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Thursday, March 21, 2013
Don't cry for the Atlantic 10


College basketball's newest league has made it a theme to add tradition-rich teams.

That isn't a new concept. It might be for the seven Big East schools that make up the majority of the new league, but not in college basketball.

The Atlantic 10 and Missouri Valley conferences, which will lose a combined three schools to the new Big East in July, have been playing that game for quite a while. It works. And it will continue to be a model for years to come.

The Valley doesn't need to rush out and replace Creighton. If it does, it must find a school with real value that enhances the product. No school available duplicates the average attendance the Bluejays have delivered with 17,000-plus fans in Omaha for each game.

For the A-10, losing Butler wasn't a total shock. The Bulldogs were in the league for one academic year. The departure hurts, but Butler hardly was a familiar school to the A-10.

"Butler was a great thing, and we have no regrets," league commissioner Bernadette McGlade said. "It was a fun ride. It was."

Virginia Commonwealth coach Shaka Smart
Shaka Smart and VCU are now the prized possession of the Atlantic 10 Conference.

Xavier's departure, though, does sting. Taking the Cincinnati market out of the league will be a hit, but keeping Dayton and Saint Louis -- at least for now -- is significant.

If the new Big East stops at 10, which really is the ideal number for a basketball conference, as the Big 12 -- and for decades the Pac-10 -- evidences, the A-10 will be fine.

The A-10, which will also lose Temple and UNC Charlotte in July, giving it 12 teams total, isn't going to simply grab Siena or some other MAAC or Patriot League school just for numbers.

"If we're at 12, we can be pretty darn good," McGlade said. "We've got the right number of schools. We have options, and we have to make decisions. But we're not unhappy at all at 10."

The A-10 has five schools playing in the NCAA tournament. Butler and Temple are two of the five. But VCU and Saint Louis also made the field. La Salle helped the A-10 by advancing in the NCAAs with a First Four win over Boise State on Wednesday and has a real chance against Kansas State in the round of 64. At this juncture, no one is taking any of those three teams off the A-10's hands. UMass wasn't too far from getting a bid and did make the NIT. So, too, did Saint Joseph's, and Richmond is in the CBI.

"We'll be back," McGlade said. "Our [conference] championship went great at Barclays [Center]."

The A-10 knew for a month that Butler and Xavier would be leaving. The league was bracing to see whether that would be all. Dayton and Saint Louis probably would like to join the other brand names. But, much like Cincinnati and UConn, they may have no choice but to stay. And if this is their lot, they can exist quite nicely.

The rivalries in this league are regional but can provide quality games and atmosphere with Saint Joe's-La Salle, VCU-Richmond and UMass-URI. The onus is on programs such as St. Bonaventure to continue to be as relevant as the Bonnies have been under Mark Schmidt. And Fordham, George Washington and Duquesne need to make a surge sooner than later.

There is confidence that Danny Hurley will make Rhode Island a postseason team in the near future. And the fan bases and tradition at Saint Louis and Dayton make those two programs locks to be in the mix every season.

VCU is the gem of the group. The Rams have been postseason regulars lately, regardless of coach. And if their current star coach, Shaka Smart, stays in Richmond, VCU will soon be a Top 25 regular.

With that model of consistency and tradition in mind, McGlade is not going to push expansion with the membership simply to expand. New member candidates have to be a schools that provide real value in basketball. The television dollars aren't going to change dramatically with any of the names floating around out there.

The A-10 now has a challenge on its hands, and it's one it can tackle.

The Mountain West is on stable footing with a football power in Boise State and basketball programs such as New Mexico, UNLV and San Diego State as anchors every season. The MWC put five of nine teams in the NCAA tournament field, a record percentage. The additions of Utah State and San Jose State next season will push the league to 11 teams and add another perennial postseason team in the Aggies.

The MWC should be the top league outside the new power five: SEC, Big Ten, Big 12, ACC and Pac-12.

The new Big East has the potential -- with Marquette, Georgetown, Villanova, Butler, Xavier and Creighton -- to rival or exceed the MWC's number of bids on a regular basis. The new Big East could topple it if St. John's and Providence can escape the bottom.

The chore for the A-10 going forward is to ensure it's in this group, or at the very least the top of the next one, competing with the soon-to be-named conference housing the old Big East holdovers and the Valley. The TBD conference should have four staples in UConn, Cincinnati, Memphis and Temple. The A-10 needs to have its "core four," as Mike Aresco, commissioner of the TBD conference, called the aforementioned schools in his league, to be tournament regulars. That means VCU, Saint Louis and two others -- take your pick of Saint Joe's, Dayton, La Salle and Richmond. If that doesn't happen, the A-10 will slide behind the MWC, the new Big East and the conference-to-be-named.

Check back in March 2014 to see who prevailed. Highest percentage of bids, ranked teams, competitive games and overall interest are the categories. While the power five -- especially the SEC, Big Ten and ACC -- have consolidated to form 14-team leagues, the basketball-centric conferences are splintering to smaller groups that see quality over quantity as a means to survival.