Wednesday, February 11, 2015

In A10 transition, Davidson can learn from Mason, VCU

Alan Kelly is a proud alumnus of George Mason University, and writes about Patriots basketball for You can follow him on Twitter at @MasonFanatic.

As the Davidson Wildcats navigate their rookie season as member of the Atlantic 10, they can look to recent additions George Mason and VCU for expectations, both positive and negative.

A season ago, as George Mason played the role of A10 newcomer, one refrain that was cited numerous times by head coach Paul Hewitt and some of his players was the increased intensity needed to win night in and night out. The Patriots came into a deeper league than the one the Wildcats find themselves in this year, but the same lesson still applies: There are no easy games, and you can’t afford to have an off night, especially on the road.

Likewise, travel in the league can be a grind, with a larger footprint than the CAA, and a much larger footprint than the Southern Conference. The team could get from Davidson, NC to almost anywhere in the SoCon by bus within a reasonable amount of time, but now some charter plane flights are inevitable, and adding more will be desirable.

George Mason athletic director Brad Edwards recently indicated to the Washington Post that the program is seeking to increase funding to add additional charter flights. No example of this need may be more striking that the five-plus hour bus trip the Patriots took midweek to play at Duquesne in Pittsburgh last month. Mason ended up shooting under 15% in the first half and under 25% for the game in a nearly unwatchable defeat.

The two recent losses suffered by the Wildcats, on the road at St. Joseph’s and at home to St. Bonaventure, should not be a surprise, and they probably won’t be the last head-scratchers suffered by what is a young roster aside from senior Tyler Kalinowski.

In order to navigate these pitfalls, one of the best assets is senior leadership. In 2012-13, VCU had an excellent pair of senior guards in Darius Theus and Troy Daniels. The following season, George Mason timed its 2013-14 move to the Atlantic 10 to coincide with a senior class that included Bryon Allen and Sherrod Wright, who combined to average over 30 points per game. One hesitates to ask how rough matters might have been for the 11-win Patriots without those two leaders.

Second, but not less important, coaching matters, and the Wildcats lack nothing in that department. While coaching is not the only difference between the two programs, it’s no accident that VCU and Shaka Smart made a smoother transition to a higher level of basketball than George Mason and Paul Hewitt did. Bob McKillop has a fantastic track record, and while no one should expect Davidson to become VCU overnight, he knows how to win.

Short term, win or lose, there are at least three facets of a program that see immediate impacts from a significant upgrade in conference alignment: attendance, scheduling, and recruiting.

Attendance can be a double-edged sword. A better league draws better home opponents, which yields more interest for casual fans, but a tougher schedule also makes it harder to maintain homecourt dominance. For George Mason, in the run up to the move to the Atlantic 10, there was a lot of excitement among fans about the better quality of opponents who would be visiting the Patriot Center, and a corresponding spike of nearly 8% in attendance last season. However, once the reality of losing set in, home attendance in 2014-15 is down over 15%.

In Richmond, VCU had already established a culture where sellouts were the norm, and because they were able to sustain their success, demand for tickets only increased. This led to the construction of the Tommy J. West Club Level, which added luxury suites and 120 premium balcony seats to the Siegel Center. Increased fan interest is an opportunity to be seized, but it’s not guaranteed.

A tougher league gets you more chances to build a resume with league wins, so out of conference scheduling is not the imperative that it was in the SoCon, but it’s still important for maximizing your chances to impress the selection committee. With a non-league schedule like the one Davidson played this season (ranked 255th), the margin for error becomes slimmer, and that will undoubtedly be something the conference encourages Davidson to improve for future seasons.

VCU and Mason have both excelled at scheduling, giving themselves tough slates that this season are ranked first and 15th in the country, respectively. (Of course, you still have to win your fair share of those games, something Paul Hewitt’s squad has failed to do). Back in the CAA, in Paul Hewitt’s first season in 2011-12, multiple RPI-crushing losses to bad teams in November eventually led to a 24-9 team staying home for the postseason. In a league like the A10, that George Mason team would have gotten a second chance to improve their RPI.

Recruiting is a strange world, and both former CAA powerhouses have a head coach who is viewed as an excellent recruiter, but being in the Atlantic 10 offers a better platform to compete against the top basketball schools in the country. It’s too early to evaluate the impact for George Mason, but as an A10 member, VCU has pulled in arguably their two best recruiting classes in school history in the 2014 and 2015 classes, with both classes ranked 26th in the nation by 247Sports.

Long term, Davidson is favorably positioned for success. While their budget will likely need to increase, and facilities upgrades will be a part of that increase, they can expect higher revenue from television contracts and NCAA tournament shares, and their positioning in the Charlotte media market (ranked 24th largest in the country by Nielsen) puts them ahead of some of their new conference mates, not to mention almost everyone in the SoCon.

Davidson may not have the shiny Final Four banners that recent A10 additions like George Mason, VCU, or even Butler had, but they do have a history of NCAA relevancy and success to fall back upon and to market themselves around. Three Elite Eight appearances (1968, 1969, and 2008) from two different eras is an impressive legacy, and with an increased opportunity to earn at-large NCAA bids, nothing says McKillop can’t repeat the Steph Curry run from ‘08.

Tonight at Belk Arena, the Wildcats will take on George Mason at 7pm. The rematch of January 24’s 80-73 overtime victory over the Patriots in Fairfax will be a good test for Davidson, as it marks just their second rematch with an Atlantic 10 foe. Will familiarity and a quest for revenge favor the Patriots, or will homecourt advantage and additional experience in playing without the injured Jack Gibbs result in a Wildcat triumph?

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