After Top Teams Defect, It’s A One-Bid League So Far
HARRISONBURG — Three seasons ago, the Colonial Athletic Association sent three men’s basketball teams to the NCAA Tournament, with Shaka Smart-led VCU capping the conference’s greatest campaign to date by becoming the second league team in five years to reach the Final Four.
Such success is a distant memory these days.
Exactly one month from the start of the Colonial tournament in Baltimore, the once-potent mid-major league ranks 16th among Division I’s 32 college basketball conferences in RPI — its second-worst mark over the past decade — and seems all but assured of yet again receiving just one bid to the NCAA’s.
VCU’s departure from the CAA in 2012 — coupled with Old Dominion (Conference USA) and George Mason (Atlantic 10) also following the Rams out of the league this season — has no doubt fueled this trend. But the Colonial’s longest-tenured coach, Drexel’s Bruiser Flint, said Thursday he believes the conference is still in a better spot than when he joined the Dragons 13 years ago.
“What we’ve lost more so than anything else is perception,” said Flint, whose team (12-10 overall, 4-5 in the CAA) hosts defending league champion James Madison (8-15, 3-6) at Philadelphia’s Daskalakis Athletic Center on Saturday. “When you lose two teams that went to the Final Four, had great arenas, had great crowds — Old Dominion and VCU probably had as good an atmosphere as any in the country — you lost that type of stuff.
“… A lot of people looked at those teams as being ‘The League.’ Now they’re gone. That’s fine. We’ll just build back. We can build back to that again, because we’ve done it before.”
If there is a positive aspect to the three flagship Virginia schools’ departures (along with Georgia State, which also left the CAA this year and is currently undefeated in the considerably weaker Sun Belt Conference), it’s that little separates the remaining teams – meaning the league is competitive top to bottom.
So far, 21 of this season’s 38 conferences games (55.2 percent) have been decided by seven points or fewer or in overtime.
CAA leader Delaware, which has gotten off to the third-best start in conference history at 10-0, has been involved in eight of those contests.
“There’s great parity. I think the league is really good,” JMU coach Matt Brady said Thursday. “We stubbed our toe a little bit this year in terms of non-conference wins and losses as a conference. I think it’s incumbent upon all of us to figure out ways to have a stronger [non-conference] record.
“… But I do think that one or two programs have got to emerge as flagship men’s basketball programs in the CAA for us to continue to aspire to what this league was three or four years ago.”
The Colonial, which last received more than one tournament bid in 2011, has few if any signature victories this season. In non-conference games against teams in the RPI’s top 100 this season, the CAA – which went 58-70 outside of league play — has gone an abysmal 1-38, with Northeastern topping Big East representative Georgetown to account for the lone victory.
Of the CAA’s remaining programs, only UNC-Wilmington (2002) has won a true first-round NCAA Tournament game in this millennium. Madison beat LIU-Brooklyn in one of the tournament’s four play-in games last year to qualify for the field of 64.
Third-place William & Mary is one of five original Division I programs to never reach the NCAA Tournament, and Delaware, Towson and Hofstra have never won an NCAA Tournament game.
History aside, CAA deputy basketball commissioner Ron Bertovich said the league’s current conference RPI – a figure he says the NCAA Tournament committee does use as part of its selection process — is a largely irrelevant statistic.
“The difference between the 15th- or 16th-ranked conference and maybe 10th or 11th is probably two non-conference wins per team per year,” Bertovich said. “It’s as wide as a stream, not as wide as an ocean, that difference. That’s how fragile this business is.”
But the nine-school CAA’s scarcity of teams in the top 100 in RPI certainly supports the notion that the league has lost its Final Four-fueled luster. As of Thursday, the Colonial had only one: No. 71 Delaware (using ESPN’s formula). Except for last season, when the watered-down CAA finished No. 24 among conferences, at least two CAA teams have been rated in the RPI’s top 100 over the past decade.
During that span, four or more CAA teams finished in the top 100 five times.
“The CAA is going through a cyclical turn, and I’m certain it will come out on the other side fine,” Brady said. “And this basketball conference, I think, is really strong. The basketball coaches in this league, I think we need to continue to ramp it up in all regards.”
The Colonial went 19 seasons between Richmond receiving an at-large berth in 1986 and Final Four-bound George Mason securing one in 2006, the beginning of the conference’s glory days. Over the next five seasons, it received at-large berths twice more. All of the teams that received those bids are now gone.
But with Elon expected to be the CAA’s only addition for the 2014-15 season, one has to wonder how long it will be before the Colonial again is a multi-bid league.
“So much depends on right place, right time, right commitment at every level,” Bertovich said from the league’s Richmond office. “There’s no secret to this. Schools have done it before Mason’s run and Old Dominion’s run and VCU’s run. I think the league was a one-bid league for a lot, a lot of years. And, however they did it, it worked. Now it’s time for someone else hopefully to step up.”
“We are way ahead of when I first got into the league, when it was definitely a one-bid situation,” he said. “We’ll get some teams, a couple teams, where we’ll be able to get some at-large bids. But I wouldn’t say it’s going to happen right away, but we’ll have our opportunities — way more opportunities — then we had in the past.”