3:23 PM PDT, April 20, 2012
During Final Four week, Colonial Athletic Association commissioner Tom Yeager and other principals forcefully denied a CBSSports.com report that league basketball powers VCU and George Mason might move to the Atlantic 10.
Less than a month later, some very smart people in college athletics still believe the possibility of the Rams and Patriots relocating is real.
"I hope I'm completely wrong," said a source directly involved in realignment discussions. "But I just get a sense that all hell is about ready to break loose."
This saga gathered additional traction Friday with a New York Post tweet that said VCU and George Mason would move May 1. That prompted more denials, all of which I take with a boulder of salt.
"Forget a nice, quiet spring," a source lamented. "This stuff has been percolating under the ground for months."
Indeed, everyone has plausible deniability here. The formal discussions and invitations that accompany conference shifts don't occur until the 11th hour, so schools and leagues can save face if the expected deal crumbles.
It's like high school. Before asking out the object of your affection, your have mutual friends inquire on your behalf. You pop the question only if assured the answer is yes.
Four sources, all with direct knowledge and all of whom requested anonymity, said this week they believe VCU and George Mason are poised to say yes.
That is a grim premonition for the CAA.
Football drove recent membership changes in the ACC, Southeastern Conference, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pacific 12, and football will be front-and-center again with impending swaps among the Western Athletic, Mountain West, Conference USA and Sun Belt.
But the potential reshuffling of VCU and George Mason is all about men's basketball.
The trigger is two-fold. The Atlantic 10, historically stronger than the CAA, is losing traditional conference power Temple to the Big East and is about to begin renegotiating its television contracts.
So in theory, adding recent Final Four programs VCU and George Mason, plus 2010 and '11 national runner-up Butler of the Horizon League, would make the A-10 more attractive to networks such as ESPN and NBC.
But is the A-10 better than the CAA for the Rams and Patriots?
In the past 15 seasons, CAA teams have received four at-large NCAA tournament bids. The A-10 checks in with 28, three this past season with Xavier, Temple andSt. Louis, in addition to league championSt. Bonaventure's automatic bid.
Moreover, in 12 of the last 15 years, the CAA was a one-bid league. The A-10 was a one-bid league twice during that span.
In short, the A-10 provides its basketball programs tougher competition, higher computer rankings and a greater margin for error. In most seasons, winning the conference tournament is not paramount to making the NCAA field.
But those 15 years encompass many membership changes within the CAA, A-10 and leagues nationwide. So let's consider the last seven years, or since the Big East added Marquette, Cincinnati, DePaul and Louisville from Conference USA and began bogarting NCAA tournament invitations.
During that stretch, 50 teams from outside the six power conferences have received at-large bids — about seven per season. The A-10's margin over the CAA in that 2006-12 window is 13-4.
But that gap alone should not push George Mason and VCU out the door. Along with programs such as Butler, the A-10's Xavier, West Coast's BYU and Missouri Valley's Wichita State, the Rams and Patriots have the resources, facilities, reputations and ambitious non-league schedules to merit at-large consideration regardless of affiliation. The CAA's Old Dominion also resides in that upper echelon.
George Mason is among 10 so-called mid-majors to earn multiple at-large bids in the last seven years. And had VCU lost the CAA title game to Drexel, the Rams likely would have received their second consecutive at-large.
Conferences earn approximately $250,000 for each NCAA tournament bid and victory, and share that among their schools as they see fit. Projecting those results is a fool's errand — remember Norfolk State and Lehigh? — making long-term revenue forecasts problematic for schools considering a move.
Another concern: How would NBC Sports Group, the league's new television partner, respond to George Mason and VCU leaving? The NBC-CAA arrangement starts in 2012-13 and runs five years.
Geography is forgotten in many realignment calculations, but it shouldn't be, especially by schools that don't rake in millions annually in football television revenue. The A-10's New England-to-St. Louis-to-Charlotte footprint would markedly increase VCU and George Mason's travel costs.
For example, eight of VCU's 11 CAA colleagues are within 260 miles of Richmond; four A-10 schools, excluding Big East-bound Temple, are within the same distance. So the Rams would either have to pony up for airfare or burden Olympic sports teams with longer bus hauls and more missed classes.
George Mason, VCU and ODU are undeniably the CAA's basketball bell cows. Lose two, and the league is hurting — short-timer Georgia State's impending exit for the Sun Belt doesn't even nudge the worry meter.
Certainly Yeager could find replacements, but they wouldn't match the Patriots and Rams, and the conference's individual and collective Rating Percentage Index numbers would suffer.
What, then, for ODU? Would the Monarchs be content in a weakened CAA? If Butler declines the A-10, or if Charlotte departs the A-10 for Conference USA, might ODU become a viable A-10 option, with the Monarchs remaining in the CAA for football only?
Most drastic: Might ODU contemplate a premature upgrade to the Football Bowl Subdivision so as to qualify for membership in Conference USA? Bet East Carolina would like to have a CUSA neighbor in Norfolk.
And what of William and Mary? Absent ODU, VCU and George Mason, why would the Tribe stick around? Given William and Mary's academic profile, might the Patriot League then make sense?
Officials aren't publicly addressing such hypotheticals, and nor should they. But rest assured, they are privately. Not doing so would be negligent.
Best-case scenario: Everyone takes a deep breath and reconsiders.
Worst: Rushed and panicked decisions create a landscape many live to regret.
Said a source: "It's going to be like waking up January 1 with a big hangover and thinking, 'What in the heck did I do last night?'"
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