Davidson has a dilemma. For Butler, a mid-major cut from a similar cloth, the realignment game was easy. Did anyone expect the Bulldogs to stay in their one-bid league rather than accept an offer from a 3-4 bid outfit with far more television exposure -- and, not to mention, a competitive landscape in which they could still contend for championships? Leaving the Horizon League for the Atlantic-10 was a no-brainer.
But for Davidson, which is quite comfortable in the Southern Conference, making four NCAA tournament trips in the past seven years, including a profile-boosting Elite Eight run with Stephen Curry in 2008, realignment is not as simple. The Colonial Athletic Association has come calling for the Wildcats after it lost VCU to the A-10, Old Dominion to Conference USA and Georgia State to the Sun Belt. Davidson's success has created an opportunity to upgrade, and while it's flattering to be a sought-after commodity, moving may not be the best choice -- even if its current conference is destined to be raided.
Bob McKillop, who's been at the helm of the Wildcats since 1989 and is the winningest SoCon coach of all-time, will be a powerful voice in the deliberations -- but even he has yet to come to a conclusion. At an institution where Division I athletes comprise roughly 25 percent of the 1,800-student body, he said, "This is a life-changing decision. This isn't like changing your clothes."
Here's why it's so tough, from a basketball standpoint: Davidson is the "name" program of the SoCon, but the SoCon has never sent an at-large team to the NCAA tournament. Not even in 1995-96, when the Wildcats went 14-0 in conference and 25-5 overall. Not even in 2008-09, Curry's final college season, when they went 18-2 in league play and 27-8 overall, and the general public was clamoring to see Steph back in the bracket. If you don't win the SoCon tournament, you're not getting in the NCAAs -- and even when you do, your seed ceiling seems to be at 13*.
(*Yes, the '07-08 Curry team earned a No. 10, but as McKillop said, having a Lottery Pick on the roster was a "once-in-a-lifetime" scenario. The great, non-Curry squads topped out at 13.)
Can the CAA offer a better situation? Commissioner Tom Yeager, who declined to comment for this story, is targeting the SoCon's Davidson, College of Charleston and Appalachian State as replacements for his lost teams, according to a source. The CAA has been superior to the SoCon in basketball, earning multiple NCAA tournament bids in 2006, 2007 and 2011, and sending George Mason to the Final Four in 2006 and VCU in 2011, both as No. 11 seeds. The CAA has a new TV deal with NBC Sports Network (the financial terms are undisclosed), and received a bigger payout from the NCAA's Basketball Distribution Fund ($3.4 million) in 2011 than did the SoCon ($2.2 million).
But with its two most frequent top-50 RPI teams, VCU and Old Dominion, on their way out, the CAA is not going to be the same conference. It's liable to take an RPI hit that puts it in danger of being a one-bid league -- and that's something that weighs heavily on McKillop's mind.
"A multi-bid league is something that we aspire to be a part of," he said. "But how do you guarantee that? Well, you join the ACC or the Big East. I've jokingly told our school president that. I'm smart enough to understand that it isn't happening. So, with the dominoes falling, and everything being so volatile now, who's to say what's going to be a two-bid league at the mid-major level? It's going to be a roll of the dice in many respects."
The CAA would offer slightly more money and more TV exposure, but no guarantee of better NCAA tournament positioning -- and Davidson's travel costs, which are affordable in the bus-trip friendly SoCon, would skyrocket due to all the flights required to visit CAA opponents in the north. And then there's the issue of competition: Where would the Wildcats stand in the CAA's new hierarchy?
Last week I used kenpom.com's Pythagorean rankings to look at conference strength in a post-realignment world, and a similar method can be applied to a hypothetical CAA that adds Davidson and Charleston to its ranks. This is how the top seven CAA teams would have stacked up, according to adjusted efficiency, over the previous 10 seasons:
In the three Curry seasons, Davidson would have been the elite team in the CAA -- but as was stated earlier, McKillop doesn't consider those to be normal Davidson seasons. In none of the seven non-Curry years would the Wildcats have been the top team -- meaning that an NCAA trip would have been unlikely. Even this past season, with a strong Jake Cohen-and-De'Mon Brooks-led squad, they would have been a step below Drexel, which was one of the last teams left out of the NCAA tournament field.
On the flip side, what happens if Davidson opts to stay put in the SoCon, while Charleston and Appalachian State leave? The league's overall strength takes a hit, but the Wildcats have the profile of a dominant team, finishing either first or in a near-tie for first in eight out of 10 seasons:
And therein lies Davidson's dilemma: Would you rather be in a depleted, one-bid conference, from which you can make consistent NCAA tournament appearances and keep your long-standing Southern identity intact, with low-cost travel to road games ... or join a Northeast-focused league with more TV exposure, the possibility (but not the guarantee) of multiple NCAA bids and better seeding, and a tougher level of competition?
If there is a hint to what McKillop prefers, it might be in his comments about the mid-major program he admires most, Gonzaga. During the Zags' rise to power, they never saw fit to leave the West Coast Conference. They just aggressively scheduled powerful teams outside the league, and the WCC -- with the recent addition of BYU and the emergence of St. Mary's -- has grown along with Gonzaga's profile. It's now a top-10 league nationally.
"You have to ask yourself, how do you get that at-large bid?" McKillop said. "Do you depend on a conference to be the platform for it, or do you roll up your sleeves like Gonzaga did and create the kind of schedule that gives you the opportunity for not just an [at-large] bid, but for a high seed as well? Gonzaga, to me, is a tremendous story about a team elevating the status of a conference."
Is it in Davidson's best interest to try to be the Gonzaga of the SoCon, or take the risk of forging a new identity in the CAA? In mid-major realignment, no one faces a more difficult decision than the Wildcats'.