Atlantic 10 continues to remain relevant even with the opportunity gap for the NCAA Tournament widening

BROOKLYN -- The Atlantic 10 has experienced real change in recent years -- first when established men's basketball programs like Xavier, Butler and Temple left the league in 2013, then when established coaches like Shaka Smart, Archie Miller and Will Wade subsequently did the same in pursuit of Big 12, Big Ten and SEC jobs. Such losses are rarely easy for a league like this to overcome; they can cause real dips in prestige and accomplishments. And yet, for the A-10, it's been mostly business as usual -- evidence being how the conference placed at least three schools in the NCAA Tournament last March for the 11th consecutive season.

Will that streak extend to 12?

Perhaps -- although we probably won't know for certain until Selection Sunday. But one thing nearly everybody was willing to acknowledge at Thursday's Atlantic 10 Media Day here inside Barclays Center -- which is where the A-10 Tournament will again be held this season -- is that securing at-large bids from outside of the traditional power structure is getting more difficult by the year. The gap between the haves and have-nots, when it comes to opportunity, seems to be widening.

"There's an attempt to widen it by the Power 5 conferences," Davidson coach Bob McKillop said matter-of-factly. "That's their game plan. They don't like the fact that Loyola-Chicago was in the tournament [when it made the Final Four]. They don't like the fact that Virginia Commonwealth and Butler were in the tournament [when they made the Final Four]. They don't like that because that knocks one of their league teams out of a potential spot in the tournament -- but also maybe [out of] a spot in the Final Four.

"The Power 5 is trying to protect the Power 5."

And they're doing it in a variety of ways -- primarily by refusing, in many cases, to play quality A-10 programs (and programs like them) in level-playing field situations, which, by extension, limits the number of possible resume-building wins available to quality A-10 programs (and programs like them). The fact that some Power 5 leagues are moving to 20-game conference schedules also doesn't help because Power 5 schools now need to play fewer non-league games. And though all of this might not be the biggest deal if the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee seriously considered it, and adjusted the selection process for it, the truth is that it hasn't. So the selection process remains unfairly tilted.

Take last season, for example.

Oklahoma, a Big 12 institution, entered Selection Sunday with an RPI of 48 and 6-9 record in Quadrant 1 opportunities while St. Bonaventure, an A-10 institution, had an RPI of 24 and 3-3 record in Quadrant 1 opportunities. In other words, the Sooners won 40 percent of their Quadrant 1 opportunities while the Bonnies won 50 percent of their Quadrant 1 opportunities -- and finished 24 spots higher than OU in the RPI. And yet, on Selection Sunday, the selection committee valued Oklahoma's quantity of Quadrant 1 wins over the quality of St. Bonaventure's record in Quadrant 1 opportunities.

OU was given a 10 seed and placed in the main bracket.

The Bonnies were sent to the First Four.

"Peter Roby, a former [selection] committee member [and] the former athletic director at Northeastern, he was in an open forum, I guess two years ago, that I was in with [NCAA president] Mark Emmert," said A-10 commissioner Bernadette McGlade. "And he actually made the statement, he said, 'You know, I'm concerned because our criteria that we use when we're evaluating and selecting teams is based on non-conference scheduling, and if there are challenges and hindrances to everyone being able to get challenging schedules, then it kind of works against them.'"

Indeed, it does.

Simply put, the power conferences have this thing figured out. What they know is that if they limit the Quadrant 1 opportunities for quality programs outside of the traditional power structure, they can reduce the likelihood that quality programs outside of the traditional power structure will be in positions to receive at-large bids to the NCAA Tournament. So what they do is refuse to play somebody like, say, Loyola-Chicago, then spend all March screaming about how Loyola-Chicago doesn't deserve to be in the NCAA Tournament unless it wins the Missouri Valley Conference's automatic bid because "LOYOLA-CHICAGO DIDN'T PLAY ANYBODY!"

It's a cold game.

"It's something, in the A-10, that we think about," McGlade said. "And it's why we emphasize so much to our coaches, and to our ADs and presidents, that you have to take chances [in non-league scheduling], and that you have to schedule games even if they're games that are completely out of your region. If that's the only high-powered, highly ranked team [you can schedule], you have to take [the game]."

This is a point I made in a column last month.

It no longer matters what's fair because the system isn't changing. Only three of the 36 at-large bids available to last season's NCAA Tournament went to schools that do not play in either the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, SEC, Big East or AAC. That's obviously a less-than-ideal scenario for everybody not in one of those leagues. But that one of the at-large bids went to St. Bonaventure is worth noting, if only because Bonnies coach Mark Schmidt did exactly what McGlade advises and benefitted. When he couldn't get anybody of note to play him at the Reilly Center or in a one-off neutral court game, Schmidt accepted an opportunity to take a check and play Syracuse at the Carrier Dome. It was designed to be a scheduled-win and resume-booster for the Orange, which is why Syracuse was willing to do it. But it turned into a 60-57 Quadrant 1 road win for the Bonnies. And it's the only reason the Selection Committee had no reasonable option but to put reward St. Bonaventure with an at-large bid.

Yes, it stinks that a team with a top-25 RPI -- and that won 12 straight contests to close the regular season -- had to win a road game at Syracuse three days before Christmas to secure even a spot in the First Four. But such is life on this side of the so-called fence.

Nobody likes it.

But everybody knows it.

"What we have to do is keep scheduling big games," said Saint Louis AD Chris May. "Then we have to go and win them."

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Gary Parrish is an award-winning college basketball columnist and television analyst for CBS Sports who also hosts the highest-rated afternoon drive radio show in Memphis, where he lives with his wife... Full Bio

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