April 24, 2012

Fact Or Fiction

HARRISONBURG - Where there's smoke there's fire - or maybe just some sloppy journalists, if Colonial Athletic Association commissioner Tom Yeager is right.

Yeager again Monday adamantly denied that George Mason and Virginia Commonwealth are leaving the Colonial, despite repeated reports that both schools are likely bound for the Atlantic 10. Asked why those reports have been so persistent, Yeager said, "Because people have too much time on their hands."

The New York Post reported Friday that Mason and VCU are headed for the Atlantic 10 on May 1 - information that both schools and both conferences have since denied. Last month CBSSportsline.com reported the same thing, minus the specific time-line.

Such movement would undoubtedly shake the CAA - a basketball-based conference that would lose its two former Final Four representatives. Viewed as one of the top mid-major conferences in the nation, the CAA would be much weaker without those programs. And it's difficult to project what would happen with other CAA schools, such as James Madison, whose presidents and athletic directors might look to bolt if they saw their own league losing credibility and rivalries.

JMU athletic director Jeff Bourne - who last year speculated on the possibility of Madison some day becoming a charter member of an all-sports league that included Division I-A football - could not be reached for comment Monday.

While JMU basketball coach Matt Brady said he has no inside information regarding conference realignment, he understands the Colonial could look a lot different without its two most celebrated basketball members.

"This change in the league is potentially not something the league has seen in some time," Brady said of the possibility of Mason and VCU leaving. "There's a lot of uncertainty about what is happening next. But there's really no point in speculating if the first shoe has yet to drop."

The CAA has had the same 12 basketball members since 2005-06, when Georgia State and Northeastern joined. Georgia State left the conference for the Sun Belt this month, citing its desire to compete in Division I-A for football.

Trying to prevent further defections, the CAA then scheduled a conference call to vote on raising its exit fee from $250,000 to roughly $1 million. But too few school presidents dialed in to the call, pushing back the vote.

Yeager said Monday that he has not yet rescheduled the exit fee vote.

"It's not the top priority right now," he said.

It has been pushed aside, Yeager said, to focus on other matters, such as improving the conference, specifically in men's basketball, "because that's where the money distribution is."

Asked if the CAA is considering adding other schools, Yeager said it is, though "in a very general sense, nothing specific."

Yeager would not say what schools he's considered.

"It would have to be an institution that brings a lot to the table that has a requisite commitment and brings equity to the conference," he said. "There are maybe some out there; right now there are a lot of moving parts in the conference realignment stuff. I don't think anybody is in any type of panic mode with where we want to be."

If the CAA were to lose Mason and VCU, panic might set in, though. And it could affect more than just basketball.

After the Atlantic Coast Conference poached teams from the Big East last September, Bourne talked about the shift of college athletics and what it could mean for Madison. He said he could see JMU and other like-minded schools forming a Division I-A football conference some time down the line if the big-time programs aligned into four super-conferences.

"People are going to do what they feel is best for their institution," JMU football coach Mickey Matthews said about the Mason/VCU rumors. Matthews also said that even if those schools left the CAA, he doesn't think it would affect the football conference (neither has a football program).

Matthews also said he thinks Richmond should join the CAA because, he believes, the school would draw more fans for its games. The school's football program is in the CAA, but the other sports play in the A-10.
Richmond was a member of the CAA through 2001. It is the only school in the A-10 from the state of Virginia - for now.

The benefit for Mason and VCU of moving to the A-10 is twofold: exposure and money. The Atlantic 10 has sent multiple teams to the NCAA Tournament each of the last seven seasons, whereas the CAA has pulled off that feat just four times in the last 27 years. The more teams a conference puts in the tournament, the more money it receives from the NCAA to split among its members.

In 2011-12, the A-10 had four teams in the tourney compared to just one - league-champion VCU - from the CAA. The A-10's RPI was seventh-best in America; the CAA's was 14th. The two are often compared because of their geographic proximity and rare mid-major accomplishments.

"The Atlantic-10 is a really good conference," Brady said. "If in fact they do add two more schools, then they've gotten stronger and we haven't."

That would affect another aspect of a CAA team's potential success.

"I think the strength of our league has been a great selling point in recruiting," Brady said "…It potentially impacts the next classes coming up," if upper-tier teams leave.

If VCU and George Mason were to depart the conference, just eight teams would remain eligible for next year's CAA basketball tournament and the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament it gives the champion.

The NCAA has penalized North Carolina-Wilmington for its poor cumulative Academic Progress Rate, disqualifying the Seahawks from postseason play, including the CAA tournament. Georgia State, because of its conference shift, also will not be eligible for next year's tournament, even though its move to the Sun Belt won't take place until 2013's fall semester.

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