Debating William & Mary, sports and culture since 2011. Updated every Wednesday.

The CAA is Dead, Long Live the CAA

In Basketball, William & Mary on December 19, 2012 at 4:45 pm

The Big East is gone. The Atlantic 10 is bracing itself. And the CAA is waiting for the pieces to fall.

A lot has happened in college sports in the last three weeks. Actually, only one thing happened, and the rest was speculation. But that one thing could have major effects on conference alignments. Last week, the Big East’s seven Catholic schools voted to leave the conference. The move effectively destroyed the Big East, but its ramifications won’t stop there. Non-BCS conferences have become the collapsing stars of the college athletics universe, raiding their neighbors to stave off implosion for a few more years. Anywhere from one to five conferences could see their members poached by other conferences, and no conference is safe.

At this point, it seems to be a foregone conclusion that the new Catholic Conference steals a few schools from the Atlantic 10. The most likely candidates are Saint Louis University, Xavier University, the University of Dayton and Butler University. SLU, Xavier and Dayton each fit the new league’s profile as small, private, Catholic schools with good basketball histories, while Butler brings recent tournament success to a basketball-focused conference. One more Catholic school — a Saint Joseph’s or a La Salle — would create a 12-team, geographically balanced, and athletically talented league.

Some observers have suggested that the Catholic 7 could be looking at the University of Richmond and/or Virginia Commonwealth University. However, those moves only make sense if the Catholic Conference is trying to expand its geographic footprint — a prospect that seems unlikely. The idea of a Catholic conference has been floated for years, and the fight over media markets doomed the Big East. The Catholic 7 are trying to solidify known quantities, not expand the brand.

What you end up with is a kind of Catholic Ivy League: a tightly-knit group of like-minded (read “private”) schools. VCU’s status as a large, urban, public university doesn’t fit with the new league’s membership profile. Richmond would seem more likely than VCU to garner an invitation, but the Catholic 7 could find an equal basketball program in a SLU or Creighton, both of which are Catholic schools.

What about the A-10?  With the departure of 3-5 of its best programs, the league drops down a few notches on the college basketball food chain. Richmond and VCU — for the time being — are the conference’s anchor members, but the rest are less than impressive: UNC-Charlotte, George Washington University, Massachusetts, Rhode Island. Simply put, a gutted A-10 is not a league with four NCAA tournament bids.

But it’s not just the A-10 that’s affected by the collapse of the Big East. Depending on which direction the Catholic 7 take, the Colonial Athletic Association could emerge as big winners, or the mid-major version of the Big (L)East. Let’s look at a few scenarios:

1. CAA Status Quo

The Catholic 7 poach 3-5 schools from the A-10. The A-10 raids the Horizon League or America East to restock. The CAA stands pat.

While it’s not the sexiest scenario for fans of the CAA, it’s certainly the safest. The league is still recovering from the departure of VCU to the A-10 and the impending exit of Old Dominion to Conference-USA. Commissioner Tom Yeager made a solid addition in the College of Charleston, but the CAA could use another pick-up to return to full strength and stability. If the A-10 goes after the Horizon or America East, the CAA could focus on adding a notable school, like Davidson or Elon, rather than patching holes.

2. A-10 Offensive

The Catholic 7 poach 3-5 schools from the A-10. The A-10 raids 1-2 schools from the CAA. The CAA poaches 1-2 southern schools.

In so many words, this scenario ends with a weaker CAA. In the case of an A-10 raid, the most likely target would be George Mason. GMU has national name recognition from their Final Four run, and they’re consistently one of the best teams in the league. With their recent hoops success, Drexel could also be an A-10 target. Without their premier basketball school and a team on the rise, the CAA would be forced to look at lesser alternatives, probably form the Southern Conference or the Big South. Coastal Carolina University was mentioned over the summer as a possible football addition. An A-10 raid could make them a last resort option for the league. Yeager could also stay in Virginia and target a VMI or Radford. Regardless, the CAA comes out of this scenario weakened: at least athletically, possibly academically and potentially both.

3. CAA Surprise

The Catholic 7 poach 3-5 schools from the A-10. The CAA raids a weakened A-10.

This scenario should be wrapped in a bow and placed under the Christmas tree for CAA fans to open on Christmas morning. The league could follow a Catholic 7 raid of the A-10 with a raid of their own, bringing VCU and Richmond back to the CAA. It might seem unlikely, but the move would make sense. The A-10’s main appeal for VCU and Richmond was a better basketball product than the CAA had to offer. Without the A-10’s better basketball schools, the league becomes a geographically disparate conglomeration of mediocre programs. The CAA would offer a better geographic home, lowered travel costs and traditional rivalries. Throw in a George Washington (or a SoCon school), and the CAA could finally divide into north and south divisions. The league ends up with a better athletic profile, retains its strong academics and gains geographic stability. It’s the ideal situation for the CAA — therefore, it will never happen.

4. CAA 2012 MAYAN APOCALYPSE SCENARIO

The Catholic 7 poach 3-5 schools from the A-10. The A-10 raids the CAA for 3+ schools. William and Mary bolts the conference. CAA is destroyed.

If 3 was the best of the best, this is the worst scenario. An A-10 raid of the CAA is a  strong possibility, but this scenario envisions the departure of three or more schools to the A-10. Delaware, James Madison and Drexel could each join GMU in an A-10 exodus. Rumors of JMU’s departure, albeit for football reasons, have been around for years, and William and Mary athletic director Terry Driscoll has made it clear that the College is keeping its options open for conference realignment. Down three all-sports members, William and Mary finally gets cold feet and leaves the CAA for either the Patriot League or the SoCon. Charleston reevaluates its move to the CAA and opts to stay in the SoCon, which kills any possibility of the league brining on Davidson. Decimated, the remaining CAA schools either try to restock the conference with other leftovers or do their best to land in other conferences. In downtown Richmond, the faint sounds of sobbing and Chicago’s If You Leave Me Now echo from Yeager’s office.

No one knows what the next few weeks will hold in store of the CAA. Any one of these scenarios could occur. The league could expand or contract, or disappear entirely. Some entirely unexpected scenario — a CAA-ACC merger, for instance — could emerge. But with all the uncertainty, one event remains a possibility. The future of the CAA could be up to William and Mary. God help us all.

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