Monday, December 24, 2012

A League of Their Own

By Corrie Trouw

Maybe the Mayans were big basketball fans?

These are the end days of the current college sports conference structure. Recent developments have all-but-assured the destruction of the Big East, and even best of breeds like the SEC and Big Ten will look much different than their obsessively regional previous incarnations. Pieces of conferences are breaking apart from each other and slamming into their neighbors like tectonic plates, radically redrawing the map in the process.

As a result, Missouri will now challenge Kentucky for conference supremacy instead of Kansas, and Rutgers and Nebraska will be doormats in a different league than the ones they were previously doormats of. Conference affiliation is merely seasonal fashion.

But this violent realignment, combined with the continued ascent of the mid-major program, has created a secretly fascinating league, if only for one year.

The 2012-13 Atlantic 10 figures to be a highly competitive, one-show-only performance. Butler and VCU, having not only reached the Final Four, but also somehow keeping the coaches that got them there, jumped to the A-10 this year. UNC-Charlotte and Temple, backfilling the mayhem in more attractive conferences, are slated to join C-USA and the Big East, respectively, next year, though the Owls probably should consider some backup plans. And as other leagues scramble for enough flotsam to build a shabby football television contract, who knows which of these schools will be lured away by full or partial membership elsewhere?

This means that for one season only, the A-10 might be one of the best basketball conferences in the country. No, it won't rack up 10 tournament bids like the Big East or place half that number in the Sweet 16. But consider how many teams in the conference have been tournament-caliber in recent years.

Five current A-10 teams were in last year's NCAA tournament alone, and that does not include Butler, which missed the tournament after consecutive Championship Game appearances. Ten of the 16 teams have not only made the tournament since 2000, but each of them have won a game. Add to that an additional two (UMass and Rhode Island) missing that cutoff by only one and two years, respectively, and each of those teams made at least the Elite Eight within the last 17 tournaments.

But aside from being a salon of sneaky tournament-worthy programs, this year's A-10 is something unique, fresh, and almost certainly impossible to replicate in the current climate: a basketball conference. The hallowed hoops identity of the Big East is ready to supernova; the ACC has gladly diluted its basketball product to keep from taking on water on the football side.

Major college sports are completely addicted to football revenue, and the conferences are the only dealers in town with access to the broadcast-money suppliers. Non-addicts, like the Big East's Catholic Seven or most of the A-10, are being hurt by longtime neighbors and friends willing to do anything to get their next fix of football cash.

With the exception of Temple, the A-10 doesn't have that monkey on its back. VCU and Butler came to the league because the it offered better basketball than their former memberships. And unlike the Mountain West, WAC, and C-USA, the A-10 is not constantly being rummaged through by the biggest conferences looking for the next football-hooked school that can be part of their next package.

The 16 schools of the A-10 found each other because they share a common interest. The schools that have entered the league recognized it as a stable place for programs good enough to play in the tournament every year to get a solid conference slate without being ground up by the elites of the Big East or ACC. These schools know where they fit in the basketball landscape, and there is something refreshingly capitalistic about a few handfuls of athletic departments finding such an efficiently appropriate fit, even if Indianapolis and St. Louis aren't exactly "Atlantic" campus locations.

There is certain to be more conference chaos, especially given the decision of the Big East's Catholic Seven to exit that league. Some rumors even have those schools joining up with some portion of the A-10, shaking up this basketball equilibrium. The Big East's embarrassingly desperate search for any chair to sit in when the music stops will continue, and who knows what will get broken in the process.

So keep an eye on the A-10 this season when the constant conference realignment rumors exhaust your patience. Amid this destruction and uncertainty, they could be heroes of reason, if just for one year.

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