COLUMN: Bona, VCU’s spots in NCAA field secured before A-10 title game

photo by Megan Lee/The Commonwealth Times

By Jeff Uveino

DAYTON, OH — Win, and you’re in.

That’s the premise of the Atlantic 10 men’s basketball tournament each year.

Regardless of its regular-season performance beforehand, a conference tournament championship secures a team’s spot in the NCAA tournament field. While that remains true for this year’s A-10 championship game, the stakes of the game are different than in recent years.

Both finalists have done enough to deserve a spot in the 68-team NCAA bracket. For No. 1 St. Bonaventure and No. 2 VCU, Sunday’s title game at University of Dayton Arena likely won’t determine whether each side gets to play in the NCAA tournament.

Instead, this year’s final will be for bragging rights, for NCAA seeding, and, for SBU, the chance to make history as the second team in program history to be crowned A-10 champions.

When the Bonnies arrived in Richmond last week for their first two A-10 tournament games, their postseason prospectus looked different than it did after SBU posted back-to-back convincing wins over No. 9 Duquesne and No. 4 Saint Louis in the quarterfinals and semifinals, respectively.

Now, as the A-10 regular-season champion that has advanced to the conference’s championship game, it would take an 1800s-style Wild West robbery by the NCAA selection committee to leave the Bonnies out of the tournament.

As of Monday, the NCAA’s “NET” ranking, the largely mysterious, overarching ranking that the committee prioritizes, ranks Bona 27th in the country, and VCU 35th. Ken Pomeroy, famous for his “KenPom” rankings, also has the Bonnies at 27th, while VCU checks in at 43rd.

ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, one of the nation’s most popular “bracketologists,” predicts the Bonnies to be a ninth-seed in the tournament, while listing the Rams as a No. 11 seed. Lunardi said on Sunday that he anticipates Bona will be in the NCAA field whether it wins the A-10 title game or not.

So, looking at the situation realistically, both A-10 finalists will be playing in the NCAA tournament whether they’re crowned league champions or not. This differs from SBU’s last trip to the A-10 final, when it needed to win the 2019 game to be included in the NCAA bracket.

The Bonnies lost that game, ending their season at the Barclays Center as abruptly as they had gotten there. The year before, Davidson upset SBU in the A-10 semifinals before upsetting top-seeded Rhode Island a day later to win the tournament. If the Wildcats had not done so, they would have been left out.

This is the first time since 2013 that the tournament’s top two seeds will play in its final. Bona’s only A-10 championship came the year before that, when the Andrew Nicholson-led Bonnies beat Xavier in the final to clinch an NCAA tournament spot that they wouldn’t have received without winning the tournament.

This year, that’s not the case. SBU has built a sufficient tournament resume over the last three months, compiling a 15-4 record while finishing 11-4 in the A-10 during the regular season. VCU’s situation is similar, as the Rams are 19-6 overall with a 10-4 A-10 record.

This year, it’s about pride and the chance to become a champion. For three Bona starters, it’s the chance to avenge 2019’s A-10 final loss.

The 2021 A-10 champion will receive the immediate satisfaction of knowing that it has reserved the league’s coveted automatic NCAA bid. The runner-up, barring an inexplicable snub, will hear its name called just hours later during the NCAA selection show.

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