Conference regular-season championship came down to the final week, if not the final day, in the last nine seasons.
Last season, Dayton clinched the outright title, its first ever, by beating Virginia Commonwealth on Senior Night. That’s often how it’s done in the A-10. Nothing comes easy. However, this year has been different.
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With three games left, No. 18 Rhode Island (22-4, 14-1) already has clinched a title share. It’s the first time it has ever won the A-10 regular-season championship. It beat La Salle 95-93 in overtime on the road Tuesday to take a three-game lead over Davidson (16-10, 11-4) and St. Bonaventure (21-6, 11-4) with three games to play.
Rhode Island was the preseason favorite and has played like it all season. The Rams rose as high as No. 16 in the Associated Press poll before losing to St. Bonaventure. They already beat Dayton at UD Arena, 88-74 on Jan. 20, and will host the Flyers at the Ryan Center in Kingston, R.I., at 7 p.m. Friday.
Dayton (13-14, 7-8) seeks an elusive second road victory, one that would keep it contention for one of the top four seeds in the conference tournament.
“Rhode Island has been outstanding all year,” Dayton coach Anthony Grant said. “Then you’ve got a couple of teams that of late have created a little bit of separation, but there’s a lot of us in position to improve our seeds as we head to the postseason. We’ve got three games left to take care of ourselves, and once you get to the postseason, anything can happen in these tournaments.”
The A-10 tournament starts March 7 with the bottom four seeds playing in the first round at Capital One Arena in Washington, D.C. The top four seeds get double byes and don’t start play until the quarterfinals on March 9.
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Everyone else starts play in the second round March 8. That’s where Dayton would fall if the season ended this week. It’s tied for sixth with George Mason, St. Joseph’s and Richmond. Virginia Commonwealth and Saint Louis (both 8-7) share fourth place.
The Flyers, who haven’t won more than two games in a row all season, would have to win four games in four days if they are seeded anywhere between fifth and 10. That’s why getting the double bye would be so important for Dayton. Of course, there’s also a chance it could fall into the bottom four and have to win five games in five days.
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“We feel we’ve played well against the best teams in our conference,” Grant said. “We go to Rhode Island, and we get another chance to measure ourselves against the standard bearer in our league on their home floor.”
Rhode Island is 14-0 at the Ryan Center and has won seven of its last eight games at home by double digits. The only A-10 team to come close to beating Rhode Island in Kingston was Duquesne. Rhode Island’s Stanford Robinson hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer to beat the Dukes 61-58 on Jan. 27.
In the first game against Rhode Island, the Flyers hung around for most of the first half but trailed 50-43 at halftime and got no closer than nine points in the final 10 minutes of the second half.
Josh Cunningham had one of his better games (32 points and 12 rebounds), but Dayton made 4 of 14 3-pointers and could not stop Rhode Island on the other end. A quartet of senior guards, led by Jared Terrell, has guided the Rams to one of the best seasons in school history. If their current winning percentage (.846) stands up, it would be their best since the 1940s.
“They’ve put this program, in a lot of ways, in uncharted territory this year with everything they’ve accomplished,” Rhode Island coach Dan Hurley told the Providence Journal. “Special group. And we’re not done.”