NEW YORK – After an executive session meeting of Atlantic 10 presidents ended on Friday morning, officials from Xavier and Butler quietly exited. The meetings continued without them, another tangible sign of their inevitable exit to join the Catholic Seven schools.
The moment symbolized the Atlantic 10’s season, which has been both historic and chaotic. The league is on the cusp of placing five teams in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1998. Yet it’s also poised to lose three marquee programs this year – Temple, Butler and Xavier -- and two more next year -- St. Louis and Dayton.
As the A-10 Tournament buzzed at the splendid Barclays Center in Brooklyn on Friday, the specter of realignment loomed. St. Louis Athletic Director Chris May acknowledged that realignment talk isn’t going anywhere in all of college sports.
“Conference realignment is in a lot of people’s conversations,” he said. “What I’m focused on is what’s going on in this tournament to move our basketball programs forward. It’s a great basketball league. It has had a great year and will continue to be a good basketball league.”
The cycle that’s occurring in college sports is that when a league rises up or a program distinguishes itself, it becomes susceptible to poaching. (Think Boise, Utah and TCU in football or the latest rounds of rumors regarding tradition basketball powers like Davidson and Belmont.) This Atlantic 10 tournament feels a bit like Conference USA did in 2004, when six schools made the NCAA Tournament with the league on the brink of mass departures -– DePaul, Louisville, Cincinnati, Marquette South Florida -- to the Big East.
It would not be a shock to see an Atlantic 10 school crash the Final Four this year. St. Louis is the classic rugged veteran team that actually conjures memories of the Butler teams that reached the national title game. VCU and Butler are always excruciating to remove from a bracket because they are so difficult to prepare for. Temple has the league’s best player, Khalif Wyatt.
The last time the Atlantic 10 had this many teams bound for the NCAAs was 1998, when Skip Prosser (Xavier), Phil Martelli (Saint Jospeh’s), Mike Jarvis (George Washington), Bruiser Flint (UMass) and Jim Harrick (Rhode Island) all coached in the Atlantic-10.
After Butler’s win over LaSalle on Friday afternoon, Bulldogs Coach Brad Stevens deftly avoided a question about the unstable environment. Stevens lauded the Atlantic 10’s Tournament set up, organization and clearly appreciated the backdrop of New York.
When asked about Butler’s future, which will likely include a Subway ride to Penn Station for the postseason next year, he said, “I don’t know anything.” And after that, he hustled off to the bus to prepare for St. Louis tomorrow, disappearing in New York minute.