Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Conference Realignment - Careful For What You Wish For

The 2013-14 season promises to be a very interesting season as far as teams in new conference homes.  Due in most part to the power of football TV money, many schools switched conferences.  In fact, due to a dislike in the power of football TV money, the Big East broke off from the football schools to become basically a basketball conference.  This left the other schools, UConn, Louisville (in its last season before joining the ACC), Temple and Cincinnati to fend for themselves in the new AAC.

But conference realignment didn't spare the smaller conferences either.  The Atlantic Ten lost three schools; Xavier and Butler to the newly formed Big East and Charlotte to Conference USA.  As a result, the A-10 plucked two mid major program gems, Davidson and George Mason from their respective conferences (George Mason joined the A-10 immediately. Davidson will join in the 2014-15 season).  The CAA reeling from the loss of Mason, as well as Old Dominion (Conference USA) and Georgia State (Sun Belt), took the Southern Conference's other well known basketball program, College of Charleston.

But wait, there's more!  The Patriot gained two schools.  First Boston University left the confines of the America East to join what it believes is a better fit in academics.  Second, Loyola, Maryland interestingly left the stronger MAAC conference for the land of the Last Amateurs.  However, the MAAC retained Loyola's former coach, Jimmy Patsos, as he took the Siena job.  The MAAC in turn went out and plucked two NEC schools, Monmouth and Quinnipiac.   America East restocked with UMass Lowell jumping up into the Division I foray.

The Missouri Valley lost one of their most highly regarded schools in Creighton as the Bluejays joined their fellow catholic brethren in the Big East.  To fill the void, the Valley took Loyola Chicago away from the Horizon.  Conference USA not only plucked ODU, but took Florida Atlantic and Florida International away from the Sun Belt.   The WAC only has two member schools remaining from last season, New Mexico State and Idaho.

There are even more schools that either switched conferences or became Division I schools (check out the WAC when you get a chance) that's it just too many to count.  So let's highlight three schools, all with recent mid major success, that moved to a new conference;

Butler - In two seasons, the Bulldogs moved from the Horizon to the Atlantic Ten to the Big East.   Comparatively speaking, that's like an A ball player moving up and being successful in the majors in two seasons.  Yes, there are players that made that move like Bryce Harper, but they are few and far between.

To Butler's credit, their first season in the A-10 was a very successful one.  The Bulldogs went 11-5 in conference, 27-9 overall and won their second round NCAA Tournament game before losing to Marquette.  Now they will get to see the Golden Eagles twice a season in the Big East, albeit without former coach Brad Stevens, who decided to make the biggest move of all and jump to the NBA as coach of the Boston Celtics.

The Bulldogs lost leading scorers Rotnei Clarke and Andrew Smith to graduation.  Then Butler lost their leading returning scorer from last season, Roosevelt Jones, for the season with torn ligaments.  That leaves Khyle Marshall, Kameron Woods and Kellen Dunham to fill the scoring void.  It's asking a lot to make up for the loss of thirty eight points, fourteen rebounds and nearly eight assists per game.

Butler's non conference schedule seems light this season, with a home game vs. Vanderbilt and a neutral site game vs. Purdue as the two big games on their schedule.   The Bulldogs are predicted to finish middle of the pack in the Big East.   That might be generous given the loss of Jones.

Creighton -  At least the Bulldogs took a mid step in their jump from the Horizon to the Big East in two seasons.  Their fellow Big East brethren Bluejays are taking a one season, herculean leap from the Missouri Valley to the land of catholic basketball.  And Creighton was a really nice catch for the Big East, with their long standing, successful basketball program and a home game attendance that's regularly 18,000 plus.  The Bulldogs won twenty eight games last season and knocked off Cincinnati in the second round of the NCAA Tournament before losing to Duke.

But unlike Butler, Creighton is returning its leading scorer, All American Doug McDermott, plus the return of third leading scorer Grant Gibbs and his nearly six assists per game.  Throw in returning players Ethan Wragge and Austin Chatman, the fourth and fifth leading scorers from last season's team and it's no wonder that the Bluejays are picked to finish first in the Big East.  However, in a deep Big East, the Bluejays won't have cupcakes like Missouri State (11-22) to play twice a year.  Well okay, there is DePaul.

Creighton will find out early how good they are based on their non conference schedule.  The Bluejays play at St Joseph's, have a neutral site game vs. Arizona State, host Nebraska in their annual interstate feud and play host to Cal a little more than a week before the start of Big East conference season.

George Mason - The loss of Xavier, Temple and Charlotte forced the A-10 to restock with the Patriots and next season the Wildcats of Davidson.  Mason was a logical choice being basically a basketball only school that has made the NCAA Tournament three times since 2006, including their Final Four run in 2006.

Since their last NCAA tournament appearance in 2011, the Patriots have won forty six games overall with two twenty plus win seasons (24-9 in 2011-12, 22-16 in 2012-13).   But Mason struggled in the CAA barely finishing above .500 in conference, finishing fourth at 10-8 and losing to Northeastern in the CAA semifinal 69-67 after being up 28-4 fifteen minutes into the first half.  The Patriots finished the season playing in the CBI, Defiantly Dutch's favorite postseason tournament, losing in the CBI championship series to Santa Clara.

The Patriots return nine of their top ten players in minutes, including their top five leading scorers; Sherrod Wright, Jonathan Arledge, Byron Allen, Erik Copes and Johnny Williams.  So scoring will not be an issue for Mason.  Unfortunately, Copes has been suspended for the first six games of the season, so their depth will be tested early on in their schedule.

Mason has been picked as low as tenth in at least one preseason poll, which seems low to me considering the experience they are returning this season.  Non conference road games at Iona, a neutral site game vs. Oklahoma and a home game vs. Iowa State should give the Patriots a chance to show they are better than their preseason standing in the A-10.  Plus an early season conference game with #14 VCU should shed some light on where the Patriots rank in the Atlantic 10.  But there won't be any UNC Wilmingtons to feast on in the A-10.  Mason will have to bring every it night in conference.

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