By Steve DiMiceli
The sweeping winds of conference realignment have blown in and blown out without any real damage done to the Atlantic 10. The Big East basketball/football split did not happen and seems unlikely to happen in the near future. Temple and UMass appear to be staying right where they are getting both MAC football while keeping higher quality and revenue A-10 basketball. Likewise, the Big East didn't park their car on Broad St, hold a boom box blasting Peter Gabriel over their head to try to convince the Owls to take them back.
An interesting thing occurred in conference realignment. While the Atlantic 10 didn't get any better, Big East got considerably worse. In fact, the Big East arguably lost 3 of their 5 best programs over the last decade. While UConn and Georgetown remain, Pitt, Syracuse and West Virginia have been replaced by a good program in Central Florida, a program with strong history but limited recent success in Houston and a new whipping boy in Southern Methodist. While the Atlantic 10 will not have a perennial national championship contender like UConn, the overall leagues should be fairly comparably and it's not out of the question that the A-10 could challenge their big brother for supremacy in the Northeast. Currently the A-10 members have an average RPI of 99 ranking it 7th in conference RPI. The average RPI of the future Big East members is 97. Head to head, the A-10 is 5-6 against the future Big East this season. The Big East is also losing it's regional footprint. They now have four school deep in the south. When the A-10 tournament was moved to Brooklyn, the question was asked "How many New Yorkers are going to want to watch St Louis play Lasalle?" I'd like to know how many will want to see Houston take on Southern Florida or SMU play Louisville. With four programs way off the traditional map, the conference loses some of it's Northeastern and Midwestern interest.
As the level of competition between the Big East and the A-10 levels off and the Big East's regional influence fades, the A-10 will have some opportunities to dip into their popularity. Without the chip of being part of the Big East mega basketball conference, a lot of future Big East schools should become vulnerable to local A-10 competition. Xavier and Dayton could really take control of the Cincinnati market. Temple, St Joe's and Lasalle may chip away at Vilanova's popularity and URI likely will bury Providence. Fordham could even level the playing field with St John's a little bit. Throw in Jim Calhoun's likely and unrelated retirement and I think the A-10 will be the stronger league by the end of this decade.
That being said, the A-10 is unlikely to really move up the ladder much in the national picture. A Mountain West/C - USA merger would yield a top 5 conference. The PAC -12 should also rebound sooner or later. The Super ACC is also likely to suck in a ton of the energy generated by college basketball. The A-10 will probably stay in the 6 or 7 range nationally unless of course they go on the offensive and add more schools. Personally, I think inviting two of Butler, Cleveland St. or George Mason could bring a lot to the league. Adding any combination of those programs would improve competition, increase the total number of league NCAA bids, and increase revenue from future TV deals while making the conference more insulated from raids in the future. It would place the A-10 firmly ahead of the Big East and might put it on par with the future MWC/C-USA combination.