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Realignment a sure boost for A-10 basketball

by | College Basketball Insider
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Shaka Smart has a 84-28 record as coach of VCU. (US Presswire)  
Shaka Smart has a 84-28 record as coach of VCU. (US Presswire)  

BROOKLYN, N.Y. -- Atlantic 10 commissioner Bernadette McGlade stood behind the podium on Thursday afternoon at the Barclays Arena and flashed a huge smile, not one of those phony grins that conference leaders have been known to show in an effort to hide what's gone awry. McGlade and the A-10 have come out on top in the game of realignment, at least for the time being, and all she had to do was look over in the direction of Butler's baby-faced coach Brad Stevens and VCU's boy wonder Shaka Smart for affirmation.

The Pac-12 added Colorado and Utah a year ago. The Big East has swapped Syracuse, Pittsburgh and West Virginia with Memphis, Temple, Houston, Central Florida and SMU. The Big 12 lost Missouri and Texas A&M and gained West Virginia and TCU. Even the Mountain West took a hit, losing San Diego State to the Big West. Conference leaders have lost their jobs at the hands of school-swapping.

But the A-10 was victorious on the hoops side. Sure, it'll hurt to lose Fran Dunphy and the Temple Owls to the Big East in 2013-14. But this league has clearly undergone a make-over.

Who knows how long it'll last. No one can be certain what direction new Big East commish Mike Aresco takes his conference, whether it loses more teams or splits into a non-football league -- and targets a school or two from the A-10. However, for the time being, McGlade and the rest of the league is basking in its glory.

There were those who questioned McGlade's decision to take the league tourney from Atlantic City, N.J., and bring it to the brand-spanking new Barclays Center -- which is just a few miles down the road from the Big East tourney's home, Madison Square Garden. But give McGlade credit. That was the first major step to positioning this as the best league that doesn't sit in a power conference.

"The Barclays deal was key for us," McGlade said. "The opportunity to get into New York, into a venue like this. When you have the opportunity, you have to take it."

But the venue doesn't mean anything unless you have the programs. And the programs doesn't mean anything without the coaches. And the coaches aren't who they are without the players.

There's Stevens and Shaka, who instantaneously become the face of the league with Final Four appearances on their young resumes. There's Phil Martelli, the always-outspoken St. Joe's head man who has the Hawks back in contention for a league title after a couple of subpar seasons. There are the young bucks: Xavier's Chris Mack, who has gone to a couple of Sweet 16's; Dayton's Archie Miller, UMass' Derek Kellogg; Richmond's Chris Mooney and Rhode Island's Danny Hurley. Mark Schmidt did the near-impossible and led St. Bonaventure to the A-10 tournament title last season and La Salle's John Giannini has done a nice job in Philly. There are also other guys who inherited tough predicaments: George Washington's Mike Lonergan, Duquesne's Jim Ferry and Fordham's Tom Pecora.

That's one hell of a coaching stable -- and most of them are able to recruit and develop players.

McGlade was proactive throughout the process. She identified numerous schools and did her due diligence, much of it on the down-low, eventually winding up with a big-time arena and arguably the two hottest young coaches in the game. Temple's departure to the Big East a year from now is significant (Charlotte will also leave for C-USA), but even Owls coach Fran Dunphy is the first to admit that this league is thriving.

"I think the world of these two coaches, Brad and Shaka," Dunphy said. "The A-10 is in a great position."

One year ago at this time, there was no media day trip to New York for Stevens. In fact, Butler's coach said there wasn't a media day at all in the Horizon league. Nothing in-person or even a conference call. Smart comes from a more reputable league, the CAA. However, it'll be different for the Rams. They won't have to finish in the top couple spots or win the league tourney to gain inclusion to the NCAA tourney any longer.

The league could legitimately have a half-dozen NCAA tournament teams. Yes, even with Xavier -- which has been the flagship program of late -- bound to struggle this season. St. Joe's, Saint Louis, Temple, VCU, UMass and Butler are all legitimate candidates -- and Dayton, Richmond and La Salle can't be discounted, either.

"We've got a really nice team," Butler athletic director Barry Collier said. "And we could legitimately finish between eighth and 12th. That's how good the league is."

That won't happen. Not as long as Stevens is in charge, but Collier -- a former college coach -- is correct in his assessment regarding the depth of the A-10. While the Big East has certainly taken its share of heat for the loss of three key programs and coaches, the gap has closed between the Big East and the A-10. You can now at least have an argument that the A-10 can compete with the Big East beginning in 2013-14.

"There's no question the sky is the limit with this league," Stevens said while sitting at one table upstairs at the Barclay's Arena.

Smart, at the next table over, looked over and nodded his approval.

"It's going to be fun," he said.

It certainly is -- and everyone will be paying attention now.

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