Temple, Atlantic 10 prospering

You can fuss about the No. 1 seeds for the NCAA Tournament. You can always holler about who's in, who's out and who's kidding themselves about making a legitimate run. Go ahead. Start screaming.

But here is one thing that is perfectly clear: The Atlantic 10 Conference is not getting enough love, high-fives or space on your projected bracket.

When Selection Sunday comes, only the Big East and perhaps the ACC and Big 12 deserve more bids than the formidable A-10.

The Southeastern and Pac-10 conferences can forget about it. They're not going to earn as many spots as Temple, Richmond, Rhode Island, Dayton, Xavier and maybe Charlotte and St. Louis are going to bring to the A-10.

"We might have some kids in this league that feel for whatever reasons they haven't gotten as much attention as some of the players in BCS leagues have received throughout their careers," Temple coach Fran Dunphy said.

"Maybe they're trying to prove they belong at the same levels as the kids who have gotten that attention."

"Temple's outstanding," said Charlotte coach Bobby Lutz. "They've been in the Top 25 all year and deservedly so. Richmond moved in there this week. But if you look at the games our league won out of conference, a lot of our teams showed what we're capable of."

Call the roll: Temple whacked Villanova. Charlotte handled Louisville by 22 in Freedom Hall. Xavier got Cincinnati and Florida. Dayton stung Georgia Tech. Richmond toppled Missouri, Florida and Mississippi State. Rhode Island won three games against teams from BCS leagues.

No wonder five A-10 teams sit in the top 36 of the latest Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) rankings. No wonder the league is surging toward its first five-bid March since 1998. Lutz said that last spring league officials advised A-10 coaches to schedule fearlessly if they really believed they were coaching NCAA Tournament teams. They believed -- and delivered.

"The difference in the league this year is there are six or seven teams that have all played like they deserve a shot," Lutz said. "The past few years you've had two or three teams that separated themselves. This year we still have six or seven who are going to fight it out the next few weeks."

Temple, 21-5 after winning at St. Bonaventure Wednesday, delivered the first unmistakable clue that it would be risky to overlook the A-10. In mid-December, Dunphy's team dispatched Villanova by 10 and followed that victory by winning at Seton Hall. The Owls are 4-0 against the other Philadelphia teams, but still need to win at St. Joseph's Saturday and at LaSalle Feb. 28 to secure the Big 5 title.

The Owls play as crisply and efficiently as Dunphy's teams have always played the game -- at Temple or at Penn, where his 17-season run included nine trips to the NCAA Tournament. Four of his five starters average more assists than turnovers, and Temple ranks in the top 12 nationally in three defensive stats.

Poise, persistence and perspective drive the Owls, who have become as feared as they were when John Chaney worked the sidelines.

Dunphy replaced Chaney in 2006. It took him two seasons to get Temple back into the NCAA Tournament by winning the A-10 Tournament. Dunphy and his team repeated that achievement last March. With an RPI of 12 and a Sagarin computer rating of 20, the Owls don't have to win the A-10 Tournament in Atlantic City next month to keep playing this season.

"We talk about making good choices with the basketball a lot," Dunphy said. "It's been a critical piece of our success. We want to shoot good shots, not contested shots because bad shots and bad passes lead to easy baskets for the other team."

Dunphy has done more than teach Basketball 101. He's also discovered and developed players that didn't stir interest from schools in the more glamorous leagues, guys determined to show those schools they can absolutely play the game.

Former Temple star Pepe Sanchez convinced him to bring Juan Fernandez from Argentina -- and Fernandez hung 33 on Villanova. Lavoy Allen consistently delivers as one of the A-10's best big men.

But Ryan Brooks, a senior guard, is the guy who defines what Dunphy has done at Temple. Brooks played at Kobe Bryant's high school (Lower Merion outside Philadelphia) but without Bryant's reputation.

Aren't the best players supposed to commit in June before their junior year of high school? Brooks was uncommitted until June 29 after his senior season. Dunphy had just taken the Temple job. Brooks had offers from America East schools, but he was waiting and hoping for more.

Some marriage. Brooks, a 6-foot-4 guard, leads Temple with 15 points per game. He's an 80 percent free throw shooter who averages barely more than one turnover per game. Brooks is one of those guys who has worked four years to show he can play with anybody.

And like a good chunk of the A-10, he's about to get his chance.

Rick Bozich is a sports columnist for The Courier-Journal. Check out his blog here .