A couple dozen Colonial Athletic Association officials and coaches had dinner Monday night in suburban Washington, D.C., in advance of Tuesday's annual basketball media gathering. After the meal, in jest, they presented Old Dominion coach Blaine Taylor with the $2,000 bill — a parting gift, if you will, as the Monarchs begin their final season in the conference.
"I said, you guys have already got in our pocket deep enough," Taylor cracked.
Indeed, the CAA prepares for the 2012-13 hoops season amid a backdrop of departures, exit fees, entry fees, conference realignment and a decided shift at the top of the league.
Defending champ VCU bolted for the Atlantic 10, which accommodated the Rams immediately. Perennial power ODU and Georgia State announced their intent to depart for other leagues — the Monarchs to Conference USA and Georgia State to the Sun Belt — in moves largely driven by football.
"A sign of the times," Taylor called it. "I think nationally, you've got a movement where everybody's realigning and we're just a piece of that picture."
Drexel's men and Delaware's women were overwhelming favorites to win the league titles. The last time either VCU, Old Dominion or George Mason didn't win the men's title was 2006.
"I don't think you can claim that it doesn't have a different feel, this entire year," CAA commissioner Tom Yeager said. "But a lot of conferences have a different feel — transitioning schools, people leaving, coming in, stuff like that. But the purpose of today is to talk about the 2013 season and these guys and gals."
The transition brings some competitive collateral damage. The league voted to exclude ODU and Georgia State from the respective men's and women's conference tournaments next March — reason being that the conference didn't want a school on its way out the door to earn the league's automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
ODU and Georgia State aren't prohibited from playing in the NCAA tournament, but must earn an at-large invitation. That's a tall order for teams from so-called mid-major conferences, particularly without the chance to burnish their credentials with extra wins in their league tournament.
"The facts are that we've got to pour ourselves into our non-conference and our conference season," Taylor said. "Our conference tournament is going to take place starting Nov. 9 … and it's going to be played in the Constant Center on many nights, and there's an awful lot of entertainment that takes place during the course of a season. We will pour ourselves into the conference race probably a little more so, knowing that there isn't the conference tournament around the corner."
The CAA is looking at a further-abbreviated seven-team men's tournament in March. Towson and UNC Wilmington will not participate, either. Chronic under-performance in the NCAA's Academic Progress Rankings prompted the governing body to prohibit both programs from competing in the 2013 tournament. The CAA acted in order to prevent a team that couldn't compete in the NCAAs from winning the tournament and automatic bid.
Georgia State's Ron Hunter has been especially outspoken about his school's exclusion. Matter of fact, there's very little about which Hunter is not willing to offer an opinion. He tweeted on Monday that he was headed for CAA media day, where he felt like a neglected stepchild.
"I'm a big student-athlete welfare guy," Hunter said. "I think that the student-athlete experience should precede anything, any rule or anything that you have. To take anything away from the student-athlete, I think is completely unfair.
"You can give me all the rationale — a rule's a rule's a rule, and all that. Jaywalking's a (violation) and we all jaywalk and we don't get arrested for that. There are common-sense things that should take precedent, especially when it comes to the student-athlete. That's what made me upset about it and still makes me upset about it."
Hunter is doubly aggravated because his son, R.J., is a freshman on the Panthers' basketball team. So not only are his players being denied a competitive opportunity, but his blood, as well.
"We're all accountable for what we do," Hunter said. "For example, I know the schools that decided we shouldn't play in the conference tournament. I've got those same schools listed in our locker room. I've got those same schools listed in my bedroom.
"For me, personally, I think it's unfair and let's do something about it. I've talked to the kids: These are the schools that say why we can't play in the conference tournament. It's not a public thing, but I know."
Though the CAA vote was unanimous to exclude ODU and Georgia State from the conference tournaments, Hunter believes that was mostly procedural. He said he knows which schools were more and less insistent on the tournament ban.
"I want our kids to know because they're the ones who are affected by it," he said. "Everybody talks about the university. The university is buildings. You're affecting people. The people that are being affected are the men's and women's basketball teams. I want our kids to know that.
"We talk about it every day — every single day. When we walk in the room, we talk about that. So when we have an opportunity to do something about it, let's do something about it."
So the upcoming men's basketball season, there are teams with different motivation and greater and lesser opportunity.